The Passion of Christ is the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial and suffering. It ends with his execution by crucifixion. The Passion is an episode in a longer story and cannot be properly understood without the story of the Resurrection.
The word Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering.
The crucifixion of Jesus is accepted by many scholars as an actual historical event. It is recorded in the writings of Paul, the Gospels, Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus. Scholars differ about the historical accuracy of the details, the context and the meaning of the event.
Most versions of the Passion begin with the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some also include the Last Supper, while some writers begin the story as early as Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the applause of the crowds.
The Passion is a story about injustice, doubt, fear, pain and, ultimately, degrading death. It tells how God experienced these things in the same way as ordinary human beings.
The most iconic image of the Passion is the crucifix - Christ in his last agony on the cross - found in statues and paintings, in glass, stone and wooden images in churches, and in jewellery.
The Passion appears in many forms of art. It is set to music, used as a drama and is the subject of innumerable paintings.
Spiritually, the Passion is the perfect example of suffering, which is one of the pervasive themes of the Christian religion.
Suffering is not the only theme of the Passion, although some Christians believe that Christ's suffering and the wounds that he suffered play a great part in redeeming humanity from sin.
Another theme is incarnation - the death of Jesus shows humanity that God had become truly human and that he was willing to undergo every human suffering, right up to the final agony of death. Another is obedience - despite initial, and very human, reluctance and fear, Jesus demonstrates his total acquiescence to God's wishes.
But the final theme is victory - the victory of Christ over death - and this is why the Passion story is inseparable from the story of the Resurrection.
The story of the Passion
The elements of the Passion story are these:
The Last Supper
The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The arrest of Jesus after his betrayal by Judas
The examination and condemnation of Jesus by the Jews
The trial before Pilate during which Jesus is sentenced to be whipped and crucified
The crucifixion of Jesus
The Last Supper
Jesus and the disciples share a last meal together either during Passover (Synoptic Gospels) or on the eve of Passover (John's Gospel).
During the meal Jesus blesses and breaks bread, which he gives to the disciples saying "Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me".
After the meal Jesus blesses some wine and gives it to the disciples saying "Drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me".
This event is the foundation of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, which includes services such as Holy Communion, Mass, The Lord's Supper. Although different Christian denominations have many different ways of celebrating the Eucharist, and understand it in different ways, they all developed from the Last Supper.
During the meal Jesus predicts that he will be betrayed by one of those sharing the meal with him, and that another of the disciples will disown him.
The agony in the Garden
After supper Jesus goes with the disciples to spend the night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus asks God if he can escape his fate..."Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."
Despite this prayer he willingly submits to God's will and continues to prepare himself. God sends an angel to give Jesus strength for the ordeal.
Jesus continues to pray and his distress is such that 'his sweat was like drops of blood'.
The disciples who Jesus asked to wait with him fell asleep; even his closest friends left him to suffer alone.
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested
A group of armed men, sent by the Jewish authorities, arrives in the Garden to arrest Jesus.
Judas betrays Jesus by identifying him with a kiss - the signal he had arranged beforehand.
Peter, one of the disciples, takes a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the arresting party. The disciple believes that he is trying to protect Jesus, but by doing so he abandons Jesus' teaching against violence.
Jesus forbids further violence and heals the injured man.
The disciples run away and Jesus is taken away.
Jesus is tried by Jewish officials
Jesus is questioned in front of a group of Jewish religious leaders. The Gospels give different accounts of this, and of who is present.
Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of the Temple wanted to destroy Jesus before he caused a rebellion that would bring down the comfortable world of the Temple and enraging the Roman authorities.
During questioning Jesus says enough for the Romans to see him as a rebel, and the Jews to regard him as a blasphemer.
The trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities is a source of much controversy, and has been used in the past to justify anti-Semitism.
Modern Christians do not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.
The Jewish authorities had several reasons for being angry with Jesus:
Jesus had challenged their authority - earlier in the week Jesus had gone to the Temple and protested against the moneychangers, as a symbolic denunciation of all the injustices the Temple stood for.
Jesus was reinterpreting Jewish Law
Jesus was breaking the laws concerning the Sabbath
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, a claim which the authorities thought blasphemous
The claim to be Messiah suggested that Jesus was preparing some sort of rebellion - probably against the Roman colonial government. Such a revolt would endanger the relationship between Roman and Jewish authorities. (In those days the Messiah was expected to be a royal figure who would defeat the enemies of God and cleanse or rebuild the temple, and perhaps also bring God's justice to the world.)
Jesus is tried by Pilate
Jesus is tried by Pilate, the Roman governor, on a charge of treason. The Jewish authorities were not authorised to execute people, so they needed to transfer the case to the Roman authorities.
Pilate is not convinced that Jesus is guilty of a capital crime and suggests that it would be sufficient to flog him.
The crowd objects to this and demands that Jesus be killed. Pilate gives in and sentences Jesus to be flogged first and then executed by crucifixion.
Although the Gospels paint Pilate as a weak man who ignores justice rather than stand against the crowd, other sources say that he was tough and authoritarian, and unlikely to have been pushed around by anyone.
Pilate was eventually ordered back to Rome and tried for the cruel way he treated the people under his government.
There is a Christian tradition that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity.
Jesus is whipped and then, to mock the claim that he is 'King of the Jews', given a crown of thorns and dressed in a purple robe. Jesus carries his cross to the place of crucifixion, helped by Simon of Cyrene.
The crucifixion takes place at a location called Calvary or Golgotha.
Jesus is stripped and nailed to the Cross. Above his head is placed a sign that says 'King of the Jews'. Two criminals are crucified alongside him.
After some hours the soldiers check that Jesus is dead by stabbing him in the side. Blood and water gush out.
Jesus' body is taken down and buried.
The Passion story is told in the 4 Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible (Mark 14-15, Matthew 26-27, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19). The first 3 (often called the Synoptic Gospels) have much in common, while St John's Gospel tells the story rather differently.
Many Bible scholars would say that the Gospels are not primarily a historical record of what happened because:
they were written between 40 and 70 years after the death of Jesus
those who wrote them were not present at the events they described but the oral tradition was very strong in those days, so it was possible for information to be passed on quite accurately from actual eyewitnesses
the oral tradition allowed the narrative to be reshaped as it was passed on, in order to suit the purposes of the person telling the story
the Gospels differ on some of the events
the purpose of the Gospels is not to provide an accurate record of the historical events of Christ's last days but to record the spiritual truth of Jesus Christ
The Gospels are a combination of historical fact with theological reflection on the meaning and purpose of Christ's life and death.
They also look back to show how Christ's suffering and death followed the prophecies of the Old Testament in order to demonstrate that he was the long-expected Messiah.
The Gospel accounts of the Passion are very simple; other accounts of Christ's suffering and death have embellished the story with additional details.
The historical evidence for the Crucifixion supports the bare facts of Jesus' death on the Cross, but little else.
Around 60 years after the death of Jesus the Jewish historian Josephus wrote:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of astounding deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth gladly. He won a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin.
When Pilate, because of an accusation made by our leaders, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. Up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.
Old Testament contributions
Some accounts of the Passion use elements from Old Testament passages to provide additional material:
One of the most widely known of these applications is the phrase..."they have numbered all my bones" (Psalm 21: 18), which lay behind a host of narrative descriptions of Christ being stretched so tightly on the cross that all his bones were clearly visible and therefore numerable.
Other religious sources
It wasn't just the Old Testament material that was used to augment the Passion story. Gospels not included in scripture, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, provided additional material.
Bible commentaries from masters such as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome dealt with the Passion, while St. Ephraem, for example, added many physical details of the Passion...
They, indeed, stretched out His limbs and outraged Him with mockeries. A man whom He had formed wielded the scourge. He who sustains all creatures with His might submitted His back to their stripes.
Mediaeval books like the Historia scholastica of Peter Comestor and the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298) added their own ideas to enhance the power of the story...
John's description of the arrest in the garden states only that the band of soldiers with the tribune and the leaders of the Jews took Jesus and bound him (John 18:12).
In some of the late medieval treatises on the Passion, this description is elaborated with the additional detail that Christ's hands were tied so tightly that blood burst from his fingernails.
The mediaeval monk John of Fιcamp (died 1078) wrote a famous description of the body of the dying Christ, which clearly inspired many painters...
His naked breast gleamed white, his bloody side grew red, his stretched out innards grew dry, the light of his eyes grew faint, his long arms grew stiff, his marble legs hung down, a stream of holy blood moistened his pierced feet.
Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ used another influential account; The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is based on the visions of the German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).
Emmerich believed she had seen Christ's suffering - and her visions added to the Gospel version of the story. So for example, where the Gospels merely refer to Jesus being flogged, Emmerich adds much detail:
What the Gospels state matter-of-factly and without narrative elaboration is luridly expanded by Emmerich: First they used "a species of thorny stick covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore His flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out...." (p. 135). Then she describes the use of scourges "composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated to the bone and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow"
Emmerich's visions paint a very negative portrait of the Jews, and give them a much greater role in the suffering of Jesus than is found in the Bible.
The Seven Last Words
The Seven Last Words refer to Jesus' final seven utterances spoken from the Cross:
Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34)
I tell you this; today you shall be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43) - Jesus said this to one of the criminals crucified with him
Mother, there is your son. Son, there is your mother (John 19:26)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
I thirst (John 19:28)
It is finished (John 19:30)
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)
The Seven Last Words formed the basis of a famous composition by Haydn. Composed in 1786, it was first performed on Good Friday 1787 in Cadiz, Spain.
Each of the work's seven sections is based on one of Jesus' final utterances. Haydn described the piece as...
purely instrumental music divided into seven Sonatas, each Sonata lasting seven or eight minutes, together with an opening Introduction and concluding with a Terremoto or Earthquake. These Sonatas are composed on, and appropriate to, the Words that Christ our Saviour spoke on the Cross...
Each Sonata, or rather each setting of the text, is expressed only by instrumental music, but in such a way that it creates the most profound impression on even the most inexperienced listener.
"It is finished"
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on the completion of Jesus' purpose in his death.
Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross are numbered stages in the events of the Passion, from the condemnation of Jesus to the placing of his body in the tomb.
The Stations of the Cross are often found in churches as a series of statues or other works of art placed along the walls or on pillars.
Christians can use the Stations of the Cross as the basis for a structured meditation on the last hours of Christ's life.
The Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) takes the faithful on a journey through the final stages of the Passion, as explained in this Roman Catholic guidance note:
In the Via Crucis, various strands of Christian piety coalesce: the idea of life being a journey or pilgrimage; as a passage from earthly exile to our true home in Heaven; the deep desire to be conformed to the Passion of Christ; the demands of following Christ, which imply that his disciples must follow behind the Master, daily carrying their own crosses.
The guidance note reminds worshippers that the Via Crucis...
should conclude, however, in such fashion as to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope.
There are fourteen Stations of the Cross:
1. Jesus is condemned by Pilate
2. Jesus carries the Cross
3. Jesus falls
4. Jesus meets Mary, his mother
5. Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the Cross
6. Veronica wipes Jesus' face
7. Jesus falls again
8. Women weep
9. Jesus falls again
10. Jesus is stripped
11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross
12. The death of Jesus
13. Removal from the Cross
14. Jesus is put in the tomb
The Five Precious Wounds
The Five Precious (or Sacred) Wounds are the wounds in the hands, feet and side of Christ that were inflicted at the Crucifixion.
These wounds have been the subject of spiritual devotion, mostly among Roman Catholics, for many centuries. A number of churches are dedicated to the Five Precious Wounds, and many prayers have been written on the theme.
Some altars are decorated with five crosses - one in the centre and one at each corner - to represent the Five Precious Wounds.
In mediaeval times it was calculated that Jesus received a total of 5,466 injuries during the Passion.
The date of the Crucifixion
The actual date of the Crucifixion is not known, but the evidence narrows it down to dates with the following properties:
At full moon
On either the first day of Passover (Synoptic Gospels) or the eve of Passover (John)
Between 25 and 35 AD
The 11th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica gave the date as 18th March in 29 AD.
Other dates that have been suggested include 7th April 30, 3rd April 33 and 30th April 28 AD, but some recent articles have argued that 18 March 29 AD is the most likely date.
The Passion in liturgy and music
The Passion of Christ has featured in Christian liturgy since the 4th century.
It became an institution in the 5th century when Pope Leo the Great laid down that the St Matthew Passion should be part of the mass on Palm Sunday and the Wednesday of Holy Week, and the St John Passion should be part of the Good Friday service.
From the 7th century the service on the Wednesday of Holy Week featured the St Luke Passion, and from the 10th century the Roman Catholic Church used the St Mark Passion on the Tuesday of Holy Week.
From quite early the Passion was chanted in a dramatic way, with the reader representing the different voices in the story: the Evangelist as Narrator, the voice of Christ, and other speaking parts. Very often the words of Christ were chanted while the rest was spoken.
The texts were originally chanted by a single person, but from around the 13th century different voices took the different parts.
The first polyphonic Passion settings date from the 15th century.
As music became more sophisticated various forms of Passion were developed, ranging from straight narratives with music through to oratorios anchored to a greater or lesser extent in the text of scripture.
The St Matthew Passion of J S Bach is probably the best-known of the musical settings of the Passion.
The Passion in drama
'Passion plays' have been staged since the 12th century. The earliest play (so far) is one found at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. Two 13th century German passion plays are known, and Passion plays were more popular during that century and the one that followed.
The Passion of Christ was also portrayed in the English 'cycle plays'.
Passion plays often give a detailed portrayal of Christ's physical suffering and many of them include explicit dramatisations of the beating and execution of Christ.
There were at least two reasons for this: since all Passion plays emphasise the humanity of Christ and identify this with his physical experiences, a realistic Crucifixion brought the point home to the audience. Secondly, making the action as realistic as possible demonstrated to the audience that the death of Christ was a real historical event.
The most famous Passion play is the one that has been staged at Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria in Germany since 1634.
The villagers of Oberammergau had promised God that if he saved them from a plague epidemic they would commemorate it by staging a dramatic representation of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection every ten years.
The Oberammergau Passion play is particularly notable for involving the participation of the most of the villagers, with over 800 people in the cast.
The Passion in art
The Passion is one of the most common subjects in art. Paintings of the Crucifixion were much in demand for church use.
The earliest paintings of the Crucifixion date from the 5th century.
Among the most famous paintings is the Isenheim altarpiece (1515) by Mathias Grunewald. The painting of the Crucifixion is gruelling in both its detailed treatment of the physical anguish of Jesus, and the visual language used.
The Crucifix as a sculpted cross with the figure of Jesus dates from the 10th century (the Gero Cross of Cologne Cathedral).
In many churches a Crucifix stands on the choir screen, in the arch between the nave and the chancel. These are often known as 'roods' and the screen as a 'rood screen'. Rood comes from the Saxon word for a crucifix.
The Passion in plants
In this radio programme, Paul Morrison, a naturalist, explores the symbolism of flowers and plants in the crucifixion story. He goes in search of the plant the soldiers may have used to make Jesus' crown of thorns.
The torture of Jesus
The Gospels do not go into details of the brutality with which Jesus was treated.
Many of the details in accounts of the Passion derive from other texts, such as the 14th century German text Christi Leiden in Einer Vision Geschaut which covers the event in horrific detail. Such treatments of the Passion were common in mediaeval texts.
Those who wrote texts like this didn't want to sensationalise the story but to emphasise that Jesus Christ was as fully human as he was divine by showing that the Son of God had suffered the most extreme torture that could be inflicted on a human being.
The texts also provided vivid word pictures that would help those so inclined to meditate on the suffering of Christ and, in mind and spirit, to enter into the experience to the extent of imagining themselves actually there.
Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1153) taught that meditation on the Passion was the way to achieve spiritual perfection.
St Anselm mourned the fact that he had not been present at the Crucifixion...
Why, O my soul, were you not there to be pierced by a sword of bitter sorrow when you could not bear the piercing of the side of your Saviour with a lance? Why could you not bear to see the nails violate the hands and feet of your creator?
And Anselm went further, and wished that he had been a participant in those events...
Would that I with happy Joseph might have taken down my Lord from the cross, wrapped him in spiced grave-clothes, and laid him in the tomb.Saint Anselm, quoted in Ewert Cousins, The Humanity and the Passion of Christ, in Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, by Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, Jill Raitt, 1988
St Francis of Assisi was another who longed to experience Christ's suffering:
My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, the pain which you, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of your most bitter passion.
The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which you, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.
The Passion and anti-Semitism
The Passion story has often been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism with cruel, tragic and shaming results. Mary Gordon points out that the Passion is...
a story whose very power to move the human spirit has been a vehicle for both transcendence and murder. To be a Christian is to face the responsibility for one's own most treasured sacred texts being used to justify the deaths of innocents.
And the gospel versions of the story clearly suggest that even if the Jews did not actually kill Jesus, some Jewish officials played a significant part in getting the Roman governor to sentence Jesus to death.
Some people claim that the Bible states that the Jews cursed themselves as Christ-killers. They base this on a passage in St. Mark's Gospel (27: 25) where members of the Jewish crowd shout out, "His blood be on us, and on our children." This phrase was used for centuries to claim that Jews bore a 'blood guilt' that justified Church anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews.
In fact Jesus was not killed by the Jews, but by Roman soldiers on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.
Jesus was crucified, and only the Romans used this method of execution.
Jesus was not primarily executed for blasphemy but because Pilate feared that he would incite public unrest.
Some of the Jewish leadership played a part in the death of Jesus, but the Jewish population as a whole had nothing to do with it.
The blame for Christ's death is unambiguously stated in the Christian Creed:
He was also crucified for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried.
The Roman Catholic Church brought a formal end to Church anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council when it declared in the document Nostra Aetate:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, still what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.
Although the Church is the new People of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.