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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