Every year during Holy Week the liturgy of the Church exposes us to a bit of biblical criticism by appointing two different passion narratives to be read within a short period. On Palm or Passion Sunday we hear the Passion according to Matthew (Year A) or Mark (Year B) or Luke (Year C), while on Good Friday every year we hear the Passion according to John. “Those who have ears to hear” should notice that the two narratives which are read in a given year do not offer the same picture of the crucifixion of Jesus in either content or outlook. Let us consider the importance of that observation.
It has been argued that the gospel tradition was formed “backwards,” starting from Jesus’ resurrection and working toward his birth. Certainly early Christian preaching paid primary attention to the crucifixion and resurrection. For example, the Acts of the Apostles repeats: You killed Jesus by hanging or crucifying him, but God raised him up (2:32, 36; 5:30-31; 10:39-40). Then, as Christians reflected on the earlier career of the crucified one, accounts of Jesus’ public ministry emerged, and eventually (in Matthew and Luke) accounts of his birth.
Thus, a basic account of the crucifixion may have been shaped relatively soon in gospel formation. The majority of scholars hold this view, but a substantial minority thinks Mark put together the first consecutive passion account. This is often part of the thesis that exaggerates Mark’s inventiveness in “creating” the Gospel format, a thesis that neglects the influence of Old Testament prophetic “lives,” such as the life of Jeremiah, which combines public actions, speeches, and a passion. Mark’s passion account, however, need not depend directly on an earlier written passion narrative.
The shaping of such an account would have been facilitated by the necessary order of the events. Arrest had to precede trial, which, in turn, had to precede sentence and execution. The result in our canonical Gospels is a true narrative with a developing plot, tracing the actions and reactions not only of Jesus, but also of a cast of surrounding characters, such as Peter, Judas, and Pilate. The impact of Jesus’ fate on various people is vividly illustrated, and the drama of the tragedy is heightened by contrasting figures.
Alongside the innocent Jesus who is condemned is the revolutionary Barabbas who is freed, even though guilty of a political charge similar to that levied against Jesus. Alongside the scoffing Jewish authorities who make fun of Jesus as Messiah or Son of God is a Roman soldier who recognizes him as Son of God. No wonder that the liturgy encourages our acting out the passion narratives with assigned roles read aloud! Each passion narrative constitutes a simple dramatic play.
Indeed, John’s account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate comes close to supplying stage-directions, with the chief priests and “the Jews” carefully localized outside the praetorium and Jesus alone within. The shuttling of Pilate back and forth between the two sides dramatizes a man who seeks to take a middle position, reconciling what he regards as extremes and not deciding for either. Yet the tables are turned; and Pilate, not Jesus, is the one who is really on trial, caught between light and darkness, truth and falsehood. Jesus challenges him to hear the truth (John 19:37); but his cynical response “What is truth?” is in reality a decision for falsehood. John is warning the reader that no one can avoid judgment when he or she stands before Jesus.
Audience Participation Invited
Personification of different character types in the passion drama serves a religious goal. We readers or hearers are meant to participate by asking ourselves how we would have stood in relation to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. With which character in the narrative would I identify myself? The distribution of palm in church may too quickly assure me that I would have been among the crowd that hailed Jesus appreciatively. Is it not more likely that I might have been among the disciples who fled from danger, abandoning him? Or at moments in my life have I not played the role of Peter, denying Jesus, or even of Judas, betraying him? Have I not found myself like the Johannine Pilate, trying to avoid a decision between good and evil? Or like the Matthean Pilate, have I made a bad decision and then washed my hands so that the record could show that I was blameless?
Or, most likely of all, might I not have stood among the religious leaders who condemned Jesus? If this possibility seems remote, it is because many have understood too simply the motives of Jesus’ opponents. True, Mark’s account of the trial of Jesus conducted by the chief priests and the Jewish Sanhedrin portrays dishonest judges with minds already made up, even to the point of seeking false witness against Jesus.
But we must recognize that apologetic motives colored the Gospels. Remember our official Catholic teaching (Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964) that, in the course of apostolic preaching and of Gospel writing, the memory of what happened in Jesus’ lifetime was affected by the life-situations of local Christian communities.
One coloring factor was the need to give a balanced portrayal of Jesus in a world governed by Roman law. Tacitus, the Roman historian, remembers Jesus with disdain as a criminal put to death by Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. Christians could offset such a negative attitude by using Pilate as a spokesman for the innocence of Jesus. If one moves consecutively through the Gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, Pilate is portrayed ever more insistently as a fair judge who recognized the guiltlessness of Jesus in regard to political issues. Roman hearers of the Gospels had Pilate’s assurance that Jesus was not a criminal.
Another coloring factor was the bitter relationship between early church and synagogue. The attitudes attributed to “all” the Jewish religious authorities (Matthew 27:1) may have been those of only some. In the group of Jewish leaders who dealt with Jesus it would be astounding if there were not some venal “ecclesiastical” politicians who were getting rid of a possible danger to their own position. (The Annas high priestly family of which Caiaphas was a member gets low marks in Jewish memory.)
It would be equally amazing if the majority did not consist of sincerely religious men who thought they were serving God in ridding Israel of a troublemaker like Jesus (see John 16:2). In their view Jesus may have been a false prophet misleading people by his permissive attitudes toward the Sabbath and sinners. The Jewish mockery of Jesus after the Sanhedrin trial makes his status as a prophet the issue (Mark 14:65), and according to the law of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 the false prophet had to be put to death lest he seduce Israel from the true God.
I suggested above that in assigning ourselves a role in the passion story some of us might have been among the opponents of Jesus. That 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 Matthew 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. Not Jewish background but religious mentality is the basic component in the reaction to Jesus.
Factors In The Death Of Jesus
The exact public involvement of Jewish authorities in the death of Jesus is a complicated issue. Early Jewish tradition freely admits responsibility for “hanging” Jesus on the eve of Passover because “he seduced Israel, leading her astray” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a). Yet modern Jewish writers have rejected in whole or in part Jewish involvement in the crucifixion. A frequent argument is that the Sanhedrin legal procedures described in the Gospels do not agree with Jewish Law expounded in the Mishnah and so cannot be factual. The Mishnah, completed about A.D. 200, is the written codification of the Pharisee oral law; but in Jesus’ time Sadducee priests, not Pharisees, dominated the Sanhedrin, and they rejected oral law, claiming to rely only on the written law of the Old Testament.
The trial of Jesus as narrated in the Gospels does not violate the letter of the written law; therefore, the accounts of Jewish involvement cannot be so easily dismissed on technical grounds. [Other explanations exonerating Jewish religious leadership posit two Sanhedrins, e.g., one political which worked with the Romans (and which found Jesus guilty at their bidding) and the other religious (which did not deal with Jesus or was not opposed to him). The evidence for the existence of such diverse bodies is slim; and those who shaped early Christian tradition (among whom some were certainly familiar with the Palestinian scene) make no such distinction. The oldest preserved Christian writing (ca. A.D. 50), I Thessalonians, speaks baldly about "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus" (2:14-15 -- a text that is probably authentically Pauline despite attempts to classify it as a later scribal edition). Such a sentiment may be overgeneralized, but it is scarcely without some foundation in fact.]
We are reminded by this point, however, that, although during his ministry Jesus may have argued with the Pharisees, those Jews who had the most direct involvement in his death were the priests, perhaps angered by his prophetic castigation of Temple practice.
Let us probe further, asking in what way and to what extent the priests and the Sanhedrin were involved. A distinguished Jewish commentator on the trial of Jesus, Paul Winter, would give priority to Luke’s account of the procedure against Jesus, for, unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke reports no calling of witnesses and no Jewish death sentence on Jesus. Yet the failure to mention a death sentence probably does not mean that in Luke’s mind the Jewish leaders were free from responsibility for the death of Jesus, since elsewhere he stresses an active Jewish role (Acts 2:36; 4:10; 5:30; 7:52; 10:39; 13:27-29). Nevertheless, unlike the formal Sanhedrin trial at night recounted in Mark and Matthew (with the latter specifying the high priest to have been Caiaphas), in Luke there is a less formal Sanhedrin questioning of Jesus in the morning.
John recounts no Sanhedrin session after the arrest of Jesus but only a police interrogation conducted by the high priest Annas (18:19-24). Further confusion: John 18:3, 12 indicates that the party which arrested Jesus involved not only Jewish police supplied by the high priest but also Roman soldiers with their tribune. Roman soldiers would not have taken part without the prefect’s permission or orders; and so, if the Johannine information is historical, Pilate had to have known beforehand about the arrest of Jesus and perhaps had even commanded it.
It is not impossible that, having heard rumors of Jesus as the Messiah (the anointed king of the house of David whom many Jews were awaiting), Pilate wanted the Jewish authorities of the Sanhedrin to investigate him and so assisted in his arrest. Some of those authorities would have had their own religious worries about Jesus and antipathies toward him (for example, as a false prophet). Yet they could have told themselves that they were only carrying out orders in handing Jesus over to the Romans for further action, on the grounds that under interrogation he had not denied that he was the Messiah. (Notice, I say “not denied,” for the response of Jesus to the question of being the Messiah differs in the various Gospel accounts of the trial: “I am” in Mark; “That is what you say, but … .” in Matthew; “If I tell you, you will not believe.” in Luke; see John 10:24-25.) Religious people of all times have accomplished what they wanted through the secular authority acting for its own purposes.
Attention must be paid to such complications lest the liturgical reading of the passion narratives lead to simplistic accusations about guilt for the death of Jesus. As I shall point out when I discuss the individual passion accounts, both Matthew (“all the people” in 27:25) and John (“the Jews” throughout) generalize hostilely, so that participation in the execution of Jesus is extended beyond even the Jewish leadership. Reflective of this, some famous Christian theologians (Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther) have made statements about the Christian duty to hate or punish the Jews because they killed the Lord. Thus, modern apprehensions about the anti-Jewish impact of the passion narratives are not groundless.
One solution that has been proposed is to remove the “anti-Semitic” passages from the liturgical readings of the passion during Holy Week, a type of “Speak no evil; see no evil; hear no evil” response. But removing offensive passages is a dangerous procedure which enables hearers of bowdlerized versions to accept unthinkingly everything in the Bible. Accounts “improved” by excision perpetuate the fallacy that what one hears in the Bible is always to be imitated because it is “revealed” by God, and the fallacy that every position taken by an author of Scripture is inerrant. [How much more cautious is Vatican II (Dogmatic Constitution Dei verbum on Divine Revelation, #11) in confining inerrancy: "The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation."]
In my opinion, a truer response is to continue to read unabridged passion accounts in Holy Week, not subjecting them to excisions that seem wise to us — but once having read them, to preach forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity. Sooner or later Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written.
They must be brought to see that some attitudes found in the Scriptures, however explicable in the times in which they originated, may be wrong attitudes if repeated today. They must reckon with the implications inherent in the fact that God has revealed in words of men. Congregations who listen to the passion proclamations in Holy Week will not recognize this, however, unless it is clearly pointed out. To include the passages that have an anti-Jewish import and not to comment on them is irresponsible proclamation that will detract from a mature understanding of our Lord’s death.
How Did Jesus Himself View His Death?
Besides reflecting on what the passion of Jesus should mean for us, we may ask what did it mean for Jesus? We are told in Romans 4:25 that Jesus died for our sins, but would Jesus himself have used such language? Did he foresee the exact manner of his death and victory? In Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34, with parallels in Matthew and Luke) there are three predictions of the fate of the Son of Man, one more detailed than the other. Yet, once we recall the Catholic Church’s official teaching that sayings uttered by Jesus have been expanded and interpreted by the apostolic preachers and the evangelists before they were put in the Gospels, we have the right and duty to ask whether these predictions have not become more exact by hindsight.
Have they not been filled out with details by those who knew what happened to Jesus? John has three statements (3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) about the “lifting up” of the Son of Man — a much less precise reference to crucifixion and ascension! Jesus may have originally expressed general premonitions about his suffering and death (a hostile fate discoverable from the example of the prophets), plus a firm trust that God would make him victorious (without knowing exactly how).
Hebrews 5:7-8 reports, “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with cries and tears to God who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Jesus had preached that God’s Kingdom would be realized most readily when human beings acknowledged their dependence on God. The model for this Kingdom was not power over others but the helplessness of the little child. We humans come most clearly to terms with our helplessness when we face death.
Did Jesus, the proclaimer of the Kingdom, himself have to experience the vulnerability of dying before the Kingdom could be achieved in and through him? Jesus’ reference at the Last Supper (Luke 21:16, 18) to the imminence of the Kingdom confirms the possibility that he used “Kingdom” language to phrase his own understanding of his death.
The coming of the Kingdom would involve the ultimate destruction of the power of evil, and Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the great period of trial is echoed in various passion narrative passages (Mark 14:38; Luke 22:53; John 14:30). The thought of such, a confrontation may explain Jesus’ anguish before his fate; and his trust in God’s power to defeat Satan may have been his way of expressing the truth caught by NewTestament writers when they said that he died to remove sin.
Early Christian Views of Jesus’ Death
Finally, we should reflect on what Jesus’ passion meant to Christians of the NewTestament period, using the Gospels as a guide. It is noteworthy that many features depicted by later artists and writers have no place in the Gospel accounts, for instance, elements of pathos and emotion, and a concentration on pain and suffering. On Calvary, the evangelists report laconically, “They crucified him,” without reference to the manner. Strikingly, however, they pay attention to the division of his garments and to the exact placement of the criminals crucified with him.
Such details were important to the early Christians because they found them anticipated in Old Testament psalms and prophets. Not biography but theology dominated the choice of events to be narrated, and the Old Testament was the theological source-book of the time. (This approach is far more likely than the skeptical contention that Christians created the details of the passion in order to fulfill the Old Testament.) The evangelists were emphasizing that through the Scriptures of Israel God had taught about His Son. Their emphasis also had an apologetic touch against Jews who rejected the crucified Jesus precisely because they did not think he fulfilled Scriptural expectations.
Moving beyond the shared Christian theology of the passion, we come now to the distinctive insight in the passion account of each canonical Gospel. My goal is to enrich Holy Week preaching and reflection on the passion accounts; but let me note two ways in which scholarly practicality forces me to deviate slightly from the lectionary passion narratives read on Palm/Passion Sundays and on Good Friday.
(1) The liturgical readings extend from the Last Supper to the burial. [This is the range of the "long form." There are short forms (which throughout the Missal are an abomination to be avoided at all costs), but these eliminate parts of the story that must be considered essential in any comprehensible understanding of the passion.]
In point of fact scholars debate about where the passion narrative begins and ends (either as a separate entity originating before the written Gospels or as intended by the individual evangelists). Does it begin with the Last Supper and does it include the women’s visit to the empty tomb? In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of a tradition of Eucharistic words and actions “on the night when Jesus was handed over” (1 Corinthians 11:23) and of a tradition that Christ died and was buried, was raised and appeared (1 Corinthians 15:3). Perhaps, then, there was already a pre-Pauline sequence from the Eucharist to the tomb. Certainly Luke thought of the Last Supper, the arrest, the passion and death, the burial, and the visit to the tomb as a unit. (He situates the prediction of Peter’s denials at the supper, tying the supper into what follows; similarly, after the burial he has the women prepare the spices that they bring to the tomb on Sunday morning.)
Mark, however, may have joined separate traditions of the supper, the passion (beginning with the scene in Gethsemane), and the empty tomb. A scholar might wish to subdivide a commentary on Matthew so that the passion section begins with 26:1, or with 26:30, or with 26:36! Be that as it may, in reflecting on the passion in Holy Week we must be practical. Sections of the Gospels dealing with the Last Supper (containing the Eucharistic institution) and with the resurrection are extremely complicated from a scholarly viewpoint. Even the long, comprehensive commentary that I hope to produce could not treat those sections within the confines of one volume. Moreover, in our ordinary understanding of liturgical topics, the Last Supper belongs to Holy Thursday preaching, and the resurrection belongs to Easter Sunday day and afterwards. One would not normally make those the subject of passion preaching and reflection associated with Palm/Passion Sunday and Good Friday. Thus, a manageable and intelligible definition of the passion narrative as extending from Gethsemane to the grave will be operative in this book (and in my future The Death of the Messiah). In each case, however, I shall try to situate the passion so-defined into the larger context of the individual Gospel so that the evangelist’s intent and flow of thought are not neglected.
(2) Within the pattern of A, B, and C years, the liturgy of Palm/Passion Sunday presents the Synoptic passion narratives in the order Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so that the Matthean narrative is read first, a year before the Marcan narrative. Although a few scholars (who are persistent and vocal) would have Mark dependent upon Matthew and Luke, the majority opinion by far is that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark.
In the passion narrative in particular, Matthew is so close to Mark that there is no need to posit another additional source. Apparently the author of Matthew edited and adapted what he drew from Mark, adding a few items from popular tradition and early Christian apologetics, for example, about the death of Judas, about Pilate (washing his hands) and Mrs. Pilate (dreaming about Jesus’ innocence), and about guards placed at the tomb.
The interdependence of the canonical passion accounts is not a matter of great importance for the essays in this volume, for I am deliberately concentrating on the distinctive outlook offered by each evangelist and not on where the evangelist got his ideas. Nevertheless, a sequence in which Mark is placed first will give a clearer understanding of the passion to someone who reads the four Gospel essays consecutively. It seems then that nothing will be lost and something may be gained if I use the order Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.