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Historical Cultural Context
Friday of the Lord’s Passion
(Good Friday)
April 10, 2019
John J. Pilch

Jesus the King

The repeated and strong emphasis upon Jesus' divinity together with the triumphalist tone in John's version of the Passion read on Good Friday blunt the shock of the Synoptic versions which are read on Palm Sunday in each cycle.

In his Magnificat, J.S. Bach used a form of concentric musical composition so that when the singers arrive at the words “As it was in the beginning ... ” that musical pattern repeats the pattern from the beginning of his composition. Musically at the end of his composition, Bach reminds the listener how it was “musically” at the beginning.

In similar fashion, the author of John’s Gospel favors clusters of seven. For instance, he reports just seven signs (which the Synoptics call mighty deeds) during the ministry of Jesus.

In any literary composition where seven items stand out, it is possible to view them in “step progression” or in “concentric arrangement.”* Jesus' dialogue with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4) is an example of “step progression.” Jesus and the woman speak to each other seven times. In the woman's seven responses to Jesus, she gives evidence of a progressively improving understanding of who Jesus really is: Judean, Sir (Kyrie), Prophet, Messiah. In the end she becomes the first “evangelizer” in John's Gospel: “many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman's testimony.” The story of the Samaritan woman is an example of an author using seven items to demonstrate "step progression." The highlight is at the end of the list of seven (Jn 4:29).

John's Passion Story illustrates the use of seven items in “concentric arrangement” similar to the musical device employed by Bach. The technique of concentric composition was popular among ancient authors. In concentric composition, the main point of the narrative comes not at the end, but rather in the middle. When seven items are arranged concentrically, they appear thus:

A
   B
      C
         D
      C’
   B’
A’

John 18:1-19:41, the Gospel reading for Good Friday, is like a play that can be divided into twenty-one scenes, or three acts each containing seven scenes. This means that the scenes of each act can be arranged according to the scheme of letters as presented just above. The “D” scene at the center is the highlight.

ACT 1 (Jn 18:1-27): Arrest, Jesus before Annas, denial by Peter

A Scene 1 (18:1) In the garden

B Scene 2 (18:2-3) Infidelity of Judas

C Scene 3 (18:4-11) Jesus loses none given to him; double witness

D Scene 4 (18:12:14) transition from Judas to Peter; one must die

C’ Scene 5 (18:15-18) Peter’s first denial, Outside

B’ Scene 6 (18:19-24) Jesus and Annas: Teacher and Revealer; Jesus is struck, Inside

A’ Scene 7 (18:25-27) Peter’s second and third denial, Outside


ACT 2 (Jn 18:28-19:16): Jesus before Pilate.

To discern the scene changes here, pay attention to “Inside” and “Outside.”

A Scene 1 (18:28-32): Outside, authorities demand death

B Scene 2 (18:33-38a): Inside, Pilate questions, Jesus answers

C Scene 3 (18:38b-40): Outside, Jesus declared innocent

D *Scene 4 (19:1-3): Inside, Jesus crowned as King

C’ Scene 5 (19:4-8): Outside, Jesus is declared innocent

B’ Scene 6 (19:9-12): Inside, Pilate questions, Jesus answers

A’ Scene 7 (19:13-16): Outside, authorities demand death

Notice how section “D” is the heart of what John the Evangelist wants to say about Jesus in his Passion Story. Observe also how neatly the idea in section A matches the idea in section A’, etc. Because of the literary device of “concentric arrangement,” the reader (and sometimes a listener sensitive to this potential pattern) can easily grasp what the author or speaker is doing.


ACT 3 (Jn 19:17-42): Crucifixion; anointing; burial.

A Scene 1 (19:17-22) Crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate affirms twice

B Scene 2 (19:23-24) Jesus’ stripped of clothing

C Scene 3 (19:25-27) Jesus’ mother affirms

D Scene 4 (19:28-30) Death of Jesus

C’ Scene 5 (19:31-37) Piercing of Jesus; double witness

B’ Scene 6 (19:38-40) Anointing of Jesus; fidelity of disciples

A’ Scene 7 (19:41-42) Burial in a garden.

If one were to take a longer view of John’s Passion Story, Act 1, scene 1 (in a garden), matches Act 3, scene 7 (in a garden), and so on, highlighting still further the centrality of Act 2 and its central scene: D.

This kind of literary arrangement makes it clear that the crowning of Jesus as king, the mocking indignity of the thorns endured out of love for humankind, is the key to the suffering and death of Jesus in the mind of John. Death out of love for others is victory; the cross in this scheme is indeed coronation.

The soldiers mock Jesus as “king.” This practice of mockery was common on stage and in the Roman circuses. A “mock king” game has also been found on the stone pavement identified in John’s Gospel as lithostrotos (Greek for stone pavement) and located under the present Sisters of Zion convent in Jerusalem. In his Gospel John betrays a fondness for irony wherein protagonists often speak the truth totally unbeknown to themselves. In this perspective, here is a sign that non-Judaic peoples will ultimately confess the kingship of Jesus.

What would a Mediterranean cultural perspective add to this? In the Mediterranean world where honor and shame are the core values, Jesus the honorable preacher had a very shameful end. His trial and execution were that of a criminal. The shame of this end obliterated the honor he amassed during his ministry. This, at least, is the Synoptic story line in which Jesus' being raised from the dead by God vindicates Jesus and heaps abundant honor upon him far surpassing anything humans could have granted.

In John, Jesus is honorable from the cosmic beginning of the Gospel right through the triumphalist trial and death. From a Mediterranean honor and shame perspective, the resurrection was something like frosting on the cake in John's Gospel. It simply added more honor to honor which was never diminished.**

John J. Pilch
________
 * My favorite literary analysis of John's Gospel and his Passion Narrative is a long-standing one recently refined by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh in their Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). I have modified their outline, though our analysis of the central scene is nearly identical. Such an analysis is rooted in the fact that artists (speakers, writers, composers) create their works by using patterns or structures that help an attentive reader or listener to follow and grasp the artist’s intended meaning.

 **This is a comforting thought for a worshiper who, as this Good Friday liturgy progresses, will venerate the cross while singing or listening to the “reproaches,” an Eastern hymn transferred to the West around the 9th century. The ceremony of venerating the cross was in existence in Rome from the seventh century. These “reproaches” represent the finest elements of folk piety calculated to prick the conscience and stir the hearts of sinners to conversion. St. Methodius, who brought Christianity to Poland in the tenth century AD, also brought these “reproaches” which have held a treasured place in Polish piety through the ages even to the present time.

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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 http://www.litpress.org/ 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 http://www.ltp.org
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