Introduction to Commentaries on the Passion Gospels

by Donald Senior, C.P.

The Passion of Jesus ChristThe passion narratives provide the climax for each of the four gospels, catching up themes that weave their way through the evangelists' entire portrayal of Jesus life and bringing them to a dramatic completion. In deft strokes the evangelists tell us of the final hours of Jesus' life--his last meal with his disciples; his arrest in Gethsemane; his interrogation by the religious leaders; the trial before Pilate; and finally the heart clutching scenes of Jesus' crucifixion, death and burial.

Historical memories, sacred places

The passion narratives are rooted in historical memories of the early church and certainly reflect much of the Jewish world that Jesus knew and loved. Unlike most of the gospel story which is located in the northern region of Galilee where Jesus did most of his public ministry, the passion stories take place in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern province of Judea and, for most Jews since the time of King David in the ninth century B.C., the identifying center of Jewish life.

Here was located the temple, the most sacred place in Israel where God's presence was most evident. The inner sanctuary of the temple had contained the Ark of the Covenant, the mobile shrine containing the tablets of the law that Israel had carried on its desert trek from Egypt to the promised land. No one passed through the veil that shrouded this inner sanctuary and enter this absolute zone of the sacred, except the high priest who once a year on the feast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, entered to symbolically purify the sanctuary from any effects of sin that happened to have penetrated that holy place.

Attached to the temple were the priests and Levites who maintained the temple liturgy and assisted the streams of pilgrims who would come from Israel and from all over the Mediterranean world to offer sacrifice and pray during the great pilgrimage feasts of the Jewish liturgical year. The temple in Jesus' day was a magnificent structure, built by the master builder Herod the Great who left the heritage of his massive building projects all over Israel--the harbor city of Caesarea, the northern capital of Samaria, the fortified palaces of Masada and the Herodium--to name just a few. But the Jerusalem temple was his crown jewel and this awe-inspiring structure with its massive walls, its exquisite decorations and its broad plazas was just in the final stages of its construction when Jesus came here to complete his mission sometime around the year A.D. 30.

Jerusalem, political center of a religious drama

Since the time of David, Jerusalem had also been a political center; the seat of the unified monarchy under David and Solomon and then of the southern kingdom of Judea in subsequent centuries. In Jesus' day, however, Jerusalem and the provinces of Judea and Samaria were under direct Roman rule, the only areas of Israel fated to be so. Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great who had been designated by the Romans as a Jewish vassal king over this region after Herod's death, proved to be cruel and inept and was eventually deposed by the Romans in 6 A.D. Ever since, a string of Roman procurators had assumed direct rule of Judea and Samaria, using the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima as the seat of government and venturing to Jerusalem only for state visits, particularly during the great Jewish festivals when a tighter grip on the reins was called for. In 30 A.D., the current Roman procurator of Judea was Pontius Pilate and, according to custom, he would come to Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Passover.

Thus the stage was set for the passion drama. Jesus, the Galilean prophet, healer and extraordinary teacher, would bring his mission to Jerusalem. A few days before the festival, surrounded by the devoted and curious, he had entered into the holy city and its gleaming temple. There, in the manner of a prophet, he had performed a series of dramatic and daring actions, disrupting the services that allowed pilgrims to exchange profane Roman coins for appropriate temple currency and blocking those who were entering to perform their devotions--gestures all apparently calculated as a prophetic statement that this temple, no matter how magnificent, would be swept away in the coming messianic age.

Jesus' reputation as a provocative teacher and awesome healer may have preceded him to Jerusalem, we do not know for sure, but certainly his action in the temple must have been seen as dangerous by both Jew and Roman alike. While the Romans held the reins of ultimate power in Judea, they counted on local Jewish authorities--the leading priests and other elders--to maintain public order. The religious leaders had no love for the Romans and were people devoted to freedom for Israel, but they, too, would be wary of anyone who might give the Romans an excuse for interference and further repression, especially one who, at the same time, seemed to be making provocative religious claims for himself and his mission.

The passion narratives are not police blotters

The passion stories agree on some of the basic stages of Jesus' final days. He came to Jerusalem to celebrate with his disciples the feast of Passover, the yearly commemoration of Israel's liberation from slavery in Egypt and an affirmation of its hope for God's future deliverance. The night before his death, after a last meal with his disciples, he went with them to pray at an olive grove on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, facing the temple mount. There he was arrested by an armed band authorized by the religious leaders, and perhaps already with the backing of the Roman authorities as well. One of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot, had alerted the authorities to Jesus' whereabouts. Later that night Jesus was interrogated by a gathering of the religious authorities, probably in an attempt to formulate charges against him. The next day he was brought before Pilate for a formal hearing, since Pilate, who was probably staying at Herod's former palace in the upper part of the city, had the official jurisdiction in such cases. After some hesitation, Pilate condemned Jesus to crucifixion, a terrible Roman form of public execution usually reserved for cases that involved sedition. Perhaps Pilate thought of Jesus as a slightly crazed, yet still potentially dangerous, pretendent to royal power.

Execution of the sentence was, as usual, swift. Jesus was flogged and then led in procession through the streets of the city to a mound reserved for public executions near a cemetery outside one of the city gates of Jerusalem. There he was stripped naked and then spiked to the cross. Crucifixion was a public event, meant to humiliate the victim through a slow and tortuous death and thereby discredit his cause. Jesus died after only a few hours on the cross, probably from a mixture of shock, exhaustion and slow asphyxiation. Someone sympathetic to Jesus who apparently owned a cave-like tomb in the nearby limestone cemetery requested permission to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and have him buried before sundown, in accord with Jewish custom.

These, then, are the stark basic "facts" of Jesus' final hours detectable in the passion stories. Yet these brute facts alone do not command the interest of the gospels. Far more important to the gospel writers was the significance of this story of suffering and death because of who it is that suffered. The passion narratives are not police blotters reporting the cold facts of a public execution, but are an essential part of the Christian story of Jesus, the Son of God, and his exultant triumph over death. The gospels are proclamation--preaching, if you will--telling in story form the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection for us.

Remembering the story

So from the very beginning of church, Christians gathered not only to remember the story of Jesus' death but to understand that death in the light of his resurrection and against the backdrop of God's word, the Old Testament which was the early church's Bible. In retelling the story of Jesus' death from the vantage point of resurrection faith, the early Christians hoped to understand not only more about Jesus but about the meaning of their own encounter with suffering and death. The original passion story that would later influence Mark's own passion narrative probably first took shape in a setting of worship, not unlike the Holy Week Triduum when Christians gather each year to celebrate in prayer Jesus' last supper with his disciples, his passion and death and his triumphant resurrection. So, too, the earliest Christian communities would come together in a spirit of prayer and reflection, to recall the key events of those fateful days in Jerusalem but also to pray the psalms and meditate on the prophets and the great texts of their scriptures that gave meaning to those events. Over time, this blend of historical recital and accompanying prayers and biblical readings would blend together so that now they are inseparable in the passion accounts that have come down to us in the gospels.

When he took up the task of composing his gospel, the evangelist Mark must have had access to such a passion story, perhaps one handed down by memory and cherished in the worship of his own Christian community. As Mark told his story of Jesus' life, that passion story would form its endpoint and climax, a pattern that would be followed by each of the other gospels.

The spirit in which the passion stories were written

Our goal, therefore, is to read the passion stories in the spirit in which they were written, intent not so much on retrieving the history that stands behind these texts but rather to absorb the faith understanding of Jesus' death that suffuses them. Lost in the familiarity of these stories that most of us have heard all our lives, may be the fact that each evangelist tells the account of Jesus' suffering and death in a distinct way. Because each evangelist wrote for a different Christian community and because each of them was gifted with a unique style of narration and a particular point of view, the four accounts are diverse. Like four great artists, each evangelist produced a masterful portrait of the crucified Jesus. This is true of their gospel stories as a whole and remains true for the way they present the passion of Jesus. We will savor each of their accounts in turn.

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Icon by Michael Moran, C.P.