“It Is Fulfilled”

A Deep Dive Into Jesus’ Final Word on the Cross

Todd Brewer / 4.12.22

When Jesus was asked by a rich man what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded by telling him to sell everything he had. Having expected Jesus to hand out a gold star and a pat on the back, the rich man walked away in disappointment. Jesus then turned to his disciples and delivered an even more shocking pronouncement: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It appears impossible — but Jesus then notes that all things are possible with God.

He seems to be saying contradictory things. Camels manifestly can’t pass through the eye of a needle, but this is somehow possible for God. During the middle ages, under the pressure to harmonize Jesus’ words, a somewhat ingenious solution was proposed. It was said that the city of Jerusalem had a gate named “The Needle’s Eye,” one so narrow and low that camels had to kneel in order to pass through it. Rich people weren’t damned to hell. They just needed to be humble.

But no such gate ever existed. Though the myth readily explained a quixotic teaching of Jesus, no record has ever been found of a gate bearing the name “Needle’s Eye,” nor has archaeological research uncovered a gate so useless that animals were forced to duck under it. The story of kneeling camels is a fiction, one that has persisted even into today.

A similar phenomenon has cropped up over the past hundred years when it comes to Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of John: “It is finished” (or in Greek, tetelestai).

As the story goes, in the final moments of Jesus’ life, he utters a single word he probably knew from contracts drawn up while working as a carpenter. Apparently, when the last payment of debt had been made, the lender would write on the contract “it is finished” (tetelestai) signifying that all of the contract’s requirements had been paid in full. So when the crucified Jesus said, “It is finished,” he offers the decisive final word freeing us from the debt of our sins, paid for by his blood. The contract has been fulfilled, and there is nothing left to do.

This debt-contract story is familiar enough to some — and I should add that it’s one I used to think myself — but it rests upon unjustified conjecture.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists began sifting through the ancient trash heaps of Egypt, a place where the dry climate preserved papyri remarkably well. These were a treasure trove of texts — so many that scholars are still working to catalog them all. Contracts, letters, complaints, philosophy, and quotations of scripture were all found. Among these were a handful of tax receipts that began with the Greek abbreviation “tetel,” which was inferred to be tetelestai (“it is finished”). The claim is repeated in a 1930 Greek dictionary by Moulton and Milligan, but without reference to the payment of taxes. From there, the debt-contract story ballooned and became a more mainstream idea, through subsequent lexicons, seminary professors, and well-meaning preachers.

Is Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of all transgression? Yes (see also Col 2:13–14). Is that what Jesus meant by tetelestai? Not quite. There are more than a few problems with taking this admittedly esoteric archaeological data and using it to illuminate Jesus’ last word on the cross.

Firstly, the papyri were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, or 50-200 years after the Gospel of John was written. Secondly, they were found in Egypt, a fairly distant region of the world from Jerusalem and/or where the Gospel was written. Thirdly, the papyri are not receipts for all contracts or debts paid in the Roman world, but tax receipts of those importing or exporting goods. Thirdly, the debt-contract story ignores the Gospel of John’s own usage of the word tetelestai (more on this below). Finally, those first archaeologists seemed to have guessed the abbreviation incorrectly. Other archaeologists digging in the same region of Egypt found receipts using a different, unabbreviated word (tetelōnitai, more like “tax has been paid”). Clearly “tetel” was not a universal abbreviation of tetelestai (“it is finished”). The texts containing the alternate wording, however, were not published until 1971 — a full forty years after the 1930 Greek dictionary. By that time, the debt-contract illustration had already taken on a life of its own.

In other words, there is no reasonable basis for a debt-contract understanding of Jesus’ words, “it is finished.” As evocative as it might be, Jesus didn’t say “paid in full” with his dying breath.

It is worth pausing to wonder why the debt-contract story grew as it did, particularly given the paper thin evidence for it. In addition to the many sermons preached and books written, there have been songs written about a Greek word (of all things). More than a simple misreading of scripture, the propagation of an elaborate fiction on scant evidence signals a willingness on the part of some to embrace wild interpretive conjecture simply because it accords with what is already supposed. The fact that the debt-contract illustration sounds smart doesn’t hurt either. But instead of looking for (or inventing) a solution in archaeology, one is on more stable ground looking to the text itself.

Rather than “paid in full,” “tetelestai” is better translated as “(the scripture) is fulfilled.” As the hourglass of Jesus’ life slowly drains towards expiration, a quick succession of events occurs that immediately recall the Old Testament. Jesus’ clothes are gambled over by soldiers (Ps 22), he is given sour wine to drink (Ps 69), and his side is pierced with a spear (Zech 12). The giving of sour wine is particularly illuminating. Jesus sees that “all is now fulfilled (tetelestai, Jn 19:28),” and specifically asks for a drink “in order that the scripture might be fulfilled (teleiōthē).” Immediately after Jesus drinks the sour wine, he says “It is fulfilled (tetelestai, Jn 19:30).” Fulfilled, fulfilled, fulfilled — all the same word.

From before the existence of time “in the beginning” (Jn 1:1, Gen 1:1) right up until his death, Jesus’ life was the dominant melody, and scripture was the harmony. Or to switch metaphors a bit, the Old Testament is the upbeat that anticipates the coming downbeat of Jesus.

If you were to ask John the evangelist which Old Testament texts testified to Jesus, he’d probably ask how much time you had. The sour wine given to Jesus referenced Psalm 69, the very same psalm Jesus’ disciples recalled when his zeal for the temple consumed him (Jn 2:17). Both citations, bookending the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, understand Jesus to be the incarnate temple of God — destroyed in his death and rebuilt by his resurrection. John would point to the celebration of Passover on the same day of Jesus’ death, a parallel that posits him as the lamb of God whose blood was shed to take away the sins of the world. If you have more time to inquire, John would claim that the manna given to Israel in the wilderness pointed to the life Jesus gave to those who believe, and that the serpent held on a stick by Moses testified to Jesus.

At every point, the harmony sung by scripture anticipates the immutable gift of eternal life by the death of Jesus. It is this tune that Jesus hears above the shouting of the crowds who mocked him while he hangs on the cross. As his labored breathing slows, the song crescendos to its climactic resolution. His hour has finally come; scripture is fulfilled. His life’s purpose nearing its completion, Jesus reclines his head and gives up his life. The music stops. For three days, not a note is heard. Until the one who gasped for air begins singing again for all the world to hear.

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3 responses to ““It Is Fulfilled””

  1. Blake Nail says:

    I had no idea about the proper meaning of the word, thanks!

  2. Steven Bauer says:

    Yes, it is Scripture that is fulfilled. But what is that Scripture? Isaiah says,

    Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
    yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
    5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
    6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
    and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

    Sure sounds like payment language, doesn’t it? And this word is not the only one used in the New Testament to describe what happens on the cross. So even with a refining of the meaning of the word, queasiness over the atonement is not assuaged.

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