Joel Marcus on the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative

Joel Marcus’s commentary Mark 8-16 (Anchor; Yale University, 2009) was published almost a decade after his commentary on the first eight chapters. He discusses the existence of a pre-existing Passion Narrative on pages 924-31. Wrestling with the question over whether there was a pre-Markan Passion source or whether the Passion story was the creative work of the evangelist, he decides that this is a question of “both/and” rather than “either/or” (924-27).

After outlining the Passion Narrative’s compositional structure (924-25), Marcus notes how Mark took over the structure of a source and extended and altered it (e.g. putting the Sanhedrin trial in the middle of Peter’s cowardice in the high priest’s courtyard fits Markan sandwich techniques) (924-25). Marcus defends a preexisting source on the following grounds (926-27):

  1. it was necessary for Christ followers to provide a rationale for their proclamation of a suffering Messiah at a very early stage;
  2. The overlapping similarities and radical differences between the Johannine and Markan Passion narratives suggest that John was not directly dependent on Mark;
  3. the time indications in Mark’s Gospel are usually non-existent or vague (“several days later”), while the Passion story has connected and specific time notices down to the last hours of Jesus’s life;
  4. some passages do not make sense as individual units, but must be part of a consecutive text as the preparations for the meal must be followed by the disciples eating it and the predictions of Peter’s denials requires their narrative fulfillment. Moreover, Mark makes some redactional additions such as adding the verse in 14:28 to the earlier prediction of the denials.

Marcus expands on John’s similarities and differences with Mark: while John agrees on some narrative details (e.g. the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple though this is put near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, the plot of the priestly leadership, the anointing at Bethany, the betrayal and denials of Jesus) and has echoes of Markan traditions (John 2:18/Mark 11:28; John 14:26/Mark 13:11), it lacks most of what Mark narrates in Jerusalem, does not recount the institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, and passes over Jesus’s agony in the Garden. Some of these omissions could be deliberate – John’s largely realized view of eschatology may have had little root for the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13 and John may have felt ambivalent about Jesus’s prayer to escape the cup of suffering – but other omissions are hard to explain if John knew Mark (e.g. Mark 11:1-6 and 14:12-16 could imply Jesus’s clairvoyance). Thus, Marcus agrees with Joachim Jeremias that there was a Passion Source underlying Mark and John, originally beginning with Jesus’s arrest and then extended to Jesus’s triumphal entry (926-27).

On the question of historicity, Marcus finds John Dominic Crossan’s reconstruction of a primitive”Cross Gospel” behind the Gospel of Peter to be incredible (927). He also rejects Crossan’s dichotomy of “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized,” opting for a “middle of the road” approach where memory and theological insight are interconnected and where there was a “two level drama” that shifted between the biography of Jesus and the biography of the Markan Christians in post-70 Syria. Marcus accepts the historicity of potentially embarrassing details such as the denials of Peter, the flight of the disciples, and the lament on the cross as well as the survival of some eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus’s death, yet he does acknowledge the instances of “prophecy historicized.” For instance, Matthew 27:43 puts a citation of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus’s antagonists to make it explicit that Jesus is fulfilling prophecy; Mark 15:40 may be indebted to Psalm 38:11 when it narrates the women at a distance from the crucifixion while the women are close enough to converse with Jesus in John 19:25-26 (927-29).

Finally, Marcus is sensitive to the potential anti-Jewish readings of the Passion Narrative (929-30). He finds that there is historical evidence from Josephus and much later Christian and Jewish sources (cf. Justin, Dial. 108; Origen, Cels. 2.4, 9; b. Sanh. 43a) of collusion between the priestly leadership and the Romans in the trial of Jesus, but that Mark goes too far in incriminating the Jewish leadership. Marcus argues that there is no evidence that a prisoner was released over the Passover feast, but allows that “Barabbas” may be a symbol of Mark’s rejection of revolution violence. He also thinks that the Sanhedrin trial may be more of a mirror of the Christian readers’ own experiences of persecution at the height of the Jewish War against Rome. However, Mark’s animus is mostly aimed at the priestly leadership rather than the people as a whole, which was regrettably forgotten in the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Gerd Theissen on the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative

Gerd Theissen defends the existence of a Passion source in chapter 4 “A Major Narrative Unit (the Passion Story) and the Jerusalem Community in the Years 40-50 CE” in The Gospels in Context (London & New York: T&T Clark, 1992), 166-199. While Theissen dates this source between 40 to 50 CE, he dates the finished Gospel of Mark to after 70 CE. His major arguments are that there was a common source underlying the Markan and Johannine Passion narratives which were independent of each other and the writer of the source was directly familiar with some of the characters named therein.

Starting with the disagreement between the Markan and Johannine chronologies on the precise date of Jesus’s death, Theissen believes that Mark’s source actually agreed with John that Jesus died on the day of preparation before Passover. This is the real reason for why Jesus was hastily tried at night for there could be no judicial proceedings on the Passover (Mark 14:1-2), why Simon of Cyrene came from the field despite work being forbidden during the Passover (15:21), and why Mark 15:42/John 19:42 have the “day of preparation” yet Mark inserts a relative clause to link it with preparation for the Sabbath (166-168). Theissen is reluctant to state the exact length of the Passion source, though the correspondences between Mark 14:1 and John 11:43-47 onward may signal that it started here, but he is open to the source being shorter (Bultmann) or longer (Pesch) (168-169).

Second, Theissen builds on Pesch’s case about the “indications of familiarity.” Not naming the high priest may not demand that he was the currently in charge (contra Pesch), for the book of Exodus does not name the Pharaoh, but dropping Caiaphas’s name while his family was in power between 30 and 70 CE was risky. In contrast, Pilate could be named because it was easier to blame a former office-holder who was disposed of in 37 CE than the Roman office itself and Mark was more embittered against the priestly leadership. The naming of the sons of Simon of Cyrene indicates that they were well-known members of the community (cf. Acts 6:9). Mark 15:41 is not entirely clear on the familial relationship of Mary to James and Joses, so they too may have been well-known. This James was identified as “the younger/less” to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, so the Passion source preceded the latter person’s death (ca. 44 CE). Characters were named by their places of origin – Nazareth, Magdala, or Arimathea – and these locations would mean little to those outside Palestine. While Matthew 27:16 calls Barabbas a notorious prisoner and Luke 23:19 is explicit about his crimes, Mark 15:7 assumes the audience’s knowledge of him by describing him “with” the rebels in the insurrection, thus leaving his level of involvement in their activities apart from his conviction for murder unclear. Last, the bystander who cuts the ear of the priest’s slave (14:47) and the young man who resisted arrest by fleeing naked (14:51-52) are not named; Theissen invokes the theory of protective anonymity to protect those still alive who ran afoul of the authorities.


A Passion Narrative from the Jerusalem Church?

To return to the subject of whether or not the evangelist Mark drew on a pre-existing Passion Narrative, Rudolf Pesch endeavored to reconstruct an extended Passion source and date it back to the Jerusalem church in the 30s CE in Das Markusevangelium: Teil 2, Einleitung und Kommentar zu Kap. 8,27-16,20 (HTKNT; Freiburg: Herder, 1977) 1-25 and “The Gospel in Jerusalem: Mark 14:12-26 as the Oldest Tradition of the Early Church” in The Gospel and the Gospels (ed. Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 106-148. He discerns an interconnected literary source beginning at Mark 8:27-33 (Peter’s confession) and consisting of 9:2-13, 30-35; 10:1, 32-34, 46-52; 11:1-23, 27-33; 12:1-12, 13-17, 34c, 35-37, 41-44; 13:1-2; 14:1-16:8. These verses were organized into an outline of thirteen parts with three subsections each (see his outline charted in Markusevangelium, 15-16). This Passion source included Jesus’s last Paschal meal in an integrated narrative from the sacrifice of the lamb and the preparation of the meal (14:12-16) to the singing the Hallel Psalms (14:26) (“Gospel in Jerusalem,” 117-139). Pesch locates the source in Jerusalem based on its familiarity with topography of Jerusalem and surrounding areas, the individuals named who were part of the Jerusalem church, the Semitisms, and the knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (15:34). He dates it before 37 CE because Paul allegedly had knowledge of the Supper within its narrative context (1 Corinthians 11:23-25); the fact that the high priest is not named (contra Matthew 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2) presupposes familiarity with him and that he may have even been the current high priest at the time of writing. He adds that the Passion source treated Pilate with the same familiarity by not including the title governor (contra Matthew 27:2, 11; Luke 3:3).

Happy Easter Sunday

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5 NRSV)

Happy Good Friday

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8 NRSV).

The Gospel as a Passion Narrative with an Extended Introduction

Martin Kähler famously described Mark’s Gospel as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction” (The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, 80 n. 11). A disproportionate amount of space has been given to Jesus’s final week rather than his entire ministry or the thirty-some years that Jesus had lived beforehand. Indeed, Jesus’s death is already foreshadowed in Mark 2:19 and perhaps earlier if the beloved son in 1:11 is an allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac. However, this description may not take seriously enough the teachings (e.g. sayings, parables, legal debates) and example (e.g. miracles, acts of service) that he models before the Passion account.

The Passion Narrative and the Davidic Saga

There were a number of precedents for the Passion Narrative in the Jewish tradition: the suffering righteous in the laments, the persecuted prophets, the oppressed yet vindicated human-like one of Daniel 7, the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah, and the Maccabean martyrs. I came across another possibility in Theodore J. Weeden’s article “Polemics as a Case for Dissent: A Response to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the EyewitnessesJSHJ 6 (2008): 211-22. While I believe that most of these parallels are quite loose and stretched too far, Weeden insists on the following correspondences between the Passion Narrative and the Davidic saga (pp. 221-23):

  1. the conspiracy against David (2 Samuel 15:1-12) and Jesus (Mark 14:1, 10-11)
  2. Ahithophel’s betrayal of David (2 Samuel 15:31; 16:20-17:3) and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus (Mark 14:10f.)
  3. Ittai’s vow of loyalty to David (2 Samuel 15:21) and Peter’s vow of loyalty to Jesus (Mark 14:29)
  4. David’s flight to the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:30) and Jesus’ at the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26)
  5. the three commanders who accompany David (2 Samuel 15:19-24) and the three confidants taken aside by Jesus (Mark 14:33)
  6. David’s distress (2 Samuel 15:30b) and Jesus’ distress (Mark 14:33-35a)
  7. David resigning to God’s will (2 Samuel 15:25f.) and Jesus resigning to God’s will (Mark 14:36)
  8. the army’s plans to attack David (2 Samuel 17:1-3) and the crowd armed with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus (Mark 14:43)
  9. Joab’s deceitful kiss of Amasa (2 Samuel 20:1-10) and Judas’ betrayal with a kiss (Mark 14:44f.).
  10. The altered citation of LXX Zechariah 13:7 in Mark 14:27 conforms closer to Ahithophel’s hope that his attack on David (2 Samuel 17:2) will “all the people with him [David] will flee” when their shepherd has been killed.

The Passion Narrative: Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturalized?

On the one hand, there were eyewitnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus. All of the Gospels mention the handful of women huddled near the cross, though there are some variations in the exact names, and the individual who carried Jesus’s cross (i.e. Simon of Cyrene) seemed to have had two sons who were familiar to Mark’s audience in Mark 15:21. On the other hand, the narrative has been shaped through the lens of scriptural traditions such as the laments of the suffering righteous (Psalms 22, 40, 41, 42, etc.), the Son of Man embodying Israel in his oppression under the beasts and vindication on the clouds (Daniel 7), the vicarious martyrdoms of the Maccabean martyrs (2 Maccabees 7; cf. 4 Maccabees 6:29; 17:20-22), and the testing of the righteous one who claims to be a child/son of God with torture by the wicked (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20). Even the darkening of the sky at the death of Jesus has scriptural precedent (see Amos 8:9).

John Dominic Crossan coined the catchy phrase “prophecy historicized” in debate with Raymond Brown’s magisterial The Death of the Messiah: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Crossan explains what he means by this phrase in this YouTube video here and in more detail in his books The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper Collins, 1992, Ch. 14), The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. Mark Goodacre has responded to Crossan’s theory in his podcast “Are the Passion Narratives ‘Prophecy Historicized’?” and his chapter “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” in Geert van Oyen and Tom Shepherd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peeters, 2006): 33-47. Goodacre notes an inconsistency in Crossan’s method – Crossan argues that the lack of knowledge of what exactly happened in Jesus’s final hours was due to the disciples having fled even though the Gospels present this as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy too –  and Goodacre coins the phrase “history scripturalized.” This means that the early Christ followers interpreted their social memories of Jesus’s suffering and death through the lens of earlier scriptural precedents. I lean more towards Goodacre’s position.


A Pre-Markan Passion Narrative

When you read the first half of the Gospel of Mark, some of Jesus’s teachings appear to be arranged topically (e.g. Sabbath controversies in Mark 2:1 – 3:6 and parables in Mark 4) and there is a fairly loose geographical and chronological framework. Jesus may “immediately” do something while attending synagogue on some Sabbath or while walking by the sea. With the exception of the baptism and anointing of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and Peter’s climatic confession about Jesus as the Messiah at the mid-point of the Gospel, the precise order of events does not seem to be too crucial until Jesus rides on a donkey to Jerusalem.

It is at this point that there is a much more interconnected, chronological story. One event leads logically after another. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the crowd’s acclaim as a potential messianic deliverer (Mark 11:1-11), causes a disturbance in the Temple courts the following day before slipping out of the city (11:15-18), debates religious authorities in the temple courts the next day before predicting the temple’s doom (11:27-13:37), has a plot hatched against his life two days before Passover (14:1-2), is anointed by a woman beforehand as he will be dishonorably buried (14:3-9), after the Passover Lamb is sacrificed on the 14th of Nisan his disciples prepare a room to eat the Passover meal for the 15th of Nisan (14:12-31), is abandoned and betrayed by his disciples in Gethsemane before his trials and execution (14:43-15:41), and his tomb is found empty (16:1-8). This is the story about Jesus’s “Passion” (from the Latin passio or “suffering/enduring”). Did the author of the earliest extant Gospel inherit a complete “Passion Narrative” or did he or she craft one from a variety of earlier oral/written sources (e.g. eyewitness reports, liturgical traditions like the Last Supper, scriptural prophecies, etc.)? I am going to reproduce my notes about this issue from my previous blog over the next few days.

Power over Water: Sources on the Graeco-Roman Background

For my upcoming presentation entitled “Jesus’ Imperial Authority over the Sea” at the regional SBL conference, I have been greatly influenced by the following two sources:

  • Adela Yarbro Collins, “Rulers, Divine Men, and Walking on the Water (Mark 6:45-52)” in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament World: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi, eds. L. Bormann, K. del Tredici, and A. Standhartinger (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 207-227.
  • Wendy J. Cotter, The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

However, there has been push-back against the purported parallels advanced in the former two works in the following article:

  • Brian D. McPhee, “Walk, Don’t Run: Jesus’s Water Walking is Unparalleled in Greco-Roman Mythology” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.4 (2016): 763-777

McPhee makes the fair point that, in Graeco-Roman mythology, the ability to travel on the sea or air or to soar above the sea and other inhabitable places is explained on the basis on running at extraordinary speeds or relying on some magical device. Thus, the exact parallels with Jesus “walking” on water break down. However, I still think that the efforts of emperors like Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and Caligula to build bridges across water were intended to demonstrate their mastery over the waves and to intimidate their enemies. Xerxes even orders the flogging of the Hellespont when a storm destroyed the bridges that he had constructed over it (Herodotus, Histories 7.35). Moreover, there is still a reference to the hubris of Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” in imagining that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea (2 Macc 5:21; 9:8). Of course, arrogant human monarchs could not accomplish the feat that Jesus did, but Yahweh delegated to Jesus the authority to rule over the chaotic sea as the sovereign ruler whom He anointed.