The trial and crucifixion of Jesus

(Matthew 27: 15-54)


The most original contribution of Christianity to the concept of the Messiah is the concept of the suffering and dying savior. Whereas orthodox Jews would have considered a dying Messiah a contradiction in terms, in Christianity Jesus' death was portrayed as a necessary and inevitable part of his mission, and his resurrection from death was to provide the example for his followers. In its most fully-developed form, the doctrine holds that his death actually functions as a sacrifice which wipes out the sin of those who believe in him. Unlike other dying and resurrected Mediterranean and Mesopotamian gods, Christ's death is not linked to annual cycles of planting and harvest, but is seen as a unique event which begins a new era in history. It is not surprising then, that though two of the gospels do not even mention his birth, they all devote a great deal of space to his trial and death. Every aspect of this story has been illustrated in every artistic medium throughout Christendom. Unfortunately, the desire of the early church to emphasize the role of the Jews and deemphasize that of the Romans led historically to violent persecutions of Jews by Christians throughout later history.

What aspects of this account seem to lessen the responsibility of the Romans for Jesus' death? How does Jesus react to the various sufferings he goes through?


Now at the festival (1) the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. (2) So after they had gathered, Pilate (3) said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on your children!"(4) So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (5)

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. . . .

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (6) When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." (7) At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (8) After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion (9) and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"

New Revised Standard Version


(1) Passover.

(2) Perhaps a popular anti-Roman agitator.

(3) Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea.

(4) A line unfortunately quoted frequently in history to excuse persecution of Jews.

(5) Nailing to a cross was one of the most common forms of execution used by the Romans, designed to cause a protracted, agonizing death. There were instances of people having survived quite lengthy periods of crucifixion. According to Mark 15: 44, Pilate was astonished that Jesus had not survived into the evening.

(6) Although the four gospels give strikingly similar accounts of the trial and crucifixion, they each report different "last words." Some see these words as stressing the humanity of Jesus. Others argue that since these are the opening words of Psalm 22, which ends by expressing confidence in God, that confidence is implied in the quotation.

(7) An ancient prophet whom Jews believe will return in the time of the Messiah.

(8) Jesus' sacrifice is portrayed as producing life after death immediately. This incident is not mentioned elsewhere.

(9) Roman officer.



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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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