It has long been a popular position among most historical Jesus scholars that Jesus did not predict his own passion. The claim is that the repeated passion predictions are a story-telling device invented by the author of Mark, similar to the Fourth Gospel’s motif of Jesus always knowing when his hour of being “lifted up” on a cross will come. The theory of scholars is that early Christians were trying to make sense of Jesus’ horrible death. If they could claim Jesus knew of his death in advance, that scripture prophesied it, than his death and their own faith made more sense. Perhaps the first Christians are guilty of adding on to the passion prediction a prophecy about Jesus saying he would rise again on the third day. But as for the prediction of his rejection, suffering and death, I believe there is good reason to think the historical Jesus is responsible for this forecast.
My reasoning is based on a very special authentic parable referred to as the parable of “The Tenants”, or the parable of the “Leased Vineyard”. The parable received a gray vote from the folks of the Jesus Seminar, as it now stands in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Obviously, the parable here has been reworked and made explicit, as a self reference to Jesus’ predicting his own passion. But is this not how the parable should be rethought? If only we had an earlier version of the parable maybe that would shed some light on things. We do! The version in Thomas received a pink vote indicating it is close to Jesus’ own words. I believe Mark’s inspiration for his repeated passion predictions is this version! Mark probably received a written version of the original parable similar to what we now have in Thomas. So here it is then, the closest we can get to Jesus’ actual telling of the parable:
“There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, `Perhaps they did not recognize him.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, `Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear. Jesus said, `Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the corner stone’”.
(Thomas 65, 66; compare Mark 12:1-12; Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19; Psalm 118:22; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:4-7).
So what is going on here and why does it matter? We see in all the parallel passages to this simple parable a stir within the early Christian movement toward interpretation. Being a true follower of the son (of man’s) way is not easy. Did Jesus offer a rare interpretation of his own parable here? His remark, “Show me the stone the builder’s have rejected. That is the cornerstone” reminds us of a similar interpretive offering when asked about serving Ceasar, “Show me a coin.” Did Jesus see himself as the living cornerstone of Psalm 118:22 that would be rejected? Is the admonishing to faith under such hardship like we find in 1 Peter true to this saying of the historical Jesus? “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men, but in God’s sight chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:4).
I believe all this matters because it brings us into closer contact with Jesus the sorrowful human being. A human being who read and listened, perhaps in Aramaic, perhaps in Greek, perhaps in both languages to the same so-called “Old Testament” scriptures that many of us still also turn to today to help us in faith and moral guidance for our lives. I believe the historical Jesus found the meaning of his own life in these same scriptures. The parable of “The Tenants” or “Leased Vineyard” is only one example of this. The meaning Jesus found in the sacred texts of his people gave his own life a profound sense of joy, sorrow, thanksgiving, love, sharing, pacifism and faith. That is why the first Post-Easter Christians searched their scriptures for him. Jesus inspired them to do this, precisely because that is what he did in his Pre-Easter life! Like Jesus, we are all called to live out our own experiment in life. Jesus found his own suffering and rejection in the scriptures. It is not just an early Christian interpretation trying to make sense of his terrible death.