The crowd’s confusion over ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani’

  • Question 173, from Christel, Germany

    When Jesus cried out ‘Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani’ as he was being crucified, why did the crowd think he was calling to Elijah? [This text is found in Matthew chapter 27, verses 46-47]

    There are a number of reasons why “some of the crowd” witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion may have said this. CH Spurgeon, for example, believed it to be a continuation of the mocking jeers of the crowd (chapter 26, verses 39-44)[1].

    However, the most likely reason is that they misunderstood his words because he was speaking in Aramaic, the common language of Galilee and Judea, which was not spoken widely elsewhere. The text says only some of the crowd were confused, and it may be they were primarily Greek speakers, who would have heard ‘Eloi’ and thought of the famous Jewish prophet, Elijah.

    ‘Eloi’ is the Aramaic pronunciation of the Hebrew ‘Eli’, meaning ‘God’. This saying from the cross is actually a quotation from Psalm 22, verse 1, but rendered in Aramiac, not the classic Hebrew that would have been used in the synagogues.

    Elijah was a significant figure in first century Jewish thought. A prophet in Israel before the exile, he was renowned for being the only prophet who did not die, instead being taken bodily to heaven in a whirlwind (see 2 Kings Chapter 2, verse 11). His return was prophesied in Malachi chapter 4, verse 5, when he would return as a herald of judgment day (the ‘day of the Lord’). This has led to the traditional Jewish custom of setting out a cup of wine for Elijah during the Passover feast.

    It appears that among the many beliefs surrounding the ‘messiah’ who would save the Jews and liberate Israel from the Romans, there was a tendency to believe Elijah would return (see Matthew chapter 17, verse 10). The disciples are aware that some people think Jesus is Elijah (Matthew chapter 16, verse 14) and the gospel-writers are keen to stress the parallels between Jesus’ miracles and the miracles attributed to Elijah, for example, the resurrection of a widow’s son  (1 Kings chapter 17, verses 17-23 and Luke chapter 7, verses 11-15).

    The story of the transfiguration in Matthew chapter 17, where Jesus appears in the ‘shekinah’ glory alongside Moses and Elijah takes on added significance given the expectation that Elijah was going to return in the ‘day of the Lord’. Jesus’ followers could therefore claim that Elijah had returned and the prophecies had been fulfilled.

    Whether the crowds comments about Elijah were confusion or malicious jeers, the point the gospel-writer is making is that Jesus has been rejected. The crowd are still searching for the ‘messiah’, God’s liberator, to come and save them, and are unaware of the significance of Jesus and his death, which is happening right before their eyes.

    [1] Spurgeon’s Popular Exposition of Matthew (Baker Books, 1979), p.250

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