Ehrman’s Case for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Ehrman’s criteria for Jesus as apocalyptic prophet
- Jesus as the Son of Man
- Did Q identify its Jesus with the Son of Man?
- “L” and “M” not apocalyptic
- No apocalypticism in Q1 and the Gospel of Thomas
- No apocalypticist in the epistles
- Does Q’s John the Baptist know a human Jesus?
- Between the Alpha and Omega lies an apocalyptic Jesus
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalypticist
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 297-304)
Bart Ehrman now presents his evidence that
Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that the end of this evil age is soon to come and that within his generation God would send a cosmic judge of the earth, the Son of Man, to destroy the forces of evil and everyone who has sided with them and to bring in his good kingdom here on earth. (DJE? p. 298)
Referring to his criterion of “contextual credibility,” Ehrman points out that apocalyptic expectation of this sort was widespread in Jesus’ day; and he promises to show that the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus also fit the criterion of dissimilarity.
But to begin with, he stresses that
. . . the apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus is found widely throughout our earliest sources. In other words, it is multiply attested, all over the map, precisely in the sources that we would normally give the greatest weight to, those that are our oldest. (DJE? p. 299)
I think the reader by now can detect what is going to happen here. After the sweeping declaration that Jesus as apocalyptic proclaimer is found “throughout our earliest sources . . . all over the map” (we have already seen that this is not the case), Ehrman reduces that map to the narrow world of the Gospels and Acts, and his claim that these or their underlying sources constitute “our oldest”—i.e., “Mark, Q, M and L.”
Jesus and the Son of Man
Ehrman lays out examples of Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching. Let’s look at two of these, one from Mark (this has expanded parallels in Matthew and Luke), and one from Q, using the translations provided by Ehrman:
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:38)
And you, be prepared, because you do not know the hour when the Son of Man is coming. (Luke/Q 12:39; Matthew 24:44)
The first thing to notice is a curiosity which scholars have long remarked on. (Ehrman will also discuss it shortly.) In these sayings of Jesus, when he refers to the Son of Man he sounds as though he is speaking about someone else, not himself. This is true of the great majority of the Son of Man sayings, in both Q and the Gospels.
Now look at the first quote. This is what Matthew does with it (10:32-3):
Whoever shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father in heaven. But whoever shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven.
Note that Matthew’s version is expanded into two elements, positive and negative, whereas Mark had only the negative. But Matthew has also eliminated the curiosity. No longer is it the Son of Man who will confess and deny in heaven; rather, “I”—Jesus himself—will do the confessing and denying. There is no mistaking that Matthew’s Jesus is referring to the Son of Man as being himself.
But Matthew’s version is not dependent on Mark. His dual saying is derived from Q, for Luke’s version (12:8-10) has the same duality, positive and negative, although Luke has kept the original ambiguity reflected in Mark; he has not changed “Son of Man” to a pronoun to make a clear identification with Jesus.
The dual saying is judged to be derived from Q rather than Mark because it is highly unlikely both later evangelists would independently have made such an identical expansion on their own. But a Lukan use of Matthew here should be ruled out as well, because if Luke had seen Matthew’s elimination of the ambiguity in Mark, there seems no reason why he too would not have seen the error of Mark’s ways and reproduced Matthew’s alteration. (Perhaps Goodacre would explain this as Lukan “editorial fatigue,” operating across the space of one verse.) This, of course, fits one of the principal arguments against a Lukan use of Matthew: that he never reproduces Matthean redactions of Mark.
Mark, operating through oral tradition, has either not fully remembered the Q tradition of this saying, or perhaps he has drawn on a simpler version he is familiar with. And because Luke shows the same ambiguous juxtaposition, this has to be regarded as the more primitive version present in Q, which only Matthew chose to clarify. In other words, all of this shows that in the oldest form of the idea, Jesus is made to convey the impression (probably because the tradition so regarded it) that the Son of Man was a figure who was expected but not yet on the scene. An impression created in virtually all the apocalyptic Son of Man sayings.
Now, Ehrman might say, “What’s the problem?” In fact, later in the chapter he claims that Jesus originally did preach the coming Son of Man, not identifying that figure with himself, and that this is the situation reflected in the oldest tradition in the Q community, taken over by Mark, Matthew and Luke. The evangelists have also taken over, at least partly from the Q tradition, a different class of “son of man” sayings which are not apocalyptic and do not refer to a future figure: the ‘biblical euphemism’ type.
In addition, Mark himself goes on to create yet another form of sayings as part of his incorporation of a Passion dimension into his story: the “suffering Son of Man” sayings in which Jesus teaches that scripture has prophesied that he, the Son of Man, must suffer and die—a dimension not found in Q. (This would reflect the Christ cult’s contention that their heavenly Son and his sacrifice had been discovered in scripture.) But by and large, the “future Son of Man” sayings have been left as Q presented them: Jesus seeming to speak of someone else, and Ehrman points to these as coming from Jesus the apocalypticist, who did not regard himself as the Son of Man.
Using the criterion of dissimilarity, Ehrman pronounces these sayings as authentic to Jesus, since “early Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man,” and thus
surely Christians who thought Jesus was the Son of Man would not make up sayings that appear to differentiate between him and the Son of Man. (DJE? p. 306)
But question-begging is surely evident here. Ehrman is assuming that these sayings were first recorded with a Jesus speaker in mind, whereas taken by themselves they could originally have been at home in the mouths of any preachers prophesying the coming of the heavenly Son of Man. There would have been no question of identification with anyone. Given the nature of Q and its lack of differentiation between the Q prophets and Jesus, there is no compelling reason to make Ehrman’s assumption.
Moreover, there is a puzzling aspect to this point. Even by the end of the Q document’s evolution, before it got into Matthew and Luke’s hands (when several decades would have passed since Jesus’ supposed preaching), all those references to the Son of Man not being identified with the presumed Jesus founder and speaker had still not been changed, despite Q having gone through a number of redactions, with much more complex changes performed on the collection. If, as Ehrman claims, early Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man and thus would not make up misleading sayings, why would that misleading ambiguity have been left standing for so long, continuing to create an erroneous impression which would have been at odds with Christians’ own view of him? If Matthew occasionally recognized the problem and altered passages to correct it, why not the Q redactors?
Now, it is possible that an actual identification between the Son of Man and their Jesus was made not by the Q people at all, but only by Mark and his redactors, and I have in fact raised that possibility in my own study of Q (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.377-8). But I am not sure how Ehrman would cope with this in view of his claim that early Christians saw Jesus as the Son of Man. It would be curious indeed if that identification was not made through several decades of Christian development and only appeared suddenly in Mark.
Who preached the Son of Man in Q?
In regard to Ehrman’s example of Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching (Mark 8:38 and parallels, quoted above), I once again call on William Arnal’s evaluation of the Q Jesus: one cannot tell the difference between what he says and does and represents, and what the Q prophets themselves are saying and doing. We cannot tell if in fact the original form of Mark and Q’s basic saying did not have a collective reference where the attribution was concerned. Such as:
Whoever is ashamed of us and of our words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
In other words, prophets of the kingdom-preaching sect are admonishing those of their audience who reject their message, that they themselves shall be rejected by the Son of Man when he arrives. This would be the original pronouncement of a sect which believed in precisely what Ehrman is claiming the historical Jesus believed and preached. When a founder figure was added to the Q community’s outlook, such pronouncements were assigned to that figure. We can see elsewhere in Q that little changes of attribution have been made to earlier discrete elements to work a speaking Jesus into the picture, notably in the Dialogue between Jesus and John or the set of three chreiai in Q1. Little anomalies have also been created in the process, as in leaving the neuter “pleion”—greater (than)—in reference to the new Jesus when he is being compared to Solomon and Jonah (Lk./Q 11:29-32). Kloppenborg, too, has noted the latter.
Incidentally, as ‘proof’ that “early Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man, the cosmic judge of the earth who would return in glory,” Ehrman appeals to Revelation 1:13—an example of how confining oneself inside the historicist box will skew a reading of the text. Revelation 1:13 says:
And in the midst of the lampstands (I saw) one like a son of man, clothed to the feet . . . etc.
Here the writer is speaking of a vision of Christ who—neither here nor anywhere else in Revelation—is identified with a human Jesus. Moreover, the phrase “one like a son of man,” like its counterpart in 14:14, is not being used as a title, let alone as the designation of an historical man, but in its seminal form in Daniel 7:13 where it describes a heavenly figure. Scholarship generally sees this as an apocalyptic motif drawn directly from Daniel and not mediated through the Gospel usage—of which ‘John’ shows no sign of being aware. (Could we possibly think that an apocalyptically-oriented document like Revelation, if it knew of the Gospel Jesus, would fail to draw on “early Christian belief” that the human Jesus was a figure identified as the apocalyptic Son of Man? Of course, neither does a single epistle writer make such an identification either, all of which Ehrman is forced to ignore.)
This somewhat lengthy analysis has served two purposes:
- to show that Ehrman is on shakier ground than he thinks in identifying a teaching of Jesus and what it says about his nature;
- to give an idea of the sort of thing involved in a study of Q which points to the introduction of a Jesus/founder figure only in the course of Q’s development.
Of course, there is a lot more evidence for this in Q than the points raised here, and I suggest a reading of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, from Chapters 23 to 26.
“L” and “M” sources
Ehrman next throws in a pericope from Luke (21:34-6) about the coming of the Son of Man which is usually assigned to a postulated “L source.” It ends thus:
. . . Be alert at all times, praying to have strength to flee from all these things that are about to take place and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man. [Note again the curiosity of the Son of Man seeming to be a different figure than the speaker.]
But the point has been made that there is no way to demonstrate that the ‘L source’ is not simply a set of material of Luke’s own invention, building on motifs already within the Q and Synoptic traditions. Certainly, if one takes L or M as a whole, neither one looks like a distinct body of material circulating independently, for many basic elements of Jesus tradition show no sign of being included, to be drawn on by Matthew and Luke.
But Ehrman uses this L pericope about the Son of Man to make the following argument:
The oldest attainable sources contain clear apocalyptic teachings of Jesus, all of them independent of one another. What is equally striking, however, is a subsidiary issue. The apocalyptic character of Jesus’s proclamation comes to be muted with the passing of time. After the writing of these earlier sources, we find less and less apocalyptic material. By the time we get to our last canonical Gospel, John, we have almost no apocalyptic teachings of Jesus at all. Here Jesus preaches about something else (chiefly his own identity, as the one who has come from the Father to bring eternal life). And when we get to still later Gospels, from outside the New Testament, we actually find instances—such as in the Gospel of Thomas—where Jesus argues against an apocalyptic view (Gospel of Thomas 3,113). (DJE? p. 300-301)
First of all, the L source is hardly made up of a majority of apocalyptic material. While not all scholars are in precise agreement about the content of L, we can look at one Christian’s reconstruction of it. Kim Peffenroth [see http://www.christiancadre.org/member_contrib/cp_lukespecmat.html] lists some two dozen separate pericopes (excluding the Nativity and Luke’s unique Passion/Resurrection elements which are generally not regarded as belonging to L). Those which present an unmistakeable apocalyptic motif amount to precisely one: the one quoted by Ehrman (21:34-36). The situation is not much better where Matthew’s “M” is concerned. (Apparently those “earliest sources” were already muted.)
In fact, the vast bulk of L consists of parables (having a structure Robert M. Price regards as suspiciously alike). A parable collection, even if preceding Luke, could have been the product of anyone or any sect in the field of kingdom preaching. A few constitute miracle stories, which again could originally have represented the sect’s own traditions (following on Arnal’s observations). But since a few other L items seem designed by Luke himself to further the progress of the action (such as 9:51-56 and 13:31-33), there is little reason not to see the whole of the material as his own contribution to his redaction of Mark’s Jesus story, including his own supplement to the Q collection.
The bottom line is that neither L nor M supply much of anything for Ehrman’s contention that the “early record” shows Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Nor for his “subsidiary” claim that Jesus traditions exploded out of the starting gate laden with apocalyptic motifs which eventually underwent a muting, allegedly fitting Jesus’ preaching career as an apocalypticist and the gradual fading of its influence as time moved on. Certainly Mark several decades later shows no ‘muting’ of apocalyptic expectation over alleged earlier sources of the Gospels. But pointing to John does little either, for the Fourth Gospel’s focus is entirely on a different portrayal of Jesus (as Ehrman points out), and besides, there remains a clear interest in Jesus as apocalyptic Son of Man and judge in John 5:25-29.
The Gospel of Thomas and Q
As for appealing to the Gospel of Thomas, this works against Ehrman. It is true that Thomas has little interest in apocalypticism and even, as Ehrman points out, has Jesus arguing against it. But Thomas as we have it is judged a mid-second century product, and its later gnostic-like stratum is concerned with salvation through knowledge, so it is not surprising that things apocalyptic would tend to have fallen by the wayside and even into discredit. The latter is in common with most second-century Christian writings, which have begun to play down promises and expectations that have too long gone unfulfilled.
On the other hand, the Gospel of Thomas is a two-edged sword. In finished form it may have a second-century provenance, but it is recognized to contain a stratum which is not only early, it has much in common with Q1. (Crossan calls their similar content the CST: Common Sayings tradition.) You remember Q1, the earliest record of the ‘genuine’ teachings of Jesus, which the offshoot earlier stratum of Thomas corroborates? There isn’t a single apocalyptic saying in the lot, much less about the apocalyptic Son of Man. Here the Kingdom is quite a different animal. As for Q2, if all that apocalypticism goes back to an historical Jesus, we have to ask not only why such an atmosphere is entirely missing in the supposed earliest record of his teaching, but how we can reconcile the incompatibilities between the two. Q2’s apocalypticism is simply not in keeping with the sentiments of Q1. Apparently Jesus must have been profoundly schizophrenic.
Thus, there are two documents with very early strata which belie Ehrman’s claims about the preaching of an historical Jesus.
And while there is no doubt that End-time preaching was all the rage until around the end of the first century (it received a shot in the arm from the Jewish War of 66-70), Ehrman can supply no evidence that a specific historical Jesus was engaged in it. Certainly he has ignored the observations of Arnal, even in my references to him in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man.
Apocalypticism in the epistles, but no apocalypticist
Of course, there is a whole other body of early documents which Ehrman quietly ignores here. There is no question that the communities which produced the New Testament epistles and Revelation were intensely interested in apocalyptic matters, even in an arrival of Jesus the Son at the imminent End-time. But this makes it all the more startling that not a single one of those writers refers to the precedent of Jesus’ own preaching on these matters.
The same is true of a range of non-canonical documents.
- 1 Clement presents no apocalyptic prophet (he and the rest of the epistle writers of the first century do not even know of John the Baptist), despite ‘Clement’ throwing everything into his long argument but the kitchen sink.
- The Didache contains no earthly teacher either, except by forcing God as “the Lord” into a select application to Jesus (see JNGNM, Appendix 8); nor does it show any interest in apocalypticism outside of the final chapter, where “the Lord” is expected to arrive, but with no word on him having already been here to preach that arrival.
- Barnabas, too, while speaking in principle about a teaching Jesus, says nothing about his apocalyptic orientation.
- The epistles of Ignatius say nothing about his teaching or apocalypticist character.
- The Son in the Shepherd of Hermas never touches the ground.
- And the Odes of Solomon, often interpreted as a poetic expression of Christian joy in the arrival of the messiah (despite saying nothing about an incarnated Jesus, not even the name), is as gloriously un-apocalyptic as one can find anywhere in the record.
Ehrman’s claim that Jesus as apocalyptic proclaimer can be found “throughout our earliest sources . . . all over the map” is an empty one.
The Alpha and the Omega
Ehrman now crafts an argument which focuses on the beginning and end of Jesus’ public life. The first is the baptism of Jesus by John.
That Jesus associated with John the Baptist is multiply attested in a number of our early sources. It is found in both Mark and John, independently of one another; there are also traditions of Jesus’s early association with John in Q and a distinctive story from M. Why would all these sources independently link Jesus to John? Probably because there was in fact a link. (DJE? p. 302)
Has Ehrman read a reconstructed Q lately? Where in its opening pericopes of the Baptist preaching is there any link between the Baptist and Jesus, let alone that the latter had been baptized by the former? (The occasional suggestion that the opening of Q included a baptism scene is a fringe position in Q scholarship, lacking any basis but wishful thinking.)
Where is it made clear that John is even aware of the existence on earth of the “baptizer with fire” he prophesies? (Later he is made aware in the Dialogue pericope, put together courtesy of a Q redactor.) Ehrman has the nerve to quote from the opening of Q even in the face of a void in those verses on any link whatever with Jesus. As for John, the evangelist’s use of a motif in the Synoptic baptism of Jesus is proof of his dependence on Mark (see Part 30).
And what is the “distinctive story” from M? Ehrman doesn’t inform us. If it is Matthew’s little addition to the baptism scene (3:14) in which John protests to Jesus that “I need rather to be baptized by you,” Ehrman ought to be well aware that scholars in general regard this as Matthew trying to rescue what he perceives as an objectionable Markan episode in having Jesus baptized at all.
Ehrman applies the criterion of dissimilarity to Jesus’ baptism. Since the baptizer was traditionally regarded as superior to the baptized, who would make up a story about the superior being baptized by the inferior? Mark would, if he was only allegorizing, or presenting a scene which served to create a paradigm for the community’s own rite of baptism. He might have, if his lesson was to show that even the greatest needed to undergo the symbol of repentance. Or maybe just because he was less sensitive to the idea than later evangelists were.
For Ehrman, Jesus submitting to baptism by John showed that he considered himself in sync with what John was preaching. (Would that any of our sources could convey the internal workings of Jesus’ mind in the way that Ehrman and indeed many New Testament scholars have no trouble deciphering.) This becomes, in Ehrman’s view, evidence that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.
Ehrman raises the other bookend: the movement which sprang up in response to the death of Jesus. Lo and behold—it was an apocalyptic one! We can see this in Paul and the other Christian writers, who were
filled with expectations that they—the Christians at the time—would be alive when Jesus returned from heaven as judge of the earth (see, for example, l Thessalonians 4 :13 – 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15). (DJE? p. 303)
One can only groan at Ehrman’s “returned” from heaven, which of course no epistle writer ever voices.
Or at his failure to take into account that almost every sectarian expression on the first-century scene, Jewish or Christian, was basically apocalyptic in nature. Did an historical Jesus inspire 4 Ezra, 1 and 2 Enoch, 2 and 3 Baruch, or the many apocalypses from Abraham to Zephaniah? Even the Zealot movement had its apocalyptic dimension, expecting the intervention of God in their anticipated overthrow of the Romans.
Between these Alpha and Omega bookends, Ehrman places his apocalyptic Jesus:
To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (DJE? p. 304)
As the comedian remarked, it was a long way to go to arrive at a rather mundane punch line.
. . . to be continued
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