Why Are the Crucifixion Accounts So Different in Mark and Luke?
The day before Good Friday, on the Colbert Report, Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, attempted to demonstrate that the gospels of Mark and Luke stand in hopeless contradiction to one another with respect to the death of Jesus. “For example,” says Ehrman, “in Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes to his death in deep agony over what’s happening to him and doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening to him.” Conversely, “When you read Luke’s gospel, he is not in agony at all.”1 Has Ehrman discovered the crux of the matter? Are Mark and Luke irreconcilably at odds with respect to the death of Jesus? I think not.
First, to suggest that in Mark’s account of the crucifixion Jesus “doesn’t seem to understand what is happening to him” is more than a little baffling. Even a child reading through Mark’s words leading up to the crucifixion knows better than to think such a thing. Who can forget Christ’s poignant defense of Mary after she had broken an alabaster jar and poured perfume on His head? “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial,” said Jesus (Mark 14:8). Or His anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (14:36).
Indeed, as Mark’s gospel makes crystal clear, Jesus knew precisely what would happen to Him and why. As He explained during the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:24). Or as He put it just prior to entering Jerusalem, the Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). Jesus had in fact repeatedly predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection (see 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; cf. 14:61-62). To say otherwise is both an insult to Christ and to common sense.
Furthermore, it is almost beyond belief that a scholar wrestling with the text of Scripture could conclude that Christ, in Luke’s gospel, “is not in agony at all.” As documented by Dr. Luke, Christ’s torment began in the Garden of Gethsemane after an emotional Last Supper. There He experienced a medical condition known as hematidrosis. Tiny capillaries in His sweat glands ruptured, mixing sweat with blood. Or as Luke’s gospel puts it: “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44, emphasis added). Subsequently He is arrested, beaten, and executed in grotesque and humiliating fashion. The Roman system of crucifixion had been finely tuned to produce the maximum of pain. In fact, the word excruciating (literally, “out of the cross”) had to be invented to fully codify its horror. To tell Colbert and vicariously the world that in Luke’s gospel “he [Jesus] is not in agony at all” takes more than a little gall.
Finally, allow me to drive a nail into the heart of Ehrman’s methodology. Unless biographers such as Mark and Luke say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, Ehrman stands ready to crucify them on the pretext of contradiction. Here’s how he restates the shopworn charge on Colbert: “What people have done is they’ve taken Mark’s gospel and Luke’s gospel and combined them together into one big gospel, which is not like either Mark or Luke.” The very nature of biography, however, is to pick and choose elements of a congruent story that the biographer wishes to emphasize. As such, no single biographer captures every detail of a subject’s life and experience.
Indeed, one of the most amazing realities with respect to the composite biography presented through the canonical gospel writers is that they were empowered to present a living portrait of the most interesting, complex, and significant being who has ever walked among us—and without contradiction or collusion. And they did so with eloquence and erudition.
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast heard daily throughout the United States and Canada. For a list of stations airing the Bible Answer Man, or to listen online, log on to www.equip.org.
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1 Colbert Report, Comedy Central, April 9, 2009, online at http://www.colbertnation.com/thecolbert-report-videos/224128/april-09-2009/bart-ehrman, accessed Sept. 9, 2009.
*All Scripture quotations are from the NIV.