Baker Academic

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Did Jesus Predict His Death? - Le Donne

A good fellow named Ali asks:

Sir i want to ask you a question , please do answer.
Question : Are the predictions of Jesus about his own death the actual sayings of Jesus or attributed to him ?
E.P Sanders,Paula fredrickson say that they were put into the mouth of Jesus and are not the actual sayings of Jesus even Raymond Brown concurs the same.
Sir what is your view on this.
My answer:
Dear Ali,

Please call me "Anthony". Dr. Keith likes to be called "Big Daddy Pain", but I'm sure that he'd be fine with "Sir Big Daddy Pain" if you must. I’ll let him answer for himself if he’d like, but here are my two cents:

I tend to be less skeptical when it comes to the death predictions. I think it is quite possible that Jesus saw the end coming. I remember Dr. Evans suggesting in class once that one need not see anything supernatural in these predictions. Something to consider if you’re the type of person who associates everything that looks supernatural with literary invention.

This is interesting to me because I just lost a very dear friend and mentor. He was in his 70’s, highly intelligent, and thoroughly modern in his worldview. He was a licensed marriage and family therapist. Toward the end, he was deteriorating quite quickly due to post-polio syndrome (he had lived with this condition since his teen years).  I was by his bedside when the doctor told him that he might have several months, maybe even years left. The doctor said that he had no reason to give up hope. But he knew better. A couple days later (it was a Tuesday) he told his wife, “Dear, I’m going to die on Friday.” Sure enough, he passed exactly when he predicted. I don’t know what to make of this story, but I know that it isn’t literary invention. He definitely said it and it happened just as he said.

My point: sometimes people just know; so maybe Jesus just knew.  Moreover, people wanted to kill Jesus, so he had a greater reason to be thinking along these lines.  Does anyone else have an opinion about this?



  1. It is possible, I think, that Jesus would have foreseen his death in the way any would-be martyr would.

    However, I think it goes with Mark's picture of Jesus.

  2. Jesus predicting his death and the Gospels reporting that don't seem to be the problem, so much as Jesus attributing a salvific effect to his death, and also predicting that he would be resurrected after three days. Those two other things seem to be the reason for why Jesus' predictions are doubted as authentic, because they go beyond just a man recognizing when others have set out to kill him, to having (according to the Gospel narratives) some kind of prophetic knowledge about his death and that it would be undone.

  3. These are the last few lines of the speech that MLK Jr gave on the night before he was assassinated.... "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about a thing. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

    1. Thank you for this Brian, very interesting.

  4. Anthony, I'd argue that a middle ground is also possible. Perhaps Jesus spoke with some concern for his safety and his fate as he approached Jerusalem with his disciples. After all, Roman-occupied Jerusalem was a dangerous place to be during the Passover holiday. Perhaps his disciples felt concerned for Jesus' safety, and interpreted what Jesus said as a prediction of trouble to come. And perhaps after his death, his followers remembered how they had reacted to what Jesus had said, and they came to the not unreasonable conclusion that Jesus had predicted his own death.

    As you argue, it's not always a case of either Jesus said it, OR the church invented it. This strikes me as a case where both factors may well have been present.

  5. Some of the language about Jesus' future death, betrays some semantic artistry. Jesus say, might have said he would be "lifted up" soon. What did that mean?

    Did it originally mean 1) Jesus expected to be advanced, or elevated to the throne of the earthly kingship of Jerusalem? (In place of Herod, the collaborator). Or 2) did apostles, in retrospect, trying to topspin unfortunate events, decide Jesus must have meant that Jesus would be lifted up on a cross, and killed? And thus elevated as an ideal martyr?

    The biblical text on this, often acknowledged that at first, Jesus' words meant one thing to the apostles; but then meant something different, in retrospect. So it is worth asking: was Jesus hinting at his death originally? Or was that meaning read in, later?

    In my opinion the original traditional language was likely that of a good Jew, expecting to be advanced to an earthly kingship. But when this heir apparent was killed, this conventionally expectant language was semantically topspun by Paul and other Platonists. To express the new apologetics notion that physically dying was somehow, a triumph; an elevation that removes us from this crass material world. A martyrdom of the flesh, that saves others.

    - Brettongarcia/"Anonymous"

    1. Dear Brettongarcia/"Anonymous",

      I think you bring some important questions to the table... I'm not quite sure what you mean by "a good Jew" here. I have heard this phrase in several contexts, often as a good-natured moniker for being "observant" in some way. But I have never heard it used of a Jewish leader who aspires to be king, as you suggest. This is a very odd way to refer to Jesus in this context.


    2. One who was observant of more conventional Jewish expectations. For an earthly kingdom; probably centered in Jerusalem.

      The rather contrary idea - of physical death as a victory for, elevation of, the spirit - I would read as more Platonistic/Hellenistic. A reading of "raised up" that is more Hellenistic than - better phrased - traditional Jewish expectations. As exemplified say, by the Old Testament.

    3. I think that your idea of what was "traditionally Jewish" during this time and place requires much more nuance - but I think I take your meaning well enough. thank you


    4. Personally, for various reasons, I myself actually prefer the more physical/literal side of the "kingdom." Since this reading of the Bible is compatible with science.

      Granted, it's been thought that Jewish thought contains many more elements than the political or physicalistic definition of the "kingdom" for example. Specifically many Hellenistic and/or spiritual ideas are now commonly attributed to ancient Jewish mysticism and so forth.

      However? For various (practical) reasons of simiplicity, and common reference, I - and many scholars - take the Old Testament as definitive of at least, say, much of conservative reflections on Jewish thought. And they take its views on the Kingdom to be rather literal, and physical. As say Paul typified them?

      So that? The possiblity of being "raised" up to a kingship, could have been meant becoming a literal king. Of an earthly kingdom. And curiously? The very equivocal, parabolic language attributed to Jesus himself (in at least gJohn), is open to this reading.

      Even being "lifted up." Likewise even the "sign of Jonah" is rather ambiguous; and does not unequivocally read as a return from death. Since Jonah did not die in the belly of the whale, for example. And Jonah saw other signs.

      All in all, the language of the NT seems to deliberately eqivocate around the issue of whether Jesus predicted his own death.

      Shouldn't we at least honor the text's own equivocations?

    5. Brett (if I may),

      You continue to appeal to "Jewish thought" and "conservative reflections on Jewish thought" as if there was some monolithic ideology that represents Judaism - or perhaps by appealing to Hellenism, you're supposing that there were two kinds of Judaism... again, you are in dire need of some nuance here.

      Political stances/ideologies in Judaism(s) circa Jesus and Paul were quite complex. Bifurcations like Jewish vs. Hellenistic Jewish are of almost no value when put forth simplistically. Moreover, you seem to underplay the probability that the "Old Testament" is not a unified voice representing any single group within Judaism and was probably not a closed canon circa Jesus/Paul.

    6. As a PhD cultural historian, I'd have to disagree with your view. Which I recognize as currently quite popular in your field. But popular as it is, it does not hold up.

      Many people of course, have for millennia have self-identified themselves as "Jews"; a separate group that defined itself in distiction, Saussurian/Derridaian "differance" to other groups (Romans, etc.) These identity groups, the definition of one group by way of the exclusion of others, is typical of nations, races, peoples, tribes. As sociology and anthropology confirm.

      Were there many crossovers and variations? Of course there were. However, no group or nation can sustain itself as a coherent tribe, nation, or kingdom, without various central texts, initiation rituals, and so forth. To fail to see this larger coherence, is to fail to see the forest, for the trees.

    7. Thank you, this was the nuance I was looking for.


  6. Anthony, you know full well that I only go by "Big Daddy Pain" when I make my annual appearances on the semi-professional wrestling circuit.

    Whether Jesus said those exact words is one thing; whether he could have foreseen his death and predicted it is another. I see no reason why Jesus couldn't have foreseen his death and predicted it.

    1. I agree Jesus might reasonably have deduced a fairly high probability of his own execution, for say "blasphemy."

      However? The other more interesting and important question is: did he do so?

      In this case, his exact and original words are important.

      The text of John (albeit a late text) especially seems to be playing semantic, coy, evasive games with the meaning of semantically equivocal phrases like "lifted up" (John 3.14, 8.28, 12.32-4). Other gospels also get quite equivocal around the exact meaning of such phrases; especially in the words attributed to Jesus himself. This suggests that in much - if not all - of the Bible, Jesus did not want to commit itself to the view that Jesus foretold his own execution.

      Others around Jesus to be sure, often said many things about him, and seem to show Jesus predicting crucifixion. But his own words, as opposed to the accounts of others, are often thought to be of central importance. And those words are in John's "lifted up" meme, quite, quite studiously equivocal. Jesus in John, does not seem unequivically committed in his language to a crucifixion at all.

      This equivocal/"poetic"/polysemic style - and equivocal theology as well - is typical of the New Testament in general. Where many phrases have two possible meanings.

      Much as, I would suggest, LeDonne's use of the term "History."

      Such polysemic language is considered by many to be the higher, theological language. Which allows for many readings, and not just one. And though the "spiritual" meaning is generally considered higher and better, the material reading - in this case the expectation of physical kingship - remains open. In Jesus himself. Insofar as we could briefly reconstruct him here.

  7. Thanks for replying .It is indeed an honor to talk to you and to address you as sir .

    It is the first time that iam talking to a Biblical Scholar of such repute,though i have read books written by scholars i have never talked to anybody .Thank you once again.

    The comments on this blog are also informative.Sir i got your point on the question i raised.

    What about the 'sign of Jonah' and other 'rising on 3 day' prophecies that Jesus alluded to , are they again his sayings?

  8. Or: Jesus predicted he'd suffer and die as a martyr in the fast-approaching end times tribulation and would be vindicated by God in the general resurrection, and these predictions were rewritten in light of the crucifixion and belief in his individual resurrection.

  9. It seems the crew knew they were in imminent danger:

    Thomas, nicknamed the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let's go, too -- and die with Jesus." -- John 11:16

    So it was obvious to them (who were often oblivious) that death awaited Jesus.

    But as mentioned above, predicting one's death isn't as astonishing as predicting and fulfilling the prediction of one's resurrection.

    1. Actually?

      1) There is much literary ambiguity in this very passage. First, regarding death itself; John 11.11 ff. Jesus tells us that Lazarus "has fallen asleep." Then the apostles need to ask for clarification.

      2) Things are so ambiguous, that Jesus next decides it is necessary to say "plainly" that Lazarus is dead. But then note that the text remains radically ambiguous. In the RSV, note,Jesus is not speaking of his own death; but that of Lazarus. When Thomas says he wants to follow, he means follow the death of Laz, not Jez.

      That's how it is in most translations. In the RSV for example: "'Let us also go, that we may die with him.'" The referent of the pronoun being clearly Thomas, not Jesus.

      The language of the New Testament is radically polysemic or equivocal; especially on the matter of death and resurrection. And even occasional bouts of "plain" speaking, alternate with language so confusing, that your own cited translation of John 11.16 comes out entirely different from say, the Revised Standard Version, and most others.

      And ambiguous as it is? It is hard to say just exactly what is it predicting, after all. Or say what kind of "resurrections" we are talking about. The language regarding "resurrections" mentions ten or fifteen possible types.

    2. In sum? The Bible as we have it today - especially the New Testament - is a radically equivocal text. Full of complex and studiously ambiguous words. To the point that it is impossible to pin its meaning down. Finally because of that, we cannot be sure even of core doctrinal elements of CHristianity. For example: 1) did Jesus foretell his own crucifixion? And 2) what kind of "kingdom" were were promised. And 3) what were we promised, when were were promised a "resurrection."

      Regarding the "Kingdom": were we promised an actual,fairly conventional, earthly kingdom? Or was all that just a spiritual metaphor; promising us a spiritual "state" of mind say. The OT often spoke of literal kingdoms, headed by literal kings like David and so forth. So likely Jesus, when he promised us a "kingdom," would have meant a physical material kingdom. And his place in it, would be "lifted up" to the throne, to become a fairly conventional king. So that Jesus was promising a real kingdom ... which he simply failed to deliver.

      To be sure, the "lifted up" language we have today is studiously ambiguous; many interpreted /interpolated it, as referring to being lifted up in crucifixion; the spirit leaving our corrupting flesh. But in that case,the Bible becomes quite contradictory and "double." We have for example, two exactly opposite readings of the promised "kingdom": 1) a physical triumph, becoming king over a real state; or 2) total physical defeat, and physical death. Now presented as a kind of alleged triumph of its own.

      Most scholars believe Jesus, coming from the New Testament traditions (roughly), must have proposed a literal kingdom; but his language was quickly made ambiguous by later scholars, in light of the failure of that dream. Jesus being killed c. 33 AD; Jerusalem burned to the ground in 70 AD.

      Or to be sure, perhaps there IS an in-between position: perhaps Jesus himself understood nuance and finesse. Perhaps indeed Jesus himself was a rather Hellenized, Platonized, proto-gnostic Jew. And he thought of, considered both possibilities. (As Philo might).

      It's hard to say though, what the Bible is finally promising. The NT is so radically polysemic, equivocal, we can't even tell death, from life.

      When Lazarus for example is said to have died, and then is said to have been raised, it is not even certain he was ever even physically dead. 1) The witnesses are perhaps unreliable; 2) Jesus says the kind of illness Lazarus had is not fatal; 3) then Jesus said Laz is just "sleeping." Suggesting 4) merely unconscious, or in a coma. Then 5) Jesus seems to say "plainly" that "Lazarus is dead." Yet does he mean physically dead, or spiritually "dead" somehow? While 6) this ambiguously "dead" person indeed, rises and walks.

      So can we rely on the Bible to firmly promise us anything at all? A kingdom, a resurrection? Finally I see the Bible as one of the first postmodern writings. The language of the Bible is so radically polysemic, as to decontruct itself, I might suggest here. Leaving us with nothing very firm at all. No really firm reliable prophesies; no firm kingdom; no unambiguous resurrection either.

      Just a bottomless web of words.

  10. I have also been told stories about my best friends grandmother who was currently in a nursing home. Her mental functioning is not quite present, but she is still able to engage with others. My friend and his mother were looking to buy a house in one of the neighborhoods in my town. There was one specific house that they took a liking to, but the grandmother said that she was having bad visions about the house and that she saw a dark figure in each of her visions. Due to the grandmothers visions, my friend's mother decided not to purchase the house. A couple weeks later, the house was inspected and they found that there was a carbon monoxide leak in the closets. It turns out that the room where the carbon monoxide leak was found, would have been the mother's room and right when she opened that closet she would have died. So I too believe that some people just know. There is no explaining how they do, but certain events like this one and Jesus' foretelling are unexplainable.

    1. Na. Carbon in the air makes the air look dark.

      - Anonymous/Brett

    2. I'm not a simple naturalist though; in my own version of religious science, I'd note that your friend's grandmother was at least partially right. She saw darkness in the house; the house was occupied by dark spirits or "pneuma" or bad air. And if she hadn't intuited this in some way, if she hadn't semi-consciously seen the darkness in the air and avoided it, she might have been killed.

      In my understanding of religion, religion is true; just true in a way that most people have not been able, until now, to fully understand.

      - Brett