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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?