Chapter 8: Mark’s Passion Narrative

The Earliest Gospel
by Frederick C. Grant

Chapter 8: Mark’s Passion Narrative

We have said that the passion narrative is now recognized to be the oldest continuous narrative in the Gospels. It no doubt received its consecutive form at an early date. How else could the story be told, except as one continuous, consecutive whole? It is noteworthy, too, that although Matthew and Luke rearrange the order of other parts of Mark, they adhere quite consistently to the Marcan order in these two chapters, 14- 15. Even John, writing last of all, generally adheres to it, though whether or not he knew it in its present Marcan form may be debated;(No doubt he adheres to it not because it is Mark’s but because it is the traditional passion narrative.) and though he does not scruple to rewrite the whole account of the ministry, he keeps the passion narrative more or less in the order in which Mark gives it. From these facts it seems only just to infer that the Marcan passion narrative was already, when Mark wrote, in fairly stable form, and that it continued to be told and retold in practically this form -- possibly at the Christian services of worship (Cf. Gal. 3:l. See Georg Bertram, Die Leidensgeschichte Jesu und der Christuskult: [1922]) and quite apart from the written Gospels, indeed before they were compiled. One part of it, the account of the Last Supper, was probably so used, (Cf. I Cor. 11:23-25) and came in time to form the very heart of the Eucharistic liturgy, conspicuously and distinctly so in the Western church.

The question now arises, What was the original extent and contents of this passion narrative? Did it contain an account of the Resurrection? Were any of the incidents it now contains added to the narrative by Mark? In answer, let us go over the narrative in detail, as it is reconstructed by various modern scholars, more or less in agreement -- notably by Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Lietzmann, and others.(See Dibelius, The Message of Jesus Christ (1939), pp. 30-34, 144-47; Bultmann, Die Geschzchte der synoptischen Tradition (2nd ed., 1931), pp. 282-308; also Klostermana, 3rd ed. of his commentary in the Handbuch, p. 139 a.; Lietzmann, Der Prozess Jesse (1931); R. H. Lightfoot, History and Interpretation in the Gospels (1934), chap. v; A. T. Olmstead, Jesus in the Light of History (1942), chaps. xi, xii; Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus, chaps. xv-xx; Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (1925), Bks. VT, VII. In the following table, and in the reconstruction, I have placed within square brackets the verses and passages that may be thought to be secondary -- even in the pre-Marcan passion narrative.)

The plot against Jesus -- 14:1-2

[Jesus at Bethany -- 3-9; this was once an independent pericope, as we may infer from Luke and John -- cf. Luke 7:36-38; John 12:1-8]

The Treachery of Judas -- 10-1 1 (continues verses 1-2)

[The Preparation for the Passover -- 12-16. The Marcan character of this section is apparent from its parallel to 11:1-7. The time reference in vs. 12 is wrong, and conflicts with vss. 1-2 and with the Gospel of John. It has even been suspected that this is a Hellenistic story of an early Christian looking for a church service Note that a man is carrying the jar of water, not a woman as it would be in Palestine.]

The Last Supper -- 17.25. [Vss. 18b-20 may be an elaboration of the theme found in Ps. 41:10, yet even the Johannine tradition represents Judas as present at the Supper, chap 13. Vs. 21 is a Son of Man saying, indeed a double one, and probably secondary -- even if late pre-Marcan.]

The prediction of the disciples’ desertion -- 26-31. It looks forward to the flight in vs. 50, and to Peter’s denials. [Vs. 28 breaks the connection, and is probably a gloss -- related to the one in 16:7. Its early date is suggested by the passive form of the verb, "raised up" -- contrast the passion announcements, with their active form, "rise."]

[The agony in Gethsemane -- 32-42. This scene, which ex hypothesi the disciples could scarcely have reported (vss. 37, 40, 41), is really a dramatization of the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as the temptation narrative (in its Q form) is a dramatization in another direction, with another emphasis. Note another Son of Man saying in vs. 41.]

The arrest -- 43-53a, 54. [Vs. 53b is clearly editorial, and improbable; it prepares for the "all" in vs. 64. Vs. 54 belongs with the later account of Peter’s denials, which it introduces. Probably that is where it stood originally, that is, before vss. 53b, 55-65 were inserted into the story.]

[The examination before the high priest -- 55-65. This section has been most adversely criticized. It contradicts the traditional rules of Jewish legal procedure at fourteen distinct points! And though it is sometimes argued that the rules set forth in the Mishnah (tractate Sanhedrin) are either purely theoretical or have been projected backward from the second century, this is not likely. The rules were traditional; and since the Jewish Sanhedrin ceased to exist as a civil court after AD. 70 -- tradition says it lost its authority to inflict capital penalties forty years earlier -- the whole point of the tradition was its preservation of earlier usage, possibly with a view to a future restoration. This was the point, similarly, of the preservation of the temple measurements in tractate Middoth, long after the actual temple had been destroyed. The scene portrayed in these verses is often thought to reflect the trial before Pilate -- especially vs. 60 -- from an anti-Jewish point of view and with the purpose of placing the responsibility for the death of Jesus upon the Jewish authorities. Note also that it includes another Son of Man saying (vs. 62), and assumes that Jesus here avowed his identity not only with the Christ (vs. 61), further defined in non-Jewish terms as "the Son of the Blessed One," but also with the coming "Son of Man" -- who, it is further assumed, is also identical with the Christ. This is the climax of the whole series of Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of Mark.]

[Peter’s denials -- 66-72; introduced, as already noted, by vs. 54.]

Jesus before Pilate -- 15:1-15. Note that the account of the trial entirely ignores the findings of 14:55-65, and properly: the claim to Messiahship was not only not blasphemy, but did not justify the charge that Jesus claimed to be "King of the Jews." Nothing was made of the disciples’ knowledge -- which Mark assumed -- of Jesus’ claim, though Judas was in contact with the Jewish (?) authorities, nor of the blundering charge that Jesus had threatened to destroy the temple.

[The mockery and scourging -- 16-20. This is probable enough, in view of Roman practice, but the narrative fits in badly after vs. 15. John locates the account of the mockery during the trial, 19: 1-2. There are other difficulties with the story, noted in the commentaries.]

The crucifixion -- 2 1-39. [Some details are probably secondary, for example vs. 23, which comes from the Old Testament (Ps. 69:21); so may be vs. 24, which would be suggested by Ps. 22:18. Vs. 25 may be original, though see John 19:14, which has "the sixth hour," not the "third." (Vs. 28, an Old Testament quotation, is omitted by most modern editors.) Vss. 29b-32a (certainly 31-32a) seem to be motivated by the same anti-Jewish tendency that inspired the account of the "trial" before the "Sanhedrin." Vs. 38 seems to be purely symbolistic in purpose. On the other hand, vss. 34-37 are too lifelike, too nonHellenistic, and set too many problems for Christian explanation to be anything but original.]

[The watching women -- 40-41. This really introduces the narrative of the empty tomb, 16:1-8, and is probably no part of the primitive passion narrative. The burial, vss. 42-47, interrupts this narrative (after which, as Turner thought, 16: la repeats from 15:40 and 47), and is accordingly secondary, though it is needed as the setting for 16:1-8. The story concludes, not with the resurrection narrative -- Mark has no resurrection narrative, and his story of the empty tomb is independent of what precedes -- Mark’s passion narrative concludes with the testimony of the centurion: "This man was a Son of God." It is clear that the third passion announcement (Mark 10:32-34) presupposes the Marcan passion narrative in its present form (see Kiostermana, Commentary, 2nd ed., on 10:33, p. 119). That is, it includes steps, or incidents, which we have omitted as secondary. The steps in the procedure are: (1) the Son of Man is to be delivered to the high priests and scribes ("the elders" of 8:31 is omitted; 9:31 has "men," though the original text may have read "Gentiles"), (2) condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, (3) handed over to the heathen, (4) abused ("they will ridicule him and spit on him and flog him" -- , , as in the passion narrative), and (5) killed; (6) "after three days" he will rise again" (the earliest tradition always said "be raised," not "rise"). The parallel announcement in 8:31 has only steps 2, 5, 6; that in 9:31 has only 1 (or 3?), 5, 6. It seems clear from a comparison of these passages with the passion narrative that (a), as we have argued (see The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 104-8, 136), the Gospel "grew backwards from the passion narrative," and that (h) the three passion announcements are indubitably by Mark himself, and secondary, that is, not part of the early tradition.)

Following this brief analysis, let us read consecutively the reconstructed narrative, reading it as we would the old pre-Marcan passion narrative if we could recover it in some ancient manuscript. It is the story of the death of Jesus as it was told and retold among the Palestinian

(It is clear that the third passion announcement (Mark 10:32-34) presupposes the Marcan passion narrative in its present form (see Kiostermana, Commentary, 2nd ed., on 10:33, p. 119). That is, it includes steps, or incidents, which we have omitted as secondary. The steps in the procedure are: (1) the Son of Man is to be delivered to the high priests and scribes ("the elders" of 8:31 is omitted; 9:31 has "men," though the original text may have read "Gentiles"), (2) condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, (3) handed over to the heathen, (4) abused ("they will ridicule him and spit on him and flog him" -- , , as in the passion narrative), and (5) killed; (6) "after three days" he will rise again" (the earliest tradition always said "be raised," not "rise"). The parallel announcement in 8:31 has only steps 2, 5, 6; that in 9:31 has only 1 (or 3?), 5, 6. It seems clear from a comparison of these passages with the passion narrative that (a), as we have argued (see The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 104-8, 136), the Gospel "grew backwards from the passion narrative," and that (h) the three passion announcements are indubitably by Mark himself, and secondary, that is, not part of the early tradition.)

Jewish Christians, perhaps circulating first in Aramaic and then translated into Greek -- though when, we do not know -- and afterwards brought to Rome and circulated there, perhaps long before Mark made it the basis of his account of the crucifixion and death of the Son of God.

It was two days before the Passover. And the high priests and the scribes were seeking a way to seize him by stealth and put him to death; for they said, "Not during the feast, lest there be a public riot." Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve, went to the high priests to betray Jesus to them. When they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. So he was waiting for an opportunity to hand him over to them.

[On the first day of the festival,] at evening, Jesus came with the Twelve. [As they reclined and were eating, Jesus said, "Of a truth I tell you, one of you will betray me, even one who is eating with me."’ They were distressed at this and said to him one after another, "Can it be 1?" But he said to them, "It is one of the Twelve, who is dipping his bread with me in the same bowl."] While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them and said, "This is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the Covenant [which is poured out for many]. I tell you truly, 1 will never (again) drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God"

When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away, for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd

And the sheep will be scattered.’"

But Peter said to him, "Even if all are to fall away, yet I will not." And Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, today -- this very night, before cockcrow -- you will deny me three times." But he protested vehemently, "Even if I must die with you, I will by no means deny you." So likewise said they all.

While he was still speaking, Judas came (who was one of the Twelve), and with him a crowd (armed) with swords and clubs [whom the chief priests and scribes and elders had sent]. Now the betrayer had agreed with them upon a signal, saying, "The one I kiss, that is he; seize him, and lead him away securely." So when he arrived he [at once] went up to Jesus and said to him, "My master," and kissed him. Then they laid hands on Jesus and took him prisoner. And one of those standing by drew a sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.

Then Jesus spoke to them and said, "Have you come out as against a robber, (armed) with swords and clubs to capture me? Day by day I was with you, teaching in the temple, and you did not arrest me. [But (this has come to pass) in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled!]" Then they all forsook him and fled. And a certain young man followed them, with nothing but a linen cloth about him; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. So they led Jesus before the high priest.

[And Peter followed him at a distance, until he was inside the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Here he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. While he was below in the courtyard one of the maids of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself she looked at him and said, "You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus!" But he denied it, saying, "I do not know nor understand. What is it you are saying?" But he went out into the gateway. Here the maid saw him and again began saying to those who were standing there, "This is one of them!" But he again denied it. Once more, a little later, those standing by said to Peter, "There is no doubt you are one of them -- you are a Galilean!" Then he began to curse and swear, saying. "1 do not know this man you are talking about!" And at once the cock crew, and Peter recalled the words Jesus had said to him, "Before cockcrow you will deny me three times." And he broke down and cried.]

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes [and the whole Sanhedrin] and bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate. [And Pilate asked him, "Are you ‘the King of the Jews’?" Jesus answered, "You have said so" (or, "That is for you to say!" or, "Do you say so?").] And the chief priests accused him of many things. (But he answered nothing.) So Pilate [again] asked him, "Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you!" But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was surprised.

Now at festivals he used to release to them a prisoner, anyone they asked for. There was one named Bar-Abbas, who lay bound with those who were guilty of insurrection and in the insurrection had committed murder. The crowd came up and began to ask him to do for them as he usually did. Then Pilate answered and said, "Do you want me to release to you ‘the King of the Jews’?" (For he knew that it was out of jealousy the chief priests had delivered him up.) But the high priests stirred up the crowd to ask to have Bar-Abbas released to them instead. So Pilate spoke to them again and said, "What then do you want me to do with the one you call ‘the King of the Jews’?" They cried out [again], "Crucify him!" But Pilate said to them, "What crime has he committed?" At that they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!" So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, released to them Bar-Abbas, and ordered Jesus to be flogged and crucified.

So they led him out to crucify him. (On the way) they compelled a man passing by, Simon the Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country -- he was the father of Alexander and Rufus -- to carry his cross. And they took him to the place called Golgotha (which means, the Place of a Skull). [And they offered him a drink of wine with myrrh in it, but he would not take it.] And they crucified him. The inscription stating his crime read, "The King of the Jews." With him they crucified two robbers, one at his right hand and one at his left. And the passers-by reviled him . . . . and the two who were crucified with him upbraided him.

When the sixth hour had come, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Elôi, Elôi, lamá’ sabachtádni?" (which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") Some of the bystanders, when they heard it, said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah!" One of them ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and put it on a stick and offered him a drink, and said, "Wait and see if Elijah will come and take him down!" Then Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. When the centurion who was standing opposite him saw that he had died, he said, "Surely this man was a Son of God."

As we now read this consecutive narrative, in the form in which I have ventured to reconstruct it, freed from the secondary passages, we find, I believe, that this simple story contains all that might be thought to be derived from the earliest Christian tradition upon the subject. Of course it was amplified from other sources, by Mark himself and also by the later evangelists -- it was still being amplified in the second and third centuries by the writers of the apocryphal Gospels,(See the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Gospel of Peter -- most conveniently accessible in M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), pp. 90 ff.) as It is still further amplified by modern imaginative writers, not to mention most of us preachers of the gospel, church school teachers, and others! We are not now considering the source or the value of the "secondary" elements, but only of the passion narrative in its pristine form.

The main, unforgettable impression which we gain from the story in its earliest recoverable form is not that of human treachery and vindictiveness, or of the sufferings endured by the martyr-hero, as in the Maccabean tales and in many Christian martyrologies, but an impression of the calm certainty with which Jesus goes to his death. He does not argue, or even parry the thrusts of a debate, as in the Gospel of John. The colorful touches which Luke added to it are not here -- Luke was an artist in words, and his narrative paints a scene; even Antipas reappears. But the primitive story, embedded in Mark, is one of stark simplicity. "Pilate asked him, ‘And so you are the King of the Jews?’ He replied, ‘You say’" -- -- which may mean simply "Yes" (so Matthew surely understood the words), or may be an interrogation, as Hort suggested ("Would you say so?" or, "Do you say it?"), or may even be an imperative ("You answer! That is for you to say!"), though this last suggestion is perhaps too subtle for this simple narrative. "And the priests brought all manner of charges against him. Then Pilate asked him again, ‘Won’t you answer? You hear what they are saying against you!’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate knew not what to think of him." There is no studied drama about this scene. It is a Galilean peasant preacher and healer, caught in the net spread by the fanatical temple priesthood of Jerusalem, on trial for his life before the Roman governor. And he makes no reply, no defense.(It may be thought that this feature is derived from Isa. 53:7. On the other hand, it may equally be true that Jesus’ silence brought this verse to mind.) The prophet of Nazareth is a stranger to courts and Roman procurators, and to the machinations of a powerful priestly clique. He is bound, with his hands behind him. But even were he unbound and free, he would not attempt either escape or defense. Already his silence is crying out, as the Good Friday hymn describes the scene. All his life he has trusted in God, and accepted the course of events as the manifest will of God for him. If it is God’s will, then he must drink the cup. If it is God’s will that he must die -- and events point clearly that way -- then he will still trust in God, knowing that God has a plan and purpose which his death must serve, and that if he trusts God utterly and to the very end, God will use him, living and dying, to bring his Kingdom to pass. Thus he dies a martyr -- but not a martyr to a cause, like the Maccabees, or the early Christians. This "martyrology" is different -- Jesus dies because he cannot free himself from God, because his will has been utterly and without reserve made over to God, and he does not ask to see his way or to know the meaning of each successive step.(A point I have tried to bring out in an article, "The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry." Journal of Biblical Literature, 52:189-202; also in my Life and Time, of Jesus (1921). The meaning would be clear enough when the battle was over, the victory won.

The very simplicity and directness of the story carries the sense of mystery. Underlying this simple scene is the profoundest mystery of all our life in this world. Why must any man suffer? Why, above all, must Christ suffer? Why, in a world under God’s sovereign control, must the best of men suffer the worst of fates? The early Christians, who told and retold this story, saw what it meant, saw, that is, some way into the dark abyss of mystery; and they saw by the light of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. God did not, God could not abandon him in death (Acts 2:27) -- in spite of the mysterious last cry that fell from his lips. Death could not hold him in restraint (Acts 2:24) -- not such a one as he, surely. God had willed and fore-seen it all -- and God had used it all, for his purposes of redemption, so that sin might be done away, so that its power might be broken, and so that actual sins of men might be blotted out. But all this, the explanation, came later; what we have in the primitive Passion Narrative is the stark recital of facts, with only a minimum of the current interpretation -- the story of Jesus’ death as it was recited in the early Christian communities for almost forty years before Mark took pen in hand to write out the full story of Jesus as he had heard it and as he understood it.(Of course the interpretation is introduced into the narrative, as was perfectly natural in ancient popular religious writing as well as in tradition We should probably add it as an explanation, and then take great credit to ourselves for adding such an illuminating bit of wisdom! But then we lack the objectivity as well as the naïveté of those who handed down or wrote down ancient religious traditions.)

The task of interpretation is with us still. We have not fathomed even yet the full depths of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death, though the main lines are clear. And we shall never understand fully, no doubt, unless we too are called to share his baptism and drink his cup. But the Christian martyrs in the Roman arena, in Mark’s day, knew what the death of Jesus meant. They drank his cup -- to its very dregs. And they likewise knew "the power of his resurrection." "They were put to death with exquisite cruelty," says Tacitus, "and to their sufferings Nero added mockery and derision. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be devoured by dogs; others were nailed to the cross; numbers were burnt alive; and many, covered with inflammable matter, were lighted up, when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night." (Annals 15.44, tr. Murphy.) These were the men and women who handed down the story of Jesus’ death -- the old Roman passion narrative underlying Mark’s account in chapters 14 and 15. What it meant to them is probably something we shall never guess, unless we too stand someday in the same desperate place of utter need, and cry out for sympathy and compassion to One who himself faced all the blind, venomous hatred, the implacable, vindictive fury of brute, senseless power, and pray, with them and with the martyr Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."