Author: Murray J. Harris
Title: The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross: Their Circumstances and Meaning
Date of Publication: 2016
Publisher: Wipf and Stock
Pages: xvi and 108.
Murray Harris is professor emeritus of New Testament (NT) exegesis and theology at the seminary Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. For a time, he was warden of Tyndale House at Cambridge University. His published works include four NT commentaries: one on a gospel and the other three on Paul’s letters. His primary theological book is Jesus As God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Baker, 1992). I cite it often in my The Restitution of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite biblical subjects is Jesus’ seven sayings he uttered while hanging on the cross as recorded in the NT gospels. That is what this new, small book is about by Murray Harris. Scholars sometimes refer to these seven sayings as “seven words.”
The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross is a two-part book. Part One consists of two chapters. In them, Harris provides the circumstances in which Jesus said these “exceptionally brief and poignant” sayings, as Harris (p. xiv) describes them, as a backdrop to better understand their meaning. He does so by relating briefly Jesus’ arrest, two “trials” before the Sanhedrin and Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, and “the state of Jesus’ body and spirit” while hanging on the cross. These twenty-one introductory pages follow pretty much the standard treatment of these subjects during modern times except for one, which Harris gets quite right.
Ever since the Holocaust of WWII, many Christian theologians and some NT exegetes have changed from the pattern of past centuries in which Christians alleged that Jews at Passover at that time were mostly responsible for Jesus’ death to exonerating all of those Jews, or at least only implicating Sanhedrin members who condemned Jesus of being guilty of blasphemy and thus deserving of execution. But the NT, especially its book of Acts, clearly lays the blame for Jesus’ death mostly on Jews, and not only their Sanhedrin leaders. Yet the Catholic Church was wrong in succeeding centuries by mistreating Jews throughout history and labeling them “Christ killers.”
In Part Two, Harris treats each of Jesus’ seven sayings in separate chapters. In the following review, I will address them by the saying itself, with Harris providing his own translation (p. xi).
First Saying–“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34). “Father” translates abba in the Greek text. Harris rightly explains that abba did not mean “daddy.” Indeed, this common misunderstanding is traced mostly to German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias. Harris notes philologist James Barr’s later, classic correction of it in an article entitled “Abba Isn’t Daddy,” published in Journal Theological Studies 39.1 (1988) 28-47.
The common view of Jesus’ request that the Father “forgive them” is that “them” refers to all those involved in condemning and executing Jesus. I think this is wrong; see my post on this on 5/26/14, “Did Jesus Ask God to Forgive All Those Who Killed Him?” Rather, Jesus was asking God to forgive only those soldiers who were doing their duty putting Jesus on the cross. They likely did not know the circumstances of Jesus’ condemnation, whereas Jews who condemned him did, since he admitted to Caiaphas the high priest that he claimed to be the Messiah.
For me, Harris is somewhat unclear in pp. 30-33 on who Jesus asked to be forgiven. Yet Harris rightly states (p. 30), “there are prerequisites for the human receipt of forgiveness from God,” and he cites classic NT texts for support. Harris says concerning the soldiers being “them” (p. 33), “the problem remains how ignorance can be the basis for forgiveness.” Well, Jesus had told the Sanhedrin he was the Messiah, and these soldiers likely didn’t know anything about that or know much about the Jews’ religion and their scriptures about a Messiah.
Harris well explains (p. 32), “the suffering and death of the Messiah was part of God’s eternal plan (Ac 2:23; 3:18; 13:27);” but then he surprisingly adds, “not a reason for God’s retribution.” But following the First Jewish Revolt, in 66-70 CE, and the Romans’ subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Christians have always said, and I think rightly so, that it was God’s judgment against faithless Israel that rejected God’s Son and their Messiah. And Christians often cited Jesus’ prophecies seemingly about this destruction (e.g., Matt. 23.36-38; 24.1-2; Luke 19.11-27, 41-44; 21.23-24).
Yet Harris adopts the soldier interpretation of “them” in Luke 23.34, and I think rightly so, by concluding (p. 34), “Jesus’ prayer may be paraphrased this way, ‘Dear Father, I am asking to you to forgive these Roman soldiers for the act of crucifying me; they are unaware of what they are actually doing.’”
Second Saying—“Jesus answered them, ‘I solemnly assure you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43). Jesus directed these words to one of the two criminals crucified on either side of him. It was prompted by that criminal having done like the other, uttering abuse against Jesus, but then changing his attitude about Jesus after seeing how he responded to such rejection without malice.
Incidentally, those two crucified alongside Jesus likely were not thieves as is commonly thought. The word in the Greek text is lestai/lestas (Matt. 27.38; Mark 15.27), which the NIV translates “robbers.” However, the Romans did not crucify thieves other than thieving slaves. And lestes can mean either “robber” or “insurrectionist” (BGAD, 473), thus not to be restricted to thievery, though BGAD prefers “robber” here. But the penitent criminal said to the other, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deed, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23.40-41 NRSV). A thief surely would not say that, but a murderer could. Both of these men probably were guilty of murderous insurrection. They may have been Zealots, who were most known for this and the cause of the First Jewish Revolt forty years later.
So, this penitent then said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23.42). I think reply by Jesus has to do with the man’s desire more than his specific request. That is, he now recognizes, perhaps barely, that Jesus will be given a kingdom by God, and he wants to be with Jesus in this kingdom. Did Jesus mean he would receive his kingdom upon his death? This raises several questions, some of which Harris does not address. I think the answer is in Daniel 7.13-14, a royal ceremony in heaven that will occur at the end of days/age on earth.
Harris does address the question of whether or not Jesus meant “today” as that literal day or one later. The issue regards Greek syntax. Harris well explains (p. 39), “Jesus is not referring to the ‘day’ or period when the salvation he brings is fully accomplished, viz. at his resurrection, although the criminal had said ‘when (hotan) in the sense of ‘at whatever time.’ ‘Today’ means ‘this very day,’ that is, ‘before the present day ends, when we are being crucified.’ It is a calendrical day, not an eschatological day.”
Early Greek manuscripts of NT documents are uncials with no punctuation. That is, they have no spaces between words or commas and periods as many modern languages, such as English, have today. Modern punctuation, of course, helps to provide understanding of what is written. Thus, in Luke 23.43, Bible translators place a comma between the words “you” and “today” to further show they think Jesus meant that literal day and not some later day, such as what scholars call “the eschatological day,” referring to the actual day when Jesus will return to earth with his consummated, glorious kingdom he will receive in heaven (Daniel 7.13-14). Some Christians try to change this meaning by insisting that the comma should not be placed right before the word “today” but right after it, thus, “I solemnly assure you today, you will be with me in paradise.” In this way, Jesus is made to refer to that paradise in heaven that will be part of his kingdom at his second coming. But I don’t think this is what Jesus meant.
Some of these Christians who place the comma after “today” in Luke 23.43 do so to avoid the implication that Jesus and this penitent criminal would be together in paradise that day, thus immediately after they die. If so, this raises the question of what manner they will so exist. Christians who put the comma after “today” insist that at death, the human body and its soul are dead so that the soul does not exist in any form whatsoever after death. But some of Jesus’ previous sayings indicate otherwise. For instance, Jesus said of himself, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12.40). This concept–of the soul of a dead human being descending into some place deep inside the earth–corresponds to much teaching in the OT. It says these souls exist in what ancients called “the underworld, and I would add that such souls await there their resurrection and judgment. Thus, in some sense these souls still exist. The Hebrew Bible (OT) says they exist in an actual place called Sheol that is located deep inside the earth. Sheol is mentioned 67 times in the Hebrew Bible. Plus, the OT says often that human souls are unconscious, “asleep,” in Sheol. The Greeks held the same concept and further called this place hades. Harris, however, rejects the interpretation that souls are asleep in Sheol, a view often called “soul sleep,” in his book Raised Immortal (pp. 206-07).
Another saying of Jesus that supports this idea of an intermediate state of souls between life on earth and resurrection is this: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” with “hell” here translating hades in the Greek text (Matt. 10.28; cf. Luke 12.5). Accordingly, it seems the soul still exists in some state between death and resurrection.
The common view of “paradise” in Luke 23.43 is that Jesus meant their souls would be together in heaven as soon as they died. But that seems to conflict with not only OT information but the NT’s strong teaching that Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the third day, thus perhaps only about 38 hours after he died. Accordingly, Jesus’ soul would have had to go to heaven and return for resurrection, all in 38 hours, which is highly unlikely and not supported in the NT. See my post on 5/13/15, “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Paradise’?”
Harris explains (p. 40) that paradeisos in the Greek text of Luke 23.43 is “an old Persian word pairi-daeza referring to a walled ‘enclosure,’ whether a garden or a park. This word “paradise” occurs in the NT only three times—here and in 2 Cor 12:4 and Rev 2:7. In the later Judaism of the NT period three aspects or stages of paradise were distinguished:
- The first paradise, the garden of Eden (Gen 2:8)
- The hidden or intervening paradise of the present, the abode of the righteous departed
- The paradise of the Age to Come
Harris then sats Jesus meant the “hidden” paradise, which Harris says is synonymous with “the third heaven,” or within it, that Paul wrote about in 2 Cor 12:4. But this seems to me an arbitrary interpretation based on Harris’ apparent presupposition that the soul is immortal.
The immortality of the soul became a common view among Christians that they later accepted from Hellenism, and it remains so today. But early Christians opposed it as Alan Segal lays out in his classic book Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. By about the third and fourth centuries Christians accepted this Greek philosophical idea, which is not found in the OT, because it was more palatable. The NT does not support it either despite Phil 1.21-23 and 2 Cor 5.1-8. Harris quotes (p. 39) these two texts while embracing the common interpretation of them that Paul meant at death immortal souls of the righteous go to heaven to experience, as Harris says, “conscious fellowship with Christ after death.” I think Paul meant in both texts that believers will be with Jesus at their resurrection. That is what he taught at the Last Supper. He said of his impending heavenly ascension, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…. if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself” (John 14.2-3). He meant his second coming and simultaneous resurrection of the righteous dead. This nullifies souls being with him in heaven.Some Jews believed Sheol was divided into two compartments. Jesus taught this in his parable of Lazarus and rich man (Luke 16.19-31), with righteous souls residing with Abraham, separate from unrighteous souls. I tentatively hold to this view, so that in Luke 23.43 Jesus meant paradise in Sheol.
Harris assumes that at death the souls of Jesus and the criminal crucified with him ascended to heaven. Then Harris asks the question (p. 41), “How is Jesus’ own implied ascent into paradise immediately after his death related to his ‘descent into Hades’ (Matt 12:40; Acts 2:31; Rom 10:7) after his death? Perhaps the answer is that Jesus’ sweeping cosmic movement from earth to exaltation in heaven was by way of a temporary visit to Hades where he announced to the ‘imprisoned spirits’ his victory over death and Hades (cf. 1 Pet 3:19; Jude 6; Rev 1:18).”
Harris raises several issues with this bold assertion which he cannot address properly in such a little book, much less me in this review. He seems to believe that upon death Jesus’ soul descended into Hades/hell as in a later recension of the Apostles’ Creed. (See my post on 5/19/16, “Should the Apostles’ Creed Have the Phrase ‘Descended into Hell’?”) I think that idea is correct since the NT word hades/hell refers to Sheol. But Jesus did not ascend to heaven until forty days after his resurrection. So, the criminal’s soul was in Hades/Sheol as was Jesus’ soul. But when Jesus arose from the dead, the criminal’s soul did not arise also but remained there to await the resurrection of the righteous at the end of the age, when Jesus will yet return. As for the difficult 1 Peter 3.10-20, I think Augustine’s interpretation is best. He says it means God’s Spirit moved Noah to proclaim impending judgment to the wicked who would suffer the flood. Thus, Jesus’ soul experienced the intermediate state as all souls do until resurrection.
Third Saying—“So when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, Look, your son!’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘Look, your mother!’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). Harris accepts the traditional view that the Apostle John was “the beloved disciple” who authored the Gospel of John. I agree he was the beloved disciple. But I think a common view among modern scholars about authorship of the Gospel of John is more probable, that John was an important eyewitness source, and that is how this gospel later got its name. (Titles of the NT gospels accrued later.)
Like many Bible readers, Jesus calling him mother “woman” always seemed a bit disrespectful to me. I don’t recall ever knowing of Harris’ explanation of this, which I think is compelling and beautiful. He says of Jesus (p. 48), “Mary was being gently led, like Mary Magdalene after Jesus’ resurrection (John 12:11-18), from a temporary earthly relationship with Jesus towards a permanent spiritual relationship with him.
“This loosening of Jesus’ links with his mother was the necessary corollary of his establishment of a new family and of new relationships that supersede all others. Membership of this new family is based not on existing natural ties but on a new spiritual commitment, the doing of God’s will.”
Harris previously supported this by citing Matt. 12.48-49 (p. 47). He says Jesus said his mother and brothers were “whoever hears the word of God and puts it into practice (Luke 8:21).” Harris then says Jesus’ “brothers” were literal, thus refuting the Catholic interpretation that they were cousins or spiritual brothers in order to strengthen their dogma about the veneration of Mary which includes her remaining a lifetime virgin.
Fourth Saying—“Jesus cried out in a loud voice saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Matt 27:45-46).” Jesus therein quoted Ps 22.1. King David authored Psalm 22, which surely reflects his experience with God. It also includes some amazing elements that poignantly parallel Jesus sufferings on the cross. Some rabbis would cite the first verse of a psalm in the Psalter as a way of referring to its whole. Thus, some scholars claim that is what Jesus intended in this case, thereby applying all of Psalm 22 to himself.
In my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ, while I cite over 400 scholars in it, I cite from Harris’ book Jesus As God the most. I mention this since Trinitarian Harris seeks in it to show that Jesus is proclaimed “as God” in the NT, and I, as a former Trinitarian, seek to show in my book just the opposite. Thus, in my view, the crucified Jesus addressing the Father as “my God” signifies that if Jesus also was God, he could not have had a God, proving he himself was not God. Trinitarians often don’t address this troubling element of their viewpoint as found in Jesus repeatedly calling the Father “my God,” which also appears in John 20.17 and five times in Revelation 3.2, 12.
Harris embraces the common view of Jesus’ fourth saying—that God the Father spiritually abandoned Jesus on the cross. The standard explanation for this is that the Father could not associate with sin the multitude of sins Jesus was spiritually bearing on behalf of others and therefore had to abandon him. But that idea is not expressly stated in scripture. See my post on 7/21/14, “Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?”
In fact, David continues in Psalm 22 by saying to God, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (vv. 1-2). Yet David later adds, “since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me,… O Lord, do not be far away!” How could Jesus acknowledge that God had abandoned him while also twice asking him, “do not be far from me”? David soon provides the answer to this seeming dilemma concerning his God, “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (v. 24). Therefore, it ought to be concluded that both David and Jesus meant that they felt as though God had abandoned them when in fact he had not. This is an experience God’s people have had many times even though they may not have known that God was there all along, perhaps even feeling their pain.
Yet Harris alleges (p. 60), “unlike the psalmist, Jesus is enduring actual abandonment by God.” Harris adds (p. 62), “Alarmingly, in the case of the crucified Jesus, he was … actually abandoned by God. And it was not merely that he felt deserted by God, as the psalmist had been; in reality he was deserted by God. All active communion between Father and Son was suspended,… God had actually hidden his face (cf. Ps 22:24).” I think this is quite unwarranted. And it seems to me contradictory to apply all of David’s experience in Psalm 22 to Jesus, but not that “he did not hide his face from me” (Ps 22.24). Harris speculates that this abandonment occurred between noon and 3:00 PM, thus during the darkness (Matt. 27.45 par.).
The idea that God did not abandon Jesus on the cross is further confirmed in the next psalm, Psalm 23, also authored by David. As the most popular in the Psalter, it begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (vv. 1-4). The darkest valley Jesus, and perhaps any man, ever went through was his sin-bearing crucifixion.
God being with Jesus is what the Johannine Jesus repeatedly stated. It is first laid out in the Fourth Gospel’s micro-prologue, “the Word was with God” (John 1.1b). Jesus said of God his Father, “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (John 8.29). Then, Jesus said to his disciples only minutes before his capture and arrest, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me” (16.32).
Furthermore, this idea of a felt, but not real, abandonment is required by the Johannine Jesus’ teaching on what scholars call “the Mutual Indwelling.” He first mentioned it as an explanation that he and the Father were “one” (John 10.30), saying, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (v. 38). Sometime later he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14.9). He did not mean he was the Father, as Oneness Pentecostals insist, since he next explained twice, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (vv. 10-11; cf. 17.21). Surely, the Father could not have abandoned Jesus on the cross in light of their permanent Mutual Indwelling.
Harris further asserts (p. 68-69) that Jesus being “the object of God’s rejection, it was necessary for God temporarily to abandon his Son.” Then Harris adds, “it remains mysteriously true that in Jesus’ death as well as during his life, ‘God was in Christ’ (2 Cor 5:19).” This was the Apostle Paul’s way of expressing one side of the Mutual Indwelling. But I don’t think both can be true, that is, that God abandoned Jesus on the cross, yet God continued to be “in Christ.”
Harris’ acceptance of the common view of Jesus’ fourth saying on the cross seems to conflict with what he says later (p. 88), “All seven words were cradled by God’s fatherly care and Jesus filial trust.” Abandoning a perfectly righteous son does not appear as fatherly care.
I think Trinitarians have a huge problem with this interpretation in that it makes Jesus look like he is greater than God. The book of Revelation repeatedly honors Jesus for his sacrificial death on the cross, thus calling him “the Lamb of God,” and it cites this as the primary basis for his being rewarded. Rather, God was with Jesus as he suffered on the cross, bearing his pain with him. In that way, Jesus is no greater than the Father. In fact, Jesus had said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14.28). See my post on 8/18/16, “When Jesus Hung on the Cross, God Suffered Too.”
Fifth Saying—“Shorty after, when he knew that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’” My only objection in this chapter is that Murray Harris, a recognized authority on New Testament Greek, translates John 13.1 (p. 71), “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and return to the Father.” The word “return” is not in any major English versions. Moreover, the word in the Greek text is the common metabaino; BGAD, which lexicon Harris cites often in this book, says it means “go or pass over (fr. one place to another).” Thus, metabaino here should be translated merely “go.” Harris obviously translates it “return” in accordance with his classical Incarnation Christology. I would only add that Harris’ statement, “Jesus is in total control,” seems misleading. Rather, God is in control, and Jesus feels abandoned.
Sixth Saying—“Then when Jesus had received the wine, he exclaimed, ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30a).” Here in this chapter, Murray Harris does well by suggesting that the word “It” likely refers to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as our salvation, adding that “It” may also refer to Jesus’ life.
Seventh Saying—“The curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then after Jesus had called out in a loud voice, he said, ‘Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit’ (Luke 23:45b-46).” Murray explains, “’My spirit’ is Jesus’ inner person … or his incorporeal soul that would survive death or possibly the spirit of life that animated his body.” I think it’s the latter.
In conclusion, it should be obvious that I do not agree with final remark by professor emeritus Murray Harris in this little book (p. 85), “A recognition of Jesus’ deity arose rapidly in the early Church.” Yet I commend Dr. Harris for providing a scholarly yet accessible book for common readers about Jesus’ seven sayings on the cross that surely will enhance believers in their devotional life of service for the One who served us to the ultimate by providing our so great salvation.