Crucifying the King: “Father forgive them…”

jesus_crucifiedLuke 23:35-43. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. 34 (Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) They divided his garments by casting lots. [The above is not part of the Sunday reading, but is generally considered within the narrative.] 35 The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” 36 Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine 37 they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”  39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Commentary. In verses just prior to our gospel reading, Jesus addresses the women as representative of the nation: “daughters of Jerusalem” (Is 37:22; Mic 1:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9). Jesus notes that they weep for the wrong thing: “weep for yourselves and for your children.” This is because Jesus’ rejection means judgment for the nation (Luke 13:34; 19:41-44; 21:20-21). The tragedy, Jesus says, is not his death but the nation’s failure to choose deliverance, life and forgiveness.

Golgotha. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus and two criminals are delivered to their earthly fate.

From the gospels, the location is clearly defined with reference to the city of Jerusalem: (1) the site was known by its Hebrew name, gwlgwlt˒, transliterated into Greek as golgotha, which was translated Kraniou Topon (“Place of the Skull”) and Calvariae locum in the Vulgate (John 19:17–18; Luke 23:33; Mark 15:22; Matt 27:33); (2) the site was outside one of the city gates, but not far from it (Heb 12:12); the Fourth Gospel stresses that many Jews read the inscription on the cross “because the place was near the city” (John 19:20); (3) at the site of Golgotha there was a garden containing a new tomb (cf. John 19:41; 20:15, which implies the existence of a garden with the mention of a gardener); (4) the owner of the new tomb was Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:59–60); (5) the tomb was cut into the rock and the entrance closed with a large stone in the shape of a millstone (Matt 27:59–60; Mark 16:3–5; Luke 23:53; 24:2).

The Crucifixion.  Very simply Luke tells of the crucifixion of Jesus, the supreme sacrifice for the salvation of sinners. In this form of execution a person was fastened by ropes or nails to a cross (which might be shaped like our conventional cross or like a T, an X, a Y, or even an I). Jesus’ hands were nailed (John 20:25), and probably his feet also (cf. 24:39), though none of the Evangelists says so in set terms. There was a horn-like projection which the crucified straddled, which took most of the weight and stopped the flesh from tearing from the nails. The discovery of the bones of a man crucified at about the same time as Jesus raises the possibility that the legs may have been bent and twisted, then fastened to the cross by a single nail through the heels. Such a contortion of the body would have added to the agony. Crucifixion was a slow and painful death, but it is noteworthy that none of the Evangelists dwells on the torment Jesus endured.

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Based solely on ancient manuscript evidence, these words are missing in a number of early and diverse writings. Some scholars conclude that these words were probably a later addition. Yet, the internal evidence of Luke’s writings would support this forgiving prayer of Jesus. As Culpepper (Luke, 455) notes:

The prayer is consistent with both Luke’s characterization of Jesus and Luke’s style. Jesus has prayed to God as “Father” repeatedly in Luke (10:21; 11:2; 22:42; 23:46), and Jesus has taught his followers to forgive (5:20-24; 6:27-29; 7:47-49; 17:3-4). Indeed, Jesus’ prayer here echoes the petition for forgiveness in the model prayer (11:4). It is more likely that Jesus died a model death, praying for those who were killing him — and this motif was repeated in the death of Stephen (Acts 7:60), the first Christian martyr — than that a scribe later composed the prayer for Jesus imitating Luke’s style and theme.

After a detailed study of this verse, Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah, 971-981) concludes:

Overall, after surveying the pros and cons, I would deem it easier to posit that the passage was written by Luke and excised for theological reasons by a later copyist than that it was added to Luke by such a copyist who took the trouble to cast it in Lucan style and thought. (980)

The arguments for taking “forgiveness” out of the passage may have been based on several possible factors, for instance:

  • the destruction of the temple might have convinced Gentile Christians that God had not forgiven the Jews who were involved with Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • ongoing conflict between the post-70 AD Jewish leadership and the Christian community
  • later Christian scribes could have the presumption of innocence morally unjustified
  • as the Romans were persecuting and killing the Christians, it’s understandable why a copyist might want to delete forgiveness for the Romans who crucified Jesus.
  • It could also be quite understandable why Luke would include such forgiveness for the Romans if “Most Excellent Theophilus,” to whom this writing is addressed (1:3) were a Roman official.

Even at this, there is still the question of who Jesus was praying for: the Jewish leaders, the Romans or both? The immediate context points to the Roman soldiers acting as executioners – they meet the intention of ignorance about their actions. Throughout Luke’s gospel there has been an emphasis on the Jewish leadership (22:1-6,52,66;23:4,10,13) and in the end the people are swayed to join in calling for Jesus’ death (23:18). If we look ahead to Acts of the Apostles (3:17, 13:27) Luke maintains that they also acted out of ignorance. Thus the answer is that the prayer is intended to ask forgiveness for all involved in Jesus’ death.

Still the soldiers go about their business, unaware of the larger eschatological consequences, and divide Jesus’ clothes among them.


Luke 23:33 kakoúrgos: The kakoúrgos is “one who does wrong,” “malefactor,” “villain.” The Greek term describing the other offenders, kakoúrgos, is a generic one for “lawbreaker” (Prov 21:15). The NT uses the word for the two thieves crucified with Jesus (Lk. 23:32–33, 39).  Mark 15:27 and Matthew 27:38 describe the men with the term lestes, which can mean “bandit” or “revolutionary.” This is the word Jesus used to question his arrest in Luke 22:52.

Luke 23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do: this portion of Luke 23:34 does not occur in the oldest papyrus manuscript of Luke and in other early Greek manuscripts and ancient versions of wide geographical distribution. As well the prayer seems to interrupt the flow of the writing. Still there is the fact that other very good mss do attest it. Luke Timothy Johnson notes that based on the prayer’s theme there are very good reasons to admit to it origin with Jesus: (a) it matches Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (11:4), (b) it fits within the prophetic schema wherein the people reject the prophet because of their ignorance (Acts 3:17; 7:25; 12:37); and it (c) roots in the practice and example of Jesus the apostolic mission to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some scholars detect an echo of Isa. 53:12 (others deny). Even though there are no strong verbal parallels, because of the conceptual links both Jesus and the early church seems to have understood Jesus’ prayer on the cross as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (TDNT 5:713) with Jesus cast as the Suffering Servant of 2nd Isaiah (Chs. 40-55)

divided his garments by casting lots: The reference to Jesus’ garments being divided in 23:34b, is an allusion to Ps. 22:18 (21:19 LXX). Psalm 22 consists of lament (vv. 1–21) and thanksgiving (vv. 22–32). This psalm narrates the experience of an individual who endures physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering as the public suffering of a righteous person. The image of the sufferer’s enemies casting lots and distributing his clothes anticipates his death and underlines the hopelessness of his situation. The fact that the psalm ends with an expectant declaration of the universal rule of Yahweh points to a messianic interpretation of Ps. 22.

2 thoughts on “Crucifying the King: “Father forgive them…”

  1. Pingback: Crucifying the King: The Penitent Thief | friarmusings

  2. Pingback: Crucifying the King of the Jews | friarmusings

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