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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions


Addenda (6)


Addendum Q

Mark’s Passion Narrative
A Cautious Scenario

Return to Narratives (3)

When we turn to the Gospel of Mark, we find a significant pattern in the events leading to the death of Jesus. Does this pattern fairly reflect events as they unfolded, or is it the product of Mark or of his sources? Our findings here should have some bearing upon the question of Jesus’ vocation, especially if we have under consideration the hypothesis that Jesus accepted the task of the (suffering) Servant of the Lord. We proceed here with caution, and we do so because it seems prudent to avoid exceeding the limits imposed by our data if we are to place some confidence in our conclusions.

   §  We have three formulaic predictions of the passion (see below), together with several other passing references (Mark 10:38-39, 45; 12:1-9; 14:21-25), and accounts of plots against his life (Mark 3:6; 12:12-13; 14:1-2, 10-11). The death of Jesus does not come as a surprise to the reader. A clue to deciphering the pattern is found in Mark 8:31, which speaks of the necessity (Greek, dei) of his death.


Mark 8:31

Mark 9:31

Mark 10:33-34


Then [Jesus] began to teachthem that the Son of Man must [dei] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, 


and be killed, and after three days 


For [Jesus] was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed [handed over] into human hands, 


and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”     

33[Jesus said,] “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”     


   §  In Mark 10:32 we are told of the foreboding of the disciples, at the prospect of making the trip to Jerusalem, not a surprising reaction in view of the previous predictions of Jesus’ death.

   §  There is pre-arrangement of a colt for the triumphal entry, Mark 11:2.

   §  In an action which is strangely unmotivated—except that the chief priests agree to pay him for the deed—Judas agrees to betray Jesus, Mark 14:10-11.

   §  There is pre-arrangement for the Passover meal, Mark 14:12-16.

   §  Jesus predicts his betrayal, Mark 14:18-21.

   §  Jesus predicts Peter’s denial, and abandonment by the disciples, Mark 14:27-31.

   §  Jesus announces that he is betrayed [handed over] into the hands of sinners, Mark 14:41 (as in Mark 9:31 and 10:33).

   §  At his arrest, he offers no resistance, but announces that these things are happening in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled, Mark 14:49.

The only point of some dramatic interest is the agony in the garden (Mark 14:32-42), when Jesus for the last time looks for a way out of his suffering, and prays for the cup to pass from him; but holds firm in a commitment to his Father’s will (Mark 14:36).

This then is the pattern which emerges in Mark:  a divinely ordained scenario which leads to Jesus’ death, with details of the action planned and unfolding on cue, in fulfillment of scripture. All is foreknown, all is predicted, all is pre-arranged. It all seems like a set piece, so wooden and artificial. To be sure, this is not blind determinism, but the belief that things are not out of God’s control; he somehow knows and plans, even the terrible suffering and death of Jesus.

We cannot exclude the possibility that the pattern discernible in Mark may have been a more widespread view of the author’s community, and of other Christian centers. While filled with a certain pathos, the Q lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39 || Luke 13:34-35) reflects some of the same sense of divine necessity which we have noted in Mark. 

Matthew 23:37-39

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32[Jesus] said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
                   37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” [Q]                    34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” [Q]

We also note the destiny laden character of Luke’s preceding “time-table” saying (13:31-33), which concludes with the words, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” 

The pattern of a divinely ordained scenario is unmistakable, a pattern which probably originates in post-Easter reflection upon the dread events leading to the death of Jesus. Such a conclusion does not necessarily disqualify the (suffering) Servant of the Lord hypothesis from consideration, but it cautions us against the adoption of such a hypothesis without weighty evidence.

The Unanswered Question

The analysis which has been offered above does not intended to address all conceivable questions raised by the events leading to the death of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask: Why then did Jesus go to Jerusalem? Was he unaware of the risk, or did he choose to ignore signs of danger? Did he make the journey as a Passover pilgrim? Jesus was of course no formalist, nor was he a fool. Our data may not be adequate to provide a satisfactory answer. 

Click on Mark’s Passion Narrative: An Alternative Scenario for a different kind of attempt to address this and related issues.


Return to Narratives (3)


Addendum R

Mark’s Passion Narrative: 
An Alternative Scenario 

Return to Narratives (3)


Although we have good methodological grounds for a cautious scenario, we cannot because of the nature of our evidence rule out a riskier approach. It is possible to read our texts in a more positive way, by asking different questions. We pick up the line of interpretation which we introduced earlier, at Baptism: An Alternative. There we set out the hypothesis that Jesus was willing to accept a vocation as Messiah, along the lines of the (suffering) Servant of the Lord. Before we had gone very far, we found difficulties with the Messiah part of the proposal, but we also found that it was not quite so easy to dismiss a vocation based upon the suffering servant-inspired model. 


We need to investigate the events leading up to his death, as a way of testing this Servant of the Lord hypothesis. Was he the victim of a plot which he could not avoid, or were real choices open to him, the consequences of which he could see? We cannot be certain that each of the features of the narrative is grounded in fact, but there is cumulatively enough to indicate that Jesus was not a hapless victim, but was choosing the outcome. These features include:

   §  His decision to travel to Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus would probably have been safer if he had remained in Galilee. Judging from the running controversy with Jewish leaders, he could hardly have been unaware of how serious their opposition was; they may well have taken offence at his attitude toward Torah (the Jewish Law), and may have been alarmed at his popular support. 
So was there a compelling reason for him to fly in the face of prudence and go to Jerusalem for Passover (or pesach)?
     •  If his mission was to proclaim the Kingdom of God and preach repentance (Mark 1:15), why did that have to be done in Jerusalem instead of Galilee?
     •  If we grant that Jesus might have desired to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem with his disciples, not every one was obliged to do so in Jerusalem.
     •  If Jesus was no formalist, and no fool, then what was it that drew him to Jerusalem, overriding considerations of safety? 

Rejoinder:  ... on the contrary, what better time and place to make a maximum impact with his Kingdom of God message, if not in Jerusalem, at Passover?


   §  His choice of making his entrance into Jerusalem a public occasion. The so-called triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11 || Matthew 21:1-11 || Luke 19:28-40), if historically based, would have had an ambiguous meaning, signifying royal aspirations to some people, and to others nothing more than a poor teacher getting a ride on a donkey. But did his mission in Jerusalem require that he call attention to his presence in this way? Could he not have entered the city quietly, without compromising any principle? Was his dramatic entry then a way of declaring, “I’m here, and what are you going to do about it?” If so, did he not care for his safety?

   §  His decision to challenge  the establishment, especially in disrupting Temple commerce 
at the height of a busy pilgrimage season (Mark 11:15-18 || Matthew 21:12-17 || Luke 19:45-48). We do not have any evidence that Jesus was opposed to Temple worship as such, and he may have found it a means of grace. When he saw that something needed to be done to allow an authentic spirituality to thrive there, he threw down the gauntlet, challenging the religious establishment, and the Sadducees in particular, to participate in the reform of Judaism. This defiant gesture would surely have convinced the establishment, if they still needed convincing, that Jesus had to be silenced.

   §  His willingness to include the traitor in his Passover plans. Was there something in Judas’ shifty gaze or body language that gave away his intended treachery? If in some way Jesus did know of it, why would he have permitted Judas to remain with the Twelve and participate in what turned out to be the last supper? Was Jesus too nonchalant about his own safety?

   §  His failure to use opportunities to make his escape, after he had observed Passover; and his refusal to resist arrest. If Jesus knew of the impending treachery, why did he not take evasive action? He could have made his way down to the Kidron Valley and escaped along several different routes; instead, he crossed the valley and proceeded up the Mount of Olives. If indeed it was his custom to go here, as Luke indicates (22:39), he also had the option of finding another place to be with his disciples. The acquiescence of Jesus in the unfolding events is obvious, as much before his arrest as well as when it happened.

   §  His reluctance to defend himself at his trials. As skillful as he was in debates with Pharisees and others, it is remarkable that he remained silent at the trial before the Sanhedrin (or high council of the Jews), and at his trial before the Roman procurator, Pilate. In fact, in the former case he willingly incriminated himself; when he was asked, in Mark’s version of the proceedings, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” he answered, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:61-62). This answer was taken by the court as blasphemy, and deserving of death. Upon being referred to the jurisdiction of Pilate, Jesus did little to defend himself, responding enigmatically, “You say so,” when Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews (Mark 15:2). (We do not intend to prejudice the question of whether the Sanhedrin proceedings were a formal trial, or a hearing of some sort.)

Summary: Such evidence as we have yields a pattern of events which suggests the answer: Yes, Jesus could have avoided his death: there was no over-riding reason for him to go to Jerusalem for Passover; having made the trip, he did not need to make a dramatic entry; having visited the Temple, he could have used more conciliatory means to bring about change; unless he was completely “blind-sided” by Judas’ treachery, he could have taken evasive action; and, if we can trust Mark’s report, Jesus was strangely ineffective in defending himself at his trials. We cannot of course be assured that Mark is an impartial chronicler of events, but it is doubtful whether the author or his source invented all of these events.


A Purposeful Death?

If Jesus could have avoided his death, can we discern a purpose in an otherwise senseless and tragic end?

   §  It is important not to overstate the case for Jesus as (suffering) Servant of the Lord. We can probably do no better than to say that the theme of vicarious suffering in certain sayings coheres with a reasonable and purposeful death, even though the existence of a purpose does not therefore authenticate these sayings:

Mark 10:45  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Mark 14:22-25  22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

In the former passage, the servant theme is unmistakable; in both passages the idea of vicarious suffering, while not developed into a theory of atonement, is also unmistakable.


   §  The oddness factor. When viewed with a certain detachment, free from commonly held Christian presuppositions, the notion of an otherwise reasonable and well adjusted person going intentionally to his death for the sins of the world sounds an alien tone, distant from our time and place. This factor may weigh unconsciously against a reader’s readiness to acknowledge that Jesus could have been inspired and guided by the servant model in Second Isaiah.

   §  Non-use by early Christians. As already noted, in Baptism: An Alternative, the relevant texts in Isaiah 53 were, for some reason, virtually unused by the early church in support of a theory of vicarious suffering to understand the death of Jesus, the notable exception being 1 Corinthians 15:3, and the late first century 1 Peter 2:22 (click on Use in New Testament). We have reason, therefore, to be less suspicious than in other cases that the theology of the church has been read back into a text such as Mark 10:45.

   §  A good match? One might make an argument for viewing the death of Jesus as a brave statement of principle against Pharisaic legalism; or as the hapless dream of an intrepid preacher of God’s impending reign; or even as a tragic miscarriage of justice without any meaning. But it is arguable that the suffering servant hypothesis provides a good match with the events leading up to his death—assuming that some at least of the details in Mark are authentic. If in fact Pilate did release the terrorist Barabbas in place of Jesus, it was a powerful metaphor for the expiatory significance of his death, the innocent dying in place of the guilty.


Return to Narratives (3)


Revised July 25, 2003


Contents of Jesus Traditions



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