Last week I had my students work their way through the Passion Narratives using a grid to compare and contrast the four canonical Gospels’ presentation of these events. My aim was to show that the tradition highlights some thing consistently. This doesn’t necessarily verify their historicity (e.g., Barabbas appears in each Gospel) but it does show what traditions tended to have staying power from Mark’s Gospel to Matthew’s and to Luke’s. If, like me, you think the Fourth Evangelist knew of the Synoptics, then again anything that makes it into that Gospel should be included in what I’m saying.
So, what appears to be important across the Gospels? First, Judas’ role as the betrayer is mentioned in each one. Second, Peter’s denial of Jesus is too. Third, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate every time. Fourth, during his arrest, a disciple always takes out his sword and starts swinging to defend Jesus. Fifth, Jesus is always taken to ‘Golgotha’ or ‘the Place of the Skull’. Sixth, he’s always offered something to drink. Seventh, he’s always mocked as ‘the King of the Jews’. Seventh, there are always women disciples present with him, even if at a bit of a distance. Eighth, Joseph (of Arimathea) is the one to acquire the body in each rendition.
Why are these eight things standard to the story? Is it incidental? Is there a theme I’m missing?
Equally interesting is when an Evangelists inserts their own singularly unique claims. Matthew’s the only one who mentions that that Pilate washed his hands; that bodies emerged from tombs when Jesus died; that guards were placed at Jesus’ tomb. Luke’s the only one who claims that Jesus healed the lopped off ear of the High Priest’s servant; that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas; that Jesus stopped on his way to the cross to warn women of Jerusalem’s fate; that only one of the men crucified with Jesus mocked him while the other defended Jesus and was offered a place in Paradise; that Jesus breathed a final breath. John’s the only one who has the people coming to arrest Jesus fall to the ground when Jesus self-identifies; who has Jesus and Pilate discussing the nature of power and truth in-depth; that the sign above Jesus’ head was written in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin; that Jesus’ legs weren’t broken; that there was a male disciple present who would become the adoptive son of Jesus’ mother.
It’s these little differences that make the juxtaposition interesting. Why does Matthew need guards? Why does Luke bring Herod Antipas into the story? Why is ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ at the foot of the cross?
I’ve tried to teach my students to read the Bible using different lenses. They can ask the questions historians might ask. They can ask the questions a literary critic might ask. They can ask the questions a philosopher or theologian might ask. There’s many more lenses they can use. I hope they encounter them over a lifetime as they continue to engage these texts in all their complexity. For more than half of my life I’ve been reading these texts seriously and I can say that it’s these details, this design, that keeps me coming back over and over again.