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THE LAST WORDS

The gospels provide us with three different versions of the last words uttered by Jesus on the cross. The clearest and simplest presentation is that of John (19:30):

As Jesus took the wine, he exclaimed: ‘It is finished,’ and bowing his head, he handed over his spirit.

It is a picture of a quiet death. But according to Mark (15:34-35), Jesus would have

yelled with a great shout eloi eloi lama sabachthani.

Through the centuries pious interpreters have been puzzled by the statement of Mark that the last words of Jesus would have been

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!

According to Mark, followed by Matthew (27:46-47) who further emphasizes the element of screaming, some of those present would have understood that he was calling for the prophet Elijah.

      In order to explain this uncertainty among the bystanders, it is necessary to make two assumptions: that Jesus did not utter the entire sentence eloi eloi lama sabachthani but only eloi eloi, and that those who understood that he was calling for Elijah assumed that he was using the Greek vocative Eli, O Elijah. Many inter­preters have observed that Hebrew speaking people could not have confused eliyah with eli eli, since it would have been a matter of quite different sounds accor­ding to Hebrew phonetics. Hence the story of the misapprehension among the bystanders cannot have originated among Palestinian Jews; it must have originated among Greek-speaking Christians. In my view its origin is to be traced to the Christians of Rome, whose knowledge of Hebrew must have been generally shaky.[1]

      Apparently Matthew tried to improve on the rendering of Jesus’ words by Mark. According to the best manuscripts of Matthew Jesus would have shouted eli eli lema sabachthani. It would seem that Matthew edited the text of Mark in order to make clear how the Hebrew My God, my God could have been misunderstood for O Eliyah in Greek.

      Luke (23:46) provides a third and different version of the last words of Jesus:

And shouting with a great shout Jesus said:

     ‘Father into thy hands I commit my spirit.’

According to Luke Jesus would have quoted Psalm 30:6:

Into your hands I commit my spirit.

      In order to understand how three different versions of the last words of Jesus could have originated, it must be kept in mind that in ancient tragedy the death of the hero was not acted on the stage. It took place offstage and was narrated by a witness, after the dying yells of the hero had been heard from backstage. This explains why John, who based himself on the written text of the tragedy (which omitted most stage directions) does not mention any yells, whereas these are impor­tant to Mark and Luke who saw the tragedy performed. John, who had before him the text of the tragedy, quoted accurately what must have been the last words of Jesus according to Seneca. One can be reasonably certain that these last words were peractum est, because this was Seneca’s favorite way of marking the climax of a tragedy.

      In Seneca’s Agamemnon Cassandra, who is on the stage looking into the palace through an open door, describes the slaying of the hero as it is taking place. When the inept Aegisthus fumbles in hitting Agamemnon, Clytemnestra in a rage grabs an axe and strikes at the neck; at this point Cassandra exclaims (line 901), Habet, peractum estIt [the blow] got him, it has been completed. In Hercules on Oeta the dying Hercules declares (line 1472): Habet, peractum est, fata se nostra explicantIt is death, it has been completed, my fate unfolds itself. In Seneca’s Oedipus, when the hero appears on the stage with his eyes gouged, his first words are: Bene habet, peractum est; iusta persolvi patriIt hit me right, it has been completed; I have paid what was due to my father. Habet was a military expression, used also by gladiators, which means It is a mortal blow. Peractum means carried through to the end.[2]

      Many commentators of Seneca’s tragedies point out that when a gladiator received a mortal blow, he was supposed to declare Habet, peractum est, It is death, it finished. It is an expression of serene and courageous acceptance of the kind of death a gladiator may expect. Some commentators, particularly Otto Regen­bogen, have observed that often Seneca in his works compares human life, properly lived according to Stoic philosophy, to that of gladiators. But the com­pa­rison with the language of gladiators, which Seneca may have had in mind, does not suffice to explain the idea that Seneca aimed to convey in his tragedies. By the sentence peractum est Seneca intended to stress that the tragedy has reached its climax by a forceful voluntary action. It is for this reason that the gospel of John links the uttering of It s finished with the drinking of wine; if Jesus had not voluntarily taken poison, he could not have said peractum est.

      In Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta after Hercules is dead (line 841), Deianera takes full responsibility for his death by saying Factum est scelusThe crime is done (842). With this background we can under­stand better the handling of the myth of Oedipus by Sophocles. When Oedipus appears on the stage with his eyes gouged out, the chorus asks why he has performed such an atrocious act: Oh what a terrible deed! How could you bear to quench your eyes in this way? In a long passionate answer Oedipus proceeds

to defend his act, to claim it as his own. He insists upon what he has done both past and present: ‘the deeds done’; ‘what things I did’; ‘what things I wrought again.’ Even his suffering he insists is his own: ‘For those afflictions are mine and no man can take them up but me’ (1414).[3]

Alister Cameron, whose com­men­tary on King Oedipus I have just quoted, explains that by gouging out his eyes Oedipus ceased to be a victim and became

the true center of action, as after all, the actor in this terrible business...

It is given to the blinded hero who dominates the stage to declare himself the actor.

      In his Oedipus Seneca followed the interpretation of Sophocles and, with his peculiar gift for epigrammatic expression, summed it up by let­ting Oedipus declare Bene habet, peractum estIt is a perfect hit; it has been completed. Bene habet could be rendered as It is just what I wanted. If Oedipus had not blinded him­self he would have ap­peared as a victim, either of fate or of some faults of his charac­ter. It is the thesis of Philip Vellacott that it is impossible to under­stand this play as a tragedy unless one puts at the center the concept of grief self-chosen. The author observes that

One of the problems that have taxed the resour­ces of writers on this play is to explain how the story can be called truly a tragedy and not a mere sensational disaster.[4]

      The answer to the problem can be found in the words of the messenger who relates the climax of the tragedy taking place off­stage, just prior to the appearance of the blinded Oedipus on the stage:

Of all griefs, those that are revealed as self-chosen hurt the most.

In the light of the self-inflic­ted blind­­ness all previous events in the life of Oedipus, including the parricide and the incestuous marriage, appear as the result of choice.

      Following the same line of reasoning, the fact that Jesus asked for poison and said Peractum est implies that the entire passion of Jesus is self-chosen suffering. According to Seneca, if Jesus had not deci­ded to ask for poison, one would have seen him as a victim: a victim of the hostility of Jewish leaders, of the politics of Pilate, and further of the treachery of Judas and the wavering of Peter. By asking for poison, Jesus changed the entire passion into a voluntary act, which was the fulfillment of his entire life, the crowning of his mission.

      According to Seneca Hercules too says Habet, peractum est like Oedipus. The parallel between Hercules and Jesus is more obvious.[5] Hercules, who has liberated mankind from the fear of death, seems to be defeated as he is dying because of the atrocious burns caused by Nessus’ robe, but then Hercules asks to be placed on a burning pyre, and by this action he defies death once more and attains his place among the immortal gods.

      If Jesus had not taken poison and not said Peractum est, the passion would have been a pitiful story of a sadistic execution. When Seneca let Jesus end his life with the words Peractum est, he made a point that was perfectly clear to those who were fami­liar with ancient drama. But all the learned associations that those words called to mind in an educated Roman audience were completely lost on a Christian audi­ence accustomed to a different universe of discourse. They understood that Jesus was quoting the final words of Psalm 22 which are

He [Yahweh] has acted.

      For Hebrews and Christians who did not have the benefit of our division of the scriptures into chapters and verses, passages of the Old Testament were quoted by men­tioning the initial words and occasionally the last words. If Jesus had died with the last words of Psalm 22 on his lips, it could be presumed that he had quoted the entire psalm beginning with the initial words. Some had understood earlier that his shouts from backstage were Eli, Eli, in Greek O Elijah!; but some of the audience inferred that, if he had quoted the end of Psalm 22, his earlier screams must have been eli, eli, lema sabachthani, which is the beginning of this psalm in Hebrew.

      In fact there was a substantial agreement between John and Mark (and hence Matthew) on what were the last words of Jesus. But John translated them into Greek to the letter as It has been completed, whereas Mark understood them as a quotation of the last sentence of Psalm 22. Hence, Mark concluded that Jesus intended to quote Psalm 22 which begins

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

      It is not difficult to explain how Luke came to give a third and different account of the last words of Jesus. It is necessary to start with the account of John which must be a rather literal report of what was said by the character who described Jesus’ death on the stage. John states (19:30): As Jesus took the wine, he exclaimed ‘It has been completed,’ and bowing his head, he handed over his spirit. The phrase he handed over (paredoken) is peculiar. It has been noticed by commentators that the phrase used by John to indicate Jesus’ death does not correspond to Hebrew conceptions and does not have parallels in Greek literature, except in the language of the tragic writers Aeschylus and Euripides.

      Many interpreters explain the phrase merely as an equivalent of the phrases used by the other evangelists, but some recognize that John had a particular meaning in mind, which however eludes them.[6] Only P. R. Bernard comes close to a true explanation when he observes that the phrase used by John implies an element of voluntary giving. [7]

      The phrase used by John, handing over the spirit, is to be explained by a use of phrasing peculiar to Seneca. In one of his letters to Lucilius (No. 78) Seneca claims that the closeness and attachment of his friends had freed him from the fear of death:

In letting them survive me, it seemed that I was not dying; I thought that I was living, if not with them, then at least through them; I had the feeling that I was not giving out my spirit but handing it over.

      The last sentence explains the phrasing used by John. Jesus did not expire, that is, give out his spirit into the air, but handed it over as a still living entity.

      When Luke heard a character relating on the stage that the last action of Jesus was to hand over his spirit, he understood that Jesus had actually said something to commend his spirit. Since he inferred that Jesus in his last gasp had quoted Psalm 30:6

Into your hands I entrust my spirit,

these words became for Luke the very last words uttered by Jesus, instead of it has been completed.

      In conclusion, John quoted to the letter what had been said on the stage about the last moments of Jesus’ earthly life. Mark (followed by Matthew) understood the same words as implying that Jesus had quoted Psalm 22, and Luke, that Jesus had quoted Psalm 30:6.

      The confusion among the evangelists as to the exact words of Jesus are due to the fact that after the end of Act II Jesus was no longer to be seen on the stage. The crucifixion of Jesus was be described for the audience by the usual dramatic device of the messengers, the most important of whom was Simon of Cyrene. The fact that the crucifixion is related by Simon explains why the gospels are so uncertain or contradictory about which actions were to be ascribed to the soldiers, to the Jewish leaders, or to the Jewish populace. Simon must have related: They did this to him, or This was done to him, without indicating the specific agent, as one could expect in a Latin narrative.


[1]  The limits of Mark‘s knowledge of Hebrew are reveald by the sentence eloi eloi lama sabachthani which he puts into the mouth of Jesus. It is a confused rendering into Greek lettering of the text of psalm 22:2, which reads in Hebrew eli eli lama azabtani and in Aramaic elahi elahi lema sebaqtani. A common explanation of this linguistic confusion offered by pious interpreters is that Jesus spoke in Hebrew, whereas the less educated bystanders repeated his words into Aramaic. Hebrew was no longer a spoken language and the masses were not familiar with it, as indicated by the fact that in the synagogues of Palestine the reading of the Old Testament was followed by a translation (targum)in Aramaic.

[2]  The elment of peractum is so important to Seneca‘s concept of the climax of a tragedy that it occurs as “Bellum peractum est”--“The war is over” in his Troades (line 1167) and as “Peracta vis est omnis”--“All my power has had full play ” in his Medea (line 843). In Latin peragere refers to the bringing of an action to its conclusion, to its fulfillment. Peragere vitam means to bring one‘s own life to the end of its proper course. Cicero in his De Senectute (On Old Age) uses several times variations on the phrase peragere fabulam “go through the last act of the drama of life.” The verb peragere in a special sense refers also to theatrical action and means “to act through.” The concept of peractum est is employed by Seneca with awareness of its theatrical meaning in Hercules on Oeta: When Deianira rushes from the scene announcing that she is going to kill herself, her son Hyllus exlaims (line 1025): “Peracta iam pars matris est--statuit mori”--“My mother has played her role out: She has decided to die.”

[3]  Alister Cameron, The Identity of Oedipus the King (New York, 1968),p. 116.

[4]  Sophocles and Oedipus: A Study of Oedipus Tyrannus (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1971),p. 238.

[5]  This, and other similarities have been noted by Fr. Pfister, “Herakles und Christus,” in Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft, vol. XXXIV (Leipzig, 1937),p. 53.

[6]  The Jerome Bible Commentary, for istance, recognizes that the phrase used by John has a special meaning, but when it comes to explaining this meaning it escapes into verbiage: “All the evangelists use aguivalent expressions, broadly the same as the Eny ‘expire.’ Only John, however, speaks of “handing over” of his spirit, doubtless because he intends the reader to think of the Spirit that is given as Jesus‘ glorification (7:39; 20:23).”

[7]  Das Mysterium Jesu (Freiburg, 1961),Vol.III,pp.365f.


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