2022-08-05

How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

Having “settled” again (this time Thailand) I can resume my discussion of Nathanael Vette’s [NV] Writing With Scripture. We come now to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the culmination of Mark’s narrative and the part most intertwined with Scriptural references and allusions. The point of NV’s discussion is to demonstrate that here our Markan author uses Scripture in the same way as we find it used in other extra-canonical Second Temple literature, sometimes explicitly but very often as implicit allusions. The former method is generally expositional (containing a commentary on the meaning of the Scripture), the latter compositional (repeating motifs and images to flesh out a story.) And the question that inevitably arises:

  • Are the scenes of the Passion Narrative created from Scripture?

NV zeroes in on five echoes of Scripture in the Passion Narrative:

  1. Mark 14:21 where Jesus cites Scripture to announce that one of the disciples eating with him would betray him;
  2. Mark 14:24 where Jesus speaks of his blood (represented by the wine) being poured out for many;
  3. Mark 14:27 where Jesus quotes Zechariah to predict his disciples would desert him;
  4. Mark 14:34 where we read of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane;
  5. Mark 15:21-41 where the crucifixion reminds readers of Psalm 22.

NV studies each case by comparing how the other evangelists wrote the parallel scenes and how other Jewish texts also treated the Scripture Mark appears to have used. NV is also alert to the possibility that Mark is “scripturalizing” a pre-existing tradition or narrative — as per Mark Goodacre’s attempt to find a mid-way point between “prophecy historicized” and “history remembered” (Crossan). I think Crossan has the upper hand, though, insofar as he bases his analyses on the sources available. If there is no evidence for an existing tradition or source behind Mark then it is undoubtedly unnecessary to speculate on Mark’s adaptation of such a tradition or source.

The following notes focus only on key conclusions NV draws from in-depth discussions of each:

  1. Re Mark 14:21 — When NV notes that Matthew and Luke do not follow the details of Mark’s account of the betrayal with its apparent references to Psalm 41:9 (e.g. Judas eating bread with Jesus) he suggests the possibility that they did not recognize what we take to be Mark’s source in the Psalms. Perhaps. Yet the variants surely demonstrate that the simplest conclusion to draw and one that goes no farther than interpreting the evidence at hand rather than the mind of the author or hypothetical sources, is that the variations of the other Gospels indicate nothing more than that the authors were at liberty to rewrite Mark according to their own theological and literary interests and each felt free to use Scriptures as their source according to their narrative plans.
  2. Re Mark 14:24 — NV is unable to decide if the words “this is my blood of the covenant” (taken from Exodus 24:8) are combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “poured out to death” and concludes with Howard Clark Kee, “There are no sure references to Isa 53.” (No mention is made of Leviticus 9:9 where Aaron’s sin offering involves blood being “poured out” (ἐξέχεεν) at the altar in preparation for making atonement for the people or the possibility that Mark was combining sacrificial terms from Exodus and Leviticus. We know from the opening verses of Mark that the author was quite capable of combining passages from different books to make a new “scripturalized” saying.)
  3. Re Mark 14:27 — While Zech 13:7 is quoted by Jesus to predict what his followers would do when he was handed over, the ensuing scene is not composed with the same words we find in Zechariah. Zechariah’s words for striking, fleeing, and the sword are replaced by effective synonyms in Mark’s description of the action: “It would appear then the words of Zech. 13:7 serve to interpret the flight of the disciples, not to describe the act of desertion itself.” (NV, p. 175) The words may not be the same but the actions described can surely be explained as being inspired by Zechariah as the narrative’s source. 
  4. Re Mark 14:34 — The echo of Psalm 42 is surely real given the regularity with which that Psalm is used in other Jewish literature in connection with the suffering of the righteous one.
  5. Re Mark 15:21-41 — There is little doubt that Psalm 22 was the source for many of the details of the crucifixion, just as the same Psalm is found as a source for narrative details for stories of Esther, in Qumran literature and in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. But it is not the only source since one finds sporadic details from other Scriptures in the mix, too. All this is one with other Jewish literature and its use of Scripture, as earlier posts have indicated.

NV notes the way Mark has woven the Passion Narrative with reminders of the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (the command to Watch, the supernatural darkness, the prophecy of seeing the Son of Man coming, etc) in order to drive home the cosmic significance of the crucifixion. Mark links both directly and through symbolism the crucifixion to the war of 66-70 which was seen as God’s judgment on his people for their rejection of Jesus.

Something different about Mark

This brings me back to an important difference between Mark’s use of Scripture and how the other evangelists deployed it.

As NV writes, Mark does not

. . . introduce a schema of prophetic-fulfilment for the Passion Narrative as a whole. Elsewhere in the Gospel, there are isolated instances where certain events correspond to, or happen in fulfilment of, the Jewish scriptures. [Mk 1:2-3; 7:6-7; 9:12-13]. But Mark lacks the explicit interpretive schema one finds in the editorial comments of Matthew (1:22; 2:17,23:4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9) and John (12:16, 38; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 36). For the most part, the concept of prophetic-fulfilment is undeveloped in Mark. (NV, 165. My bolding in all quotations)

Other aspects (e.g. motivation of actions and words, explanatory background) of Mark’s narrative also appear undeveloped and the best reason I have found to explain such characteristics in Mark is given by Nicole Duran in Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark is writing not only a “scripturalized narrative” but, unlike the other evangelists, he is also writing a “ritualized narrative”.

The features of the Gospel of Mark that have led some readers to imagine it was written to be performed, or even acted as a play, are the same features that Duran identifies as those of ritual. (Theatre is a secular counterpart of ritual.)

Ritual is about repetition. It’s about other things, too, of course, but let’s not take on too much at once. Repetition helps us digest and think through and begin to understand and talk about and make some sense of an experience that at first punch seems unreal, incomprehensible. A prophetic announcement followed (often almost immediately) by its fulfilment is a form of such repetition. I would take Duran’s understanding one step further and suggest that a tale told with echoes of Scripture is another form of repetition, ritualized repetition. The reader/hearer recollects he has heard it before, and that recollection works in the same way: it contributes towards making some sense of what one is reading. Now that proposal of mine is veering away from NV’s thesis, but it is another form of repetition, is it not? There is no prophecy that Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion would fulfil Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and/or Psalm 22, but it is impossible to read Mark’s narration of those events without recalling what we have read in Scripture.

The betrayal is prophesied and it happens almost immediately. The desertion of the disciples is prophesied and that, too, happens as if the prophecy was the dramatic cue for the action to begin. We are trying to make sense of it all as we follow the participants in a ritual. The characters have to fulfil their roles even though they are theoretically free agents, just like participants in a ritual.

In just this way, Mark’s sense that the life and times of his story are terrifyingly unprecedented leads his story into the familiar patterns of ultimate meaning that constitute ritual, in an effort to process and tame what seems untameable, to derive meaning from the seemingly meaningless.

Mark is working with history, though what history exactly we have no way of knowing. Something has happened, and he (that is to say, someone, not only the presumably singular and masculine author, but the obviously plural readers as well, including this one) is trying to convey what it was. Like most efforts to convey an experience, the story is at the same time struggling to understand it. (Duran, 17)

The subject requires a full post or two of its own to fully explain, but here is a small glimpse of how a ritualized narrative can be understood as an effort to make sense, to find meaning, when faced with an incomprehensible traumatic loss:

Mark sees whatever historical events he has experienced and heard about as history-become-ritual in the same way that founders of the Cargo Cults of New Guinea saw the disorder and discontinuity of their own times as history-become-ritual. In both cases terrific cracks in the traditional culture under the pressures of imperialism, a perceived inability of the society’s members to control their own lives and destinies by normal means and according to what had been cultural values, together with the apparent insurmountability of economic and political injustices gave the social order the appearance of perpetrating chaos. It is the effort to tame such chaos in which we see Mark engaged: he is trying to face the disorder of the current social order, and to imagine its breaking apart to reveal something other. (Duran, 111f)

Mark is not shocked or traumatized by the death of Jesus. That event is old news, a good generation old at least and a story he no doubt heard second or third hand. But the national calamity would still appear to be too raw for the memory to touch. There is a sense of immediacy, of the author and reader still feeling like participants in the events, when the events are depicted in terms of ritual. At the same time, there is a necessary distancing that comes from composing Jesus as a personification, a kind of metaphorical substitution, of all that has been lost. We are introduced to Jesus as acting out a perfect Israel in the wilderness; we follow Jesus as he brings light and healing to his people and the nations roundabout, again like an idealized memory of Israel; then we see the betrayal of that ideal by the Jewish zealots represented by namesakes like Judas Iscariot, Simon, the priests; and the preference of the Jews for the rebels represented by Barabbas; and finally how they were responsible for the Romans crucifying the nation, tearing apart its temple, and consigning it to a carved out rock-tomb (Isaiah 22:16).

Through Duran’s insights, we begin to see that Mark uses prophecies (from Scripture and from Jesus’ own words) of immediate actions to follow as a ritualizing technique, to create a sense of scripted repetition. Even when there is no explicit prophecy, sometimes the action or speech is composed in a way that jolts us into awareness that we have heard the story before – in Scripture. In ritual, the actors perform a script that sets out the words and actions they must necessarily follow. Matthew, Luke and John compose their Gospels in more natural narrative styles.

The author is groping to comprehend and find some hope through the traumatic loss brought about by the Jewish War. In Duran’s view, Mark seeks an answer by linking that war to the crucifixion of Jesus. I wonder if, rather, Mark has created his figure of Jesus as a personification of an idealized Israel as an attempt to work through and find meaning in the loss of all that the life and cult of Israel had meant to the author and readers/auditors.

Yes, from one perspective Mark’s concept of prophetic fulfilment is “undeveloped” compared with the other Gospels. But Mark is still too close emotionally to the events of the war and he is struggling to make piece-meal sense of it all, step by step.

I am trying to touch on the main idea here and feel I need to return to this topic to explain it more fully.

In the supper scene, Mark does something that no other evangelist does. Mark does not present this last supper as a ceremony for readers to repeat: the command “do this in remembrance of me” comes from Luke, not Mark. Nor in Mark does the wine represent the blood shed “for the forgiveness of sins”. In Mark it is simply “the covenant” (not even a “new covenant”) that is represented by the wine. The disciples are joined in one body with Jesus at this supper since eating a meal together ritually brings people together as a single community, all being “made” of the same life-giving food.

There is, it seems, only one covenant, that between God and Israel. But Jesus’ spilled blood somehow takes part in the performance of that covenant, as otherwise blood spilled in sacrifice could. His blood confirms or reiterates – repeats – the established covenant and apparently in that sense is spilled ‘on behalf of many’- the many, it seems, who share in this divine-human contract. (Duran, 66)

All the disciples are being fed, given life, from the symbols of Jesus’ broken body and spilled blood. Judas, the namesake of the nation of Judea, betrays Jesus in his role as much as Simon Peter is about to do in his part. (Peter is not “the rock” that he is in Matthew. Think of Mary Ann Tolbert’s analysis of Peter as the “rocky soil” on which the seed fell.)

It is a ritualized narrative performance that we are reading. The prophecy of Psalm 41 is used to present the meal and betrayal as a repetition or acting out of a script. This symbolic meal will be repeated, not in the church re-enacting the meal, but in the ensuing verses when Jesus’ body is broken by beating and crucifixion and the disciples are thereby allowed to live by not having to share his fate. Jesus is sacrificed so others can live, as the disciples are free to live when they flee from Gethsemane to avoid his fate or look on “from afar”.

The meal that binds the disciples with Jesus is the meal that must happen, like a ritualized act that the participants willingly enter while at the same time following their pre-written script, the meal that will be repeated when the disciples (by means of betrayal, fleeing and denial) deliver Jesus to have his body broken so their lives can be saved.

What I think explains Matthew, Luke and John not using Psalm 41 in the same way as Mark is, as NV quoted above notes, that those other authors were more interested in narrative flow and explanation that was shaped by prophetic fulfilment. Mark, by contrast, was tied to a narrative written as a type of ritual: events must happen according to the (prophetic) script but they happen because they must, without clear motivation or understanding by the actors, except for Jesus. Duran, I think, offers an explanation for what later authors considered a rather crude narrative. By freeing themselves from the need to saturate each act in ritualized meaning they found more scope to single out Judas for opprobrium and allowed themselves a more developed use of other Scriptures such as that of Zechariah and the thirty pieces of silver etc.

So when NV comments on Mark’s account of Jesus’s clothes being divided by lot . . . 

Whilst there may well be a historical basis for the scene – the victims of crucifixion were, by some accounts, stripped naked . . . (NV, 182)

and of the women looking on from a distance . . .

The final instance of Psalmic imagery, however, may reflect something of historical tradition. The detail that certain women were looking on ‘from a distance’ (Mk 15:40: ἀπὸ μακρόθεν) recalls LXX Ps. 37:12 (MT 38:11) . . . . Unlike the darkness at noon and the offer of sour wine, however, the detail in Mk 14:50 is unlikely to have been created entirely out of scriptural language. The conspicuous naming of the women – ‘Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the young and of Joses, and Salome’ – mentioned here for the first time, can hardly be chalked up to the influence of LXX Psalm 37. (NV, 195)

. . . I find myself resisting those historical speculations. The history uppermost in the author’s mind was not the forty-year-old memory of the death of Jesus but the “current history” of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The crucifixions that caused our author to still shudder were those of the thousands of his compatriots. I used to write more frequently about this topic: see, for example, Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews and links within.

As for the names of the women, there is nothing but speculation that lies at the root of interpreting those names as historical memory. Mark regularly introduces named characters for the sake of a single scene then drops them. He regularly introduces personal and geographical names as puns to convey theological messages. He opens his Gospel with figures identified by their parent’s names and he closes the Gospel with figures identified by their children’s names. I don’t know why, but since there is a clear pattern at work and given the other puns on names (Jairus, Bartimaeus, Barabbas, Judas) I think it is more likely than not that the names at the end of the Gospel carried some symbolic meaning, too. (Andreas Bedenbender proposes that the names are more readily identifiable as symbolic when we read the Gospel of Mark as a response to the Jewish War.)

I think it more likely that what Mark is “scripturalizing” is not “tradition” but the events of the war and an attempt to find meaning in the traumatic loss it brought about, whether the first or second Jewish War against Rome. The only grounds we have for proposing “traditions” (if by “traditions” we mean oral memories and re-tellings) behind the narratives is the hypothesis, or rather the assumption, that the Gospel narrative is rooted in a historical core. I find working with such an assumption to be problematic (it is circular) and that there is more methodological justification for working with the evidence we can see and the background events that the narrative explicitly mentions and for which we have independent evidence.

I have made many attempts to begin and then complete the above post while my life has been disrupted over the past weeks with constant travel of one sort and another. So here it is, for better or for worse, – my penultimate post on NV’s Writing With Scripture.


Duran, Nicole Wilkinson. The Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. T&T Clark, 2009.

Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9”

  1. The more I read your articles on this book and the more he seems to be uncritical of Mark’s historicity. It’s not what his presentation of the book suggested :

    https://www.academia.edu/44302164/Scripturalized_Narrative_in_the_Gospel_of_Mark_and_the_Second_Temple_Period

    I ordered the book today and i will read it next week to make my own opinion.
    I think there are some good things to take from his book, especially the imitation of biblical texts in second temple Jewish literature.

    Even though NV seems to give more credence to Mark’s historicity than it should, I think his examples of imitations of Jewish texts that precede Mark can be used to demonstrate that Mark’s historicity is very doubtful.

    1. I think his examples of imitations of Jewish texts that precede Mark can be used to demonstrate that Mark’s historicity is very doubtful.

      Dennis MacDonald will be publishing his magnum opus: A three volume reference work on the gospels.

      “Interview with Dr. Dennis R. MacDonald & Edouard Tahmizian”. YouTube. Freethinker Podcast. 3 June 2022. @time:00:03:30

      [3:24] …the third is a synopsis of the three layers of the gospel of John arguing that the earliest version is an imitation of The Bacchae. I intend this work to be . . . the most important work ever written on the gospels. [3:45]

  2. It seems to me, as an amateur student of these things, that the use of Jewish scripture was done both prospectively (Gospel writers) and retrospectively (e.g., Justin Martyr in the Dialogue with Trypho) to give religious legitimacy to emerging doctrines among a young church community composed in part of former Jews and in part of Jewish-influenced gentiles, i.e., to a religion that began as a Jewish sect and then spread out. The purpose of a document such as a gospel, therefore, was not primarily or even necessarily tangentially historic, but rather fabulist or mythical, in the sense that stories of the gods traditionally existed to help explain things to people. E.g., Greek nature gods help us to contextualize the elements, and to learn to control or influence the gods of nature who affect agriculture; or else we have etiological tales that help to put to rest curiosity about the origins of things. These are not historical purposes, but rather culture-forming and ethics-defining purposes, or church-supporting purposes such as the ritualistic ones described in the post above. Had there been historical facts connected with the gospel stories, there might have been a historian interested in writing a history about them, but no such figure emerged. Beyond those basic facts, we have only various forms of speculation.

    1. And running in parallel to all this talk of Scripture is existing myth and, relevant here, plays about those myths.

      Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, where the saviour of mankind is crucified at the very start of the play (including a wound in his chest), had been repeated in theatres for hundreds of years at the point where the gospels were written down. Similarly, Antigone had been finding Oedipus’ empty tomb over and over for generations before “Mark” picked up a pen. These symbols and stories were common currency for the Greek/Hellenic audience and authors of the Gospels.

      1. MILLER, RICHARD C. (2010). “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 759–776. doi:10.2307/25765965.

        Mimetic Signal for a Missing body:
        Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 2.56.2-6;
        Plutarch, Rom. 27.3-5

  3. Thank you Neil. This is a most thought provoking piece of writing, which I have benefited from reading several times. In this one article, you have succinctly drawn together a number of key themes. The deliberations that Vette has provoked have been very helpful, even if the starting points were not always so. This has been an object lesson in how to treat an alternative point of view with courtesy and thoroughness.
    Your comments about Duran’s book are fascinating – I look forward to reading more about her ideas. In a sense, it goes without saying that religion and ritual go hand in hand, but it does strike me that scholars investigating the subject of ritual (and drama) in early Christianities are making a useful contribution. The investigation by Schwiebert (referencing back to Rappaport) of ritual in the Didache is very illuminating and is a technique no doubt worth pursuing, for example, on Mark’s gospel. A while back, you quoted from Magne. I keep returning to his comment that “the myth varies but the ritual remains unchanged”. Whilst the slogan is simplistic as well as profound, the train of thought that it provokes is stimulating. I also remember you reporting that Charbonnel argued that the historic Jesus grew out of the ritual bread and wine. Whilst I commented at the time that the evidence she used was weak, there is undoubtedly a seam there to be mined further.
    I wait with interest to see where you are going to take us now that you’ve finished Vette.

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