John 18 and 19 – The Passion Narrative

Shame and honour are present in the story of Christ’s passion. They are significant in the narrative. Jerome H. Neyrey says that “The passion narrative in John 18-19 is profitably viewed in terms of the values of honour and shame.”[1]

Neyrey reads John 18 and 19 through the lens of the typical honour challenge (claim, challenge, riposte, and public verdict). “This bring[s] the phenomena of honour and shame to the surface in that narrative and … interpret[s] the endless confrontations described there in their appropriate cultural perspective. Thus from the narrator’s point of view, Jesus maintains his honour and even gains more in his death; he is in no way shamed by the events.”[2]

Jerome Neyrey’s comments are informative and helpful as we think about the place of shame in the gospels.

John 18:1-11 – The Arrest – Normally capture and arrest would denote shame – but the gospel portrays the display and maintenance of honour. Jesus steps forward and takes charge of the situation (18:4); he knows all things before-hand (18:4); he asks the questions (18:4) – this is usually done by the one in power! The soldiers draw back and fall to the ground (18:6) – bodily posture in the presence of an honoured one. The sequence is repeated (18:8-9) to re-emphasise it.

Statements (18:8-9) also emphasise that Jesus is in control – ‘Let these other go’ and ‘This was to fulfil the word which he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those you gave me’’. So “the narrator presents Jesus firmly in control: knowing all that will happen, asking questions, controlling the events, giving commands, and receiving profound respect from his would-be assailants. He is without doubt the most honourable person in the situation.”[3]  Jesus suffers no shame. Nothing happens against his will, so he is in no way diminished.

Simon Peter’s response, although usually the correct one (a riposte to challenge of honour), is out of place. “Normally failure to respond to a challenge is shameful, but here Jesus explains that it is precisely out of honour that he refuses to resist, that is, out of respect for the will of his Father.”[4]

John 18:12-14, 19-24 – Jewish Investigation – throughout these passages we see a conflict taking place, an honour contest of challenge and riposte.

John 18:28-19:16 – Roman Trial – the extended conflict of charge and refutation, challenge and riposte continues. This occurs on several levels. First, those who deliver “Jesus to be judged engage in their own challenge-riposte game with Pilate. … This challenge-riposte game between Pilate and the Judeans will be continued in 18:39f and 19:6,12ff. But the main contest focuses on the formal process of Jesus before Pilate, which is also an elaborate game of challenge and riposte.”[5]

Charges are brought in verses 29-33. Jesus is than taken to see Pilate (18:29-33). This “serves as the forum where Jesus’ honour claims are both challenged and defended. On the level of rhetoric, Pilate asks questions which challenge Jesus, whose riposte is initially a clever strategy of answering a question with a question. … By questioning Pilate, Jesus might be said to be giving a riposte: ‘Do you say this of your own accord’ (18:34). Pilate’s response is not only scorn (‘Am I a Jew?’), but mockery of Jesus. How shameful, he points out, that  ‘Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over’ (18:35).”[6]

Pilate’s verdict (18:38b) “ tells the reader, at least, that Jesus’ claims are publicly judged to be honourable. … Honour defended is honour maintained. Yet the public verdict in this honour contest remains unclear.”[7] The honour-shame contest or game then continues between Pilate and the crowd (18:39-40) before Pilate gives a judicial warning (19:1-5) – a lashing is technically a judicial warning – intended to inflict pain but especially to humiliate and so discredit troublemakers. The mockery Jesus endured “is far more painful than the physical beating because it produces the most dreaded of all experiences, shame.”[8]

“But if the actors in the drama are portrayed as shaming Jesus, it does not follow that readers of this gospel must concur. On the contrary, insiders have been repeatedly schooled in irony to see Jesus’ death as his ‘being lifted’ to heaven (Jn.3:14; 8:23; 12:32) or his ‘glorification’ (Jn.12:23; 13:31f; 17:1,5). … In short, the gospel inculcates an ironic point of view that death and shame mean glory and honour.”[9]

Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd, in the culture of the time would provoke laughter and derision. Crowds regularly gathered a public executions to participate in the mockery (see Matt.27:38, 39, 41). Jesus own people call for his shameful death, and issue “a new challenge to Jesus honour: ‘By our law he ought to die, for he made himself the Son of God’ (19:7). The crowds consider this ‘claim’ to be so serious a charge as to warrant the death sentence. And so a new trial ensues to deal with the new charge.”[10]

The drama continues with the final verdict and sentence (19:12-16). The next point worth noting here comes in 19:19-22: “The game of push and shove continues over the public title attached to Jesus’ cross. Pilate’s inscription … may be read as a final ironic riposte by the narrator in defense of Jesus’ honour, comparable to Caiaphas’s ‘prophecy’ about Jesus’ death (Jn.11:51). It is also Pilate’s act of authority in defense of his own embattled status. The title, which may be construed as another honour claim, is once again challenged by the Jerusalem elite, who urge a more shameful version: ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews’. Again they charge that Jesus vaingloriously assumes honours not rightfully his (19:7,12). This time Pilate wins: ‘What I have written, I have written’ (19:22).”[11] (p131).

These events then move on to the crucifixion (19:17-37) and the story makes clear that what takes place is shameful: the crucifixion itself; the surrounding criminals; the mocking title; Jesus nakedness; various people mocking him. The “spectators would give public witness to the shame of Jesus’ death.”[12]

Timothy Tennent asks us to note even more: “A crucifixion involves several parts, including the scourge, carrying the beam to the place of execution and, finally, the agonizingly slow death after being impaled on the beams. The scourge has all the elements of public shaming. Jesus is stripped naked, his hands are bound, and he is publicly beaten, including spitting and repeatedly striking the head (Matt. 27:30). All the features of honor are brought forward in a mock coronation ritual ceremony, adding to the humiliation and shame. Jesus is given a crown of thorns for his head, a purple robe to wear, they shout “Hail, king of the Jews” as they strike him (Matt. 27:29), and they mockingly bend their knees and bow to him. Everything is done to maximize the shame.”[13]

Carrying one’s own beam to the place of execution is a form of shaming, especially since it is carried publicly through the streets and the criminal is taunted along the way by the crowds. “The Scriptures emphasize that Jesus is forced to carry the cross (John 19:17), and considerable attention is given to the fact that he is publicly mocked and taunted by several different groups of people (Matt. 27:38 –43; Mark 15:27 –32; Luke 23:35 –39). Ancient crucifixions took place in public (John 19:20) …, the criminal was nailed to the beam and exposed naked. This is emphasized in the scriptural account, which records that Jesus is nailed to the cross and placed between two criminals. Then the soldiers take his clothes, possibly even his undergarments, and divide them among one another (John 19:23), an act explicitly mentioned as a fulfilment of Psalm 22. … The vocabulary of shame is integral to Psalm 22, which foreshadows his humiliation,”[14] just as shameful acts are explicit in different accounts of the crucifixion. “… Thus to them he dies a brutal death, apparently a victim whose life was taken from him in violent fashion. His blood is spilled, without hope of vengeance or satisfaction. This is what outsiders see and count as shameful. … The narrator, however, instructs insiders to perceive this scene in terms of honour.”[15]

First, Jesus does the honourable thing by his mother.  “He defends her honour by adopting as ‘brother’ the Beloved Disciple, and by ensuring that his new kinsman will defend his mother’s honour by ‘taking her into his own house’ (19:27; see Acts 1:14). … Shame lies in being a victim and more especially in the exercise of power by another over one’s life. That may be what the eye sees in Jesus’ death, but not what the ear hears in the narrative. Jesus is honourably presented as the figure in control of events. He knows that all is now completed (19:28) and he chooses to die, ‘It is finished’ (19:30)”[16]

John 19:38-42 – Jesus’ Burial – “This gospel narrates that Jesus’ body received quite an honourable burial, despite the shame of his death.”[17]

Throughout the narrative in John 18 to 19, the narrator makes it clear to his readers that Jesus remains in control, he is honourable, he has status, but at the same time we see him embracing the shame, accepting the circumstances, being seen by others as shameful. There is an interesting and important dynamic here which the apostle Paul picks up in his Letter to the Corinthians. What the world sees and understands as shameful and honourable are not so in the kingdom of God. Honour and shame in the Kingdom are very different. It seems as though the cross, the passion of Jesus, is the point where this countercultural perspective takes final hold in the gospel message, until now it has been foreshadowed in the interactions between Jesus and his challengers, and in the way Jesus has dealt with those who were shamed, disgraced and rejected by the culture of the day.


[1] Jerome H. Neyrey; “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honour and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative“; in Semeia 68, 1996; pp113-137.

[2] Ibid., p113.

[3] Ibid., p120, cf., Timothy C. Tennent: “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p89.

[4] Neyrey, p120

[5] Ibid., p121, cf., Tennent, p89.

[6] Ibid., p123, cf., Tennent, p89.

[7] Ibid., p125

[8] Ibid., p125

[9] Ibid., p126

[10] Ibid., p126.

[11] Ibid., p131.

[12] Ibid., p131.

[13] Tennent, p89-90.

[14] Ibid., p90.

[15] Neyrey, p131.

[16] Ibid., p131.

[17] Ibid., p132

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