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There's a (to me) peculiar passage in the passion account of Matthew. Matthew 27:46-47

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Why would the bystanders think that He was calling on "Elijah"? Wouldn't they know the Psalm that He was quoting?

I would like to know if there's perhaps some historic context there that would be lost on us in the 21st century? Would "calling Elijah" have some meaning beyond the similarity between Eli (or Eloi) and the name "Elijah"? Was it some sort of 1st century idiom?

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Because 2 Kings 2:1-12 records Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind rather than dying, and Malachi prophesies his return, it is natural that he became an important figure in Jewish eschatological expectation.

TNTC on Matthew states:

Later Jewish piety developed the idea of his appearance from heaven to help in time of need. In interpreting Jesus’ cry in this way the bystanders perhaps indicate some awareness that Jesus had presented his mission as bringing in the age of fulfilment, when Elijah was to appear.”

Both Wikipedia and The New Expositor's Bible Commentary on Matthew (Carson) state that such stories that portray Elijah as rescuer in times of need might date back to the 1st century.

One such story is found in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Baba Mezi'a 114, where Rabbah bar Abbuha cries to Elijah that because he is so poor, he doesn't have time to study the laws of purity:

Rabbah b. Abbuha met Elijah standing in a non-Jewish cemetery. Said he [Rabbah] to him [Elijah]: Art thou not a priest: why then dost thou stand in a cemetery? — He replied: Has the Master not studied the laws of purity? For it has been taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai said: The graves of Gentiles do not defile, for it is written, And ye my flock, the flock of my pastures, are men; only ye are designated 'men'. — He replied: I cannot even adequately study the four [orders]; can I then study six? And why? he inquired. — I am too hard-pressed, he answered. He then led him into Paradise and said to him: Remove thy robe and collect and take away some of these leaves. So he gathered them and carried them off. As he was coming out, he heard a remark, 'Who would so consume his [portion in] the world [to come] as Rabbah b. Abbuha has done?' Thereupon he scattered and threw them away. Yet even so, since he had carried them in his robe, it had absorbed their fragrance, and so he sold it for twelve thousand denarii, which he distributed among his sons-in-law.

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  • Thank you--that's a very interesting sidelight on this passage that I was totally unaware of. – Onorio Catenacci Mar 30 '16 at 14:15
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The Jews among bystanders would have understood his reference to the psalm. But the Romans, especially the centurions, and other non-believers probably would not have caught the difference between Eloi or El (איל) and Eliyahu or Eli (לאליא). It's quite an understandable misunderstanding. Add to this the likelihood that Jesus wasn't able to breathe well, and so probably wasn't annunciating clearly, despite mustering some volume.

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Many of the biblical scholars that explain this, show that, as you say, the people in the crowd should know that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22.

However, one of them starts a rumour that he is calling for Elijah. No one describes Jesus calling for Elijah, only someone in the crowd.

This would mean that it was a baying crowd who hated Jesus, goaded him, rifled through his garments at the foot of the cross and mocked him; they even tried to give him vinegar on a stick, but then withheld it as they wanted to see if Elijah would come if they waited, and continued to watch him suffer. This is to show how cruel and mocking the crowd at the foot of the cross were. As there was no chapter and verse and use of numbers as we have nowadays for reference, this Psalm would have been known to men in general by its first line, which reflects the rest. Jesus is quoting, and fulfilling the Psalm as the Psalm itself tells of what is actually happening to Jesus.

The crowd were not helpful and friendly, they were mocking and malicious, even to death as he bore the sins of the whole world as was crucified so all men can live. The Psalm 22 describes his feelings exactly, by quoting the first line, he inferred the whole meaning of the Psalm. This is one interpretation and why it was included in the text, to show how horrific the time was. It also fulfilled the meaning of the Psalm 22 as well. Christianity Today quote.

When Jesus says,

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he's saying, "Psalm 22." He expected his hearers to catch the literary allusion. And his hearers should have thought of the whole thing, not just the first verse:  "I am … scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax. … My mouth is dried up … my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. … All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment."

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing - this is a great first answer! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. This answer could be improved by engaging with the last part of the OP's question - Would "calling Elijah" have some meaning beyond the similarity between Eli (or Eloi) and the name "Elijah"? Was it some sort of 1st century idiom? – Steve Taylor Mar 30 '16 at 13:33
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At this point in Matthew's narrative (27:39-50) he tells us of the attitudes, ideas and words of those involved with or observing Jesus' death to compare and contrast them to Jesus' own attitudes, ideas and words regarding his death. Ostensibly there is a language barrier but the incident was either concocted or included because the misunderstanding of his prayer allows Matthew to reveal how they didn't "get" what was going on. They all imagined that the Jewish and Roman establishment were in charge and that Jesus wanted to be rescued from death BUT in reality God was in charge Jesus wanted to be rescued by God through death. This passage is tightly coupled with his prayer in Gethsemane and his arrest in the previous chapter.

He was taunted and challenged to escape from his predicament in a challenge with a strong parallel with that of the devil:

Mat 27:39 Those who passed by kept insulting him, shaking their heads, Mat 27:40 and saying, "You who were going to destroy the sanctuary and rebuild it in three days—save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!"

Mat 4:2 After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, he finally became hungry. Mat 4:3 Then the tempter came. "Since you are the Son of God," he said, "tell these stones to become loaves of bread." Mat 4:4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One must not live on bread alone, but on every word coming out of the mouth of God.'"

In both situations Jesus does not save himself, not because he can't but because he mustn't. His obedience was not only "to the cross" but "as far as death on the cross" (Phil 2):

Mat 26:52 Jesus told him, "Put your sword back in its place! Everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword. Mat 26:53 Don't you think that I could call on my Father, and he would send me more than twelve legions of angels now? Mat 26:54 How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?"

His failure to be rescued by God (or Elijah) is derided as proof positive that he's not the son of God:

Mat 27:41 In the same way the high priests, along with the scribes and elders, were also making fun of him. They kept saying, Mat 27:42 "He saved others but can't save himself! He is the king of Israel. Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. Mat 27:43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him, if he wants to do so now. After all, he said 'I am the Son of God.'" Mat 27:44 In a similar way, the bandits who were being crucified with him kept insulting him.

In his "darkest hour" he utters a prayer that is mistakenly interpreted as a call to Elijah to come and save him:

Mat 27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. Mat 27:46 About three o'clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?", which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Mat 27:47 When some of the people standing there heard this, they said, "He's calling for Elijah."

But in reality he was praying to God asking him, why, despite his fervent prayers to die quickly he is still alive and suffering. My translation: "My God, my God, why have you left me here in the lurch?":

God's Word translation: Heb 5:7 During his life on earth, Jesus prayed to God, who could save him from death. He prayed and pleaded with loud crying and tears, and he was heard because of his devotion to God.

Some responded to his "plea" with pity. Again, this shows that they did not understand his mission:

Mat 27:48 So one of the men ran off at once, took a sponge, and soaked it in some sour wine. Then he put it on a stick and offered Jesus a drink of wine in order to dull his pain. He tasted it but did not drink it.

The fact that he tasted but did not drink becomes a simile of the fact that he would likewise "taste death" but not drink to the dregs the contents of the "cup" of the "pangs of death":

Heb_2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

Others either suggested that it was still an open question whether or not he would be saved OR mocked because they believed his death to be inevitable:

Mat 27:49 But the others kept saying, "Wait! Let's see if Elijah will come and save him."

After his prayer and the symbolic "taste", Jesus' prayers were answered and he supernaturally died:

Mat 27:50 Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice again and died.

His death was so inexplicable to the soldiers that it was doubly ensured by piercing his side with a spear:

Mar 15:44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. Mar 15:45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.

Joh 19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. Joh 19:32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. Joh 19:33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Joh 19:34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. Joh 19:35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. Joh 19:36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken."

So while the reason he was not understood when he uttered his prayer may have been a language issue, an acoustics issue or even a miraculous obstruction, the literary/religious purpose was to show that he was not a "victim" in the sense of being helpless to prevent his misuse but rather committed to obey God to the end and to escape his torment by a supernatural death, and thus fulfill Ps 22:

Psa 22:19 But thou, O Lord, remove not my help afar off: be ready for mine aid. Psa 22:20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my only-begotten one from the power of the dog. Psa 22:21 Save me from the lion's mouth; and regard my lowliness from the horns of the unicorns. Psa 22:22 I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I sing praise to thee. Psa 22:23 Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye seed of Jacob, glorify him: let all the seed of Israel fear him. Psa 22:24 For he has not despised nor been angry at the supplication of the poor; nor turned away his face from me; but Psa 22:19 But thou, O Lord, remove not my help afar off: be ready for mine aid. Psa 22:20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my only-begotten one from the power of the dog. Psa 22:21 Save me from the lion's mouth; and regard my lowliness from the horns of the unicorns. Psa 22:22 I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I sing praise to thee. Psa 22:23 Ye that fear the Lord, praise him; all ye seed of Jacob, glorify him: let all the seed of Israel fear him. Psa 22:24 For he has not despised nor been angry at the supplication of the poor; nor turned away his face from me; but when I cried to him, he heard me.

Note that the Psalm specifically rejects the idea that God "turned away" from Jesus (which is the way most understand "why have you forsaken me") but "heard" (answered) his earnest Gethsemane pleas.

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    (+1) Lots of great meat here which drives towards the heart of the authorial intention, though it could to more to engage with the various questions the OP presents. I'd still say it's the best answer presently available. – Steve Taylor Mar 31 '16 at 8:53
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The above is an excellent and well supported answer. I would add that all the utterances Jesus made from the cross were actually for the sake of other people; He had no self-pity, and this quote of the first line of Psalm 22 triggered the entire psalm in the minds of the Jews present. He did reject wine mixed with gall, or bitterness. Bur at the end he asked for a drink and was given sour wine. This meant He actually died with His teeth set on edge, which fulfilled the promise found in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18 about not being lumbered with the sins of fathers when a new covenant is made (Jeremiah 31:31..).

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