The Passion Play portrays Christianity’s core beliefs, so, could it be what shaped and defined Christianity?
In towns and villages all over Europe, in the days leading up to Easter, the townspeople will perform a Passion Play, a presentation of the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus. Some of these Passion Plays are world famous, and so large and elaborate, that they can only be performed every five or ten years. Other, more modest events are held every year.
In 2013, I witnessed the Passion Play performed by the people of my paternal Italian village. It was held at night and the audience followed the actors through the village streets, watching ‘Jesus’ carry his cross, harried by Roman soldiers. The play culminated in the village square where three crosses were raised.
The play did not have to continue the story, as the audience would be going to mass on Easter Sunday morning where the story of Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day would be recounted and celebrated. However, as the congregation looked around their church, they would not have seen many images of the Risen Christ. Instead, their church’s walls would be adorned with the fourteen images of the Stations of the Cross, detailing dramatic moments in Jesus’ passion and death, and at the front of the church, in central position above the altar, there would be a large and realistic crucifix showing Jesus in his final agony.
The Crucifix is the most powerful icon of Christianity as it symbolises Christians’ core belief: that Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice which was powerful enough to atone for all humanity’s sins and grant them entry into an eternal afterlife. While they believe that Jesus was fully God and therefore a bridge between God in heaven and humanity, they also believe that he was fully human and therefore truly suffered, died and was resurrected. Christians need to believe that Jesus was fully God because it bestowed on his sacrifice its divine power. At the same time, they need to believe he was fully human, because otherwise he would not have truly suffered and died which would have rendered his death meaningless. Finally, they need to believe that it actually happened, otherwise their faith would be based on a false premise and its entire foundations would be undermined.
However, this veneration of the Crucifix, and worship of a Saviour who died the ignoble death of a common criminal after a short and limited ministry, bewilders members of the other great faiths such as Buddhism and Islam. Their founders lived long and productive lives, spread their teachings over vast territories, and died peacefully and honourably in their beds. Even Christian apologists have to acknowledge this dichotomy, but they use it to assert Jesus’ historicity. Such an ignoble death would have been too embarrassing for the early Christians to have made it up, they insist, so the story must be true.
However, this line of reasoning is much too flimsy to convince a Mythicist that the story is anything other than fiction. (See Why I am a Mythicist). The argument from embarrassment makes little sense, as, to the early Christians, Jesus’ crucifixion was considered something laudable, and indeed, essential, to their beliefs, and so presented them no cause for embarrassment. Nonetheless, approaching the Passion narrative as a work of fiction rather than history raises some intriguing questions, such as where did the story come from, was it intended to be taken literally and what does it actually mean if read as allegory?
The Gospel of Mark as Religious Drama
The original version of the Passion narrative is found in the first gospel to be written (despite its place in the New Testament), the Gospel of Mark. (We do not know who the authors of the gospels were, but we continue to call them by the traditional names as we have no other for them.) The other three gospels all follow the same template and relate fundamentally the same story with very few variations. This is remarkable when compared to the two very different Nativity narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This prompts another question: how did it happen that all the gospels tell the same story? Perhaps the answer is in the Passion Play itself.
The Christian Passion Play is not unique. It follows a long tradition of depicting stories from religious mythology as theatre, which goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks from whom it passed onto the Romans. The most popular Roman religious drama was The Passion of Romulus, the eponymous founder of Rome and one of the many dying-and-rising gods of the ancient world. It was performed throughout the Roman Empire every year on July 7th, the day Romulus was believed to have ascended into heaven. In his book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Richard Carrier recounts:
The sacred story told at this event went basically as follows: at the end of his life, amid rumours he was murdered by a conspiracy of the Senate (just as Jesus was ‘murdered’ by a conspiracy of the Jews – in fact by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish equivalent of the Senate), the sun went dark (just as it did when Jesus died), and Romulus’s body vanished (just as Jesus’ did). The people wanted to search for him but the Senate told them not to, ‘for he had risen to join the gods’ (much as a mysterious young man tells the women in Mark’s Gospel).
Carrier goes on to list twenty parallels between the Romulus and Jesus death-and-resurrection narratives. Given the striking resemblances between Mark’s Passion narrative and The Passion of Romulus, could Mark’s Gospel have begun as a Passion Play based on the Romulan Passion Play? It is indeed possible.
As Kenneth Humphreys, the author of Jesus Never Existed, puts it:
It is not incidental that parts of the gospel story – the Nativity, the Passion – so easily lend themselves to enactment by amateur players and even by children. This simplistic melodrama, which developed into the passion plays of the Middle Ages, also began life not as ‘remembered history’ but as a piece of religious drama. The format of the gospel of Mark follows the conventions of Greco-Roman tragedy. The text, even as we now have it, combines limited and stylised dialogue with frequent and abrupt scene changes. The new revelation is explained to the audience through rhetorical declamation, stock characterisation, and visual signs already familiar to them. Dialogue is sparse and the plot is simple… Scene changes are breathtakingly rapid, moving from land to sea, from mountain to desert, from house to synagogue, and back again in dizzying succession.
In fact, the Greek word euthus, often translated as ‘immediately’ or ‘straightaway’, appears 41 times in Mark’s Gospel. (Or 43 if we include the Secret Gospel of Mark. See Jesus and the Naked Man.)
Origins of Mark’s Passion Narrative
How the gospels were derived and written is a contested issue amongst both biblical scholars and mythicists. While most traditional biblical scholars believe that the gospels evolved from a long oral tradition that preserved memories of an historical Jesus, Richard Carrier believes that the Gospel of Mark was an original creation based solely and directly on the teachings about Jesus found in the epistles, particularly Paul’s. (No doubt you know that, despite their position in the New Testament, the epistles were written long before the gospels.) (See Who invented Jesus? The origins of Mark’s Gospel)
However, as Carrier points out, the Jesus of the epistles is a heavenly, mystical Saviour. Nowhere in his epistles does Paul, for example, make any reference to an earthly ministry by Jesus, but instead claims that what he knows about Jesus comes through direct revelations or the scriptures.
An example would be Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper, on which Mark based his description of the Last Supper:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. [1 Cor. 11: 23–26]
This is a description of a divine revelation between Paul and the Lord. It is Mark that places this meal in an earthly context and builds a drama around it.
So, too with Jesus’ death and resurrection:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, [Peter] and then to the Twelve. [1 Cor. 15: 3–5]
Again Paul writes that he received this knowledge as a revelation and through the scriptures. Furthermore, even though he refers to the crucifixion over fifteen times and the resurrection over thirty times, Paul never gives any details surrounding the event except for a vague reference to Jesus having been crucified by ‘the rulers of this age,’ [1 Cor. 2: 8] a term that, given the ancient world view, can be read as a reference to otherworldly powers rather than earthly authorities.
In essence, therefore, Mark has taken these bare bones and created a living drama. In turning Paul’s mystical, heavenly Jesus into a living man, Richard Carrier argues, Mark was following a common practice in the ancient world: ‘euhemerization’, that is, conceiving of the ancient gods as having begun as humans on earth who were then translated to the heavens to become divine, just as Romulus is depicted in The Passion of Romulus. It would not be extraordinary, therefore, for Mark to apply this model to his own god, Jesus Christ, and present it as a play based largely on an existing and popular work. It would have been a well-established and acceptable way to celebrate his own beliefs as well as a familiar format for representing his faith to outsiders, especially inhabitants of the Roman Empire.
While The Passion of Romulus may have given Mark’s Passion narrative its overall shape, many of the finer details of the story were taken from the Jewish scriptures – Isaiah, Zechariah and the Psalms in particular – in a process known as ‘midrash’: the building up of a new narrative based on sentences and phrases culled from the Jewish Scriptures and put to a new use. For example, Mark quotes from Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’ [Psalms 22:1, 7–8]
Another process in the creation of the narrative is what Richard Carrier calls ‘transvaluation’ in which an old story is retold, but with changes to reflect a new set of values. Thus, while Romulus promises his followers a material kingdom on earth, Jesus promises his followers a spiritual kingdom in heaven.
A deeper reading of the gospel goes even further. Not only is Mark’s gospel a fiction which fleshes out and makes concrete the bare bones of Paul’s mystical narrative, within that fiction, Mark has planted more profound teachings through allegory. We can see Mark’s literary technique in his Passion narrative where we can find glaring anomalies that could not be based on real events, and only make sense when read allegorically.
Trial by Night
According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus partakes of the Passover dinner with his disciples and that evening he is arrested, put on trial by the Sanhedrin overnight, and the next morning taken to Pontius Pilate who reluctantly agrees to his execution on that very day, which, given that the Jewish day begins at sundown, is still Passover. However, every element of this story goes against Jewish law of the time.
As Richard Carrier, an historian of the ancient world, tells us, according to the Jewish legal system:
…[E]xecutions would not be performed on holy days [i.e. Passover]… Likewise, trials for capital crimes had to be conducted over the course of two days… as the law required that a capital sentence be voted on the day after the trial, so the judges could think on it before taking a life… and could not be conducted on or even interrupted by a Sabbath or holy day, nor ever conducted by night. So in reality, had Jesus been arrested during Passover, he would have been held over in jail until Sunday, and could only have been convicted on Monday at the earliest.
Thus, Mark is sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of creating a symbolic narrative in which he equates Jesus’ death and the eucharist to the slaughter and consumption of the Passover lamb.
As we have seen, Mark’s Gospel portrays Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, as reluctant to condemn Jesus and he even offers to free him. Matthew expands on this point, having Pilate physically wash his hands of the blood of a man he considers innocent.
However, this is a mischaracterisation of the historical Pontius Pilate. He was no compassionate ditherer but a ruthless despot who had no compunction about deliberately flouting Jewish religious law or vigorously suppressing any opposition. He was finally recalled to Rome when his violent attack on a mass pilgrimage was even too murderous for the Roman authorities to stomach.
Mark placed Pontius Pilate in his narrative because he could not ignore the political realities of the time, especially when he was writing for a Roman audience. Palestine was under Roman rule and so the religious authorities had to answer to the Roman Governor. At the same time, however, while the Roman authorities carry out the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark is exonerating Rome of any blame in his death, by having the Jewish authorities force Pilate’s hand.
In exonerating Rome, Mark is not only trying to appeal to his Roman audience, he is acknowledging the protection afforded to Christianity under the Roman regime. Despite the stories propagated by the Church, Christians did not suffer systemic persecution under the Romans, and the few incidents that are found in the historical records have been misinterpreted, exaggerated or falsified. In fact, Christians would have found the Roman authorities much more tolerant of their beliefs than the Jewish religious leadership.
As we have seen, in attempting to avoid condemning Jesus, Pontius Pilate offers to free him. As Mark puts it:
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
‘Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. ‘What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked them.
‘Crucify him!’ they shouted.
‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’
Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. [Mark 15:6–15]
This is indeed a baffling story. Christian preachers have found it difficult to understand what it signifies. It is usually taught as a lesson in the fickleness of the mob, as only a few days earlier, on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the very same people were shouting ‘Hosanna’ and lauding him as the son of David. However, in taking the story literally instead of allegorically, Christians are missing the point altogether.
As we have seen, Pontius Pilate was not prone to compassion towards his Jewish subjects, and certainly not to a violent insurrectionist like Barabbas. Furthermore, not only is this quaint custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover not consistent with Pilate’s nature, or Roman jurisprudence, there is absolutely no other historical evidence for it.
However, there is one historical parallel, the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is recognised as the most important festival on the Jewish calendar. While today it is observed as a day of prayer and fasting, in biblical times it involved blood sacrifice. According to Leviticus:
From the Israelite community [Aaron] is to take two male goats for a sin offering… Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat… He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head… [Leviticus 16: 5–21]
In Mark’s Gospel, two men are brought before the people of Israel. One, Jesus, is sinless, while the other is guilty of ‘wickedness and rebellion’. Moreover, Jesus has called himself ‘the son of the Father’, while the other is called Barabbas, which means ‘son of the father’. In fact, in some early gospel manuscripts he is called Jesus Barabbas, or ‘Jesus, son of the father’. Thus, both have, in fact, the same name and are therefore, allegorically, two identical men. Then, through luck, one is chosen to be sacrificed, while the other is released.
In this story, therefore, Mark is presenting in dramatic form an allegory that represents Jesus as the ultimate blood sacrifice for the atonement of sins, just as is taught in the epistles, a sacrifice so powerful that it only needs to be performed once, rather than every year.
[Jesus] did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! [Hebrews 9: 12–14]
The Judas Kiss
One incident in Mark’s Passion narrative has reverberated through time, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus with a kiss. Yet, despite the drama of this act, little is given as to motivation. Mark gives no reason why Judas goes to the chief priests and offers to betray Jesus. It is they who offer him money. Nor does he tell us what happens next to Judas. It is Matthew who elaborates on these bare bones, having Judas actually ask for money, and then hang himself in remorse.
Nor do Judas’ action make much logical sense. The question is often asked: why would Judas have to identify Jesus when one of the reasons the Sanhedrin want to arrest him is that he has become too much of a public figure and therefore would be easily recognisable? Nor would they need Judas to locate Jesus as, as Jesus himself points out, he preaches in the temple courts every day. However, Jesus himself gives us one reason for these anomalies: ‘but that the scriptures may be fulfilled.’
In his epistles, Paul often talks about Jesus being ‘delivered up’ to die for our sins. The Greek word he uses is ‘paradidomi’ which simply means ‘to hand over, to deliver’ without necessarily a negative connotation. Paul uses the same word in his description of the Lord’s Supper. However, as we have seen, this occurrence of that very same word is not usually translated as ‘on the night he was delivered up’ but as ‘on the night he was betrayed’ (1 Cor 11:23). This is a retrospective re-interpretation of Paul’s epistle based on Mark’s Gospel.
Mark has taken the word ‘paradidomi’, and in pursuit of creating a dramatic moment, has interpreted it in the most emotive way possible, as ‘to betray’. So, out of a simple neutral phrase, Mark has created a villain and built a whole drama around him. He has also given this incident a further allegorical meaning by naming his villain ‘Judas’ which has the same etymology as ‘Judea’, the land of the Jews.
Most historians believe that Christianity finally broke away from Judaism after the destruction the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. The trauma of this event would have prompted a profound reconsideration of Jewish beliefs and the creation of new practices. Rabbinical Jews found a way to maintain their faith without the need for a central Temple, while Christian Jews would have seen the destruction as a clear indication that God was punishing the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
Again, Mark is creating a dramatic incident as an allegorical representation of this break between Judaism and Christianity, showing in dramatic form, in the actions of Judas, that the Jews rejected Jesus, and reinforcing the point by having them choose Barabbas over Jesus and then demand that Jesus be crucified. However, this fictional depiction would have catastrophic, and most likely unintended, consequences for the Jewish people once Mark’s allegorical gospel was taken literally.
The Passion Play as the Key to Orthodoxy
One of the mysteries of early Christianity is how the canon of the New Testament as we find it in our bibles today was actually arrived at. Despite what many people think, there was no official ecclesiastical council that ratified the canon until the Council of Trent in the 16th century when it had been in use for over a thousand years. The canon of 27 books came together organically over time and was not finalised by the Church Fathers until the end of the fourth century. Until then, the many and diverse Christian sects and communities had their own sacred texts such as gospels and epistles, in fact we know of more than forty gospels alone.
Of those forty gospels, four came to be included in the orthodox canon. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels as they are largely similar. While they bring in some variations and extra material of their own, Matthew and Luke copy large swathes of Mark virtually verbatim. The Gospel of John is quite different, although a close reading shows that this gospel is written with the knowledge of, and at times in response to, the Synoptic Gospels.
Where Matthew and Luke differ markedly with Mark is that, while Mark begins with Jesus’ ministry as an adult, Matthew and Luke add birth narratives. However, apart from the inclusion of Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the two narratives are so different as to be largely mutually exclusive. In contrast, while there are some minor variations between the Crucifixion narratives in the four gospels, they do, for the most part, tell the same story, the story that so naturally lends itself to a dramatic performance.
This leads me to wonder what role the Passion Play had in shaping Christianity as we know it today. Could the Passion Play have marked a point of transition between a mythical, mystical Jesus, and a Jesus of flesh and blood?
As we have seen, the Passion Narrative is an allegorical presentation of the teachings about Jesus found in the epistles. In bringing these teachings to life in a dramatic form presented by living actors, the mystical Jesus perforce becomes human, and the allegorical story becomes one that can also easily be understood literally and in purely human terms. No doubt this powerful story would be much more attractive to ordinary people than the esoteric teachings of the epistles.
So this leads me to ask, could it be that the Passion Play, so strongly influenced by the Passion of Romulus, actually pre-dated the written gospels? Could it be that it was conceived and performed as a way of representing Christian teachings to the common people so as to attract converts to the sect, after which, once they were initiated, they could learn the esoteric teachings behind the allegory? Could it be, however, that the human story recounted in the play was so powerful that it displaced the esoteric teachings it was meant to convey? Could it be that this story became so beloved and entrenched that the gospel writers would not dare to make any major changes to it, not even John, despite his divergence on so many other points? Could it be that the Passion Play was so powerful a teaching tool, and made such a strong impression on Christians, that its story became not only central to proto-orthodox Christianity but came to define it?
It might also explain why these four gospels, of all the gospels that existed at the time, were accepted into the canon, despite their contradictions – because they included that particular Passion Narrative, one in which a human Jesus died a human death – a narrative which defined Christian belief and was vital to Christianity’s very existence.
© Pauline Montagna 2023
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Kenneth Humphreys, Enter Jesus, stage left on his YouTube Channel, Jesus Never Existed