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A Few More Sources on the Passion Narrative

Over the last month, I have been reproducing my notes from the various books or commentaries that I perused while writing my dissertation on Mark’s Gospel. However, there are many other significant publications on the Passion Narrative that are worthy of your consideration. There is a brief annotated bibliography of sources that I did not cover at Oxford Bibliographies. Also, on the page about the Passion Narrative at the website Early Christian Writings, there is a link to an index that lists the scriptural references to the events of the Passion from all four New Testament Gospels and the Gospel of Peter.


The Passion Narrative: Tentative Conclusions

I have been reproducing some of the notes from my past blog (here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here) about whether the Gospels of Mark and John were indebted to an older Passion Narrative. The Latin word passio refers to “suffering” and came to denote the story of Jesus’ sufferings. If there was an interconnected account of what lead to Jesus’ sufferings that preceded our extant written Gospels, it may have extended from the arrangements that Jesus was making for the Passover meal in Jerusalem or at least from his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion and post-mortem vindication. I continue to be convinced that there was such a source, regardless of whether it was oral or written, but am skeptical about our ability to reconstruct it for the following reasons:

  1. There were eyewitnesses to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus including Simon of Cyrene, whose sons were known to Mark’s readers (Mark 15:21), and the named women who went to anoint Jesus’s corpse when they found the tomb empty.
  2. Whether Jesus was remembered as a wise-sage, a prophet like Moses, a miracle worker like Elijah, or a messianic deliverer as held by the Jerusalem Pillars (i.e. Jesus’ brother James, Peter, the Twelve), there would have been a necessity to rationalize why God allowed Jesus to undergo such an ignoble death.
  3. Social memories of Jesus’s final hours were intertwined with scriptural reflections on the meaning of Jesus’s death at the outset. Jesus’s real experiences were interpreted through the lens of the biblical laments, the experiences of the prophets or king David, the suffering servant songs in deutero-Isaiah, the son of man figure who is oppressed yet vindicated over the beasts in Daniel 7, the trials of Wisdom’s child in the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Maccabean martyrs.
  4. Since I have argued that Mark and Paul were independent theological thinkers in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, they presuppose a common memory of Jesus’s self-sacrificial disposition and the basic events from the collusion of the imperial Roman and Jewish priestly leadership in the trail, the Roman method of execution, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus. My leaning is that Mark and Paul preserve two different interpretations of the Last Supper, in one instance as a historical Passover meal that Jesus had with his disciples and the other as a regular cultic meal in commemoration of Jesus in Corinth, and I believe that the wording in 2 Corinthians and Luke is secondary to the one in Mark and Matthew.
  5. The much smoother, interconnected Passion Narrative with precise time indications does stand out from Mark’s literary style elsewhere.
  6. My leaning is that, while John may be influenced by one or more of the Synoptic Gospels (e.g. Mark), John also draws on other independent traditions. However, since John’s literary dependence or independence from Mark is a debated subject, there are no controls for delineating the extent or precise contents of a hypothetical Passion source. For instance, the Passion source may have contained the story about Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem or John may have retold the story after reading it out of Mark’s Gospel.

The Passion Narrative as a Markan Creation

The preceding posts have surveyed attempts to reconstruct a Passion source based on the overlapping similarities between Mark and John, or Mark and the Pauline Epistles, assuming that they were independent sources. However, the next contributions argue that the evangelist Mark was the creative genius behind the Passion Narrative and that John depended on Mark. True, there may have been an older tradition here or there (e.g. the Lord’s Supper was attested in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25), but Mark was the one who shaped any prior traditions into a coherent narrative. I will take a brief look at John R. Donahue and Werner H. Kelber’s chapters in Kelber’s edited volume The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), Burton Mack’s A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), and William Arnal’s essay “The Gospel of Mark as Reflection on Exile and Identity” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith (ed. Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon; London; Oakville: Equinox, 2008), 57-67.

Donahue argues that John was dependent on Mark (pp. 9-10): verbal agreements include the “ointment of pure nard” (marou nardou pistikēs in Mark 14:3; John 12:3), the cost of the ointment at 300 denarii (Mark 14:5; John 12:5), the fact that Peter was warming [thermainomenos] himself by the fire (Mark 14:54, 67; John 18:18, 25), the movement of Peter “into” the courtyard (Mark 14:54; John 19:15), the chant “crucify him” in the imperative (Mark 15:14; John 19:2; 5), the purple robe that Jesus was clothed with (Mark 15:17; John 19:2 5), the preparation day (Mark 15:42; John 19:31), and the interlacing of the Sanhedrin trial with Peter’s denials. John diverges from Mark for theological reasons such as displaying Jesus’s foreknowledge of the arrest (John 18:4-9), heightening the guilt of the priestly leadership (18:14), or dramatizing Pilate’s trial and krisis [judgement] of Jesus (18:28-19:16). Second, Mark’s Passion story conforms to characteristics of his Gospel as a whole: the proclamation of kingdom, the meaning of discipleship, the antagonism against the Temple, the christological identity of Jesus, the purpose of suffering, the orientation towards Galilee, and the triumph of the good news (14). Mark, redaction critics aver, should be respected as an author rather than just stringing together sources (16-19). Kelber concludes that Mark 14-16 is no different from the rest of the Gospel in editing and unifying individual traditions or creating new material with no one tradition exercising an authoritative influence; Mark’s achievement was to compose a literary whole out of disparate traditions (157-58). In summary (156-57):

  1. virtually all of the major (and many minor) themes in Mark’s Gospel converge in chapters 14-16;
  2. chapters 14-16 is a theologically inseparable and homogeneous part of Mark’s Gospel;
  3. this counters the form critic’s assertion that there was an independent and coherent passion source prior to Mark.

While there is tension in the former volume over the extent to which there may have been oral sources behind Mark 14-16, Mack is adamant that Mark is the creator of the material in Part III “Narratives of the Passion” (247-312). Mack asserts that resistance to criticism of the Passion is due to its status as a primary myth-ritual text (249-51). He takes on the form critics that it grew in stages from the Christian “proclamation” or kerygma (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) to a core historical report with embellishments (251-55). Rather, the Passion story was based on the suffering righteous one from the Psalms; the scriptures were not tacked on to a historical report to apologize for the scandal of the cross for the crucifixion is only scandalous when the crucified one is identified as a messianic figure (255-58). Mack highlights the theological coherence linking all the episodes of the Passion (cf. Linneman), documents the martyrological motifs (Dormeyer), compares Jesus with the Temple (Kelber, Donahue, Juel), and looks at how Mark follows the script of the innocent sufferer in the Wisdom tale (258-62, 269-87). Chapter 10 (269-87) covers the literary design of the Passion story and argues that Mark learned the import of Christ’s death from the ritual meal (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) and historicized it into a narrative with human agents and geo-political events conspiring against Jesus. Chapter 11 (288-312) dissects the temple incident, the Markan meal tradition, the arrest, the Sanhedrin, the Roman trial, and the crucifixion accounts. Alleged “counterpoint stories” that are usually seen as earlier accounts such as Jesus’s agony in Gethsemane or his anointing, the latter which Mack allows was rooted in an earlier chreia (anecdote) that was rewritten to apologize for the lack of a proper burial for Jesus, cannot be detached from Mark’s narrative (306-12). For Mack, the Passion story was modeled the Righteous One (Psalms), Wisdom’s son, and the martyrs (cf. charts on 256, 267, 270). He sums up:  “A brilliant appearance of the man of power, destroyed by those in league against God, pointed nonetheless to a final victory when those who knew the secret of his kingdom would finally be vindicated for accepting his authority” (323).

Arnal insists that Mark re-worked the Jesus traditions in response to the experience of social dislocation and double exile in the fallout of the Jewish War post-70 CE. According to Arnal, the sources in the pre-70 period outside of Paul’s epistles are largely sayings material – Q, an earlier edition of the Gospel of Thomas, parables, controversy stories, and chreia or anecdotes (1 Thess 4:15; 1 Cor 7:10-1; 11:24-5)  – while Mark wrote the first biography (58). For the Passion Narrative, Arnal thinks that Mark transformed sayings into stories (e.g. carrying one’s cross in logion 55 or unproductive fruit trees in logion 45 of the Gospel of Thomas became short anecdotes in Mark 15:21 and 11:13-14, 20-21) and that the Passion of Jesus was informed by the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures in the Septuagint (e.g. Psalm 22) and popular Greek epics (58-59).

Dale Allison on the Passion Narrative

Dale C. Allison offers a defense that there was some kind of a Passion Narrative that preceded the Gospel evangelists in chapter 5 “Death and Memory” in Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). First, Allison agrees with Goodacre on the Passion as “history scripturalized” instead of “prophecy historicized” and that it is very unlikely that the disciples of Jesus would not have learned about what happened to Jesus (388-91). Second, he proceeds to argue that there were oral memories and interpretations of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s death from early on. This is based on how much we can reconstruct from Paul’s Letters alone (e.g. the wording of the Last Supper, the “handing over” of Jesus, the involvement of imperial Roman and Judean authorities, the crucifixion and the wounds on Jesus’s body, the burial of Jesus), the traditions that were available to John independently of Mark’s Gospel even if the former knew the latter, and the intriguing parallels between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. Ken Schenck has a great review of Allison’s argumentation in six parts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6).

Adela Collins on the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative

Adela Yarbro Collins has an excursus on the Passion Narrative on pages 620-639 of her excellent commentary on Mark (Hermeneia; Fortress, 2007). She interacts with several proposals from the form critics onwards and offers her own tentative reconstruction of it as a written source. A summary of her views can be read online in the SBL paper “The Passion Narrative before and after Mark.”

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).

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.