Jesus’ Crucifixion in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 23) by Joel B. Green

The four New Testament Gospels each tell how Jesus’ life led to his death on a Roman cross. Although the historicity of this event is supported by Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources, the New Testament and the Christian tradition have generally been more concerned with interpreting Jesus’ death than with proving that it took place.

The Gospel of Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ suffering and death (together known as his “passion”) focuses on the political and theological implications of Jesus’ death. In particular, Luke zeroes in on Jesus’ nonviolent opposition to Roman rule, his practice of universal love (even of one’s enemy), and his promise of salvation. Luke’s narrative differs in several ways from the other Gospels’. For example, Luke emphasizes the political charges brought against Jesus (Luke 23:1-5, Luke 23:14) and has Herod question Jesus (Luke 23:7-12) and Pilate declare him innocent three times (Luke 23:4, Luke 23:14-15, Luke 23:22). Only Luke writes of the women who mourn Jesus’ execution and his prophetic response to them (Luke 23:27-31). Luke depicts Jesus praying that God would forgive those responsible for his execution (Luke 23:34) and includes the words of those crucified alongside Jesus, including Jesus’ promise that one of them would join him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43)—showing how Jesus practiced his own message (Luke 6:27-28) and extended salvation in culturally surprising ways.

How was Jesus executed?

According to Luke 23, Jesus was tried by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, then crucified alongside two other criminals. In spite of the sometimes-vivid portraits of crucifixion in novels and movies, our knowledge of this form of execution is limited. Ancient literature provides no graphic representations of death on a cross. Luke simply writes: “they crucified Jesus” (Luke 23:33). Nevertheless, the picture Luke paints might be regarded as typical, since we know from limited archaeological and textual evidence that those sentenced to be crucified were often whipped and made to carry their own crossbeams to the place of execution, where they were bound or nailed to a cross with arms extended, raised up, and, perhaps, seated on a small wooden peg.

The Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric, but not necessarily involving bloody brutality (as depicted, for example, in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ). Indeed, the Romans wanted to leave the victim alive on the cross as long as possible. The idea was to provide the general population with a striking display of the fate awaiting those found guilty of resisting Roman rule. The Roman orator Quintillion (circa 35-90s C.E.) observed that, “whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect” (Declamationes 274). From a Roman perspective, the horror of crucifixion was the horror of social shame. Executed publicly, situated along well-trafficked routes, devoid of clothing, denied burial, and left to be eaten by birds and beasts, victims of crucifixion were subject to vicious ridicule.

Why was Jesus executed?

Rome did not expose its own citizens to this form of heinous punishment but reserved crucifixion especially for those who resisted imperial rule. Luke explains Jesus’ death in ways that show Jesus must have been regarded as an enemy of the state. First, a sign was placed above Jesus’ head, giving the reason for his execution: “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). (See John 19:12: “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”) Second, Jesus is crucified alongside two criminals. Third, the indictment brought against Jesus reads, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.... He stirs up the people...” (Luke 23:1-5; see also Luke 23:14). This charge can be boiled down to a single claim, “perverting our nation” (Luke 23:2) or “perverting the people” (Luke 23:14), which was then elaborated with two supporting accusations: he forbade the payment of taxes to Caesar and he claimed to be a king. From within Israel’s story, “perverting the people” would label Jesus as a false prophet (see Deut 13). In Pilate’s hearing, “stirring up the people” would have signaled rebellion and civil unrest. In short, Jesus ran afoul of the interests of both Roman and Jewish leaders.

This is hardly the whole story, however. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus anticipated his death as a way of fulfilling God’s saving purpose (for example, Luke 18:31-33). The way Luke narrates the story of Jesus’ trial and death repeatedly ties Jesus’ fate to Israel’s Scriptures, quoting from Isa 53 (Luke 22:37) and alluding to the Scriptures, including Ps 22 and Ps 69 (see, for example, Luke 23:34-36, Luke 23:46). Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that all the Scriptures anticipate his suffering as God’s Messiah (Luke 24:25-27, Luke 23:44).

Why was Jesus executed? For Luke, the answer is a complex one that involves Roman interests, hostility toward Jesus from Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders, and God’s own plan to bring salvation.

Joel B. Green, "Jesus’ Crucifixion in Luke’s Gospel", n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-crucifixion-in-lukes-gospel

Contributors

Joel B. Green

Joel B. Green
Professor, Fuller Theological Seminary

Joel B. Green is professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of 1 Peter in the Two Horizons Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2007).

Luke shows how Jesus’ crucifixion served multiple interests, including those of the Romans, those of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership, and those of God.

Did you know…?

  • According to Luke, Jesus was crucified as a potential threat to Rome.
  • Luke portrays Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership as instrumental in Jesus’ execution.
  • Luke does not name Pharisees as participants in the events leading to Jesus’ death.
  • Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus anticipated and interpreted his violent death.
  • Only in Luke does Jesus ask God to forgive those responsible for Jesus’ death.
  • For Luke, Jesus’ death was integral to God’s plan to bring salvation to the world.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Luke 23:1-5

Jesus before Pilate
1Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our natio ... View more

Luke 23:14

14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man gui ... View more

Luke 23:7-12

7And when he learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time.8When Herod saw Jesus, he was v ... View more

Luke 23:4

4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.”

Luke 23:14-15

14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man gui ... View more

Luke 23:22

22A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then ... View more

Luke 23:27-31

27A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.28But Jesus turned to them and said, “ ... View more

Luke 23:39-43

39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”40But the other rebuked him, saying, ... View more

Luke 6:27-28

Love for Enemies
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Luke 23

Jesus before Pilate
1Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our natio ... View more

Luke 23:33

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [

Title designating an emperor of the Roman Empire.

Luke 23:38

38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Luke 23:1-5

Jesus before Pilate
1Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our natio ... View more

Luke 23:14

14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man gui ... View more

Luke 23:2

2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messia ... View more

Luke 23:14

14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man gui ... View more

Deut 13

1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents,2and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and t ... View more

Luke 18:31-33

A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
31Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything tha ... View more

Isa 53

1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dr ... View more

Luke 22:37

37For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”

Ps 22

Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ... View more

Ps 69

Prayer for Deliverance from Persecution
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of David.
1Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.2I sink in deep mi ... View more

Luke 23:34-36

34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.35And the people stood by, watch ... View more

Luke 23:46

46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

Luke 24:25-27

25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!26Was it not necessary that the Messiah s ... View more

Luke 23:44

The Death of Jesus
44It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,

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