This guest post was written Keenan Truffen. Not all views are necessarily the same as Zac’s.
If you have ever read the Gospels, you have most likely noticed that Jesus predicted His death. But what’s the historical evidence for this claim? My objective during this post is to show you that there is good evidence to show that Jesus actually did make these claims.
To investigate the historical evidence for Jesus’ predictions of His imminent death, we obviously most start from the verses that Jesus predicts His death.
The first (and most important verse) for investigating the New Testament claim that Jesus predicted death is Mark 8:31-33 which states:
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”Mark 8:31-33 (NIV)
This is a very important passage because as most of you would have noticed, directly after Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, Peter rebukes Jesus. Why is this important? Well in history, historians use many different methods of determining if something is historically authentic and in this passage, we see a clear example of something called the criterion embarrassment. This states that if an author reports something that is obviously embarrassing to them, then it gives the writing a high likelihood of being authentic. There are two very embarrassing statements in this passage and they are:
1.) Peter Rebukes Jesus. This is embarrassing because Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) eventually becomes a pillar of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9). If the author of Mark’s Gospel wanted to promote Christianity, then I don’t know about you, but to me, it wouldn’t look good knowing that the leader of the early church rebuked the very person who many considered God.
2.) After Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus quickly replies by saying “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:33). Anybody who reads this will notice two extremely embarrassing statements that Jesus makes towards Peter. The first is when Jesus calls Peter, Satan. This is obviously embarrassing because Jesus is calling the future leader of the church the exact person who Jesus came to save the world from. Second, Jesus tells Peter that He does not have concerns of God, but rather human concerns.
Another reason to take this verse as historical is because of the parallel texts in Mathew 16:21-23 and Luke 9:22. Although these authors most likely got this passage from Mark, this still makes this passage multiply attested. Lastly, we see that Jesus referring to himself as the “Son Of Man” which, believe it or not, was not something the early church described Jesus as. This significantly takes away from the probability that the author made up this passage.
So in summary, this passage contains three main ways scholars determine historical authenticity (Criterion of Embarrassment, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation).
The next passage comes from Jesus’ prediction of His death in Mark 9:31. This is probable because of the Aramaic original roots when the passage says ” The son of man will be handed over to the hands of men.” This shows that it is likely a pre-Markian saying. This passage also calls Jesus the son of man, which means that this falls under the criteria of early attestation. This is because it’s likely from a source from outside of Mark that Mark copied from. Also, dissimilarity is shown because of the callousness of the term Son Of Man.
Third, we have the last supper tradition. We first have Paul attesting to this in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, and Luke in Luke 22:15-20, which either Luke copied from Paul or Luke and Paul copied from the same source. The Gospel of Mark also has an independent account in Mark 14:22-24. All of these accounts show a close relation to Jesus’ predictions of His imminent death.
Lastly, we have Jesus’ prayer and discussion with the disciples at Gethsemane where he prays to the father so that He doesn’t need to be killed ( Mt. 26:36-45, Mk. 14:32-41, Lk. 22:39-46). The first reason this is embarrassing is because the early church believed that Jesus died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). It is easy for any reader to read this text and have the interpretation that Jesus actually DID NOT even want to die for our sins. This is a very bad look for the early church in my eyes. Another reason this is embarrassing is because many times in the same Gospels, Jesus tells the disciples that if they want to become His disciples they must pick up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34-38). This is also embarrassing because many Jewish people in history were said to have stayed calm and faithful to God before their martyrdom such as in 2 Maccabees 7 where seven brothers were tortured for not submitting to authorities who opposed Jewish tradition. Christians also would likely know about Paul who many times according to him was persecuted but stayed true to His beliefs.
We also must add that considering that the gospels (or at least Mathew, Luke, and John), were written after 65 AD, as most scholars would agree with. As a result, we must add that Christians would likely have been aware of when in 64 AD, Nero persecuted many Christians to the point of using them as torches and wrapping Christians up in fresh animal skins so they would be eaten by dogs. Many Christians like the apostle Paul and Peter were likely martyred at this time, and most likely stayed true to Christ if Acts was right about how they responded to persecution. So as a result these texts show the criteria of embarrassment because Jesus’ own followers were calmer than him and multiple attestations. As a result, this is most likely authentic when it implies Jesus knew about His imminent death, because the authors had every reason not to make up these verses if Jesus never made these claims.
In summary, there are many verses in the New Testament that appear to be historical for numerous reasons. My argument can be largely summarized like this.
- The predictions of Jesus’ death are highly attested in every Gospel and Paul’s writings, therefore giving the Jesus predictions of His death, the status of being multiply attested
- Many of the accounts of Jesus’ death, like Mark 8:31 or Jesus prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-41), appear to be highly embarrassing to the early church because it makes either the leaders of the early Church look bad or even worse make Jesus, the LEADER OF THE HOLE MOVEMENT, look bad because He didn’t follow His own teachings! This makes it extremely doubtful that these verses were made up by the early church because all it does in demote their case.
- We also encounter the criterion of dissimilarity because, in most of these passages, Jesus calls himself the son of man which in the early church was never used. This means that if anybody were to make these passages up, they would likely not have used Son Of Man as Jesus’ identity. we also have some of these passages appearing to have Aramaic parallels meaning there were likely earlier sources these authors we taking from because the NT was written in Greek.
- Next, we have early attestation. Many of the sources such as Paul’s account of the last supper comes from at most a few decades after Jesus. he also likely got this from the eyewitness’ themselves who encountered the last supper when he visited the Jerusalem apostles in Galatians 1-2, meaning that this could date to within a couple of years of the last supper itself. If it’s not that early, it’s still likely from the eyewitnesses themselves!!!
- Jesus’ predictions show very little evidence of the Authors changing the texts to fit the early church’s own desires meaning they don’t look like a made-up saying of Jesus would look like.
- Therefore these passages are most likely authentic.
Answering the objections from skeptics:
- Objection (1): For Jesus to have predicted His death, that would imply the supernatural but the supernatural doesn’t exist.
- Response: Of course when somebody brings up an objection such as this, most of the time it’s just a blunt denial of the supernatural. For most Christians, this objection is very weak because as Christians (assuming most of you are Christians) we believe there is a supernatural power. So to get over this barrier you could give them reasons to believe in miracles by telling them about healings, answered prayer or even other prophesies in the bible that can’t be dismissed. You can also advise them to a book on miracles by Lee Strobel or if they want to drown in the content you can tell them about Craig Keener’s 2 volume book on miracles. After they read the book or even watch a lecture of two by these authors, ask them what they think of the supernatural after they read the book and maybe they will have to change their mind. If not, then you can tell them of the many reasons the early church would not have made up these verses. Another approach you could take is simply to tell them that Jesus’ predictions of His death don’t need the supernatural. In my view, Jesus predicting his imminent death isn’t that much of a crazy claim considering that at this point there were already people very upset with Jesus and His teachings many already wanted to kill him and its unlikely Jesus didn’t know this. As a result, this claim that Jesus predicted His death does not require the supernatural.
- Objection (2): The early church decided to make up that Jesus predicted His death after he was killed to harmonize these events.
- Response: This objection seems reasonable at first glance but when we consider that the passages that the early church gives about Jesus’ predictions of His death, they are highly embarrassing. If the early church was making up the fact that Jesus predicted His death then its almost certain that the passages the speak of Jesus death predictions would look very much like this:
- ”For I Jesus will be handed over to the authorities and be crucified under Pontius Pilate and rise from the dead on the third day.” As Peter approached Jesus, he said, “Oh Lord, we all accept that you will be killed and I will preach this to the gentiles on how you will die.” Jesus replied, “Oh Peter you are a holy man and you deserve to be the leader of the Christian church” (the made-up version).
- This would look very good for the early church but what the scripture actually says looks terrible for the church when it says.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
So when we look through a historical lens, it’s almost impossible to believe that the early church would have made up these verses considering that these passages couldn’t have gotten any more embarrassing for the early church.
So when anybody makes the claim that the early church made up these verses, all you have to do is ask them: 1) Why would the early church make up these passages, 2) If they were made up then why are the passages so embarrassing to the early church, and 3) Why are they multiply attested to the point where almost every source that highly speaks about Jesus talks about the predictions, if it was just made up?
Objection (3): The disciples failed to realize that Jesus rose from the dead after His death.
To most people, it seems weird that if Jesus predicted His death and resurrection then it’s extremely odd to see that Jesus’ own followers would forget about these claims and believe that somebody had stolen the body (John 20:2), or even the fact that they were shocked when He appeared to them (Luke 24:37-43). But after further investigation, we realize that there are actually many explanations for this odd response by the disciples
Explanation (1): The belief of a dying and rising messiah was non-existent in ancient Jewish culture. As a result, when Jesus told them that He would die, and then rise, in their Jewish mindset, they would most likely not understand what he truly meant. As a result, they most likely would have been in denial considering how much of a disappointment this would be compared to the messiah they wished would come and destroy the Roman Empire and redeem the line of Abraham.
Explanation (2): Jesus’ disciples likely would have believed that when Jesus predicted His resurrection He was just talking about the general resurrection that would happen at the end times. This means that they wouldn’t have expected Jesus to resurrect directly after His death, meaning they would be upset about Jesus’ death, and not expect to see Him rise just as we see in the gospels
Explanation (3): Jesus’ predictions of His death were very vague and only some of the disciples believed that they were truly about His death. After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples came to realize that Jesus truly did predict His death, then when the early church wrote the gospels, they couldn’t think of any other interpretation of these passages.
Explanation (4): The disciples refused to believe that Jesus was serious when he made these statements so they decided to reinterpret them among themselves after Jesus said them. As a result, they could continue to believe Jesus would be the powerful messiah they had hoped to have.
Another problem with this objection is the fact that if Jesus never predicted His death, this therefore implies that the early church made up the claim that Jesus predicted His death. But as we have seen, there are many reasons such as embarrassment, multiple attestation, and dissimilarity. So when someone makes this objection they must give you a strong reason why the early church would “Make Up” passages that embarrass their own cause instead of making positive passages.
Lastly, even if Jesus’ followers did fully understand when Jesus predicted His death we would still expect them to react the way they did. Imagine for yourself if someone you know told you that after they die they will rise from the dead. Would you believe them? Probably not. Even if you did believe the person, it’s expected for you to be shocked after they actually resurrect.
So overall, there are many reasons why we would even expect the disciples to act the way they did if Jesus predicted His death and resurrection. So therefore, this objection holds very little weight under serious historical investigation.
- Objection (4): Jesus survived His Crucifixion so even if He did predict His death, it was a false prediction. The obvious problem with this theory is that according to all historical and medical examination, all the evidence supports that Jesus was indeed dead. Here are some quick reasons to believe that Jesus was indeed dead on the cross.
- All of our earliest sources report that Jesus was dead (the 4 Gospels, Paul, Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar serapion, Lucian, the apostolic church fathers such as Polycarp and Clement of Rome, and Paul even tells us that the disciples themselves preached Jesus death).
- There is no account in all of history of someone surviving a FULL crucifixion. The only survival is when Josephus reports that 3 men were taken off the cross then given Rome’s best medical help, but even then 2 still died. But there is no evidence Jesus was taken down early, and even more importantly given Rome’s best medical support. Even if he did get Rome’s best medical help (even though all possible evidence we could possibly have directly contradicts that claim), then He would still have at least a 66 percent probability of dying.
- The American Medical Association has done a study stating that Jesus’ death by Crucifixion is medically a fact and that the belief that He survived is against ALL modern medical knowledge.
- There is no evidence He survived crucifixion, so there’s no reason to believe He survived. If anybody wants to say Jesus survived, then He/She must carry the burden of proof because of the lack of evidence for the claim and the extraordinary evidence for the claim that He was killed.
So as Christians we have very good reasons to believe that Jesus predicted His imminent death. When someone asks you what the evidence is that Jesus predicted His death, what are you gonna say?
BTW, if you can use this evidence to convince a Muslim that Jesus predicted His imminent death, then you can use something that I call the Islamic Jesus-Death dilemma which states:
- Jesus predicted that He would be killed.
- the Quran states Jesus did not die.
- So if Jesus did not die, then Islam is false because Muslims believe Jesus had no false teachings
- But if Jesus did die then Islam is false because the Quran states that Jesus did not die.
- So either way, Islam is false
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