The traditions associated with Holy Week and Easter lie at the heart of the Christian faith dealing, as they do, with the character of Jesus, the circumstances of his death and the affirmation that not even death could prevent the successful outcome of the divine program (the good news of God’s alternative empire) which Christians believe to have been expressed (indeed, embodied) in and through his words and actions.
There are doubtless historical elements in all this, however inaccessible to us after two thousand years, and no matter how variously weighted by those studying them. There is also a powerful mythology at work here, as the imagination of faith sees through and beyond the historical details to catch a glimpse of a transforming reality; a faith to live by.
Our primary access to both the history of Jesus and the myth of Jesus is through story, and it is that story which Christian communities around the world will recount all over this week, this ‘Holy Week’. Like the Native American storyteller quoted in Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (p. 50) we may find ourselves saying:
Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not,
but I know this story is true.
For many people, their personal and communal preparations for Easter are deeply impacted by the publication of some new discovery, or a controversial new theory, relating to Christian origins. It is, I suppose, a perverse kind of compliment to the enduring influence of Christianity even in our largely secular societies that the media sees an opportunity to make an impact (increase viewers, and multiply advertising revenues) by such tactics. In 2006 it was the Gospel of Judas story, in 2007 the so-called Jesus Tomb story, and in 2011 the anticipated Paschal media beat up was a claim to have two of the nails used to crucify Jesus. In 2013 the election of a new pope seem to exhaust the media interest in religion for a while, but this year we have the Noah film.
These regular media events timed for release around Easter reinforce the wisdom of the native story tellers who know the truth power of a story lies in its capacity to speak the truth to the present, not the accuracy of its description of the past or its projection of the future.
At the very least, we know that the earliest Christians found story telling a powerful way to develop and test their theology. The different stories created by those ancient Christian faith communities both encapsulated what they were thinking and also extended their thoughts in new directions. The contest of sacred stories reflects a contest of theologies.
Our modern question (But did it happen that way?) is ultimately not as urgent, nor its answer so satisfying, as the ancient question: What truth is in this story?
Palm 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. 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.
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 readings for Thursday in Holy Week focus on the character of the Lord’s Supper:
- a Christian ritual with paschal overtones
- a commemoration of the Last Supper
- a sacrament that celebrates our calling as disciples of the Master
First Reading: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
The first reading draws on that portion of the exodus tradition that prescribes the rules for the future observance of Passover. While clearly a later projection back into the exodus narrative, the association of each and every Passover meal with the mythic events of great escape from Egypt is an essential element of the ritual. The participants think of themselves as having been present on the night of salvation, and as having been the direct recipients of divine grace.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is our earliest extant reference to the Eucharist. Having been composed by Paul in the mid-50s—and seemingly drawing on even older traditions—this version of the Last Supper story predates the Gospel accounts by at least two decades (in the case of Mark) and perhaps by 60 years or more (in the case of Luke-Acts).
As we celebrate Eucharist in our contemporary Christian communities we are participating in a defining Christian ritual that can be traced back to within 20 years of Jesus’ death in 30 CE. In this ritual—which seems only to be known to the Pauline tradition within the New Testament writings—we can see the “Jesus movement” undergoing a profound transition to become the “Christ cult.”
Within the emerging Christian communities associated with Paul, Jesus has already become a divine figure whose devotees gather as a distinctive community (a collegium, or voluntary religious association). The “supper of the Lord” was at the centre of their religious identity, and in those ancient meals we see the beginnings of the Christian Eucharist.
- For an interesting discussion of these religious associations in the Greco-Roman world, see Richard S. Ascouth, Greco-Roman Philosophic, Religious and Voluntary Associations.
Gospel: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The gospel portions have been carefully selected to focus on the theme of loving service to one another:
- The initial set of verses presents the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in an act of “servant leadership” intended to inspire a change within the group dynamics of Jesus’ followers. In a totally different cultural setting, where feet rarely get soiled, the practical relevance of this gesture passes us by. In our culture, we might imagine Jesus stacking the dishwasher at the end of a pleasant evening, or even washing the dishes by hand over the protests of his embarrassed hosts.
- The second set of verses presents us with the “great commandment”—seemingly the signature of Christianity identity within the Johannine community, as it seems also to be attested in the Johannine letters.
The traditional phrase from the creed—crucified under Pontius Pilate—anchors the Jesus tradition in a specific event, involving at least some historical figures known to us (Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator of Judea, Caiaphas the Jewish high priest, Herod Antipas), from a particular place. This is ground zero for the Jesus tradition, and an event of even more certainty than the baptism of Jesus by John. Here we stand on solid ground. Here we stand on holy ground. Here we seek to understand the significance of Jesus for us today.
These issues are explored in chapter 8 of Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves, and there is an earlier version of that material available online.
The Death of Jesus in the Jesus Database
- 005 Crucifixion of Jesus: (1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.
- 180 Pilates Questions:(1a) Gos. Pet. pre-1:1 from later 3:6,9 (Son of God) & 3:7; 4:11 (King of Israel), (1b) Mark 15:1-5 = Matt 27:1-2,11-14 = Luke 23:1-5, (1c) John 18:28-38;19:4-16;
- 181 The People Repent: (1a) Gos. Pet. 7:25(!); 8:28, 1b) Luke 23:48;
- 182 Jesus Tomb Guarded: (1a) Gos. Pet. 8:29-33, (1b) Matt 27:62-66, (1c) Gos. Naz. 22;
- 183 Crowds Visit Tomb: (1) Gos. Pet. 9:34;
- 184 Transfiguration of Jesus: (1a) Gos. Pet. 9:35-10:40, (1b) Mark 9:2-10 = Matt 17:1-9 = Luke 9:28-36, (1c) 2 Pet 1:17-18;
- 185 The Guards Report: (1) Gos. Pet. 11:45-49, (1b) Matt 28:11-15;
- 186 Apostolic Grief: (1) Gos. Pet. 7:26-27; 14:58-59
- 272 Release of Barabbas: (1a) Mark 15:6-15 = Matt 27:15-23,26 = Luke 23:18-25, (1b) John 18:39-40, (1c) Acts 3:13-14, (1d) Gos. Naz. 20;
- 273 Simon of Cyrene: (1a) Mark 15:20b-21 = Matt 27:31b-32 = Luke 23:26, (1b!) John 19:17a;
- 274 Women at the Crucifixion: (1a) Mark 15:40-41 = Matt 27:55-56 = Luke 23:49, (1b) John 19: 25b-27.
By definition, the traditions at the centre of Holy Saturday are not elements from the inventory of historical Jesus materials. However, the idea that Jesus in some sense raided Hell (the traditional “harrowing of Hades”) is perhaps an early Christian way of expressing the resurrection belief within classic Jewish terms.
Crossan discusses the “Harrowing of Hell” briefly [Historical Jesus, 387-89] as part of his treatment of the death and burial traditions. He notes that the harrowing of Hades was a major theological issue in early Jewish Christianity since it was “in Sheol, Hades, or Hell, that the souls of holy and righteous, persecuted and martyred Jews awaited their final and promised deliverance.” In the account of Jesus’ suffering, his death was necessary both as an historical fact that could not be avoided and as a theological device to allow Jesus to enter the house of “those that slept,” the dead.
While barely mentioned in the NT and soon marginalized as an embarrassment to developing classical theology, the harrowing of hell remains an important theme in Eastern iconography. It also survives as the brief statement within the Creed: “he descended into Hell.”
Crossan suggests four reasons for this theological theme being pushed to boundaries of Christian belief:
1. It was an intensely Jewish theme, and the Christians were increasingly non-Jewish in character.
2. It was intensely mythological, and involved three related motifs: “a deception in which the demons were allowed to crucify Jesus not knowing who he was; a descent that was the actual reason for his death and burial; and a despoiling whereby Jesus, as Son of God broke open the prison of Hell and released both himself and all the righteous who had preceded him there.”
3. It created many theological problems as Christianity developed: was repentance required of them? were they baptized? etc
4. If Jesus was manifested to the dead and led them in triumph directly to heaven how was it possible for him also to be manifested to the apostles between resurrection and ascension? What of their mandate from the risen Jesus? Crossan notes how the tradition sought to resolve that dilemma in the Shepherd of Hermes, Similitude 9.
The following material is comprised of excerpts (from pp. 141–42) in chapter 10 (“Easter People” in Jesus Then & Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Melbourne: Mosaic Press / Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).
One of the ways in which the resurrection of Jesus is both ‘good news’ and transformative is the value it assigns to life rather than to martyrdom. At a time when religious extremists have both the inclination and the capacity to destroy life for the sake of their beliefs, the resurrection offers an opposing paradigm of faithfulness: Choose life! God is not in the business of recruiting martyrs for the cause, but she is in the business of creating life, blessing life, sustaining life, and restoring life.
How might the world be transformed if the followers of Jesus gained a reputation as a pro-life movement that would never use violence to achieve its goals, never cause harm to any of the ‘little ones’ in its care, never glorify suffering, never seek martyrdom, and would always ‘turn the other cheek’ when abused? If such a description of Christianity seems improbable, that is itself a sad index of how far Christianity has moved away from the legacy of Jesus.
A reclaimed resurrection faith will focus on more than individual human destinies after death. An unsuspected mystery of the faith lurks like leaven in the eucharistic acclamations: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” That leaven has not yet risen to transform the whole loaf, but perhaps the time is coming. This acclamation proclaims the mystery of the faith, but its significance is for the most part missed. The Christ who has died, who is risen, and who will come again, is not simply Jesus of Nazareth, but the whole of God’s transformed creation.
This resurrected and much beloved ‘Son’ is not simply Jesus, but all of us—together. Not just homo sapiens, let alone homo christiani—but all of creation. This is not simply a recurrence of universalism, but a reclaiming of Paul’s vision of cosmic salvation extending to the whole of creation.
Understood this way, the resurrection of Jesus is not only the action of a generous and faithful God at the very heart of life, but also the charter for a Christian mission in the global village. The purpose of Christianity is not to gain adherents from other spiritual communities, but to pray and work for the coming of God’s kingdom, for the resurrection of all creation, for the day of cosmic liberation. This is a vision that can shape the way people of Christian faith understand God, the world, and ourselves. It is a broad and generous vision. It offers a basis for lives that are holy and authentic. It might even allow us to form and sustain communities of faith where the ‘dangerous’ memory of Jesus is kept alive, and where “the future of what Jesus started is being lived out.”