Despite a few dissenters, the pre-Markan passion narrative (which refers to an early source the author of Mark used when he formulated Christ’s passion story) is a widely accepted theory and therefore “continues to seem probable to a majority of scholars” (1). Philosopher and exegete William Lane Craig explains that,
“Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used]. Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted. That is to say, did verse 5 of chapter 15 belong to the pre contents of the pre-Markan passion source may be in debate, the actual existence of this source is readily accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony” (2).
Historian Gerd Theissen says that one can discern behind Mark’s passion story an earlier account he likely used (3). One can see this in the chronological irregularities of the Markan text,
“According to Mark, Jesus died on the day of Passover, but the tradition supposes it was the preparation day before Passover: in 14:1-2 the Sanhedrin decided to kill Jesus before the feast in order to prevent unrest among the people on the day of the feast. This fits with the circumstance that in 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is coming in from the fields, which can be understood to mean he was coming from his work. It would be hard to imagine any author’s using a formulation so subject to misunderstanding in an account that describes events on the day of Passover, since no work was done on that day.”
“in 15:42 Jesus’ burial is said to be on the “preparation day,” but a relative clause is added to make it the preparation day for the Sabbath. Originally, it was probably the preparation day for the Passover (cf. Jn 19:42). The motive for removing Jesus from the cross and burying him before sundown would probably have been to have this work done before the beginning of the feast day, which would not make sense if it were already the day of Passover. Finally, the “trial” before the Sanhedrin presupposes that this was not a feast day, since no judicial proceedings could be held on that day. It would have been a breach of the legal code that the narrator could scarcely have ignored, because the point of the narrative is to represent the proceeding against Jesus as an unfair trial with contradictory witnesses and a verdict decided in advance by the high priests” (3).
The pre-Markan passion narrative source is thought to be early in proximity to Christ’s time of death (30 AD). One reason for this is because it never refers to the high priest but still mentions him by his name (Caiaphas). Why? Because at the time the source was composed or circulating the high priest was still in office. Craig explains that
“It is as if one were to say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House.” Everyone knows who the president is, and who I am speaking of because he the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion narrative refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death (30 AD). This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and therefore proves to be an authoritative source of historical information,
Thiessen agrees that the source is early, “The date could also be pinpointed: parts of the Passion account would have to have been composed within the generation of the eyewitnesses and their contemporaries, that is, somewhere between 30 and 60 C.E.” (4).
Because of its earliness its content is clearly of some importance for historians are dealing with early data. Craig states that there is a good chance that it is based upon eyewitness testimony “because it goes back so early…” (5). It likely included the account of Christ’s burial by Joseph in the tomb and the women’s discovery of the empty tomb,
“The empty tomb story is syntactically tied to the burial story; indeed, they are just one story. E.g., the antecedent of “him” (Jesus) in Mk. 16:1 is in the burial account (15:43); the women’s discussion of the stone presupposes the stone’s being rolled over the tomb’s entrance; their visiting the tomb presupposes their noting its location in 15.47; the words of the angel “see the place where they laid him” refer back to Joseph’s laying body in the tomb” (6).
Craig says that the pre-Markan passion narrative, along with the early pre-Pauline tradition quoted in 1 Corinthians 15, provides early and independent attestation to the burial story,
“This is one of the most important criteria of historicity that historians use. When you have early, independent attestation of the same event, then you are likely on historical bedrock”(7).
Historian Paul Meier writes that Christ’s miracles are also included in the account,
“There are “individual miracles embedded in the pre-Marcan passion narrative (10:46-52)… when one looks at this vast array of disparate streams of miracle traditions in the first Christian generation, some already grouped in collections, some still stray bits of material, Mark alone – writing as he does at the end of the first Christian generation – constitutes a fair refutation of the idea that the miracle traditions were totally the creation of the early church after Jesus’ death” (8).
1. Early Christian Writings. The Passion Narrative. Available.
2. Craig, W. 2011. Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
3. Theissen, C. 1992. The Gospels in Context. p. 166-167.
4. Theissen, G. 1992. Ibid. p. 186-187.
5. Craig, W. 2011. Ibid.
6. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources For Jesus Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
7. Craig, W. Doctrine of Christ (part 18). Available.
8. Meier, P. 1991. A Marginal Jew. p. 620.