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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Doherty and the Passion Narrative

It is widely accepted by New Testament scholars that the passion narratives found in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John had a forerunner upon which all of them drew--what we will call the Passion Narrative (or "PN" for short). Not so, says Earl Doherty. Mark invented it by creative exploitation of the Old Testament: "There is no evidence in the early record itself that the passion as a separate account with an identifiable sequence and set of events existed before Mark. As we have seen, neither its details nor its overall picture can be found in the epistles and other documents of early Christianity, even in those containing a death and resurrection kerygma." The Jesus Puzzle, page 183. (As for the notion that early Christians simply invented entire narratives out of whole clothe, see my article here and my blog here).

That the PN is not written out in a narrative prior to the Gospel of Mark is not compelling stuff given that Mark is the earliest narrative of the life of Jesus that has survived. It would not be surprising, for example, if Q -- largely a collection of sayings rather than a narrative -- did not include a PN. Of course, nobody knows what Q looked like. All they know is that it likely included material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It is impossible to know what Q did not include because it is impossible to know what material in it that Matthew and Luke did not use. Of course, it is possible that there existed in the Q community a collection of sayings and a PN. Remember that the Dead Sea Scrolls community had many writings about their beliefs from many genres. If only one such document from their community had been discovered -- rather than the treasure trove that we actually have -- Doherty and others would likely have given us a completely distorted picture of the DSS based on what was not "in" the documents that survived.

But is it true that all other early Christian writings -- which means, I suppose, the letters of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews -- lack any detail or overall picture of the Passion Narrative?

Not at all.

Paul has more references to details of the Passion Narrative than any other part of Jesus' life. He notes that Jesus instituted the Last Supper, using the same elements as the Gospels, and in words similar to Mark and Matthew (and even closer to Luke). 1 Cor. 11:23-25. He knows that this was the "Last" Supper because it was that night that Jesus was betrayed. 1 Cor. 11:23. He writes that Jesus' death was at the hands of earthly rulers. 1 Cor. 2:8. He also knows that some of those earthly rulers were Jewish leaders. 1 Thess. 2:14-16. He also knows the manner by which Jesus was put to death -- crucifixion -- which suggests that Paul also knew that Roman rulers were involved. 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 13:4; Gal. 3:1. He also knows that Jesus was buried after his crucifixion (not a sure thing with criminals). 1 Cor. 15:4; Rom. 6:4. Paul writes about Jesus' resurrection. Romans 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:4-7. Paul even gives the same time period that the gospels do, noting it occurred on the third day. 1 Cor. 15:4. Then, Paul notes the appearances of Jesus to Peter, to the Twelve, and to the Disciples. 1 Cor. 15:4-11. In short, although Paul does not write out a PN himself, his letters reveal plenty of details about it.

To this I would add additional details provided by the Epistle to the Hebrews. As I have shown here, this early Christian document also demonstrates knowledge about Jesus' suffering in anticipation of his coming ordeal, his crying out to God, and obediently facing the path ahead of him. Hebrews 5:7-8. All of this sounds very much like the Garden of Gethsemane. Paul too suggests that he knows of this scene, as I have shown here regarding his writing that we can cry out "Abba Father" during times of trouble as Jesus did in the Garden suggests familiarity with this narrative. Gal. 4:6; Romans 8:15-16. Because the author of Hebrews was apparently connected to the Pauline circle and wrote his epistle sometime in the 60s, the two sets of references taken together make a strong case that the Garden of Gethsemane story was well known in early Christianity. Finally, Hebrews knows that Jesus was executed by crucifixion outside of the city gates. Hebrews 13:11-14.

Yes, I know that Doherty tries to explain away all of the above references as not actually having happened (in this plane of existence at least). But even extreme skeptics like G.A. Wells has rejected his case as unreasonable. Such farfetched interpretations as Doherty offers have been pounded here, here, and here. At the very least, that Paul and the author of Hebrews say so many things that sound so much like the Passion Narrative should at least raise our suspicions about his statement about there being no knowledge of any details about the PN prior to Mark--it's akin to saying that once we ignore all the evidence that exists there is no evidence. In other words, if someone is unconvinced or sitting on the fence about the reasonableness of Doherty's radical approach to the early Christian epistles, the fact that so much of the PN is found in those epistles would indicate that indeed there was a preexisting PN that Mark took and incorporated into his own Gospel.

Notably, there are additional literary reasons for concluding that the PN preexisted the Gospels: 1) the unique emphasis on chronological sequence; and, 2) the relative similarity in which the Gospel report it. Much of the Gospels, and especially the synoptics, are not meant to provide the exact time and location of particular teachings or miracles of Christ. Rather, they are meant to transmit the actual teachings of Christ, but do not necessarily give us an exact chronology of his ministry. Where and when Jesus proclaimed the “Sermon on the Mount” (or, perhaps more likely, how many times) was much less important to the gospel author than the teaching of the Sermon itself. Therefore, throughout most of the Gospels the emphasis is not on providing a chronological sequence of events.

The peculiar and significant exception to this occurrence is the Passion Narrative. “Instead of being composed of individual unrelated units, without careful reference to time and place, the narratives of Jesus’ suffering and death present a connected chronological sequence.” William R. Wilson, The Execution of Jesus, page 29. This is one of the few places in the Gospels were the authors provide us with an extended step-by-step sequence of events in chronological order. As noted by Professor Dibelius, the Passion Narrative is “the only piece of Gospel tradition which in early times gave events in their larger connection.” Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, page 176. This bears all the marks of being due to the early development of the PN in the young Christian movement, as well as its centrality to its beliefs.

Additionally, the peculiarity of the Passion Narrative’s place in early Christian history is reflected by the unusual harmony of the Gospels when relating this story. Matthew uses 233 lines to describe it. Mark uses 201, Luke 199, and John 224. The average is 214 lines, and none of the Four Gospels varies more than 10% from that average. Though not without redaction, some differences, and reliance on additional sources, no other sequence or scene of the canonical Gospels reflects this unity of transmission. Why? Because the PN preexisted them all and had a strong place in early Christian belief. The early Church believed the PN to be so central to its faith, that it was apparently the only series of events in Jesus’ life which were precisely recorded and transmitted (whether orally or written) in chronological sequence.

It was the Passion Narrative, with its focus on the last supper, the arrest and trial, the crucifixion and resurrection, which was viewed as the foundation of Christianity, not just the teachings of Jesus. “From its beginnings, Christianity was founded not on Jesus’ teachings, nor on his miracles; it was founded on his death and resurrection. Whatever else Christians might tell about Jesus, the heart of their proclamation was the good news of salvation which had come through Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising from the dead.” Wilson, op. cit., page 29.

To summarize, the many recitations of details of the PN by Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, the unusual emphasis on chronological sequence in the PN in the canonical gospels, and the general similarity of the PN in the canonical gospels all indicate that the PN not only preexisted the canonical gospels, but was preserved and transmitted as a central part of the young Christian movement.

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