Historical Cultural Context

The Development of the Passion Story

The passion story of Jesus is the oldest part of the Christian tradition to be preserved. Paul reports the earliest form of this tradition: Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve (1 Cor 15:3b-5). This ancient tradition is remarkable for its brevity and lack of detail.

To it Paul added other appearances: to more than five hundred believers at one time, to James, to all the apostles, and lastly to Paul (1 Cor 15:6-8). The emphasis is entirely upon appearances of the risen Jesus; there are no details about Jesus’ suffering and death.

As the first generation of Christians began to die, a short narrative of Jesus’ passion developed: He was arrested, tried, and crucified. People yearned to know still more, so the narrative was elaborated to include the anointing, the Supper, and the plots to arrest him.

By the time the evangelists began to compose their works, two major developments of the longer story of Jesus’ passion had evolved. One version, represented in Mark and Matthew, is characterized by fulfillment themes. Psalms 22 and 69, Isaiah, and other Scripture passages were fulfilled in Jesus’ experience.

The other version, represented in Luke and John, featured many more words of Jesus. If one compares the accounts of the Supper, Mark and Matthew present a simple scene with Jesus speaking just a few sentences, Luke adds more dialogue, and John omits the institution of the Eucharist entirely but reports four chapters of dialogue between Jesus and his apostles! Scholars claim that this kind of development is rooted in “pietism.”

What prompted this gradual development of the passion story? Though it may seem backwards to us, the passion story was a normal follow-up to the resurrection. The fact that Jesus was raised by God was the only thing the early Mediterranean Christians needed to strengthen their faith in Jesus.

Suffering And Shame 

He had died a shameful death, one reserved for the worst of criminals. Even though he died in the best Mediterranean manly tradition, this manner of death wiped out with one stroke all the good he had done. If Jesus truly were beloved of God, God would not have allowed him to be overcome by his enemies.

But God turned this Mediterranean, human way of thinking completely upside down. By raising Jesus from the dead, God honored Jesus more than anyone ever could have. He obliterated Jesus’ shame.

In Matthew, the only sentence Jesus speaks (“My God, why have you abandoned me?”) is a prayerful response to the taunts of all around who claim that God has abandoned him. These words are the opening of Psalm 22, a prayer filled with the agony of a believer.

The cultural convictions of modern Western readers frequently cause them to miss the point of this reading. In our culture, where suffering is a nuisance and pain can readily be avoided by cleverness or medicine, it is difficult to admire Mediterranean manliness demonstrated in endurance. In our culture, where science comes close to being a major “religion” for many, the significance of being raised by God from the dead, being restored to honor after devastating shame, is lost in the quest for logical meaning and apologetic proofs.

How can we imitate Jesus’ obedience in a very different cultural world?

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson