It is widely recognized that the narrative of the last few days of the life of Jesus was the earliest part of the Gospel story to take shape as a connected whole. There were many reasons why this should be so. For one thing, the events of those days must have been indelibly impressed on the memory of those men and women who spent them in Jesus’ company. When they came together for fellowship and worship they would recall the days that led up to the crucifixion, and the days that followed it; and others who had not been present at the time would be eager to hear the details. This was especially true of those occasions when Christians took the bread and wine of thanksgiving as their Master’s memorial: “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup”, said Paul, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. xi. 26)―words which appear to mean not simply that participation in the Lord’s Supper was in itself an acted proclamation of His death, but that every such participation was regularly accompanied by a repetition of the passion narrative. In this way even recent converts to the new faith must soon have become tolerably word-perfect in their ability to tell the story.
Nor was it only at Christian meetings for worship that the story was repeated; it was told time and again as an essential part of the apostles’ preaching. Paul reminds his Galatian converts how before their very eyes “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. iii. 1)―so vividly, we may gather, did he describe the crucifixion as he preached the gospel to them. In like vein he reminds the Corinthian Christians how, when first he visited their city with the gospel, he “decided to know nothing” among them “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. ii. 2). And when, later in the same epistle, he reminds them of the terms in which he preached the Gospel to them, he says that he delivered to them “as of first importance” what he himself had received―to begin with, “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. xv. 3).