Chapter 6 – The Passion

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying

– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I wanted to be stretched, like music wrung from a
dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.

– Charles Wright, “Clear Night”

Agony in the Garden

Torchlight blazed on the faces of the disciples who followed Jesus toward the Mount of Olives that fateful night before the Crucifixion. They must have wondered where he led them as they sang a hymn, probably the Hallel, taken from Psalms 113-118, a passage that includes praises to God and thanks for deliverance from the horrific years of Jewish captivity in Egypt. “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice, my cries for mercy,” they sang. The refrain might have been: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Whatever version of the Hallel they sang, its intent was clear: God once saved his own people from horrendous circumstances, and he would save them again.

All of the disciples understood the threat before them. Their strong rabbi had behaved in erratic ways in public since his arrival in Jerusalem, drawing unwanted attention. Riots had frequently broken out during Passover week, and the Romans had been swift and merciless in their response, as ever. They looked warily on the countless poor Jews who came from the provinces to celebrate – or cause trouble. Crucifixions were commonplace at this time, though any Roman citizen condemned to death could pull rank and get his head severed by a sharp sword, an easier way to go. But Jesus and his followers were Jews, outsiders in their own land, thus liable to the cruelest form of punishment. Perhaps as a consequence of their fragile position, the Jewish authorities didn’t take lightly to misbehavior among  their own kind. They wished to curry favor with the Romans, and they would turn on one of their own without hesitation: just to confirm their loyalty to the emperor. It was their way of saying, You needn’t fear us.

 As it were, the Garden of Gethsemane (meaning “oil press”) was the goal of this parade through a cold, spring night in Jerusalem, although his disciples probably wondered what Jesus had in mind. Gethsemane was, and remains, an unremarkable grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Darkness had fallen by the time they got there, and Jesus asked most of them to remain behind as he took Peter, James, and John – probably his closest disciples, as they had been the ones who witnessed the Transfiguration – to a separate corner. He told them to keep watch as he prayed, and soon fell into focused prayer – almost a trance – as he knelt in the shadows. He begged God to spare him from his coming agony and death. Why must he go through with this?  Here we see him as scarcely divine at all, not someone who completely and unequivocally understood that if he died he would rise again in three days. Human frailty radiated from him, and the disciples must have shuddered to see him in such despair, exhibiting self-doubt. Had they made a mistake in trusting him?  Sweat rose on the brow of Jesus “like drops of blood,” so we are told in Luke. He spoke to God as Abba, the Aramaic word for father, an intimate form of address. After an hour of determined, even furious prayer, he gave himself over to God’s will, assisted by an angel, who appeared from nowhere to strengthen him. This is, in some ways, the center of the Passion, the moment when Jesus understood that he must die and decided against fighting any longer, acceding to his fate. Perhaps he also realized that he must show everyone else how to die, taking on the role of sacrificial lamb. His grisly execution would make it difficult for anyone ever again to doubt his humanity, however much they might question his divinity.

The three disciples fall asleep while Jesus prayed, perhaps a response to the four cups of wine they would have imbibed as required by Jewish law at the Passover meal. Suddenly Jesus stood over them, scolding Peter for falling asleep: “Wake up and pray that you won’t fall into temptation.” The implication was that Peter would soon tumble into a spiritual crevice. Jesus said, “The Son of Man will soon be betrayed. Get up!”

Within moments, footsteps sounded on the gravel path, with voices shouting, torches flared. Judas Iscariot arrived with a cadre from the Temple Guard, as well as priests, even a number of Pharisees, who clearly had it in for this upstart who had challenged their authority. Judas walked up to Jesus brazenly and kissed him on the cheek, a signal that had been preordained: the infamous Judas kiss. Jesus said with only the slightest tinge of irony: “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”  (Luke 22:48). The guards obviously didn’t know which man was Jesus, and they only wanted him – which points to their interest in his unorthodox religious views and his disruptive behavior in the courtyard of the Second Temple.   In the apocryphal Acts of John, the disciple-narrator says: “After the Lord had danced with us, my beloved, he went out to suffer. And we were like men amazed or fast asleep, and we fled this way and that.” (1)  Not Peter, however. While the rest of the disciples slipped into the shadows and disappeared, he alone challenged the guards, taking out his sword and slicing off the ear of one Malchus, the servant of a high priest. Blood spurted, and the poor man knelt in the gravel path in excruciating pain.  Jesus scolded Peter, telling him to put away his weapon: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).  Had Peter somehow not understood that violence was never the appropriate response in situations like this? Had he missed the lesson of the Master so completely? In a final act of healing, Jesus touched the wound and restored the ear of Malchus.  A number of the soldiers fell to the ground, in awe.

Jesus gave himself up easily, having made the decision to accept his role. He would face his accusers with astonishing calm, going to his death without resistance. “Let the scriptures be fulfilled,” he said (Mark 14:49). (2)

The Trials

Having arrested Jesus, they led him to the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest (John 18:13). It’s difficult to know why they went there first. Annas ran the money changing business in the Temple, so he might have relished a confrontation with this man, even though it was against Jewish laws to put a person on trial at this hour. Jesus, of course, understood the illegitimate nature of this interrogation – it doesn’t rise to the level of a trial; he responded carefully to all questions, making sure not to say too much. He would save his words for the appropriate occasion.

At some distance, Peter followed, refusing to abandon his teacher. He sat in the courtyard of the house while they questioned Jesus inside, warming himself by a wood fire, utterly dejected. A servant girl came up to him, with a guard. “This is one of them,” she said. “He was with him.” She spoke with conviction, but Peter objected to her identification: “Woman, I don’t know him” (Luke 22:57).  She wouldn’t give up, however, and returned later, pointing at him. But Peter denied any association with Jesus for a second time. About an hour later, others came into the same courtyard, including a servant related to Malchus, who singled him out. “He is a Galilean,” the man said. Peter’s accent had apparently given him away. This time Peter feigned utter disbelief: “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.  As he spoke, the rooster crowed; dawn was breaking. Peter recalled the prediction by Jesus that he would deny his Lord three times before dawn, and he “wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).

A great literary scholar, Erich Auerbach, has commented on this narrative moment: ”A scene like Peter’s denial fits into no antique genre. It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history – and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.” (3)  With its sharp dialogue and compressed dramatic content, this scene leaps from the pages of the gospels. Peter seems thoroughly human here: capable of denying his Lord yet equally capable of regret, even chagrin. He seems to have been placed on a pedestal by Jesus – his “rock” on whom he would build his church; but he was also called Satan shortly thereafter – the Adversary who failed to retain the most basic ideas of his teacher.  Peter’s denial of Jesus adds texture and meaning to the Passion narrative, as Peter stands in for all of us who find it impossible to hold to our beliefs at every juncture, to do the right thing even when it puts us in jeopardy.

The four gospels (and a vast apocryphal literature) provide kaleidoscopic details about the trial of Jesus, in its various phases, some of them contradictory. Matthew delves into the interrogation of Jesus by Caiaphas, the high priest (and son- in-law of Annas). In this version, Caiaphas ends up “tearing his robes” in dismay at the thought that Jesus had committed blasphemy by claiming that he wished to destroy the Second Temple in three days (and rebuild it in as many). When asked about his divine status by Caiaphas, Jesus replied coolly: “You say so.”  Then he added, in what is almost a quotation from the Book of Daniel: “In a future time you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God and coming in the heavenly clouds” (Matthew 26:64). Had Jesus suddenly recalled the prophecy in Daniel about a Son of Man who would fly to heaven and meet the Rock of Ages above the clouds?  His indirection stands out markedly, here as elsewhere in the trial scenes.

The responses that Jesus gives to specific questions about his divinity vary in the four gospels, so do the interrogations and trials. In John, the high priest himself – without witnesses or anyone else but a guard present – examines Jesus briefly and turns him over to the Sanhedrin. In that gospel, the guard slapped Jesus for being rude in response to the priest, although no other evangelist mentions this rather shocking moment. As ever, it’s worth remembering that we have no coherent narrative thread to follow but various windows, some of them cloudy, through which we look at the life of Jesus.

The arrest and interrogation took place after dark, making anything that happened illegal – religious and civil laws forbade nighttime trials, as noted above. By morning, however, Jesus stood before a gathering of elders and priests, who sat in severe judgment. This was not a civil but a religious court, for Jews only. In Luke 22:66-71, we read what happened:

And as soon as day came, the elders and the chief priests and scribes sat together, and Jesus was led into their council. They said: “Are you the Messiah?” He said: “If I reply, you won’t believe me in any case. And you won’t let me go, even if I ask. In the future, the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of God.”  They said to him: “So are you the Son of God?” He replied, “You say so.” They responded: “Do we need any more testimonies? We’ve heard this from his own mouth.” So they led him away to Pontius Pilate for official trial and condemnation.

Pontius Pilate – a minor official whose name echoes in the corridors of history because of his part in the trial of Jesus – was in fact the fifth Prefect of Rome to rule in the province of Judea, a representative of the emperor. His historicity is not in question, as he is mentioned in several contemporary sources, and recent archaeological finds, such as the Pilate Stone (an inscribed limestone block found at Caesarea Maritima and now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), have confirmed his existence.

As they would, the Roman authorities looked askance at Jewish rituals and practices, especially with a flood of pilgrims overwhelming the city at Passover. Given this scrutiny, the Jews hoped to keep prying Roman eyes away from their doings. To play it safe, any political rebel was handed over quickly, and the legendary Barabbas – a criminal whom the crowd would ask to be freed instead of Jesus – was probably an example of someone in this category.

Before a Jewish court, it mattered that Jesus should be condemned for blasphemy, for claiming to be God’s son. His true crime lay there. Once he came before a Roman judge, however, this charge made no sense: What did they care about his religious views? The Jews could sort out this problem among themselves. So the charge shifted: the Jewish council put Jesus forward as a traitor, a civil threat, possibly an insurrectionist with royal pretensions. Now that would pique the interest of Roman authorities.

At this point in the Passion narrative (as relayed by Matthew) Judas appeared unexpectedly before the gathering of priests and elders. Mortified by his guilt, he threw the betrayal money at their feet, then “went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). The exact price paid to Judas for his crime had fulfilled a dire biblical prophecy about a “good shepherd” who broke the bond between Judah (namesake of Judas?) and Israel; “thirty pieces of silver” was the exact price of that betrayal (Zechariah 11:12). Did the gospel writer insert the price himself, working the association with Hebrew scripture? It’s impossible to know; but the legend of Judas has loomed in the collective memory of the world, endlessly revisited.

One thinks, for example, of a poignant moment in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, where young Holden Caulfield talks with Arthur Childs, a Quaker schoolboy, and speculates about whether or not Jesus would have sent Judas to Hell by way of punishment for his betrayal: “I’d bet a thousand bucks that Jesus never sent old Judas to Hell.” Holden understands that pity and compassion played a huge role in the life of Christ, and it seemed (at least to him) unlikely that such a sweeping condemnation would occur. In the lore of Western literature, Judas stands in for sinners who feel beyond redemption, those condemned by their own foolishness, their greedy assumption that whatever they do is without consequences. Like Holden, we can’t believe Jesus would damn Judas, as it means he might damn us.

Accounts of the trials of Jesus face into a textual storm, as the four gospels harmonize badly here.  One suspects that, written ten decades after the fact, it was impossible to get the story straight. The trials took place behind closed doors, and it’s probable that little of what we read has much historical basis. In any case, the symbolism rings true: Jesus found himself out of religious bounds, an enemy of his own people, the Jews, who sought conformity with Mosaic laws. And what was Judaism without these laws? A man who flouted them was dangerously astray. Even worse, from their viewpoint, he argued that a new covenant between God and humanity now existed. This posed a distinct threat to the established order. Furthermore, Jesus had proved himself a scoundrel, speaking to whores and infidels, lepers and madmen. He picked corn on the Sabbath and dismissed the arguments of Jewish elders with wry asides or blunt assertions. He called himself the Son of Man as well as the Son of God. Did they need more evidence than this that Jesus of Nazareth deserved punishment, even death?

After his interrogation by the high priest and elders, Jesus – by now exhausted, as he hadn’t slept for a day – was sent to Pilate for a civil trial. (The high priest and Roman prefect had worked together for many years, so this would hardly have been the first time that they condemned a rabble-rouser to death by crucifixion.) Matthew tells the story quite simply: “Now Jesus stood before the governor, who asked him directly: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ To this, Jesus answered, ‘So you say'” (Matthew 27:11). Once again, Jesus turned the question back on the questioner: a familiar trope that suggests an odd combination of coyness, cleverness, and humility. Pilate now asked with genuine sympathy: “Have you heard all the bad things they’ve said about you?” Standing motionless, Jesus refused to answer. No wonder the governor “marveled greatly” that a prisoner could be so restrained under the circumstances. Did he not realize the extent of his jeopardy, the hideous consequences that would follow?

A turbulent crowd gathered outside the palace, and one gets a sense of tension and high drama as they called for Jesus to die, perhaps prompted (even bribed) by the Jewish elders themselves. He had upset their Passover celebrations, threatening their very existence. And Pilate was the official entrusted with decisions involving capital punishment, although Herod Antipas – the client king in the region – might have had an advisory role. (Only in Luke does Pilate actually try to enlist the king himself, and not much is made of this. It would have been an unlikely gesture, in any case. Kings had better things to do.)

In Matthew’s retelling, the exchanges between Jesus and Pilate leap from the page into our collective memory. The conversation went roughly as follows:

Pilate said: “So – you’re the King of the Jews? Is that right?”

Jesus replied: “Is that your idea or did the others tell you about me?”

Pilate answered with a question of his own: “Am I a Jew?” In other words, he wondered: How would I know what they’re complaining about? Do you think I consult with them or comprehend their theological problems?

When Jesus failed to respond, Pilate took a different tack: “Your own people and the high priests brought you to me. So what have you done?”

“My kingdom isn’t of this world;’ he said. It was a puzzling comment in this context.

Pilate raised an eyebrow: “You’re a king, then?”

Jesus answered: “You say so. In fact, I came into this world to tell the truth. Everyone who sides with the truth listens to what I say.”

Then Pilate asked: “So what is truth?”

The questions resound to this day, a preoccupation of philosophers, who have devoted a whole branch of inquiry (epistemology) to that matter.  Yet no response came from Jesus.  Was the question too difficult or did he simply wish to disengage at this point, being aware that Pilate would not in any case listen to his response? The silence of Jesus appears to have troubled Pilate, however; he felt sympathetic toward this man who deflected his questions in such a gentle (if puzzling) fashion. He went back outside and told the crowd that he saw no reason to condemn this person, adding that it was customary to release one man during Passover. He suggested that perhaps Jesus might be that man.

They shouted: “Give us Barabbas!”

Jesus Barabbas awaited execution for inciting political insurrection (according to Mark, he had killed a man during a revolutionary skirmish).(4)  An oddity sticks out: Barabbas shared the same name with Jesus of Nazareth, as Barabbas – by its etymology, absorbing the Aramaic word abba – simply means “son of the father.” In effect, Pilate said to the crowd: I’ll give you Jesus the Son of God or Jesus the Son of the Father. It’s difficult to know what to make of an obvious wordplay like this. Perhaps the gospel writers wished to make a point: Jesus the political revolutionary could walk free, not Jesus the blasphemer, the Son of Man. This irony might have played well in the first century, especially during the period of the Jewish- Roman wars that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. It seems lost on our ears now.

Pilate had no choice but to act, as he understood that placating a boisterous crowd was half the job of governance. But he temporized, and had Jesus flogged or “scourged,” as they called it: a particularly gruesome punishment in which they strapped a condemned man to a post, upright and naked; they thrashed him with a whip called a flagellum, which had small iron balls and pieces of sheep bones attached to make it all the more destructive. This scourging would have left Jesus in a state of horrendous shock, his skin in ribbons, probably unable to walk to the place of execution, let alone carry a heavy cross. From what we read, the Roman guards tortured Jesus with relish, digging a crown of thorns into his scalp after the flogging ended. They dressed him in a purple robe to mock his claim to kingship.

Pilate hoped this would satisfy the mob as he brought the tortured man onto the esplanade – a pavement outside the palace. (Jews would not step inside an official Roman building during Passover week in any case, as it would have defiled them.  And no doubt Pilate would never have allowed them in.)  “Here is your man;’ he told them. Perhaps they would walk away now, satisfied?

This wasn’t to be, as everyone shouted: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Pilate said: “You may take him and crucify him, but I can find no basis for this charge.”

They would not listen and called: “He claims to be the Son of God, and we have a law that forbids such a claim.” The scriptures clearly stated that anyone who led Israel astray by offering “signs and wonders” or acted as a false prophet should be condemned to death by stoning (Deuteronomy 18:20-21). Only death would satisfy their blood-lust.

The fury of the crowd frustrated Pilate, who took Jesus inside for further questioning, as if unable to pull the trigger. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

Jesus said nothing.

“You refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asked. “Don’t you realize I could release you – or crucify you?”

Jesus replied: “You’d have no power over me if God hadn’t given you this power. And the people who handed you over to me are guilty of an even greater sin.”

Pilate wished to let Jesus go, but the Jewish crowd would not relent.  So he gave in, washing his hands before the crowd and saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this good person” (Matthew 27:24).  In reality, Pilate was a brutal man who had sent hundreds to their deaths by crucifixion.  Many at the time – Philo, for instance – regarded him as a thug who would execute people in whimsical fashion, without the bother of a trial.(5)  But Pilate has consistently been portrayed by Christian tradition as a man who put Jesus to death with reluctance – probably an effort on the part of later followers of Jesus not to alienate potential converts who were not Jews.

As a means of execution, crucifixion was especially gruesome, reserved for non-Roman citizens, including slaves and Jews. They beheaded Roman prisoners with a sharp sword, as that seemed merciful. Yet crucifixion had been a common practice for hundreds of years going back to the Seleucids and Carthaginians, who passed this brutal practice along to the Romans. Was there a better way to terrorize those who might wish to rebel than to erect ghastly crosses along the roadsides, where the bodies attached to them would rot in the sun for days or weeks, the carcasses picked apart by birds or wild animals?  They strapped or nailed the condemned man to the cross and allowed him to expire slowly – and the longer it took for him to die, the better. (Women were rarely crucified, for a variety of reasons, including modesty; it was not a good thing to reveal a naked woman’s body.) Dehydration would eventually kill the condemned man, if nothing else did, but his body would have already suffered horribly from scourging, and internal injuries as well as superficial wounds would (with a bit of luck) have produced death from bleeding. The practice continued until banned in 337 CE by the Christian emperor, Constantine, out of respect for Jesus. (6)

The crucifixion of Jesus confirmed that his offense was technically against Roman, not Jewish, laws. And the spectacle would have attracted attention. According to the gospels, Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, a windswept hill outside of the old city walls, described as “the place of the skull” (Greek: kraniou topos). (7)  The King James translators anglicized the Latin form of the word (Calvariae) to Calvary, hence the usual Christian name for the place of execution. The spot lay close enough to the city so that people coming and going could read the mock inscription put over the cross in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek: “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews” (John 19:19-20).

Jesus either carried the cross himself, as John reports, or had assistance from one Simon of Cyrene – described by Mark as the father of Rufus and Alexander – which suggests that the early Christians knew these people and would have nodded, thinking: Ah, that Simon! My guess is that Jesus would scarcely have been able to carry a heavy cross, given the tortures he had already endured. Perhaps he took a few steps before he collapsed, in a daze of confusion, in unimaginable pain, with shredded skin on his back and legs, his scalp bleeding. But he could probably manage no more.

One can’t know the exact route or the details of what happened along the way to the site of execution, but a vast liturgical tradition has evolved that Christians refer to as the Stations of the Cross, marking fourteen points in the anguished journey of Jesus from the moment of his condemnation to death and burial. These are focal points for meditation on the Passion – the word used for the suffering of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to his death, a period of bleak hours rich in their complexity and symbolic meaning. The trek to Golgotha itself becomes a focus for Christians on Holy Thursday, in particular, and devout pilgrims to this day will sometimes crawl on their knees along the reputed path of Jesus on this journey along what is called the Via Dolorosa.

One can hardly bear to imagine the horrific scene at Golgotha itself, where Jesus opened himself to his fullest humanity, in suffering and sacrifice, with vultures circling in the sky and a dismal or distracted crowd of soldiers and passersby waiting for the end of the humiliated victim. At least his suffering was relatively brief: the Passover approached, and nobody wanted the execution to drag on, as it might incite discord, even revolt among the Jewish pilgrims, who already felt disrespected by Rome.  Better for it all to end quickly.

They crucified two “thieves” with Jesus that same afternoon, one on either side of him. In fact, they were probably revolutionaries or insurrectionists like Barabbas, precursors of the Zealots or other rebel groups who flowed into capital at this time of year, hoping to incite resistance. Accounts of these two fellow sufferers vary from gospel to gospel, but in Luke (23:39-43) they become the Penitent Thief and the Impenitent Thief.  The latter thief mocked Jesus: “Are you not the Messiah? If so, save yourself and us, too.” The other scolded this man for his impertinence: “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same punishment? And we have been condemned for good reason, for the sentence we received is commensurate to our crime, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he added, beautifully: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus replied: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

One is so used to paintings and films of the Crucifixion that it’s difficult to keep in mind that the gospels give us very different details of this event, creating a more complex picture when taken as a whole than when read as individual accounts.   A few women watched from nearby: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and yet another Mary, the “wife of Clopas,” the latter mentioned only in John 19:25. (She might have been an aunt to Jesus, although nobody knows for sure.) In Luke, we hear only that some followers watched from a distance, perhaps afraid to come too close, as they might be taken for co-conspirators. The account in Matthew – as usual – is more florid and particularized, with lots of people coming and going: Roman soldiers (casting lots for Jesus’s clothing), Jewish leaders, and random onlookers. The Beloved Disciple – that mysterious figure – appears in John, and Jesus tells his mother from the cross that this person will look after her when he is gone.  “From that point on, this disciple took her into his home,” the evangelist explains (John 19:27). It’s a touching detail, suggesting that the attitude of Jesus toward his own family had shifted by now.

Moments before his death, Jesus remarked in agony, “I am thirsty.” In a sadistic turn, the Roman soldiers put a sponge soaked in vinegar to his lips, bringing on such despair that Jesus could no longer stay alive. “It is finished,” he said, and died. He simply “gave up his spirit.” In Mark 15:33-34 we read: “And when the sixth hour came, darkness covered the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried in a loud voice: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” The saying in Aramaic means: “My God, my God: Why have you forsaken me?” This gospel also quotes the opening line from Psalm 22 – one of the darkest points in the sequence of Psalms, which track a kind of manic-depressive cycle in the spiritual life of ancient Israel. As Richard Bauckham, a leading scholar of the New Testament, notes: “There is an intertextual network that serves to interpret the Passion of Jesus by setting it within the experience and expectation of Israel.” (8)  Even in his death, the experience of Jesus – the trajectory of his life – fit a preordained schema. His life and death formed part of a grand mythic cycle.

In saying those words, Jesus also recalled the ending of that psalm, which proclaims: ”All the ends of the earth / Will remember and turn to the Lord.” The sufferer is vindicated here, restored to his proper place of veneration. As ever, Jesus saw himself as part of the unfolding story of the Jews, and he understood his position as a sacrificial, or paschal, lamb, one whose spilled blood would restore his people, promoting reconciliation with God – atonement.

The crucifixion took six hours, according to Mark. In Luke, the end arrived more quickly, with Jesus saying in a final gasp: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  This was on the day before the Sabbath, and “because the Jewish leaders did not want bodies left on crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down” (John 19:31). As it happened, the legs of two “thieves” were broken to hasten their deaths, a technique known as crurifragium, but Jesus was already dead, so was spared this further indignity. To make sure he had died, however, one of the soldiers “pierced his side, and out came a mixture of blood and water” (John 19:34). Interpreters have seen this as a symbolic combination of human blood and divine water – one reason that priests, before consecrating the wine, still pour a bit of water into the cup.

A few hours before Jesus died, darkness covered the land, a divinely induced solar eclipse with mythic resonance: the world should have gone dark at this time, given the bloody sacrifice of such a person – a symbolism that Jews, whose priests regularly sacrificed animals to signal obedience to the will of God, would have understood in their guts. The theological point of the death of Jesus in such circumstances is framed in Hebrews 10:19-22:

And so, brothers and sisters, we have the confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus – by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body. And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (9)

Jesus died at three in the afternoon, by most reckonings.  What followed was a sequence of stunning events, each of them vastly symbolic. The sacred veil that concealed the Holy of Holies in the Temple, for example, was a curtain of about seventy feet in length; it split in two, suggesting that God and humanity would no longer live on either side of a thick membrane. Elsewhere, a number of tombs opened, and a few lucky saints got up and walked around Jerusalem (Matthew 27:50-53).  One thinks of those lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Horatio notes that after the death of Julius Caesar “the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” In that same play, an eclipse covered the earth as well, “almost to doomsday.” (10)  Such arresting details had been circulating for years, and the evangelist must have felt he could draw on this material to amplify his own story.

By Jewish law, a dead person should be buried before sundown, if possible; and it seems that Jesus was fortunate in this case. Two prominent Jews – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea- petitioned Pilate to allow them to remove the body from the cross and deposit the remains in a burial cave that Joseph had already prepared for himself: a hugely generous act on his part. It lay in a quiet garden not far from Golgotha. Although surprised that Jesus had died so quickly, Pilate assented.

Who were these good men, who granted such extraordinary assistance? Nicodemus appears several times in the gospels, always in passing. He was apparently a high-ranking Jewish official.  Joseph, too, was probably an elder, perhaps even a member  of the Sanhedrin. (11)   What remains fascinating is that prominent members of the elite Jewish class should have taken an interest in Jesus, a wandering teacher and healer from Galilee, a man without high connections. He had obviously drawn the attention, and devotion, of a wide range of Jews.  This suggests that, far from being estranged from those who practiced Judaism, he was regarded as one of them. We can add to this the information that James, the brother of Jesus, as well as other followers of Jesus, were “continually seen in the Temple” in the days after his death: yet another sign that his position among the Jews was hardly one of severe antagonism, as his followers felt no need to stay away from this holy site. (12)   Once again, it makes no sense to divorce Jesus and his movement from a Judaic context; the early Christians saw themselves, mainly, as Jews who wished to modify and extend Judaic practices.  They did not intend to create a separate religion.

The gospels describe the Passion of Jesus in shockingly concrete terms, putting his death at the center of the mythos. His suffering becomes our suffering, as he models what each of us must face: degradation, loss, humiliation, physical pain, agony, and death itself, the ultimate mystery. Jesus himself explained to Pilate that he believed he came into the world “to bear witness unto the truth” (John 18:37). As one reads the various narratives of the Passion, a single truth becomes apparent: here was somebody prepared to offer an example of how to behave in the face of extreme misery and abuse, torture of the most unimaginable kind. Yet it’s more than that, as Abelard, the medieval theologian, suggested, noting that the wisdom of the cross will ultimately be found in a comment by Jesus: “Greater love has no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

This love flowed from God – the origin of all love – but revealed itself in the anguished Christ. So it’s only “by the faith which we have concerning Christ that love increases in us, through the conviction that God in Christ has united our nature to himself and that by suffering he has shown us the supreme love of which he speaks,” as Abelard put it. (13)  Jesus became, in effect, the suffering servant of Isaiah, who was “wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities,” and who by his death would offer life without limit, represented by the iconography of the cross itself, the world tree, which extends horizontally from east to west, which reaches from the pit below to heavens above, an emblem of reality in its vastness, with power converging at the crux, the juncture where the crossbeams of time and eternity meet at what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”



Notes to Chapter 6 – The Passion: From Gethsemane to Golgotha

1. Quoted in Pagels, 74.

2. A great deal of speculation surrounds this idea of which exact scriptures Jesus, in his self-sacrifice, fulfills. There is the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 and the righteous sufferer in Psalm 22. Others point to the last six chapters of Zechariah. For an overview of this subject, see Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll, The Psalms of Lament in Marks Passion: Jesus’ Davidic Suffering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 ).

3. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953),45.

4. Early manuscripts in Greek supply the first name of Barabbas as Yoshua – which translates as Jesus. Scholars have long noted the parallels between the names of Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ.

5. See his well-known On the Embassy to Gaius, readily available online.

6. The historicity of the kind of crucifixion described in the gospels has been confirmed by archaeological finds. In 1968, for example, the remains of a body crucified in a manner similar to Christ was found at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in northeast Jerusalem.

7. Mark, Matthew, and John call it Golgotha, probably based on the Hebrew word for skull (gulggolet).

 8.  Bauckharn, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 505.

9.  It is widely assumed by scholars that Hebrews, while reflecting many of the apostle Paul’s ideas, was not written by him. The Greek is much more elevated in style than his Greek, more formal, and docs not adhere to the usual epistolary forms that Paul favored. It might have been a sermon based on one of Paul’s sermons but written by an especially articulate scribe.

10. There are several ancient references to strange happenings when Julius Caesar died. See Plutarch’s Lives, Chapter 69, or Virgil’s First Georgie, where he writes: “The sun took pity on Rome when Caesar died / And covered his brilliant face in sooty dark:’ My attention was drawn to the  lines in Hamlet by A. N. Wilson.

11. He is described as an “honorable counselor” in Luke 23:50, translating the Greek word bouleates, sometimes used to refer to a member of the Sanhedrin.

12. Luke 24:53.

13. See Peter Abelard, “The Cross” in Sermons, 12. Quoted by Pelikan, 106.


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