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27 March 2018

Falling down—and other false memories of Jesus’s passion.

Certain things in our passion plays aren’t necessarily in the gospels.

One of the odd things you’ll notice about the traditional 14 stations of the cross, is how often Jesus falls down. He does it thrice.

  1. Gets condemned, is given his cross, falls down.
  2. Encounters his mom, Simon of Cyrene, and St. Veronica; falls down.
  3. Encounters the daughters of Jerusalem, falls down.

Then he’s stripped and nailed to the cross, so he’s not gonna fall down anymore—unless we count when he’s taken down from the cross, and likely they didn’t drop him in so doing. Still: Three of the stations of the cross involve Jesus falling down. And in St. Francis of Assisi’s original list of seven stations, Jesus falls in the second and fifth stations, so when Christians expanded it to 14, they added a fall.

Yet in the gospels, he doesn’t fall down. Although we can certainly imagine he did, what with being weak from sleep deprivation and blood loss, and the fact he clearly wasn’t up to carrying his own cross. But the gospels don’t say he fell down. He might’ve, but the authors never said so.

So what’s with all the falling down?

Simple: A popular medieval tradition borrowed this verse from Proverbs, and claimed it was a prophecy about Jesus:

Proverbs 24.15-16 KWL
15 Don’t plan a wicked ambush at the home of a righteous person. Don’t ruin his resting place.
16 A righteous person might fall and rise seven times. A wicked person falls into evil.

The medievals claimed Jesus was this righteous person who fell seven times, and he did it in the course of his passion. So only falling three times in the stations of the cross was actually underdoing it. He should’ve been keeling over more often than a Pentecostal during a revival. Every other station should’ve been another fall.

Of course you know actors in the passion plays will fall down every chance they’re given. It’s an easy way to show weakness and suffering. So it stands to reason Francis and the Christians thereafter would make sure it got into the stations of the cross. But nope, doesn’t happen in the gospels.

I know; it regularly surprises Roman Catholics when they look for the falls in the gospels, and find nothing. But it doesn’t come from the gospels. Comes from Proverbs.

Filling in “blanks” with Old Testament “prophecies.”

This is hardly the only time the traditional sufferings of Jesus don’t actually come from the gospels. Here’s another: Ever hear about people pulling out bits of Jesus’s beard? I’ve seen it happen more than once in a Jesus movie. I’ve also heard Christians use this story to argue Jesus had a beard, in case anyone speculates he might’ve been too young to grow one, or might’ve been uncharacteristically clean-shaven: “No, Jesus totally had a beard. ’Cause when they were beating him, they pulled out some of his beard, remember?”

Yeah, I remember the movies, but when I went looking for that bit in the gospels, ’tain’t there. Because it doesn’t come from the gospels either. Comes from Isaiah.

Isaiah 50.6-7 KWL
6 I gave my body to those who hit me, my cheeks to those who shaved my face.
I didn’t cower from shame and from their spitting.
7 My master LORD will help me, so I’m not ashamed,
so I steady my face like a flint, knowing I will not be embarrassed.

Traditionally “shaved my face” (Hebrew u-lekhayey l’mirtim/“and my cheeks to the scrapers”) gets translated “plucked off the hair.” Is 50.6 KJV But yep, it’s about Isaiah suffering, not Jesus. Yet plenty of Christians assume all these parts of Isaiah are messianic prophecies, and borrow this verse, among others, and claim they’re specifics about Jesus’s suffering. Provided a few centuries in advance, but hey, we want details.

Likewise the bit about Jesus being beaten till unrecognizable: Also from Isaiah.

Isaiah 52.14 KWL
Many were horrified by you: His appearance was ruined more than any man;
his shape more ruined than any of Adam’s children.

The bit about Jesus not crying out while he was flogged? Again Isaiah.

Isaiah 53.7 KWL
He was abused and humiliated, and didn’t open his mouth,
like a sheep to slaughter, or an ewe to her shearers, is silent, he didn’t open his mouth.

Okay, he didn’t open his mouth to defend himself in trial, Mk 14.61 and maybe he decided to be a badass when he was getting beaten, and made no sound as they wailed on him. But the Isaiah passage doesn’t necessarily refer to making no sound when he was beaten. There’s no shame in crying in pain, and it’s neither unrealistic nor unbiblical for an actor portraying Jesus to make such sounds. In fact, making no sound implies it didn’t hurt—that Jesus didn’t truly suffer—which creates all sorts of theological problems that it’s best to steer clear of.

The gospels and history provide us a whole lot of details about what Jesus went through. But this simply wasn’t enough for us Christians, who had to pull stuff out of the Old Testament, whether it was suitable or not, and tack it into the passion stories. All the more reason, when we talk about Jesus’s suffering, we need to crack open that bible and see for ourselves whether stuff went down that way. Because, as you can see, there are a few things we’re misremembering.