And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified. Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. (Matthew 27:31–32)
Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus and led Him away. And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. (John 19:16–17)
Why Would the Gospel Writers Disagree?
Numerous attacks on the ministry of Jesus Christ exist in our world today. Assaults on His birth, divinity, miracles, and teachings occur at a remarkable rate. Even now, advances are being made against the narrative of Jesus Christ’s death as observed in the Gospels.
The premise so arrogantly taken by many people, who desire to be seen as wise in the eyes of the world, is that the original authors of the Gospels simply cannot agree on specific portions of the final hours of Jesus. But this could not be further from the truth.
Many have identified supposed inconsistencies between the journey of Jesus to the Cross as recorded by Matthew against that which John recorded. The dangerous scholarly opinion that the Gospel writers are exercising a point of contention and disunity is, however, not a statement made against human authorship but one made against God Himself.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
Scripture itself attests to God’s divine authorship. This is an important truth conveniently ignored by many scholars. To suggest that Matthew and John lack unity in their separate accounts of the journey of Jesus to the Cross is to suggest that the Holy Spirit intentionally provides confusion and disunity. Such a suggestion, of course, goes against the very nature of God.
Thus, whenever we read Scripture we must remember that the true author of God’s word is, in fact, God. If God penned the Scripture, we can be confident of its cohesiveness and unified message.
The dangerous proposal that Matthew and John offer competing viewpoints of Christ’s journey to the Cross presents an even more tragic consequence. When scholarship insists on highlighting this proposed inconsistency between one Gospel account and another, the real victim is the true message of the narrative.
Lost in the argument is a suffering servant—God in the form of a man humbly staggering to a shameful and painful death. With this death serving as the sufficient sacrifice for all mankind, both Matthew and John would be disappointed and astounded that the focus had been pulled away from the journey of Jesus and onto a subtle nuance of the account.
As Jesus labored to the site of His death, His aim was certainly not to initiate a debate among scholars over who indeed carried His cross, especially if such a debate brought into question the consistency and inerrancy of God’s Word.
The true message in both Matthew 27 and John 19 is that Jesus willingly took every painful, agonizing step toward Golgotha. These steps were motivated by love, and, in fact, actually confirmed prophecy:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4–5)
The prophet Isaiah spoke of a future time when a suffering servant—the Messiah—would come. Isaiah indicated that we would know Him based on what He bore and what He carried. He would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. Notice that Isaiah mentioned nothing of a crossbeam. God’s prophet does not highlight whether this suffering servant will bear a crossbeam or whether another man would, but he does highlight that He would be wounded and pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. The true message of Jesus Christ’s journey to the Cross is either unappreciated or lost when scholars insist on highlighting a supposed inconsistency rather than focusing on the actual point of the journey.
Understanding the Historical and Cultural Context
To propose an inconsistency between Matthew’s account of the journey of Jesus to His crucifixion and John’s account of the same event is tragic in that it pulls focus away from the true message of the narrative. However, the tragedy multiplies when one discovers that such a dangerous proposal is not even founded on a correct reading of the narrative or a proper understanding of historical and cultural context.
Roman crucifixion was the most shameful and painful form of execution in the first century. Created by the Persian Empire, Rome had perfected crucifixion, ensuring that nails were driving into the most sensitive nerve centers in the human body. The Romans had also become efficient in extending the length of the execution. To be crucified meant a process that could take several hours if not days. The immobilized individual, nailed onto the crucifix, would slowly weaken, and the body would begin to slump. Most crosses possessed a small foothold that would allow the individual to prop themselves back to an upright position. Yet, over the course of several hours, the person’s body would eventually slump over, rendering the lungs incapable of passing air in and out of the body. Thus, to die on a cross often was to die of asphyxiation.
As one approached such an awful and public death, the victim would often be ordered to carry the horizontal crossbeam known as the patibulum to the site of death. At the site of the execution, the crossbeam would be connected to the upright beam of the cross, and the victim would be nailed to the structure prior to the crucifix being hoisted upward. The distance one would be asked to carry this beam varied. The variance is important to the account of Jesus, which we’ll consider more carefully below.
Prior to having the patibulum thrust upon Him, Jesus was flogged (or scourged) by the Romans. This excruciating form of torture consisted of repeated lashings with a device known as a flagrum. This device was a heavy leather whip, consisting of leather strips with beads of metal, bone, and glass on the end. Much like a butcher tenderizes meat, this flagrum was thrust upon the shoulders, back, buttocks, and upper thighs of Jesus. Such a means of torture was capable of producing severe bodily damage and blood loss similar to that of a shotgun wound.
Having received such a punishment immediately prior to His carrying of the crossbeam would have substantially weakened Jesus. In fact, Jesus would have needed urgent medical attention for such wounds before even meeting the plank of wood He would eventually be nailed to in the near future. Nevertheless, Jesus was immediately given the patibulum to carry as ordered by an indifferent band of Romans soldiers. Thus, Jesus would have begun a long walk that would lead Him outside the city walls of Jerusalem to His death, which occurred during the week of the Passover.
Severely weakened and injured, Jesus began the slow journey to the site of His death, as documented in both Matthew and John. At this time, however, it is important to note how a careful reading of John’s and Matthew’s accounts actually reveal the continuity between the two.
Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. (Matthew 27:32, emphasis added)
So they took Jesus and led Him away. And He, bearing His cross, went out. (John 19:16–17, emphasis added)
The time and location of Jesus’ death are important to understanding how Matthew’s and John’s accounts are actually cohesive in nature. Jesus was executed during the week of the Passover. As a result, He was not killed at the hands of the Pharisees—those who actually wanted Him killed—but rather was killed by the Romans. The method of a Roman execution differed from that of a Jewish execution. Jews stoned people to death, but the Romans chose to crucify individuals. The Romans crucified them at specific locations outside of the city where as many people as possible could witness the shameful death.
Matthew simply provides an extra detail to the same observation made by John.
Notice, then, in Matthew’s account that as they came out of the city, the Romans elected someone else to carry the patibulum for an ever-weakening Jesus. This implies that Jesus had been carrying the crossbeam Himself from the location of His conviction to the gates of the city. Now, as we observe John’s account, the so-called “inconsistency” dissipates. John records that as Jesus journeyed out of the city, He bore His own cross.
This is the very same observation made by Matthew. He recorded that Simon the Cyrene was ordered to carry the crossbeam from outside the gate to Golgotha. Matthew simply provides an extra detail to the same observation made by John.
So then, why does John not offer the same details as Matthew? A possible consideration takes into account the impact Passover would have had on Jerusalem. The population of the city would have swelled to a number higher than any normal week. Thus, it would have been virtually impossible for John or Matthew to follow Jesus every step of the way from conviction to crucifixion. John likely recorded Jesus carrying the crossbeam through the city streets, where he was able to see Jesus. Likewise, Matthew likely recorded Roman officials ordering Simon the Cyrene to carry the crossbeam from outside the gates to Golgotha from his vantage point. Both observations are accurate, and both add a rich depth and power of the final hours of Jesus. The notion that these two narratives oppose one another is dangerous and tragic.
The burden of the gospel is that Jesus carried more than just a crossbeam with Him to Calvary. Where scholars accomplish little by arguing over perceived inconsistencies, Jesus accomplished much by taking the sin of the world onto His shoulders and dying a sinners death for us.
The death narrative accounts of both Matthew and John, in concert with the Holy Spirit, do not oppose one another or this overall message. I pray that we all continue to pursue the truth, power, and weight of the gospel as we “
bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).