Conclusion on the Passion Narrative

After going back and forth on this issue over the last bunch of weeks, here would be my preliminary conclusions about the alleged existence of a pre-Markan passion narrative (of course there is still so much I have not read and so this could all be subject to change).

I accept the existence of at least some sort of oral if not written basic Passion Story Prior to Mark

  1. Whatever one makes of the possible existence of Jesus groups that privileged sayings over the death/resurrection kerygma (proclamation) theorized by Koester, Robinson, Mack or some other scholars working on “Q” or Thomas, as soon as the Jerusalem Pillars (Cephas, James, the Twelve) began proclaiming Jesus as the risen Christos (annointed one), it practically necessitated that they had some scriptural justification for why this Christ was shamefully executed in the first place in contrast to any known Jewish messianic expectations.  1 Cor 15:3-5 suggests this was narrated “according to the Scriptures” from the beginning so there is no need to imagine that shaping the story according to the suffering righteous of the Psalms or other Jewish martyrdom traditions was a late addition.
  2. At least some episodes originated in eyewitness testimony however much they became elaborated in later retellings.  This includes those involving the disciples before they fled, Simon of Cyrene and sons Alexander & Rufus and the women at Mk 15:47/16:1.  I heard a talk at SBL where a scholar argued Simon of Cyrene was a literary device (he takes up the cross unlike Simon Peter, his foreign named sons show they are outsiders who Mark makes insiders) but Simon was a common name and I find more convincing the superfluous naming of the sons indicates they were known to Mark’s audience.  Deane Galbraith following Casey has a strong counterargument against the historicity of Mark’s story of the women at the tomb (i.e. the standard apologetic that women’s testimony was inadmissable in a lawcourt is irrelevant because the evangelists were preaching to fellow believers, women like Deborah or Jael had prominent roles in Scripture, the narrative demands women since the male disciples fled), but as a reply I wonder if naming the women (Mary Magdalene in all four, Mary in the Synoptics [mother of James & Jose in Mk, mother of James in Lk]) rather than just a non-specific group suggests Mark has a tradition of named women (Deane allows there may have been a tradition originating in visions of women) and there is evidence of authors reflecting bias against women outside the setting of a law court (in addition to Deane’s examples of Celsus and Emmaeus story I might add Acts 12 where the church is reluctant to believe the tall tales of a servant named Rhoda that Peter was at the door or perhaps she saw of vision of his angel until they saw for themselves).  I grant that Mark’s narrative the men had all fled, but it is easy to imagine another scenario where Mark had the risen Jesus appear to Peter and the Twelve and telling them the tomb was empty, avoiding mentioning the women discovering the tomb altogether, though in favour of Mark narrating about women is that the evangelist likes to reverse traditional expectations as the disciples are often blind and outsiders insiders.
  3. The basic agreements between Paul and the Synoptics (the last supper institution on the night Jesus was handed over, the Passover setting, Jesus’ willingness to die, the crucifixion due to both Roman imperial power and Judaean leadership, burial, appearances) may reflect a shared outline.  Granted Paul could have indirectly influenced the Synoptics (e.g., the noun euangelion or gospel in Mark) but there is enough differences to see them as relatively independent.  There may be further evidence in the summaries in Acts, placed on the lips of Peter and Paul in their various sermons, though these might also be based on the narrative outline of Mark used by Luke.
  4. It looks to me that there is enough evidence that John was at least familiar with Mark (e.g., evidence of Markan redaction in John), but the author may have also had some of his own sources at his disposal.  Not all of John’s differences can be adequately explained as making redactional changes to Mark, such as John’s narrative of the Jewish trial where the priest just questions Jesus about his ministry seems less theologically developed than Mark’s where Jesus discloses the secret of his christological identity and is condemned for blasphemy.  There are also a suprising number of differences in Luke’s passion narrative when read side by side in a synopsis which suggest that Luke may possibly have other sources in addition to Mark or just made some major redactional changes.  Furthermore, if Mark was the literary genius behind this smoothly flowing, inter-connected account with clear place and time indications, one wonders why the author couldn’t have integrated the rest of the sources in the earlier part of the gospel.

I am not as confident that we can reconstruct the extent and the content of the pre-Markan Passion Narrative

  1. I have not gone through every last book attempting to finely sift between tradition and redaction to reconstruct a coherent passion narrative, but ever since reading C. Clifton Black’s skepticism about redaction criticism I am less confident about how much we can know about Mark’s sources.  It is not the same as dealing with Matthean and Lukan redaction because at least we actually have their source (Mark), so any attempts to reconstruct Mark’s sources are provisional at best.
  2. Whatever the source looked like prior to Mark, it has become quite integrated into Mark’s larger themes and purposes.  Thus Mark emphasizes the way of the cross as a balance to a christology of glory in the first half and a model for would-be disciples of Jesus to follow (follow Jesus on the way of suffering, with future vindication when he returns in glory as triumphant Son of Man), the disclosure of the messianic secret (the Christ, Son of God. Son of Man), the failure of the disciples (misunderstanding, sleeping, denying, betraying, abandoning) as a foil for Jesus’ own character (willingness to drink the cup, offer to be reconciled with the wayward disciples even in 16:7), judgment on the Jerusalem priestly leadership and the Temple, the positive value of Galilee where the mission continues, etc.
  3. If Matthew and Luke likely depend on Mark’s account and John was at least familiar with Mark (and Gospel of Peter familiar with the Synoptics?), there are no real controls or ways to measure how much of John’s narrative is just indebted to Mark’s narrative and framework, how much of his differences are purposeful redactional changes for his own theological reasons and how many of the differences are based on the author utilizing different sources or the same shared source in a different way than Mark (this is different than when scholars try to reconstruct “Q” by assuming Luke and Matthew are completely independent so their shared non-Markan material can be attributed to a source, but some scholars on the Synoptic Problem are even starting to question the confident reconstructions of a single Q source or the independence of Luke from Matthew).

So that would be my conclusion: there was some sort of source from early on, but it is difficult to know exactly what it looked like.  This is important for historical reasons to understand Christian origins, but for the person in the pews at Easter services it may be more important to ask what theological reasons does Mark, Matthew, Luke or John narrate the Passion story in such or such a way rather than try to preach from a hypothetical earlier Passion Narrative differently reconstruction by any one scholar.  What do you think?

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9 Responses to Conclusion on the Passion Narrative

  1. Have you seen

    Maranatha: Women’s Funerary Rituals and Christian Origins
    Kathleen E. Corley

    Anyone writing a story that involved some sort of ancient Hebrew funeray ritual would have had to include women.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks. I saw this comment on Deane’s blog too but I haven’t read that book yet so will have to check it out. The tradition seems pretty specific in naming the women especially Mary Magdalene and the second Mary – so do you believe that it is entirely an invention, Ed?

  2. Brian S. says:

    I think that historical-critical scholarship can be useful for preaching purposes, in the sense that it can flesh out the various elements in the Passion by situating it in it’s earliest enviorment. There is a lot of richness in this narrative and all too often I see preachers, theologians, etc. miss some of the hidden richness by skipping over what it meant for the earliest Christians. But I also agree that the itty-bitty details of scholarship are for the most part irrelevant, whether or not the Last Supper was a passover meal or just a solemn final meal matters not. What does matter is the message that the Cross tells us, whether it be about God, Christ, or us.
    As for all your other points, I don’t have much too add. Casey and Deane have given me a lot to think about, but I still have doubts regarding our ability to know the origin of the discovery of empty tomb in any meaningful sense. I sometimes lean toward historicity and other times I find it to be a literary device created by Mark. Though if I have to make an objection to Deane/Casey it would have to be that the Gospels probably had a missionary aim as well as an apologetic, so claiming that they were written for believers doesn’t capture the full reality, at least to me it doesn’t.
    As for Corley’s book, I can’t say much as I never even heard about it, but from the looks of it, I would have to say that the necessity of women for describing a funeral rite doesn’t really matter, that is if you are trying to discover the historicity of the narrative.

    • Mike K. says:

      Yeah, I think the historical critical work on a passion narrative is useful for understanding how early various traditions go back and how some Christians were reflecting scripturally on some of these events from early on, I just mean I wouldn’t expect a priest or pastor to preach from a pre-Markan Passion Narrative (which one – Koester’s, Crossan’s, Collin’s) anymore than preach on JEDP or Q or any other hypothetical sources. Interesting point about these texts as having a missionary aim, though I wonder to what extent Mark was written for outsiders (seems to presuppose a lot of insider knowledge such as christological titles or knowledge of scriptures and Jewish parties/customs, etc)?

  3. [...] Marcus Borg on why Jesus was crucified.Helek Tov asks whether the Last Supper was a Passover Seder.Mike Kok drew some conclusions about the existence of a pre-Markan passion narrative.The Sacred Page discusses the practice of crucifixion.Morag Kersel has a warning about shopping for [...]

  4. Brian S. says:

    What I meant by missionary, is that I think that Mark was trying to do what James Mcgrath thought John was doing in his book, “John’s Apologetic Christology”. Mark wanted to show that the claims of his community was merited. And if you buy into the findings of the Context Group, Jesus is presented as an honorable man who did not regard “equality with God”. And I am of course talking about the Messianic Secret, I for one do not think that Jesus was hiding his indentity but rather resisting “honor” or “glory” being shoved on to him. The reason of course is to present Jesus as God’s obedient and faithful son and not some glory seeking jerk.
    I might be wrong on this, but after reading James Mcgrath and David Watson’s [Honor Among Christians]books I became convinced that Mark might have been writing for outsiders as well as insiders.

  5. Ron Price says:

    When you say that the Jerusalem Pillars “began proclaiming Jesus as the risen Christos”, you are making an assumption which is arguably not supported by a critical reading of the NT. There is no direct evidence of what they preached. Of course Peter’s speech in Acts 2 appears to support your assertion. But we should be questioning the reliability of an author whose evident wish was to paper over the cracks between the competing factions in the Jesus movement during the period 30 CE to 65 CE.

    Rather than try to reconcile the awful event of the crucifixion with their belief in Jesus as Messiah, James, Peter and John seem to have decided to reinterpret his role to that of a Danielic Son of Man who would soon return on the clouds to establish God’s kingdom. On the one hand this can be seen by the presence of several references to the Son of Man in the early aphorisms (e.g. Mt 24:37-39; Mt 24:42-44), and in the probable absence of any referring to Christ (the possible exception being Mk 9:41, contrast Mt 10:42). On the other hand the total absence of any extant Pauline reference to Jesus as the Son of Man ties up with Gal 2:6, for Paul did not want to be indebted to the Pillars, especially for an idea which had been initiated by them.

    Thus I suggest that James, Peter and John, as a result of their reassessment of the role of Jesus following the crucifixion, now preached Jesus as the Son of Man rather than as the Christ, and consequently found no need to compose a passion narrative to explain why ‘the Christ’ was executed. Instead their focus was on the coming of the Son of Man.

  6. Brian S. says:

    I think we are making an assumption about the alleged contrast between “Son of Man” and “Messiah”. But beforewe touch on that, I would like to state that Jesus probably refered to himself as the “Son of Man” my proof for this would have to be the abudant attestation in the Gospel material of Jesus using this phrase/title. As for the Jerusalem pillars. You are right in saying we don’t have much evidence regarding what they preached, but it would seem to me that if the Gospels are anything to go by, along with other material like Revelations. The concept of the Messiah was transformed by the early Christians so that it would include a two part appearance. And we have evidence that the concept of Son of Man was cimbined with the Messiah in some early literature. Besides, the belief in Jesus’ return was shared also by Paul.
    As for the lack of use of the title Messiah in regards to Jesus, I think you are making the assumption that the Gospels do not contain historical details and that they only reflect what the evangelist thought. To an extent the later is true, but it seems probable that Jesus resisted the title insomuch as it denoted the classical warrior paradigm. E.P. Sanders is correct, in my opinion, that if he used the title it was to sginify that he was God’s “envoy” which is actually very compatiable with what he said elsewhere.

    • Mike K. says:

      Enjoyed reading the debate between you guys as I just got back from travelling. Brian, I haven’t read David Watson’s book so thanks for mentioning it and perhaps Mark had considered the question about what if outsiders had read his work. Ron, I agree that the identification of Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man must go back very early as it is present in Mark, “Q”, special M and L material, John and the tradition seems alluded to in 1 Thess. But I think there is also evidence that “Christ” was also believed by (some) Jewish Jesus followers early on because of what seem to be creedal fragments in 1 Cor 15:3-5 and Rom 1:3-4 (though I recall you doubted those were pre-Pauline), the fact that “Christ” is so often in Paul that it can be argued that it has almost lost its titular significance and become like another name, “Christ” is not in “Q” but he seems to be fulfilling a messianic function (Matt 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-23; cf. Isa 61; 4Q521) and “Christ” is found in other Jewish (anti-Pauline?) works like Matthew (though granted Mark is a source), James and the Didache. And back again to Brian, if the historical Jesus saw himself in messianic terms I think it was probably that God would install him as king after an apocalyptic intervention (e.g., thinking of the saying where the Twelve will sit of 12 thrones and with Jesus as the leader of the group).

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