The Death and Burial of Jesus Christ
James E. Talmage*

[i]   James E. Talmage (1862-1933) was born at Hungerford, Berkshire, England. In 1876 the Talmage family emigrated to Utah where James became one of the leading intellectuals of the Church and a member of the Council of the Twelve. He was schooled at Brigham Young Academy (the predecessor to BYU) in Provo, at Lehigh University, and at Johns Hopkins. He was professor of geology and chemistry at Brigham Young Academy and professor of geology at the University of Utah, where he also became the University's president. Elected to membership in several learned societies, he was known among his contemporaries as a gifted scientist, teacher, speaker, and writer. Along with his other writings, his works Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith are near canonical works for Latter-day Saints. This chapter from Jesus the Christ demonstrates Talmage's skill at reconstructing ecclesiastical history with a Mormon view d'appui.

On the Way to Calvary1

[1]   Pontius Pilate, having reluctantly surrendered to the clamorous demands of the Jews, issued the fatal order; and Jesus, divested of the purple robe and arrayed in His own apparel, was led away to be crucified. A body of Roman soldiers had the condemned Christ in charge; and as the procession moved out from the governor's palace, a motley crowd comprizing priestly officials, rulers of the Jews, and people of many nationalities, followed. Two convicted criminals, who had been sentenced to the cross for robbery, were led forth to death at the same time; there was to be a triple execution; and the prospective scene of horror attracted the morbidly minded, such as delight to gloat over the sufferings of their fellows. In the crowd, however, were some genuine mourners, as shall be shown. It was the Roman custom to make the execution of convicts as public as possible, under the mistaken and anti-psychological assumption, that the spectacle of dreadful punishment would be of deterrent effect. This misconception of human nature has not yet become entirely obsolete.

[2]  The sentence of death by crucifixion required that the condemned person carry the cross upon which he was to suffer. Jesus started on the way bearing His cross. The terrible strain of the preceding hours, the agony in Gethsemane, the barbarous treatment He had suffered in the palace of the high priest, the humiliation and cruel usage to which He had been subjected before Herod, the frightful scourging under Pilate's order, the brutal treatment by the inhuman soldiery, together with the extreme humiliation and the mental agony of it all, had so weakened His physical organism that He moved but slowly under the burden of the cross.

Simon Bears the Cross of Jesus

[3]   The soldiers, impatient at the delay, peremptorily impressed into service a man whom they met coming into Jerusalem from the country, and him they compelled to carry the cross of Jesus. No Roman or Jew would have voluntarily incurred the ignominy of bearing such a gruesome burden; for every detail connected with the carrying out of a sentence of crucifixion was regarded as degrading. The man so forced to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, bearing the cross upon which the Savior of the world was to consummate His glorious mission, was Simon, a native of Cyrene. From Mark's statement that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus we infer that the two sons were known to the evangelist's readers as members of tbe early Church, and there is some indication that the household of Simon the Cyrenian came to be numbered with the believers.

[4]  Among those who followed or stood and watched the death-procession pass, were some, women particularly, who bewailed and lamented the fate to which Jesus was going. We read of no man who ventured to raise his voice in protest or pity; but on this dreadful occasion as at other times, women were not afraid to cry out in commiseration or praise. Jesus, who had been silent under the inquisition of the priests, silent under the humiliating mockery of the sensual Herod and his coarse underlings, silent when buffeted and beaten by the brutal legionaries of Pilate, turned to the women whose sympathizing lamentations had reached His ears, and uttered these pathetic and portentous words of admonition and warning: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" It was the Lord's last testimony of the impending holocaust of destruction that was to follow the nation's rejection of her King. Although motherhood was the glory of every Jewish woman's life, yet in the terrible scenes which many of those there weeping would live to witness, barrenness would be accounted a blessing; for the childless would have fewer to weep over, and at least would be spared the horror of seeing their offspring die of starvation or by violence; for so dreadful would be that day that people would fain welcome the falling of the mountains upon them to end their sufferings. If Israel's oppressors could do what was then in process of doing to the "Green Tree," who bore the leafage of freedom and truth and offered the priceless fruit of life eternal, what would the powers of evil not do to the withered branches and dried trunk of apostate Judaism'?

[5]  Along the city streets, out through the portal of the massive wall, and thence to a place beyond but yet nigh unto Jerusalem, the cortege advanced. The destination was a spot called Golgotha, or Calvary, meaning "the place of a skull."

The Crucifixion2

[6]  At Calvary the official crucifiers proceeded without delay to carry into effect the dread sentence pronounced upon Jesus and upon the two criminals. Preparatory to affixing the condemned to the cross, it was the custom to offer each a narcotic draught of sour wine or vinegar mingled with myrrh and possibly containing other anodyne ingredients, for the merciful purpose of deadening the sensibility of the victim. This was no Roman practise, but was allowed as a concession to Jewish sentiment. When the drugged cup was presented to Jesus He put it to His lips, but having ascertained the nature of its contents refused to drink, and so demonstrated His determination to meet death with faculties alert and mind unclouded.

[7]  Then they crucified Him, on the central cross of three, and placed one of the condemned malefactors on His right hand, the other on His left. Thus was realized Isaiah's vision of the Messiah numbered among the transgressors.3 But few details of the actual crucifixion are given us. We know however that our Lord was nailed to the cross by spikes driven through the hands and feet, as was the Roman method, and not bound only by cords as was the custom in inflicting this form of punishment among some other nations. Death by crucifixion was at once the most lingering and most painful of all forms of execution. The victim lived in ever increasing torture, generally for many hours, sometimes for days. The spikes so cruelly driven through hands and feet penetrated and crushed sensitive nerves and quivering tendons, yet inflicted no mortal wound. The welcome relief of death came through the exhaustion caused by intense and unremitting pain, through localized inflammation and congestion of organs incident to the strained and unnatural posture of the body.

[8]  As the crucifiers proceeded with their awful task, not unlikely with roughness and taunts, for killing was their trade and to scenes of anguish they had grown callous through long familiarity, the agonized Sufferer, void of resentment but full of pity for their heartlessness and capacity for cruelty, voiced the first of the seven utterances delivered from the cross. In the spirit of God-like mercy He prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Let us not attempt to fix the limits of the Lord's mercy; that it would be extended to all who in any degree could justly come under the blessed boon thereof ought to be a sufficing fact. There is significance in the form in which this merciful benediction was expressed. Had the Lord said, "I forgive you", His gracious pardon may have been understood to be but a remission of the cruel offense against Himself as One tortured under unrighteous condemnation; but the invocation of the Father's forgiveness was a plea for those who had brought anguish and death to the Father's Well Beloved Son, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Moses forgave Miriam for her offense against himself as her brother; but God alone could remit the penalty and remove the leprosy that had come upon her for having spoken against Jehovah's high priest.4

[9]  It appears that under Roman rule, the clothes worn by a condemned person at the time of execution became the perquisites of the executioners. The four soldiers in charge of the cross upon which the Lord suffered distributed parts of His raiment among themselves; and there remained His coat,5 which was a goodly garment, woven throughout in one piece, without seam. To rend it would be to spoil; so the soldiers cast lots to determine who should have it; and in this circumstance the Gospel-writers saw a fulfillment of the psalmist's prevision: "They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots."6

[10]  To the cross above the head of Jesus was affixed a title or inscription, prepared by order of Pilate in accordance with the custom of setting forth the name of the crucified and the nature of the offense for which he had been condemned to death. In this instance the title was inscribed in three languages, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, one or more of which would be understood by every observer who could read. The title so exhibited read: "This is Jesus the King of the Jews"; or in the more extended version given by John "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews." The inscription was read by many, for Calvary was close to the public thoroughfare and on this holiday occasion the passers-by were doubtless numerous. Comment was aroused; for, if literally construed, the inscription was an official declaration that the crucified Jesus was in fact King of the Jews. When this circumstance was brought to the attention of the chief priests, they excitedly appealed to the governor, saying: "Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written." Pilate's action in so wording the title, and his blunt refusal to permit an alteration, may have been an intended rebuff to the Jewish officials who had forced him against his judgment and will to condemn Jesus; possibly, however, the demeanor of the submissive Prisoner, and His avowal of Kingship above all royalty of earth had impressed the mind if not the heart of the pagan governor with a conviction of Christ's unique superiority and of His inherent right of dominion; but, whatever the purpose behind the writing, the inscription stands in history as testimony of a heathen's consideration in contrast with Israel's ruthless rejection of Israel's King.

[11]  The soldiers whose duty it was to guard the crosses, until loitering death would relieve the crucified of their increasing anguish, jested among themselves, and derided the Christ, pledging Him in their cups of sour wine in tragic mockery. Looking at the title affixed above the Sufferer's head, they bellowed forth the devil-inspired challenge: "If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself." The morbid multitude, and the passers-by "railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself, and come down from the cross." But worst of all, the chief priests and the scribes, the elders of the people, the unvenerable Sanhedrists, became ringleaders of the inhuman mob as they gloatingly exulted and cried aloud: "He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God."7 Though uttered in ribald mockery, the declaration of the rulers in Israel stands as an attestation that Christ had saved others, and as an intended ironical but a literally true proclamation that He was the King of Israel. The two malefactors, each hanging from his cross, joined in the general derision, and "cast the same in his teeth." One of them, in the desperation incident to approaching death, echoed the taunts of the priests and people: "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us."

[12]  The dominant note in all the railings and revilings, the ribaldry and mockery, with which the patient and submissive Christ was assailed while He hung, "lifted up" as He had said He would be8 was that awful "If" hurled at Him by the devil's emissaries in the time of mortal agony; as in the season of the temptations immediately after His baptism it had been most insidiously pressed upon Him by the devil himself.9 That "If" was Satan's last shaft, keenly barbed and doubly envenomed, and it sped as with the fierce hiss of a viper. Was it possible in this the final and most dreadful stage of Christ's mission, to make Him doubt His divine Son-ship, or, failing such, to taunt or anger the dying Savior into the use of His superhuman powers for personal relief or as an act of vengeance upon His tormentors? To achieve such a victory was Satan's desperate purpose. The shaft failed. Through taunts and derision, through blasphemous challenge and diabolical goading, the agonized Christ was silent.

[13]  Then one of the crucified thieves, softened into penitence by the Savior's uncomplaining fortitude, and perceiving in the divine Sufferer's demeanor something more than human, rebuked his railing fellow, saying: "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." His confession of guilt and his acknowledgment of the justice of his own condemnation led to incipient repentance, and to faith in the Lord Jesus, his companion in agony. "And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom."10 To the appeal of penitence the Lord replied with such a promise as He alone could make: "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

[14]  Among the spectators of this, the greatest tragedy in history, were some who had come in sympathy and sorrow. No mention is found of the presence of any of the Twelve, save one, and he, the disciple "whom Jesus loved," John the apostle, evangelist, and revelator; but specific record is made of certain women who, first at a distance, and then close by the cross, wept in the anguish of love and sorrow. "Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene."11

[15]  In addition to the women named were many others, some of whom had ministered unto Jesus in the course of His labors in Galilee, and who were among those that had come up with Him to Jerusalem.12 First in point of consideration among them all was Mary, the mother of Jesus, into whose soul the sword had pierced even as righteous Simeon had prophesied.13 Jesus looking with tender compassion upon His weeping mother, as she stood with John at the foot of the cross, commended her to the care and protection of the beloved disciple, with the words, "Woman, behold thy son!" and to John, "Behold thy mother!" The disciple tenderly led the heart-stricken Mary away from her dying Son, and "took her into his own home," thus immediately assuming the new relationship established by his dying Master.

[16]  Jesus was nailed to the cross during the forenoon of that fateful Friday, probably between nine and ten o'clock.14 At noontide the light of the sun was obscured, and black darkness spread over the whole land. The terrifying gloom continued for a period of three hours. This remarkable phenomenon has received no satisfactory explanation from science. It could not have been due to a solar eclipse, as has been suggested in ignorance, for the time was that of full moon; indeed the Passover season was determined by the first occurrence of full moon after the spring equinox. The darkness was brought about by miraculous operation of natural laws directed by divine power. It was a fitting sign of the earth's deep mourning over the impending death of her Creator.15 Of the mortal agony through which the Lord passed while upon the cross the Gospel-scribes are reverently reticent.

[17]  At the ninth hour, or about three in the afternoon, a loud voice, surpassing the most anguished cry of physical suffering issued from the central cross, rending the dreadful darkness. It was the voice of the Christ: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" What mind of man can fathom the significance of that awful cry? It seems, that in addition to the fearful suffering incident to crucifixion, the agony of Gethsemane had recurred, intensified beyond human power to endure. In that bitterest hour the dying Christ was alone, alone in most terrible reality. That the supreme sacrifice of the Son might be consummated in all its fulness, the Father seems to have withdrawn the support of His immediate Presence, leaving to the Savior of men the glory of complete victory over the forces of sin and death. The cry from the cross, though heard by all who were near, was understood by few. The first exclamation, Eloi, meaning My God, was misunderstood as a call for Elias.

[18]  The period of faintness, the conception of utter forsakenness soon passed, and the natural cravings of the body reasserted themselves. The maddening thirst, which constituted one of the worst of the crucifixion agonies, wrung from the Savior's lips His one recorded utterance expressive of physical suffering. "I thirst" he said. One of those who stood by, whether Roman or Jew, disciple or skeptic, we are not told, hastily saturated a sponge with vinegar, a vessel of which was at hand, and having fastened the sponge to the end of a reed, or stake of hyssop, pressed it to the Lord's fevered lips. Some others would have prevented this one act of human response, for they said: "Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him." John affirms that Christ uttered the exclamation, "I thirst", only when He knew "that all things were now accomplished;" and the apostle saw in the incident a fulfilment of prophecy.16

[19]  Fully realizing that He was no longer forsaken, but that His atoning sacrifice had been accepted by the Father, and that His mission in the flesh had been carried to glorious consummation, He exclainred in a loud voice of holy triumph: "It is finished." In reverence, resignation, and relief, He addressed the Father saying: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."17 He bowed His head, and voluntarily gave up His life.

[20]  Jesus the Christ was dead. His life had not been taken from Him except as He had willed to permit. Sweet and welcome as would have been the relief of death in any of the earlier stages of His suffering from Gethsemane to the cross, He lived until all things were accomplished as had been appointed. In the latter days the voice of the Lord Jesus has been heard affirming the actuality of His suffering and death, and the eternal purpose thereby accomplished. Hear and heed His words: "For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him."18


1. (Talmage's note a, p. 653.) Matt. 27:31-33; Mark 15:20-22; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:16, 17. Note: Some of Talmage's footnotes have been omitted because of their reference to other pages in Jesus the Christ.

2. (Talmage's note e, p. 654.) Matt. 27:34-50; Mark 15:23-37; Luke 23:33-46; John 19:18-30.

3. (Talmage's note f, p. 655.) Isa. 53:12; compare Mark 15:28; Luke 22:37.

4. (Talmage's note h, p. 656.) Numb. 12.

5. (Talmage's note i, p. 656.) Revised version, marginal reading, "tunic".

6. (Talmage's note j, p. 656.) Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23, 24; compare Psa. 22:18.

7. (Talmage's note m, p. 658.) Matt. 27:42, 43. The clause "if he be the King of Israel" in verse 42 of the common text is admittedly a mistranslation; it should read "He is the King of Israel." See revised version; also Edersheim, vol. 2, p. 596; compare Mark 15:32.

8. (Talmage's note n, p. 658.) John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32.

9. (Talmage's note o, p. 658.) Matt. 4:3, 6.

10. (Talmage's note p, p. 659.) Luke 23:42; the revised version reads "when thou comest in thy kingdom."

11. (Talmage's note r, p. 659.) John 19:25; compare Matt. 27:55, 56; Mark 15:40, 41; Luke 23:48, 49.

12. (Talmage's note s, p. 660.) See references last cited; and Luke 8:2, 3.

13. (Talmage's note t, p. 660.) Luke 2:34, 35.

14. (Talmage's note u, p. 660.) Mark 15:25.

15. (Talmage's note v, p. 660.) Compare P. of G. P., Moses 7:37, 40, 48, 49, 56.

16. (Talmage's note w, p. 661.) John 19:28; compare Psa. 69:21.

17. (Talmage's note x, p. 662.) The Gospel-writers leave us in some uncertainty as to which of the last two utterances from the cross, "It is finished," and "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," was spoken first.

18. (Talmage's note y, p. 662.) Doc. and Cov. 18:11; revelation given in June 1829; see also 19:16-19.

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