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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.

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