A Catholic Approach to the Passion Narratives

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Separating the True from the Historical:

A Catholic Approach to the Passion Narratives

[This article is published in Pondering the Passion:What’s at Stake for Christians and Jews?,

Philip Cunningham, Editor. Sheed and Ward, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, pp. 55-64.]

The Problem

One of the lasting achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its repudiation of the claim that the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. In the now famous paragraph four of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), the Catholic bishops of the world state:

True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. Jn. 19:6), still, what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the holy Scriptures.

This statement clearly forbids Catholics from believing that the Jewish people are cursed because of their involvement in Jesus’ death. Moreover, the bishops insist that such a view should not be seen as if it “followed from the holy Scriptures.”

Now, however, comes the problem. The immediate reading of several sections of the passion narratives appears to support just such claims for Jewish involvement and responsibility. Matthew 27:15-26 is an example:

27:15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 27:16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 27:17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 27:18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 27:19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 27:20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 27:21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 27:22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 27:23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 27:24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 27:25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 27:26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.[1]

How is a Catholic to read such a passage? Catholic teaching insists that the Jewish people are not cursed or responsible for Jesus’ death. Yet here is a passage which Catholics believe is inspired by God, and it presents the Jewish crowd “as a whole” calling for crucifixion and saying that Jesus’ blood might fall upon them! If the events of Matt 27:15-26 occurred as they are presented in this text, how can an educated reader deny Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death? If they occurred differently, how can one uphold the integrity and authority of the scriptures?

Moving Towards a Solution

It is possible to provide a context in which the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the biblical passion narratives can be seen as complementary. Appreciating the complex process by which the gospels were formed and the particular characteristics of their literary style assist the interpreter in reading such passages as Matt 27:15-26 without deriving harmful conclusions regarding the Jewish people. Let us examine this context in three steps.

1. The Gospels Are Not Primarily Historical Accounts

Contemporary biblical scholarship and official Catholic teaching believes that the gospel writers did not see themselves as modern historians. Their chief aim was not to report what happened. Their overriding concern was to move their readers to faith—to encourage the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, whom God had sent into the world. The evangelists were more concerned with presenting the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection than the exact details of how those events took place.

Is there historical information in the gospels? Clearly there is. Yet, in composing the gospels, the evangelists adapted the material which had been handed down to them. They added some things, left others out, emphasized one event over another.[2] Why did they feel such freedom? Because they judged that such use of the material would more clearly reveal the meaning of Jesus’ mission. The gospels are not modern scientific biographies. They are creative works of evangelism, efforts to bring their readers to faith in Christ.

The nature of the gospels can be easily appreciated by readers of literature. Different literary works are held to different standards of historicity. If I am reading a modern biography of Abraham Lincoln, I expect everything in that book to be historically accurate. The biographer is not free to make up scenes or present his or her surmises as fact. If, however, I pick up an historical novel based upon the life of Lincoln, I understand that the writer has more flexibility. He or she can invent dialogue and create new scenes and characters. The gospels are closer to historical novels than they are to modern biographies. They do contain historical information, but not every aspect of them is historical.

2. The Historical Aspects of the Gospels Must Be Established

Because the gospel narratives are a mixture of historical data and artistic creation, a determination must be made as to which parts are historical and which are not. Simply because a character or scene occurs in the gospels does not guarantee its historicity.

An imaginary example may prove helpful. Say we wanted to write an accurate modern biography of Abraham Lincoln. However, somehow every source referring to him had been destroyed—except for one historical novel which miraculously was still available to us. We would know that the novel contained historical information. We would not, however, automatically accept every scene or character as historically reliable. Judgments would have to be made in each case whether a particular scene or character had the ring of historicity or whether it appeared in the novel because of the imagination and artistry of the novelist.

How would we go about making such judgments? One way (and this is a much used method in biblical research) would be to learn as much as we could about the culture, politics and beliefs in the world in which the events happened. In our imaginary case of Lincoln, we would try to discover as much as we could about the culture and politics of the city of Washington during the Civil War.

Imagine that our novelist told us that Lincoln was shot and killed while watching a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s theater. We wonder. Is that what actually happened or is our author reshaping the facts? On one hand we might be suspicious. Being shot in a theater is an unusual way to die. Perhaps our novelist created this scene for dramatic effect. Yet, on the other hand, how likely would it be for the novelists to change something as fundamental as the manner of Lincoln’s death? To resolve our doubts we would search diligently for any information to be found in sources outside the novel. Was there a Ford’s theater in Washington? Did it ever produce Our American Cousin? Can we document that any other presidents attended plays there? Asking similar questions concerning the background of the passion narratives can help to establish the historical reliability of the biblical accounts.

Yet questioning the historical accuracy of the biblical texts may surprise and upset some believers. Those who revere these inspired narratives may be left wondering whether the authority of the scriptures has been lessened. This concern leads to the third and final step.

3. There Is a Difference Between Truth and History

The parts of the scripture which are not historical do not undermine their authority for believers. I write this chapter as a believing Christian and a Catholic pastor. I hold the scriptures to be the inspired Word of God. But I understand the gospels to function as a particular kind of literature. Because the gospels are not modern biographies, I recognize that the truth which they proclaim can in fact come from scenes and characters which are not historically accurate.

This leads to an essential insight: There are true things which are not historical. Some of the truest things ever written have come from works containing fiction. Shakespeare, Melville, Twain have presented us with truths which have shaped our lives. Therefore, even as Catholics believe that the gospels are the inspired Word of God, they are encouraged to understand that the authority of that truth is not diminished when it comes at times from scenes and characters which are not historical. In fact, some truths are so profound that they are best expressed in non-historical genres, such as poetry or psalms or parables, or in the form of narratives that convey religious truths dramatically. The only time that truth and history must correspond is in literary works which promise us such a correspondence. The gospels are not that kind of literature.

A Catholic Approach to Matthew 27:15-26

The three steps which have been outlined above provide an approach for a Catholic understanding of the passion narratives and indeed all of the scriptures. Although the claim that parts of the scriptures may not be historical may initially disturb the believer who has not previously examined the nature of the biblical narratives, once this insight is absorbed, clear benefits emerge. The freedom to accept certain aspects of the biblical accounts as non-historical allows the interpreter to reject the historical basis of some negative claims of the scriptures, such as the implication that the Jewish people as a whole are cursed or responsible for Jesus’ death. At the same time the separation of what is historical from what is not allows the believer to appreciate more clearly the artistic intention of the evangelist and locate the particular truth which is valuable to faith. To illustrate these benefits let us return to the scriptural passage with which we began, Matt 27:15-26.

What Is Historical in Matt 27:15-26?

When we ask which parts of Matt 27:15-26 should be accepted as historical, serious doubts emerge as to whether all aspects of the narrative occurred as presented.

After extensive historical research into the Roman and Jewish sources of the period, historians have been unable to confirm the existence of the custom of releasing a prisoner during Passover time as three of the gospels suggest.[3] If this custom were historical, we should expect some trace of it in contemporary writings. Pilate, of course, had the authority to pardon criminals if he wished. Therefore, we can ask how likely would it be for Pilate to release a prisoner like Barabbas in the manner Matthew describes? Historically, this would be the last thing Pilate would choose to do.

To understand why this is the case, we must reconstruct the historical situation in Judea at the time of Christ. Palestine was occupied by Rome. The Jews deeply resented this, and it was widely known throughout the empire that a Jewish revolt against Rome could quickly develop. The ancient historian Josephus reports widespread revolts against Roman rule at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. The commotion caused the Roman governor in Syria, Varus, to reduce the Galilean city of Sepphoris to ashes and to crucify two thousand of the insurgents.[4] Closer to the time of Jesus, Pilate had to deal with a number of popular insurrections as procurator in Judea.[5] This simmering resentment led in time to the Jewish War against Rome during which the temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

In light of this volatile situation, Pilate was sent to Judea in 26 CE with two clear objectives: to keep the peace and to collect taxes. (Precisely to keep the peace so that he could collect taxes.) In order to meet these objectives Pilate was determined to nip any sign of disturbance in the bud. The most dangerous times of the year were the great Jewish festivals, especially the feast of Passover. Then the population of Jerusalem which was usually about 30,000 would increase to 300,000.[6] In a city bursting with Jewish pilgrims, celebrating their liberation from the foreign domination of Egypt long ago and drinking wine, civil unrest was likely. Pilate who normally resided in a seaside villa in Caesarea would consciously come to Jerusalem during the festivals with additional Roman troops. Soldiers were stationed on the roofs of the temple colonnades with a clear purpose: to keep people moving, to stop crowds from forming. For if a disturbance began it could quickly spread. Such an eventuality would clearly be seen by the emperor as a failure on Pilate’s part to keep the Jewish populace in line.

Therefore, historically the last thing which Pilate would desire is a crowd outside his residence. Should a crowd gather it is highly unlikely that he would invite them to decide who should live and who should die. The political situation of Judea in the time of Jesus renders major portions of Matt 27:15-26 unlikely from an historical perspective. We should rightly question whether Jesus’ trial took place in any public setting and certainly doubt the willingness of Pilate to give to any crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. A much simpler historical scenario is likely. When it was reported to Pilate that there was a popular Galilean preacher in Jerusalem who was collecting crowds and who created a disturbance in the temple by overthrowing some tables, the prefect would act without doubt or hesitation. A perfunctory hearing would take place out of sight of the excitable Jewish pilgrims, and Jesus would immediately be sent to crucifixion.

With the historicity of the Barabbas scene in doubt, the notorious “blood curse” of the Jewish crowd loses its context. Although all four gospels know of the release of Barabbas, only Matthew tells us that Pilate washed his hands and the Jewish people took Jesus’ blood upon themselves. This makes it likely that the “blood curse” is the result of Matthew’s editorial activity rather than as a reflection of history.

If the choice between Jesus and Barabbas as presented in the gospels does not hold up under historical scrutiny, should we conclude that the scene is completely imaginary or can a historical substratum be identified? A tentative but responsible answer to this question has been suggested by Raymond E. Brown. It is evident even in modern translation that the man who the gospels say was released was not named simply “Barabbas” but rather “Jesus Barabbas.” Brown raises the possibility that two men with the name Jesus (Jesus Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth) were historically brought before Pilate for judgment at different times but perhaps during the same Passover period. For some reason Pilate released Jesus Barabbas but condemned Jesus of Nazareth. Although they were judged separately and in private, the similarity of names struck the followers of Jesus as ironic. Their Jesus who was clearly innocent was found guilty by Pilate, whereas Jesus Barabbas was freed. By the time this irony was recorded in the gospels, the drama had been intensified by bringing both Jesuses together at the same moment before Pilate’s tribunal. The addition of a crowd and paschal custom further increased the artistic impact of the scene.[7]

The likelihood that the presence of the Jewish crowd, the blood curse and the choice of Barabbas over Jesus did not occur historically assists the Catholic interpreter in demonstrating how collective Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death does not flow “from the holy scriptures.” Moreover, separating what is historical from what is not can also clarify the truth which a scripture passage offers to believers. It is to that truth that we now turn.

What Is True in Matt 27:15-26?

When we ask whether some aspect of a narrative is historical, our intention is clear. However, what is intended when we ask whether a narrative is true? Terrence Tilley has suggested that a story is true when it re-presents our world or a part of it in a revealing way.[8] From this perspective the scriptures can be said to be true when they reveal something about our relationship with God as we experience it in our world.

A narrative is able to reveal more than one truth, and the variety of truths within a story emerge as new readers pose new questions to the text in differing circumstances. Unlike the historical, which either happened or not, the truth within a story can never be exhausted. The interpreter, therefore, must be satisfied in pointing to certain truths which the story reveals, knowing that other interpreters will discover different meanings as they approach the text. To the historically minded this wealth of truth is disturbing in that it cannot be “pinned down” to one particular result. However, to those who come to the scriptures seeking the mystery of God, the abundance of truth is a gift which keeps the Word of God alive and connected to the experience of believers from generation to generation.

Therefore, as we ask what is true in Matt 27:15-26, it is impossible to be exhaustive. We must be satisfied in pointing to a few truths within the narrative. The task of identifying what is historical and what is not is helpful in this regard. For as we now examine this dramatic scene with an eye to its truth, the historical doubt of certain actions and characters impels us to question why has the story been put together in this particular way? If the writing is historical, then the evangelist is simply reporting what happened. If the evangelist has amplified, altered or created a scene or character, then it is in the very shaping of that material that the interpreter can search for the truth.

Allow me to present two truths which can be discovered within this passage: the depth of injustice and the responsibility for life.

The Depth of Injustice

The choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth heightens the injustice of Jesus’ death. The reader of the gospel already knows Jesus’ goodness and innocence. Therefore, any sentence of death would be clearly unjust. Yet situating that judgment in a circumstance where not only is the innocent one condemned but the guilty one released, widens the scope of the evil. The reader recognizes that not only is evil present in our world but it also has power. Even when the right decision is obvious, the wrong decision can be made. Even though all sense and logic point in one direction, there is no guarantee that our choices will follow. There is no failsafe position. In any circumstance injustice can prevail.

The high likelihood that the evangelist is not simply reporting what happened but creatively shaping this scene around this cruel irony, only emphasizes its impact. We recognize the truth this scene reveals. Injustice flourishes. The poor suffer. The innocent die. The helpless are forgotten. Opportunities to correct what is wrong are overlooked. Chances to strike out in anger and violence are embraced. Evil is not to be dismissed or underestimated. We stand in sad recognition. Yes, that is the way our world is. The truth of the Barabbas scene is a bitter one.

Yet it is not a truth without hope. For the victim in the scene is the Messiah. As God’s chosen he claims for himself no special privileges. If injustice holds sway in this world, it will have its way with him. Therefore, the cruel irony of the Barabbas scene dramatizes Jesus full humanity and union with us. It further invites us to see his continued presence in our broken world. Those who discover the truth of this narrative will recognize that the ones who suffer injustice share a particular union with Christ.

The core of the Barabbas scene is a heavy truth. Neither Jesus’ death nor resurrection has been able to eliminate injustice from our lives. But until that day when Christ returns and every enemy is destroyed, we do not struggle on alone. For the One who was rejected in favor of Barabbas, the Savior, stands steadfast in our midst.

The Responsibility for Life

Pilate’s washing of hands and the blood curse in this passage assert that life cannot be taken without responsibility. Together with Judas’ suicide (27:3-10), another section found only in Matthew, the hand washing and the curse share a preoccupation with blood. Someone must claim responsibility for the innocent blood of Jesus. Judas does not want it; the temple authorities do not want it; Pilate does not want it. Yet the story cannot proceed until someone claims it. This happens when the whole people together with their children accept it.

As long as we view this responsibility within a purely historical framework, the issue seems to be who killed Jesus. However, our previous discussion has established that the historical accuracy of the hand washing and the blood curse is dubious. This allows us to approach them on a different level. We are free to ask what truth emerges from Matthew’s emphasis on blood. The question has deepened. Who is responsible for Jesus’ blood? The Christian tradition has consistently answered, “We are.” Jesus died for the sins of all people. However we determine the historical causes which led to his death, it is true to say that all who are human assume the blame for his unjust crucifixion.

Moreover, it would be an impoverishment to limit this truth only to Jesus. Any life which ends through human intervention entails responsibility. Every life has value and no life can be taken without the blood being shared by us all. As long as lives end because of the thirst for empire, the desire for wealth or the impulse of revenge, as long as lives are subordinated to the maintenance of systems which enrich only a few and waste the gifts of our planet, we cannot limit the blame for such losses to only some among us. Innocent blood spreads. Hands cannot be kept clean. Whenever blood is shed, when a life is neglected, when a person is treated as a commodity, it is our problem. The words of the crowd are our words, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” The truth of this story is that we are responsible for each other. No one is free until all are valued. No one is absolved until all are protected.


By separating what is historical in the passion narratives from what is not, the Catholic interpreter seeks to remain faithful both to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and also to the scriptures themselves. By recognizing the dubious historical basis for some scenes within the passion narratives, the interpreter can demonstrate how the holy scriptures need not be read as placing historical responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jewish people. Moreover, this very process of identifying what is historical throws the artistic and theological creativity of the gospels into higher relief. What appeared at first to be a problem can now be recognized as an opportunity. Even as we defuse the negative historical claims which seemed to flow from the passion narratives, we can unearth the graced truths which lie within them.




[1] New Revised Standard Version translation.

[2] Note this description from the Second Vatican Council: the Gospel writers “selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches” (Dei Verbum, §19).

[3] Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 814-818.

[4] Josephus, The Jewish War, 2:55-75.

[5] Josephus, The Jewish War, 2:169-77; Jewish Antiquities, 18:55-64, 85-89.

[6] E. P. Sanders, “Jesus in Historical Context,” Theology Today 50 (October 1993): 442.

[7] Brown, Death, 819-20.

[8] Terrence W. Tilley, Story Theology (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1985), 188.

2 thoughts on “A Catholic Approach to the Passion Narratives”

  1. A savior that died for me? I am hulbemd by the fact that Jesus accepted my punishment as his own. I end up being a poor example for his sacrifice but he took the punishment even knowing who and what I am. His pain, death and resurrection remind me that I serve a forgiving God! As his child, God wraps me in his arms and loves me no matter the circumstance. How great is that?

  2. Just came upon this post. Excellent perspective. Such an important concept to separate historical truth from the truth the author is highlighting/portraying as we contemplate scripture. The historical truth is just that, historical. But the real truth is something that lives on and speaks to each and every generation — basically revealing the truth of our human condition and our relationship with God. Thanks for this perspective.


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