British Muslim Heritage
‘The Cry on the Cross’
by Yahya-en-Nasr Parkinson

QUESTION. – ‘How would you explain to a Moslem our Lord’s cry on the cross: ‘My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?’ They say that it is a clear proof that he was human, not divine?’

ANSWER. – ‘I cannot see any specifically Moslem reply to the difficulty about our Lord’s cry: ‘My God! my God!’ The difficulty can only, to my mind, be dealt with for them as we deal with it for ourselves. For me it expresses the full humanity of Christ, who, as a man, had to go down into these depths. And we must remember, too, that he came up from these depths, trod under foot their despair, and commended his spirit to the Father, and said: ‘It is finished.’ I would not begin even to discuss this with a Moslem until he had come to some reverent knowledge of how we regard the life and death of Christ.’

D. B. MACDONALD, The Moslem World

The answer of the Professor does not satisfy me. Others must form their own opinion. We are presented in this world with problems. Every problem has a solution. We may not see the solution; yet the problem can be solved. But no problem can be solved by sitting down and making a mystery of it. Its solution must be attempted, or it will remain a bar to mental progress and to clearness of thought, leading us often astray in things interconnected with it. Of course if the Professor and others desire to delude themselves with a mystery they are at liberty to do so, but they have no right to advise that others should be so deluded. In the examination of all such problems the first thing is to state the problem, and then attempt to review it as a whole with the connected detail.

MATTHEW xxvii.:-

Ver. 46: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying Eli! Eli! Lama sabachtani? that is to say, My God! My God! why hast thou forsaken me?

Ver. 47: Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.

Ver. 48: And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.

Ver. 49: The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.

Ver. 50: Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

MARK xv.:-

Ver. 34: And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?

Ver. 35: And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold he calleth Elias.

Ver. 36: And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone, let us see whether Elias will come to take him down.

Ver. 37: And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.

LUKE xxiii.:-

Ver. 46: And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

JOHN xix.:-

Ver. 28: After this, Jesus knowing that all things were accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.

Ver. 29: Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar; and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop and put it to his mouth.

Ver. 30: When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

In Luke the sun is darkened from the sixth hour and the veil of the Temple rent at the ninth; in the other Synoptics the rending of the veil appears to occur later, while Matthew adds the detail about the graves opening and the dead coming forth, and a great earthquake which rent rocks, and of which the other writers seem to be ignorant.

In John the women and the ‘beloved disciple’ stand at the cross. In Luke all his acquaintances and the women ‘stand afar off’. In Mark we have also the women looking on ‘afar off.’ In Matthew many women were there beholding ‘afar off.’ The details concerning the women are also contradictory.

Without going into every point we may give a short sketch. In Matthew and Mark the robbers join the chief priests, rulers, etc., in reviling Jesus. Luke contradicts this, making one do so, the other rebuking him. Of the conversation between Jesus and the second malefactor Matthew and Mark know nothing, and their description positively excludes it. The fourth Gospel is silent concerning the mockery, although it claims that the ‘beloved disciple’ stood at the foot of the cross, and gives an address by Jesus to him, confiding his mother to the disciple’s care, and addressing her also – an incident of which the writers of the Synoptics are entirely ignorant, just as they are of a ‘beloved disciple’: to them Peter always played the leading part. The conversation with the penitent thief is peculiar to Luke; that with the ‘beloved disciple’ to John. Matthew and Mark give the cry: ‘Eli [Mark, Eloi] Eli! lama sabachthani?’ as the last articulate utterance; the other two know nothing about such a cry. It is to be noted that the cry as above is a quotation from Psalm xxii. 1.

Luke has a different cry: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ We have to note that it is almost a literal quotation from Psalm xxxi. 5 (Septuagint version).

John has a totally different cry: ‘It is finished.’

We have, in all, seven cries attributed to Jesus on the cross. With the exception of the first two Synoptics each Gospel ascribes different sayings; no two agree, and the statements of the one exclude the statements of the others.

The hearers are represented as misunderstanding the Aramaic cry ‘Eli! Eli!’ saying: ‘This man calleth on Elias’ (Eliiahu). No Jew was likely to make any such mistake; the name of Elijah and the words of the psalm would be familiar to him. As for the Roman soldiers, they probably never heard of Elijah. The writers of the Gospels must also have been writing for readers who knew not Aramaic, for they give an interpretation. Besides, if his disciples ‘forsook him and fled,’ as Matthew says, and his acquaintances and the women ‘stood afar off,’ they would not hear any cry, so there was plenty of room for the play of the imagination. While, according to the fourth Gospel contradicting the others, the ‘beloved disciple’ and some of the women stood by the cross, yet they never heard the desolate cry: ‘My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?’

Having gone over the Gospels, we have not yet exhausted our references. Justin Martyr, who suffered martyrdom about 166-167 CE., quoting from the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles,’ in which he asserts is recorded ‘everything that concerns our Saviour Jesus Christ,’ mentions the cry on the cross as : ‘O God! My God! why hast thou forsaken me?’ Although he seemingly knows nothing of the Hebrew-Aramaic cry of Matthew and Mark, he also gives a second cry similar to that in Luke. He says:-

“For when he was giving up his spirit on the cross, he said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,’ as I have also learned from the Memoirs.’”

The Gospel of Nicodemus gives both cries. In the Greek versions we have the Luke form with variants:-


“And crying with a loud voice, Jesus said: ‘Father, Baddach Ephkid rouchi’ – that is, interpreted, ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit,’ and having said this he gave up the ghost.”


“The Jesus having called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into Thy hands will I commend my spirit,’ expired.”

The ancient Latin version also gives both cries.

The Evan. Pet. (Gospel of Peter) gives: ‘My power! My power! Thou hast forsaken me.’

In the various texts of Matthew and Mark known to us the number of variants is surprising. (For a list see Ency. Biblica, art. ‘Eli! Eli’.)

In forming a judgment the setting must be taken into consideration as well as the cry. The setting is wholly mythological. The casting of lots for the garments, where the ‘seamless robe’ is the glorious garment of the Sun-God, or the Royal Robes in which the sacrificial victim was dressed, of the Osirian and Mazdean mystery; the mock crown such as that worn by Herakles and assumed by the worshippers of many pagan cults. The drink of vinegar or gall, or a bitter drink sometimes mixed with wine, such figured in the mysteries of Demeter, or in the Mexican cultus or the ritual of the Khonds and other tribes for the purpose of stupefying the human sacrifice and deadening the pain.

What are the principal attempts to explain the drama?

On the one hand we have a Christian scholar of the ability of Professor P.W. Schmiedel, in his search of the Gospels for material on which to found an historical Christ, rejecting all the sayings and doings with the exception of a few passages, the majority of which occur in Mark and represent Jesus as avoiding extraordinary claims. The passages referred to are now commonly called the ‘Pillars of Schmiedel,’ and represent Jesus as mere man. One of the principal ‘pillars’ is the cry: ‘My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?’ The cry, to the Professor, proclaims the humanity of Jesus, man only.

On the other hand, we have Professor W. B. Smith, standing for symbolism pure and simple, the cult of the Jesus-God, putting it on a level, say, with the cults of Apollo, Adonis, or Osiris; seeing in the cry on the cross, ‘no notion whatever of human birth or human history or geniune humanity,’ but, the ‘pictorial expression’ ‘of a suffering and dying God,’ namely sheer Paganism. He says again: ‘It testifies … to the high flown idea of a God who had transiently thrown round himself a vestment of flesh, which vestment he abandoned on the cross, and thence ascended, flesh-unshrouded, triumphant to his native heaven.’ He concludes as follows:-

“it may not be superfluous to observe that the words (given by the MSS. in three principal forms –Hebrew, eli eli, lama zafthani; Aramaean, eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani; Hebrew-Aramaean, eli, eli, lama sabachthani) here ascribed to Jesus are taken from Psalm xxi.1, where they are heard as the cry of the Just and Persecuted (Israel). Their ascription to a deity who had emptied himself of glory and put on a cloak of suffering flesh seems in no way strange – nor their utterance on the cross, since Plato had said the Just, thought unjust, would be crucified. That they did not jar with Mark’s (and Matthew’s) conception of Jesus as God we may be sure; for, had they jarred, the way was wide open for him to leave them out – as did Luke, replacing them with the more edifying prayer, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit’; and John, substituting the dramatic Tetelestai (it is finished), and the ‘Gospel of Peter’ still more neatly altering eli (my God) into ejali (my strength). There is no reason to suppose that these three had more reverence for Jesus and less respect for his words than had Mark (or Matthew); it is only different preferences they display in theologizing fiction.”

Another explanation sees in the whole thing a Passion-play or Mystery-drama, into which so many elements of pagan ritual, embodied in the various cults of the Slain-God, have been woven, that it is impossible to tell whether or not there is an underlying stratum of historical matter. On the principle of a mystery-drama the cry and the variants are easily explainable. The cry would be no more incongruous to the audience than to the writers who transcribed it.

To sum up, we have three explanations.

The first by Professor Schmiedel, who looks upon such miracles as the feeding of the five thousand as parables, and on the miracle healings as spiritual and moral healings only, and who rejects as historical all passages making extraordinary claims for the ‘Messiahship of Jesus.’ The ‘Cry’ to him is one of verse proving that Jesus was human and a historical figure.

The second by Professor Smith, that the whole is mere symbolism, the cult of a God, the crucifixion that of the Dying-God of paganism.

The third by J.M. Robertson, M.P., who sees in the Gospels the transcription of a mystery-drama, which may or may not have behind the historical Jesus Ben Joseph Ben Pandira, who, according to the Talmud, was crucified about 100 B.C. The third is simply an extension of the second, with variations of details. Mystery-plays were familiar in the period of Christian origins, and the cult of the Dying-God was familiar in legend to the inhabitants of the Near East from time immemorial.

NOTE. – For the views of Professor Schmiedel, see art. Gospels, Ency. Biblica. For those of Professor Smith, see Ecce Deus, and his articles in the Open Court Co. publications. For those of J.M. Robertson, see his Pagan Christs, and Christianity and Mythology. | British Muslim Heritage