The Gospel Passion Narratives

1. General Concerns of the Evangelists

a. Scripture

The scandal of the Cross was such that it was necessary to explain how the Christ could have undergone this humiliating and disgraceful death. This is largely done by means of scripture: it was the will of God, foretold in scripture, that Jesus should so die. Contemporary principles of scriptural exegesis dictated that Jesus' fulfilment of the scripture by individual correspondences in detail rather than by showing that it fulfilled the broader sweep of God intention.

Two chief texts involved are Ps 21 and Isaiah 53. The former accounts for the sharing out of his clothing (Mk 15.24), the jeers of the passers-by and their shaking of heads (15.29), Jesus' final cry (15.34) and the thirst implied by 15.36. The latter explains the silence of Jesus before both the high priest and Pilate (Mk 14.60; 15.4-5). The darkness at noon no doubt reflects the eschatological symbolism of Am 8.9.

Individual evangelists expand this scriptural explanation. Mt changes Mk's myrrhed wine to bile (used as a poison in Ps 68.22) in order to fulfil Ps 68 more exactly (27.34). He shows the triumphant significance of the cross by giving an immediate resurrection of the just (27.52) in accordance with the hopes of Is 26.18; Ezek 37, etc. The mention that Joseph of Arimathea was rich (Mt 27.57) may be to fulfil Is 53.9: 'his tomb is with the rich'. The death of Judas is presented in terms of the suicide of David's betrayer, Ahitophel, the only case of suicide in the Hebrew Bible (2 S 17); behind that lies also Dt 21.23, 'accursed be anyone hanged'.

b. The willing sacrifice of Jesus

The synoptic evangelists also stress that Jesus went willingly and with full foreknowledge to his Passion. This is already clear on several occasions in the body of the gospel, for example the three great prophecies of the Passion, the saying about the bridegroom already in 2.20, the cup of suffering to the sons of Zebedee. As the moment itself approaches the references intensify, for instance by the pericope of the betrayer (half the account of the last supper, being devoted to showing the dastardliness of the betrayal of friendship involved), the saying of the cup of wine in the Kingdom at the last supper and the saying over the eucharistic cup itself. At the Agony in the Garden Jesus is seen to be well aware of the death that awaits him. He greets Judas calmly with the mysterious eph'o parei (Mt 26.50), which - whatever it means - probably evinces preparedness. At the interrogation before the high priest he almost challenges the high priest. Similarly before Pilate he not merely remains silent but contributes to his sentencing with the admission that he is king of the Jews. At the foot of the Cross he refuses the proffered narcotic drink (Mk 15.23).

2. The Narrative in the Synoptic Gospels

It has often been held that the narrative of the passion is the oldest continuous piece of pre-existing gospel material. This view has been challenged by the studies edited by Kelber, and with good reason.

a. The Agony in the Garden

1. Mk constructs the scene according to his triple schema, used so often. The style is acutely Markan (kai palin twice; double participle apelthon and eipon in 39; afterthought-explanation with gar in 40; ouk edeisan ti apokrithosin auto, as at the Trasnfiguration, but ineptly, since here no answer is required); two historic presents in 41, both introduced by kai, and the second being his preferred word for introducing additional sayings). The stress is on the failure of the disciples, for the return to find them asleep is threefold (37, 39, 40). The prayer of Jesus is given explicitly only once; the second time is a mere repetition of the first (ton auton logon eipon), and the third contains no mention of a prayer.

2. Mt moderates Jesus' frenzy, changing Mk's ademonein to the more dignified lupeisthai 37. He fills out Jesus' second prayer by including the petition of the Lord's Prayer, 'Thy will be done', 42, perhaps to underline his total conformity to the Father's will. Chiefly Mt is concerned to underline the union of the disciples with their master, inserting met'emou in 38 and 40, removing their ignorance in Mk 40, but turning the reproach to Peter in Mk 37 ouk ischusas into a plural to include all the disciples, Mt 40.

3. Lk unifies the scene by keeping to one prayer, and makes it an exemplar for the prayer of disciples at a time of testing by bracketing the account with proseuchesthe me eiselthein eis perasmon 40 and 46. He intensifies the deliberate prayer of Jesus by setting Jesus on his knees (41) and inserting the beads of sweat and the fortifying angel.

b. The Jewish Trial

The historical difficulties of this scene are best treated after a literary discussion.

1. Mk constructs his scene on a sandwich, Peter's triple denial contrasting with Jesus' steadfastness. It is the climax of the failure of the disciples.

[photocopy Aland p. 306-7 and paste Mk's Gk & Eng]

Mk 14.66-72 is full of the evangelist's own stylistic traces:

66 starts with kai + gen. abs., as many new sections in Mk (4.45; 5.2 etc). Mia for tis. Paidiske is typical of Mk's slightly 'cuddly' diminutives ploiarion, kunarion.

67 clumsy use of double paratactic participles idousa...emblepsasa.

68 doublet oute oida oute epistamai, especially with its double negative. Su ti legeis shows the typical struggle between direct and indirect speech; it seems to begin epistamai sou, but then turns into direct speech. Double exelthen...exo.

69 palin, erxato legein, oi parestotes (also v. 47, 70; 15.35, 39; otherwise only Lk 19.24). lego...oti outos, direct speech triumphing over indirect (as 1.40; 2.12; 3.22, etc)

70 palin, oi parestotes, explanation with gar.

71 erxato with infinitive. Doublet anathematizein kai omnunai. Lego...oti ouk oida direct speech overcoming indirect.

72 kai euthus. Eipen oti arnese is usual direct/indirect speech awkwardness.

The triple scene is written up with considerably more life than the prayer in Gethsemane. Mark has surely not invented the whole scene, but builds on a Vorlage. But he still leaves threadbare patches, particularly the second and third accusations: the reference of auton in 69 and 70 is far from clear. As far as we know, the investigation concerns only one person, Jesus himself, not his disciples. The first gibe, that Peter was with Jesus, makes perfect sense, but not the second and third - except to Christians who know about the disciples.

The historical difficulties of the investigation before the high priest are familiar. I quote some conclusions of studies: 'Mark is the creator of the final form of the trial narrative. He takes over a tradition of an appearance of Jesus before a Jewish official and merges this with a Christian apologetic of Jesus as the suffering Just One' (Donahue in Kelber, p. 78). In a footnote to his thesis the same author writes, 'It is for this reason that the trial before the Sanhedrin has created so many problems for historical interpreters. While Mark is anxious to create a narrative which has the formalities of a trial, the technicalities and fine points of Jewish legal procedure are outside his main concerns' (p. 101, footnote 1 - the careful formulation and understatement of the last phrase may be accounted for as the caution required of a Jesuit in 1972). EP Sanders concludes, 'The confusion in the Gospels about the events which immediately led to Jesus' execution may well point to the fact that there was no orderly procedure which was noted and remembered'. Far from there being any debate about power to impose a death-sentence, it seems highly doubtful that any council at Jerusalem had strictly legislative or jurisdictional powers; the evidence of Mark can happily be fitted into a merely deliberative framework.

First I would like to suggest that the formal similarity between the appearances before the Sanhedrin and Pilate already indicate Markan composition.

14.53 apegagon ton Ieson 15.1 ton Ieson apenegkan

53,55 pantes - olon to sunedrion olon to sunedrion

53 chief priests seek evidence 3 chief priests accuse

no success no result

60 high priest addresses Jesus Pilate addresses Jesus

ouk apokrine ouden to what 4 ouk apokrine ouden

katemarturoun see what kategorousin

61 kai ouk apekrinato ouden 5 ouketi ouden apekrithe

high priest eperota Jesus 2 Pilate eperota Jesus

su ei o christos; su ei o basileus

Jesus answers su eipas Jesus answers su legeis

Within this framework there is again the triple Markan procedure with Markan stylistic traits:

56 polloi unmodified, as 2.15; 6.31. Explanation with gar.

57 anastantes, a favourite Markan redundant participle, and here perhaps an allusion to the false witnesses of Ps 26.12; 34.11. There is the same sort of repetitiveness to which we have become accustomed, in its reappearance for the high priest in 60. But the most striking repetition is between 56, 57 and 59:

polloi gar epseudomarturoun kat'autou kai isai ai m. ouk esan.

kai tines anastantes epseudom. kat'autou...kai oude outos ise en e marturia auton.

Donahue regards this as one of the instances of Markan insertion-technique, introducing the saying about the Temple. I would prefer to say that the whole of 56 is a Markan composition for no other purpose than to achieve a triplet of accusations; having so little independent content, it does not convey anything else.

The Temple saying is so richly attested in the tradition (Mk 15.29; Jn 2.19; Ac 6.14) that it becomes puzzling to find it in the mouths of witnesses who are called false. The falsity must come either from the double allusion to the Psalm or Ws 2.12-20, or as an expression of their falsity of heart (cf. the phthonos attributed in 15.10): they themselves are false rather than their witness. After the saying, Markan characteristics again abound:

60 anastas - also the order kai + participle + subject - eperotesen - double negative.

61 double negative - palin eperota - doublet eperota kai legei - superfluity of Su ei in revelatory context (1.11; 3.11; 8.29; 15.2). o uios tou eulogetou is a very strange expression. Eulogetos never occurs otherwise in the NT as a substantive, and only 7 times, always in a blessing formula in a quasi-prayer context. As for 'son of the Blessed', the Hebrew equivalent ben baruq never occurs in the OT. It is not surprising that Mt alters it. Did Mk make it up himself? It is hardly a traditional formula.

62 Jesus' reply begins with what in Mark may well be a revelatory formula ego eimi. It occurs in Mk only twice elsewhere, once as Jesus appears on the water as a sort of theophany (6.50), and once to express the claims of the false messiahs in 13.6.

This may well be the end of the Markan framework or scaffolding. But the Markan triple form of this scene has been established.

Another Markan triple occurs in Pilate's triple question in his attempt to set Jesus free. The whole scene is slightly odd, in that there is no sentence of condemnation reported, so that it would seem, by Mark's account, open to Pilate simply to dismiss the prisoner. What is clear is that this lack of sentence, combined with the triple question, reflects Mark's wish to put the onus for Jesus' execution on the Jewish authorities. Even when Jesus was being charged, Pilate's only reaction was awesome wonder (thaumazein) at Jesus' silence, hardly a judgemental reaction, nor - for that matter - easy for the onlooker to detect. The Barabbas scene is again thoroughly Markan in style. As in the other scenes, there are certainly not sufficient grounds for suggesting that Mark created the Barabbas incident in order to throw the blame on the priests who roused the crowd: Mark merely tripled it. Nor did he invent Peter's denial; he merely multiplied it. Barabbas and the servant-girl are too individualistic to have been created ex nihilo. Of the others it is more difficult to say how factual was the tradition on which Mark was building. Jesus must have been aware, and alerted his disciples, that he was on a collision course with the Jerusalem authorities, but surely not so explicitly. The theme of the failure of the disciples is so prominent in Mark, and the origins of the Gethsemane scene so fluid that I do not think it excluded that Mark himself might have pointed the contrast. Finally, the known saying of the Jewish interrogation is so clear, and the scriptural allusion of the rest so heavy that it could well have evolved considerably, though there is no reason other than the threefold form to attribute this evolution to Mark.

If the preceding analysis is correct, there is little difficulty in explaining the differences from Jn's account. Jn has a private interrogation before Annas (not Caiaphas), concerned only with Jesus' teaching - a very Johannine approach. There are no details of establishing a charge. On the one hand, an investigation before the high priest is more likely than the quasi-trial of the synoptic gospels. Sanders gives good grounds for believing that the Sanhedrin had not yet evolved from being a merely causal council of the local ruler, summoned only to support his decision, rather than the properly constituted legal body which it became later. On the other hand, the Markan account gives the impression of being a collection of the reasons in Christian eyes why Jesus was condemned, ending with the charge of the blasphemy of sharing the Merkabah-throne with the Blessed One (the only explanation possible of coming on the clouds of heaven while being seated at the right hand of the Blessed One).

c. Luke's account of the Pilate trial

As a good historian Lk begins the trial with the three main charges of the Jewish authorities against Jesus. He underlines repeatedly Pilate's conviction of Jesus' innocence and his efforts to release Jesus (16, 20). Correspondingly he stresses the skulldugerry of the Jewish authorities in stirring up the crowd (introducing Barabbas without any explanation, so dependently on the Mk-Mt account), 5, 16, 22, 24; especially in 25b he stresses that Pilate gave Jesus over to 'their will'. This is part of his determination, throughout the gospel and Acts, to show that the Roman authorities had nothing against Christianity.

Instead of the vicious flogging which was a regular preliminary of crucifixion (phragellosas) he has Pilate suggest a mere corrective beating (paideusas) 16.

d. The Mockery

The Markan account gives a mockery after the sentence by Pilate. Luke's mockery by Herod makes excellent sense (Sherwin-White [who died 14th November 1993] shows how Pilate could legitimately have sent the prisoner off to the ruler of his district of origin, in an attempt to palm off a tricky case, and how Herod Antipas could equally have refused to take the case). A delay once sentence had been passed is less likely than a nocturnal pass-time.

14.53 they led Jesus off 15.1 they led Jesus off

53,55 the whole Sanhedrin the whole Sanhedrin

53 chief priests seek evidence 3 chief priests accuse

no success no result

60 high priest addresses Jesus Pilate addresses Jesus

he made no answer to their 4 he made no answer to their

evidence against him accusations

61 he made no answer 5 he made no answer

high priest questioned Jesus 2 Pilate questioned Jesus

are you the Christ? are you the king?

Jesus answers you say it Jesus answers you say it