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Is the Crucifixion Account Credible?

Holy Week 1997 has come and gone, but what will surely continue throughout the year, and what has always persisted down through the years, is the speculation about whether the Biblical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth are fully credible. The questions and the objections take many forms, but the bottom line is always the perpetration of some doubt as to whether this event ever really happened as reported, and whether the Biblical narratives are truly reliable. Following are two questions and an objection regarding Jesus’ crucifixion as recorded by the Gospel writers. There are many other questions and objections, but what this brief exchange will hopefully illustrate is that for every question there is always a good answer, and an adequate response for every objection.

Here is an honest question sent in by a Proclamation reader a few months ago about what appears to be a contradiction.

Why is there such a difference in the accounts of the last words of Jesus between Matthew 27:46 and Luke 23:46?

Any apparent difference unravels when one realizes that one expression follows the other. The term “last words” actually encompasses both expressions. In fact, Jesus actually uttered seven (not just two) “last words” in the final three hours of His life. In a technical sense, however, Luke 23:46 cites His very last words.

Here is a question raised by many skeptics since the First Century, and popularized in books like The Passover Plot.

How do we know that Jesus wasn’t actually drugged on the cross-that the “sour wine” wasn’t in fact a stupor-producing narcotic?

Although He was speared in the side while on the cross (releasing blood and pleural fluids), Jesus rejected even a painkiller. He was embalmed in up to 100 lbs of cloths & spices, then sealed in a tomb for three days. Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and His friends all surely considered Him dead. Even modern medical authorities concur with that judgment.*

Here is one of many objections that initially appears almost unresolvable, but that melts away like an ice cube in August in light of the two-part answer that follows.

There is a glaring discrepancy in the four Gospel writers’ accounts of the message on the sign placed on top of Jesus’ cross.

According to John 19:20 the inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The variation in our English translations could easily be the result of the original rendering having been made in three different languages, each of which may have varied slightly.

In addition, it is possible that the actual statement read: “This is Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews”, but that the Gospel writers quoted from that inscription only what they considered to be essential information, as follows:

Matthew: “This is Jesus [of Nazareth] the king of the Jews.”
Mark: “[This is Jesus of Nazareth] the king of the Jews.”
Luke: “This is [Jesus of Nazareth] the king of the Jews.”
John: “[This is] Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews.”

If such is the case, there is no “glaring discrepancy” or contradiction at all, but rather  complementary accounts that demonstrate the individual perspective of the writers-much as two witnesses to the exact same event will typically note different aspects of that event.

* Article in the Journal of the American Medical Society, 3/21/86, p1463. Other sources include: When Skeptics Ask, ©1990 SP Publications