Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mk 9:1: From Jesus, the Early Christians, or Mark?

I've been pondering the infamously mistaken prophecy:

"I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power." (Mk 9:1)

I believe it's highly unlikely that Mark created this saying. I see substantial difficulties with the idea that it comes from the historical Jesus (though a fair argument can be made for it). I see a strong case for the theory that it comes from the first-generation church.

Mark is hardly the originator, since it's artificial to connect "those who won't die" with either the transfiguration event that occurs only six days after the prophecy (Peter, James, and John in Mk 9:2-13), or the crucifixion which occurs not terribly later than that (the women in Mk 15:39-41). An interval of years is suggested by Mk 9:1. That Mark made one or both of these connections cannot be denied(1), so he must have inherited a difficult saying. But was it from Jesus or the first-generation church?

I used to think the former since it reads like an embarrassing prediction that failed. John Meier, however, makes a strong case for it being the product of an early church that has experienced the death of some of its members and is getting impatient for the kingdom. Mk 9:1 then serves as an "assurance" text, somewhat like I Thess 4:13-18 ("what will happen to Christians who have already died?") or I Cor 15:51-53 ("what will happen to the bodies of Christians still living?"). "In each case, instruction, assurance, and consolation are given in a prophetic revelation of the eschatological future."(2) The time between Jesus' death and return was stretching beyond what was originally promised, raising concerns answered by these texts.

Furthermore, if Jesus had been preaching an imminent kingdom -- perhaps even to be inaugurated at the point of his martyrdom, before the parousia; if Mark could believe so, as Stephen Carlson argues, Jesus could have thought something similar -- then the case for the authenticity of Mk 9:1 looks even more precarious. He was urging followers to be prepared at every moment for the kingdom's arrival. What kind of sense does it make to assure that "some" followers would live to see this? The obvious implication is that many others will die beforehand, which, as Meier emphasizes, completely undercuts the urgency of his mission. Again, an interval of years is suggested by Mk 9:1, and an imminent kingdom (whether expected at the point of martyrdom or a parousia following tribulation) doesn't square naturally with the concern of Mk 9:1. So as much as I've cherished the saying as a key text pointing to the apocalyptic character of Jesus, it's more plausible as coming from early Christians coping with difficult questions. Actually, of course, the text does still point to the apocalyptic character of Jesus -- but obliquely, like I Thess 4 and I Cor 15.

In the Markan drama, those who died before seeing the kingdom come in power are the disciples who either missed the transfiguration, or fled the crucifixion, or both. They missed the inauguration of the kingdom and wouldn't live to see the parousia. In the first generation church, those who died were simply that, and those who remained were frustrated by failed expectations. Even if they couldn't know the hour, Jesus had likely promised that they would all be seeing the kingdom come in power, and very soon.


(1) The latter is an especially strong option. Stephen Carlson recently delivered a paper at Duke University, "Crucifixion, Coronation, and the Coming of the Kingdom of God in Mark 9.1", showing that for Mark, Jesus became king at his crucifixion, and indeed the kingdom of God came in power at the cross. I wouldn't want to sideline the transfiguration too much in favor of the cross, however. Mark placed it right after the prophecy of 9:1 for a good reason (which Luke of course ran with). It seems that Mark is trying to come up with as many disciples as possible who "didn't taste death" before "seeing" the kingdom in some way -- a trio of males on the mountain, a trio of females at Golgotha. (My thanks to Stephen for granting permission to refer to this paper before publication.)

(2) A Marginal Jew, Vol II, p 343.


Blogger Rich Goulette said...

Hi there, another option, of course, is the preterist/partial preterist option which ties into Jesus' discussion in the Olivet Discourse and alludes to the judgment language with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

hanks for the enjoyable post, Loren. I am persuaded that Stephen is probably right about what Mark 9.1 means in Mark's context. I really struggle on what the historical Jesus may or may not have said here given the difficulties of context and nuance. When we look at how Matthew's subtle changes already shift the precise meaning, I can hardly imagine how much the saying might have morphed in the pre-Marcan tradition. I think I'm content with saying that it's the type of thing Jesus must have said given the broad picture we have.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I used to think similarly Mark, but my question is why would Jesus have thought a significant amount of his followers would die before seeing the kingdom, when the urgency of his mission spoke otherwise?

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Right; I think that's why we can only be contented with the generality -- Jesus probably said some stuff about an imminent kingdom. The more I do Historical Jesus work, the more I think we just come round to seeing that Ed Sanders got much of it right 25 years ago.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Okay, agreed. And I also agree about what Stephen says about Mark, but would only caution against sidelining the transfiguration too much in favor of the cross. I think Mark includes Peter, James, and John among the living who witnessed the kingdom coming in power, not just the women.

Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Thanks, Loren, for another excellent post that highlights the difficulty of "authenticating" a saying attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers. For my part this is one of those sayings that really could go either way though like you I don't believe Mark wholly created it. But like Dr. Goodacre this also continues to reinforce my belief that Sanders' method of historical Jesus reconstruction remains superior even after all these years precisely because this passage indicates just how difficult it can be to determine with any degree of certainty what the historical Jesus did or did not say.

Blogger Richard Fellows said...

Loren, surely this verse should be understood in the context of the discussion of martyrdom in the preceding verses. Death in Mark 9:1 refers to martyrdom, rather than natural death, doesn't it? In 9:34-39 Jesus is calling on his followers to risk their lives. Then, in 9:1, Jesus (diplomatically?) assumes that his audience has accepted his call to martyrdom, and tells them that the kingdom of God will come before all are martyred.

If martyrdom, rather than natural death is in view in 9:1 then the verse can be authentic, whenever Jesus expected the kingdom of God to come. No?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

You could well be right, Richard. If martyrdom was the original context, then the case for authenticity becomes as plausible as that from the early church.


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