It is undeniable that Jesus’s crucifixion is central to the theological worldviews of Paul and Mark, but there is a question about whether it received the same emphasis among all early Jesus associations in the first century CE. On the one hand, the creedal statement that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15:3 may have been formulated at an early stage of the Jesus movement, Paul may have inherited the imagery about Jesus’s atoning death in Romans 3:25 from a tradition, and there may have been some kind of pre-Markan passion narrative that had been developed early on to make sense out of Jesus’s ignoble demise.
On the other hand, there is no theological reflection on Jesus’s death in extant Jewish sources such as the epistle of James and the Didache. I go back and forth on whether the common material in Matthew and Luke that they did not inherit from Mark goes back to a second source (i.e. Q) or whether one evangelist was copying the other, but if the Two Source Hypothesis is correct, there may have been a source that primarily consisted of Jesus’s sayings. It is not that hints about Jesus’s death are absent from it altogether, but it may interpret Jesus’s death in light of the Deuteronomistic theme that Jesus is the last in a long line of rejected prophets (e.g., Matthew 23:37-39/Luke 13:34-35) and Jesus’s disciples are encouraged to take up their own crosses (Matthew 10:38/Luke 14:27). Perhaps the lack of attention to Jesus’s death is due to the genre of these three sources (e.g., sayings source, wisdom instructions, church order). Yet, interestingly, the death of Jesus is also interpreted through a Deuteronomistic lens in Luke-Acts (e.g., Luke 9:31; 13:33; Acts 7:52). Luke even omits Mark’s ransom saying, though a statement about the flock that was purchased with Jesus’s blood is put on Paul’s lips in Acts 20:28. Both Matthew and Luke balanced out Mark’s focus on the cross by preserving much more of Jesus’s teachings, with Matthew in particular representing Jesus as a new Moses and organizing Jesus’s teachings in five major discourses.
What I contest is that Mark and Paul concentrated on the cross for the same reasons. For Paul, Jesus defeated the cosmic powers enslaving humanity (Galatians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 2:8; cf. Colossians 2:14-15), liberated persons subject to the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), reconciled the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:9; Romans 5:10), and enabled his followers to die to the power of sin by participating in his death (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 21). He accomplished all this by dying on a cross. Paul may have worked out his theology of the cross by reflecting on how the Messiah could suffer the fate of one who was cursed by the Law by hanging on a tree and by viewing the death of Jesus as the solution to how non-Jewish “sinners” could be reconciled to the God of Israel. Paul thought that the death of Jesus had universal implications.
For Mark, the three passion predictions are accompanied by Jesus’s instructions to his disciples to imitate his example of service and suffering (Mark 8:31-9:1; 9:30-50; 10:33-45), so this emphasis may have been shaped by the evangelist’s own experience of social marginalization and persecution. Mark 10:45 presents Jesus’s death as a ransom for many, but this imagery may be drawn out of the Jewish Scriptures as Yahweh pays a ransom to redeem Israel (e.g., Isaiah 43:3; Zechariah 10:8-11). The Lord’s Supper is also reported in Mark 14:22-25 (cf. Matthew 26:26-28) and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, but Paul differs in not contextualizing the supper during the Passover (i.e. it is an unspecified night when Jesus was handed over, though Paul identified Jesus as the Passover lamb in 5:7), qualifying the covenant as a “new” one (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6-18), and adding the command to do this in remembrance of me. Paul may have transformed Jesus’s last Passover meal (cf. Mark 14:12-16) into a recurring cultic memorial meal, but even if Paul’s wording was more primitive that Mark’s tradition, it must be remembered that Paul also took the words about the bread and cup from a tradition that he claims to have “received” from the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23). Mark may provide independent attestation for this tradition, which explains the differences in wording, and yet another form of the tradition appears in Didache 9:1-4. Indeed, it is Luke 22:19-20 that has aligned Mark’s wording to Paul’s, though there is debate over whether the longer reading is original (i.e. check out the debate over the so-called Western non-interpolations). Mark thus draws on images of the exodus and covenant renewal to explain the death of Jesus, but his followers must follow him on the way to the cross if they are to share in his vindication and in eschatological salvation.