Mark 8:31, continued
“…that it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to suffer many (thing)s”
As discussed in the previous note, this first Passion-prediction by Jesus marks the beginning of the second half of the Synoptic Gospel narrative. The first main section of the second half of the narrative (the Judean/Jerusalem period) focused on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. In the Gospel of Mark, this extends from the Passion-prediction in 8:31 to the end of chapter 10. The three Passion-predictions serve as a structuring framework for this section, with the three predictions spaced more or less an equal distance apart. The massive expansion of the Jerusalem journey section in Luke greatly distorts this literary structure; in the Lukan narrative there are nine full chapters between the second and third predictions (9:43b-44; 18:31-34).
The form of this first Passion-prediction is quite close between the Synoptic Gospels. This relative lack of variation suggests that the statement had been well-established and fixed within the Tradition, to the point that there was little opportunity (or reason) for the individual Gospel writers to adapt or modify the wording. There are four components to the prediction, four statements by Jesus regarding the things that will take place in Jerusalem. Our focus here is on the first statement, as Jesus tells his disciples that (o%ti)
“it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to suffer many (thing)s”
dei= to\n ui(o\n tou= a)nqrw/pou polla\ paqei=n
The principal action that will take place is indicated by the verbal infinitive paqei=n (“to suffer“)—that is, there will be considerable suffering for Jesus in Jerusalem. The extent (and severity) of this suffering is suggested by the substantive adjective polla/ (“many [thing]s”).
On the surface, this prediction of suffering is completely at odds with Peter’s confession identifying Jesus as the “Anointed One” (presumably the royal Messiah of the Davidic Ruler figure-type). It was certainly not thought that the Davidic Messiah would experience intense suffering when he arrived in Jerusalem; rather, he was expected to subdue the nations and establish a new (Messianic) kingdom on earth, centered at Jerusalem. The context in Luke 17:20-21 and 19:11ff suggests that at some of Jesus’ followers and observers expected the establishment of this Messianic kingdom when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The entire Triumphal Entry scene reflects this same expectation.
With regard to the Passion-prediction, there may be an intentional distinction being made (by Jesus) between the title “Anointed (One)” and “Son of Man”. Peter’s confession emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the Davidic Messiah (who was to appear in victory and glory), while the Passion-prediction, emphasizing Jesus’ impending suffering, focuses on his identity as “Son of Man”.
I have discussed this title at length in earlier notes and articles. The expression “son of man” (Hebrew <d*a* /B#, ben-°¹d¹m), which occurs more than 100 times in the Old Testament, fundamentally refers to a human being. In ancient Semitic idiom, /B# ben (“son”) in the construct state (“son of…”) often has the meaning of belonging to a particular group or category, and of possessing such characteristics. In this instance, “son of man” simply means “a human being”, i.e. belonging to the human race. The parallel, synonymous expression vona$ /B# (ben °§nôš), “son of (hu)mankind” occurs once (Ps 144:3); the corresponding Aramaic is vn`a$ rB^ (bar °§n¹š), only at Dan 7:13 in the OT, along with the variant forms vn rb, avn rb (as well as <da rb) attested in later Aramaic. The Biblical (and contemporary) usage of the expression can be summarized as follows:
- Generally (or indefinitely) of a human being (“a[ny] man”), in poetic language—with <da /b (ben °¹d¹m, “son of man”) set parallel to <da (°¹d¹m, “man”), cf. Num 23:19; Job 16:21; 25:6; 35:8; Psalm 8:4; 80:17; 144:3; 146:3; Isa 51:12; 56:2; Jer 50:40; 51:43. The dual-expression (“man…son of man…”) often is set in contrast to God [YHWH] and His nature.
- In divine/heavenly address to a human being (a Prophet), in Ezekiel (more than 90 times) and Daniel (Dan 8:17). The sense is something like “(as for) you, O mortal…”, again distinguishing a human being from the divine/heavenly being who addresses him.
- The apparently unique instance of Daniel 7:13—here “son of man” is used to describe a divine/heavenly/angelic(?) being who resembles a human.
Primarily, then, the expression refers to the possession of human characteristics or qualities (especially mortality), often contrasted with a heavenly or divine being (including God [YHWH] himself). It is used frequently by Jesus, and we can be certain (on entirely objective grounds) that this usage is authentic and reflects Jesus’ actual manner of speaking/teaching. The expression “son of man” (in Greek, [o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) is virtually non-existent in the New Testament outside of the Gospels. Moreover, every occurrence in the Gospels comes either from Jesus’ own lips or in response to his words (for the latter, cf. Lk 24:7; Jn 12:34). Outside of the Gospels it is only found in Acts 7:56 (as part of the Gospel tradition); Heb 2:8 (quoting Ps 8:4); and Rev 1:13; 14:14 (alluding to Dan 7:13, also 10:5, 16). It was only rarely used by early Christians as a title for Jesus, with other titles (“Son of God”, “Lord”, and “Christ/Messiah”) being far preferred.
There are two main categories of “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels—one of which relates to his Passion (suffering and death), and the other being eschatological (heavily influenced by Dan 7:13). The Passion-predictions, of course, belong to the first category. In virtually all of the “Son of Man” sayings, Jesus seems to be using the expression “son of man” as a self-reference—a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”. While the Aramaic expression did come to be used in this manner, there is little evidence for such customary usage before the time of Jesus.
There can be no doubt that “Son of Man” in the Passion-prediction is a self-reference by Jesus. In other words, for Jesus to say “it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer”, this is much as if he had said “it is necessary for me to suffer” (cf. the Matthean version of prediction, below). At the same time, “Son of Man” here also functions as a kind of title, especially insofar as the Passion-prediction represents a response to Peter’s confession identifying Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah). While Jesus affirms Peter’s confession, he also, at the same time, points the disciples in a different direction, emphasizing his suffering as the “Son of Man”.
Even as there was no expectation of a “suffering Messiah” in Judaism at this time (for more on this, cf. my article in the series “Yeshua the Messiah”), so also there is no evidence for the idea of a “suffering Son of Man”. Conceivably, the idea could have developed from reflection on the famous ‘Suffering Servant’ passage in Isa 52:13-53:12, which early Christians did apply to Jesus’ suffering and death (Lk 22:37; Acts 3:13; 8:32-33, etc); but it hard to see how this passage would have related to the specific title “Son of Man”, prior to its application to Jesus.
In my view, a better explanation for Jesus’ usage here in the Passion-prediction involves the fundamental significance of the expression (cf. above)—as relating to the human condition, especially in its limitation, weakness, and mortality. By applying the title “Son of Man” to himself in the context of his Passion, Jesus is identifying with the human condition, particularly with regard to the experience of weakness, suffering and death. For an objective statement to this same effect, cf. the wording in the famous Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:6-11).
The use of the modal verbal form dei= (“it is necessary”) to introduce this announcement of the Son of Man’s suffering is also significant. It is relatively rare in the core Synoptic tradition, occurring only several times in the words of Jesus. The verb is more frequent in Luke, including several important instances in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, where the necessity of Jesus’ suffering is predicated upon the fact that it was prophesied in the Scriptures (22:37; 24:7, 44). This idea, however, was scarcely a Lukan invention; it reflects early Christian belief, and is stated equally clearly (by Jesus) in the Matthean Passion narrative (26:54). Indeed, it seems likely that the force of dei= in the Passion-prediction relates to the same prophetic mandate, and that this is how Jesus intended it to be understood.
As I noted above, the form of the Passion-prediction is relatively fixed within the Gospel Tradition. There are some notable differences, however. Matthew’s version (16:21) at the point we are examining here reads:
“…that it is necessary (for) him to go away into Yerushalaim and to suffer many (thing)s”
The italicized portion marks the variation from the (shorter) Markan version. Since the prediction is couched within the Synoptic narration, the Gospel writer has a bit more freedom to add explanatory detail, such as the phrase “go away into Jerusalem”, which also serves to emphasize the location where these events will take place (and the goal of the coming journey). Also noteworthy is the way that the author essentially explains the title/expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference by Jesus (on which, cf. above).
Luke’s version (9:22) here, by contrast, is identical to Mark.