Real Bible Studies, Matthew 27, Mark 15

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew head toward their conclusions with slightly different details and lots of apparent alterations. In each, the translation and editing points out how interpretations and interpolations have altered the message each author intended. Including mention of “Pilate” in both Gospels and of Ca’iaphas in Matthew shifts the timeline from the Jewish Rebellion to the uprisings by Jews and Samaritans during the governorship of Marcus Pontius Pilatus, in much the same way that the Book of Daniel “predicts” events that were happening at the time it was being written, not prophesied hundreds of years earlier as the book claims. In fact, Matthew and Mark reference Daniel in describing the Desecrating Sacrilege in previous chapters of their Gospels, since desecration of the Temple was a factor in each of the uprisings.


Mark 15 and Matthew 27 each begins with Yeshua being taken by the Temple authorities to Pilate for judgment. At the end of the previous chapter, the high priest, who Matthew identifies as Ca’iaphas, accuses Yeshua of blasphemy. This raises the question of why the Temple officials didn’t handle the situation, because the Law clearly designates the punishment for claiming to be equal to God, which was death by stoning, whereas claiming to be the Messiah wasn’t a punishable offense. The Romans, on the other hand, did not penalize people for claiming to be deities, just so long as they didn’t cause trouble, and paid their taxes. The fact that Yeshua is brought before the Romans for judgment makes it very clear that there was much more to Yeshua’s movement than simply healing the sick and preaching to the masses.

Both Mark and Matthew (as well as the other canonical Gospels) name Pilate as the governor or prefect in charge of Judea during Yeshua’s trial. Encyclopædia Britannica on the Internet states that Marcus Pontius Pilatus was governor of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 CE and was known for antagonizing the population by promoting Emperor worship and Roman religion which led to riots by Jews and Samaritans. Contemporary records indicate that he was tried in Rome for cruelty and oppression and died by suicide on orders of Emperor Caligula after 36 CE. One of the charges was convicting people without proper trials. The dates of Pilatus’ governorship agree with what Britannica cites as the period Joseph ben Caiaphas was the high priest (18-36 CE). It is appropriate that both Gospels reference an earlier period of uprisings to highlight the events surrounding the rebellion in 66 CE, since many of the same themes, namely sacrilege and messianic fervor, were a feature of both times. Pilatus is the ideal figure to represent the Romans, since stories of his tenure as prefect may have remained within the memories of the older members of the congregations targeted.

Death of Judas

Following the betrayal, Mark doesn’t mention Judas again in his Gospel, but Matthew follows up with what happened once Judas saw how Yeshua was treated in custody. Matthew says Judas repented and tried to return the money he was given and when Temple officials wouldn’t take it, he threw it on the ground, left, then hung himself. Temple officials, unable to put the money back into the treasury, because it was “blood money”, used it to buy a potter’s field to bury the dead. Matthew says this was in fulfillment of prophecy by Jeremiah, but, in fact, it references three passages, two from Jeremiah and one from Zechariah none of which describe the situation concerning Judas; rather, they reference either the Babylonian exile or the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) as do many “prophecies” Matthew quotes in his Gospel.

So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slain for those who trafficked in the sheep. And I took two staffs; one I named Grace, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep. In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die; what is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed; and let those that are left devour the flesh of one another.” And I took my staff Grace, and I broke it, annulling the covenant which I had made with all the peoples. So it was annulled on that day, and the traffickers in the sheep, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the Lord. Then I said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Cast it into the treasury”—the lordly price at which I was paid off by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and cast them into the treasury in the house of the Lord. Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.

Zechariah 11:7-14 (RSV)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Jeremiah 18:1-6 (RSV)

“And I bought the field at An′athoth from Han′amel my cousin, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neri′ah son of Mahsei′ah, in the presence of Han′amel my cousin, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Jews who were sitting in the court of the guard. ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time. I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’

Jeremiah 32:9-15 (RSV)

Matthew bookends his Gospel with quotes from Jeremiah referencing Israel (the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim) being restored, which, to this day, has never happened. The modern nation of Israel did not bring about the return of Ephraim or yield any new information on what became of them.

Trial Before Pilate & “Barabbas”

The trial before Pilate mainly consists of the High Priest and scribes making accusations against Yeshua, and Pilate questioning him. The question itself sums up the case against Yeshua, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Also phrased as “Are you the Christ?”) While Judea had no laws against claiming to be the Messiah, Rome was very clear that anyone claiming authority contrary to the Emperor or his designated representatives had committed a capital offense. As with the questions posed by the High Priest, Yeshua responds “You have said so”. Pilate receives a message from his wife telling him to have no dealings with “this righteous man”. Pilate agrees to release a prisoner as was his “custom” during the festival.

This alleged custom of releasing a prisoner, as related in the Gospels, seems contradictory to what is known about Roman attitudes toward uprisings. It also presents us with a prime example of how the translation and editing can alter the meaning of the passage. The KJV, RSV, and other versions refer to the insurrectionist as “Barabbas” and sometimes identify him as simply a criminal not an insurrectionist as does Mark. A footnote in the RSV, for Matthew 27, however, states that other ancient sources, presumably earlier versions of Matthew, identify him as “Jesus Barabbas” or otherwise mention that his name was also Jesus or more likely Yeshua. Other translations such as Good News Translation (GNT), Disciples Literal New Testament (DLNT), Common English Bible (CEB), and Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), name him as such (CJB calls him Yeshua Bar-Abba) Even the wording in the RSV and KJV suggest something has been omitted as they have Pilate identity Jesus as “the one known as the king of the Jews” as though distinguishing him from another person with the name.

Omitting the fact that the name Yeshua or Jesus was associated with “Barabbas” totally obscures the point Matthew is making, namely that both individuals were identified as “Yeshua Bar Abba” or “Joshua, Son of the Father” and since Yeshua refers to God as “Father” he presumably means Son of God, which was often applied to the Kings of Israel and Judah. Including this identification for both gives a different slant to Matthew’s Gospel, and makes it a clue in a theory known as the Flavian Hypothesis. This is a belief by some that Christianity was invented by Rome to turn Jews away from taking part in Messianic uprisings. Barring this, it lends a satirical sense to Matthew’s story, which began with the allegorical “slaughter of the innocents” which actually references Moses and alludes, via scripture, to the lost Tribe of Ephraim, and ends with Matthew revealing that Pilate had the difficult task of deciding who to release between two men who appear to have been the same person.

Matthew also unwittingly sets in motion centuries of anti-Semitic retaliation by having the crowd, which is translated as “the Jews” take upon themselves and their descendants responsibility for the crucifixion of Yeshua despite the fact that crucifixion was not a standard form of punishment under Jewish law. After admitting before the crowd that Yeshua has committed no crime, Pilate, a Roman governor who had a legion of troops at his disposal was so unnerved by the crowds’ reaction that he has a basin brought in and washes his hands of the matter. Once again, this behavior is not in keeping with the historical Pilatus and his disregard for Jewish religion, traditions, and culture. Since Pilatus is said to have sparked so many riots due to his policies, one can assume he had a tried and true method for dealing with rowdy crowds that didn’t include capitulating to them.

Despite Pilate washing his hands of the matter, it’s not the crowd who whips and mocks Yeshua, but the Roman soldiers who are part of the governor’s guard. They also put a purple robe on him and a crown of thorns hailing him as king of the Jews. Once they’ve had their fun, they redress Yeshua in his clothes and enlist Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross as they lead Yeshua to Golgotha. Both Mark and Matthew explain that Golgotha is “the place of the skull”. There, Yeshua is crucified and further mocked by the soldiers and the crowd. Leaving little doubt as to why he’s being punished in this manner, both Gospels report that a sign was placed above his head identifying him as “king of the Jews”. This, combined with mention of the “insurrection” or “uprising” in Mark tells us all we need to know about what’s been omitted from the story and why it jumps so quickly from Yeshua “teaching” in the Temple, to his arrest and trial the following evening.

Of the four canonical Gospels, Mark and Matthew have the simplest death scenes and both largely agree with some minor variations. Both report that Yeshua continued to be mocked by passersby, by the chief priests and scribes, and by the other individuals being crucified along side him. They also include that someone prepared a sponge with vinegar in it for him to drink. They differ slightly on Yeshua’s final words, with Mark offering “E’lōī, E’lōī, lä’má sábach-thā’nī” and Matthew recording them as “Elī, Elī, lä’má sábach-thā’nī” which both translate to the opening verse of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” After this, Yeshua cries out and dies. Both Gospels report that the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, no doubt foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple that had already taken place at the time these Gospels were written.

Matthew begins to divert from Mark after Yeshua’s death. They both have a centurion proclaim “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Mark states that the motivation was seeing that Yeshua had died, thus giving it a sarcastic edge. Matthew gives a much more elaborate follow up, stating that in addition to the curtain being ripped, that there was an earthquake, rocks split, tombs opened up and the bodies of the saints were raised and they were running around Jerusalem appearing to people. It’s these miraculous events that cause both the centurion and those with him to acknowledge Yeshua as the Son of God.

Mark and Matthew mention the women watching from afar but differ in exactly who was there. Mary Magdalene is in both accounts but Mark only includes Mary, the mother of James the younger, Joses, and Salome (probably Yeshua’s mother since these are the names of some of his siblings), while Matthew also includes the mother of James and Joseph (no mention of Salome) and the mother of the sons of Zeb’edee. Mark and Matthew identify them as the women who accompanied Yeshua from Galilee and ministered to him. Matthew mentions only the women named but Mark adds that many other women were with them.

A wealthy follower, Joseph of Arimathē’a goes to Pilate to ask for Yeshua’s body. Mark does not explicitly say Joseph was a disciple, but Matthew does. In Mark’s version Pilate questions the centurion to confirm Yeshua has died, whereas Matthew just says Joseph requested the body and Pilate ordered it turned over to Joseph who has the body wrapped in linen and laid in a new tomb. Matthew adds the extra information that the priests and scribes go to Pilate to ask that the tomb be sealed and that guards are posted to prevent his disciples from stealing the body and claiming Yeshua has risen. Pilate agrees to the request.

Both chapters end with the women observing where Yeshua’s body has been lain. It often fell to mothers, wives, and sisters, to prepare a body for burial. Given the details we have on what the women who followed Yeshua were doing for him, it’s reasonable to assume the women included his mother, sisters, and possibly his wife, a role into which many commentators, in particular the Gnostics, have placed Mary Magdalene.

2 thoughts on “Real Bible Studies, Matthew 27, Mark 15

    1. Thanks! It’s a series I’ve been working on for a few years, investigating biblical stories from a literary perspective rather than a religious one. I’m trying to revive them. There’s a topic for those I’ve done. Hopefully more to come.

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