The Passion Narrative: Introduction

The Passion Narrative

I am interrupting the course of the Saturday Series studies this Spring to introduce a special set of studies in celebration of the current Lenten and Easter seasons. This series will examine the Passion Narrative in the Gospels, from the standpoint of New Testament criticism. All of the key critical issues and questions will be addressed, including a number which are relevant for a sound understanding of New Testament theology and Christology. In particular, these studies will consider the narratives in terms of the development of the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition. As it will not be possible to present this material within the confines a few Saturday posts, I am here expanding the Saturday Series format, to allow for more regular posting of articles throughout the remainder of March and into April.

These studies, in large part, reproduce material included in the earlier exegetical study series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (see the Introduction to this series). The first part of the series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. The third part, corresponding to this current series on the Passion Narrative, deals with the Judean/Jerusalem Period of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is worth noting this basic two-part structure to the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his greatly expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

    • [The Infancy Narrative]
    • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
    • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
    • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

    • Introduction: The “Triumphal” Entry into Jerusalem (Mk 11:1-11)
    • Part 1: Teaching in Jerusalem (Mk 11:12-13:37):
      —Episode of the Fig tree (11:12-14, 20-25)
      Temple action (11:15-19)
      —Block of Teaching 1—Debates/disputes with Religious Authorities (11:27-12:44)
      Temple saying (13:1-2)
      —Block of Teaching 2—The Eschatological “Discourse” (13:3-37)
      —Lesson the Fig Tree (13:28-31)
    • Part 2: The Passion Narrative (Mk 14:1-15:47)
    • Conclusion: The Resurrection (Mk 16:1-8[ff])

All three Synoptic Gospels essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
    • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
    • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
    • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
      —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
      —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
      —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
    • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
    • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
      —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
      —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
    • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
      —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
      —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
    • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
      —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
      —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
      —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
    • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
      —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
      —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
    • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic (Gospel-proclamation) elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In considering the development of Gospel tradition, as applied to the Passion Narratives, I find the following to be a sound (and useful) methodological approach. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

Mark 14:1-2 par

The Synoptic Passion narrative begins with this introductory notice:

“Now it was the Pesaµ and the (festival of) unleavened (bread), after [i.e. in] two days. And the chief sacred officials and the writers [i.e. scribes] were seeking how, grabbing hold of him in a (cunning) trap (right away), they might kill (him) off. For they said, ‘Not on the festival, (so) there will not be any clamor of [i.e. from] the people’.”

This is how the narrative reads in Mark (14:1-2). It relates two basic points of historical tradition: (1) that Jesus’ death took place around the time of the Passover (pa/sxa = Heb js^P#, pesaµ); and (2) that the religious leaders of Jerusalem, members of the Council (Sanhedrin), sought to arrest Jesus and put him to death.

Luke’s version (22:1-2) is simpler and more elegant:

“Now the festival of the (day)s without leaven, being called Pesaµ, was nearing. And the chief sacred officials and the writers were seeking how they might do away (with) him, for they were afraid of the people.”

This is clearly related to the historical tradition in Mark; and most critical commentators would maintain that Luke makes use of Mark throughout the narrative (and, indeed, throughout his Gospel). Whatever the author’s source, he has simplified the presentation, but has retained the basic statement relating to the two points of historical information noted above.

Matthew’s version (26:3-5) is even closer to Mark’s, and here it is even more likely that the author has utilized the Markan narrative. However, he has expanded the narration, adding several details which, in particular, make it clear that the Jerusalem Council (Sanhedrin) is involved:

    • He says that the leaders “were brought together” (sunh/xqhsan, vb suna/gw)
    • Along with the “chief sacred officials [i.e. priests]”, he mentions “the elders of the people”
    • The leaders are further said to “take counsel together” (vb sumbouleu/w)
    • The gathering, planning the arrest of Jesus, takes place in the courtyard (au)lh/) of the palace of Caiphas (Kai+a/fa$).

The author also prefaces his narration with an additional Passion prediction/announcement by Jesus (vv. 1-2). This adds to the drama of the opening, and yet it would seem that even this represents an adaptation of the Synoptic narration of Mk 14:1; the same detail is communicated, but presented (dramatically) through the words of Jesus himself:

“You have seen [i.e. known] that after two days the Pesaµ comes to be…”

The information that follows (in v. 2b) reflects the Synoptic tradition of the (three) Passion predictions by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34 par):

“…and the Son of Man is given along to be put to the stake [i.e. crucified].”

While rooted in authentic tradition (the Passion predictions), Matt 26:1-2 is best explained as a literary addition, by the author, to the core tradition.

The next article in this series will deal with the Anointing Scene (Mk 14:3-9 par).