PREFACE

THE FIRST PASSION OF JESUS

 

This book is about the last week of Jesus’ life. It is a week of extraordinary importance for Christians. With its climax on Good Friday and Easter, it is “Holy Week,” the most sacred time of the Christian year. And because of its centrality for the lives of Christians, how this story is told matters greatly. What was the last week of Jesus’ life about? And because this story is seen as revelatory, as epiphanic, what is it about?

Two years ago, on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ made the death of Jesus “big news” in the United States and elsewhere. Cover stories in national news magazines, prime-time television shows, and major stories in newspapers across the country featured the movie. Remarkable: almost two thousand years after it happened, the death of Jesus was once again front-page news. As the novelist Walker Piercy put it thirty years ago, we live in a “Christ-haunted” culture.

 

The movie was controversial and disclosed a division among contemporary Christians. Millions of Christians welcomed it enthusiastically and proclaimed it to have great potential for Christian evangelism in our time. Many were deeply moved by its graphic portrayal of how much suffering Jesus experienced “for us.” Other Christians were disturbed by it – by its portrayal of “the Jews” and by its message that all of us were/are responsible for the death of Jesus: Jesus had to experience all of this horror because of us.

The movie had a further effect. It reinforced a widespread but much too narrow understanding of “the passion” of Jesus. When Mel Gibson called his film The Passion of the Christ or when he took his basic screen-play from Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, they both understood that term passion against its traditional Roman Catholic and broader Christian background. Passion is from the Latin noun passio, meaning suffering.

But in ordinary everyday English we also use passion for any consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment. In this sense, we refer to a person’s passion as what she or he is passionate about. We are deliberately playing those twin meanings against one another. The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel. It was that first passion for God’s distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate’s punitive justice. Before Jesus, after Jesus, and, for Christians, archetypically in Jesus, those who live for non-violent justice die all too often from violent injustice. And so in this book we focus on “what Jesus was passionate about” as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday. To narrow the passion of Jesus to his last twelve hours - arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion – is to ignore the connection between his life and his death.

We do not in this book intend to attempt an historical reconstruction of Jesus’ last week on earth. Our purpose is not to distinguish what actually happened as distinct from the fourfold texts – the four gospels - that record it in their divergent ways as “good news” (gospel). We intend a much simpler task: against the background of Jewish high-priestly collaboration with Roman imperial control, to tell and explain the last week of Jesus’s life on earth as given in the gospel according to Mark. Both of us have spent our professional life focused on the historical Jesus but we work together here on this humbler task: to retell a story everyone thinks they know too well and most do not seem to know at all.

We have chosen Mark for two reasons. The first is that Mark is the earliest gospel, the first narrative account of Jesus’ final week. Written some forty years after the life of Jesus, Mark tells us how the story of Jesus was told around the year 70. As such, it is not “straightforward history,” but, like all the gospels, a combination of history remembered and history interpreted. It is the story of Jesus “updated” for the time in which Mark’s community lived.

The past two hundred years of scholarship has reached a fairly massive consensus not only that Mark was the first of the four New Testament gospels, but also that Matthew and Luke used him as their major source and that, quite probably, John used those earlier versions as his major source. In discussing Mark, therefore, we will also often refer to ways in which those later authors changed his version. This will be especially important where such changes have become better known than Mark’s original version.

But there is also a second and equally important reason for choosing Mark.

Namely, Mark alone went out of his way to chronicle Jesus’s last week on a day-by-day basis while the others kept some but not all of those indications of time. Here is Mark but using our day-names:

Sunday: “ When they were approaching Jerusalem” (11:1)
Monday: “On the following day” (11:12)
Tuesday: “In the morning” (11:20)
Wednesday: “ It was two days before the Passover” (14:1)
Thursday: “ On the first day of Unleavened Bread” (14:12)
Friday: “ As soon as it was morning” (15:1)
Saturday: “the Sabbath” (15:42 & 16:1))
Sunday: “Very early on the first day of the week” (16:2)

Moreover, Mark alone also details “morning” and “evening” events for three of those days: Sunday (11:1,11), Monday (11:12,19), and Thursday (14:12,17).

Finally, Mark alone chronicles Friday’s events with careful three-hour intervals (like Roman military watch-times):

6 A.M. “As soon as it was morning” (15:1)
9 A.M. “It was nine o’clock in the morning” (15:25)
12 noon “When it was noon” (15:33)
3 P.M. “At three o’clock” (15:34)
6 P.M. “When evening had come” (15:42).

In other words, Mark alone has taken considerable care to tell his story so that the hearer or reader can follow events day-by-day and eventually hour-by-hour. It seems almost a deliberate basis for a Holy Week liturgy but from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without skipping anything in between.

That last sentence introduces another major reason for this book. Christian liturgy has started to collapse Holy Week into its last three days with Palm Sunday renamed as Passion Sunday. On the one hand, that is a powerful dyad of death and resurrection, of Passion Sunday and Easter Sunday. On the other, the loss of Palm Sunday’s enthusiastic crowds and of all those days and events in between, may weaken or even negate the meaning of that death and therefore of that resurrection. Our hope is that this slender volume may supply a needed corrective and proper narrative basis both for sacred liturgy within the church and for story, play, or film inside or outside it. Most especially, after two thousand years of theological anti-Judaism and even racial anti-Semitism derived from this story, it is time to read it again and get it right, to follow it closely and understand fully its narrative logic.

This book comes out of a friendship and a shared vocation. In some ways, we are an odd couple, and it is remarkable that our paths brought us together. Dom was born and raised in Ireland, Marcus in Minnesota and North Dakota. Dom grew up Catholic, Marcus grew up Lutheran (and in a time when Lutherans were quite sure that Catholics weren’t really Christians). Dom became a monk and priest, Marcus married and had children. Dom taught for decades at a Catholic University in Chicago, Marcus at a public university in Oregon.

But then twenty years ago, Jesus brought us together. This is literally true. We met at an early meeting of the Jesus Seminar, and in the two decades since, our friendship has grown. Even though we live at opposite ends of the country, the Borgs in Oregon, the Crossans in Florida, the four of us now spend many weeks together each year, in Oregon, Turkey, Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere.

Our shared vocation is also centered on Jesus. It goes back a long way: both of us began our serious academic study of Jesus in our twenties. And though the “jobs” for which we were paid were in the academy, our passion for Jesus has always been more than academic. We have been, and are, passionate about the meaning of Jesus (and the Bible as a whole) for Christian life today. Our involvement with the sacred texts of our tradition has always been about, “What does then have to do with now?” And because we live in the United States, we are especially concerned with the question, “What does then have to do with this now, our now?”

We began this book by dividing between us the eight days of Jesus’ last week on earth. We each wrote our own assignments without mutual consultation so that what he had to unify in our editing were two independent interpretations of Mark’s account. We found ourselves concluding that process in early September of 2005, not deliberately but most appropriately, along the banks of the Resurrection River, beside the shores of the Resurrection Bay, and in the reaches of the Resurrection Peninsula around Seward in south-central Alaska.

 

         


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