Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion (BWV 245): A Theological Commentary

With a new Study Translation by Katherine Firth and a Preface by N. T. Wright


This Theological Commentary is the first full-length work in English to consider Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion in its entirety, both the words and the music. Bach’s oratorio is a globally popular musical work, and a significant expression of Lutheran theology.

The commentary explains the Biblical and poetic text, and its musical setting, line by line. Bach’s Passion is shown to be the work of a master craftsman and trained theologian, in the collaborative and cultural milieu of eighteenth-century, Lutheran Leipzig.

For the first time, this work makes much German scholarship available in English, including archival sources, and includes a new scholarly translation of the libretto. The musical and theological terms are explained, to enable an interdisciplinary understanding of the Passion’s meaning and continued significance.

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The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. A historian and theologian, his research centres on the European Early Modern and pre-Enlightenment periods, with an emphasis on the use of language, meta-language and other media to communicate ideas. Recent research includes publications on Lutheran educational drama, Luther’s music theory, and Lutheran music-making. Loewe has lectured extensively and published on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and has curated both concert and liturgical performances of Bach’s major works, for which he provided both scholarly introductions and specially commissioned sermons.
List of Tables and Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Preface N. T. Wright


From the ‘Fifth Evangelist’ to the Birth of the Neue Bachausgabe
Theological Bach Research: Back to the Sources
Considering Anti-Judaism in Bach’s Music
Bach and Theology Re-assessed
Purpose and Scope of this Study

Part 1: Composer and Work

Learning the Craft of a Church Musician
1.1. Bach’s Schooling
1.2. Singer, Instrumentalist, Church Musician
1.3. ‘Singing preaching and praising of God’

‘It pleased God that I should be called’ – Bach’s Office and Craft
2.1. The Purpose of Church Music
2.2. ‘Gnaden-Gegenwart’: God’s Presence in Sacred Music
2.3. Music for the Glory of God

Proclaiming Scripture through Music – The Development of Bach’s Cantatas
3.1. Musical and Textual Models for Bach’s Early Cantatas
3.2. The ‘Modern Cantata’
3.3. From Köthen to Leipzig: from Capellmeister to Lutheran Cantor
3.4. The Leipzig Cantatas: Words and Music that Amplify Scripture
3.5. Composing, Rehearsing and Performing the Cantata

Bach’s St John Passion
4.1. The Development of the Lutheran Responsorial Passion
4.2. The Liturgical and Homiletic Context of Bach’s St John Passion
4.3. The Libretto of Bach’s St John Passion
4.3.1. Textual Elements of the St John Passion: Biblical Text
4.3.2. Textual Elements: Madrigalic Texts
4.3.3. Textual Elements: Chorales
4.4. The Purpose and Message of Bach’s St John Passion

Part 2: Commentary

Study Translation Katherine Firth

Commentaries and Sermon Collections
2.1. Abraham Calov’s ‘Great German Bible’ (1682)
2.2. Johannes Olearius’ Haupt Schlüßel (1681)
2.3. Sermon Collections: Martin Luther (1528-29)

1. Prima Parte – First Part of the Passion
Exordium – Prologue
Hortus – Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
Pontifices – Jesus Before the Chief Priests

2. Parte Secunda: Nach der Predigt –
Second Part of the Passion: Following the Sermon
Pilatus – Jesus Before Pilate
Crux – Jesus Dies on the Cross
Sepulchrum – Jesus is Laid in the Tomb



1: Libretti published in Salomo Franck’s Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer, Geist und Weltlicher Poesien Zweyter Teil and Evangelische Sonn- und Festtages-Andachten (1716)
2: Libretti published in Ziegler’s Versuch in gebundener Schreib-Art (1728)
3: Libretti published in Picander’s Ernst-Schertzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte
4: Libretto of Bach’s St John Passion as first performed in 1724 (I)
5: Libretto of Bach’s St John Passion as performed in 1725 (II)
6: Known and Unknown sources of Free Poetry in Bach’s St John Passion
7: Consolation and Commitment in Arias and Ariosos of Bach’s St John Passion
8: Interior Questions and Answers in the Chorus Arias of Bach’s St John Passion
9: Actus Chorales in Bach’s St John Passion
10: Petitions from Stockmann’s Passion Chorale in Bach’s St John Passion


1. Dedication of Solomon’s Temple: Frontispiece of the 1673 Eisenachisches Gesangbuch, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, TL 45.
2. Exterior and Interior of St Thomas’ Church Leipzig: Frontispiece of the 1710 Leipziger Kirchen-Staat, Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 8 H E RIT I, 11920.
3. Picander’s Texts for the Passion-Music according to the Evangelist Matthew set to music by Bach in the St Matthew Passion, 1727, from the 1748 Ernst-Scherzhafte und Satyrische Gedichte, p. 471, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, P.O. germ. 600 e/2.
4. Frontispiece of Bach’s copy of Calov’s annotated New Testament from the Great German Bible, Concordia Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri.
5. Mors: Olearius’ commentary on John’s account of the death of Jesus, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 2 Exeg. 650 e-5.
6. Autograph Score, p. 11: Different Cross-motifs (1-3, 2-4 and 1-4, 2-3) on ‘Jesum von Nazareth’, Bach Digital Project.
7. Autograph Score, p. 12: Cross-motifs (1-4, 2-3) on ‘Jesum von Nazareth’, Bach Digital Project.
8. Autograph Score, p. 17: Cross-motif (1-4, 2-3) on ‘Jesu nach und’, Bach Digital Project.
9. Intrade Herrn Sebastian Knüpfers, Kritischer Bericht.
10. Autograph Score, p. 34: Answers to Questions, though not in Bach’s hand, Bach Digital Project.
11. Johann Saubert, DYODEKAS emblematum sacrorum (1625): The alto voice as an expression of the Holy Spirit, Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, SJ CS 320/5.

All those interested in:

Life and Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
St John Passion
Lutheran Theology, Pietist Theology
Johannine Theology
Choral Music
Music History
Baroque Art
Development of the Lutheran Passion Oratorio
Pre-Enlightenment Germany
Anti-Judaism in St John’s Passion
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