Martin Kähler famously called Mark 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 is accorded to Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem leading up to the cross. The form critics noticed the “Passion Narrative” stands out as a coherent and interconnected story and assume the evangelist must have incorporated this account into the Gospel intact. What might be the extent of a pre-Markan Passion Narrative and how early might it have been composed? I side with the scholars below who accept the existence of some sort of written or oral Passion source, though I do not think we can reconstruct it with any kind of precision.
First up is Rudolf Pesch, 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 extended, interconnected source beginning at 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 in an organized outline of thirteen parts with three subsections each (see his outline charted in Markusevangelium, 15-6). The Last Supper as a Passover meal from the sacrifice of the lamb and preparation of the meal (14:12-6) to singing the Hallel Psalms (14:26) was integrated in the pre-Markan Passion Narrative (“Gospel in Jerusalem,” 117-39). He locates the source in Jerusalem based on its familiarity with topography of Jerusalem and surrounding areas, the named individuals in the Jerusalem church, the Semitisms, and the knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (15:34). He dates it pre-37 CE because Paul has knowledge of the Supper in its narrative context (1 Cor 11:23-5) and the fact that the high priest is not named (contra Matt 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2) presupposes familiarity with him; he may even be the current high priest at the time of writing. He adds how Mark treats Pilate with the same familiarity by not including the title governor (contra Matt 27:2, 11; Luke 3:3).
Next up is Gerd Theissen, The Gospels in Context (London & New York: T&T Clark, 1992), ch. 6: “A Major Narrative Unit [the Passion Story] and the Jerusalem Community in the Years 40-50 CE”, 166-99. Starting with the disagreement between the Markan and Johannine chronology on when Jesus died, he believes Mark’s source agreed with John that Jesus died on the day of preparation before Passover. This is why Jesus must be disposed quickly as there could be no judicial proceedings on the Passover (14:1-2), why Simon of Cyrene came from the field despite work being forbidden during the Passover, 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 (166-8). He is more reluctant than Pesch to state the exact length of the Passion source, though the correspondences of Mark 14:1 with John 11:43-47 onward may signal it started here, or it may have been a shorter starting at the arrest (Bultmann) or longer (Mohr, Pesch) (168-9). He builds on Pesch’s case of “indications of familiarity”: not naming the high priest does not demand he was the current office holder (Exodus does not name the Pharaoh!) but, as someone from the family of Caiaphas was in power between 30 and 70 CE, dropping names in their sphere of influence was risky. Pilate is named because it was easier to blame the person disposed in 37 CE than the Roman office and Mark was embittered at the priestly leadership. Including the sons of Simon of Cyrene indicates that they were members of the community (cf. Acts 6:9). Mark 15:41 is not entirely clear on the familial relationship of Mary to James/Joses so they too may have been known. This James is identified as “the younger/less” to distinguish from James, the son of Zebedee, so the source precedes the latter’s death (ca. 44 CE). Characters named by their places of origin – Nazareth, Magdala or Arimathea – 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 knowledge of him by describing him “with” the rebels in the insurrection, thus leaving his level of involvement in their activities apart from 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.
Adela Yarbro Collins’ SBL paper “The Passion Narrative Before and After Mark” is online. Her excursus on the Passion is in Mark (Hermeneia; Fortress, 2007), 620-39. She begins with the form critics: Schmidt’s view of an extended narrative of Jesus’ death in the oldest community, Dibelius’ that it began with the arrest and betrayal (14:10-11, 1-2), Bultmann’s on a bare historical record of at least the arrest and execution before it was expanded in several stages, and Taylor’s on two alternating sources (one with Semitisms from Peter’s reminiscences) that form a basic unity. Eta Linnemann went farther in arguing the Passion was created by Mark out of individual units and L. Schenke that Mark formed 14:1-31 out of short individual units, with the traditional Gethsemane report the oldest, and that there are three layers of tradition behind 14:53-15:47 (621-2). She turns to Kelber’s edited volume which argued Mark 14-16 is a theologically homogenous creation of the evangelist, a verdict polar opposite to Pesch on Mark as a conservative redactor of a pre-existing Passion beginning as early as 8:27 (with some redactional additions in 8:27-13:37) from the Aramaic speaking Jerusalem church before 37 CE and Joel Green on Mark as a cautious editor of a passion story originating in a eucharistic setting and independently drawn on by Luke/John (622). She critiques Thiessen’s view that Mark’s source dated the crucifixion before the Passover because 14:1-2 just implies that the religious leaders did not wish to arrest Jesus openly during the feast; 15:21 may mean Simon comes “from the country” and only heavy labor rather than light work was prohibited on the first and last days of Unleavened bread (cf. Exod 12:16; Lev 23:7-8; contra the stricter laws for the Sabbath and Yom Kippur). Reinbold’s defense of John’s literary independence from the Synoptics is strong, but Collins allows that Mark indirectly influenced John in the context of its re-oralization (622-5). She argues that Mark’s narrative source was in a transitional stage between oral and literary production, that Matthew and Luke depended on Mark yet knew other ongoing oral traditions, and John indirectly depended on Mark though modified it in the context of re-oralization with other traditions known to him. She admits the impossibility of reconstructing the exact nature or extent of Mark’s source with no external controls (i.e. independence of Matthew and Luke to reconstruct Q) and that tradition or redaction can only be separated on literary grounds, but here is her attempt. She notes Mark 14 onward has greater literary coherence. 14:1-31 was composed by Mark out of individual units of tradition (Schenke, contra Pesch), but the Passion source started in Gethsemane followed by an earlier form of the arrest, trial before Pilate, execution, and rending of the temple veil indicating Jesus’ ascent to heaven or the removal of the divine-human barrier. The Sanhedrin, Barabbas, Jesus’ words at the trial and cross (the source had the righteous one silent before accusers), and women (15:40-1) are redactional, though the burial and empty tomb story may have been circulated as independent units separate from the Passion source (625-7; 632, n. 1; 637-9; Appendix on p. 819). She concludes with Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian parallels of noble or famous deaths and martyrdom literature and believes echoes of the suffering righteous in the Psalms was an early feature (627-39).
Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (Anchor; Yale University, 2009), 924-31 begins the discussion by outlining the Passion Narrative’s compositional structure (924-5). He turns to debates over whether there was a pre-Markan source or if the Passion is the creative work of the evangelist (924-7), deciding that it is both/and. Mark took over the structure of a source to which he extended and altered (e.g., Markan sandwich techniques) (924-5). He defends a preexisting source: 1. it was necessary for the church at a very early stage to explain their proclamation of a suffering Messiah, 2. John’s overlaps as well as radical departures on the passion narrative suggests the author was not directly dependent on Mark, 3. time indications in Mark are usually non-existent or vague (“several days later”) while the Passion has connected time notices to the last hours, 4. some passages do not make sense as individual units but must be part of a consecutive text (preparations for the meal and eating, predictions and fulfillment of Peter’s denials go together) and Mark redactionally adds 14:28 to an earlier prediction of the denials (926-7). John lacks parallels to much of Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry except the triumphal entry and temple cleansing, though in a different chronological order, and has occasional echoes of Markan traditions (John 2:18/Mark 11:28; John 14:26/Mark 13:11). John lacks the Eucharist and the agony in Gethsemane, but agrees on the leader’s plot, the anointing at Bethany, and the predictions of betrayal and denial. Some omissions could be deliberate (e.g., embarrassment over Jesus’ prayer to escape cup of suffering, a realized eschatology in John’s last discourse against Mark’s eschatology), but other omissions are hard to explain if John knew Mark (Mark 11:1-6; 14:12-16 on finding the colt and the room for the Last Supper imply Jesus’ clairvoyance). Thus, Marcus believes the Passion Source underlying Mark and John began at the arrest and was subsequently extended to triumphal entry (Jeremias) (926-7). On the question of historicity, he finds Crossan’s reconstruction of the “Cross Gospel” behind the Gospel of Peter incredible (927) and rejects Crossan’s dichotomy of history remembered or prophecy historicized for a “middle of the road” approach of memory and theological insight, a “two level drama” about Jesus and the Markan Christians in post-70 Syria. He accepts the historicity of potentially embarrassing details – the denials, the flight of the disciples, the lament on the cross – and some may have survived who remembered the events, yet he also acknowledges prophecy historicitzed in other cases (e.g., Matt 27:43 puts a citation of Ps. 22 on a character’s lips, Mark 15:40 may borrow from Ps 38:11 with the women at the distance while they converse with Jesus in John 19:25-6) (927-9). He adds that there is evidence from Josephus and much later Christian and Jewish sources (cf. Justin Dial. 108; Origen, Cels. 2.4, 9; b. Sanh. 43a) of collusion of the Jewish leadership with the Romans, but Mark goes beyond that in incriminating the Jewish leadership. The trial before the Sanhedrin may reflect Christian experiences of persecution and there is no evidence for a custom of releasing a prisoner at the feast, though Barabbas may symbolize Mark’s rejection of revolutionary violence, and the animus is mostly aimed at the leadership rather than the people (929-30).
Dale C. Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), ch 5: Death and Memory first agrees with Goodacre’s critique of Crossan on the Passion as history scriptualized (388-91). Second, he observes how much of the passion we can reconstruct just from Paul such as 1. the crucifixion, 2. the shed blood and “marks” (stigmata) (i.e., flogging, nails rather than ropes), 3. the execution by the rulers of this age, 4. the messianic figure of Jesus (Christ, Davidic descent), 5. & 6. the role of Judeans (1 Thess 2:14-16), 7. the “night” he was handed over (paradidōmi – some try to read a stronger sense of betrayed), 8. the willingness to surrender his life, 9. the words of the last supper, and 10. the burial (392-403). He charts out (404) the parallels between Paul and the passion narrative underlying Mark/John, allowing that John knew Mark yet still writing largely independently, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-5 is the best evidence Paul knows the Passion in a narrative context (405). Allison spots several more correlations from Paul’s letters (406-21): 1. the humble character of Jesus, 2. the proof-texting of Psalm 69 (Rom 15:3 [cf. Rom 11:9-10]; Matt 27:34 [gall added to Mark 15:23]; Mark 15:36; Mark 15:32/Matt 27:44; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:28-9; Acts 1:20), 3. the recitation of the Psalms by Jesus as fulfilled by him (cf. Rom 15), 4. the rare verb “to crucify with” (sustauroō) and the two crucified persons with Jesus, 5. the paschal lamb typology (1 Cor 5:7), 6. the reference to “nailing” a record (Col 2:13-4) and the notice on the cross, 7. the verb (para)didōmi in Paul and Mark (the subject in 1 Cor 11:23 may be God or the betrayer), and 8. the knowledge of Paul of the Gethsemane tradition (cf. Luke 22:29-46; John 12:27; 13:21; 18:11; Heb 5:7-11). Examples include Paul’s thrice prayer for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, the “cry” Abba (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), the instruction “in prayer continue, watching” (Col 4:2), and the imitatio Christi with the remark that Christ did not seek his own pleasure (406-421). He concludes that Paul spent time in Jerusalem, some scholars date a passion narrative to the 30s/40s (Pesch), and Paul does not contradict Mark (422-3).
Werner H. Kelber’s edited The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) is a North American contribution on Mark’s creativity. Donahue’s opening chapter surveys the quest for a pre-Markan Passion source. Verbal agreements between Mark and John (ointment of pure nard [Mark 14:3; John 12:3]; 300 denarii [Mark 14:5; John 12:5], Peter warming [thermainomenos] himself [Mark 14:54, 67; John 18:18, 25], Peter going “into” the courtyard [Mark 14:54; John 19:15], “crucify him” imperative [Mark 15:14; John 19:2; 5]; purple robe [Mark 15:17; John 19:2 5], preparation day [Mark 15:42; John 19:31], interlacing the Sanhedrin with Peter’s denials) suggests John’s dependence on Mark while his divergences are for theological reasons (e.g., foreknowledge of the arrest in John 18:4-9; heighten guilt of Jewish officials in John 18:14; dramatize Pilate’s trial and krisis [judgement] in John 18:28-19:16) (9-10). Elements of Mark’s Passion fit key characteristics of the narrative as a whole including the proclamation of kingdom, meaning of discipleship, relation to Jerusalem and Temple, christological identity, mission of suffering, orientation towards Galilee, and good news (14). There is a growing concern to see Mark as an author and theologian; “redaction criticism” is not just how an author edits sources but the composition of the narrative with plot and protagonist (cf. Perrin, Weeden, Kelber) and he touches on structuralist or semiotic criticism (16-9). After this introduction scholars tackle the Last Meal (Robbins), Gethsemane (Kelber), Sanhedrin (Donahue), High Priest (Perrin), Peter’s denials (Dewey), Crucifixion (Weeden), and empty tomb (Crossan). Kelber summaries that 1. virtually all major (and many minor) Markan themes converge in chapters 14-16, 2. chapters 14-16 is a theologically inseparable and homogeneous part of Mark, and 3. this challenges the form critics on an independent and coherent passion source prior to Mark (156-7). Mark 14-16 is no different from the rest in editing and unifying individual traditions or creating new material with no one tradition exercising an authoritative influence and the author’s achievement is to compose a literary whole out of disparate traditions (157-8). There is a tension between scholars who allow for sources and histories of development even if the Passion “owes its final form and coherent structure and meaning to Mk” (20), for Donahue and Weeden accept the existence of a pre-Markan trial scene or Dewey an earlier denial story, and scholars who see free creativity such as Crossan who judges 16:1-8 as redactional.
Burton Mack takes a stronger line in A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988). Mark invented a “myth of origins” that combined traditions from Palestine and southern Syria on Jesus as founding-teacher and the Christ cult in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece (9-11). In Part III Narratives of the Passion (247-312), he argues that resistance to critical analysis of the Passion is due to its status as the primary myth-ritual text of Christianity and appears as a coherent narrative that seems less mythic (249-51). He takes on the form critics (Dibelius, Bultmann, Jeremias, Taylor) that the passion grew in stages from the kerygma (1 Cor 15:3-5) to a basic historical narrative with embellishments (251-5). Mark takes the suffering righteous one from the Psalms; these scriptures were not tacked on to a historical report to apologize for a scandal but to create it since the crucifixion was not scandalous until joined to belief in Jesus’ messiahship (255-8). Mack challenges German reconstructions of a Passion source, though he builds on Eta Linneman’s view that each individual episode has a consistent theological view by arguing that a definite (Markan) circle of Christians invented the story-line, and values Dormeyer’s documentation of martyrological motifs in comparison to the suffering righteous one (258-62). Mack builds on the fictional themes noticed by Kelber, Donahue, Juel (the link of Christology and Temple), and Nickelsburg (Wisdom tale, Righteous One). In chapter 10 (269-87), Mack begins with the literary design of the narrative and argues that Mark took the significance of Christ’s death from the ritual meal and rewrote the Christ myth by historicizing it with passion predictions, human agents, and geo-political events conspiring in the death of Jesus. Mack finds incredible the image of a messianic figure who ironically rejects the Temple and is rejected by the people yet will return in glory. Chapter 11 (288-312) dissects the Passion Story from the temple incident, the secondary form of the meal tradition (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-5), the arrest, the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, and the mythic scheme of the crucifixion. He looks at “counterpoint stories” that are usually seen as earlier accounts such as the story of Gethsemane or the anointing, the latter which Mack does argue was taken from an earlier chreia and rewritten to apologize for the lack of a proper burial, to show they are fully integrated in Mark’s narrative (306-12). Mack sees the Passion as a fiction on the model of the Righteous One (Psalms), Wisdom’s son, and the martyrs (cf. charts on pp. 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).
William Arnal’s “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 vies Mark as using Jesus traditions to re-imagine social and ethnic identity in response to the social dislocation and double exile in the fallout of the Jewish War. The sources in the pre-70 period outside Paul’s epistles are largely sayings material – Q, an earlier edition of Thomas, parables, controversy stories, and sayings in the chreia format (1 Thess 4:15; 1 Cor 7:10-1; 11:24-5) – while Mark is the first to write a biography (58). Thus, he argues for a lack of genuine biographical information on Jesus the teacher except for isolated anecdotes about his ministry or miracles prior to Mark (58). For the Passion Narrative, Arnal thinks Mark elaborated sayings into narratives and drew on the Septuagint (LXX) and Homer (Mack, MacDonald). Sayings about carrying one’s cross (Thom 55) or unproductive fruit trees (Gos Thom 45) were transformed into stories (Mark 15:21; 11:13-14, 20-21) or the LXX was historicized (Psalm 22) (58-9).