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The Extreme Humility of Christ, which alludes to his Passion

The Passion of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the suffering he endured for our salvation. Passion is the theological term used for the suffering, both physical and mental, of Jesus in the hours prior to and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is central to Orthodox Christian faith. The events of the passion are celebrated during Holy Week, beginning with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Preceding this, he suffers torments beginning with his prayer in Gethsemane, his arrest, trial, scourging, and bearing his cross to Calvary or Golgotha.

The Church celebrates the passion of the Lord during Holy Week, whose hymns anticipate and celebrate these sufferings for our salvation.

The etymological origins of the word lie in the Christian Latin passio, (stemming from patis- to suffer) [1] and first appearing in the 2nd century precisely to describe the travails and suffering of Jesus in this present context. The word passion has since taken on a more general application.

Those parts of the four Gospels that describe these events are known as The "Passion narratives".

The Passion according to the Gospels

File:Tizian 020.jpg
The Mocking of Christ by Titian
File:Torun kosciol sw Jakuba, Pasja 01.jpg
Passion of Christ, simultaneous painting from ca. 1480-90 from St. James' church in Toruń

The narratives of the Passion are found in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Three of these, known as the Synoptic Gospels, give very similar accounts. The Gospel of John includes additional details and some differences.

The Passion begins at Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22 and John 12 with the conspiracy against Jesus then unfolds in eight scenes:

A meal a few days before Passover. A woman anoints Jesus. He says that for this she will always be remembered. In Jerusalem, the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his disciples. Jesus gives final instructions, predicts his betrayal, and tells them all to remember him. On the path to Gethsemane after the meal. Jesus tells them they will all fall away that night; after Peter protests he will not, Jesus says Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. Gethsemane, later that night. As the disciples rest, Jesus prays; then a mob led by Judas Iscariot arrests Jesus, and all the others run away. The high priest’s palace, later that night. The mob brings Jesus to the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court); they examine Jesus and determine he deserves to die. They send him to Pontius Pilate. The courtyard outside the high priest’s palace, the same time. Peter has followed Jesus and joined the mob awaiting Jesus’ fate; they suspect he is a sympathizer, so Peter denies he knows Jesus. Suddenly the cock crows and Peter remembers what Jesus had said. The governor’s palace, early morning. Pilate, the Roman governor, examines Jesus, decides he is innocent; the Jewish leaders and the crowd demand Jesus’ death; Pilate gives them the choice of saving Barabbas, a criminal, or saving Jesus. In response to the screaming mob Pilate sends Jesus out to be crucified. Golgotha, a hill outside Jerusalem, later morning through mid afternoon. Jesus is crucified and dies.

During the arrest in Gethsemane, someone (Peter according to John) takes a sword and cuts off the high priest's servant's ear. According to the Synoptics, the high priest who examines Jesus is Caiaphas; in John, Jesus is also interogated by Annas, Caiaiphas' father in law.

The Gospel of Luke states that Pilate sent Jesus to be judged by Herod Antipas because as a Galilean he was under his jurisdiction. Herod was excited at first to see Jesus and hoped Jesus would perform a miracle for him and asked Jesus several questions but Jesus did not answer. Herod then mocked him and sent him back to Pilate after giving him an "elegant" robe to wear. [2]

All the Gospels have a man named Barabbas [3] released by Pilate instead of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and John have Pilate offer a choice between Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd; Luke lists no choice offered by Pilate, but represents the crowd demanding his release.

In all the Gospels, Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews and Jesus replies So you say. Once condemned by Pilate, he was flogged before execution. The Canonical Gospels, except Luke, record that Jesus was then taken by the soldiers to the Praetorium where, according to Matthew and Mark, the whole contingent of soldiers was called together. They placed a purple robe on him, put a crown of thorns on his head, and according to Matthew, put a rod in his hand. They mocked him by hailing him as King of the Jews, paying homage and hitting him on the head with the rod.

According to the Gospel of John, Pilate had Jesus brought out a second time, wearing the purple robe and the crown of thorns, in order to appeal his innocence before the crowd, saying "Ecce homo", "Here is the man". But, John represents, the priests urged the crowd to demand Jesus' death. Pilate resigned himself to the decision, washing his hands (according to Matthew) before the people as a sign that Jesus' blood would not be upon him.

Mark and Matthew record that Jesus was returned his own clothes, prior to being led out for execution. According to the Gospel accounts he was forced, like other victims of crucifixion, to drag his own cross to Golgotha[4], the location of the execution. According to the Synoptic Gospels, while on the way to Golgotha, the soldiers forced a man passing by, Simon of Cyrene, to carry Jesus' cross for him. The Gospel of Mark gives the names of Simon's children, Alexander and Rufus. Luke adds that Jesus' female followers were following him, and mourning his fate, but that he responded by quoting Hosea|10:8.

The Synoptic Gospels state that on arrival at Golgotha, Jesus was offered wine laced with myrrh to lessen the pain, but he refused it. Jesus was then crucified, according to Mark, at the third hour (9 AM), but according to John at the sixth hour (noon). Pilate had a plaque fixed to Jesus' cross inscribed, (according to John) in Hebrew, Greek and the Latin - Iesu Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum,[5] meaning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Mark has the plaque say simply, King of the Jews. The Gospels then state that they divided Jesus' clothes between the soldiers except for one garment for which they cast lots. The Gospel of John claims that this fulfills a prophecy from Psalms|22:18. Some of the crowd who had been following taunted Jesus, saying "He trusts in God; let God deliver him now!", and suggested that Jesus might perform a miracle to release himself from the cross.

According to the Gospels, two thieves were also crucified, one on each side of him. According to Matthew and Mark, both thieves reviled Jesus. According to Luke, one of the thieves reviled Jesus, while the other declared Jesus innocent and begged that he might be remembered when Jesus came to his kingdom.

John records that Mary his mother and two other women stood by the cross as did a disciple, described as the one whom Jesus loved. Jesus committed his mother to this disciple's care. According to the synoptics, the sky became dark at midday and the darkness lasted for three hours, until the ninth hour when Jesus cried out My God, why have you forsaken me?[6] The centurion standing guard, who had seen how Jesus died, declared Jesus innocent (Luke) or Son of God (Matthew, Mark).

John also says that, as was the custom, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the thieves, so that they would die faster, but that on coming to Jesus they found he had already died. A soldier pierced his side with a spear.

The various things that Jesus spoke during the Crucifixion are collected from the different accounts as the Last Words of Christ.

Other Passion narratives, traditions and scholarship


A tradition linked to icons of Jesus holds that Veronica was a pious woman of Jerusalem who gave her kerchief to him to wipe his forehead. When he handed it back to her, the image of His face was miraculously impressed upon it.

The pillar

By tradition, Jesus was tethered to a pillar while flogged.


Archeological evidence indicates that the whip used for such punishment may have been studded with small metal pieces.

Rufus and Alexander

The sons of Simon of Cyrene are named as if they might have been early Christian figures known to Mark's intended audience (Brown et al. 628). Paul also lists a Rufus in Romans 16:13.

The garments of Jesus

Most garments of the region were made of woven strips of material that were about eight inches wide and included decorative braids from two to four inches wide. The garments could be disassembled and the strips of cloth were frequently recycled. A single garment might hold sections of many different dates. However, in Damascus and Bethlehem cloth was woven on wider looms, some Damascene being 40 inches wide. Traditional Bethlehem cloth is striped like pyjama material. [7] It would thus appear that Jesus' "seamless robe" was made of cloth from either Bethlehem or Damascus.

The Gospel of Peter

Further claims concerning the Passion are made in some non-canonical early writings. Another passion narrative is found in the fragmentary Gospel of Peter, long known to scholars through references, and discovered in Cairo in 1884.

The narrative begins with Pilate washing his hands, as in Matthew, but the Jews and Herod refuse this. Joseph of Arimathea, before Jesus has been crucified, asks for his body, and Herod says he was going to take it down to comply with the Jewish custom of not leaving a dead body hung on a tree overnight. Herod then turns Jesus over the people, who drag him, give him the purple robe, crown him with thorns, and beat and flog him.

There are also two criminals on each side of him and, as in Luke, one begs Jesus for forgiveness. The writer says Jesus was silent as they crucified him, " if in no pain." [8] Jesus is labelled the King of Israel on his cross and his clothes are divided and gambled over.

As in the canonical gospels, darkness covers the land. Jesus is also given vinegar to drink. Peter has "My Power, My Power, why have you forsaken me?" as the last words of Jesus, rather than "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" as quoted in Mark. He is then "taken up", possibly a euphemism for death or maybe an allusion to heaven. [9] Peter then has a resurrection, also somewhat the same but somewhat different from the other books.

Serapion urged the exclusion of the Gospel of Peter from the Church because Docetists were using it to bolster their theological claims, which Serapion rejected. [10] Many modern scholars also reject this conclusion, as the statement about Jesus being silent "as if in no pain" seems to be based on Isaiah's description of the suffering servant. Isaiah|53:7. [11]

Old Testament prophecy of the Passion

Christians interpret at least three passages of the Old Testament as prophecies about Jesus’ Passion.

The first and most obvious is the one from Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12 (either 8th or 6th century B.C.). This prophetic oracle describes a sinless man who will atone for the sins of his people. By his voluntary suffering, he will save sinners from the just punishment of God. Jesus perfectly fulfills this prophecy. E.g., “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (53: 2-5).

The second prophecy of Christ’s Passion is the ancient text which Jesus himself quoted, while he was dying on the cross. From the cross, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” These words of Jesus were a quotation of the ancient Psalm 22. David, in Psalm 22, foretold the sufferings of the messiah. E.g., “I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people. All who see me, laugh me to scorn, they draw apart their lips, and wag their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord: let him free him, let him deliver him if he loves him.’ Stand not far from me, for I am troubled; be thou near at hand: for I have no helper… Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots” (Psalm 22: 7-19).

The third main prophecy of the Passion is from the Book of Wisdom. Protestant Christians place it in the Apocrypha, Catholics among deuterocanonical books. But it was written about 150 B.C., and many have understood these verses (12-20 of chapter 2) as a direct prophecy of Jesus’ Passion. E.g., “Let us lie in wait for the just, because he is not for our turn… He boasteth that he hath the knowledge of God, and calleth himself the son of God…and glorieth that he hath God for his father. Let us see then if his words be true… For if he be the true son of God, he will defend him, and will deliver him from the hands of his enemies. Let us examine him by outrages and tortures… Let us condemn him to a most shameful death … These things they thought, and were deceived, for their own malice blinded them” (Wisdom 2: 12-20).

In addition to the above, it deserves to be mentioned that at least two other, less elaborate messianic prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion. Namely, the following Old Testament passages.

“Many are the afflictions of the just man; but the Lord delivers him from all of them. He guards all his bones: not even one of them shall be broken” (Psalm 34: 20).

“And they shall look upon him whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son; and they shall grieve over him, as the manner is to grieve for the death of the firstborn” (Zechariah 12: 10).

New Testament prophecy of the Passion

The Gospel explains how these old prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion.

“So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with Jesus; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water… For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’ And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced’” (John 19: 32-37).

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is described as prophesying his own Passion and his Resurrection three times:

  1. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, predicting that the Son of Man will be killed and rise within three days
  2. After the transfiguration of Jesus, again predicting that the Son of Man will be killed and rise within three days
  3. On the way to Jerusalem, predicting that the Son of Man will be delivered to the leading Pharisees and Sadducees, be condemned to death, delivered to the Gentiles, mocked, scourged, killed, and rise within three days

Christians argue that these are cases of genuine and fulfilled prophecy and many scholars see semitic features and old tradition in Mark 9:31. [12]. Skeptics argue they are cases of postdiction (prophecy after the events have already occurred).

After the first prophecy, the Gospel of Mark states that Jesus was rebuked by Peter, eliciting the well known response by Jesus of "Get thee behind me, Satan". In particular Peter is criticised for having in mind the things of men not of God, and though many Christians interpret this as an assertion of Jesus' divinity, other scholars, and many early gnostics, argue that it is a rebuke of the Christian school of thought associated with Simon Peter, that which was to become the official Roman Catholic church. Sceptics argue that the events prophesied are inventions.

After the third prophecy, the Gospel of Mark states that the brothers James and John ask Jesus to be his left and right hand men, but Jesus asks if they can drink from the cup he must drink from. They say that they can do this. Jesus confirms this, but say that the places at his right and left hand are reserved for others. Many Christian see this as being a reference to the two criminals at Jesus' crucifixion, thus relating to the Passion. The cup is sometimes interpreted as the symbol of his death, in the light of Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane "Let this cup be taken from me!"

Instruments of the Passion

[[Image:Christ as Man of Sorrows between Four Angels.jpg|thumb|right|200px|Christ as Man of sorrows with the Instruments by Master ES, 15th century engraving. In Christian symbolism and art the Instruments of the Passion or Arma Christi are the objects associated with Jesus' Passion. Each of the Instruments has become an object of veneration among many Christians and have been pictured in paintings and supposedly recovered as relics. Depictions of the Instruments of the Passion may include:

  • The Pillar or column where Jesus was whipped, in the episode of the Flagellation.
  • The Whips that were used.
  • The Crown of Thorns.
  • The Cross on which he was crucified. See also the True Cross.
  • The Titulus Crucis, attached to the Cross, inscribed "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum" (optional)
  • The Nails, inflicting four wounds.
  • The Spear of Destiny by which a Roman soldier inflicted the final of the Five Wounds in his side.
  • The Holy Grail, the Chalice that caught his blood and which was used by Jesus at The Last Supper.

Stations of the Cross

In the Roman Catholic Church (and sometimes in others), the Passion story is depicted in the Stations of the Cross (via crucis, also translated more literally as "Way of the Cross").

Musical settings of Gospel narratives

The reading of the Passion during Holy Week dates back to the fourth century. It began to be intoned (rather than just spoken) in the Middle Ages, at least as early at the 8th century. 9th-century manuscripts have "litterae significativae" indicating interpretive chant, and later manuscript begin to specify exact notes to be sung. By the 1200s different singers were used for different characters in the narrative, a practice which became fairly universal by the 15th century, when polyphonic settings of the turba passages began to appear also. (Turba, while literally meaning "crowd," is used in this case to mean any passage in which more than one speaker speaks simultaneously.)

In the later fifteenth century a number of new styles began to emerge:

  • Responsorial Passions set all of Christ's words and the turba parts polyphonically
  • Through-composed Passions were entirely polyphonic (also called motet Passions). Jacob Obrecht wrote the earliest extant example of this type.
  • Summa Passionis settings were a synopsis of all four Gospels, including the Seven Last Words (a text later set by Joseph Haydn and Théodore Dubois). These were discouraged for church use but circulated widely nonetheless.

In the sixteenth century, settings like these, and further developments, were created for the Catholic church by Tomás Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, Jacobus Gallus, Francisco Guerrero, Orlando di Lasso, and Cypriano de Rore.

Martin Luther wrote, "The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life." Despite this, sung Passion performances were common in Lutheran churches right from the start, in both Latin and German, beginning as early as Laetare Sunday (three weeks before Easter) and continuing through Holy Week. Luther’s friend and collaborator Johann Walther wrote responsorial Passions which were used as models by Lutheran composers for centuries, and “summa Passionis” versions continued to circulate, despite Luther’s express disapproval. Later sixteenth-century passions included choral “exordium” (introduction) and “conclusio” sections with additional texts. In the seventeenth century came the development of “oratorio” passions which led to Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions, accompanied by instruments, with interpolated texts (then called “madrigal” movements) such as sinfonias, other Scripture passages, Latin motets, chorale arias, and more. Such settings were created by Bartholomeus Gesius and Heinrich Schütz. Thomas Strutz wrote a passion (1664) with arias for Jesus himself, pointing to the standard oratorio tradition of Heinrich Schütz, Giacomo Carissimi, and (later) George Frideric Handel, although these composers seem to have thought that putting words in Jesus’ mouth was beyond the pale. The practice of using recitative for the Evangelist (rather than plainsong) was a development of court composers in northern Germany and only crept into church compositions at the end of the 17th century.

The best known Protestant musical settings of the Passion are by Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote two Passions which have survived intact to the present day, one based on the Gospel of John (the St John Passion), the other on the Gospel of Matthew (the St Matthew Passion). In more recent times, the 20th century Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has written a St Luke Passion, based on the Gospel of Luke.

A relative of the musical Passion is the custom of setting the text of Stabat Mater to music.

Passion plays

Non-musical settings of the Passion story are generally called Passion plays. One famous cycle is performed at intervals at Oberammergau. The Passion figures among the scenes in the English mystery plays in more than one cycle of dramatic vignettes. There have also been a number of films telling the passion story, with a prominent recent example being The Passion of the Christ.


  1. OED
  2. Luke|23:8-12|31
  3. Bar-abbas means son of Abbas. Some manuscripts of Matthew say Jesus Barabbas, suggesting that an early version of the story contrasted the fate of two men both named Jesus.
  4. The meaning of Golgotha is "place of a skull".
  5. The original Greek of the Gospels reads Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews".
  6. Mark reports Jesus said Eloi, eloi lama sacachthani? in Aramaic; Matthew reports Eli, Eli....
  7. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, exhibition notes
  8. Miller 403. This is the passage that was condemned as possibly leading to Docetism.
  9. Miller 403
  10. Brown 11
  11. Miller 403
  12. Brown 140


  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament Doubleday 1997 ISBN 0-385-24767-2
  • Brown, Raymond E. et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary Prentice Hall 1990 ISBN 0-13-614934-0
  • Kilgallen, John J. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark Paulist Press 1989 ISBN 0-8091-3059-9
  • Miller, Robert J. Editor The Complete Gospels Polebridge Press 1994 ISBN 0-06-065587-9

External links

Category:New Testament