At its core, the New Testament (NT) is 27 documents about Jesus of Nazareth, documents that claim He died and rose again. Therefore, the reality of that event is pivotal to the authority of those documents; if it did not happen, then they are just made up stories, but if it did happen, then their message is nothing short of God breaking into our time, space, matter universe.
The Stage is set II:
The Passion narratives are found towards the end of each of the canonical gospels; in Matthew (Matt.) chapters 26 & 27, Mark chapters 14 & 15, Luke chapters 22 & 23 and finally John chapters 18 & 19. Each of these gospel sections recounts how during the Jewish feast of Passover, Jesus was betrayed by one of His disciples, arrested, put on trial and eventually executed by crucifixion outside of Jerusalem on Golgotha. The first three gospels, Matt., Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels because they contain many of the same narratives and have similar structures. Each of these gospels, begin the Passion narrative by telling us that it was the first day of unleavened bread (Matt. 26:17, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:1), which is the 15th day of the first month in the Jewish calendar, Nisan.
Why would this be important?
There are popular theories about shared universes, such as in Disney or Pixar movies. For example, in the Disney film, Tarzan, his parents died at sea
(1999). There is the theory that his parents were
also the parents of Anna and Elsa because their parents died at sea (2013). Along those lines, people have claimed that
Jesus’ resurrection is borrowed from ancient myths that explain the
agricultural cycle and involve characters dying or going to the land of the
dead and then returning. However, the
gospels ground the resurrection within the story of ancient Israel and second
temple Judaism. In other words, the
death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are told with the Jewish Passover as
its setting; therefore, that is the proper framework for understanding it.
Why is the framework of understanding important?
Above I wrote that there is a theory that in the shared universe of the Disney movies, the events of Tarzan and Frozen are related, but that refers only to their Disney presentations. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1920 novel Tarzan of the Apes is unrelated to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fairy tale the Snow Queen. Therefore, it makes no sense to interpret Tarzan of the Apes through the story of the Snow Queen.
In a similar manner, Jesus’ death burial and resurrection need to be interpreted with the Jewish celebration of Passover as its setting. A Greek myth such as Hades and Persephone, which is an explanation of the seasonal change from winter to spring [i.e., Hades takes Persephone to the underworld and during that time her mother Demeter the goddess of agriculture won’t let things grow, and so the earth has winter. When Persephone is returned, Demeter again allows things to grow, and the earth has spring.] is the wrong background to understand a second-temple Jewish messianic figure, such as Jesus of Nazareth.
Imagine a stage performance like Peter Pan. In the first act, Peter is with the Darling children in the nursery
(1904). Pause the actors and change the background to
the Ape City from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes (1968). How much since would the Peter Pan story make
if you attempted this? That is precisely
what happens when these gospel narratives are read with Greek, Roman or other
mythology backgrounds. The celebration
of the Passover in Roman occupied Judea, more specifically Jerusalem and its
vicinity is the backdrop for the Passion narratives.
What are the real-world locations mentioned in the text?
Two of the synoptic gospels identify the location of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest as the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36 and Mark, 14:32), Luke identifies it as having been on the Mount of Olives, and lastly, John identifies the location as being across the Kidron valley. The Mount of Olives is a mountain that is east of Jerusalem, it’s separated from the Temple Mount by the Kidron Valley. The precise location of Gethsemane remains debated, although some claim a specific place; however, the word means olive press and fits the known agriculture of Israel and the area around Jerusalem from the 1st-century AD. Therefore, the gospels site a real-world location. A place that existed in 1st-century Judea and an area that we can identify now. Although we cannot with all certainty identify each specific location in and around Jerusalem mentioned in the Passion narratives, the point remains that it happened in a real-world location. Places that did exist in the 1st century and involved religious and political figures that also existed in history.
Join us again next week as we continue to look at the historical nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
1999. Tarzan. Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. Performed by Tony Goldwyn .
James, Barrie. 1904. Peter Pan. London: n/a.
2013. Frozen. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Performed by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell.