Liturgical Origins of Mark's Passion Narrative?


This is an offshoot of what I posted in another thread.

The Markan passion narrative is quite interesting, because events from Jesus’ passion therein apparently happen at three hour intervals: Jesus is crucified on the “third hour” (= 9 AM; 15:25), the darkness descends over the land during the “sixth hour,” and Jesus dies during the “ninth hour” (12-3 PM; 15:33-34). In fact, before that Jesus was brought before Pilate at prōi, “early (dawn)” (= 6 AM?; 15:1), and Peter denies Jesus at “cockcrow” (= 3 AM; 14:72).

Evening (6 PM?): The Last Supper
9 PM (?): Jesus goes to Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14.37-41: “Could you not watch one hour? … again he came … and he came the third time”)
12 AM (?): Jesus is arrested
Cockcrow (3 AM): Peter denies Jesus
Early daybreak (6 AM): Jesus before Pilate
Third hour (9 AM): Jesus is crucified
Sixth hour (12 PM): Darkness descends
Ninth hour (3 PM): Jesus dies
Evening (6 PM?): Jesus is buried

(Early daybreak (6 AM): Women go to the empty tomb)

It’s not just that these stories fit nicely into this schedule. Individual units themselves seem to be patterned in such a way that they reflect this kind of structure. Jesus in Gethsemane asks His disciples to watch with Him and is distressed that they could not stay awake for “one hour” (14:37), and then twice again He comes to them (14:40-1). And then, similarly, Peter denies Jesus three times at cockcrow - the Roman watch between 12 AM and 3 AM (14:54, 66-72).

What is interesting is that immediately before the passion narrative, Jesus says this (13:35-37):

“Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (prōi, the same word used in 15:1 and 16:1)—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

It’s as if the reader of the gospel is given a slight hint of the three hour pattern that would follow.

Of course, the difficulty here that real life is not quite as neat and tidy – events do not happen in exactly three hour units. Another oddity of the Markan passion story is that as it is, the events seem kind of rushed and crammed to fit: Jesus is tried, tortured, mocked, and made to carry His cross all within the space of two to three hours, when it’s not unlikely that it could have taken longer historically (cf. John 19’s mention of Jesus still being at the praetorium during the “sixth hour”). It’s likely that the regular time notes here are just approximate (if historical), maybe even artificial / symbolic to an extent. So what was the cause or the purpose of Mark’s fitting the Passion into a three-hour structure here?

Three different scholars, a Canadian (Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar and According to Mark) in the 1950s, an Englishman (Michael Goulder) in the 1970s, and a Frenchman (Étienne Trocmé, The Passion as Liturgy) in the 1980s, have each separately put forward an explanation for this structure: the liturgy. According to the theory, one way early Christians might have commemorated Jesus’ Passion on the Jewish Passover season (= Holy Week and Easter / Pascha) is by holding a twenty-four hour vigil somewhere just before Easter in which which they retold and relived the events surrounding Jesus’ death, perhaps commemorating certain events on fixed time periods. Mark’s gospel, they say, reflects this early Christian liturgical practice.

Now the thing is that this theory is not well known or popular in mainstream scholarship. In both Carrington’s and Goulder’s cases, this was because the theory of the Markan Passion being liturgical in nature was bolted on to (less-convincing) theories that one or more gospels were actually Jewish-Christian lectionaries. (Goulder went so far as to claim that all three synoptics were lectionaries: Mark contained a cycle of readings good for half a year, Matthew - which built on Mark - for a full year following the Jewish festal cycle, and Luke - which follows on Matthew - for a full year following the sabbath cycle.) The problem is that strong elements that make up a part of the less compelling whole are easily ignored.

You might notice that the three-hour structure corresponds with the Jewish custom of praying at set times of the day and its Christian derivative, the canonical hours.

Early morning = Prime (first hour)
Third hour = Terce
Sixth hour = Sext
Ninth hour = None
Evening = Vespers
Midnight, Cockcrow = Matins + Lauds


As an outsider, I’ve often wondered whether the construction of each of the Gospels had a drama aspect (“Enter Pharisees moaning, Centre Left” at just the opportune moment, sort of thing).

Drama might have been a powerful apologetic/educational tool, of course.


Well, there are some scholars who do speak of the early Christians “performing” or acting passages from the gospels in a dramatic way. The manuscripts were supposedly not meant to be read from, but were used to memorize the text for ‘performance’, purely oral delivery from memory. In other words, scripts. But the problem with this scenario is that we really don’t have enough basis for this idea of the gospels being play-acted, whereas we do have evidence for reading aloud literary texts in social groups and gatherings.

Mark at least certainly does have some ‘oral’ parts on it ("‘But that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ he said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.’") And yes, there’s certainly the thing about certain characters such as “the Pharisees” (two-dimensional, like most characters in the synoptics are) who conveniently appear out of nowhere and disappear as the narrative requires. But I don’t think that’s necessarily tantamount to it being an actors’ script.

Oh, and an author named Dennis R. MacDonald did express his theory that Mark may owe something to Homer’s epics in crafting his story of Jesus. I do think his supposed parallels go too far in places (and I don’t think the supposed influence is as pervasive as he makes it out to be), but I won’t dismiss the idea may have something going for it.


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