"Eli Eli lama sabachtani"? A Look At The Gospel Records

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

In two of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus (P) is depicted as crying out on the cross “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”[1]. The Qur’an clearly postulates that Jesus (P) was never crucified, and therefore Muslims reject this version of the story mentioned in the Synoptics. Furthermore, the Muslim conception of the relationship between God and His prophets (P) is in stark contradistinction to any notion of a prophet being abandoned by God.

In light of these facts, Muslims consider the cry to be unhistorically attributed to Jesus (P). It is therefore the object of this article to take a more objective look at this particular event in the gospels, and to see if there is an objective justification for the Muslim position.

“Embarrassment of Transmission” & The Midrashic History

The position that the story of Jesus'(P) cry of “my God, my God” on the cross is fictional is not one that is held by Muslims only. Indeed, even the honest Christian scholars would have to at least admit that the story is a theologoumenon; that is to say, a non-doctrinal theological interpretation that cannot be verified or refuted on the basis of historical evidence.

Unfortunately, some Christian scholars take a more obstinate position and argue somewhat circularly that the historicity of the event can affirmed by the nature of the saying allegedly recorded in the gospels. As Max Wilcox puts it:

The authenticity of the saying is surely supported by the sheer embarrassment of the words for the early church.[2]

The argument is a popular one and it is essentially rooted in the suggestion that had this been a fictional account, the gospel writers would surely have not included an event from the life of Jesus(P) that makes him seem so much unlike the messenger of God. The hidden premise is actually, much to the dismay of proponents of this sort of argumentation, quite unfounded. It is wholly plausible that a person could fabricate this story for a myriad of reasons.

First, it is not wholly convincing that the story would be considered immediately “embarrassing” to the first person to relate it. It is a known fact that the legends of ancient peoples often have their deities in unflattering positions. By the logic of Wilcox and his cohorts, we would have to also conclude that many legends about the Hindu and Greek deities being involved in theft, deception, rape and murder are also recording historical events.

One could continue with a plethora of other possibilities, but that is not necessary. The point is not to simply plant the seeds of doubt by mentioning other scenarios in an ad-hoc fashion; rather the issue is only to demonstrate that this argument that the story is too good (or too bad) to be true is simply fallacious. Commenting on historicity and possible negative interpretations, the great scholar David Strauss had the following to say:

[W]e must observe that one who, as the gospels narrate of Jesus, had long included suffering and death in his idea of the Messiah, and hence had regarded them as part of the divine arrangements, could scarcely complain of them when they actually arrived as an abandonment by God; rather, on the above supposition, we should be led to think that Jesus had found himself deceived in the expectations which he had previously cherished, and thus believed himself forsaken by God in the prosecution of his plan. But we could only resort to such conjectures if the above exclamation of Jesus were shown to have an historical foundation.[3]

We note with great interest that Strauss admits that “But we could only resort to such conjectures if the above exclamation of Jesus were shown to have an historical foundation”, which is certainly the heart of the matter. Whether one argues that this is proof of the utterance’s historicity, or takes the popular atheist position and cite it as evidence that Jesus(P) was a fraud, both positions are rooted in the presupposition that the story is in fact recording an historical event. So, to presuppose, via a hidden premise that the story is historical, in order to prove that it is historical is to beg the question. Those who employ such methodology are merely commenting on possible coherence, which has nothing to do with a correspondence with some fact of the matter, thus the argument is not only circular but tautological as well.

There is, as has already been alluded to, another option. Strauss touches on it briefly when he calls the story an “adaptation,” and states that

…the relation of the words of Jesus to the 22nd Psalm does certainly render this particular suspicious.[4]

In order to understand the relationship between the story and the opening verse of the 22nd chapter of the book of Psalms, let us consider what Remsberg had to say on the issue:

The accounts of the crucifixion given by the Evangelists are to a large extent reproductions of the 22nd Psalm, even to the language itself, the poetical allusions of the psalmist being transformed into alleged historical facts. The devout Christian who is familiar with this Passion Psalm sees in the Evangelists’ account of the crucifixion a wonderful fulfillment of prophecy. But the critic sees merely the borrowed embellishments of a legend.[5]

What is being touched on here is that the gospels may not be recording history as much as they are recording midrash[6]. To define this term, we would invoke the words of the great contemporary Jewish scholar Robert Alter, and state that midrash has been created whenever

…small pieces of the text become the foundations of elaborate homiletical structures that have only an intermittent relation to the integral story told by the text.[7]

Hence, the record of the story of Jesus(P) being attributed to have cried out this phrase while on the cross is rooted in a tradition that anchored the story to a verse lifted out of the Psalms. Drs. H. Oort and I. Hooykaas clarifies this point:

It seems to us far more probable that these words of the Messianic passion Psalm were put into the mouth of Jesus by tradition than that he really uttered them. The sequel, too, throws great suspicion on the report; for the Jews were not allowed to approach the cross, and what did the Roman soldiers know about Elijah? Besides, if the Jews had really heard him cry “Eli!” or “Eloi!” they would hardly have mistaken the words of the twenty-second Psalm for a cry to the precursor of the Messianic kingdom — a mistake upon which their raillery is made to depend. We must, therefore, put aside these words, as in all probability unhistorical.[8]

Once the tradition was among the public, the gospel writers could certainly have transmitted the story as faithfully and sincerely as they could.

Etymology and Text Criticism Analysis

Many scholars of the New Testament believe that the author of the gospel attributed to Matthew relied in part on the gospel of Mark. However, this view is somewhat naive in the sense that there is evidence that gospel attributed to Matthew is not the work of a single mind or a single hand. It will be shown here that, with regard to Jesus’ crying out on the cross, the author(s) of Matthew did not rely on the gospel of Mark. More importantly, it will be shown that both gospels are far from being eye-witness accounts.

Even if we assume that this was an historical event, the two versions currently found in the English translation of the Bible are quite far removed from what actually happened. The reality is that the story has gone through a number of translations and corruptions, moving away from the original tradition. The corruptions can be demonstrated via simple textual analysis.

First, let us consider the words put into Jesus'(P) mouth. The words recorded in the Bible today is a transliteration of a Greek transliteration of what was allegedly an Aramaic utterance. First, a transliteration of a transliteration (or “meta-transliteration”) already moves away from the actual utterance. To avoid this problem, we will consult the Greek directly. Unfortunately, the transliterations do not agree. Consider the differences:

The differences are small, but they are still there. Note that Mark has “my God” as epsilon-lamda-omega-iota (elwi), while Matthew has eta-lamda-iota (hli). This rather important, as they lead us to utter drastically different pronunciations, thus these are variant transliterations. A smaller point is that Mark spells lama (lama) with one mu (m) while Mark has two (lamma).

More interesting, however, is the fact that both transliterations differ from the one found in one of the oldest existing codices to contain all four gospels. The Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis was written in the fourth century and reached its final redaction in the sixth. It is generally understood to be originated with an ancient school of Christian scholars in Beyrutus (Beirut). It bares the name of Theodore Beza, who handed over the Codex to Cambridge University in the late 16th century.

For both Mark and Matthew, the Bezae Codex gives the same transliteration of the Aramaic phrase:

    helei helei lama zaphthanei

The fact that this ancient manuscript would be so different from the standard to is a hint as to how bad the corruptions were on the one hand, and the ignorance of the gospel redactors regarding Aramaic on the other. Hence it would be important here to consider the Hebrew and Aramaic.

As has already been stated, the utterance originates with the 22nd Psalm. In most Christian translations the verse is Psalms 22:1; in the standard Hebrew editions (such as that which may be found in the Qoren TaNaKh ) the verse is Psalms 22:2. The Hebrew is pretty straight forward:

    Eli Eli, lamah azabtani?
    My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Of course, Mark and Matthew are not quoting from the Hebrew. The Bezae Codex, however, is probably a poor attempt to reconcile the Hebrew with the Aramaic, and thus a word that is found in neither language was created (zaphthanei). This may have stemmed in part from the confusion that the redactor may have felt when realizing how different the Hebrew was from the transliterated text in the gospel. Of course, this is merely speculative; we may never know how this bizarre transliteration came about.

Mark and Matthew are loosely drawing upon the Aramaic translation. Unfortunately, their transliterations differ from one another, so what text are they drawing from? Wilcox seems to lean towards the Matthean version:

Actually, if we consult the Targum to Psalms we find that it has not eloi but eli, so that Matthew’s version is precisely that of the Targum.[9]

One gets the impression that Wilcox is being somewhat disingenuous. First, there is not just one targum, rather there are several targumim[10]. Furthermore, the only targum that employs eli (actually ali ) would be the standard edition that comes with Rashi’s commentary on the Psalms, most likely Targum Onqelos.


This clearly cannot be what Matthew is relying upon, as the Aramaic is actually different:

    Ali Ali, metul mah sh’beqtani?

The transliteration is clearly different from that of Matthew, or from Mark or from the Bezae Codex). Furthermore, we can discredit the Matthean version on the grounds of its absurd notion that either the Aramaic ali () could somehow be confused with the name Elijah (elijah) by Jews, or that the Romans would even make such a connection. This alone brings the historicity of the relevant verses into question, and Remsberg had commented on this. Regarding the author of the story, he states that

…it would be safe to conclude that the gospel writers were perhaps trying to sincerely transmit the traditions of their faith community with some degree of accuracy. Nonetheless this event has most obviously undergone a number of changes as it passed from one source to the next, and it is almost certainly not rooted in an historical event.

He supposes a similarity of sound between the two words, whereas they were utterly unlike in pronunciation. Eli was pronounced Ali (long a), while Elias was pronounced Eleeyahu. But even had they been so much alike in sound that one might have been mistaken for the other, as Matthew supposes, the alleged incident is disproved by the fact that the Jews were not allowed to attend the execution, while to the Romans the words were meaningless.[11]

The most probable Aramaic translation that the transliteration is drawing upon is probably as follows:

    Alahi Alahi, lamah shebaqtani?

One online targum actually has:

    Alahi Alahi lamna shebaqtani

As has already been stated, there are multiple targumim available to us. A note should be made, however, regarding the proper pronunciation of the Aramaic alap/aleph (). There are Western and Eastern dialects of Aramaic, and sometimes the ‘a’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in man, hence some Christians demanding it be transliterated as an ‘e’ (elahi). Most of the time, it is pronounced like the ‘a’ in “Abraham,” or “Allaah”. Proof of this can even be seen in the aforementioned Targum Onqelos. The Hebrew of Psalms 22:3 (or 22:2 in certain Christian translations) begins with Elohai eqraa () – “my God, I call out” (or “I cry out,” or “I invoke/recite”, et cetera). Targum Onqelos renders this verse in the following way:

Alahi anaa qarei

What is important is the niqud (vowels) that are provided in the Onqelos text. The diacritical mark qamats appears under both the aleph () and the lamed (), which means both letters are pronounced the same way: A – la (both with the ‘a’ that is similar to that which is in “Allaah”).

We should move away from the Aramaic and return to the Greek text of the Markan and Matthean versions. Both are Psalms 22, but let us compare the standard Greek text of Matthew and Mark with the Bezae Codex and the Septuagint. Both Mark and Matthew give us a garbled transliteration of an Aramaic phrase. How do they translate it?

thee mou thee mou inati me egkatelipes

o theos mou o theos mou eis ti me egkatelipes

o theos o theos mou ina ti me egkatelipes me

Bezan Matthew:
the mou the mou inati me enkatelipes

Bezan Mark:
o ths mou o ths mou eis ti onidisas me

The differences are there, and at times the differences are striking. The Bezae Codex varies greatly from the others, and at times put forth what seem like blatant spelling errors. This is troubling in light of the fact that we would otherwise find such an old West Asian manuscript highly valuable in light of the spacio-temporal factors. The fact that the Codex finds its origin in 4th century Beirut places it within very close geographic and chronological proximity to the events it allegedly records. It is also fascinating that in certain parts Matthew agrees with the Septuagint where Mark does not, and vice-versa.

Matthew uses inati (inati) which is essentially identical to the Septuagint’s ina ti (ina ti), while Mark strangely employs eis ti (eiV ti), literally “for what?” On the other side, Mark’s o theos mou o theos mou (o qeoV mou o qeoV mou) is essentially the same as the Septuagint’s o theos, o theos mou (o qeoV o qeoV mou), while Matthew renders “my God” as simply thee mou (qee mou) twice over.


This was an attempt to study the two verses in the Synoptic Gospels that allegedly record Jesus’ last words on the cross. From the textual analysis it is quite plausible to argue the following, that

  • the author of Matthew did not rely on Mark for this verse, rather the two got it independently from another source.
  • neither author actually recorded eye-witness testimony, rather they transcribed a midrashic approach to the Psalms that existed in their respective circles of the proto-Christian community in the form of an oral tradition.
  • neither author had an Aramaic text or copy of the Septuagint handy when they attempted to transliterate and translate this phrase.

Based on the evidence above it would be safe to conclude that the gospel writers were perhaps trying to sincerely transmit the traditions of their faith community with some degree of accuracy. Nonetheless this event has most obviously undergone a number of changes as it passed from one source to the next, and it is almost certainly not rooted in an historical event. Hence we are unable to find the justification for putting this cry into the mouth of the Messiah Jesus (P).

And only God knows best.


[1] cf. Mk. 15:34; Mt. 27:46

[2] Wilcox, “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani”, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 2, p. 457

[3] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, translated from the fourth German edition of Strauss’ Leben Jesu by George Elliot, (Macmillan, 1882) part III, chapter III, section 132, p. 688

[4] ibid.

[5] John Remsberg, The Christ, (Prometheus, 1994), pp. 195-196

[6] For those interested in learning more about the midrashic undertones in the New Testament, consider John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (Harper Collins, 1996)

[7] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (Basic, 1981), p. 11

[8] H. Oort & I. Hooykaas, The Bible for Learners, Volume III, p. 454

[9] Wilcox, op. cit., p. 457

[10] Targum literally means “translation,” and is generally a reference to an Aramaic translation of the Bible or a specific book from the Bible.

[11] Remsberg, op. cit, p. 196

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