In particular, the data used for this developmental hypothesis concerning the crucifixion narratives are
a) That Jesus says only, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" from the cross in Matthew and Mark.
b) That in Luke Jesus says, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit" when he dies, that he offers the thief on the cross a place in Paradise, and that he asks his father to forgive those who are crucifying him.
c) That Luke does not contain, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Although the following was not presented to me as a datum when I was informed of the details of this hypothesis, I can continue spinning this alleged pattern myself (momentarily, before debunking it) by pointing out
d) That Jesus commits his mother to the care of John in the gospel of John, which may be regarded as a noble, controlled, and meaningful act.
Dear reader, let me make some suggestions. When anybody claims that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, do the following: First, get a handle on what sort of trajectory of development is being claimed. Then, sit down, pick up your Bible, open it up, and read swathes of relevant text to see whether they in fact display such a pattern. Do not allow cherry-picked, even uber-cherry-picked data points to be treated as evidential in themselves. After all, your Bible is sitting right there, is it not? And there is likely to be more evidence in the Bible one way or another concerning this alleged pattern, is there not? And the facts thus far mentioned, even if correct as far as they go, are a pretty meager basis on which to build such an hypothesis, are they not?
Let me also suggest that you bear in mind all the other data we have that argue that the gospels were not massaged, fictional accounts but rather are memoirs coming from truthful eyewitnesses--data such as undesigned coincidences among the gospels (including in Jesus' trial before Pilate), unexplained allusions, pointless but truth-like details, the clearly unretouched and strongly Jewish account of Jesus' conception and birth in Luke, etc. With all this in mind, a couple of points like a-d above should be treated with grave skepticism when it is claimed that they establish a pattern of development. But in any event, the matter is quite easy to test. Which I did. I widened my focus to the passion narratives conceived slightly more broadly than the words on the cross alone. There are probably even more points than what I am going to give, but here are the ones I found even just in a brief re-reading:
1) In all of the synoptic gospels, including Mark, Jesus says to the Sanhedrin, when asked if he is the Christ, the Son of God, "Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power." In fact, the wording in Mark (which skeptics themselves generally take to be the earliest gospel) is one of the strongest: "I am, and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." Note that Jesus says this despite the fact that he has predicted his crucifixion (Mark 8:31). Therefore, not only does Mark not portray Jesus as surprised by his death or as seeing his death as a terrible and meaningless tragedy; Mark portrays Jesus as defying the Jewish leaders on the very eve of his death and predicting his own ultimate vindication and power!
2) These statements to the Sanhedrin are not found in John, the latest gospel! So in this area, there is exactly the opposite of any "development" of Jesus into a stronger, more godlike, or more in-charge person in the passion narratives.
3) All the synoptics record a) the darkness from the 6th to the 9th hour at Jesus' crucifixion, b) the rending of the veil of the temple, and c) the statement (attributed in Mark to the centurion), "Surely this was the Son of God." This is far from portraying the crucifixion as meaningless. These indications in the synoptics strongly imply a deep theological meaning in Jesus' death. The rending of the veil in the temple implies that his death had some sort of heavy theological effect concerning the Old Covenant. We can be sure that if these events occurred in John, they would be used to argue for "development" of Jesus, of Christology, and of the gospel writers' view of the meaning of the crucifixion. Yet they are in the earliest gospels, and...
4) John, the latest gospel, does not record the darkness, the rending of the veil, or the statement, "Surely this was the Son of God."
5) Of all the gospels, only Matthew states that the dead came forth after Jesus' crucifixion. Regardless of whether one thinks that this really happened or not, the point is that it is a counterexample to an alleged pattern of gradual development of significance from the earlier to the later gospels. Even Luke does not include this claim, and John certainly doesn't, though both are later than Matthew, but Matthew includes it along with the rending of the veil of the temple. Again, we can be sure that if Matthew were independently known to be the latest gospel, this would be used as evidence of the alleged pattern of development.
6) Of all of the gospels, only John, the latest, records the most human admission of physical pain and weakness in the words from the cross: "I thirst."
7) The three "noble" words from which, apparently, the skeptics are attempting to build their developmental thesis are, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise," and "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." But in fact, these are recorded only in Luke and not in John! John has the more ambiguous, "It is finished" just before Jesus breathes his last. In John, Jesus is not shown asking his Father to forgive those who crucify him and is not shown offering a place in paradise to the thief on the cross. So what is the developmental thesis? That Jesus got "nobler" abruptly in Luke's portrayal, for some unknown reason, and then less "noble" and more pathetic and human in John's later portrayal?
All of this is in addition to,
8) The words, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" should by no means be taken to be simply an expression of despair on Jesus' part. While they may express deep suffering on his part, they are a direct allusion to Psalm 22, which contains rather amazingly coincidental phrases seeming to foretell crucifixion and which ends with the vindication of the speaker by God. While the precise reasons for which Jesus cried out this phrase from the cross are not revealed directly in Scripture, taking it to be merely a portrayal of a man in despair is an extremely shallow, uninformed, and tendentious interpretation.
I would emphasize 1-7 even more right here, however, because they do not even require a knowledge of the Psalms. Of course, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should know that about Psalm 22, but even more than that, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should have a sufficient modicum of skepticism about the skeptics to take up and read and see the other points, which completely destroy the idea of a linear progression from sad, despairing, human Jesus dying a meaningless death to controlled, godlike figure. It's just a completely bogus claim. There is no such progression. In Luke we have three sayings not contained in John or any of the other gospels. In John we have three sayings from the cross not contained in any of the other gospels, in the synoptics we have some things not in John, and there just is no pattern of development. At all. What we have instead is exactly what we would expect to see if the various gospels had, at least to some extent, independent access to the events in question from witnesses who noticed different things, remembered different things, and recorded different things. That hodge-podge of detail is exactly what we get with human testimony to real events.
In fact, an interesting conjecture (though only a conjecture) arises from John 19:35, where Jesus commits his mother to the beloved disciple. If that disciple was indeed the author of the gospel, it may be that John does not record the words given by Luke because he left the cross immediately and took Mary away from the grisly scene to his own home, returning thereafter alone and witnessing Jesus' last moments. It is, again, only a conjecture, and I do not wish to place too much weight on it, but it is certainly one kind of thing that happens and causes witness testimony to vary.
Skeptics, and unfortunately some Christians, are easily captivated by a kind of phony evolutionary hypothesis about the gospels. I call it the "eohippus model." Mark is the shortest, so it is like the little eohippus horse ancestor, and all the other gospels evolved by chance processes of accretion (not anything like truthful alternative witnesses!) from a Markan original.
All the evidence of the actual contents of the gospels tells against this, and there is nothing in the sheer shortness of Mark to support this hypothesis.
I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as "making Jesus say" things he never said, portraying different "Jesuses" in a literary fashion, and "developing" Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn't so.