Did Jesus Foresee, Plan, and/or Interpret His Own Death?

Did Jesus Foresee, Plan, and/or Interpret His Own Death? February 28, 2013

Did Jesus foresee his own death coming and interpret it beforehand? The opinions on this tend to be divided largely into two camps: conservative Christians who will say “Of course Jesus knew, he was God,” and others, including historians, who will say that, while Jesus might well have suspected that he might meet a fate similar to his mentor John the Baptist, as a human being he wouldn’t have and couldn’t have known.

I wonder whether there isn’t a third option, one that treats Jesus as a historical human being, but takes seriously some pieces of evidence which suggest that Jesus understood his death as necessary, and perhaps even took steps to allow it to occur or to provoke it.

What evidence do I have in mind?

There are several pieces. The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur? It seems unlikely. But the scene makes no sense if Jesus does not believe that he must under go something traumatic.

There is also the nazirite vow that Jesus is recorded as having made at the last supper, vowing abstinence from grape products until he drinks with the disciples again in the kingdom of God. That is a saying that understandably drops out of the tradition as it evolved into the Lord’s Supper, since it made no sense on the lips of Christians practicing the ritual regularly. On the lips of the historical Jesus it can mean only one of two things (and perhaps both). He believes either that he will die soon, or the kingdom will dawn immediately. He does not envisage following the normal course with such a vow, of abstaining from grape products for a particular time period and then undergoing the ritual of ending the vow.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has pointed out that, had Jesus wanted to escape arrest when on the Mount of Olives, he could easily have seen any party coming across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem and made his escape in the other direction. The only plausible explanation for his arrest seems to be that he embraced what was happening.

There are other details one might discuss as evidence – for instance, the incident where Jesus calls Peter “Satan” has often been felt to be an unlikely invention by the early church – even in the context of Mark’s depiction of the disciples as bungling, inept, and uncomprehending. And the context of that is his teaching that he must suffer and die. But that and some of the other additional pieces of evidence are less clear cut than the ones I mentioned earlier.

Jesus might have believed himself to be the Messiah son of David, but that as such, he needed to die rather than kill. Or perhaps he believed only that he would bleed and suffer, and that allowing the Romans to do that to him would provoke God’s intervention and bring the dawn of the kingdom? It is hard to be specific here, just as it is impossible to know for certain how Jesus might have drawn such a conclusion – although it can be fascinating to try to come up with something plausible. But however much we may be unable to piece together, it is worth considering whether the evidence we do have leads to the conclusion that Jesus may have either known what Judas would do, or even intended it. His action in the temple could also be understood as an attempt to provoke his own arrest.

What do others think? Is it possible that Jesus, as a human figure in history, believed his own death or suffering was a necessary event in the unfolding of the dawn of the kingdom of God? If so, might he have made arrangements that allowed it to happen, and/or taken steps to provoke it?

In concluding, I should ask how this relates to yesterday’s post on the saying about taking up one’s cross? I don’t think it changes anything I wrote about that particular saying. But that depends on when (if at all) one concludes that Jesus reached the views I’ve suggested about his impending death, and when if at all one thinks he uttered those words. What do readers of this blog think?


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  • As teachers of knowledge, don’t you ever get frustrated with your students, thinking that they’ll never learn the material and thus, throw up your hands and say, “I quit!”

    • I try to avoid calling them “Satan” under such circumstances, personally.

  • Susan Burns

    If Jesus was a Nazirite Nazorean, when did he cut his hair?

    • If he made the vow at the last supper, as per the Gospels, and then was arrested and executed in the following hours or days, I suspect that he would not have needed to give thought to the matter of not cutting his hair during that brief period.

      • Susan Burns

        But then, what about drinking the wine? Doesn’t the wine come after the cutting of the hair?

        • A nazirite vow means making a vow (usually a vow to do something) and vowing neither to cut one’s hair or have contact with grapes until one has fulfilled it. The vow at the last supper is odd since it seems to not specify what he is vowing to do, and there is thus no normal end to the period of the vow either. And so its whole point seems to be that there will be a period of time and then Jesus will drink with the disciples in the kingdom of God.

          • Susan Burns

            There are nazirites for life and nazirites for specified periods of time when he separates himself from the rest of the community (40 days in the wilderness?). The nazirite is celebate, fasts, does not bathe, wears sac cloth, does not drink wine and does not cut their hair. After the period of separation is over, he is ritually purified including cutting hair. The hair is then deposited in the temple. The ritual purification is just as important as the separation. Without the purification, there is no difference between a nazirite and a hobo:) Jesus’ plan to drink wine with the disciples implies that he planned to complete his nazirite vow. This plan was interrupted by his execution; therefore, his crucifixion was not planned.

            We also know that there would not have been a metaphorical purification in the Kingdom of God because there are not any sharp metal tools, metaphorical or otherwise. Solomon’s temple was built without using sharp metal implements because, the Sage’s say, there are none in Heaven. Memorial stones are set up without the use of metal implements – YHWH commands it. Perhaps the original temple was more akin to Gilgal Harephaim? Gilgal Harephaim may also have been the impetus for the vision of the demented prophet who called himself Ezekiel.

          • I don’t know of another instance of a person allegedly being a nazirite for life than in the story of Samson, and even then he isn’t a particularly faithful one, and who knows whether there was any historical figure behind any of those legends? And so I don’t see the issue that you are trying to get at in your comments. The point in the story about Jesus is the making of the vow, and the point in my post is that Jesus made the vow not showing any sign of anticipating it having the normal features of duration and ending. Instead, it serves simply as indicative of an expectation that either his death or the dawn of the kingdom or both were imminent.

          • Susan Burns

            Halakha of the Nazarite is documented in the Mishna and Talmud. Their names may not be known but; Amos 2:11–12 says “And I raised up some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as nazirites; is this not so, O children of Israel? says the Lord” .
            Jesus DID portend completing the vow because he anticipated a future date when he would drink wine with his disciples. This is a sign that the vow would be completed. The laws regarding this are very clear in tractate Nazir. BTW, an historical figure that took the Nazarite vow was the tutor of Josephus. A legendary Nazarite for life was John the Baptist.

            I don’t understand how you can say Jesus did not show any sign of his vow having the normal ending? What else could the drinking of wine signify?

          • What I meant is that the drinking of wine indicates that the ending of the vow was not envisaged as occurring in the world or life as human beings currently know it, but in the kingdom of God. We can only speculate about whether Jesus thought that in the kingdom it would be necessary to undergo the purification ritual in a rebuilt temple.

          • Thinks

            It is hard to imagine any Israelite author making up a story of a faithless nazirite. Ergo, Samson was historical.

          • That’s a bizarre argument which (1) takes no account of the amount of time between when the story is set and the work in which it is recorded, meaning that we cannot realistically hope to ascertain crucial information about its context, unlike in the case of Jesus, and (2) seems to not have the slightest clue about the aims of the Deuteronomistic historian who authored/edited this material.

            If one were to take the relevant literary and historical considerations into account, then a workable argument from embarrassment would be what one can say about Omri. The Deuteronomistic historian cannot omit him altogether, but begrudgingly admits “the power that he showed” because the data was there and could not be denied, even though these details were uncomfortably at odds with what his viewpoint would have led him to expect. Even if we did not have other sources of information about Omri, we would therefore nevertheless be able to deduce his historicity.

  • Gary

    I think this, and the previous post about taking up the cross, is something that has to be viewed in light of 100-200AD in-fighting. The real answer, no one may ever know. But the later interpretations were set by the church fathers well after Jesus’s death. Some gnostics (not all) tried to explain it by writing that Judas and Jesus planned it ahead of time, thus the Gospel of Judas. About taking up the cross, this to me, is clearly a later addition by the church fathers, probably, as James said, yoke to cross. Although I tend to be influenced by whatever I read lately, Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospel”…

    “Tertullian, another fierce opponent of heresy”… (whenever heresy is mentioned, it ususally meant gnosticism)…”describes how the sight of Christians tortured and dying initiated his own conversion: he saw a condemned Christian, dressed up by Roman guards to look like the god Attis, torn apart alive in the arena; another, dressed as Hercules, was burned alive. He admits that he, too, once enjoyed “the ludicrous cruelties of the noonday exhibition”….”After his own conversion Tertullian, like Irenaeus, connected the teaching of Christ’s passion and death with his own enthusiasm for martyrdom: “You must take up your cross and bear it after your master…The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood.” Tertullian traces the rise of heresy directly to the outbreak of persecution….he says “This among Christians is a time of persecution. When therefore, the faith is greatly agitated and the church on fire…then the gnostics break out; then the Valentinians creep forth; then all the opponents of martyrdom bubble up…for they know that many Christians are simple and inexperienced and weak, and…”

    So my conclusions, if I lived in 100 AD and was a Christian, I’d be a gnostic, and not a follower of the “take up the cross” folks (unless it was totally symbolic). It appears for Tertullian, it was not symbolic. Tertullian reminds me of the dentist in “The Little Shop of Horrors”. I wouldn’t want to follow crazy people.

  • No answer here or yesterday seems to follow up from my suggestions that the psalms (and the prophets of course – and Torah) are the key to the mystery of the self-knowledge of Jesus. The cup – is an image in Psalm 75. Dead centre.

    As to the ‘he was God’ statement – if he was, he is, but if he was, then when he drank the cup, so did we. When the One who is the unity of all things died, so did we. But did he ‘know’? Yes though not because he was God (which is moot), but because he was an obedient human. (Hear the instruction to Mary: go to my kin and say to them: I ascend to … my God and your God). Such knowledge is not of the fortune-cookie variety..

    You may complain that my reasoning is theological not historical. What other reasoning is available to see into the mind of the human child of the first century who took the TNK seriously? All the necessary pieces are there.

    Perhaps our HJ is a rejected child (family problems with an adoptee) who had a bad period in his life (the parable of the prodigal son – see the play on prodigality in the psalms – very curious), and who settled down to a serious digging in the Scriptures after he came home to his family. (There – that’s the image in the bottom of my well).

    I wouldn’t want to be considered unreasonable.

  • Steven Carr

    If Jesus had done gazillions of things the early church found embarrassing, why did they worship him?