by David B. Capes
Recently, my rabbi friend, Stuart Federow, and I got into a disagreement. Well, actually, I didn’t argue with him; I just listened to him in his rant against the Christian faith. As Father Mario said, he sets up straw men and then dismantles them. Now, I love Rabbi Federow, he is one of my best friends; but when he speaks about the Christian faith, he often gets it wrong. Yet when he speaks about his own faith, he gets it right. I guess that is the way it ought to be.
Federow essentially stated his opinion on the unreliability of the NT Gospels based on the “last words” of Jesus. His argument was that each Gospel has a different saying as the “last words” of Jesus and therefore their accounts of his life cannot be trusted. Accordingly, Jesus could not have had multiple “last words.” If Jesus had any last words, then the Gospels should agree on them. If they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, then there must be four Holy Spirits since there are four accounts. So Christians should worship six figures, not three: Father, Son and four Holy Spirits. That was a part of his mocking of the faith. Now, we are good friends, so his mocking is not malicious.
Now let’s get out the facts. In one sense, Rabbi Federow is correct. The last “recorded” words of Jesus in each Gospel are different. Now, to be clear, we are speaking about Jesus prior to his death by crucifixion. Here they are in a random order:
Mark 15:34 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
John 19:30 “It is finished.”
Luke 23:46 “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Matt 27:46 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A few notes. First, the last recorded words of Jesus in Mark agree with Matthew. So there are not four variations, as the rabbi claimed, there are three. Second, in both Mark and Matthew, we are told that bystanders misunderstand Jesus and think he is calling for Elijah to come. So they ran and filled a sponge with vinegar and gave it to Jesus. Later Mark and Matthew agree that Jesus cried with a loud voice and breathed his last. The point is that there is an interval of time between Jesus’ cry of dereliction and his cry leading to death. How much time? We don’t know. Did Jesus utter other words in the interval? Perhaps.
The fixation we have on someone’s “last words” is a modern phenomenon; it should not be imposed upon ancient people or ancient biographies. I say fixation because that is what it is. I’ve often heard people at funerals ask: “what was the last thing Sandra said before she died?” Stories are shared as part of the grieving process. You can google the “last words” of nearly any famous person and the Internet has the answer. Here are a few examples. These are the last recorded words of these people.
Steve Jobs “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
John Adams “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
John Paul II “Let me go to the house of the Father.” (in Polish)
Michelangelo “I’m still learning.”
Clearly, we have an interest in the last words of famous people, and Jesus is one of the most famous of history. But we must be careful not to insist that the first followers of Jesus have the same interests as we do. That is a kind of cultural arrogance that insists the way we think about these things is superior to anyone else. We condemn, criticize or mock cultures and people who do things differently. Scholars are clear that the NT Gospels are examples of ancient biography, and ancient biographies do not operate the way modern biographies do. They have a different set of priorities and purposes.
Let’s be clear. Nowhere does any Gospel say, “now these are the last words of Jesus . . .” The writers aren’t thinking in those terms: “Oh, I must record the exact, last words of Jesus for posterity.” No. They have a story to tell, and they tell it to the end. If we know the themes of each Gospel, then we can understand why they tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion the way they do. The process of dying and Jesus’ time on the cross took about six hours. He probably said a lot of things from the cross that are not recorded. Furthermore, as he neared the end and his voice grew weak, he was probably heard to say a number of things that were not understood as Matthew and Mark indicate. The Gospel writers give us the kinds of things Jesus was saying from the cross. Jesus was remembered to have said a number of things from the cross, and each Gospel writer focuses on the one that fits his theme. None claims to give us the exact “last words” of Jesus.
Now I haven’t run any of this by my friend, Mike Licona. He has written an important, new book published by Oxford Press (2016) entitled Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biographies. I’d be interested in his take on the “last words” of Jesus. I’ll be doing a review of his book soon.
David B. Capes is the Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Houston Graduate School of Theology.