By Rosie Dawson
Good Friday is the day in the Christian calendar when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. The death and resurrection of Christ form the central tenets of Christianity; his death came to be understood as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and his resurrection as a victory over death. Good Friday comes towards the end of Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It ends with his arrest and trial, his execution by the Roman authorities, and his burial in a garden tomb.
Why is Good Friday called good?
The origin of the phrase Good Friday is unclear. There is evidence that the Anglo-Saxons called it “Long Friday” – and the Danes still use this term. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a reference to “Guode Friday” in a late 13th century text on the lives of saints, the Southern English Legendary, suggesting that “guode” means “holy”. Others think it may derive from the German “Gottes Friday” or “God’s Friday”.
How does the New Testament relate the events leading up to the crucifixion?
The four gospels are our only sources for the events leading up to Jesus’ death. Although they basically tell the same story, they differ in some important details. Jesus was killed as the Jews prepared to celebrate the Passover feast when Jerusalem was said to be full of visitors. The city was under Roman occupation at the time.
The Gospels tell how Jesus was greeted by cheering crowds when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The first three Gospels – known as the Synoptic Gospels – then record that Jesus entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and cleared it of buyers and sellers (Mark 11:18-19).
In the Gospel of John, this event occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. (John 2)
The day before his death, after a meal with his friends — the Last Supper — Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark write that he was arrested there by an armed mob of people sent by the chief Jewish priests and elders. Luke mentions the “officers of the temple guard…who had come for him” (Luke 22:52).
John describes “a detachment of soldiers and some officers from among the chief priests and Pharisees” (John 18:2). Scholars wonder if the soldiers John is referring to were Romans.
How was he judged?
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was questioned “at dawn” (Luke 22:66) by the Sanhedrin, a council of chief priests and teachers of the law. In the Gospel of John, Jesus was questioned by Anne, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, and then by Caiaphas himself. Annas had served as high priest in AD 6-15.
The Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, accusing him of blasphemy, subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Rome, and claiming to be a king (Luke 23:2). Pilate questioned Jesus but did not find him guilty of a crime. The Jewish authorities had no power to condemn Jesus to death. With a crowd, they pressured Pilate to have Jesus put to death.
Luke is the only gospel to account for Pilate sending Jesus for questioning by Herod Antipas, the client ruler of Galilee and Perea, who was the son of Herod the Great. “Herod and his soldiers laughed at him and laughed at him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.
How did Jesus die?
Jesus was whipped, stripped and mocked, and taken to a place called Golgotha or “the place of the skull” to be crucified. A passerby, Simon of Cyrene, was enlisted to help him carry his crosspiece (Mark 15:21).
Jesus was crucified between two criminals or “rebels” (Luke 15:27). According to the Gospel of Luke, one of them vilified him, but the other protests Jesus’ innocence and is promised a place with him in paradise. Jesus’ suffering and death were witnessed by a group of women and, according to the Gospel of John, by “the disciple whom Jesus loved”—perhaps the apostle himself.
Between them, the gospels record “seven words of Jesus on the cross” from the cross. Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark are a quote from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? In Luke, his last words are inspired by Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. In John, he says: “It is finished.
A series of supernatural events accompany the death of Jesus: darkness covers the land between noon and three o’clock, and the curtain of the temple is torn in two (Luke 23:45). Matthew also reports an earthquake. “The earth shook, the rocks split and the graves opened. The bodies of many holy people who had died were resurrected” (Matthew 27:51-52).
The Gospel writers were concerned to show how the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. For example, the soldiers cast lots to decide who would keep Jesus’ clothes (John 19:24; Psalm 22:18); they did not break Jesus’ legs to make sure he was dead but pierced his side (John 19:33-34; Psalm 34:20; Zechariah 12:10).
Pilate gave permission for Jesus’ body to be taken by Joseph of Arimathea who, according to legend, then brought the Holy Grail – the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper – to Glastonbury in England. We are told that Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who disagreed with his decision to demand the death of Jesus (Luke 23:50). According to the Gospel of John, he and another of Jesus’ disciples, Nicodemus, followed Jewish customs in preparing the body for burial, before placing it in a garden tomb that had never been used.
Who killed Jesus and why?
The gospels seek to exculpate Pilate for his role in the crucifixion of Jesus and to blame his Jewish detractors and opponents outright. Parts of their stories have been used to justify centuries of violent anti-Semitism. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd, claiming he is innocent of the blood of Jesus. “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children'” (Matthew 27:24-25), a verse that has been weaponized to terrifying effect. The Gospel of John is particularly criticized for its anti-Jewish polemic.
The gospels report numerous examples of conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his time. One wonders how much the Romans would have cared about the details. However, claims that Jesus understood himself or was understood by others to be the Messiah (divinely appointed king) would have raised alarm bells. This would be especially the case during Passover, a politically sensitive time when Jews were celebrating their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Crucifixion was the Roman method of executing political agitators. That Jesus was put to death in this way is proof that, historically speaking, Jesus died because the Romans viewed him as a political threat.
Where was Jesus buried?
The traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection is now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, believed to have been commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great after a visit from his mother Helena on the site in the 4th century. The church shelters a rocky outcrop known as Calvary and the remains of a tomb from the first century. It is now covered by an elaborate shrine.
Another claimed site for these events is the so-called Garden Tomb, just outside the city walls near Damascus Gate and discovered in 1867.
How do we commemorate Good Friday?
Christians around the world observe Good Friday by following 14 “stations of the cross” that mark Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion. The stations are told in pictures, beginning with Pilate condemning Jesus to death and ending with his burial. Not all stations are recorded in the gospels – for example, there are no reports of Veronica wiping Jesus’ face or him falling three times.
The most famous observance of Good Friday takes place in Jerusalem’s Old City, where pilgrims follow the Via Dolorosa (“Sorrowful Path”), the route Jesus is said to have taken to get to Golgotha. In Rome, the Pope leads pilgrims on the Stations of the Cross to the Colosseum. Elaborate public dramas take place throughout the Christian world. The Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, first performed in 1634, is held every 10 years to honor the vow made by the villagers to reenact the passion if God spared them from the plague. In Mexico City, a week-long recreation of the Passion of Christ from the mid-19th century now attracts up to two million visitors.
Professor NT Wright, Emeritus Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews
Reverend Dr Andy Byers Fact Sheet, Ridley Hall, Cambridge