Matthew presents three groups as mocking Jesus while he hangs on the cross. He uses a slightly different word for each (blasphemy, mock, taunt) and in each case, their words reflect Psalm 22 and other psalms which describe someone suffering unjustly.
The crowd (27:39-40). The first of the three sets of mockers are simply those in the general crowd that wanders by the site of the crucifixion. The word translated in the NRSV and ESV as “derided him” is literally to blaspheme (βλασφημέω); the NIV’s “hurled insults” catches the connotations of the word well.
The people passing by wagged their heads. The phrase is drawn from Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” The people also seem to know the false charges against Jesus since they mock him for claiming to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. This indicates that the charges against him had been made known to the general populace.
The chief priests and elders (27:41-43). These are the same people who looked for ways to condemn Jesus and who conspired to execute Jesus in secret (27:1-2). Now they publicly mock (ἐμπαίζω) Jesus (as Jesus predicted in 20:19). Rather than standing before the throne of a king and acclaiming him, they mock the enthroned king. Saving others refers to Jesus’s healings and exorcisms; they sarcastically claim if he can come down from the cross, they will believe him. In Matthew 1:21, Jesus will save his people, but now (according to the chief priests), he cannot even save himself.
Matthew intended us to remember Jesus’s temptations in the words of the chief priests. Satan told Jesus “If you are the son of God” throw yourself down from the highest point of the Temple and the angels will save you (Matt 4:6). Presumably the ones who would see Jesus in the Temple were the chief priests and elders. Now, if Jesus comes down from the cross (a high place) they will believe. Matthew puts Satan’s words into the mouths of the chief priests!
The words of the chief priest echo Psalm 22:8, “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
The Thieves (27:44). Matthew does not tell us how the thieves taunted Jesus. The ESV translates ὀνειδίζω as “reviled,” which can be a generic “heap insults on” (BDAG) or “hurl invectives.” Luke has more to say about the two thieves, for Matthew their insults once again fulfilled the words of Psalm 22:6-8.
Psalm 22:6–8 (ESV) But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Psalm 25:2 (ESV) O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me.
Psalm 109:25–26 (ESV) I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they wag their heads. 26 Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love!
Wisdom of Solomon 2:13 (NRSV) He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.
Wisdom of Solomon 2:16–18 (NRSV) We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy and boasts that God is his father. 17 Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; 18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
In Matthew’s description of the crucifixion, Jesus is left to die alone. Only after his death does Matthew tell us several women who had followed him from Galilee were also present. Where are his disciples? The ones who had sworn to follow no matter what, even to die alongside him are nowhere to be found. In fact, they are not mentioned by name again in the Gospel. (The group of disciples are mentioned in 28:8-10 and the eleven are in Galilee for Jesus’s final commission in 28:16).