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The text of Bach’s St John Passion

Margaret Holden

March 2013 INTRODUCTION The following article is about the text of the Passion in St John’s Gospel used by Bach, starting at the beginning of chapter 18 and ending at the end of chapter 19. It also covers the scriptural and theological ideas behind the reflections offered by Bach in his arias and chorales as a commentary on the scripture texts which form his narrative. These commentaries bring out the themes of the Passion which in their turn help the readers and listeners of the Gospel (music aside, the Gospels, like all scripture, were first transmitted orally) to understand the earlier chapters in St John’s text. I have no expertise to comment on the musical structure of the piece. But as a singer, I find that I am as much moved and inspired by the texts, as I am by the musical elements of the works which we sing together under Tim’s wonderful direction. This article is offered to fellow text-lovers, hopefully to help fill in any gaps in knowledge and understanding about the Passion of Christ in John’s unique Gospel. But a word of reassurance: I have not written this article to evangelise or proselytise anyone, but for interest only. I have taught St John’s Gospel to A Level students for a number of years - to those who have faith and to those who have none. Students who substitute academic textual analysis and reporting of scholarly commentary for sermons are those who generally fail. Nevertheless, I think that this material is so unendingly rewarding when studied at a deeper level, even if looked at as no more than an ancient text. It


is fascinating to use the fruits of scholarship and textual analysis, not only on the theological features of the texts, but, - and I can’t stress this enough- on the real life - situations of the Jewish religious authorities and Roman occupiers, and of those early Christians for whom the Gospel was finally edited at the end of the first Century

(c. 90 AD or CE which is used now in

textbooks). Space available on the website has allowed me to write a longer article than would be possible for our magazine. However, to give you a more pleasant reading experience, I have broken some of the rules which I impose on my students in the pursuit of academic rigour (please don’t tell them!!). Firstly, I have not supported my assertions with references to scholars – though I am not an original thinker, so a list of the commentators whose ideas I have used can be found at the end (if you persist that far!). Secondly, I have omitted some specialist vocabulary, though here are some words which I can’t avoid using: SYNOPTICS = the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, so called because they tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry from a similar point of view and are similar in structure, content, and wording. CHRISTOLOGY /CHRISTOLOGICAL =the branch of theology concerned with the study of the nature, character, and actions of Jesus Christ including doctrine such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and his human and divine natures and their relationship. JOHANNINE = adjectival form of John (cf Elizabeth & Elizabethan – sorry if this is obvious!)


Finally –As part of his duties as Cantor of St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Bach had to provide settings of the Passion of Christ for the Good Friday afternoon services. For any Christian, then as now, this is the most solemn, reverential, ceremony of the year. For Lutherans in the early eighteenth century it lasted for quite a number of hours. Since the middle of the seventeenth century in Protestant Germany, there had been regular performances of ‘Oratorio Passions’. This form had evolved from musical interpretations of the Passions going back many centuries all over Europe. Although the text we are singing is from the Authorised Version, I have used the RSV text in my references because it is closer to the original Greek in which it was first written. THE TEXT In general terms, all four gospels agree that Jesus was arrested, that Peter denied him, that Jesus was taken before Caiaphas ( the High Priest), that he was then tried before Pilate, handed over to be crucified, that he died between two others outside the walls of Jerusalem and was buried in a tomb nearby. [The collective way of describing these events is to call them the Passion of Jesus.] However, the synoptic gospels are written from a third person’s point of view, describing the events as if the authors had personally observed all of them and were reporting what they saw at the time. They each drew from some of the same material (oral and written). Thus they are basically descriptive in their approach. On the other hand, John’s Gospel, although also written from a third person’s point of view, is more reflective. John omits a large amount of material found in the synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel adds some other


narratives, drawing, in all likelihood, on a source also used by Luke. All four Gospels were written in different decades following the historically demonstrable event of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth during the governorship of Pontius Pilate in Judea. All four gospel writers (evangelists) agree that Jesus rose again on the third day following his burial, not just that the tomb was empty. It is vital to understand how important this was to them. This knowledge colours the way they tell their earlier narratives because they are written in retrospect. Each evangelist has a theologically distinctive outlook on the events and their implications for understanding the person Jesus [ie their Christology]. None more so than the writer we call John. However, scholars agree that the Johannine Passion enables a better understanding of the significance of the synoptic accounts, and indeed, that because it was written later than the synoptics, one of the purposes of the whole gospel of John was to interpret and supplement the other three. Many of the themes which make the rest of John’s Gospel so unique are brought to fruition in the Passion of Jesus, and the Passion influences John’s approach to the rest of the Gospel. The language of John’s Gospel is permeated with irony, paradox and double meaning, which provides a kind of implicit commentary on his narrative. Some of the great themes in the gospel are those of the struggle of the light against the darkness, paralleled with the conflict between truth and falsehood. John’s Passion draws on this symbolism. These themes are clearly introduced from the very first chapter. In chapter 3, Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, comes to


talk to Jesus (about faith) by night. We are told in 19:39 (cf no 66. Recitative) that Nicodemus comes on the afternoon of the crucifixion to take down the body of Jesus from the cross to prepare it for burial before sunset and the start of the Passover; presumably he is no longer afraid of the truth and the light and of being identified as a supporter of Jesus. In 8:12 Jesus is called the ‘Light of the World.’ This is followed by his healing of the man born blind - and the willful refusal of the religious authorities (the Pharisees) to accept how and why this came about. Just before the Last Supper Jesus worries about the darkness overtaking the light and hence the disciples (cf 12:35 -36). As Judas left the Last Supper to meet the religious authorities to betray Jesus, we are chillingly told ‘he immediately went out, and it was night.’ (13:30) In 18:3, the arresting party came ‘with lanterns and torches and weapons’ (cf Recitative no 2.) They have rejected the Light of the World so they need artificial lights. This artificial light and warmth is then provided by the ‘fire of coals.’ at which the servants and officers and Peter stood in the courtyard of the house of the High Priest to which Jesus had been taken. (cf Recitatives nos 14 & 16) In 18:15 we are told that as Jesus was arrested and taken to the house of the High Priest, both Peter and an anonymous disciple (probably John) ‘followed’ Jesus. At one level the Greek verb used here means motion, but at a deeper level, and with Jesus as its direct object, it indicates discipleship – an important theme throughout John’s gospel. Perhaps the most striking and unifying feature of the Johannine Passion account is the theme of the sovereignty and kingship of Jesus. In the


Synoptics, Jesus appears sometimes in control, sometimes at the mercy of what happens to him. (eg Luke 23: 6 -12). However John’s Gospel shows Jesus ‘presiding magisterially’ over all the events. In the garden scene, there is no mention of Jesus’ agony which is present in the synoptic gospels (and portrayed so movingly in the St Matthew Passion nos 23 -32). He allows his arrest to take place (cf 18:2 & 4.) He comes forward to meet Judas, the soldiers and Temple officers with dignity & serenity and takes the initiative to ask who are they looking for. (cf 18:4 -5) (cf Recitatives nos 4, 6 & 8) He controls the situation to ensure that it is he who is taken, not his disciples (18:8-9). This detail should not be overlooked. In chapter 10 Jesus is shown as the ‘Good Shepherd’ who lays down his life for his sheep,(ie the disciples) and as the ‘Gate of the Sheepfold’ who will not allow a thief to steal his sheep in the darkness. John’s Gospel presents much of its essential Christology in the seven ‘I am’ sayings. In these sayings, with their imagery drawn from the Hebrew scripture, st

so resonant for the members of the late 1 Century Christian community who had had Jewish origins, Jesus reveals the nature and purpose of his mission on earth. These people would have recognised the phrase ‘I am’ as that used by God to refer to himself in his revelation of himself to Moses (a theophany) (cf Exodus 3:14). On the other hand, if they had been Gentile converts with Greek origins (Hellenists), they would have recognised it as a phrase used by the gods when they spoke. Hence, when Jesus identifies himself to the arresting party with the words ‘I am he’ (18:6) their reaction - to draw back and fall to the ground, is that of those who recognise that they are in the presence of God himself. John is very clear about that. (cf Recitatives nos 4 & 6) Old


Testament imagery and allusions are worth looking out for in the rest of the Passion narrative (as, indeed, in many New Testament texts), because they would have been so meaningful to the early readers. Following his arrest, Jesus was first brought before Annas (18:19-23) and then sent to Caiaphas for more formal questioning. Although Peter’s denials of Jesus (18:15 –18, 25 -27) (cf nos 14, 16 -18, & 20 ) are present in all four gospels, John’s presentation is harsh. Peter denies Jesus from the very start. John makes Peter’s denials simultaneous with Jesus’ defence before Annas; (you can almost imagine a split TV screen). There is a dramatic contrast where Jesus stands up to his questioners and denies nothing, whilst Peter cowers before his questioners and denies everything. The biblical scholar Raymond Brown comments that “Jesus was never more alone, humanly speaking, than when Peter said three times that he was not Jesus’ disciple.” After the resurrection, Jesus enables Peter to atone for his denials by the three-fold confession of his love for Jesus (21:15 – 17) The examination of Jesus by Annas was like the interrogation of a newly arrested prisoner in a police station, which was why it didn’t happen at the court building of the Sanhedrin. Annas had served as high- priest some years earlier. It seems clear that due to his ability and force of character he was high priest in all but name, although Caiaphas, his son-in-law, had the title. It was Caiaphas who had finally approved the plan to have Jesus executed (cf11:4950). However, it was Annas who questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching, (18:19 -23). (cf no 14). At the end, Jesus is abused by the ‘police’


who held him (18:22). It is worth noting here that John’s first readers would have noted his identification of Jesus as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. (“I gave my cheek to those who struck me.” Isaiah 50:6) After the questioning, Annas sent Jesus "bound" to Caiaphas, who presided over the Sanhedrin (called collectively ‘the chief priests’ in John’s gospel). This was the supreme Jewish judicial, ecclesiastical, and administrative council in Jerusalem before 70 CE. It was their task to determine if Jesus should be brought to trial before Pilate. The Romans would not perform execution because of violations of Jewish law, and therefore the charge of blasphemy would not have mattered to Pilate. But if Jesus had proclaimed himself as th

Messiah, and therefore the true inheritor of the kingship of King David (c 10 C BCE), this would have been an act of sedition and therefore a capital offence of treason against the Emperor. Caiaphas and the chief priests deliver Jesus to Pilate with a resumé of the proceedings and a recommendation that Pilate should find him guilty. John's gospel does not recount this trial before Caiaphas, but it is found in Matthew and Mark. The trial before Pilate (18:28 – 19: 16) (cf nos 22 – 26, 28 -30, 33-39, 41 46) is set as seven short tableaux staged alternately inside and outside the Praetorium, in contrast to the synoptic gospels where the whole interrogation by Pilate takes place outdoors. Pilate’s equivocation over a decision about Jesus is dramatised by his moving backwards and forwards between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. The crisis becomes more intense with


each encounter with the Jews outside. Pilate becomes even more afraid as Jesus’ calmness is emphasised. Though all four gospels agree that Pilate was convinced of Jesus’ innocence, both John and Mark show that Pilate is still convinced that Jesus is a politically dangerous person and a threat to Roman peace. In the synoptics, Pilate gives way to the people and allows fear of a popular disturbance to override justice. In John, there is a battle of nerves between the chief priests & Pilate, in which Pilate gradually yields to them because of the implied threat to his own position. (eg 19:12) (cf no 42) The chief priests use Pilate’s personal insecurity as a lever to secure condemnation of Jesus. Pilate’s fears about what might be said about him in Rome, given what is known about his rather disastrous career thus far, is almost certainly historical. Jesus’ answers to Pilate reflect the later answers of the Christians to the authorities of the Roman Empire in the face of suspicion of treason in the latter st

part of the 1 Century. In his presentation of the trial of Jesus by Pilate, two themes are important to John: that of truth versus falsehood, and the nature of true kingship. The latter theme is also clearly expressed in the crucifixion. Jesus is the true judge who puts his adversaries on trial. In 19:37, Jesus states the reason he was born and has come into the world “…to bear witness to the truth.” (cf no 28) John uses Pilate to show that the State cannot remain neutral to the truth. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel there are examples of reactions to Jesus where people neither refuse to believe, nor fully accept Jesus for what he really is. Brown says that the Johannine Pilate may represent a person like this, ie that Pilate is typical of the many honest, welldisposed people who would try to adopt a middle position in a struggle that is


total. But Pilate refuses to make decisions and is led to tragedy. He will not face Jesus’ challenge of recognising the truth; (18:38) he thinks he can persuade the Jews to accept a solution (to set Jesus free in honour of the imminent Passover festival) so that he can opt out of deciding in favour of Jesus. (cf nos 28 -30) Brown says “Having failed to listen to the truth and decide in its favour, Pilate and all who would imitate him inevitably finish in the service of the world.” The false claim to kingship is the charge laid on Jesus, and the motif of kingship affected what was done to Jesus in the mockery by the Roman soldiers, which is given as an interlude in the trial. (19:3 -4) (cf nos 33 - 35) However, the account of Jesus before Pilate could be said to be dominated by the emotional effect of a devastating dramatic irony in which the Jewish religious authorities finally acknowledge Caesar to be their king, in order to be rid of Jesus . When Pilate scornfully offers Jesus to them a second time as king (19:14) (cf no 45- 46) they reply in the deeply shocking words “We have no king but Caesar.” Scholars say that this is a deliberate misquotation of the eleventh of the Eighteen Benedictions- “We have no King but Thee (= Yahweh God)”. In other words, the real charge against Jesus having been that of blasphemy, the Jewish religious authorities are themselves now guilty of this iniquity. I have to admit that I was at first surprised and disappointed that Bach did not make more of this in his chorus, until it occurred to me that the textual criticism and scholarship which uncovered these ideas dates to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bach, of course, predates this.


The prayers or Benedictions were an important feature of Jewish worship at the time, and became increasingly so after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70CE as a response to insurrection by Jewish nationalists. At the time John’s Gospel was being edited, therefore, the Jewish faith was under threat and was only practised in synagogues. The early followers of Jesus had practised as Jews. They were, at first, a kind of offshoot of Judaism which accepted that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. The definitive split from Judaism came in the mid 80s. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Jewish religious authorities rejected this troublesome group of heretics; (the technical term here is ‘Minim’!) Much of John’s account of the public ministry -eg the debates between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ in chapters 7 -10 reflected the later arguments between the early Church and the Synagogue, especially the fear of expulsion from the Synagogue (eg 9:22 and 35, and 12: 42 -43). This has led to the charge that John’s gospel is anti-Semitic. It has been the topic of much scholarly debate, and is beyond the scope of this article. However, my understanding is that the word ‘Jews’ is a shorthand term for the religious authorities who perceived Jesus as a threat to the stability and integrity of their nation and faith. (cf 11:49-50) (cf chorus no 23) The cries to “crucify him,” (cf nos 36 and 44) takes place at noon on Passover Eve, the exact time the priests are slaughtering the Passover lambs for the feast that evening, which marks their deliverance from slavery in Egypt led by Moses. John is making an ironic point that the Jewish religious authorities are renouncing God’s ‘new covenant’ made through Jesus as the New Passover exactly at that time. The malevolence of “the Jews” remains the dominant note, and Jesus is handed over to the Romans for crucifixion.


The crucifixion in John’s gospel (19:17 – 30) is suffused by a pervading calmness. The violence and mockery of the crucifixion in St Matthew’s gospel is not there. In John, it can be divided into five ‘episodes,’ each with a theme. The first episode (19:19-22) proclaims the kingship of Jesus. There is a sense that Jesus continues to presides magisterially over the events from the cross. His royal title is proclaimed trilingually- hence to the whole civilised world. (cf nos 49- 51). The clash with Pilate and the religious authorities over this restores dignity to Pilate, lost in earlier scenes. Now that Jesus has been ‘lifted up from the earth’ he is beginning to ‘draw all people’ to himself. (cf 12:32-34) This brings me to an interesting observation about the text of the edition of Bach’s Passion which we are using, which dates from 1929. In our edition,(ed. Ivor Atkins) chorale no 65 refers to the cross as the ‘tree of scorn ’. As I have tried to demonstrate above, this interpretation in no way fits with John’s Christology, where the cross is a throne proclaiming Jesus’ kingship. As far as I can see, the German texts with parallel English translations (rather than interpretations) do not use this phrase either, neither does the 1971 English translation by Peter Pears and Imogen Holst. Further scrutiny of the 1929 edition might well reveal other inconsistencies. The second episode (19:23 -24) is concerned with the symbolism of the seamless tunic- a priestly garment. (cf nos 53 - 55) Jesus is not only a king but also a priest whose death is offered for others. The theme of Jesus’ priesthood has already been explored by John in chapter 17. John uses concrete images familiar to his readers to establish an abstract level of meaning. Thus, the innocence of Jesus (19:4), the day of Preparation (= the


morning and afternoon preceding the commencement of Passover at sunset) 19:31 and John’s entire chronology, the symbolism of the hyssop branches (used by the High Priest to sprinkle the people with the blood of the sacrificed bull on the Day of Atonement) (19:29) and Jesus’ unbroken bones (19:36) all combine to show that the death of Jesus is the sacrifice of the true Passover lamb, (cf also 1:29) and that Jesus himself is the priest who makes the offering. (cf nos 57) The third episode (19:25 -27) shows Jesus’ lasting concern for the community of those whom he leaves behind – the disciples and, by implication, those who follow. An ever-present theme in John’s gospel is Jesus’ abiding love for his disciples (the Twelve are never called ‘apostles’ in this gospel). John places a long final discourse [chapters 14 – 17] between the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest. This contains much of his teaching about how the disciples should treat each other and how they will be supported in a hostile world without his physical presence. Brown thinks that “ the crucifixion is less concerned with the fate of Jesus than with the significance of that fate for his followers.” I think that Bach’s chorales and arias certainly support that idea. (cf nos 31, 40, 51) There is a contrast between the four soldiers and the four women at the foot of the cross (19:23 -25) – representing unbelievers and believers respectively. The identity of ‘the disciple [standing by the cross] whom [Jesus] loved’ (19:25 – 27) and his role in the rest of John’s gospel has been much debated, but I tend to accept the views of scholars who think it likely to be St John the Evangelist himself. John’s is the only Gospel to include the account of Jesus entrusting his mother to this disciple. (cf nos 55 -56) It can be related to the real-life-situation of the early Christian communities in their


identification with their new family of faith in the difficult times they endured both from the Romans and from the Jewish religious authorities during the latter half of the first century. Scholars have argued that Jesus’ mother represents all those who seek true salvation, or that Jesus’ mother symbolises the Church and the ‘disciple Jesus loved’ symbolises the Christian. The fourth episode (19:28 – 30) shows the death of Jesus as the completion of all the Father had given him to do, as described in the scriptures. (cf nos 57 - 58) As Jesus dies he cries “ it is finished” ( the Greek word is tetelestai - a wonderful and very meaningful use of a particular tense of the verb). It is a victory cry, much like the modern idiom YES !! and its accompanying gesture. (cf Psalm 28) As the very early Church sought to make sense of the suffering and death of Jesus in the light of the resurrection, John therefore makes it clear that Jesus’ death is an exaltation and glorification, an important Christological theme found throughout his gospel. As Jesus dies, he hands over his spirit. To the early Christians and for the first commentators on the Gospel, this evoked the symbolism of the Holy Spirit, which was so important in John’s gospel. (eg in chapters 3, 14 and 16) The fifth episode (19:31-37) continues the symbolism of the giving of the Spirit; the flow of blood and water from the side of Jesus, which fulfils the promise of 7:38 -39 with its clear sacramental imagery of Eucharist and Baptism. (cf no 64) There is one place in which Bach does not use the text of John for his recitative - (cf nos 61 and the two arias which follow – nos 62 &


63) He adds in Matthew’s description of the splitting of the veil of the Temple (Mt 27:51-52) for dramatic effect, with meditations on the imagery. Here Bach’s devotion is expressed very much as that of a Christian of his time. Returning to his earlier themes of discipleship and bearing witness to the truth, John describes the Pharisees, Joseph of Arimathea (tradition is that he was a relative of Jesus –cf Blake’s Jerusalem) who had been ‘a secret disciple for fear of the Jews,’ and Nicodemus, who at first had come by night; now they both come by daylight to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body and hastily prepare it for burial before the start of Passover. The burial of Jesus (19:38-42) has features suggestive of the burial of royalty. (cf no 66) Bach’s last chorale, (no 66) I think, contains imagery present in the ‘In Paradisum’, an antiphon from the traditional Latin liturgy of the Requiem Mass, (although Bach, as a devout Lutheran, did not write any requiems in the traditional form eg like Mozart or Verdi ). ‘In Paradisum’ is sung by the choir as the body is being taken out of the church before burial. There are the themes of being accompanied by angels (worth also looking at this idea in the Dream of Gerontius) and taken ‘to Abr’am’s bosom’. On the BBC music website (see link at the end), Charlotte Gardner comments that: “Perhaps the biggest joy of the St John Passion is that it is a truly optimistic work, anticipating the resurrection with music suffused with light and hope.” The final chorale reminds us that for Bach, the St John Passion wasn’t a dramatic performance but an act of worship. http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/24f1766e-9635-4d58-a4d4-9413f9f98a4c


END NOTE – because this article has to be brief, - (though not as brief as I had originally hoped!), I keep noticing points which you may have questions about - ‘ie how does that follow?’ Please don’t hesitate to talk to me about it in rehearsals – to ask further questions or to challenge me about the ideas presented. MH SOME OF THE COMMENTATORS AND SCHOLARS USED R E. Brown The Gospel According to St John (Anchor Bible Commentary) Commentaries by B. Lindars, R.T. Fortna. Mark W G Stibbe John as Storyteller; Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel 1992 CUP


St John Passion