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The Passion of Christ in the Four Gospels
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See also DEVOTION TO THE PASSION OF CHRIST .
We have in the Gospels four separate accounts of the Passion of Our Lord , each of which supplements the others, so that only from a careful examination and comparison of all can we arrive at a full and clear knowledge of the whole story. The first three Gospels resemble each other very closely in their general plan, so closely indeed that some sort of literary connection among them may be assumed; but the fourth Gospel, although the writer was evidently familiar at least with the general tenor of the story told by the other three, gives us an independent narrative.
If we begin by marking in any one of the Synoptic Gospels those verses which occur in substance in both of the other two, and then read these verses continuously, we shall find that we have in them a brief but a complete narrative of the whole passion story. There are of course very few details, but all the essentials of the story are there. In St. Mark's Gospel the marked verses will be as follows: xiv, 1, 10-14, 16-18, 21-23, 26, 30, 32, 35-6, 41, 43, 45, 47-9, 53-4, 65 to xv, 2, 9, 11-15, 21-2, 26-7, 31-33, 37-9, 41, 43, 46-7. Verbal alterations would be required to make the verses run consecutively. Sometimes the division will not quite coincide with the verse. It is possible that this nucleus, out of which our present accounts seem to have grown, represents more or less exactly some original and more ancient narrative, whether written or merely oral matters little, compiled in the earliest days at Jerusalem. This original narrative, so far as we can judge from what is common to all the three Synoptics, included the betrayal, the preparation of the Paschal Supper , the Last Supper with a brief account of the institution of the Eucharist, the Agony in the Garden, the arrest and taking of Our Lord before Caiphas, with His examination there and condemnation for blasphemy. Then follow Peter's denials, and the taking of Our Lord before Pilate. Next comes Pilate's question: "Art thou the king of the Jews ?" and Our Lord's answer, "Thou sayest it", with Pilate's endeavour to set Him free on account of the feast, frustrated by the demand of the people for Barabbas. After this Pilate weakly yields to their insistence and, having scourged Jesus, hands Him over to be crucified. The story of the Crucifixion itself is a short one. It is confined to the casting of lots for the garments, the accusation over the head, the mocking of the chief priests, the supernatural darkness, and the rending of the Temple veil. After the death we have the confession of the centurion, the begging of the body of Jesus from Pilate, and the burial of it, wrapped in a clean linen cloth, in Joseph's new tomb hewn out in the rock close by.Giving Tuesday - Give Now >
In order to distinguish what is peculiar to each Evangelist we must notice a remarkable series of additional passages which are found both in St. Matthew and St. Mark. There are no similar coincidences between St. Matthew and St. Luke, or between St. Mark and St. Luke. These passages taken as they occur in St. Mark, are as follows: Mark, xiv, 15, 19-20, 24-28, 31, 33-4, 37-40, 42, 44, 46, 50-2, 55-8, 60-4, xv, 3-8, 10, 16-20, 23-4, 29-30, 34-6, 40, 42. They have the character rather of expansions than of additions. Still some of them are of considerable importance, for instance, the mocking of Our Lord by the soldiers in the Prætorium, and the cry from the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Possibly this series also formed part of an original narrative omitted by St. Luke, who had a wealth of special information on the Passion. Another explanation would be that St. Mark expanded the original narrative, and that his work was then used by St. Matthew. The passages found in St. Mark alone are quite unimportant. The story of the young man who fled naked has very generally been felt to be a personal reminiscence. Mark alone speaks of the Temple as "made with hands", and he is also the only one to note that the false witnesses were not in agreement one with another. He mentions also that Simon the Cyrenian was "father of Alexander and of Rufus ", no doubt because these names were well known to those for whom he was writing. Lastly, he is the only one who records the fact that Pilate asked for proof of the death of Christ. In St. Matthew's Gospel the peculiarities are more numerous and of a more distinctive character. Naturally in his Gospel, written for a Jewish circle of readers, there is insistence on the position of Jesus as the Christ. There are several fresh episodes possessing distinctive and marked characteristics. They include the washing of Pilate's hands, the dream of Pilate's wife, and the resurrection of the saints after the death of Christ, with the earthquake and the rending of the tombs. The special features by which St. Luke's passion narrative is distinguished are very numerous and important. Just as St. Matthew emphasizes the Messianic character, so St. Luke lays stress on the universal love manifested by our Lord, and sets forth the Passion as the great act by which the redemption of mankind was accomplished. He is the only one who records the statement of Pilate that he found no cause in Jesus ; and also the examination before Herod. He alone tells us of the angel who came to strengthen Jesus in his agony in the garden, and, if the reading is right, of the drops of blood which mingled with the sweat which trickled down upon the ground. To St. Luke again we owe our knowledge of no less than three of the seven words from the Cross: the prayer for His murderers; the episode of the penitent thief ; and the last utterance of all, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit". Finally it is St. Luke alone who tells us of the effect produced upon the spectators, who so short a time before had been so full of hatred, and how they returned home "striking their breasts".
The traditional character of the Fourth Gospel as having been written at a later date than the other three, and after they had become part of the religious possession of Christians generally, is entirely borne out by a study of the passion. Although almost all the details of the story are new, and the whole is drawn up on a plan owing nothing to the common basis of the Synoptists, yet a knowledge of what they had written is presupposed throughout, and is almost necessary before this later presentment of the Gospel can be fully understood. Most important events, fully related in the earlier Gospels, are altogether omitted in the Fourth, in a way which would be very perplexing had we not thus the key. For instance, there is no mention of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the agony in the garden, or the trial and condemnation before Caiphas. On the other hand, we have a great number of facts not contained in the Synoptists. For instance, the eagerness of Pilate to release our Lord and his final yielding only to a definite threat from the Jewish leaders; the presence of our Lady at the foot of the Cross, and Jesus' last charge to her and to St. John. Most important of all perhaps, is the piercing of the side by the soldier's spear and the flowing forth of blood and water. It is St. John alone, again, who tells us of the order to break the legs of all, and that Jesus Christ's legs were not broken, because he was already dead.
There seems at first sight a discrepancy between the narrative of the Fourth Gospel and that of the Synoptists, namely, as to the exact day of the crucifixion, which involves the question whether the Last Supper was or was not, in the strict sense, the Paschal meal. If we had the Synoptists only we should almost certainly decide that it was, for they speak of preparing the Pasch, and give no hint that the meal which they describe was anything else. But St. John seems to labour to show that the Paschal meal itself was not to be eaten till the next day. He points out that the Jews would not enter the court of Pilate, because they feared pollution which might prevent them from eating the Pasch. He is so clear that we can hardly mistake his meaning, and certain passages in the Synoptists seem really to point in the same direction. Joseph, for instance, was able to buy the linen and the spices for the burial, which would not have been possible on the actual feast-day. Moreover, one passage, which at first sight seems strongest in the other direction, has quite another meaning when the reading is corrected. "With desire I have desired", said Jesus to His Apostles, "to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer. For I say to you, that from this time, I will not eat it, till it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God " ( Luke 22:15 ). When the hour for it had fully come He would have been already dead, the type would have passed away, and the Kingdom of God would have already come.
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