Did Jesus Predict His Death and Resurrection?

By Craig A. Evans

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 passion.

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 own vindication.

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.

R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972 [German original, 1921]), p. 152.

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 embarrassment.

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.


Published March 30, 2016