Part II. What really happened in Holy Week?

Part II: reaching that point beyond belief…..

The Background:

The events of that first Holy Week fall into three broad sections in the surviving narratives; the betrayal and Last Supper; the arrest, and trials; the execution, (royal) burial and finally Resurrection event. They are laid out quite simply in all four accounts. These accounts are obviously based on preexisting oral versions (and probably written accounts) and their final compositions betray some inelegance as a consequence.

There’s a tendency in all four gospels to compose various events as seen by the different principles into one single common narrative. All events can only be experienced in one single perspective. History offers a retrospect that draws together the many strands into a single narrative thread. Therefore, the gospels might better be understood as if we are hearing various witness voices rather than that of the one single omniscient narrator. In this the gospels more resemble Homer than Virgil, though arguably Luke’s two volume “Epic” – the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles – taken together – bear a passing structural resemblance to the Aeneid.

Secondly, it must be accepted that the classical culture had a very different relationship with its past – even its recent past – than we have with the past today. The events of that first Holy Week are seen from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. It hardly needs saying – as the gospels record this themselves – that none of the participants viewed those same events in that light at the time they took place.

The gospels are not historical narratives of a life in any accepted or modern sense.These are not even historical accounts in the sense of Roman narrative history like those we find in the works of Caesar or Livy – or even in those of early medieval chroniclers –  like Einhard’s famous life of Charlemagne or Bede’s History. There was no one on the ministry with the historical Jesus taking notes or making up some contemporaneous record. Unlike Caesar, the historical Jesus felt no impulse to commit his version of events to paper. Jesus’ teaching methods were, however, powerful adaptions of a traditional Jewish formula. Even today many centuries from their first telling, many cultures away from their original sensibility and many translations away from their original Aramaic, Jesus’ parables stand out so vividly because they are so perfectly wrought. Is there any message better delivered in a story better paced than that of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan? The gospels, however, carefully assert these recollections are not man’s work but rather are inspired rather by the Spirit. This frankness actually helps rather than hinders the historian. Nevertheless, the compiler(s) – our Four Evangelists –  did achieve a remarkable literary feat.

Within each of the Gospels there is content which is similar and there are story elements which overlap. Matthew and Luke both contain most of what is in Mark. They share additionally another core of stories not found in Mark or John. These may have come from another (lost) single gospel source. John, Luke and Matthew additionally also contain unique elements. Luke, for example, has all three New Testament canticles – or songs – which have formed the core of  daily Christian prayer since at least early in the third century AD – The Benedictus of Zachary at Lauds; the Magnificat of Mary at Vespers; and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon at Compline.  They all share however, a narrative that deliberately climaxes at the same point  –  the account of the Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. These, as previously noted, are the events which are specifically recalled in Holy Week.

The gospel accounts of this final week also reflects the same marriage of shared and unique. Each account contains specifics which point to differing ‘original sources’. These were certainly oral and probably Apostolic ( from the 12 as principal witnesses) but early on these may have been supported by a series of literary compilations –  such a lists containing some of Jesus’ aphorisms; or particular parables; or particular prayer formats used by Jesus; or an abbreviated story-line of the passion and resurrection events – which were after all the stimulus for the Apostles and disciples to evangelise in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. These various literary collections probably circulated amongst the various communities of believers on their own account; they were probably copied and added to ad hoc. These originals were probably contemporaneous with St Paul writing his epistles. So, the sources we have point back to originals from the first generation after Christ – the time of the twelve Apostles, what theologians call Apostolic times.

The Apostles Jewish religious practice would have informed a natural desire to add some form of written scripture for the New Covenant they believed founded in Jesus. This impulse would have naturally found some literary expression if only initially to supplement oral evangelisation. Paul’s Epistles always sound as if they are written into a culture where there is already a burgeoning appetite for a written supplement to the community worship of nascent Christian communities. Much of this worship took place in the context of synagogue and Temple until the sack of Jerusalem. The reading of Scripture was a central part of Jewish community worship – as we again also know from the gospels where for example Jesus himself teaches in Nazareth after the Sabbath prayer. His hostile audience wanted to stone him – a prophet we are told never being welcomed in his own country. Finally, the Didache, discovered in the nineteenth century and dating from c.80 AD, indicates that the Christians had a (Eucharistic) service that reflected on the events of this holy week in its entirety. In short, there is every reason to suppose the worship forms emergent were supported by an emergent New Testament scripture.

The differences between the various passion narratives are most pronounced in John. John’s account of the Last Supper differs in a major respect from the synoptic accounts. John has no words of Institution of the Eucharist which in the other three accounts is the central moment of the Last Supper. By the time John reaches this narrative moment he has already spent a long section of his Gospel exploring the Eucharistic nature of Jesus being the Bread of Life (famously chapter 6). This gospel was composed after both the didache and after the diaspora and so it can be assumed the ritual beliefs about the Eucharist were established in believers minds. Thus the crux of John’s account of the passion rather turns on the betrayal of Judas and includes the famous ‘farewell address’. In this long monologue, rich in imagery and theological metaphor, John’s Jesus sets out the Nature of his relationship with God (the Father) in quite specific terms as the Father’s true son. The Johannine notion of Jesus as Son of God is the brilliant lodestar of John’s narrative. Only after Jesus’ farewell address establishes who is actually going to die on the cross does this narrator turn to the events of the passion itself –  events for which the reader has been long prepared by the plot narrative. Similarly, at other times in the synoptic accounts  – as in Gethsemane event – there are apparent plot inconsistencies – for example we overhear Christ’s prayer in the garden before his arrest –  let this cup pass – but we are told that his companions sleep. This does not mean either account is all invention but rather each reports the historical events in its own distinct context. The medium contains a message whilst also conveying the spare detail.

The provenance of the style and character of these narratives looks back to the tradition of composition found in the Jews’ quasi historical-religious books –  particularly those of Exodus and Kings – the books that provide the foundation nation story of Israel – the chosen people – or, more literally,  the people who wait for God. The gospel narratives are also replete with Messianic cross references to Moses and the founding principles of the Law by which the Jews were to live and to the prophecies spoken by the prophets, principally,  Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. This style informs the context. It is that context that subsequently is used by those who partook in the events of that week to make sense of and explain what they had witnessed.  As they are frank witnesses about this it is not for the historian to judge them for lacking empirical truth. Rather it simplifies matters as the gospels account in themselves for the narrative perspective adopted in their presentation of the events. In any event history is always more a matter of interpretation than of accurate chronology.

The true purpose of the composition of the gospels – as opposed to those sometimes asserted by the authors – remain elusive. Their final form was not attained until much later than their original composition. Thus, sometimes the texts are repetitive as if sections do not quite sit in their original sequence. A good example is found in the farewell discourse in John, chapters 13 14, 15 and 16. The entire discourse of Jesus is presented as if took place at the Last Supper after Judas leaves the Upper Room to betray Jesus to the Temple militia. However, it could be john is presenting a recollection of various discourses from several meals in this last week – continuing on a theme from one day to another – rather like a symposium. Historically and textually that might make more sense – theologically it matters not a wit.

The Entry into Jerusalem is a deliberate entry into controversy

The events preparatory to the final holy week close with Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem. It has included a meal at Bethany, after raising Lazarus, a meal wherein Mary, the sister of Lazarus, has anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oil and dried them with her hair. This ritual action is akin to those performed prior to burial. Lazarus and his two sisters Martha and Mary are presented to us as relatively prosperous. We are also told something of how Jesus organised, sustained and financed his public ministry. We are also given an insight into the role of Judas – who complains to Jesus about Mary’s wastefulness – and who is placed in charge of the common fund – a sort of road manager. Judas’s reward for his betrayal is to be money –  30 pieces of silver. Judas angrily returns the money to the priests after he realises what has happened. After his suicide the priests of the temple buy a potter’s field which will become the burial ground for pilgrims and strangers. Why does Judas betray Jesus – we are given no motive beyond his love for money – but perhaps like Judas we all are prone to trade what we love in our hearts for silver and gold put into our hands. Though our heads tell us money cannot buy love we are inclined to believe it just might.

It is his entry into the city which leads to Jesus’ final (fatal) confrontation with the Jewish authorities in the Temple – the religious organisation led by Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas who was high priest in succession to his father-in-law and thus presided over the Temple’s governing council, the Sanhedrin. Both men were of the Sadducee faction which dominated in Jerusalem. The Sadducees did not hold with bodily resurrection and did not hold  either with the traditional ritual practices or charismatic prayer formula beloved of popular religion and adapted from the manners of the prophets. They, instead emphasised the strict observance of the ritual laws to their last letter. Thus in the Sanhedrin, if John’s account is to be believed, the raising of Lazarus would have raised all sorts of questions and all quite legitimate from its membership’s standpoint. After all the nature of Jesus’ claims to raise the dead would seemingly have involved him in knowing blasphemy. The fastidious elders in the Sanhedrin would have been appalled. there is also a context in the gospels which shows Jesus more or less in a running battle with this literal religion of the written law – over keeping of the Sabbath; over divorce; over mixing with those deemed tainted under the structures of Moses’ law –  all gentiles, all Samaritans,  all public sinners such a adulterers; all professions such as tax collectors or swineherds and certain labourers within the Jewish nation such as Temple shepherds,  all of whom were regarded as ritually unclean.

In the synoptic accounts the entry to Jerusalem also occasioned a confrontation in the Temple itself –  when Jesus casts out the money-changers. Again, to act thus, and on the eve of one the year’s great sacrificial feasts, was tantamount in some (blinkered) eyes to blasphemy. Moreover, the Temple forecourts were thronging with pilgrim Jews anxious to complete their pilgrimage by making an offering of (clean) Temple gold in order to associate themselves with the paschal or Passover sacrifices to be offered by the priests. This was obviously shockingly blasphemous to those involved in these Temple rites – much as a practicing Christians might feel over a Black Mass or a Muslim over the denigration of the name of the Prophet.

Jesus was arriving in the city in good time for the celebration of the Passover feast which climaxed each year in the Temple on the day before the Sabbath when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of sheep and lambs were ritually sacrificed. Gullies from the altars carried fresh blood along to channels which ran besides the steps of the temple – rivers of blood gathering to recall the blood shed to enable the first Passover. By day’s end the air wreaked with its stench. The bleating of panicking lambs and sheep would have filled the city. At sunset the slaughter ceased and all fell quiet.

The Temple authorities bred these sacrificial lambs on lands specifically set aside for this sacred purpose. Temple priests used only unblemished animals – animals chosen by their shepherds for this ritual sacrifice. These shepherds, although servants of this system, were held to be unclean since they were breeding animals for this bloody purpose.

Thus, those lowly shepherds, familiar figures in the stable at Bethlehem and who stand in every Christmas crib, would have stood out to the first readers of the gospels. Their selection as a group, first to receive the news of the Messiah’s birth by the angelic host and, then, first also to see the unblemished child of God – the Lamb of God –  was no accident of the nativity narrative. Their place at the Nativity events to a Jewish readership was redolent with the symbolism of bloody sacrifice that our pastoral Christmas deliberately forgets.

The nativity stories arrived later in the Gospels and thus logically not only acknowledged not prophetic predictions from Jewish scripture but also surrounded the events with symbols readily understood by their readers. The references to Jesus being a ‘good Shepherd’ and ‘a gate to the sheep fold’ and all the rest –  not least the lamb of God –  all these references reflect the sacrificial nature of the founding story of the Jews –  the Passover.

According to the Jewish histories Passover memorialised the events in Egypt sometime around 1100 BC. The books of Exodus record the Passover occurred as the last of ten plagues visited on Egypt and which had resulted in Pharaoh setting his Jewish slaves free. The last plague is when the Angel of the Lord is sent into the land of Egypt to strike down the firstborn of Egypt. This same angel passes-over the homes of the Jews whose lintels were painted with the blood of a freshly killed lamb. This pass-over lamb was eaten – with bitter herbs and unleavened bread –  standing –  possessions packed, the meal’s participants fully dressed and ready to leave for their Promised Land.

The historicity of these events is difficult to attest since Egypt’s records from the timeline asserted in the bible are silent on the subject. However, if the biblical timeline is ignored there is an historical event in the Old Kingdom in the reign of Pepi II which might be said to coincide with the events described in Exodus. That is a full thousand years before the bible’s –  which indicate the events might have taken place in the reign of Ramses II. There is no Egyptian evidence to support that biblical narrative. However, it should be remembered that when these books were written historic time was relative and oral traditions had long existed before these accounts were written down. in that process, stories from different times might easily become entwined into a single narrative. Time was measured out in seasonal cycles and life cycles. Historic time was relative rather than fixed.

On this final occasion it is agreed that Jesus made a much anticipated arrival into the city riding an ass. This journeyman of the poor was prophesied to be the means of Messianic transport. That is itself would have been a provocation on a major feat like Passover. To many in the Temple it would have seemed as outrageous as it certainly was blasphemous. As a gesture, it was certainly pointed. It must have sharpened hostility to Jesus that already had long existed amongst the religious elite.

Jesus was met by enthusiastic crowds shouting and we are told holding palms and singing ‘Hosanna to the son of David’. To all intents and purposes it indeed does look and feel rather like his time of triumph has come.This event is today commemorated today on Palm Sunday, the first day of holy week. It has to be noted that palms were not usually associated with Passover rather they were part of the Temple rites of Tabernacles.

An historian might therefore observe that It is therefore quite possible that Jesus made several visits to Jerusalem during the course of his public ministry – as any observant Jew would have. These and this final visit may later have been distilled into a single significant occasion for religious and dramatic effect. In that sense the hints in John that Jesus was regularly in Jerusalem makes more historical sense. It also explains how and why he has managed to so seriously antagonise the Temple authorities who are destined to play such a pivotal role in the events which follow.









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