Easter. The Passion of Jesus I. Preliminaries.

Part 2, here.

You can read the whole series, here.

Latter-day Saints don’t often use the term “Passion” in referring to the last hours of Jesus’ life. I like the term however, so I will use it in this series of Easter thoughts. One can think of its historical meaning as “suffering.”

I’ll begin this with a word about the nature of the Gospels. If you’ve managed to get through some of my posts lately, then you have probably already encountered this. There are various levels of meaning in scripture, and the longer scripture has been around the more this is true. I’m going to assume a centrist position, one that can accommodate faith, and scholarship. What I mean is this: you can, I think, err on a “fundamentalist” side, or a “liberal” one. It’s somewhat complex to illustrate this in general, but since we will be discussing the New Testament Gospels, the two positions might go like this. The fundamentalist notion is that everything we find in the Gospels is precisely what Jesus said and did. The liberal position is that virtually nothing is historical in the Gospel accounts (in both cases I’m stating the most extreme view). Each has been argued for but each has drawbacks. The first is really not tenable because when you compare the Gospels (and we will see this as we go along) you find deep divergences. It’s obvious that something has happened between the time of Jesus’ words and acts and the time the Gospels were written down. The liberal argument uses such divergence to conclude that nothing can pass the test of being historical. I think that position (one that exists in the literature) goes too far in the other direction.[1]

So how to deal with the acceptance of real historical value and evident conflict in the various accounts? A simple way to approach the problem is to consider that three basic epochs are in play. The first is when Jesus did and said things in Galilee and Jerusalem, his public ministry, when people walked around with him, saw him, and heard him. He spoke in the language and among the issues and ideas of his time. He was not talking about twenty-first-century challenges, he was not a postmodern thinker, he was a Jew of the first third of the first century.[2] The second epoch is the time of the preachers, the era when eyewitnesses and their students go about telling the story of Jesus. We don’t know how long that period lasted but something like 30 to 70 years. If Jesus dies around 30AD (and that’s an interesting problem) then that means no writings, or at least preserved writings, exist from that period. The third epoch is the period when things start to be written down. The first written Gospel (Mark) dates from around 70AD. Before that, Jesus was preached in different places and ways. NONE of his preaching exists in terms of verbatim audits in his own language. All the Gospels are in Greek. Jesus spoke in a Semitic tongue, probably Aramaic. He may have spoken Hebrew to some degree. The preachers had to put this in Greek to spread the word in the empire. They went to the cities, following trade routes of the time. There is evidence for Christians preaching in the big cities: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, Rome. We know that it was preached in places like North Africa (the great Apollos came from Alexandria), but we don’t know who did it, but one suspects that the Jerusalem church sent out various mission efforts. It had to be preached out of a Palestinian context. It had to be adapted to those new contexts.[3] Jesus (in the Synoptics) was a country person, a hillside preacher who met individuals and crowds, but largely in small rural regions, and the parables show that. They are agrarian in nature, pictures of country life. All of that had to be translated to people who knew little or nothing of that particular culture and the attendant Jewish way.

Raphael: Paul preaching at Athens.

Raphael: Paul preaching at Athens. (Image: Wikipedia.)

These preachers are not in the business of relating events with utter fidelity. They are coming from a position of faith in a resurrected Lord. And all their preaching is colored by that faith and they are trying to communicate and convince others with that faith. They are preaching to create belief. It’s preaching that is the result of deep conviction, one that ignores tangential facts and matters of day to day living. They are trying to convey meaning they have worked out through thought, prayer, experience, their devotion to the scripture that came down to them, roughly, but somewhat inaccurately what we call Old Testament. It’s not history as we might think of it. And that has an effect on the third epoch.

Where Jesus says something or does something in a Gospel, it’s written in this distant interpreted-tradition sense. And what it means to a listener of the time, what it meant to an early post-resurrection-faith preacher/listener, and what it may have meant in the actual event can be quite different things, to say nothing of what the text actually referred to in terms of origin. In brief there are three levels of meaning: meaning to the Gospel writer of epoch 3, meaning to the preacher/listener of epoch 2, whatever historical meaning it may have had in epoch 1. This transition becomes much more complex once we consider the “meaning effect” of translation. When you translate a phrase/word into another language all sorts of issues arise, but one I’ll point out is this: each word carries a cloud of meanings in one language that are often not present in the source language. But once you engineer a translation, you bring all those meanings into play. I’ll give some examples at some point.

The writers of the third epoch, I’ll call them Evangelists, not in the sense that Joseph Smith interpreted the term (he assigned New Testament officers named evangelists the role of modern patriarchs), were not writing a history, they are preaching a message, one tailored to a particular audience. They are writing for and to believers. Writing to convince. They aren’t seeking objectivity. They adapted the message to the needs of the audience. Luke writes to people who would not understand Jewish referents. He either explains them, or he leaves them out. He doesn’t bother to repeat place names like Gethsemane or Golgotha. While he largely copies from Mark, he edits out Mark’s stuff that is too Jewish. Linguistically, he’s a citizen of the empire, not Palestine. If something needs interpretation for their audience, the Evangelists insert it. An example is a saying of Jesus about the temple being destroyed. It’s one that comes up importantly in the Passion. “I will destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What does he mean? Mark adds this: a temple built with hands and a temple built without hands. There’s freedom to add explanation or remove hard to explain or embarrassing material (Luke does this in particular–he doesn’t like conflict).

The Evangelists were working with preaching from epoch 2 and they have to order it and make sense of it. It’s a hard problem, and they make editorial choices (in the case of John, things are a bit different). One thing is clear: the Evangelists were not eyewitnesses of Jesus. They are working from the preaching they know, possibly from some written material. Luke is thought to have had an early hymn tradition for example. This organizational ethos is prominent in the Passion stories of each Gospel. Each Evangelist has his own plan and there are peculiar differences. For example, Mark and Matthew have a trial of Jesus at night. Luke has the trial in the morning. John doesn’t have a trial at all at that point (he has one earlier). Each one has a trial, but each puts it in a place that seems best to him, to his plan.

Each Evangelist is a rich redactor, an author in effect. The early church does a very important thing with the situation. There was (and there still is) a strong temptation to take the Gospels and either discard all but one in some attempt at unity, or somehow push them altogether in an extreme attempt at some kind of overwriting for consistency. They did none of that. Not that there weren’t movements to that effect. Tatian, an early (ca. 150AD) Christian writer, produced a “harmony” of the Gospels that was used in the Syrian church until the fifth century when it was removed from churches. The early church wanted all four Gospels, a remarkable choice and an inspired one I think, given the diversity. Often early texts didn’t survive falling out of favor, so this was important.


[1] I’m not addressing Historical Jesus work here particularly. It’s important scholarship, carried out more or less with strict rules (that have differed over time and between persons) over what may and may not be allowed with certainty (under those axioms) as history. Discussions of what “history” entails aside, the more extreme positions of the last century I’m thinking of are those that deployed this scholarship to define faith with some very minimalist positions. If you’d like to be baptized in Historical Jesus study, I recommend Fr. John P. Meier’s series, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991-2016 [5 vols. so far]). A general reference for the Passion is Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, from Gethsemane to the Grave 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[2] This is actually a rather Mormon way to consider it, and it may be the most productive way to think about “condescension” as the Book of Mormon teaches it. Jesus was fully human, and a man of his time. To be sure, he was inspired, but he had to learn things just as other human beings did. He spoke to the issues and problems of his time. Everything he said or did was in that context. The point for faith is this: you can’t point to some passage of scripture and say, this solves my problem. It requires understanding of context if possible, and then how that context may apply to a current problem. It’s a question of faith and study as usual. The fundamentalist position is that Scripture covers every possible situation. Jesus didn’t examine questions like women as preachers and leaders, or the nature of democracy. It didn’t come up. He was a man of his time in large part (that’s what condescension means).

[3] For example, the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. In one Gospel the writer has the friends digging a hole in the thatch and lowering the man down. In another Gospel, they remove tiles from the roof and lower the man down. It’s what made sense to the target people of that place and time. And that kind of thing can give clues to where a given Gospel was used—the communities where the texts were composed and first resided as documents. For more on the issues of orality/aurality and textuality, see Joanna Dewey, “Oral Methods of Structuring Narrative in Mark,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 43, no. 1 (1989): 32-44.


  1. Thank you, WVS. Easter is so special to me, as are the accounts of the life of Christ in the Gospels. I was somewhat disheartened last year when, on Easter Sunday, none of the talks during Sacrament, and none of the lessons during Sunday School or Priesthood, were actually on the subject of Easter. I’m not sure if this was a local slip-up, or an oversight at SLC. In any case, I will look forward to the rest of your posts on the subject!

  2. Here’s hoping for better coverage this year, FW.

  3. Mostly I just like this . . . the common sense approach, the attention to the text (where it came from, who wrote it, for what it was intended), the weaving between liberal and fundamentalist. Thank you. Looking forward to the passion (beyond the Preliminaries).

    For a small comment, it does seem to me that most “liberal” or “fundamentalist” discussions I hear are about something else. They’re about the book proving (or not) the existence of God, or of an interventionist God, or the calling and veracity of Joseph Smith, or identifying the true church. Or they are about the meaning and binding nature (or not) of some verse or section or teaching. The meta-discussion of proof texting is often what we believe or agree to believe about the nature of scripture.

  4. You make a good point CK. I often get lost in the academic side of things.

  5. Joseph Stanford says:

    Easter as a celebrated holiday or liturgy is of secondary importance in Mormonism, institutionally. Which does not mean the atonement or resurrection is of secondary importance. It just means we Mormons are ambivalent about religious practices from historical Chistianity. If Easter falls on General Conference, General Conference trumps (with some Easter talks). In our ward this year, there is stake conference the week after General Conference, so Fast Sunday will be celebrated on Easter Sunday. Fast Sunday, Stake Conference, and General Conference all trump Easter Sunday.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, WVS. I’m eager to dive into another of your series!

  7. Leonard R says:

    Really enjoyed this and love the approach. There is a rich, humble yearning to it.

  8. Finally getting around to these, WVS. I like the beginning! I’m excited for spending some time with these Easter thoughts this week.

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