There are many scenes, and much close description, of the events that took place in Jerusalem in the days leading up to the death of Jesus, in the year 33CE (by most scholarly reckoning). The scene of his death is portrayed by all four evangelists.
Mark reports that, when Jesus was drawing near to his death, “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33) and, after he had uttered his last words, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38).
Luke repeats this, bringing the two happenings together into one moment of time, before Jesus utters his final words: “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45). For both evangelists, the death of Jesus was a moment of high drama, underlined by these unnatural happenings.
Matthew repeats the words and the order found in Mark (Matt 27:45, 51) but adds a graphic happening—“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” (27:51–52).
The narrator continues, breathlessly, jumping ahead in the story: “after his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:53). It’s a striking element, more noteworthy because it is neither explicitly told nor hinted at by any other canonical evangelist. But for Matthew, the moment of death brought to the fore the apocalyptic turmoil of God’s direct intervention in history, signalled by the earthquake, the seismic fissure, and a premature resurrection of saints.
Quite by contrast, the Johannine version reports no darkness over the land, no tearing of the temple curtain, no earthquake, and certainly no opening of to,bs and no resurrected saints walking the streets! John simply reports that Jesus, thirsting, was given wine, and “when Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). It is a most serene ending.
Each writer indicates that Jesus spoke words moments before his death; just as there are differences relating to the way Jesus died, so there are three rather different versions of the last words spoken by Jesus just before he died. Mark says that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34); soon after this, he “gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37).
The words on the lips of Jesus come from Psalm 22, which is one of a group known as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (a group often identified as also including Psalms 27, 67, and 109). Jesu, in his pain and anguish, is drawing on his religious tradition; the psalm he quotes is most apposite for what he is experiencing at that moment.
The version of Jesus’ last words, reported by Mark, is followed almost exactly by Matthew, writing his book of origins some years after Mark had completed his writing. (One relatively minor difference is that Mark quotes the psalm in Hebrew, the formal language of scripture, whereas Matthew renders it in Aramaic, the vernacular of Jesus.)
Luke also has Jesus quoting a psalm, but it has a very different tone. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, quoting Ps 31:5) has a very different feel—it depicts a man going to his death with certainty, knowing his fate, assured that he will be received by God. It has a heroic feel, with the key figure almost choosing his time of death at the climactic moment in the story.
Indeed, Luke portrays this scene as a moment of theatre (the NRSV refers to “the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”, 23:48). Immediately after Jesus utters his last words, says Luke, “having said this, he breathed his last” (23:46). His manner of dying evokes praise to God from the centurion standing watch by his cross (23:47).
John places just one solitary Greek word on the lips of Jesus at his last moment; it needs three words to render it in English (“it is finished”, or “it is completed”, or “it is fulfilled”; John 19:30). This, too, has a sense of acceptance, a recognition by Jesus that all the he had been undertaking had now been completed.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:24); it was “his hour … to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13:1), the hour when the Father would “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you … by finishing the work that you gave me to do”, as Jesus prays just before his arrest (17:1, 4). The hour had come; the work was done; all was complete. The moment was calm and serene; Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30).
Three different perspectives on the significance of the work of Jesus, placed into his mouth at the moment of death, by three different authors, providing their own accounts of his life and importance.