Passion Story

Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem
A section of Via Dolorosa, the traditional route by which Jesus carried His cross to Calvary.

The traditional label “passion story” refers to the concluding segment of the Gospels that narrates the circumstances of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The word itself is based on the Latin word pati, which means “to suffer.” All four Gospels move toward the passion of Jesus as their climax. Judged by chapter count, the percentages of the four Gospels devoted to the passion narrative are, respectively, 29, 38, 25, and 38.

Within the individual units, these segments have a distinctive feel that makes them different from the rest of the Gospels. The goal of this chapter is to give readers and teachers confidence in handling the passion narrative. This includes breaking down the final week of Jesus’ earthly life into a timeline, and also providing a taxonomy of genres. Anything that makes the passion narrative fall into place will be considered “fair game” for inclusion in this chapter. The goal is to give shape and substance to the long concluding phase of each Gospel.

The positioning of this chapter poses a small difficulty. Since the “passion” segment of the Gospels includes discourses and parables, it would be plausible to place this chapter at the end of the book, after chapters devoted to the discourses and parables. But   p 68  the passion segment is more thoroughly narrative than discourse, and additionally the passion narrative in its totality, including its discourses, is the climax of the Gospel story and should be included with the narrative sweep of the plot.

The Last Week of Jesus’ Life

Literary scholars make a distinction between (1) the chronology of events that make up a story and (2) the plot of a story, which consists of the arrangement of the events for purposes of the story as told. For example, an epic always begins in medias res (“in the middle of things”) and then takes us back to the start of the chronology of events halfway through the epic. When I teach an epic in my literature courses, I circulate an outline of the events in their chronological order so my students can see the template that lies behind the rearranged sequence that the author chose as the order for the story. This will be helpful for the Gospels as well.

The following list of events during Holy Week aims to be manageable; some timelines are more detailed but less user-friendly. The setting for all events is Jerusalem and the area immediately around it.


Triumphal entry: a two-mile journey between Bethany (where Jesus stayed each night) and Jerusalem.


Jesus cleanses the temple; religious leaders actively plot to kill Jesus.


Religious leaders question Jesus’ authority; Jesus teaches in the temple precinct and delivers his famous Olivet Discourse.

  p 69  Wednesday

The Gospels do not assign specific events to this day, which is known in some Christian circles as “silent Wednesday.” However, the Gospels do not clearly divide the events of Holy Week into days, so more teaching and conflict with religious authorities might have occurred. Others believe that Jesus remained in Bethany.


Last Supper (Passover) in the upper room; suffering in Gethsemane.

Early Friday

Betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; Peter’s denial of Jesus; preliminary trials of Jesus.


Further trials of Jesus, ending in his formal condemnation and handing over to Roman authorities; torture and crucifixion of Jesus; death and burial.


Jesus’ body in the tomb (in some circles called “Holy Saturday”).


Resurrection; appearance to selected women and disciples.

This streamlined chronology provides a skeleton that the Gospel narratives flesh out. The details in the Gospels are mingled together in such kaleidoscopic fashion that it is virtually impossible to keep things straight, thereby capturing the chaotic nature of what happened.

Nonetheless, the time-honored formula of beginning-middle-end allows us to impose an order on the bewildering array of   p 70  details. In the middle is the crucifixion. With that as the central point of reference, everything before the crucifixion can be seen as a pattern of growing conflict and threat to Jesus, as the events become a relentless death march. Everything that happens after the crucifixion falls into place as aftermath. Seen in this light, the preliminary events point forward to the crucifixion and the events afterward look back to it, allowing us to see that the triumph of Jesus’ opponents was only temporary.

Taxonomy of Genres

The passion story is a mini-anthology within the Gospels. Some of the genres that appear are no different formally from earlier parts of the Gospels, though (as noted above) their very position as the lead-up to the crucifixion gives them added voltage and meaning. Other stories carry labels (e.g., trial story and resurrection story) that make them unique within the Gospels. In the following taxonomy, therefore, we should be looking for a blend of the familiar and the new.

Here are the specific genres that make up the passion narratives of the Gospels:

• discourse

• apocalyptic/eschatological discourse

• parable

• straight narrative

• conflict story

• farewell discourse

• prayer

• betrayal story

• arrest narrative

• trial narrative

• denial story

  p 71  • story of torture

• crucifixion story

• burial story

• resurrection story

• stories of post-resurrection appearance

This is an obviously long list, corresponding to the packed nature of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

The game plan for the rest of this chapter is to explore the identifying traits of the genres that are somewhat distinctive to the passion story, and to leave the familiar ones untouched because they are discussed in other chapters of this book.


Discourses in general will be the subject of a later chapter. The ones that occur in the passion story, however, are not ordinary ones. Because of where they appear in the Gospels, they are connected in our minds with the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. Once we are aware of that context, we link these discourses with the last days of Jesus’ life.

The passion narrative includes a substantial amount of discourse material in addition to stories. Some of it exists in the familiar form of teaching dialogues, parables, and brief interludes of direct teaching. It is obvious that Jesus did not relent in his teaching ministry during the first half of Holy Week. In addition to the familiar types of discourse intermingled with the narrative units, the passion segment of the Gospels includes several major spoken addresses by Jesus. They fall into three primary genres: apocalyptic/eschatological discourse, the Upper Room Discourse, and farewell discourse.

  p 72  Apocalyptic/Eschatological Discourse

The eschatological discourses in the passion narrative are “end times” revelations from Jesus. Their ingredients are as follows:

• prediction of future events (both imminent and end-of-history)

• vivid pictures of what will happen at the end of history

• forecasts of great tribulation in a degenerate society

• promise of Christ’s return in glory

• prediction of intermediate and eternal divine judgment against sinful humanity

• pictures of eternal reward for believers in Christ upon their entry into heaven

The lead-in to the Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew 24:3 hints at all of these: “The disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be [i.e., the destruction of the temple just predicted by Jesus], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ ” Jesus’ reply is an eschatological discourse that answers both questions.

Upon analysis, the apocalyptic discourses fit naturally into the passion story. The basis for final judgment and redemption is Jesus’ triumph over sin and death in his passion and resurrection. The events surrounding Jesus’ passion were epoch-making in the same way that the end of history will be. Something new happened with the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus that will reach its climax in the world to come, where all things will be made new.

The Upper Room Discourse

The Gospel of John contains a major block of material (chapters 13–17) that is customarily labeled the Upper Room Discourse. These chapters record a range of things that happened on the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion when Jesus commemorated the   p 73  Passover with his disciples in an upper room. The material is much more varied than the word “discourse” (singular) implies. For example, two of the seven “I am” discourses of John’s Gospel appear in this segment—Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life (14:1–14) and as the true vine (15:1–11). We also find a major discourse on the promised Holy Spirit (14:15–31). Chapter 17 is Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.

Farewell Discourse

The farewell discourse is an important biblical genre. It is an address by a leader to his followers when his death is imminent. Examples include Jacob’s farewell to his family (Gen. 48–49) and farewell addresses by Moses (Deut. 31–33), Joshua (Josh. 23–24), and Samuel (1 Sam. 12). The motifs that make up a farewell discourse include the following:

• a summoning of followers

• announcement of approaching death

• warning against false teachers

• predictions of woe

• words of comfort and promise

• prayer for those who remain

• appointment of a successor

• instructions regarding how the followers must live after the death of their leader

• worship and prayer

The full-fledged farewell discourse in the Gospels appears in John 13–17. Matthew’s Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25) contains some of the elements of a farewell discourse, especially instructions about what Jesus’ followers can expect in the future.

  p 74  Stories of Betrayal, Denial, Trial, and Torture

The most distressing stories of the passion narrative are those involving the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, but the sense of heaviness that we experience as we read the passion narrative is not limited to the actual execution and death of Jesus. Events leading up to the crucifixion are equally painful to read. They include the following genres: betrayal story, denial story, trial story, and stories of torture.

Betrayal Story

A betrayal story focuses on a breaking of loyalty by one of two figures in a relationship of trust. Ordinarily this produces catastrophic results for the person who is betrayed. Starting from a position of close relationship and loyalty, the betrayer develops hostility to the other person. The motivation for betrayal is hatred and/or desire for self-aggrandizement, or both. Usually the betrayer achieves his or her goal by divulging something to a third party. Most betrayers end their lives in misery over their act of betrayal.

The story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the prototypical betrayal story in the Bible. Judas was motivated by greed for money and probably also disillusionment with the nature of Jesus’ messianic plan. The means of betrayal was the worst that we can imagine, namely, a kiss that identified Jesus for the Roman soldiers who came to arrest him.

Denial Story

Denial is a form of betrayal, but a denial story is not identical with the genre described immediately above. Like a betrayal story, a story of denial is built around two people established in a relationship of loyalty. The linchpin of a denial story is that the person who denies the relationship of trust is put in a situation where loyalty is tested. Ordinarily this testing is called a temptation,   p 75  which implies that there is something in the situation that entices or inclines the betrayer to deny association with the other person. Peter’s denial of Jesus is the great denial story of the passion narrative, though the other disciples are equally guilty of abandonment, which is a form of denying loyalty to Jesus. Another shared element in a betrayal story and a denial story is the guilt that the betrayer feels afterward.

Trial Story

The word “arraignment” is a good synonym for “trial” in this context, inasmuch as Jesus’ appearance before various officials to be accused and “tried” were more like what we call a “kangaroo court” than a legitimate trial. The passion narrative includes a bewildering sequence (almost a phantasmagoria) of appearances of Jesus before various officials. The sequence began with Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. After that, Jesus was continually under arrest and shuffled from one arraignment to the next. The best way to get a grip on what is happening at a given moment is to codify the action according to the following list:

• the place where the action occurs

• the person or group who is in the position of authority

• the accusers

• the accusations or charges against Jesus

• Jesus’ defense of himself

• outcome of the trial or arraignment

Exactly what happened, and in what order, is not easy to decipher in the passion narrative, and this perfectly captures the chaos and secrecy of what transpired on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion.

All of the Gospels include a memorable transition and lead-up to the crucifixion that in most Bibles bears a heading to the   p 76  effect “Jesus is delivered to be crucified.” These units can appropriately be included in the category of trial story.

Story of Torture

Intermingled with the trial stories are brief scenes of torture. The main action in the trial stories is that Jesus was bearing the punishment of the sins of the world. We should assimilate the unfolding action in terms of the suffering endured by Jesus as part of his overall “passion.” The scenes of torture highlight Jesus’ suffering. Of course the crucifixion was the ultimate torture.

Crucifixion Story

No special tools of analysis are needed to understand the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a story that possesses the usual ingredients of plot conflict and sequence, setting, and characterization. The Gospel accounts do not provide a single composite story of the crucifixion. We therefore need to pay close attention to the story as we find it in the Gospel we are reading at the moment.

The first step in analysis is to identify the units that belong to the crucifixion story of the particular Gospel before us. Since the concluding genre in the Gospels is resurrection story (broadly defined to include post-resurrection appearances), it is best to include Jesus’ death and burial under the umbrella of crucifixion story. The Gospels give us snapshots of what happened at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, not a continuous narrative flow. With the units defined, we can apply the following list of questions:

• Starting at an observational or descriptive level, what happens to Jesus in this unit of action?

• Who are the ones who are in control of the crucifixion at any given point, and what can we say about them?

• Who are the onlookers?

  p 77  • If we include all the people present—the soldiers who performed the crucifixion, the onlookers, and the two victims crucified beside Jesus—how do these divide into two opposed groups (tormentors of Jesus and sympathizers)? What does each group contribute to the crucifixion story?

• The writers of the Gospels are our travel guides through the books that they wrote. They use devices of disclosure that add up to interpretive commentary on the part of the author. Upon close scrutiny, therefore, what interpretation can we see intermingled with the factual account of what happened? What does each Gospel writer highlight for us?

• It is a good reading strategy to imagine yourself present at the events that are narrated. How would you have reacted to what you saw and heard? With just the data of the Gospel accounts at your disposal, how much of the theological meaning of what was happening are you likely to have grasped? For purposes of reading the crucifixion story, it is useful sometimes to make an attempt not to bring into our analysis what we know about the theological significance of what happened on Calvary from prophetic parts of the Bible (including Jesus’ “foretelling” statements in the Gospels) and the epistles. Probably we would have understood a great deal less on that day than we do now as part of our familiarity with the prophetic and epistolary parts of the Bible.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is the saddest story in the world, but it is more than that. A paradox lies at the heart of this story, and fiction writer J. R. R. Tolkien has given us the word “eucatastrophe” to name this paradox. A eucatastrophe is a “good catastrophe.” Jesus’ crucifixion was the most evil event in history, but it secured the redemption of those who believe in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for their salvation.

  p 78  Resurrection Story

A resurrection story is one in which a dead person rises from death to life. The resurrection of Jesus is the prototypical resurrection story in the Bible, but it is not the only one. Even in the Gospels we read about “many bodies of the saints” that came out of their tombs in Jerusalem following the resurrection of Jesus (Matt. 27:52–53). The four Gospels tell the composite story of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day.

No stories in the Bible have a greater sense of the numinous and awe-inspiring than the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Before we get analytic with these stories, therefore, we need to be receptive to the breathtaking nature of the events that are narrated. Here preeminently we need to imagine ourselves present at the event.

When we turn to analysis, it is important to proceed with the awareness that the resurrection stories have a very important evidential aspect in proving that the Bible is reliable and its supernaturalism worthy of belief. It is therefore doubly and triply important that we pay attention to all of the factual details that the writers have included in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, with a view toward answering the question of how convincing the data is. Earlier in this guide I covered the genre of witness stories; the resurrection stories are the Gospel writers’ witness stories about the resurrection of Jesus. Within the resurrection accounts, too, we find witness stories in the form of the witness of various women and disciples to others in the inner circle about their encounters with the empty tomb, the angel, or Jesus himself.

Other genres covered earlier in this guide are also prominent in the concluding section of the Gospels. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus combine elements of the recognition story and the encounter story as well as the witness story.

Below is a randomly arranged list of passages from the passion narrative of the Gospels. As you work your way through the list, after identifying the genre of a given passage, it will be profitable to look back in this chapter to the description that was offered of that genre, and then apply the methodology provided there to the specimen passage. 1. Matthew 26:14–16; 26:47–50; 27:3–10 2. John 16:16–24 3. Luke 23:26–43 4. Matthew 24:1–14 5. Luke 24:1–12 6. Mark 14:53–65

 Ryken, L. (2016). Jesus the Hero: A Guided Literary Study of the Gospels (pp. 67–79). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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