In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Passion Narratives

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Works on the Death of Jesus in Nonnarrative Texts
  • Genre
  • Sources of the Passion Narratives
  • Relationship with Jewish Scripture
  • Relationship with Greco-Roman Literature
  • Passion Narratives and Martyrdom
  • Passion Narratives and Roman Empire Studies
  • Feminist Approaches to the Passion Narratives
  • Anti-Semitism, Anti-Judaism, and the Passion Narratives
  • Passion Narratives and Historical Jesus Research

Biblical Studies Passion Narratives
Ellen B. Aitken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0088


The term “passion narrative” is used primarily to refer to the accounts given in the canonical gospels of the suffering and death of Jesus. Generally, scholars treat the passion narratives as beginning with Jesus’ agony and arrest in Gethsemane and concluding with his burial. The sections to which these narratives are typically assigned consist therefore of Matthew 26:30–27:66, Mark 14:26–15:47, Luke 22:39–23:56, and John 18:1–19:42. Those scholars who would include the Last Supper and the discovery of the empty tomb as parts of the passion narratives would expand this list of passages to reflect these additions. In addition to the gospels of the New Testament, noncanonical texts recounting the death of Jesus, of which the fragmentary Gospel of Peter stands at the forefront, have in recent decades occupied vital roles in scholarship on the passion. Nonnarrative material that discusses Jesus’ death has also contributed to the exploration of the development of early Christianity’s understanding of the passion; as the earliest extant reflections on Jesus’ death, the letters of Paul have proven to be essential to this area of study. In the past, research into the passion narratives greatly affected source and form criticism of the New Testament; it continues to inform scholarship on such topics as the historical Jesus, the development of anti-Judaism in early Christianity, and the theological orientation of early Christian texts.

General Overviews

Although the majority of scholarship concerning the passion narratives focuses on specific texts or issues, several significant publications are available that seek to provide a more comprehensive examination of the passion, incorporating all of the canonical gospels as well as additional texts. Brown 1994 has become an essential commentary on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. Bovon 2006 is a concise treatment that will be of use to scholars and students. The essays in Carroll and Green 1995 provide an excellent introduction to a wide range of topics and texts central to the study of the death of Jesus. Matera 1986 emphasizes the significance of the passion narratives in understanding each canonical gospel as a whole. The essays in Frey and Schröter 2005 offer several studies on the cultural and religious contexts of the passion. Martinez 2008 is a detailed analysis of every reference in the New Testament to the death of Jesus. The lectures published in Hooker 1995 explore the imagery used by different New Testament texts in discussing Jesus’ death. Readily accessible to a general readership, Patterson 2004 argues that any exploration of how early Christians responded to the death of Jesus must take into account how this response also incorporates their understanding of Jesus’ life.

  • Bovon, François. The Last Days of Jesus. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.

    English translation of Les derniers jours de Jésus: Textes et événements (Geneva, Switzerland: Labor et Fides, 2004). An economical yet nuanced introduction to major issues surrounding the passion narratives, written from a historical perspective.

  • Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah—from Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives. 2 vols. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

    A massive commentary that meticulously examines and compares each episode from the canonical passion narratives with an eye toward clarifying the intent and reception of each text. A key tool for scholars but also of interest to a more general readership. See Crossan 1996 (cited under Anti-Semitism, Anti-Judaism, and the Passion Narratives) for a sustained critique of Brown’s approach and methodology.

  • Carroll, John T., and Joel B. Green. The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.

    Collaboratively authored essays that provide multifaceted discussions of how the death of Jesus is treated in various New Testament and other early Christian texts. Provides excellent surveys of scholarship on the passion.

  • Frey, Jörg, and Jens Schröter, eds. Deutungen des Todes Jesu im Neuen Testament. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 181. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.

    Large collection of essays that consider the Jewish and pagan matrices of early Christian understandings of the death of Jesus. Primarily in German, with some English.

  • Hooker, Morna D. Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretations of the Death of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

    Adapted from a series of lectures, these studies offer the eminent theologian’s analysis of the breadth of imagery employed by New Testament authors in articulating the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • Martinez, Ernest R. The Gospel Accounts of the Death of Jesus: A Study of the Death Accounts Made in the Light of the New Testament Traditions, the Redaction, and the Theology of the Four Evangelists. Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2008.

    Analyzes every New Testament reference to the death of Jesus that falls outside the passion narratives and then examines the gospel narratives in light of this study. A revised and expanded edition of the author’s previously published 1971 dissertation.

  • Matera, Frank J. Passion Narratives and Gospel Theologies: Interpreting the Synoptics Through Their Passion Stories. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.

    Landmark study that provides a systematic approach to the critical role played by the passion in the larger narratives of each synoptic gospel. Accessible to advanced undergraduate students.

  • Patterson, Stephen J. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.

    Patterson approaches the death of Jesus from the perspective of his early followers, exploring how these early Christians articulated their understandings of Jesus according to the identities of victim of Roman imperial rule, martyr, and sacrifice.

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