The Gospel According to Mark has long been described as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. This view has been repeated by an innumerable amount of scholars and no doubt is derived from the significant part the Passion narrative plays in Mark. After all, over thirty percent of the gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life! For those who accept the description as accurate, as I do, a number of questions need to be addressed in order to satisfy the case that the gospel is indeed a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. Namely, is there sufficient evidence to describe the gospel in such a way? Furthermore, what motivation might an author have to structure a piece of writing this way?
Section I: The Evidence
It seems fitting to begin with the first hint the reader gets that Jesus will die in the Gospel, i.e. endure a passion. It comes as early as the first series of controversy stories in Mark chapters 2:1 through to 3:6. Here Jesus is depicted in conflict with the Jewish authorities, in particular the scribes and Pharisees. The dispute culminates in the plot to have Jesus killed (3:6). This plot is further developed only a few chapters later where again the scribes are implicated in a plot to try and kill Jesus (11:18). This occurs immediately after Jesus cleanses the temple turning over the money changers tables. By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem (11:27) it seems the Jewish authorities have decided on a method to place him under their control, an arrest. So in 12:12 we are told the Jewish leaders “wanted to arrest him [Jesus]” for telling parables against them. Presumably now, all they needed was a legal reason to arrest him since telling parables against them was not illegal and certainly did not warrant capital punishment or they would have taken this as their opportunity to place him under arrest. Lastly, only two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes realize they need to act soon so we have the final plot to kill Jesus, in chapter14:
“1 …The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2 for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
It is quite obvious once garnered together, that the author of the gospel continues to return to this conspiracy to kill Jesus throughout the narrative. This no doubt has the intended effect of reminding the reader that there is a conspiracy in play in the background, which may indeed lead to the death of Jesus. What is more, this plot is made explicit immediately after Jesus is properly introduced as the Son of God (1:11) and as a worker of miracles (1:21—34; 2:1—12; 3:1—6). The reader now suspects the fate of the Son of God, but confirmation is still needed (as we will discuss shortly this comes later, explicitly from Jesus). So in each case the conflict with the Jewish authorities is at the forefront and for the authorities, the controversies are so deep-seated they will eventually lead to Jesus’ death. By the time we arrive at chapter 15 which narrates the trial and execution of Jesus, as C. M. Tuckett points out, for the reader the plot to have Jesus killed is now clearly in view and is an “inalienable part of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son.” This is possibly the author’s way of preparing the reader for the death of Jesus. But why would the author of Mark need to prepare the reader? This is a question we will return to shortly, for now it is enough to note the obvious, a suffering and dying messiah may have been something totally unexpected by first century Palestinian Jews. In other words, despite the possible death of Jesus, the author is trying to persuade the readers that Jesus actually is the Son of God and messiah. Here Jesus’ knowledge of his own fate and the way the author structures this is important to consider.
The first explicit indication that Jesus is aware of his own fate comes in chapter 8 immediately after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the messiah (8:29). Here Jesus is depicted as teaching the disciples that the “…Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (8:31). The fate of Jesus is reiterated shortly after the transfiguration (9:2—8) and again in 9:9—13 where Elijah’s coming is used in analogy with the Son of Man who must “…go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt”. Jesus then foretells his death a third time (10:32—34). All these reiterations that Jesus must suffer and ultimately be killed have a common thread between them. After establishing that Jesus is the messiah with Peter’s declaration (8:27—30), the author immediately reveals that the Messiah must suffer (8:31) and be treated with contempt (e.g. 10:34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him). And by unveiling Jesus’ fate (and reiterating it on numerous occasions) so soon after Peter’s declaration, it seems the author has strongly coupled together two characteristics of Jesus’ life in a single concept that can be succinctly described as “a suffering Messiah”. This is an important concept in understanding the gospel as a passion narrative with an extended introduction, if for no other reason than to persuade the reader that a suffering messiah was indeed the will of God. So why was this persuasion necessary?
Section II: The Messiah
The term Messiah in the Hebrew Bible literally meant “the Anointed one” and the Greek Septuagint translates the Hebrew for Messiah (Mesiah) as Χριστος (Kristos). This term was typically applied to a king or high priest that need not necessarily be Jewish. During the Persian Period, beginning with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE, Israel (who had been in captivity by the Babylonians) benefitted greatly from a policy set out by Cyrus who allowed all captive people to return to their home land and re-establish their communities. This was thought to signify the restoration of Israel and the author of Isaiah accepted this news with great joy declaring Cyrus the Messiah (Is. 45:1). So around four hundred years before the time of Jesus, we have a clear cut example of a military leader and king who conquered a land that held captive the Israelites setting them free who was subsequently described as the Messiah. But is a Messiah figure as clear cut as this? Who were the types of people that called themselves Messiah? Moreover to what extent did Jesus’ activities match contemporary Jewish expectations of what a Messiah should be?
It seems the concept of Messiah around the time of Jesus had a diverse range of characterizations. Take quasi-Messiah Menahem ben Hezekiah for example, he was called the “comforter who should relieve” and partook in a revolt against Agrippa II in Judea. Or Simon bar Kokhba who led a revolt against the Romans between 132—136 CE and was also acclaimed as the Messiah. Or the Dead Sea Scrolls that identifies numerous Messiah figures: one who is modelled on the Davidic line of kings, another who is modelled on a priestly line associated with Aaron. As a representative example of the types of characteristics a Messiah might have, Mark Humphries puts it appropriately:
If we examine the whole of Jewish scripture, apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha from the period 300 BC–AD 200, then the range of figures who might be expected to intercede with God on Israel’s behalf becomes bewilderingly wide, encompassing not only royal and priestly messiahs, but also prophets and mysterious figures sent from heaven.
So what type of Messiah was Jesus?
Section III: The Suffering Messiah Concept
A clue to this may come from the two people Jesus was crucified with. Mark 15:27 specifies their criminal status as ληστας; the NRSV translates this to “bandits” and Friberg’s lexicon defines as a (2) political insurrectionist, revolutionary, rebel who favors the use of force. These two were not insignificant criminals. Josephus, in Jewish Antiquities and Jewish War, explains that banditry was a significant threat to socio-political order in Roman Palestine. It certainly makes sense that Romans would execute together those who were convicted for similar natured crimes. It is true enough that the violence associated with this type of banditry is absent from Jesus’ career in the gospels. There are however hints. Take for example Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple (11:15—19). Here the author of Mark tells us that Jesus expelled those who were selling and buying in the temple, and then “he [Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple”. So Jesus managed to prevent people from reentering the temple? This is a remarkable claim considering the size of the temple was the length of several football fields! It is hard to imagine what the author had in mind but is it possible that such an accomplishment could only be achieved by something like a military assault on the temple? Could Jesus be this type of bandit, a political insurrectionist? Another clue which hints this comes from a curious detail in the narrative of Jesus’ arrest in Mark (14:48). Here Jesus asks those who are arresting him “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” Those arresting Jesus remain silent on the question. What is clear is the type of people who were called Messiah around the time of Jesus, tended to be some type of social revolutionary often leading protest movements. Certainly Jesus protested against the Jewish authorities. And this is what seems to differentiate Jesus from other Messiahs or social revolutionaries. It was his own community’s leadership, not the Roman authorities (or Babylonian authorities for that matter) but the Jewish authorities that he rebelled against who immediately conspired to kill Jesus. Furthermore, he suffered and was treated with contempt. Ultimately, why Jesus is depicted as a “Suffering Messiah”, may be the reason the author of Mark structures the gospel with an extended introduction to a passion narrative. So why is such an extended introduction required to explain why Jesus is a Suffering Messiah?
Despite the diverse nature of those who were considered to be Messiah, it does seem a suffering Messiah (let alone one who was treated with contempt by his own people, the Jews, and crucified as a criminal by the Romans) was practically unheard of. And it was indeed a problem for the inhabitants of first century Greek and Roman provinces. Evidence for this comes from the apostle Paul, who refers to the concept of a suffering messiah as a σκανδαλιν (skandalon) or a stumbling block for the Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). So it seems the author is trying to deal with and persuade the readers that the novel concept of a suffering Messiah who was rejected by his own people and eventually executed as a criminal is the will of God. And he does so in several ways. Firstly, the author uses a motif of conflict to establish a rift between Jesus and the Jewish authorities (2:1—3:6). Secondly, by including the details that have Jesus predict his fate immediately after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29) (for prediction see 8:31) thus coupling his death strongly with the Messiah concept (i.e. the Suffering Messiah). Thirdly, the writer reiterates the first two motifs thus keeping the plot on Jesus’ life and his knowledge of his own fate squarely in the background, but fresh in the readers mind. And lastly, something not discussed so far, by cloaking the gospel in Hebraic thought, prophecy and Hebrew Bible narrative (9:12; 12:10—11; 14:21 and 14:27).
Why then has Mark presented his story as an extended introduction to a passion narrative? There is almost certainly no single answer but the argument above, at the very least, explains why the presentation was necessary. The context the gospel was written in plays an important part in understanding why. The gospel sets out to persuade its readers of something that was considered to be a skandalon, a suffering Messiah. Moreover the concept of a suffering Messiah who was rejected by his own people seemed to be a novel concept. This ultimately explains the need for a grandiose introduction to the passion narrative where Jesus is depicted being rejected, suffering and ultimately killed.
 First described as such, by nineteenth-century German theologian Martin Kähler in his work “The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ”, but since described by an innumerable amount of scholars.
 Since five of the sixteen chapters in Mark narrate the events of the last week of Jesus’ life the calculation becomes simple, 5/16 x 100 = 31.3%
 The Oxford Bible Commentary. ed. by John Barton and John Muddiman, annotated by Christopher M. Tuckett, Oxford University Press. 2001. p. 893
 Linda Woodhead, Christianity: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 16
 The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, ed. by Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 59
 Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, (Baker Book House, 1980), p.24
 Christopher Mackay, Ancient Rome: A military and Political History, (Cambridge University Press 2005), p. 230
 MA Knibb, Eschatology and messianism in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in P. W. Flint and J. C. Vanderkam (eds) The Dead Sea Scrolls after fifty years (Leiden: E. J. Brill 1999) vol. II, 379–402.
 Mark Humphries, Early Christianity (Classical Foundations) (Routledge; New Edition, 2006), p. 103
 Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. BibleWorks, v.8.
 Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus, and the gospels: literary approaches and historical investigations, Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1988
 Archaeological excavations estimate the Temple, which Herod announced would undergo renovations in 20-19 BCE (see Josephus’ Ant. 15.11.1-2; 380-90 and Jewish Wars 1.21.1; 401) reveal that the outer wall of the Temple itself was an irregular quadrangle: south wall = 280 m.; west wall = 485 m.; north wall = 315 m.; east wall = 460 m. The total circumference of the sacred precincts, was 1,540 m., and the total area = c. 144,000 sq. m. (see Meir ben-Dov, In the Shadow of the Temple: The Discovery of Ancient Jerusalem, (Hapercollins 1985), p.77)
 Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. BibleWorks, v.8. (3) figuratively; (b) as what gives offense or arouses opposition, stumbling block, offense
 For the reiterations of the conflict motif see 7:1—23; 11:15—33 and 12:38—40; for the reiteration of Jesus’ knowledge of his own fate motif see 9:9—13 and 10:32—34.