Liturgy of the Palms
Matthew 21:1-11 (Year A)
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Year B)
Luke 19:28-40 (Year C)
Liturgy of the Passion
Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 50:4-9a & Psalm 31:9-16
The Apostle: Phil 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54 (Year A)
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39,(40-47) (Year B)
Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 (Year C)
The readings shown here are from the RCL list, and some passages may slightly in other listings.
This Sunday marks the transition from the observance of Lent to the beginning of Holy Week. Its themes are not restricted to those of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but extend through to the trial and execution of Jesus. With the solemn reading of the Passion at the Gospel, there is a vast amount of biblical text to process.
The passion narrative is the most history-like part of the Gospel tradition. Here we are dealing with political events, in a familiar place and involving historical figures known to us. Further, we are dealing with perhaps the most secure historical fact of the entire Jesus tradition, namely his crucifixion. In addition, here we seem to have a connected and coherent series of events from the Last Supper through to the arrest in the garden and then the trials and the execution itself.
- See Passion Narrative for a list of the major episodes with links to texts and discussion.
The international controversy surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ in 2004 made regular worshippers as well as the wider community more conscious of the personal and historical dimensions of Jesus’ trial and execution. Regardless of our views on that particular film and its treatment of the passion story, the interest shown in the film may deepen our appreciation of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
NT scholarship in the mid-20C was persuaded that the Passion Narrative was the first part of the Gospel tradition to take definite shape. The events were so central to the apostolic preaching (the “kerygma”) that some account of how Christians came to believe in a crucified Messiah would have had to be offered to Jews and Greeks alike.
More recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. Even if the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death was fashioned in the 40s, as Crossan suggests, it is no longer seen as a simple historical narrative. In particular, the relationship between the OT prophecies and the Gospel narrative has been reconsidered.
As a result, while the historicity of the core event (Jesus crucified) is affirmed, the political and theological agenda of the Gospel narratives has been increasingly recognized.
Key themes running through the passion narrative include:
- Jesus as an heroic figure familiar to a Greek world
- Jesus as an innocent victim familiar from Jewish tradition
- “according to the Scriptures” as a sign of divine providence
- transfer of responsibility for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews
- claims to apostolic authority by those who were witnesses to the resurrection
The online resources gathered in this site may be helpful when thinking about these traditions, along with the following selected perspectives.
The Greek hero myth
The pervasive Greek hero myth seems to have provided GMark with a way of presenting the Jesus story to people familiar with Greek culture. The classic forms of the hero myth, as outlined by Gregory Riley in One Jesus, Many Christs (1997:39ff), may be paraphrased as follows. The points of contact with the familiar story of Jesus are immediately evident.
The Greek hero was properly the offspring of divine and human parents: most often a virgin human mother and a male god. As offspring of divine-human liaisons they were especially gifted: prowess, or strength, or beauty, or wisdom. The hero was a kind of bridge between divine and human worlds, and destined to be a central player in divine plan to control balance of justice (diké) among humans. As the one chosen by fate for such a destiny, the hero was also something of a victim to fate: constrained by something beyond personal control. Under these circumstances the willing choice to die for principle and with honor could be a pivotal heroic event. These gifted yet tragic heroes often found they had powerful enemies: sometimes a divine parent (or a jealous divine rival) may turn against the hero. In any case, success and popularity could provoke divine envy. Closer to home, however, were the major human opponents—usually rulers and kings with the hero cast as a subversive element boldly refusing the unjust dictates of those in authority. In the stories of the hero, ruler and city can suffer for their unjust treatment of the innocent hero. Inevitably, the hero faces a test of character that provides an opportunity to reveal his true colors. Not all heroes pass the test, but those who do can find that suffering results in learning. At times the hero is something of a bait in a cosmic trap, with his own suffering and death serving as bait to catch and destroy the wicked. In the Greek tradition, heroes often face an early death: painful and in the prime of life. While skepticism about an afterlife was typical of the Greek outlook, heroes were assured a place of honor after death. They would inherit immortality and claim their place in the Elysian Fields. The dead hero could then become an immortal protector of the living, having secured an ironic victory in his untimely and undeserved death. After such a faithful death the hero could protect his own devotees as they also faced the test of living faithfully in a dangerous world. These dead heroes offered protection and help in dire circumstances, with the cult of the heroes being most widespread religious activity in ancient world.
It is immediately clear that the early Christian accounts of Jesus fit well with this common structure of meaning in the Hellenistic world. Those accounts would have resonated with the ancient archetype of The Hero. Indeed, Jesus himself would have been affected to some degree at least by such models of perfection. While the ancient Jewish biblical tradition can be assumed as the major influence upon Jesus and the earliest Christian storytellers, we cannot exclude the possibility that he was familiar with this widely-attested mythic pattern. At the same time, it is more likely that the early Christian storytellers chose to cast Jesus into this role, rather than the traditional assumption that Jesus is described this way because that was the historical reality.
The Innocent Victim
Jewish traditions about the suffering of the innocent victim would also have played their part in shaping Jesus’s own mind set and in determining how Christians would later choose to describe him.
This pattern is best known to many people these days from the stories of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) or perhaps Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6), but in the 1C the Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-5:23 offered a powerful outline of the innocent victim who suffers at the hands of the wicked. When reading that passage, it is not hard to imagine a Jewish-Christian audience hearing it as a description of Jesus.
Burton L. Mack (A Myth of Innocence, 1988:267) has taken up the work done by George W.E. Nickelsburg on the innocent victim tradition in second Temple Judaism and applied it to Mark’s Gospel. The basic elements of this Jewish myth of the innocent victim may be paraphrased as follows:
After an introduction to the characters, there is some act by the victim that provokes the unjustified hostility of the wicked and results in them engaging in a conspiracy to eliminate this threat to their power. When the decision is made to dispose of this troublesome opponent, the response by the victim is one of trust and obedience to the divine requirements. A false accusation is brought against the innocent person, resulting in a trial and condemnation. The innocent can protest in vain (when the accusation is false) and pray for deliverance, but must still suffer the ordeal imposed on them by the unjust rulers. The reaction of others to the unjust treatment of the victim may also be noted. In the end, of course, the victim is rescued in some way and vindicated. This vindication can involve some form of exaltation to a place of substantial dignity and power, much to the shame of the unjust perpetrators. the newly invested judge/ruler is acclaimed by the faithful, while those who had mistreated him fear for their own fates before receiving their deserved punishment.
This indigenous Jewish tradition about the innocent victim may offer one way to interpret the early Christian claim that Jesus’ suffering and exaltation were “according to the Scriptures.” We may be mistaken to look for texts that predict the suffering of the Messiah. Instead, perhaps we need to read the story of Jesus through the lens of the suffering Righteous One.
The words placed on the lips of Peter by the author of Luke-Acts show just such a way of speaking about Jesus’ death:
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. [Acts 3:12-15]
Jewish midrash, and particularly the technique of pesher interpretation, may provide a clue as to how such classic models from both Greek and Jewish sources could be applied to Jesus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us many examples of how the ancient sacred writings were read during the time of Jesus and the first Christians. Operating from the assumption that the texts were intended to provide clues for the reader to identify God’s purposes in the present time, details in the older writings were reinterpreted as cryptic references to current events and persons.
What is true of isolated lines from the Psalms is also true of extended passages such as Psalm 22 (widely seen until recently as an awesome prediction of Jesus’ crucifixion rather than as the quarry from which Mark derived the details for his passion narrative) or Isaiah — both of which feature in this week’s lectionaries.
The Letters of Paul
Paul’s own writings offer an opportunity to approach the traditions of Jesus’ death from another perspective. While the impact of the previous considerations has been to deconstruct the historicity of the Gospel accounts, the letters of Paul allow us to see how someone writing before any of the Gospels were composed could talk about the death of Jesus.
Several important passages are to be found in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 11, Paul refers to the last supper as an event on the night that Jesus was betrayed and to the institution of the “Supper of the Lord.” Later, in ch. 15, Paul quotes a summary of the core events concerning Jesus:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:1-7)
Elsewhere in that same letter we find Paul extolling the cross as the central theme of the gospel that he proclaims:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Cor 1:18-24)
It is clear that Paul has an interpretation of Jesus that is centered around his death. While the later Gospel narratives might present Jesus’ life and death in heroic terms, and eulogize him as the innocent victim of corrupt rulers, those are not the notes struck by Paul. Instead, Paul is more inclined to speak of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial demonstration of ultimate trust (pistis) by Jesus in God — a trust that allows God to be forgiving to everyone, just as Abraham’s legendary trust had resulted in covenant blessings for the Jewish people.
Elizabeth A. Johnson
Johnson offers a fresh interpretation of the death of Jesus in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us: Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” Her views are perhaps captured in this provocative paragraph:
To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (p. 158)
See Jesus Research and Christian Faith for additional notes and extracts from Johnson’s essay.
See The Once and Future Bible: Easter for a more detailed set of online resources relating to the death of Jesus and the significance of the resurrection tradition in earliest Christianity.
For a more recent discussion see the following chapters from Jesus Then & Jesus Now:
- ch. 8: Crucified under Pontius Pilate
- ch. 10: Easter People
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: