Why did the people think Jesus was calling for Elijah?


In regards to Matthew 27:46: if the translation is as reported in the text, how come the bystanders thought he was calling for Elijah? It seems like the translation given in the text does not coincide with the bystanders' reaction to our Lord's words. Are they misinterpreting?


"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, "This Man is calling for Elijah!" Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink. The rest said, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him."" (Matthew 27:46-49).

"And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Some of those who stood by, when they heard that, said, "Look, He is calling for Elijah!" Then someone ran and filled a sponge full of sour wine, put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink, saying, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to take Him down."" (Mark 15:34-36)

Please note that the same sources that give the translation for Jesus' cry are the same sources which tell us that the crowd misunderstood what Jesus said. If you say that the translation is incorrect, then you are also saying that the same sources are not trustworthy enough to tell us what the crowd thought. If you say the translation is incorrect, then you are also saying that these two sources were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. When the apostles claimed to be inspired, they were not talking about being moved to write, such as a sunset moves a man to write a poem. Paul said, "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words" (I Corinthians 2:12-13). Note carefully that Paul is claiming that inspired men received the words which the Holy Spirit wanted to be written. Such was what Jesus promised. "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come" (John 16:13). Now either Matthew and Mark record the truth, including the translation of what Jesus stated, as they were guided by the Holy Spirit or they did not. You cannot have it some of one and some of another.

Ignoring the prejudice against the accuracy of the witnesses, the question is how is it that the crowd misunderstood what Jesus was saying?

First, being on a cross caused difficulty in breathing. Many years ago, an article was published on the medical aspects of Jesus' death. In regards to the crucifixion itself, the authors said:

"The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.

"Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia."
[William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, M Div; Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI"On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ", JAMA Vol. 255 No. 11 March 21, 1986]

Hence, those watching Jesus die would expect that the suffering Savior would have difficulty breathing well enough to speak. In some aspects this would be a correct assumption; the sayings of Jesus on the cross are all short lines.

A second factor, though, is the preconception of the crowd. The prophet Malachi had promised that Elijah would come first. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD" (Malachi 4:5). Jesus had discussed this with his disciples. "And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:10-13). Though caught up in the hysterics of condemning Jesus, the crowd was not fully convinced that Jesus wasn't the Messiah. They retained an element of doubt. They knew from their teachers that Elijah was supposed to arrive first. Hence, they were of a mindset to wonder if perhaps Jesus would call upon Elijah to rescue him.

Therefore, with a crowd expecting a possibility of Elijah coming and hearing Jesus utter words that are somewhat similar to the name Elijah ("eli" with the final punctual sound missing), it is not an amazing thing to learn that they had jumped to the wrong conclusion. The inspired writers and witnesses to the events told us that it was the crowd who mistook what Jesus said. These same men told us with the accuracy given to them by God what Jesus said and the correct translation of what Jesus said from Aramaic into Greek.

So my question to you is: "Why do you doubt God?"

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