Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus
- Preaching the kingdom
- Differing teachings of Jesus and Paul
- Jesus and the Jewish Law
- Salvation: by following the Law or believing in Jesus?
- Last Judgment and End of the world
- Jesus’ miracle-working
- Jesus’ associates and disciples
- Believing in Judas Iscariot
- Did Jesus aspire to be king in the coming kingdom?
- Jesus in the Temple
- Jesus before Pilate
* * * * *
The Apocalyptic Proclamation of Jesus
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 305-331)
|Having concluded that Jesus not only existed but was an apocalyptic prophet, Ehrman now embarks on a lengthy discussion of what we can assign to Jesus from the Gospels on the basis of that conclusion. It is characterized by a high degree of naivete as to what can be depended on in the evangelists’ or Q’s presentations, with contradictions proceeding from that naïve dependence largely ignored.|
Preaching repentance and the imminence of the Kingdom
Much of what Ehrman ascribes to Jesus can reasonably be seen as the message of the kingdom-preaching community itself. Mark’s opening words for Jesus (1:15),
The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
are mundane enough to be placed in any prophetic mouth of the first century. Q2, in fact, attributes similar sentiments to John the Baptist as the originator of such preaching, in a context of no inclusion of Jesus. In fact, note Q’s description of the beginning of the movement:
Until John, it was the law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God, and everyone forces his way in. [Lk./Q 16:16]
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men are seizing it. [Mt. 11:12]
As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.347):
. . . When the saying first originated, we can safely regard it as the community looking back over its history; the implied time scale is too great for it to be claimed as an authentic saying of Jesus, or one accorded to him, commenting on the brief span of his own ministry to date. This is Q’s picture of the past, a past of years, perhaps decades. Placing it in Jesus’ mouth has proven problematic. [We might note here that such things indicate the later introduction of a Jesus figure, at which placing the community’s own sayings into his mouth has created some anomalies.]
According to the saying, before the preaching of John the Baptist—now looked upon as a forerunner or mentor to the community’s own—the study of scripture formed the prevailing activity and source of inspiration. Now a new movement is perceived to have arisen at the time of John: the preaching of the coming kingdom of God, and it had inaugurated an era of contention. But why would Jesus himself not have been seen in this role? Surely the Q community would have regarded his ministry as the turning point from the old to the new. The saying would almost certainly have formed around him. At the very least, Jesus would have been linked with John as representing the time of change.
Yet another indicator of the later invention of a founder Jesus. These anomalies, if recognized at all, were not perceived as troublesome by later Q redactors and were left standing; they simply had new understandings read into them.
Disjunction between Jesus and Paul
For such preachers as the Q prophets, the kingdom will be established on earth, entailing the continuance of human activities such as eating and drinking, ruling from thrones, etc. Ehrman presents this as the preaching of the apocalyptic Jesus. But all this seems anything but compatible with the picture that Paul creates, in which flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). This looks look a real disjunction between the preaching of Ehrman’s Jesus and what Paul proclaims.
Could it be that the two teachings have certain basic commonalities but are essentially from two separate expressions on the first-century scene, with Paul drawing nothing from any alleged historical Jesus’ ideas? It would be astonishing indeed to think that if Paul knew of an historical Jesus who was an apocalyptic prophet (and how could he be ignorant of that role?) he would have had not the slightest interest in discovering what his Son of God had had to say on the matter while on earth.
Future Judgment and Reversal of Fortunes
Ehrman also pronounces as authentic the Gospel Jesus’ teachings on the future judgment. These go hand in hand with the coming of the Son of Man (see previous instalment), and make perfect sense in the mouth of the preaching community itself. Ehrman calls attention to Jesus’ teaching of the “reversal of fortunes” when the mighty shall be laid low and the poor and humble exalted. This is a central motif in Q, but it is curious that the epistles in their own expression of apocalypticism do so little with it, and when they do, as in James 2:5, there is no attribution to Jesus.
Jesus and the Mosaic Law
Ehrman seems to accept Q’s unbending commitment to the Mosaic Law as the words of Jesus: “. . . it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a single dot of the Law to pass away.” But what does that do to the Gospel Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees for their strict codes of adherence? What does it do to Jesus’ alleged dismissal of Jewish dietary laws, in which he declares that all foods are clean, that none can defile a man (as in Mark 7)? What does it do for Paul’s key gospel about the passing away of the Law, or about gentiles not needing to follow its every “dot”? Mark (10:17f) has Jesus declaring that to gain eternal life one needs to “keep the commandments.” But what of Paul who said that keeping the Law was not necessary for salvation, only faith in Jesus?
Here is where Ehrman gets into trouble. He thinks to apply the criterion of dissimilarity to Jesus’ preaching of salvation through keeping the commandments, but then points out that “early Christians” thought something else:
Quite the contrary, this is a view that the vast majority of Christians rejected. The early Christians maintained that a person had to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus for eternal life. Some . . . argued precisely against the idea that keeping the Law could bring eternal life. If it could, then what was the purpose of Christ and his death? No, it was not the Law but Jesus who could bring salvation. So why is Jesus portrayed in this passage as saying that salvation comes to those who keep the Law? Because that is something that he actually said. (DJE? p. 310)
But wait a minute. Who are these “early Christians”? Is it the sources he claims lie behind the Gospels, going back to the earliest years after Jesus’ death? Yet how could he identify beliefs such as these in the sources of the Gospels if they are not to be found in the Gospels? (Not even Mark 10:45 constitutes “believing in Jesus.”) And they are certainly not in Q, M or L, or in the Gospel of Thomas, the latter offering salvation through an understanding of Jesus’ teachings, not through believing in himself.
The Gospel of John has to be excluded here, because it very much proposes that belief in Jesus as the Revealer Son is required for salvation. But this is a later and unique development (proto-gnostic, from a different branch of the broader Christ cult), and John’s teachings do not figure in Ehrman’s picture of the historical Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, since this is not the picture presented in John. Here, for once, Ehrman cannot appeal to “multiple independent sources” for a given tradition, a misleading phrase in many of its usages when all the “multiple” consisted of was Mark (Matthew and Luke being dependent on him) and John—which necessitated the position that John was not dependent on the Synoptics, since that would have deprived Ehrman of his ‘multiple independence’.
So who is left? Obviously, Ehrman’s “early Christians”—in this case—are Paul and the epistle writers’ communities, who are anything but the “early Christians” he has referred to in other cases. It is they who argue against the view that salvation proceeds primarily from keeping the commandments, and in favor of believing in Jesus. (The one exception is the epistle of James [1:21-25], in a document which is almost non-Christian in its strongly Jewish content.) Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Paul & Co. would ride roughshod over Jesus’ own teachings on the matter, since they ignore him and his views on just about everything else in their catalogue. But Ehrman fails to provide any rationale for how an entire movement, as represented in the epistles, could simply reject Jesus’ teachings as though they never existed, without a word of argument in their own favor for doing so.
Nor would it be unreasonable to expect those writers and their circles to justify their viewpoint by reworking—‘spin doctoring’—Jesus’ teachings to support them; indeed, we might expect them, in the best Gospel tradition, to simply invent sayings of Jesus in order to corroborate their new stance on achieving salvation. Instead, we get total silence.
Jesus’ teaching on the Law
Ehrman goes on to acknowledge that “Jesus did not think that what really mattered before God was the scrupulous observance of the laws in all their details.” Is that compatible with Q’s “not a dot of the Law shall pass away”? Ehrman claims that at the heart of Jesus’ preaching lay the advocation of God’s commandments, specifically:
. . . to love God above all else (as in Deuteronomy 4:4-6) and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (as in Leviticus 19:18). This emphasis on the dual commandments to love is found in our earliest surviving Gospel. (DJE? p. 311)
And he quotes Mark 12:23-34. But what he does not quote is the pronouncement of those commandments found in non-Gospel writings:
- James 2:8 appeals to the latter scriptural passage, with no mention that Jesus himself had laid emphasis upon it;
- Paul appeals to both on two occasions (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14) but similarly makes no attribution to Jesus;
- And if Ehrman wishes to call up Paul as an “early Christian” who thought faith was more important than keeping the Law, why does he not take him into account in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, where Paul says that “we are taught by God to love one another”?
None of this non-Gospel witness supports Ehrman’s claim that central to Jesus’ teaching was the dual commandment of love.
The Last Judgment
Quite dramatically, Ehrman reviews the “final judgment” scene in Matthew 25, wherein Jesus rewards the good and punishes the bad on the basis of the social conscience they displayed or did not display on earth: whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned and the sick. But such a standard for salvation does not conform to the view (now it’s of “later Christians like Paul”) that belief in Jesus determined salvation.
In passing, Ehrman throws the latter bone in the direction of “also the writers of the Gospels”—once again without giving us a reference for this claim (he may really have only John in mind)—but one is hard pressed to find much of ‘belief in Jesus’ as the avenue to salvation in the Synoptics; and it is certainly not to be found in Q, whose “early” people give to their Jesus no soteriological role whatsoever. This is another indication of the separateness between the movement represented by the widespread Christ cult of Paul and that of Galilean Q and the Synoptics. Failing to perceive this reality has confounded the entire picture of early Christianity which historicists like Ehrman attempt to construct.
By virtue of the criterion of dissimilarity, Ehrman pronounces on Matthew’s picture of the last judgment the verdict of authenticity as representing the teaching of Jesus, since it does not conform to the necessity to believe in Jesus himself to be saved. But once again, we need merely see this outlook on the means to salvation as present in the Galilean/Synoptic movement prior to the introduction by Mark of a Jesus figure who was sacrificed. It was only with the latter that the door was opened to an eventual amalgamation with the Christ cult’s very different soteriological concepts.
Another distinction that Ehrman is incapable of making is that “believing in Jesus” on the part of the Christ cult, as opposed to the Gospel communities, is a central element precisely because their Christ is an entirely spiritual figure, and it is naturally required that one believe in his existence and what scripture tells of him and his role in salvation. Supposed revelation always requires faith that the revelation is true.
This is the way the world ends . . .
Ehrman makes a valiant attempt to reconcile the two pictures of the coming End which we find in the Gospels, and even in Q. The apocalyptic one, in which all must tremble, wait and prepare for the coming of the Son of Man and a cataclysmic transformation of the world. And the much gentler, humane picture of the kingdom already potentially present if we conduct ourselves accordingly. The two different atmospheres are represented in the two strata of Q, the former in Q2, the latter in Q1.
Despite Ehrman’s contention, I doubt very much that the same man could have conceived and preached both, let alone that, working from scratch, the one community would have produced teachings that had such a wide divergence of outlook and a basic incompatibility. There is too much rabid fire-breathing clogging Q2 and too much reasonableness inherent in Q1—not to mention a more universality of application in the latter, which does not fit the thundering prophecy that the powerful and evil, or even one out of two ordinary people lying in the same bed, are destined for destruction.
This is an observation which supports a different provenance for the material in Q1. Since it bears so much resemblance to Cynic philosophy and apostolic practice, it seems reasonable to assume that such was indeed the ultimate source. A fledgling sect which preached in basically apocalyptic tones, warning of ultimate judgment and the need for repentance (as was assigned to its declared originator, John the Baptist), might have been incapable of inventing the Q1 ethos for itself. But it might nevertheless adopt it under the influence of exposure to Cynicism, perhaps even using an existing document if it was not simply a body of Cynic oral tradition, and adapt it for themselves as an ideal guide to faith and behaviour, regardless of the anomalies it presented with the apocalyptic outlook.
In fact, Ehrman provides a very good rationale for why an apocalyptic sect could adopt a humane and moral code such as we find lying behind Q1, regardless of where it came from. He, of course, puts it in terms of being the product of an historical Jesus. But the source of Q1, whatever it was, could have been seen by the newly forming sect as a code of conduct designed not to better society or create long-term happiness; neither Jesus nor the sect itself was trying to reform the world. Rather, it could have been interpreted as a recipe precisely for the short term. The end was coming soon, and the ethics of Q1 were seen as appropriate ways for believers to behave right now, so that when the Son of Man came, the sect members would be among the elect and brought into the kingdom instead of being destined for eternal torment or annihilation. Keeping the Law and otherwise acting in an ethical manner involving justice and compassion for others would seem an ideal way for the Q community to conduct itself, even in a setting of apocalyptic expectation and the preaching of doom to an unheeding outside world.
Jesus and miracle working
Ehrman sets aside the miracles attributed to Jesus as ‘unusable’ by historians. But he accepts that they can tell us that Jesus became reputed as a miracle worker, which supposedly supports his existence, especially in an apocalyptic preaching context, where miracles would signal the imminent arrival of the kingdom. Well, tell that to Paul and the rest of the epistle writers. No such reputation is ever suggested by anyone until the epistle of Barnabas at least a couple of decades into the second century, and he hasn’t a single miracle to give us.
Not even given Paul’s apocalyptic claims, or his reference to (unspecified) “signs and wonders” which he and others have performed in support of the gospel of Christ and the imminence of the kingdom, do we hear of such a reputation. In fact, he must have been entirely ignorant of it, for in 1 Corinthians 1:22 he criticizes the Jews who ask for miracles in order to believe. Was not Jesus on earth reputed to have supplied such miracles in abundance—for that very purpose? (At least Ehrman does not go so far as some other historicist scholars, who admit a personal belief in demons on the basis that Jesus spoke with and miraculously exorcised them in the Gospels.)
Associating with the lowly
Radical sects tend to thumb their noses at the tight-assed opinions and practices of the establishment. And any group which promises the reversal of fortunes is doubly liable to associate with the presently poor and downtrodden, the despised of society such as the prostitute and the tax collector. Associating with “sinners” goes without saying, since the definition of the latter would include those who did not conform to the strict ritual observance of the religious authorities, which is one of the things the sect opposed. So we don’t need an individual Jesus to understand a movement which would conduct itself in this manner. Ehrman suggests applying the criterion of dissimilarity here, since
It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE? p. 317)
But this is precisely how a counter-culture, anti-establishment movement would act, and has tended to act throughout history. If the lowly were the ones to be raised and rewarded, it would be natural to associate with them. And besides, it is from their ranks that recruits for an anti-establishment movement would most likely be found.
If a Jesus were introduced onto the scene and into Q’s recorded traditions as representative and founder of the group’s activities, he would automatically be made to adopt their behavior. A founder figure serves as the one who originally set the group’s activities and behavior in motion; he also adds status to the group, both internally and externally, and enables cohesion and lesson-building based on the example of the founder.
If there is an almost universal characteristic of any sect, even of humans as a whole, it is a tendency to want to impute what they see as innovative and superior principles to one innovative and superior originator, one whose precedent and direction they themselves are now following. There is scarcely a religion, philosophy or social development before recent times which has not looked to a founder as its source and inspiration, often rendering them larger than life.
Jesus’ followers and disciples
Ehrman makes much of “the twelve,” an inner circle of disciples handpicked by Jesus. As usual, he exaggerates the witness to them:
The existence of this group of twelve is extremely well attested in our early sources. (DJE? p. 318)
While Paul makes the sole reference (1 Cor. 15:5) to “the twelve” in the entire body of epistles, it is by no means clear what the term refers to there. (It could be to an administrative body within the sect as may be suggested by Acts 6:2.) As we all know, nowhere does any epistle writer even imply that some select group, even the “pillars” in Jerusalem whom Paul is sometimes at odds with, were once the followers of a human Jesus. In the disputes he has with these and other apostles, Paul never defends his ‘shortcoming’ in not having been a follower of the human Jesus when arguing for his own legitimacy as an apostle.
- 1 Corinthians 9:1 more than implies that the standard is in “seeing the Lord,” something Paul claims to have done.
- He even tells us (1 Cor. 12:28) that it is God who has appointed apostles, prophets and teachers.
- In Galatians 1 and 2, he calls the Jerusalem group “those who were apostles before me,” with the implication that there was no difference in the quality or origin of their respective apostleships,
- while in 2:8 he declares that God has made Peter an apostle to the Jews just as he made Paul an apostle to the gentiles.
There is a striking absence of the idea of apostolic tradition in the non-Gospel record until well into the second century. Nowhere, not even in disputes over proper teaching, does anyone appeal to the idea of genuine and reliable teachings being passed on by the disciples of Jesus who heard his very words, or were given authority by him to go out and preach.
|We know that there was a desire by individual apostles like Paul, or groups like that in 1 John, to seek support for the legitimacy of their preaching. But where do they turn? Not to channels going back to followers of Jesus and Jesus himself, but to the Spirit, to their own personal revelations (as in 2 Corinthians 11:4 or 1 John 4:1-4).|
Ehrman calls it “striking” that all three synoptic Gospels speak of the twelve and list their names, but that the names differ from one list to the next (Mark 3:14-19; Matthew 10:1-4; Luke 6:12-16). “This must show,” he says, “that everyone knew there were twelve in the group, but not everyone knew who the twelve were.” Yet, since Matthew and Luke are so dependent on Mark for even the most basic biographical information, is it likely they would have possessed something as esoteric as separate disciple lists? (There certainly was no source in Q, which mentioned none of the disciples of Jesus by name; such contexts and characters had to be added by Matthew and Luke.)
On the other hand, why would they change Mark’s list, why doubt its reliability? The probable answer is that both later evangelists recognized that Mark’s story was just that: a story. Since no one was intending to create actual history (even if they did believe in an historical Jesus—which is by no means sure with any of the evangelists), changing a couple of names in the list would have been quite kosher and may have served some other agenda.
Sitting on thrones with the betrayer Judas
Perhaps the zenith of Ehrman’s naivete comes with his consideration of the saying by Jesus that his “twelve” followers will sit on twelve thrones as judges in the new kingdom. Now, since this would have included Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, it could not have been formulated after Jesus’ death. Thus it must have been spoken by Jesus during his ministry. Moreover, the number twelve, as being the number Jesus chose to be his immediate disciples, would have been determined by his apocalyptic outlook that the twelve tribes of Israel would be preserved even in the kingdom, and he needed twelve ‘rulers’ for them. And to stretch the exercise in mind-reading even further, because Jesus now ‘ruled’ over his twelve disciples, Ehrman concludes that he considered himself destined to be the chief ruler over them and the kingdom of God when it arrived. He would be “king” in the new kingdom. Ehrman comes dangerously close to rendering his apocalyptic Jesus something of a megalomaniac.
But there is another necessary corollary to Ehrman’s handling of the “twelve thrones” passage. To preserve his application of the criterion of dissimilarity (because of the betrayal of Judas, the saying could not have originated after Jesus’ death), Ehrman is led to suggest something which effectively removes him from the ranks of “critical scholars.” He accepts the existence of Judas. This, in circular fashion, is supported by another use of the criterion (as well as the criterion of embarrassment), in that we can ask: who would make up a betrayer of Jesus from among his immediate disciples? What an embarrassing scandal, reflecting poorly on Jesus himself, and hardly in keeping with later church interests!
Thus do the walls of the box confine the exegetical mind. If Mark is composing an allegorical story, then he may have his own reasons for introducing certain characters, events and plot devices. “Judas” is widely considered among critical scholarship as a fictional symbol for disbelieving and treacherous Jewry (the name itself is an allegorical marker). His actions could be seen to symbolize the treachery that may arise in the community itself, with devastating consequences, and be a cautionary lesson against it. The figure of Judas adds excitement to the story, and serves the plot by facilitating Jesus’ arrest. In conjunction with Mark’s Gethsemane scene, the events leading up to the trial become a literary tour de force. Besides, Mark must have felt obliged to introduce such a figure. He was right there in scripture: “Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, has lifted up his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).
The cult vs. family
Ehrman attempts a determined rationalization and justification for Jesus’ ‘anti-family’ stance, his insistence that to be his follower one must abandon—even ‘hate’—one’s father and mother. Brother will betray brother. “I come not to bring peace to the earth, but a sword/division.” All of this might further bring Jesus’ mental stability and moral integrity into question, but it is a relatively common expression of the sectarian cult mentality. When society as a whole does not respond (which is usually the case), the sect retains its conviction of rightness by telling itself that the divisiveness, large-scale and small, which they bring about is proper and inevitable—even necessary. The voice of Jesus is speaking for the sect as a whole.
Jesus and the Temple
Finally, Ehrman accepts that some sort of disturbance was caused by Jesus in the Temple, though nothing on the scale suggested by the Gospels. That would have been impossible for a single man to accomplish, given the size of the place if nothing else. Most critical scholars doubt the historicity of any such event on any scale, for Roman soldiers were on the premises at all times, especially during Passover, and Jesus would hardly have walked away unimpeded. Ironically, Ehrman suggests that in creating the ruckus, Jesus could actually have quoted the scriptural words attributed to him in the Gospel scene:
Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it into a den of thieves’ (Mark 11:17).
But it is far more likely that it is Mark who is quoting these scriptural words, placing them in the mouth of his character, Jesus of Nazareth, in a scene those words have inspired. Besides, Mark needed a plot device to trigger the final spur to Jesus’ opponents. This, in fact, is one of the “generic components” in the genre of the tale of the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One which Mark is following in creating his Passion story: the “Provocation” which induces the protagonist’s enemies to act against him.
The Passion of Jesus
Ehrman runs through the Passion story, admitting that it is difficult to know exactly how much of it could be historical, though he opts for quite a bit, including (as noted earlier) the character and role of Judas. As for Jesus’ exchange with Pilate, he suggests, “It is not difficult to imagine what happened at the trial.” Exercising one’s imagination is certainly a good way to produce a congenial exegesis (a not uncommon approach in New Testament scholarship), especially when one has laid the groundwork in equally imaginative fashion. Ehrman concludes that Pilate condemned Jesus for maintaining that he was a “king,” though Pilate misunderstood: Jesus did not mean that he himself would lead a rebellion to destroy Roman overlordship, but that he would be awarded the throne of the new kingdom when the Son of Man came to establish it on God’s behalf. Had Pilate understood Jesus’ true meaning, he might have committed him to an asylum rather than condemned him to the cross.
Ehrman has now rested his case, but in a Conclusion he devotes his final word to questioning the motives which lie at the base of mythicism. This will be the subject of the final instalment in this series.