The Origins of the New Testament, Part XX: Seeing the Crucifixion as Related Liturgically to the Passover

The first narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion to be written achieved its shape and form in Mark’s gospel, specifically in 14:17-15:47. Prior to this, all the Christians had in writing was one line from Paul: “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Not a single narrative detail was given by Paul. Perhaps there were no narrative details to be given since Mark’s gospel is quite specific in 14:50 that, when Jesus was arrested, “They all took flight and fled.” This would mean that Jesus died alone without any eye witnesses.

That would be a shattering insight to many since we have literalized the details we have in Mark’s gospel down to recording not just what Jesus said from the cross, but what Jesus and the high priest said to each other, and even what Jesus and the crowd said to each other. One might wonder who was present to record all of these words of conversation. The overwhelming probability is that the familiar details of the cross are not the result of historic memory at all, but are rather liturgical interpretations of who it was who died on the cross and what his death meant. A quick analysis of the details from this narrative reveals that they were drawn not from the memory of eye witnesses, but from the scriptures of the Jewish people, primarily from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. So even the central story of the final events in Jesus’ life now looks more like the work of an interpretative imagination than it does the work of a historian.

From Psalm 22, Mark drew many of the familiar elements of his story, including first the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” with which that psalm opens. Next Mark refers to the attitude of the mocking crowd, “shaking their heads” and stating that, “since he trusted in God, let God deliver him,” which Mark has incorporated almost verbatim into his narrative (Ps. 22:8). The notion of disjointed bones (Ps. 22:14), the reality of thirst (Ps. 22:15) and the “piercing of his hands and feet” (Ps. 22:16) are notes also found in this psalm which Mark has clearly drawn into his portrait, as well as the reference to the soldier’s parting his garments and casting lots for his robe (Ps. 22:18). When it becomes obvious that the words used to describe the crucifixion are drawn from a work written at least 400 years before the events being described, then it is surely clear that this is not “eye-witness” reporting.

From Isaiah 53, which is part of a portrait that this author, called II Isaiah, paints of a figure he calls the “Servant,” or the “Suffering Servant” of the Lord, Mark incorporates into his account of the death of Jesus the picture of one “despised and rejected,” a “man of sorrows and one acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3),” to say nothing of the image of being “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities (Is. 53:5).” The “Servant” in Isaiah, like Jesus in Mark, “is silent before his accuser (Is. 53:7).” Of Isaiah’s “Servant” it was said, “with his stripes we are healed (Is. 53:5),” language that later informed the Christian idea of Jesus in the substitutionary theory of the atonement.

This identification becomes even more exact when we read in Isaiah that the “Servant” will be numbered among the transgressors (Is. 53:12), which in time gave substance to the story introduced by Mark of Jesus being crucified between two thieves. Isaiah also stated that this “Servant” would, in his death, “make his grave with the rich (Is. 53:9),” which eventually led to Mark’s story of his being buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who was “a ruler of the Jews” and thus a person of means.

As much as this knowledge flies in the face of a familiar literalism, which has been carved in stone for us in such artifacts of our worship as the “Passion of Jesus” set to music by J. S. Bach, the traditional Good Friday liturgies of the church through the ages and in such ecclesiastical habits as sermons preached on the “seven last words” supposedly spoken by Jesus from the cross, the truth is that Mark’s story of the crucifixion is not the remembered history of an eye witness at all, but second generation interpretations of Jesus’ death shaped by biblical sources that had fed Jewish messianic expectations through the ages drawn, as they were, directly from the Hebrew Scriptures. So our first step in understanding the familiar story of the cross is to free our minds from any assumption that we are reading history. What we are reading is the interpretation of Jesus’ death as his Jewish disciples had come to understand it.

The second step in this eye-opening process is to notice that this first narrative story of the cross was itself crafted by Mark to serve as a liturgical reenactment of the meaning of Jesus’ passion. Current studies of 1st century Judaism inform us that the Jews observed Passover in a family setting that usually consumed about three hours. Included in these three hours were the family gathering, various games played to enhance the holiday spirit, the meal itself which included feeding “on the body of the lamb of God,” as well as the use of the various symbols of their past like bitter herbs and unleavened bread, which reminded them of their life in slavery and their hasty exodus from Egypt. Following the meal the youngest boy in the family would say to the senior patriarch of the family, “Father, why is this night different from all other nights?” which would give the head of the household the chance to relate the story of the Exodus and thus to recount the moment of their birth as a nation. The meal would then conclude with the singing of a hymn, and the family members, who did not live in this house, would depart into the night for their own houses.

Church historians and liturgical scholars have discovered some evidence that by the latter years of the second century CE, Christians were observing the passion of Jesus by stretching the three-hour Passover celebration of the Jews into a twenty-four hour vigil. The question is, when did that vigil practice begin? I think the evidence in Mark’s story of the Passion is that it began very early, certainly prior to the writing of this first gospel, for the outline of a twenty-four hour vigil is in the text of Mark itself. If we look at Mark’s story of the Passion (Mark 14:17-15:47) and if we study the text carefully we can see the outline of a twenty-four hour vigil. It is a twenty-four hour narrative that runs from sundown on what we now call Maundy Thursday to sundown on what we now call Good Friday. Let me point out the time markers that are in the text itself of Mark’s gospel. Mark 14:17 has Jesus arrive with the twelve at a house in Jerusalem for the Passover “in the evening,” that is at sundown or approximately 6 pm. Mark has earlier given us the details of the preparation the disciple band has undergone to ready a place for this night. The supper is then described and Mark says the evening ended with the singing of a hymn and Jesus and his disciples went into the night. It is thus now about 9 pm. Then they went to the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples were not able, without falling asleep, to watch with him “one,” “two,” or “three” hours, which would carry the vigil to midnight. In 14:43 Mark then relates the act of betrayal at midnight, making the darkest deed in history occur at the darkest moment of the night. It is dramatically powerful, but hardly historically accurate.

Following the arrest comes the trial before the high priest and the chief priest which is told from 14:53-65 and which carries us to 3 am. The watch of the night between 3 am and 6 am is called “cockcrow,” and into these three hours Mark has placed the story of Peter’s threefold denial (14:66-72), presumably one denial for each hour of that watch until the cock crows and the broken Peter is portrayed as weeping.

Then the text says (15:1) that “when morning came,” which means it is now about 6 am, and this is the time to which Mark has assigned the trial before Pilate (15:1-14). The story of Barabbas and the torture by the soldiers, complete with purple robe and a crown of thorns, are also described in this segment. Mark then informs us (15:35) that it was the third hour when they crucified him, or 9 am. The drama of the cross reaches its crescendo when, in verse 33, the text says “when the sixth hour,” or noon, comes darkness covers the earth until the 9th hour, or 3 pm, when Jesus utters his cry of dereliction and dies. When we arrive at 15:42, we are told of his burial before “evening came,” or about 6 pm. For the Jews, Sabbath started at sundown on Friday, not at midnight. The fact that they did not have time to complete the burial process before the Sabbath began, is Mark’s segue to explain just why it was that the women had to come with embalming spices at dawn on the first day of the week and thus set the stage for the Easter story.

Vestiges of the twenty-four hour vigil still exist in liturgical churches today. The climax of Holy Week begins with the Maundy Thursday service commemorating the establishment of the Eucharist. This is followed by a stripping of the altar until it is left bare and tomblike. The Sacrament is then placed into the ambry and worshipers are invited to keep watch through the night. Sometimes churches organize the vigil to make certain that some members are always present. On Good Friday, the elements are distributed from the Reserved Sacrament since the somberness of the day precludes a “celebration” of the Eucharist. Then comes the three-hour service with worshipers observing that time when darkness was covering the earth between 12 noon and 3 pm. Then Jesus’ rest in the tomb is marked on “holy Saturday” until the fires are lit that evening at the first “Mass of Easter.” The tradition is ancient. The Easter Vigil was observed, I am now convinced, before the first gospel was written. Mark did not create it; Mark observed it and wrote his gospel account of the Passion to help people act it out.

It was thus the liturgical life of the synagogue, and not the remembered life of Jesus, that was the organizing principle in Mark’s first written gospel. He in turn set the example for Matthew and Luke to follow. As we turn to consider those two gospels, we will see how both expanded and lengthened Mark, but neither ever challenged his organizing principle, which was and is the annual cycle of the liturgical life of the synagogue.

–John Shelby Spong


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