Select Sunday > Sunday Web Site Home > the Word > Historical Cultural Context

Cultural Insights into the Passion

In Mark’s passion story, of the Twelve disciples hand picked by Jesus one betrayed him (Mk 14:10), another denied him (Mk 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his greatest moment of need (Mk 14:50). If these intimate followers of Jesus were absent for all the events of the passion, where did Mark obtain the information he reports?

Some scholars believe that the story already existed in a relatively fixed form prior to any evangelist’s writing. Mark simply reported what tradition had already formulated.

A closer reading of the story demonstrates how the Mediterranean shapers of this passion tradition intended to show that Jesus turned the shameful experience into something very honorable.
Others believe that Mark crafted the story of Jesus’ passion and death as an integral part of his Gospel. Still others, noting many allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures such as Psalms 22 and 69 and the Servant Songs of Isaiah, propose that the story took shape in liturgical commemorations of Jesus’ death.

As the early followers of Jesus reflected upon his suffering and death, they resorted to the Hebrew Bible for insight. This was the only Scripture they knew.

Very likely a combination of all these elements contributed to the composition of Mark’s passion story.

While traditional Scripture scholarship on the passion narrative focuses on the relationship of tradition to the creative activity of the evangelist, some contemporary scholars look to Mediterranean culture for brighter light. Culture offers at least two insights: honor and shame, and pain and suffering.

Honor and Shame
The Mediterranean core values of honor and shame resonate throughout. During Jesus’ lifetime, no antagonist succeeded in shaming him. Jesus successfully protected his honor against all attacks.

By contrast in the passion, a tradition older than the rest of the Gospel narratives, Jesus seems to be shamed by both his intimate followers and his enemies.

It is difficult to understand why this master of riposte in the rest of the Gospel remains mute in the passion story.

On the one hand, he wins eminent Mediterranean cultural honor by dying with a degree of manliness (machismo) which impresses the pagan centurion (Mk 15:39). On the other hand, there is no denying that crucifixion was a shameful punishment reserved for criminals such as those at Jesus’ left and right (Mk 15:27).

Our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith who understood honor and shame perfectly perceived these conflicting aspects of the story quite clearly.

But a closer reading of the story demonstrates how the Mediterranean shapers of this passion tradition intended to show that Jesus turned the shameful experience into something very honorable.

The woman who anoints Jesus (Mk 14:3-9) anticipates the honor that has to be omitted at his burial (Mk 15:46). In his agony, the dutiful son honorably pledges to do the will of his Father no matter how repulsive (Mk 14:36).

At the inquisition by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, the “false” charge (Mk 14:58-64) of Jesus’ messianic identity is an ironic statement of his true honorable status.

In his meeting with Pilate the procurator, Jesus “the King” holds a higher status and therefore behaves with cultural correctness in ignoring Pilate, an inferior (Mk 15:2-5).

Those who mock him also honor him ironically (Mk 15:16-20).

And the fact that God raises Jesus from the dead confirms this honor in a way no human accolade ever could (Mk 16:1-8). Mediterranean readers see in the passion story an ironic pronouncement of Jesus’ true honor.

Pain and Suffering
Unimpressed with honor and shame, Western readers tend to focus on Jesus’ intense physical suffering: scourging, crowning with thorns, crucifixion.

In Western culture, pain and suffering are experienced by the body and therefore should be avoided and eliminated. Why didn’t Jesus avoid it? What did he hope to gain by suffering?

In contrast, Jesus and his culture shared the beliefs common to the entire ancient world since the time of Aristotle. The soul, not the body, feels pain and suffering, and therefore they can never be eliminated but only alleviated. Stoic, Pythagorean, Jesus and all ancient responses to pain are based on that belief. By bearing his excruciating suffering in Mediterranean manly fashion Jesus demonstrated filial obedience to his Father.

John J. Pilch
Return to the Word
John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
Go to to find out more.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go
Return to the Word