Below, part of Gospel Fictions’ sixth chapter, “The Passion narratives” by Randel Helms (ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages):
The story of the garden of Gethsemane is one of the most moving fictional creations in the New Testament. Though Mark’s Gospel is the first to tell the story in written form, its origins in the Old Testament are more clearly revealed in Luke’s version, whose vocabulary betrays its origins in Septuagint III Kings 19, the story of Elijah’s fleeing from Ahab and Jezebel.
The account is obviously fictional, since there could have been no witness to Jesus’ agony in the garden after he left his followers; they were all, according to the story, asleep.
Mark had said nothing about the fate of Judas Iscariot after Jesus’ arrest, only that the priests promised to pay him money, not even indicating whether the money was ever paid. But the Christian sense of retribution could not rest with this, and soon legends were circulating that Judas died horribly. Luke knew one of these legends:
This Judas, be it noted, after buying a plot with the price of his villainy, fell forward on the ground, and burst open, so that his entrails poured out. This became known to everyone in Jerusalem, and they named the property in their own language Akeldama, which means “Blood Acre.” (Acts 1:18:19)
[Matthew on the other hand wrote:]
So Judas threw the money down in the temple and left them, and went and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:5)
That there were two such legends also accounts for the two different stories about Judas’ death: he hangs himself in Matthew and burst open in Acts. Both versions of the death are based on oracular readings of the Old Testament.
That Jesus was crucified by the Romans—the usual method of executing rebels—is the historical basis of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death (Mark 15, Matt. 27, Luke 23, John 19); the accounts are nevertheless fiction, composed for theological purposes.
If, as many hold, the author of the Fourth Gospel knew Mark’s work, why did he assert so strongly, contradicting Mark, that Jesus carried his own cross? Again the answer is a matter of theology rather than history. The Fourth Gospel was written, in part, as an attack upon Gnostic Christianity, which held that the Son of God was not really crucified; some Gnostics in fact held that Simon of Cyrene not only carried the cross, but was himself killed upon it. John dealt with that argument simply by eliminating Simon altogether.
Moreover, John had an entirely different picture of Jesus’ condition at the crucifixion. In the Synoptics, the implication is that Jesus is too weak, following his scouring and beating, to carry his own cross; but for John, Jesus is entirely triumphant throughout the passion. John presents no cry of dereliction from the cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) but instead insists that the dying words were a cry of triumph: “It is accomplished!” (19:30). Such a figure was quite capable of carrying a cross.
Mark continues: “The hour of the crucifixion was nine in the morning” (the third hour, Roman time—Mark 15:25); John, however, tells us that “It was the eve of Passover, about noon,” when Pilate “handed Jesus over to be crucified.” Thus, we cannot know the hour of crucifixion. Nor, in fact, did the evangelists know: their times were fictional creations, parts of a theological framework.