NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
After they played their silly pranks, the Roman soldiers put Christ’s garments back on Him and led Him away to the place where He would be crucified. As Moses directed back in the wilderness, a person being put to death must go outside the camp. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that the place of the skull was outside the walls of Jerusalem.1 I’m sure that the reason the Jewish leaders were so insistent on getting Pilate to try Jesus and then get on with the crucifixion, was not only because the Feast of Passover was in full swing, but because their own verbal traditions said, “Once the trial has ended, he [the convicted] is taken out to be stoned. The place of stoning was outside the court area, as it is written: ‘Take the blasphemer outside [the camp], Leviticus 24:14.”2
And speaking on this subject, a renown Rabbi commented, “After a defendant has been convicted, we do not delay the matter, but instead execute him immediately.”3 He goes on to say, “When a person is sentenced to death, he is taken out of the court and led to the place of execution.”4 Then he adds: “The court does not attend the funeral of the executed person. Whenever a court has a person executed, they are forbidden to eat for the remainder of that entire day. This prohibition is included in the interdiction: “Do not eat upon the blood.5”6 A meal of comfort is not given the relatives of those executed by the court. This too is derived from the above verse. These acts are forbidden, but they are not punishable by lashes.”7
But this would not stop the religious leaders from eating. You see, it was the Romans who were putting Him to death! There is an interesting commentary in Jewish writings that many scholars take as a direct reference to Jesus. It reads:
AND A HERALD PRECEDES HIM etc. This implies, only immediately before [the execution], but not previous thereto. [In contradiction to this] it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshua8 was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in His favor, let him come forward and plead on His behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in His favor He was hanged on the eve of the Passover! — ‘Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesit [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, “Neither shall you spare, neither shall you conceal him?”9 With Yeshua, however, it was different for He was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential].”10
But this is patently false. Christ had no such prior warning. Nor were any of His friends given an invitation to come as witnesses for His defense. The mob captured Him at night. The trial lasted until morning and then He was led to Pilate. Following this, they led Him out of the common hall, through Jerusalem, out of its gates, in order to crucify Him.
Verse 32: As the soldiers were going out of the city with Jesus, they saw a man from Cyrene named Simon, and they forced him to carry Jesus’ cross.
As they reached the gate to exit the city, apparently the soldiers saw that Jesus would not make it all the way to the place of execution, and they had no interest in carrying the cross for Him. So they drafted a man standing in the crowd to do it for them. Matthew found out later that his name was Simon, and that he hailed from the city of Cyrene, a large and important metropolis in Cyrenaica, the district of Upper Libya on the north coast of Africa, west of Egypt. Cyrene was one of the five large cities that gave to this region the name of “Pentapolis.”
One historian names these five cities: “The region of Cyrenaica, also called Pentapolis, is rendered famous by the oracle of Hammon, which is distant 400 miles from the city of Cyrene; also by the Fountain of the Sun there, and five special cities, those of Berenice, Arsinoë, Ptolemais, Apollonia, and Cyrene itself.”11 Jewish historian Josephus names Cyrene in his comments: “And now did the madness of the Sicarii [dagger carrying zealots], like a disease, reach as far as the cities of Cyrene; for one Jonathan, a vile person, and by trade a weaver, came there and prevailed with no small number of the poorer sort to give ear to him; he also led them into the desert, upon promising them that he would show them signs and wonders.”12 Today we know this region as Libya.
Verses 33-34: They came to the place called Golgotha. (Golgotha means “The Place of the Skull.”) There the soldiers gave Jesus some wine mixed with vinegar. But when He tasted it, He refused to drink it.
I’m sure that when Simon planned his trip to Jerusalem – no doubt because the Cyrenian Jews had a synagogue in Jerusalem – where many came for annual feasts, he never envisioned that after traveling such a long distance it would result in him carrying the cross for a man being crucified just for claiming to be the Messiah and King of the Jews. Matthew says their destination was on a hill named Golgotha. Either Matthew or his scribe adds that the word means “Place of the Skull.”
There are several explanations for this title. One is reported to be a Jewish tradition that says Adam was buried there. But this does not concur with the stated Jewish belief that Adam and Eve were buried in the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron. The cave also became the burial site for the couple’s descendants, Abraham and Sarah.13 According to a Christian story from Ethiopia, Noah retrieved the first couple’s bodies before the flood and had them reburied at Calvary [Golgotha]. However, others believe it received this designation because so many were hung there that numerous skulls were laying around from bodies left unclaimed for burial. At least, there seemed to be some deference given to the condemned, even if they were criminals. In this context, naming this hill “the place of the skull,” may not have been based on its topographical features but because so many skulls of those crucified were still laying around.
David seems to describe our Lord’s circumstances, “You know the shame I have suffered. You know all my enemies. You saw how they humiliated me. I feel the pain of their insults. The shame makes me feel like dying! I wanted some sympathy, but there was none. I waited for someone to comfort me, but no one came. They gave me poison, not food. They gave me vinegar, not wine.”14
From Jewish writings, we find that drinking strong vinegar was used as a sedative for someone in pain and on the verge of dying. In it reads: “Said Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Joshua, ‘let him sip vinegar’. Said Rabbi Idi ben Abin: One who has swallowed a wasp cannot possibly live. Let him, however, drink a quarter of strong vinegar; perhaps [by this means] he will live long enough to set his house in order. But then it goes on to describe a situation that comes very close to what our Savior was dealing with: ‘Our Rabbis taught: One should not drink water in the night; if he does drink his blood flowing from his head, for it is dangerous. What danger is there? The danger of Shabriri (blindness). But if he is thirsty, how can he put things right? — If there is another person with him, he should wake him and say: I am thirsty for water.”15 Jesus knew He was going to suffer, but He didn’t want to do so in a sedated stupor. He wanted to remember it so that anyone coming to Him in the future with their own sorrow, grief, and agony, He could say: I know how you feel, I’m acquainted with your pain.
1 Cf. Numbers 15:35; also see: I Kings 21:10, 13
2 The Jewish Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 6:4
3 Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Sanhedrin veha’Onashin haMesurin lahem, Ch. 12, Halacha 4
4 Ibid. Ch. 13, Halacha 1
5 Leviticus 19:26
6 Rabbi Rashi, in his commentary, says: [This verse is] expounded in many different ways in [Babylonian Talmud] Sanhedrin (63a) [as follows]: (a) It is a warning that one must not eat from the flesh of holy sacrifices before the dashing of the blood; (b) It is a warning against [anyone] who eats from an ordinary animal before its soul [contained in its blood] has [fully] departed; and in many more [ways this verse is expounded there].
7 Moses Maimonides: Ibid. Ch. 13, Halacha 4
8 Another manuscript containing this same story adds: “Nasarean.”
9 Deuteronomy 13:9
10 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 43a
11 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Bk. 5, Ch. 5
12 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Bk. 7, Ch. 11:1
13 Genesis 25:9-10
14 Psalm 69:19-21
15 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, Folio 12b