“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 2)

Mark 8:31 / 9:31 / 10:33, continued
The First Passion-Prediction: Mk 8:31

“And he began to teach them that ‘It is necessary (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s, and to be removed from examination [i.e. rejected] under the Elders and the Chief Sacred-officials and the Writers [i.e. Scribes], and to be killed off, and (then), after three days, to stand up (again).”

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”). This is informative for an understanding of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as it is used here.

On the surface, this prediction of suffering is completely at odds with Peter’s confession identifying Jesus as the “Anointed One” (v. 29), especially if that title was referring to the royal Messiah of the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). 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 (cf. the recent notes on this scene, in this context of the Synoptic narrative).

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”.

There can be no doubt that “son of man” in the Passion-prediction is a self-reference by Jesus (on the basis for this usage of the expression, see the Introduction, and Part 1). 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 the prediction mentioned below, and discussed briefly in Part 1). 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” (see the Summary section below).

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. references in the Introduction)—as relating to the human condition, especially in its limitation, weakness, and mortality. By applying the expression “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 have noted, the form of the Passion-prediction is relatively fixed within the Gospel Tradition. There are some notable differences, however. Matthew’s version (16:21), in its initial wording, 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. Luke’s version (9:22) here, by contrast, is identical to Mark.

The Second Passion-Prediction: Mk 9:31

The second prediction begins as the first did, with a warning by Jesus (8:30), not to tell anyone about his Messianic identity. In this instance (9:30), he warns his disciples not to inform anyone about his travels. The reason, indicated by the opening words of v. 31, is that he wanted privacy so that he could teach his disciples about what was to come in Jerusalem. This provides the setting for the second Passion-prediction:

“For he was teaching his learners [i.e. disciples], and said to them that ‘The son of man is (about to be) given along into (the) hands of men, and they will kill him off, and, (hav)ing been killed off, after three days, he will stand up (again).'” (9:31)

This second prediction has a simpler and shorter form, omitting mention (except in an indirect way) of the suffering the “son of man” will experience in Jerusalem. Here, the focus is not on suffering, but on process of death and resurrection. The process has three connected components:

    • “he will be given along into the hands of men” —alluding to his betrayal, arrest, and interrogation/trial
    • “they will kill him off” —his death at the “hands of men”
    • “he will stand up (again)” —his resurrection

The last two components are most closely connected, as indicated by the temporal/relational clause between them: “and, (hav)ing been killed off…”. Matthew’s version (17:22-23) differs only slightly in wording, while the Lukan version (9:44) is abbreviated, including only the first statement (“the son of man is about to be given along into [the] hands of men”), along with a solemn introduction by Jesus (“You must set these words into your ears…”).

The Third Passion-Prediction: Mk 10:33f

The third prediction is the longest, and appears to be a conflation of the first two, but with other expanded detail as well. In the context of the narrative, it has a climactic position, marking Jesus’ impending approach to Jerusalem:

“See, we step up (soon) to Yerushalaim, and the son of man will be given along to the Chief Sacred-officials and the Writers, and they will judge against him to death, and (then) will give him along to the nations, and they will toy with him and spit on him, and they will scourge him and kill him off, and (then), after three days, he will stand up (again).” (10:33-34)

The expansions give more detail to both the suffering the “son of man” will experience, and the process of his being put to death. Thus, suffering and death are the main points of emphasis. The Matthean (20:17-19) and Lukan (18:31-33) versions generally follow the Markan, but in a simpler and more streamlined form. Luke notably frames the saying in terms of Jesus’ suffering (and death) as a fulfillment of Scripture (v. 31). This introduces a theme that will play an important role in the narrative of Luke-Acts: the need, as part of the early Christian mission, to offer Scriptural support for the problematic idea that the Messiah (identified as Jesus) would suffer and die.


Scholars have debated whether the three Synoptic Passion-predictions should be regarded as three separate traditions, or variations of a single tradition. The similarity in formulation would tend to argue in favor of a single underlying tradition, which could be transmitted or presented in various forms. This variation may reflect Markan literary handling of the tradition, or it may pre-date the Gospel writer. One might be inclined to explain the second prediction as a simpler or abbreviated form of the first, and the third as a more expansive version (including more detail from the wider Passion tradition).

In any case, the use of the expression “the son of man” would appear to be the same in all three sayings. It is probably best to focus on the first saying, as I have done above, in the context of the Synoptic tradition. If the connection between the first saying and Peter’s confession (8:29f) is original, then it could indicate that the expression “the son of man” connotes something significant, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus (see above).

If so, what is this significance? The idea that Jesus, as the Messiah, would suffer and be put to death in Jerusalem seems to have shocked and scandalized the disciples—as represented in the tradition by Peter’s response (and rebuke) to Jesus (8:32 par [omitted by Luke]). The teaching Jesus gives in v. 31, following as it does Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, may be intended as a point of contrast (and warning). He would not arrive in Jerusalem in glory, victoriously establishing the kingdom of God on earth—at least, not in a way that would conform to popular expectations. Instead, as a “son of man”, he would experience suffering and death.

If the expression connotes anything specific in these sayings, it surely involves an allusion to the poetic tradition, by which the parallel “man / son of man” indicates the weakness and mortality of the human condition (cf. again the references in the Introduction). By calling himself “the son of man”, Jesus is identifying himself with this aspect of the human condition.

At the same time, one could argue that the expression was primarily intended by Jesus as a self-reference, and that, on this basis, the expression came to be preserved in the Greek text of the Passion prediction(s). The definiteness of the articular expression in Greek (or the determinate state in Aramaic, av*n`a&-rB^) could carry much the same meaning (and emphasis) as in the earlier sayings of 2:10 and 28 (discussed in Part 1). Jesus would then be referring to himself as “this son of man” —i.e., as for myself, as this son of man… .

The centrality of the Passion-predictions, among of the Synoptic “son of man” sayings, is significant in this regard. For they emphasize both the suffering of Jesus, and his subsequent exaltation. The primary focus is on Jesus’ suffering, yet the promise of exaltation (in the resurrection) is also present. Still, the association of the expression “son of man” with this latter aspect will not come clearly into view until the climactic sayings, in 13:26 and 14:62 par.

In Part 3 of this article, we will give consideration to  the Passion predictions as they govern the Synoptic (Markan) narrative (in chaps. 9-10), while also examining the other “son of man” sayings that occur in the narrative (prior to 14:62).

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