Did Jesus Predict His Death? The Witness of Mark and John

Did Jesus Predict His Death? The Witness of Mark and John March 24, 2008

The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are viewed by many as having been written independently of one another. When they agree, it is potentially significant. They may disagree on whether Jesus predicted his resurrection in a way that could, at least in theory, be understood at the time, without the benefit of hindsight (more on that in a moment). But they agree on Jesus predicting his death – indeed, both have Jesus say three times that “the Son of Man must…” in connection with this.

Mark also adds Peter’s response to Jesus’ first such prediction: he rebukes him. Jesus then calls Peter “Satan” (Mark 8:31-33). It is unlikely that the church invented this story, but in order for it to be historical, Jesus must have predicted something that could have been controversial for Peter along these lines: death, suffering, rejection, or something of that sort at the very least. One can relate this as well to the vow at the last supper.

Mark plausibly situates the first passion prediction after John the Baptist had been killed, and immediately after it was mentioned that some thought Jesus was John the Baptist. As James Crossley pointed out in a comment on an earlier post of mine, there is nothing implausible about Jesus foreseeing death as at least a real possibility, in view of his mentor’s fate.

In light of this, John’s Gospel is revealing in some of its references to the resurrection. The temple saying is taken as a prediction of the resurrection, but only with the benefit of hindsight (John 2:19-22). And he mentions that on the Sunday after the crucifixion, John and Peter still had not understood from the Scriptures that Jesus would rise (John 20:9). Is the author not here acknowledging that the understanding that this was foreseen came from Scripture rather than from predictions that Jesus himself made?

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  • I would like to secretly think I piqued your interest on this topic w/my post a while back on the subject and got you going on it. 🙂 Anyway, I think you overlook the fact, esp. from a narrative point of view, that Jesus knew early on they were planning His death. This is spelt out clearly in Mk and Mt. There is no need to suggest that He predicted it when we are told that He heard others talking about it. Mk. repeatedly tells us of this.

  • Yes, it appears unlikely that Jesus predicted his bodily resurrection–although he likely did predict that his bodily death would not be the end of his existence. So, scriptures needed to be invoked to “demonstrate” that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was forseen.In the case of John 2:19-22, I think that the scriptural passage in mind in Amos 9:11-12.John 2:19-22 reads, “Answered Jesus, and said to them (i.e., the Jews), ‘Destroy this sanctuary (naon) and in three days I will raise (egerw) it.’ Said, then, the Jews, ‘This sanctuary (naos) was built (oikodomethe) in 46 years—and you will raise (egereis) it in three days?’ But that one was speaking about the sanctuary (naou) of his body. Therefore, when he was raised (egerthe) from the dead, his disciples remembered this that he was saying and the believed the scripture and the word which Jesus said.”Here, “the word which Jesus said” is this, “Destroy this sanctuary (naon) and in three days I will raise (egerw) it.”Here, “the scripture” means “the scriptural basis for the word which Jesus said”–but the scriptural passage(s) in mind is/are not clear.However, there are two considerations that might help us to find a primary scriptural passage behind the word of Jesus:1. The sanctuary (naos) was the inner part of Herod’s temple (hieron), the Holy Place accessible only to priests, and it corresponded to the wilderness skene (tent or tabernacle).2. In the saying by the Jews (i.e., “This sanctuary (naos) was built (oikodomethe) in 46 years—and you will raise (egereis) it in three days?”), “will raise (egereis) the sanctuary (naos) in three days” means, in effect, “will rebuild (anoikodomesw) it in three days.” (So, in the Gospel of John (p. 125), Rudolph Bultmann freely renders the last part of the “word” of Jesus as, “I will (re-) build it in three days!”)What these two considerations suggest is that the primary scriptural passage upon which the “word” of Jesus is based regards not the raising of a naos (sanctuary) but, rather, the rebuilding of a skene (tent/tabernacle).Indeed, there is a scriptural passage which does regard the rebuilding of a skene (tent/tabernacle)—and this is Amos 9:11-12 as rendered by Luke in Acts 15:16-18 , “I will rebuild (anoikodomesw) the skenen (tent/tabernacle) of David, the one having fallen, and the things of it having been torn down I will rebuild (anoikodomesw) and I will restore it, so that the ones remaining of men might seek out the Lord—and all the Gentiles upon whom my name has been invoked over them, says the Lord doing these things—known from the ages.”So, I propose, Amos 9:11-12, as rendered in Acts 15:16-18, is the scriptural passage which is the primary basis for the “word” of Jesus, i.e., the saying, “Destroy this sanctuary (naon) and in three days I will raise (egerw) it.” In this case, in John 2:19-22, the interpretation of Amos 9:11-12 is this:1. The Lord doing these things is Jesus and he is, as such, a pre-existent divine being “known from the ages”2. The skene (tent/tabernacle) of David is the naos (temple) and this, in turn, is the body of Jesus3. It is fallen in the sense that it has been “destroyed”, i.e., slain, by the Jews.4. It will be rebuilt in the sense that it will be raised up from the dead by the Lord, i.e., Jesus.The underlying thought appears to be that Jesus is a pre-existing divine being who became incarnate in the skene (tent/tabernacle) of David, i.e., in a fleshly body. Further, when his fleshly body was slain, he continued to exist and raised it from the dead in three days.Compare John 1:14a, “And the Word became flesh and eskenwsen (tented/tabernacled) among us.” That is to say, the Word, a pre-existent divine being, became incarnate in the skene (tent/tabernacle) of David, i.e., in a fleshly body.So, in John 2:19-22, we appear to have this interpretation of Amos 9:11:1. The “I” is Jesus as the pre-existent Logos2. The skene (tent/tabernacle) is the body of Jesus3. It is fallen in the sense that it has been slain by the Jews4. It will be rebuilt in the sense that it will be restored to life—being, thereby, raised up from the dead—by Jesus as the Logos.

  • Does it make sense to to pick apart dialog from the Gospels, especially private dialog given the likelihood that it was constructed later, if not out of whole cloth at least in detail? Wouldn’t this apply more so to John given how late it appears to have been written. Even given the “principle of embarrassment” often invoked with regards to the utter cluelessness of Peter and the disciples, great caution if not outright disbelieve is called for when handling specific utterances in these kinds of historical documents. In fact, the “cluelessness” is so pervasive that I would conjecture that it is a purposeful element introduced to serve a theological purpose by the authors’. In my humble view, breaking down each little verb used by Jesus in such-and-such an instance is at best a literary exercise and at worst sophistry but in any case removed from historical research.

  • Scott, you are certainly right that the kind of close reading Frank just attempted can hardly be claimed to prove what Jesus said or meant (though it may reveal important insights into what John meant!), but the principle of embarrasment is a good one. It is one thing for the Gospels to emphasize the “cluelessness” of the disciples – this could well be a literary device intended to make Jesus look better by contrast – but Jesus calling the leader of the early Church “Satan” is not something they would have invented.On the resurrection predictions more generally, I find it interesting that they all focus on three days; Matt. 12:40 even predicts “the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Yet the resurrection accounts are equally unanimous that Jesus’ tomb was empty on the morning of the second day after his crucifixion. Even if you count Friday as one day to get three, there is simply no way to cram three nights in without denying the explicit statements of the Gospels. Now, does it really make sense that the church created this prediction out of whole cloth, but couldn’t even be bothered to count the days properly? Unless Jesus himself actually did say something about “three days,” why would the church have invented it?

  • Thanks, Ken, for the comment. The one thing I’d point out is that Matthew alone interprets the sign of Jonah as involving Jesus being ‘in the belly of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights’. Personally, I’m more inclined to view this as an instance of Matthew offering an additional parallel between Jesus and Jonah (and perhaps getting a bit carried away), although I suppose you could make the case that the earlier Gospels omitted this detail because it did not quite fit – but that still would leave one wondering why Matthew ever included it.

  • Matthew got carried away? Get out!