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.