Over and over in the Gospels, we read that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. Like Babe Ruth, he called his own shot. This prediction may have fallen on deaf ears, but nevertheless, his disciples should not have been surprised on the first Easter. Yet critical historical Jesus scholars tell us that he never really said those things. These were sayings put in Jesus’ mouth after belief in the resurrection.
It’s a bit like the story of George Washington admitting to cutting down the cherry tree. It probably never happened even if you did hear it in elementary school. This fun little story was projected backward to make Washington look like he was a person of great honesty even as a lad.
Rudolf Bultmann was a famous liberal theologian in the early 20th century who exemplifies this view. He definitely didn’t believe in the resurrection. He said these prediction passages were “secondary constructions of the church.” I mean, if you dismiss the resurrection, then, of course, you’re gonna reject these prophecies. Seems like a given. Yet the rejection of these passages is way too hasty. Let’s talk about why. First, let’s talk about the criterion of embarrassment and why it’s relevant to the discussion.
What is the criterion of embarrassment?
The criterion of embarrassment is a handy tool that helps historians determine the truthfulness of historical accounts. The basic idea is this: when people lie, embellish, or make stories up, they normally do not include material that causes them to lose credibility. People tend to be reluctant to talk about the time they lost that fight, or when they made a fool of themselves at a party. And when they do, we usually know they’re being honest.
Human nature was the same then as it is now. Great historical figures normally don’t admit to embarrassing details. So when they do, historians ears perk up, because now we’re getting to historical bedrock.
One of the more hilarious examples of this is when Napoleon and his men were on a rabbit hunt and got attacked. By the rabbits who they were going to hunt for sport. Instead of running the bunnies went Monty Python on Napoleon and his company. After putting up a fight, Napoleon eventually had to retreat. (Apparently, Napoleon didn’t have access to the Holy Hand Grenade.) The story comes from the Memoirs of Baron Thiébault, who was one of Napoleon’s lieutenants.
Historians believe this rather hysterical story is true because well…it’s downright embarrassing. While the Gospels don’t have any stories about Jesus’ disciples running from killer bunnies, they have some embarrassing details. And it’s right around Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection:
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. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”
Peter was kind of a big deal in the church. He was an apostle and considered to be one of the Big Three along with James the brother of Jesus and John. Here we have a story about Jesus predicting his death and resurrection. And Peter’s response to try and straighten out…um…Jesus? How did that work out for him? Jesus wheeled around and called him Satan. He did not get a gold star for his concern for his teacher that day.
According to the early church father Papias, Peter’s very own preaching was a big source for Mark. So it’s likely that this story came straight from Peter himself. This isn’t copping to cutting down a cherry tree, this is downright humiliating. So by the criterion of embarrassment, this event isn’t likely a fabrication.
But we can go even further.
Some undesigned yet interconnected details in the Gospels
In John 2:18-21, we read about the table-flipping, whip-cracking Jesus cleansing the Temple. Jesus was asked to perform a sign to prove that he had authority to go ham as he did. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
John goes on to say:
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.”
Now critics think John is almost pure fiction. I don’t, but I won’t get into that here. Jesus doesn’t say anything about him raising the temple in three days in the synoptic gospels. Yet we read in Matthew in Mark this saying comes back in Jesus’ trial. Here’s Matthew:
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally, two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”
Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?”
In other words, this Jesus guy…yeah, he’s a terrorist. This isn’t likely a total fabrication because they could have made it sound a lot worse. Why would the witnesses say he’d rebuild it? Why not just accuse him of destroying it? And what’s this “3 days” stuff? That’s rather specific, isn’t it?
Jesus knew that what he said after cleansing the Temple would be hard to understand. But these witnesses twisted things to make him out to be a crazy revolutionary terrorist.
Matthew leaves out a bit of interesting info that raises some questions about where this claim came from. John comes along and incidentally answers the question raised by Matthew. This filled-in detail doesn’t come across planned or forced, it’s just there. Scholars called things like this “undesigned coincidences“. There are dozens of them in the gospels that are worth looking at. And we have one big one right smack where Jesus is predicting his resurrection.
That Jesus didn’t predict his resurrection is an unjustified conclusion
If you start with the assumption that Jesus hasn’t risen, then, of course, Jesus you’re going to say that didn’t predict his resurrection. But we have it these statements repeated in the gospels over and over. (Matthew 12:38-40, Matthew 16:1-4, Matthew 17:23, Matthew 20:19, Mark 10:33, Luke 9:22, Luke 11:29-30)
We have Peter getting the “get thee behind me Satan” treatment in one instance. That’s massively embarrassing and could have undercut Peter’s authority. Yet it’s told because it’s likely true. And we have the undesigned coincidence in Jesus’ trial. John incidentally fills in an otherwise puzzling detail from Matthew. And it turns out to be a resurrection prediction from the mouth of Jesus.
For these two big reasons, the whole “Jesus never said that” charge doesn’t seem to stand up.
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. Other interesting stuff about Erik: He’s a baseball nerd. His baseball writing has been published in ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com and has been mentioned in the WSJ. He’s a web designer by day and is the co-owner of a small decor business with his wife. He’s a dad of four and lives in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He’s passionate about the intersection of evangelism, apologetics and the local church.