Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Introduction: The Perspective of This Commentary, pp 4-35

(detailed summary)

The Perspective of This Commentary


The purpose of this book is to explain in detail what the evangelists sought to convey to their audience through their account of the passion and death of Jesus. These evangelists are not eyewitnesses to events that took place between 30 and 70 before they wrote. And each writes from his own world. It is therefore necessary to find this world in order to explain his intention, what he sought to convey to his audience. It is also necessary to understand this audience that can be guessed through certain presuppositions of the Gospel. Finally, it must be remembered that these are narratives, and more particularly dramatic narratives in the case of passion, and not a news report.

The Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, but a condensed version of early preaching with underlying elements of history. However, the fact remains that identifying these historical elements requires a great deal of tact and calls for criteria such as multiple attestation, coherence, embarrassment and discontinuity. And these elements of history remain limited, as we lack detailed information on Palestine 2,000 years ago.

Two approaches are used, a horizontal approach by comparing the Gospels scene by scene, and a vertical approach by linking the sequence of stories within the same Gospel. Thus Mark is the one who most emphasizes the disciples' inability to grasp Jesus' identity and the anguish and loneliness of Jesus during his passion. While following Mark quite closely, Matthew will tone down this portrait a little and introduce the theme of responsibility in the execution of Jesus. Luke presents a more peaceful portrait of Jesus who continues to heal and forgive throughout his passion, as he did during his ministry. In John, where only 50% of his material is also found in Mark, we have a sovereign Jesus who will be arrested only when his time has come, and will die only when he has completely fulfilled the Scriptures, taking care to create the foundation of the new community and to give his spirit before he dies.

  1. Explaining What the Evengelists Intended and Conveyed to Their Audiences by Their Narratives

    1. The Evangelists

      We do not have eyewitness accounts, but only written accounts thirty to seventy years after the events, and dependent on what has been passed on previously by one or two generations. Each evangelist has organized the material transmitted by these different traditions in his own way to put it at the service of his own perception of things. Interpreting this perception is more important than speculating on the traditions used or even on the situation of Jesus.

      It is also important to be aware that each evangelist has his or her own background. For example, all four evangelists know the Jewish Scriptures, but in what language? It is likely that Matthew and John knew Aramaic and/or Hebrew, while Mark and Luke knew only Greek, so one could refer to the Hebrew text, while the other could refer to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament which might differ from the original Hebrew). Did they know the city of Jerusalem because they had lived there or gone there, or did they have to rely on their imagination? Were they aware that there are several types of veils in the temple with different functions? Even if their presentation seems similar, one must consider the individual making the presentation.

    2. Intended and Conveyed

      The evangelists wrote 1,900 years ago in a social and intellectual setting totally different from ours. Jesus himself was a Jew of the first third of the first century and this is reflected in his way of speaking, thinking and acting. This is why the first aim of this commentary is to offer a solid understanding of what the evangelists sought to convey in the first century, and only then can it be used for reinterpretation in today's context. This is all the more important because the contemporary message must be rooted in what the inspired writers have given us.

      The two words "intend" and "convey" are important. First of all, what they "conveyed" is evident through their writings, and we should stick to those writings and avoid speculation about what they did not write. But the relationship between what they transmitted and what they "intended" to transmit is more delicate. For, depending on the writer's talent, a piece of writing can either transmit well or badly what it intended to say, its intention. The purpose of this commentary is to match the author's intention with what he has transmitted to us. One might object: how can the exegete propose an intention different from what the words of the text say? The key to interpretation is sometimes found in the other passages of a text. An example: the word "they" in the expression "When they took him away" (Luke 23:26) seems to refer to the "chief priests, the rulers and the people" in v. 13, thus making the Jews the executioners of the crucifixion, but this would contradict other passages in Luke on the role of the Romans (see Luke 18:32-33; Acts 4:25-27); thus we have a case of Luke's grammatical awkwardness where the author's intention does not correspond to what is written.

    3. Their Audiences

      We can speak of listeners, because given the few copies of the Gospels in circulation, they were primarily heard in a public reading that was read individually. They are traditionally located in Rome for Mark, in Antioch for Matthew, in Greece for Luke, and in Ephesus for John. This audience lets itself be known through certain presuppositions of the Gospel. We will therefore take them into account in our interpretive work. For example, did the audience hearing the story of the tearing of the temple veil know the difference between the many veils, their functions and symbolism? This is doubtful in the case of Mark's audience to whom the evangelist must explain the most basic Jewish customs (see Mark 7:3-4). This audience would have understood this tearing of the veil from top to bottom simply as the end of the holy place in the temple in Jerusalem, because it was no longer isolated from the other rooms. The other question that deserves to be asked is: Was this audience so familiar with the Jewish Scriptures as to be able to grasp and develop all the references, sometimes implicit, made by the evangelists to these Scriptures? It is not easy to comb through the Gospels to get an answer, but it is worthwhile to try to control the tendency of today's exegetes to assume that this audience knew all that they have come to discover over time.

    4. By Their Narratives of the Passion and Death of Jesus

      I will have to remind the reader often that we are dealing with stories. The very fact of dividing this commentary into acts and scenes is meant to emphasize the fact that these are dramatic stories. Let us recall that the passion from Gethsemane to the tomb is the longest act reported about Jesus, because Jesus' ministry up to that point has been a series of small vignettes. This fact should guide our judgment. For example, several scenes appear in groups of three: In Mark/Matthew in Gethsemane there are these three scenes where 1) Jesus arrives with the group of disciples and speaks to them, 2) where he takes Peter, James and John aside and speaks to them, 3) where he is alone in prayer; afterwards, he will return three times to the sleeping disciples; we could also mention the moments in the crucifixion, i. e., the time of the crucifixion.e. the 3rd, 6th and 9th hour, as well as the fact that there are three scenes of mocking of Jesus on the cross. The number three is classic in any story, including our funny stories today. This point will need to be recalled often, otherwise questions will be raised that are totally out of order, such as: How did the evangelist know the content of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane when the disciples were asleep?

  2. The Role of History

    It is often said that Christianity is a historical religion, unlike religions based on myths about gods that never existed. Unfortunately, this statement has led some people to believe that everything that is said about Jesus in the New Testament is historical. The Gospels are considered to be biographies of Jesus' life, despite the fact that two Gospels completely ignore Jesus' childhood and say almost nothing about his parents, and that no Gospel gives us any details about Jesus before he began his ministry. My commentary is based on an understanding of the Gospels as a compendium of early Christian preaching which is primarily intended to nourish the faith of its audience.

    1. Is There History Underlying the Gospel Passion Narratives?

      If the Gospels are a compendium of early preaching, what relationship do they have to what really happened in the life of Jesus? There is no dichotomy in accepting the narrative form of the passion while remaining open to historical questions.

      It should be remembered that probably none of the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the passion, and none of the memories that go back to Jesus reached the evangelists without a profound transformation. However, there were eyewitnesses. The group of Twelve accompanied him in his ministry, and even if he let go of him at the time of his arrest, he certainly took an interest in what happened. It was the hallmark of crucifixions to be public in order to deter criminals, and the burial was also a public act. As well, there was certainly word of mouth. From the outset, one can envisage raw material circulating about all these events, regardless of their form and the fact that the Christian imagination may have added to or embellished them.

      Even though Jesus' early followers knew a number of details concerning his crucifixion, their interest was directed toward the significance in God's plan of what had happened. So they spontaneously referred to the Jewish Scriptures with which they were imbued to reread all the events (the sharing of clothes, the offering of the vinegar wine, Jesus' last words). But some exegetes today use this fact to deny the historical value of the passion narratives: a good part of the elements of the story would have been invented from Scripture, as 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 suggests:

      For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:
      that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
      and that he was buried,
      and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
      and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
      Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. .

      These exegetes forget a number of things

      1. Two facts, the burial and the appearances, are not "according to the Scriptures".
      2. Paul's list of those to whom Jesus appeared is no doubt based on their testimony, and therefore on eyewitnesses.
      3. Even with the mention of the Scriptures, the historicity of the death on the cross cannot be seriously denied.
      4. What is "according to the Scriptures" is not death or resurrection, but "for our sins" and "on the third day".

      Thus, the first Christians not only wanted to find the meaning of the events, but they also remembered a number of facts concerning the death of Jesus without making reference to Scripture, as Paul echoes: "For I have received from the Lord what I in my turn have passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread.... " (1 Corinthians 11:23ff).

    2. Difficulties in Detecting History

      1. Methods Used for Detecting Historical Material Underlying the Gospels

        Exegetes have developed a number of criteria to distinguish between what comes from the ministry of Jesus and what comes from the image developed by his preaching and early writings. But one must be aware of their limitations, especially when a substantially historical content has been adapted for preaching to new generations.

        1. Multiple Attestation

          This is the criterion I will use most often. But it has its limits. If we were to evoke independent Jewish witnesses or Roman writings, we would have almost nothing of the elements of the passion, except the crucifixion itself. Added to this is the difficulty of identifying independent elements within the Gospels. The thesis accepted here is the dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark, but not John who is independent.

        2. Coherence

          Sometimes an incident in the Gospel is not supported by the multiple attestation, but is consistent with another that is. But this argument must be used with care, because imagination also uses the criterion of coherence. We only have to think of the one who drew his weapon and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest at the time of Jesus' arrest, whom the Gospels do not identify, but whom John identifies with Simon Peter: if we had to guess who made this gesture, we would have thought of the impetuous Peter.

        3. Embarrassment

          The early preachers or evangelists would not have invented an event that would have proved embarrassing to the early Church. Such was the case with the betrayal of Judas, one of the Twelve, the abandonment of the disciples and the denial of Peter. But, again, one must be careful: the fact that Jesus asks to take away the cup he has to drink in Gethsemane may seem embarrassing, but it may have been created to give a theological illustration of the challenge of facing death.

        4. Discontinuity or Dissimilarity

          When a point about Jesus has no parallel in Judaism or in early Christian thought, it is probably historical. But here again, the possibility of creative activity must be admitted. We note that the title of " son of man " is practically absent in the New Testament, apart from the Gospels. But did Jesus use it as frequently as the Gospels show? Another problem with this criterion is that it is rarely applied. It should be remembered that Jesus is a Jew of the first third of the first century, and therefore his language and symbols are of the Judaism of his time. For example, the use of Scripture to understand important events in life was common to all Jews? In such a case, the criterion of discontinuity would lead us to exclude almost everything from the realm of history, which would be implausible.

      2. Limitations in Our Knowledge of the Times in Which Jesus Died

        We lack detailed information about Palestine 2,000 years ago, and this is even more evident when we deal with the passion of Jesus.

        1. Let's start with the Roman laws. Subsequent jurists have provided us with information on the death penalty, but all of this material appears under the title of "ordinary law" which applies to Roman citizens, especially in Italy and the well-established senatorial states. Now, Jesus was not a Roman citizen, and Judea was a newly established imperial province. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, governors had the latitude to do what they thought was right to maintain order. Thus, historical accounts of what governors usually did in the first century will be more useful to us than documentation of Roman law.

        2. Then there are the Jewish laws. They seem to have played a role ("We have a Law and according to this Law he must die" - John 19:7). But what we know comes from the Mishna (codified around the year 200). There is currently a debate as to what could go back to before the year 70 in this code. For example:

          • Were the Pharisees a major force and what is their connection with those who produced the Mishna?
          • How were the Galilean peasants influenced by the religious authorities in Jerusalem?
          • Was the Sanhedrin a well-established organization and what was it made up of?
          • To what extent can we rely on Flavius Josephus when his account in Jewish Antiquities differs from the previous one in his Jewish War?

        3. Finally, there is the socio-political setting. Two periods must be clearly distinguished, the prefecture of Judea (years 6-41), and the prefecture of all Palestine (44-46), separated by the four years of the reign of the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I. The political atmosphere of these two great periods is very different, and it is necessary to avoid projecting into the first period the political turmoil of the second. Similarly, the judgment of the Roman prefects should not be confused with that of the Herodian princes outside Judea. Nevertheless, it can be confidently affirmed that the source of the conflicts with Jesus was primarily religious, while acknowledging that the distrust of the authorities in Jerusalem towards the figures of the countryside, as well as the economic dependence of the population of Jerusalem on the Temple and the past relations between the Herodian kings of Palestine and the Roman prefects, between Pharisees and Sadducees, all contributed to the situation.

    3. Historicity and PreGospel Tradition in Interpreting the Passion Narratives

      Even if one accepts the existence of historical and traditional elements behind the passion narratives marked by the Jewish Scriptures and the kerygmatic and theological aims, five observations must nevertheless be made.

      1. A distinction must be made between history and tradition. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:23 ("For I have received from the Lord what I in turn have passed on to you...") expresses a tradition, and a tradition which probably has historical value, since it seems to go back to eyewitnesses; but not every tradition is necessarily historical. When we say that an account has its source in a pre-evangelical tradition, we are simply saying that it may date back to the period from the end of 30 AD to 50 AD, but not necessarily to the Jerusalem of 30 AD.

      2. The conclusions will vary from certain to very probable, probable, possible, and not possible. But even the word "certain" will be different from mathematical certainty, because it applies to accounts dating back 1,900 years, told by people who were not eyewitnesses to events 30 to 70 years earlier.

      3. Even if the purpose of a commentary is primarily to express the meaning of a biblical writing, it is still confronted with the question of a pre-evangelical tradition by the very fact of comparing the Gospels with each other. But to arrive at a detailed account of such a tradition is not part of this project; it suffices to outline the main points.

      4. The temptation to harmonize the four passion narratives, a temptation which dates back to the middle of the second century with Tatian, should be avoided. The mistake one makes is to assume that the evangelists have kept some historical memories. On the contrary, even assuming that they have retained a part of historical memories, the work of preaching and writing the Gospels has brought about a transformation and adaptation of these memories. For example, wanting to put together the interrogation of Jesus by Anne alone in John, the trial by the Sanhedrin in the evening at Mark/Matthew, the interrogation of the Sanhedrin in the morning at Luke's, all lead to a twisted portrait of reality. We must stick to the criterion of multiple attestations: Jesus underwent a Jewish judicial trial after his arrest, before being handed over to Pilate. Likewise, the Sanhedrin was involved in Jesus' death. Thus, one must be prepared to admit that the synoptic accounts have merged into one scene various legal actions against Jesus, including certain acts of opposition during his ministry.

      5. The unbridled search for historicity behind the passion narratives leads to a form of distortion. We forget that the primary purpose of the Gospels is to evangelize, i.e. to proclaim and nourish faith, not to offer us a report on what happened. In itself, the interest in elements of history is not bad, but we must avoid confusing it with the study of what the evangelists sought to transmit, which is the purpose of this commentary. Therefore, the discussion of elements of history will be relegated to a section called: Analysis, which will follow the more elaborate one called: Commentary.

  3. The role of Theology

    1. Jesus' Own Theology and General NT Theologies of the Passion

      Considerable literature has been devoted to how Jesus was able to understand his own death, especially if he understood it in a salvific way. Appendix VIII will deal in part with this subject. Equally considerable literature has been devoted to how first-century Christians understood Jesus' death: redemption, atonement, justification, justification, salvation, death for sins, etc. The following is a brief summary of this literature. A New Testament writer could present several visions without necessarily knowing those of others, and there are visions that did not make their way into the Gospels.

    2. The Passion Theology of the Evangelists

      Two approaches will be used, a horizontal approach by comparing the Gospels scene by scene, and a vertical approach by linking the sequence of stories within the same Gospel. Here is an overview of the different perspectives.

      1. Mark/Matthew

        The two evangelists present us with a Jesus abandoned by his disciples and having to face his death alone. He will undergo a Jewish and Roman trial, one centered on his plan to destroy the temple and claim to be the son of God, the other centered on his claim to be the king of the Jews. Neither will do him justice. On the cross, everyone will laugh at him, including the passers-by who have nothing to do with him.

        Jesus' journey is expressed by his two prayers. In Gethsemane, he prays to his Father in Aramaic and in Greek for the cup to pass from him, and in Golgotha, in the same languages, he asks God why he has forsaken him. Finally, he dies with a loud cry, similar to that of the demons he cast out. At this moment God finally seems to act with the veil of the temple being torn in two and the proclamation of the Roman centurion that he is a son of God, a response to the Jewish trial over the destruction of the temple and his claim to be a son of God.

        A dominant theme is the need for Jesus to suffer and for the disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Mark/Matthew dramatized Jesus' difficulty in living out his passion and emphasized the fact that God's intervention only takes place after his death. The message to the readers, who are called in a similar situation, is very clear.

        Despite the fact that Matthew follows Mark very closely, one can distinguish elements that are specific to each one.

        1. Mark

          He is the one who most accentuates the inability of the disciples to grasp the identity of Jesus because they are unable to grasp the necessity of suffering. From the moment he leaves the Last Supper table until his death, Mark's Jesus will receive no visible support. It is the Gospel that is most explicit about Jesus' anguish in Gethsemane and the disciples' flight that culminates in this young man running away naked. One can imagine that the audience for such a Gospel is made up of people who have suffered because of their faith, and who have found this suffering unbearable to the point of saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".

        2. Matthew

          The harshness of the Mark portrait is somewhat attenuated in Matthew. In the Gospel, the disciples confess that Jesus is the son of God (14, 33), and Peter that he is the Christ, the son of the living God. But this only accentuates the irony of the flight of the disciples and the denial of Peter. The fact remains that his Jesus in Gethsemane remains sovereign, knowing what was going to happen.

          But the greatest difference from Mark is the introduction of the theme of responsibility. He is the only one to relate this story around the thirty pieces of silver that Judas, who handed Jesus over to the authorities, no longer wants and hands over to the high priests who, in turn, do not want them and get rid of them by buying the "field of blood". Pilate's wife asks him not to take responsibility for innocent blood, and Pilate responds by washing his hands, refusing all responsibility. In the end, for Matthew, the responsibility will fall on all the Jewish people, on all those who contributed to his death. When the Gospel is written, after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in the year 70, a vast movement of reflection takes place in Jewish circles to explain this catastrophe, and in Christian communities it is seen as God's action in response to the unjust killing of the Son of God. Matthew thus reflects the theological and apologetic aims of his time, as can also be seen in the account of the tomb guards perpetuating a lie.

          Let us name one last feature peculiar to Matthew that began with the account of the childhood story where a star announces the birth of the king of the Jews and brings Gentiles to faith through the magi, while Herod's plan is thwarted. The passion narrative will echo this: a phenomenon of nature, an earthquake, announces the death of the king of the Jews, and a Roman centurion and those with him, Gentiles, proclaim their faith, while the plan of the Jews and Pilate to block his resurrection is thwarted.

      2. Luke

        The main episodes of Luke's passion have their parallel in Mark with the exception of the appearance before Herod, the women who follow him to the cross and the good thief. This being said, we must admit that Luke's account differs more from Mark's than Matthew's account. Luke's Jesus does not experience anguish in Gethsemane and his answer is immediately answered through the support of an angel. Throughout his passion he lives in communion with his Father, so that he dies in peace: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Peter is assured of Jesus' prayer, even if he betrays him. And the disciples receive Jesus' compliments for having remained with him until the end (22, 28-30). Throughout his ministry the Jesus of Luke healed and forgave. All this continues in the passion narrative: the ear cut off from one of those who came to arrest him is healed, he forgives those who crucified him, he promises paradise to one of the thieves. At Luke's, the hostile crowds have disappeared and we find ourselves with the women of Jerusalem crying over his fate. Finally, there is no longer any question of the destruction of this temple which appears in the last verse as a place of prayer for the disciples. Here we have an echo of his childhood story which begins in the temple and introduces us to sympathetic Jews.

        The Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, helps us to understand the message he tries to convey through the figures of Stephen and Paul: he draws a parallel between the death of one and the trial of the other. Stephen dies forgiving his accusers, and Paul, like Jesus, will face a trial before King Herod and the Roman governor. The death of Jesus thus becomes a model for persecuted Christians who must forgive, remain in communion with God, and see their death from a salvific perspective.

        Jesus is also portrayed as a martyred prophet. There are several allusions to Elijah and Elisha. If he goes to Jerusalem, it is not fitting for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem (13:33-34), and when he ascends to heaven, he imitates Elijah. He suffers martyrdom, but he is innocent, for he willingly accepts his death as the righteous sufferer. He dies without crying out and without seeking revenge, just like the martyr Stephen.

        There has been much debate about the theology of Luke on the Cross: in his mind, was Jesus' death in itself atoning? Some say no: Luke did not take up Mark's phrase about the son of the man who gives his life as a ransom and does not refer to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Others find that there is still a certain atoning perspective in Luke. We will not go into the details of this debate, which is a theological one. And this debate might not even exist if Paul were not part of the landscape.

      3. John

        There is only 50% of John's material that is parallel to Mark's. One must therefore interpret his theology with the preceding episodes, in particular all the episodes of hostility towards Jesus in which several times attempts are made to arrest and kill him. He will only be arrested when his hour has come, after the resurrection of Lazarus, freely accepting to give his life: Jesus came to give life, but those who are opposed to the light, including the Sanhedrin which has just met to condemn him, respond by giving him death. Throughout his passion, he remains sovereign and never kneels. He cannot ask for the cup to be taken away, for he is in complete communion with the Father, and it is for this cup that he has come. He even instructs Judas to hasten to do what he has to do. When they come to arrest him, the whole cohort collapses on the ground.

        The Jesus of John is that son of man to whom the Father has given all judgment, and therefore cannot be judged by any human being. Therefore, the trial before Pilate turns into a trial of Pilate himself, while the latter tries by all means not to make a decision. He will only do so when the Jews deny their messianic expectation (We have no king but Caesar!), around noon, when the paschal lamb was sacrificed in the temple, helping to fulfill the word of John the Baptist about the Lamb of God.

        On the cross, John's Jesus is triumphant, for it is a climb to return to his Father. The sign on the cross is a proclamation of his kingship. He does not die alone, for he is accompanied by his mother and the beloved disciple and takes the time to entrust them to one another, the foundation of a new community. He dies when he knows that the Scriptures are fulfilled, giving his spirit to all who believe. His bones will not be broken, but only the side from which blood and water will flow out of him, which will fulfill his own word about the springs of living water that will flow out of him and the word of the Scriptures. Finally, he will receive a royal burial at the hands of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, fulfilling his word on those he draws to himself. From beginning to end, we have the image of a victorious Jesus.

        We can think that this figure of Jesus is very far from human reality. But it is a Jesus seen through the eyes of faith. With this gaze, the authorities of the world have little weight and the passion is seen as a conquest.

Next chapter: Introduction : General Gospel Issues Pertinent to the Passion Narratives

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