Introduction to the Passion Narratives

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the fundamental and most basic datum of our Christian faith. This is evident from the core Gospel as recorded in 1 Cor 15:3–8, which is one of the earliest articulations of the Christian creed as recorded in the New Testament.

The most important fact about Jesus Christ for St. Paul is the death and resurrection of Jesus. He rarely mentions anything about the life of Jesus in his authentic letters, which are the earliest writings in the New Testament, and which were written much before the Gospels. Probably, the memory of Jesus’ life was still very much alive in the believing community, and did not need to be written about until much later, when the new generation of Christians appeared. However, Paul does not use any other details about Jesus’ life in his theologizing process in his letters. It is safe to assume that for him, the most important thing about Jesus is his death and resurrection.

How did the Saul look at the death of Jesus? Like all contemporary Jews of his period, it was difficult for him to understand initially how the first Christians could believe in Jesus who was crucified. The Law of Moses in Dt 21:22–23 states that ‘cursed be the man who hangs on a tree’ and thus this becomes a stumbling block for the Jews (1 Cor 1:23). But it is only after his conversion, that he sees the death of Jesus in a new light and interprets this curse in a radically new way (Gal 3:13).

Crucifixion as a punishment

Crucifixion as a punishment was the most abhorrent of all – initiated by the Persians as an act of deterrence, but was systematized by the Romans to deal with rebels and escaped slaves. It was the symbol of the most violent death – meted out to criminals who were enemies of the state – and who challenged the social and political order of the Roman Empire.

For years after Jesus’ death, the cross continued to remain a symbol abhorrent to many – the symbol of the early Christians being a fish. It was only later that the cross became a religious symbol for the Christians.

For the Jews, the accepted methods of punishment included stoning, burning, beheading, hanging from a tree. Recent scholarship from the Qumran scrolls, shows us that just before the time of Christ, under the influence of the Greek Selucids, hanging for punishments against God and the nation were accepted by the Essenes and probably by the Sadducees. However the Pharisees, who were the layman’s party, did not share this tradition on how the blasphemer should be killed. Their successors the rabbis prescribe that a blasphemer first shall be killed by stoning, and then be hanged on the tree. But also the Pharisees would view a crucified as being cursed by God according to the word of the Torah.

Historical facts about Crucifixions

Historically, we know that there were two types of crosses, one in the form of  T and the other in the regular cross during the Roman period. The person was forced to carry the horizontal beam, and placard was worn around his neck, describing the crime of punishment. The person was usually crucified fully naked. He was either tied with a rope, or was nailed. Sometimes both the hands and the feet were nailed, while at other times, only the hands were nailed. A wooden block was used to support the buttocks.

The crucifixion usually happened in a remote, but prominent place – so as to act as deterrence to other people. The person who was crucified usually died ultimately out of failure to breathe. To breathe, the person had to lift up his body to take a gulp of air. There are instances where people lingered on the cross for many days before they finally died.

In the case of Jesus, he was thoroughly exhausted after a lot of flogging and the cruelty he had to face during the last two days. Was Jesus at all conscious when he died? We have a tradition of the last 7 words of Jesus? These words can be understood theologically, but did Jesus have the strength to utter these last words.

In the Gospel of John, we have that the legs of the other prisoners were broken so as to hasten death. This could either be that with the legs broken, it would be difficult to breathe, or that blood would flow out from the wounds, and the person would ultimately bleed to death.

There is some confusion as to the exact day Jesus died. If we follow the synoptics – Jesus died on the feast of the Passover – which fell on that day on a Friday. However the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus died on the day of the preparation of the Passover. John has his own reasons for suggesting this particular to his theology. This means that Jesus’ last supper was not a Passover meal. If we go along with the synoptic Gospels that the Passover fell on a Friday, scholars can trace that Jesus died either on 30 or 33 AD.

Passion Narratives in the Gospels

The four canonical Gospels are the ones chosen among many by the Church. They are broadly divided into two categories – the synoptics and the Gospel of John. The synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are very similar in their content and style of presentation, and differ greatly from the Gospel of John. It is commonly accepted among Biblical scholars today that Mark was the first Gospel to be written around 67 AD.  Matthew and Luke definitely used Mark as one of their sources and were written around 80 AD. John was the last Gospel to be written around 100 AD. Thus the Gospels are by no means eye–witness accounts. Each Gospel was written to a particular community in mind. Scholars can often infer a lot about the community to which it was written from the text of a particular Gospel. Thus each evangelist tailors the life of Jesus according to the needs of the community.

The greatest similarity in all four of the Gospel accounts is in their passion narratives. So much so, that the Gospel of Mark is sometimes called a “passion narrative with an extended introduction”. There is no doubt that the key part of all the Gospels is the passion narratives.

It is important to realize how the Gospels came to be written. For many years after the death of Jesus, there was an oral tradition about his life and deeds. After a couple of generations, it was increasingly difficult to maintain these oral traditions and necessitated the need to have a written account. There may have a number of such written traditions among the early Christians pre–dating the existing Gospels, but none of them have survived. We can only postulate about their existence. These are called as the sources of the Gospels.

The Gospels however are a different sort of literature altogether and it is highly probable that it is the author of the Gospel of Mark who invented this form of literature. The Gospels are not historical accounts of the life of Jesus. Rather they recount and theologize about the life of Jesus – to increase the faith of the communities to which they are addressed.  They are written from the prespective of the resurrection – that is the life of Jesus is seen through the colored lenses of the resurrection faith. In short, they are faith perspectives about the life of Jesus.

Each of the evangelists takes up the events of the life of Jesus, and use them to put forth a particular theological message about Jesus. They rearrange the life of Jesus according to their own convenience. This is easily seen from the fact that Mark reduces the ministry of Jesus to essentially one year, while the Gospel of John speaks of his ministry as a period of three years. The synoptic Gospels follow the paradigm that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and the later went on to Jerusalem for his final passion, death and resurrection, while the Gospel of John puts the cleansing of the temple at the start of Jesus’ ministry in his second chapter. It is instructive very often to see how each Gospel writer presents a particular incident of the Gospel. These parallel accounts throw light on how each Gospel writer uses the same incident for a different theological message.

It is also important to realize that the early Christians first theologized about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then slowly started moving backwards into the life of Jesus. They slowly started then turning back into the life of Jesus. Thus while we usually read the Gospels from start to finish in a sort of chronological fashion, it is important to realize that they were actually written backwards, starting with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and moving successively back in time till the infancy narratives present in Matthew and Luke.

Thus, the Gospels have to be read as they are. We often try to coalesce the various Gospels together, trying to reconcile the differences in their accounts. Rather, if we want to take the Gospels seriously as they are, we should read each Gospel as it is. Though sometimes, it would be instructive to compare parallel accounts which can serve to highlight the differences. It also shows us how each Gospel writer stresses on a particular aspect to put forth a certain message.

The passion narratives and the Gospels must be understood simultaneously from three dimensions to fathom its true and real meaning: historically (or chronologically), theologically (or eschatologically) and as a mystery.

To study the Gospels historically would be to study the life of Jesus chronologically as it happened. How and when did Jesus die? How and where did he live? What were various aspects of his message and ministry? We thus move in forward direction in time, studying the various events in the life of Jesus chronologically.

To understand the life of Jesus theologically would be read the life of Jesus backwards starting from the resurrection, and interpreting the death, passion and life of Jesus according to his resurrection. This is how the Gospels have been written. However buried within this theological narrative is a historical core. Accessing it is often an arduous and impossible task, but we can definitely make some headway in this regard.

Finally the life and death of Jesus can also be understood as a mystery. It is important to understand the meaning of “mystery” within the context of our faith. A mystery is something which we return to again and again without fully understanding its full implication. It is something which we are part of, and which we can never fully comprehend objectively. Every time we return to this mystery, we can draw greater and greater fruit, without ever exhausting it. We can always stand before the cross of Jesus, and it will have something more to teach us.

The cross of Jesus

The cross is a symbol that was abhorrent to many and for years after Jesus’ death, it continued to remain – the symbol of the early Christians being a fish. It was only later that the cross became a religious symbol for the Christians.

However the starkness of the cross will always remain a thorn by the side of Christianity. It continues to remain a source of controversy within the Church.  Over the centuries the cross has been gilded with the focus being on the ‘glorious’ dimension of the resurrection, which gets reflected, in the later development of the glorious church. The cross has always resisted interpretations that are not true to itself, overturning them to return to its simplicity and candor in the suffering and rejection of Jesus – both of which are integral to understand the cross in all its starkness.

Did Jesus know about his own passion, death and resurrection?

An important question we can ask ourselves at the very beginning is that did Jesus really know about the exact details about his passion and death. And was he aware of his resurrection? We can safely rule out that he did not have any inclination about his own glorious resurrection as this would water down his own passion and death. Jesus was truly man and suffered the full pain and agony of his suffering and death, which include abandonment by his friends, closest disciples and even God! And for this he was rewarded by the resurrection. In his suffering and death, he was truly and fully human. And we can extend this to his full life on earth. Quite often in Christian circles we have a difficulty in reconciling the humanity and divinity within Jesus, and conveniently forget his humanity. He bore the full agony of his passion and death – not only physical pain, but also emotional pain – suffering abandonment by his disciples and even the silence of God. This is what separates his death from the death of the first martyrs who ran to their death knowing fully well that the reward that awaited them in the next life. God too was silent during his passion, refusing to answer him at the garden of Gethsemane, and even at the cross. Jesus walked his passion in the dark.

Neither did Jesus have any premonition about the exact nature of his passion and death. The three predictions as we have them in the Gospel of Mark are most probably post-resurrectional in origin retrojected back into Jesus’ life. He definitely was aware that the course of action, which he was undertaking, would ultimately lead him to his death. From Chp 11, where we witness his triumphal entry into Jerusalem till Chp 13, Jesus is on a confrontation course with the Jewish authorities. This narrative spread over three days shows Jesus openly speaking out against the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees, as well as he openly cleanses the temple. Finally he foretells the destruction of the temple, predicting its end, which provokes the authorities to ultimately silence Jesus.

Jesus definitely knew that if he continued along the path he had chosen, it would lead to his own death. And yet, he willfully chose it. He chose to confront and challenge the religious authorities and institutions of his time, because the cultic and legalistic religion of his day failed to produce any good fruit. It is important for us to ask the question: why did Jesus do what he did? Why did he challenge the religious authorities of his day? Would he also challenge the religious authorities in our own days? If he knew this would lead to his death, why did he continue doing what he did? Would Jesus still do the same today? Are we willing to stand up for what is right, even till it leads to death? Does Jesus continue to be crucified today in the Dalits, the Tribals, the oppressed and the poor? Do we crucify people by the poor wages we give them, or by treating them as sub-humans?

We often neglect the historical dimensions that lead to Jesus’ death focusing rather on the theological reasons of redemption. While these dimensions are essential, they contain only half of Jesus’ message. Both the historical as well as the theological dimensions need to be seen side by side to get the full import of Jesus’ life, and hence his ultimate death.

It would be quite interesting to take the place of the opponents of Jesus in the passion narrative. This is because Gospel readers are often sincerely religious people who have a deep attachment to their tradition. Jesus was a challenge to religious traditionalists since he pointed to a human element in their holy traditions – an element too often identified with God’s will (see Matt 15:6). If Jesus was treated harshly by the literal-minded religious people of his time who were Jews, it is quite likely that he would be treated harshly by similar religious people of our time, including Christians.

Having said this, it is only the Gospel of John which portrays Jesus as an all–knowing person, completely imbued with his divinity. He is shown as being completely in control of the situation, and willfully going up towards the Cross to achieve God’s plan of salvation. This is in stark contrast to the portrayal found in the synoptic Gospels – which show him struggling as any other human before death. It is the view of the Gospel of John that is most prevalent among Catholics today. In fact, the Gospel of John shows the death of Jesus as a glorious event. This is the Gospel we read every Good Friday, and it is the most appropriate one for such an occasion. Good Friday is not sorrowful day in the eyes of the Church, but a glorious one as the Gospel of John portrays it, when Jesus’ plan of salvation is brought to its final fulfillment.

The use of OT Categories

To understand the New Testament (NT), it is important to turn back to the Old Testament. The NT writers often turned back to ideas and concepts within Hebrew scripture in order to interpret who Jesus really was, and to make him understandable to people. We thus speak of NT writers making use of OT categories. In essence, they borrow ideas from the OT to explain who Jesus is, and to make sense of his death and resurrection.

When we try to describe a new object, we often make use of old ideas and concepts and try to fit the new object into old “categories”. In the same way, the early Christians while trying to describe the new reality of Jesus which they experienced turned to Old Testament categories to describe Jesus. Some of these categories, ideas or concepts of the Old Testament did not really fit Jesus, but they modified these concepts to finally fit Jesus and to describe him.

This can be easily seen in various OT ideas which were applied to Jesus: Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah (Christ), Suffering Servant, Wisdom incarnate, the Word (logos) etc. St. Paul also goes through great pains to explain the death and resurrection of Jesus from within the context of the OT. For example, he speaks of Christ as the new Adam, as well as explains the death of Jesus as expiation for sins.

The early Christian writers tried to portray Jesus as a fulfillment of the promises of the OT. Thus we have the concept of Promise and Fulfillment. The unity and continuity of the plan and the history of salvation does not imply that the OT is meaningless without Jesus. Such a view fails to recognize the intrinsic values of the OT. The unity of the plan and of the history of salvation does imply a unity of the basic theological themes of the OT and NT. It is a misunderstanding to consider the themes in the NT as if they had no origin and growth in the OT from which the NT authors themselves borrowed from. Almost every key theological word of the NT is derived from some Heb word that had a long history of use and development in the OT. Jesus and the apostles used familiar terms. Obviously this does not imply that these terms underwent no further development in the NT, but the theological language that Jesus and the apostles used was the language that was available to them and their listeners. The creation of such a theological language was not the work of one day. Without a background of the OT and Israelite beliefs and traditions, the message of Jesus would have been unintelligible.

Yet there is at the same time also a development of the said themes. Almost all the key theological words have been enriched in the NT. If we study this development in the OT and the NT, this brings us to an important fact. The Christian phenomenon rises in Judaism, but it is not derived from Judaism. The Christian fact is the newest and the most radical of the saving acts of God; it initiates a permanent revolution that affects Judaism as much as it affects the world at large.

The novelty to the Christian religion is thus not seen very well if we think of it entirely in terms of promise and fulfillment. Without denying the unity of history and of its themes, we maintain that the concrete historical reality of Jesus Christ is literally predicted nowhere in the OT. Jesus exceeds the limits of the OT knowledge of God; for in his own words, one cannot put new wine in old wineskins. The radical novelty of his person can be seen in the NT calling him the Messiah/Christ. The early church proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, well aware that no figure like him can be found in the OT. He is the Messiah not because he was predicted, but because in him all the messianic ideas come together and much more beyond. Thus, JESUS IS SOMETHING RADICALLY NEW!

Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?

This is a very important question since it has very latent implications. Traditionally Christians have always blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. This can be seen very strongly in the Gospel of John, which clubs everyone as ‘the Jews’ who were responsible for the death of Jesus. Mark too puts the blame on the Jews, by subtly showing that the arresting party at the Garden of Gethsemane as a totally Jewish party. Contrast this with the Gospel of John, who shows that the Romans too came to arrest Jesus.

There is no denying the fact, that Jesus died by crucifixion, which is a Roman form of punishment. So it was the Romans who put Jesus to death. This is also seen in our creed, which says that ‘Jesus died under Pontius Pilate’. There is no doubt that Jesus’ ministry – had political overtones, and was a serious threat to the Roman Empire, and this ultimately was one of the causes of his death.

It is important to realize that this has important implications. By blaming the Jews, the Church for centuries has been oppressing and persecuting them, which lead ultimately to holocaust in WWII. Thus Christians and the church are responsible for such inhuman crimes against a particular community because of our faith beliefs.

The crux of the matter lies in how the Gospel writers chose to portray the death of Jesus and who is responsible for it. In the context in which the Gospels were written, the Gospel writers could not blame the Romans because of the adverse effects Christians would suffer because of the Roman government under which they were living. The early Christians had already faced a series of persecutions under Roman leaders, particularly at the time of Nero, when the Gospel of Mark was written.

Another reason leading to the severe blame on the Jews is the definite break between the Jewish and Christian communities after the Council of Jamnia in around 85 AD. To understand this, we must remember that Jesus was fundamentally a Jew. He was born a Jew, lived like a Jew, and died like a Jew. He spoke Aramaic – the language of his time, knew the Hebrew scriptures, and worshipped in the Temple like any other Jew. He did not start a new religion. The early Christians too thought of themselves as Jewish, albeit a small sect within the Jewish fold. They too worshipped in the Temple, and kept Jewish customs. They prayed every Sabbath with the other Jews. However, with more and more Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles entering the Church, the rift between orthodox Jewish Christians and the new Converts increases. Soon the Jews began to look with suspicion on these new Christians. After the destruction of the Temple at 73 AD, the rift becomes even more. Finally at the Council of Jamnia in 85AD, the Christians were finally banished from the synagogues. This antagonism between the two communities is reflected very strongly in the Gospel of Matthew and John, especially as seen in Mk 13, Mt 24 and Lk 21 – when people will be brought before synagogues, members of the family will betray each other.

While the Gospels show that the Jews handed Jesus over to the Romans, there is a high probability that there was a high degree of collaboration between the Jewish High Priest and the Roman Procurator. Both Pilate and Caiphas had unusually long terms in office, and this can be attributed to a nexus between the two. It is highly probable that the two collaborated with each other to bring about the death of Jesus.

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