Home » Blog posts » The Passion Narrative as a Markan Creation

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).

%d bloggers like this: