The passion narrative as presented in Mark and Luke provides a great source for literary criticism and textual analysis. These are skills any great writer should have at their disposal.
This is one of my favorite topics to read about, but I’ve always had a policy of keeping my posts as non-controversial as possible. I guess violating this rule once won’t be that bad.
I’d urge any aspiring writer to spend a little time looking into Biblical analysis.
In honor of Easter, I’ll do a literary analysis of the passion narrative as presented in two of the Gospels.
The type of thing I’m going to do gets me in trouble with both the literalists and with fellow atheists. Most atheists believe that everyone should have a fairly good acquaintance with the Bible, and many think you should actually read the thing once.
When I express that I think a lot can be gained by studying it as a work of literature, many scoff at that as nonsense.
I aim to point out that by doing a proper textual analysis you can learn a lot of interesting things.
Everything I write here should be attributed to either Bart Ehrman or Richard Carrier (and their many sources) unless you find some error. I’ve read several books by both of them and seen many debates and lectures they’ve given.
I’m going to go almost entirely off of memory (and the text in the Bible itself) and hence will not be able to cite where I learned which interpretations. Both people mentioned are absolutely great Biblical scholars, and if you find this post interesting, you should look up their books, which are excellent.
I think essentially everything here should be in Jesus, Interrupted by Ehrman.
The Passion Narrative
If you grew up in some Christian denomination, then you probably have this idea of what “the” passion narrative is. What I mean by this is that even if you’ve read all four accounts as given in the four Gospels, your brain has probably meshed them into one coherent piece.
You may have trouble coming up with any difference between the four accounts in the Gospels.
This is not your fault, because it is probably what you were taught.
The reality is this: if you closely read any of the four accounts of any given particular aspect of Jesus’ life, you’ll find that there are not only discrepancies, but almost every single detail is in direct contradiction with some other detail of a different account.
Ah. But the Christian retorts that even though the details are different the overall main point and content of the story is the same. The purpose of this post is to show you that not only is this false, but it is false for very good reasons.
Discrepancies Between Mark and Luke Passion Narrative
The reason there are discrepancies in the stories is that the authors want you to get different things out of it.
It may be possible to shove interpretations together in an attempt to make some coherent overall story, but to do so is just wrong-headed.
You’ll miss what the authors are trying to tell you by doing this.
Of course, Christians don’t like this idea, because implicit in what I’m saying is that these are not meant to be read as historical documents describing what actually happened, but as long-form parables (or as I’ve heard Carrier say, “meta-parables”) with Jesus as the main character whose details are literary devices meant to have theological interpretation.
Although this isn’t a well-known idea, it is in fact what the majority of historians (including Christians) believe (see The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Dennis MacDonald for this idea fleshed out to a whole book).
All right, on to the details (I can already tell this is going to be like 2000 words or something, but what else am I going to do while I sit in an airport for two hours).
Let’s compare the death of Jesus as portrayed by Mark and Luke (I use the term “by” colloquially to mean “as written in the book of Mark and Luke respectively” because the authors were anonymous).
In Mark’s passion narrative, the scene is solemn and tragic. Jesus says nothing and is mocked by everyone as he travels to his execution. The only words spoken by Jesus appear right before his death when he says
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
He dies. Then the veil at the temple rips. Then the centurion says that he must have been the son of God.
Here are the literary details to pay attention to:
Jesus seems to feel totally betrayed throughout the whole scene. He even asks why God has forsaken him. He doesn’t seem to realize what is happening.
Right after his death the veil rips and the centurion tells you how to interpret this detail. The ripping of the veil (or curtain according to some translations) symbolizes that it was a Jewish ritual atonement.
It seems clear that the whole scene is a literary construction to make a theological point:
Jesus was an innocent lamb being lead unknowingly to a sacrificial atonement ritual.
Mark emphasizes the suffering and the feeling that God has left you. This was written to put the early persecution of Christians into context. It is those who suffer and are meek who will inherit the Earth.
This theme is consistent throughout Mark. It is re-emphasized by the fact that he has women find the empty tomb later on as the last thing to happen in the story.
It seems deliberate to show that women (who had less status) are the ones to learn of Jesus’ resurrection, and that this is the last event of the book (assuming that Mark actually ends at 16:8 which we won’t get into since books have been written on this debate, e.g. Perspectives on the Ending of Mark: Four Views).
In Luke’s passion narrative, we get a much different picture. Jesus is not silent while traveling to his execution. He comforts women on the way (tells them not to cry). He asks God to forgive the soldiers nailing him to the cross. He is not excessively mocked in the same way.
Jesus tells one of the people being crucified with him that he will see him in heaven shortly.
In other words, Jesus seems perfectly aware of his innocence and what is going on and why. He is not concerned that God has left him and seems to be in direct communion with God the whole time.
He even says:
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
I repeat: there is no cry of being forsaken in this account at all.
I was probably 20 before I realized this. I grew up believing (like most other Christians) that both are said. In reality, one is said in one account for a very specific reason and the other is said in another account for a different reason. To combine these into one “historical” account is to completely miss the point of both authors.
In Luke, the temple curtain rips while Jesus is still alive. The centurion does not proclaim him the son of God in this version. Thus, our earlier interpretation of this symbol is absolutely impossible here.
A common interpretation of this is that the ripped curtain symbolizes God’s rejection of the Jewish system of worship. Sometimes said that the Old Covenant was repealed and Jesus brought the New Covenant.
Corroboration for this evidence is that Luke seems to be referencing Hebrews:
By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing.
Or Jesus’ prophecy earlier in Luke that as long as the temple stands it signifies the continuation of the Old Covenant. Or even later in Acts (written by the same author as Luke) that God left the temple.
If again we take Luke’s account as a long-form parable, the moral does not seem to be that God is there even during great suffering and persecution and even when you feel forsaken by God.
During times of suffering, you should stay calm and confident about your future in heaven.
Of course, the three hours of darkness occur in both, and the symbolism of that is pretty obvious. But remember, we can say with great certainty that this event never happened in history, so we are forced to think of it as a purely symbolic detail.
A much more realistic interpretation of what the Gospels are, given this information, is that they are merely literary constructions and not historical accounts.
The passion narratives teach the individual author’s theological point-of-view of this new, emerging religion.
If you are a Christian and are persuaded of some level of the historicity of the Gospels, the takeaway of this post should be the following.
At very least, when you hear something in church you should go see what each of the four Gospels say about it separately by carefully comparing the details.
Try to figure out the author’s intent rather than blindly taking some mixed interpretation that was presented to you. Question what they tell you and look it up for yourself.
You’ll probably be surprised at what you find, and at very least you’ll find much richer theological interpretations of the authors.
Now to tie this back to the beginning. When I point out that almost every detail provided in the New Testament is contradicted somewhere else, the most common pushback I get is:
These are minor details, but the Bible is consistent on its main points and overall story it tells.
I guess you can decide that for yourself, but I’ll leave you with this question.
You could probably extract three major theological questions from the above analysis that get answered differently, but it seems to me that the most important theological question in all of Christianity is “Why did Jesus die?” If you read Mark you get one answer. If you read Luke you get a different answer.
Should this be considered a minor detail?
If you liked this, you might also like my similar article on the Nativity Narrative.