Martin Kahler, an early twentieth-century biblical scholar, noted that the Four Gospels—and in particular the Gospel of Mark—are essentially “passion narratives with a long introduction.” In effect, the Gospels were “built backwards”; the account of his passion and death does not crash in on the story of Jesus as an unanticipated surprise but is prepared for from the outset. In Mark’s case, for example, Jesus begins his mission as John the Baptist is imprisoned (1:14-15)—a hint of Jesus’ fate to come. Early in his public ministry after Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, his opponents plot to kill him (3:6). As he begins his fateful journey to Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples he “will suffer much” (8:31). And when Jesus enters the Jerusalem temple and enacts his dramatic prophetic signs of its cleansing and transformation, his fate is sealed (11:18).
It is likely that the passion narrative was the very first part of the early church’s remembrance of Jesus to be put into literary form. Some scholars suggest it originated in the Jerusalem church itself, when each year the Christians would recall the sequence of events—Passover, Gethsemane, the arrest, the interrogation and trial, the crucifixion and burial, the empty tomb, and the vigil for the day of resurrection. Visiting the sacred places where these events occurred and weaving together reflections on the Old Testament gave birth to the basic passion narrative. Jesus’ silence before his interrogators recalled the silence of Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa 53:7). The great lament of Psalm 22 was mined for the details of those who mocked Jesus, the casting of lots for his clothing, and in Mark, Jesus’ final words of anguish at the moment of his death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Mark 15:34).
The term “passion” comes from the Greek verb pascho, to “suffer,” and the noun form of its Latin derivative, passus. Although “suffering” is the word’s primary meaning, it was also used in Greek and Latin to refer to strong emotion, as the term “passion” also does in English. So the “passion” refers to the suffering inflicted on Jesus; but echoing the range of meaning in this word, the Gospels do not portray Jesus as a mere victim. Ultimately Jesus faces suffering and death on the cross because of the powerful and deliberate commitments of his life—his “passion,” if you will. For Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ death is the culmination of a life of self-transcending service—in Greek, diakonia. Jesus’ healings, his confrontation with evil, his commitment to justice, his bold declaration of the truth— this is what leads to the conflict with his opponents and ultimately his condemnation by the power of Rome.
As Jesus and his disciples are nearing Jerusalem in Mark’s account, Jesus warns them not to seek self-aggrandizement as those who consider themselves “great” do: “But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant (diakonos).” The disciples are to be like him: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43, 45). Here is the true “passion” that reveals the life-giving meaning of Jesus’ death for us.