Did Jesus Predict His Violent Death and Resurrection?
By Craig A.
Throughout the twentieth century Gospel critics have frequently asserted
that Jesus' predictions of death and resurrection are vaticinia ex eventu,
formulated by the early church. Form critic Rudolf Bultmann accurately
summarized scholarly opinion of his day when he said that the "predictions of
the passion and resurrection . . . have long been recognized as secondary
constructions of the church."
The predictions to which Bultmann was referring are those found in the
Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; and parallels in Matthew and
Luke). It must be admitted that these predictions have been edited in the light
of the events that overtook Jesus. But there are very good reasons to believe
that Jesus did in fact anticipate his violent death and his vindication by
means of resurrection. Let us consider the evidence for Jesus' anticipation of
his violent death.
Anticipation of Violent Death
First of all, the fate of John the Baptist surely portended to Jesus his own
fate. The close association of Jesus and John is highly probable, so it is
reasonable to assume that in continuing John's proclamation of repentance and
the appearance of the kingdom of God, Jesus surely recognized his danger.
Indeed, in a saying evidently responding to threats emanating from Herod
Antipas, the tyrant who executed John, Jesus retorts, "Go and tell that fox,
'Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third
day I reach My goal. Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the
day; follow, for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of
Jerusalem'" (Luke 13:32-33, NASB). In the context of the Temple precincts,
where Jesus draws attention to John (see Mark 11:27-33), Jesus tells the
parable of the Wicked Vineyard Tenants (see Mark 12:1-12), implying that the
"son" of the vineyard owner (i.e., Jesus) will be murdered.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Jesus anticipated his death is
seen in the garden prayer, on the eve of his arrest, in which Jesus exhibits
his fear in view of impending events. Falling on his face, Jesus says: "Abba!
Father. All things are possible for you; remove this cup from Me; yet not what
I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36, NASB).
This short, pithy prayer is certainly authentic. It is difficult to imagine
why an early Christian would invent an utterance in which Jesus appears
frightened and reluctant to go to his death. One only need make
comparison with the serene and composed Jesus in the fourth Gospel, who with
the greatest dignity reviews with his heavenly Father the glory that they have
shared from all eternity (see John 17). A starker contrast with the anguished
synoptic prayer could not be imagined. Indeed, even in his death the Johannine
Jesus maintains this surreal calm and dignity, proclaiming from the cross, "It
is finished!" (John 19:30, NASB). The Johannine tradition thus documents the
ecclesiastical proclivity to portray Jesus in a more dignified and commanding
light. The synoptic garden prayer betrays no such tendency.
The Gospels also say that Jesus told his disciples to take up the cross and
come after him (see Mark 8:34). Jesus anticipates violent death. In view of
this grim fate can his disciples follow him? What is interesting here is that,
in a sense, Jesus himself fails to do what he taught his disciples. When the
time came to take up his cross, he could not do it; someone else carried his
cross (see Mark 15:21). The tension between the saying and what later actually
happens strongly argues for the authenticity of the saying, for post-Easter
fiction would have Jesus say something fully consistent with the events of the
There are also Jewish models of the suffering of the righteous, resulting in
benefit for the people of Israel. One thinks of the mysterious priest Taxo and
his seven sons, whose martyrdom precedes the appearance of the kingdom of God
and the demise of Satan (see Testament of Moses 9-10). The deaths of
the Maccabean martyrs are also remembered as clearing the way for Israel's
redemption (see 2 Macc 7:32-33).
In view of the evidence of the Gospels, which is clarified in important ways
by the religious context in which Jesus lived and ministered, it is quite
probable that Jesus at some point spoke of his violent death and tried to
explain its significance.
Anticipation of Resurrection
Did Jesus anticipate his resurrection? It is probable that he did. Once he
began speaking of his death, Jesus very likely began speaking of his
vindication through resurrection. Had he not anticipated it would have been
very strange, for pious Jews very much believed in the resurrection of the
dead. There are three factors that must be taken into account:
First, Jesus, like many Jews of his day, believed in the resurrection of the
last days (see Dan. 12:1-3; 1 Enoch 22-27; 92-105; Jub. 23:11-31; 4 Macc 7:3; 4
Ezra 7:26-42; 2 Bar. 21:23; 30:2-5; Josephus, J.W. 2.8.11 §154; 2.8.14
§165-166; Ant. 18.1.3-5 §14, §16, §18). Jesus defends the resurrection in his
reply to the Sadducees (see Mark 12:18-27). He tells his host at a dinner
party, "When you give a reception, invite the crippled, the lame, the blind,
and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you
will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:13-14, NASB).
Moreover, because Jesus believed the eschatological hour was at hand and that
the rule of God was beginning to be felt, he probably also believed that the
general resurrection itself was not far off. The same idea is attested in the
Dead Sea Scrolls, where Messiah and general resurrection are linked (see
4Q521). It is in this light that we should interpret Jesus' prediction of his
Second, Jesus' prediction of his resurrection "after three days" or "on the
third day" almost certainly was based on Hos 6:2, as reflected in the Aramaic
paraphrase. This is the product of the Aramaic-speaking, Scripture-interpreting
Jesus, not the Greek Scripture-reading, proof-texting Christian community after
Easter. Whereas the Hebrew reads: "He will revive us after two days; on the
third day he will raise us up that we may live before him" (and the Greek reads
similarly), the Aramaic reads: "He will give us life in the days of
consolations that will come; on the day of the resurrection of the dead he will
raise us up." Jesus presupposed the interpretive orientation reflected in this
later Aramaic paraphrase. He alluded to this passage in his expression of
confidence that he would be raised up "after three days" (or "on the third
day"), that is, "on the day of the resurrection of the dead," which given the
nearness of God's kingdom, must surely be at hand. This passage from Hosea is
nowhere actually quoted or paraphrased in the Gospels, which tells against
seeing it as a Christian proof text. Indeed, there is no indication that
the disciples fully understood Jesus' allusion and curious exegesis or were in
any way reassured by his prediction(s). Despite his assurances, his movement
lost its momentum.
Third, there is a strong tradition of pious Jewish martyrs who expect
vindication through resurrection after their violent and cruel deaths. This is
seen especially in 2 Maccabees 7 in the gruesome stories of the torture and
execution of the seven brothers, who refuse to violate the Mosaic Law. One of
the brothers angrily replies to Antiochus, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us
from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an
everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws" (v. 9). Another
brother warns the tyrant, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and
to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you
there will be no resurrection to life" (v. 14)! If these young men anticipated
resurrection, why would not Jesus?
The evidence taken as a whole supports the conclusion that Jesus did
anticipate his resurrection, perhaps as part of the general resurrection, and
that this resurrection would take place soon after his death. Much to the
surprise of his disciples, his resurrection indeed did take place, and "on the
third day" at that.
1 R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1972 [German original, 1921]), p. 152.
2 I invoke here the "criterion of
embarrassment," whereby it is understood that it is improbable that the early
church would invent material that would become the source of its own
3 See my study "Did Jesus Predict His Death and
Resurrection?" in S. E. Porter, M. A. Hayes, and D. Tombs (eds.),
Resurrection (JSNTSup 186; RILP 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)
82-97; cf. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:
Fortress, 2003) 409-11.
4 See J. W. van Henten, The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of
the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees (JSJSup 57; Leiden: Brill,
1997). See also J. W. van Henten and F. Avemarie, Martyrdom and Noble Death:
Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity (London and
New York: Routledge, 2002).
5 J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Christianity in
the Making 1; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 818-24.