The first part of my response to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is @ Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet. There we pointed out that there is no support in our historical sources (primarily Josephus) for the common assertion that Judaeans and Galileans in the early first century were pining for an imminent overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a liberating Kingdom of God. In other words, the assertion that apocalyptic prophets like our gospel depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus would have been enthusiastically welcomed at that time lacks evidence.
This post addresses one more significant but (as I hope to demonstrate) flawed plank in O’Neill’s argument. I expect to address one more final point in the Apocalyptic Prophet essay in a future post.
“Has come near”, as we shall see, is a disputed translation. But O’Neill is confident that his translation is the correct one, and he even asserts without reference to any evidence that Jesus was speaking of a soon-to-be end of human oppression, not just demonic rule:
The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here.
Towards the end of his post O’Neill does acknowledge that some scholars do dispute the translation but he sidelines their arguments by characterizing them as “a tactic” that was plotted “in reaction” to threats against conservative doctrines, and he accuses the scholars themselves of unscholarly “wish fullfilment (sic)”, and to cap it all off he infers that Schweitzer’s arguments have so stood the test of time that they are the only ones followed by entirely disinterested scholars:
Most of those who reacted to Weiss and Schweitzer took an angle still used by more conservative Christian scholars today – the idea that Jesus himself represented God’s intervention in the world and that all references to the “kingdom of God” are to him and his arrival. This “realised eschatology” is most closely associated with J.A.T. Robinson and C.H. Dodd and a form of it is still used by current conservatives like N.T. Wright. But Schweitzer laid out the arguments against this tactic back in 1910 and more modern attempts to prop up this idea do not have any more strength than they had a century ago. As many of the gospel texts cited and quoted above show, Jesus is consistently depicted as declaring the kingship of God as something that is “close” or “draws near” and is “coming”. As we have seen, it is only in the later texts that this gets replaced by the idea that it is “among you” or is embodied in the Redeemer Jesus. . . . .
But Jesus as an Jewish apocalyptic prophet does not represent any wish fullfilment (sic) by the scholars who hold this view. . . .
Now Tim O’Neill might be right to follow Schweitzer here, but I cannot know that he is. When scholars disagree on theological points that hinge on the correct interpretations of Greek words I personally feel uncomfortable taking a firm stand on either side. I think a case that rests on one particular translation of a disputed passage is not one to bet one’s house on.
After reading the United Bible Society’s Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark by Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida I am left feeling making a firm decision for one translation over the other is beyond my area of expertise. Here is Mark 1:15 in the Greek from biblehub:
I quote the Translator’s Handbook commentary on Mark 1:15 in full. I have highlighted certain passages with bold font PLUS underlining to draw attention to the possibility that Mark 1:15 can mean that the time is not future but now, and that God’s kingdom “has now come”. Alternative possibilities are presented.
Exegesis: hoti ‘that’ is recitative, introducing direct speech (cf. 1.37, 40, 2.12, etc.). Turner (Journal of Theological Studies 28.9–14, 1926–7) catalogues some 45 instances of this use of hoti ‘that’ in Mark.
peplērōtai (14.49) ‘is fulfilled.’ The verb plēroō ‘fill up,’ ‘complete’ when used of time indicates that a period of time has reached its end (cf. Gen. 29.21). Moulton & Milligan show that this use of the word is not peculiar to Scriptures, quoting a papyrus: “the period of the lease has expired.” The verb is used only in the passive in the N.T. and early Christian literature. “The time has run its course and reached its end: the appointed hour has arrived.” The implied subject of plēroō is God: Jeremias (Parables. 12 et passim) has abundantly shown that the passive in the N.T. is often a “circumlocution…to indicate the divine activity.”
ho kairos (10.30, 11.13, 12.2, 13.33) ‘the time’: not simply chronological time, but opportune time, appointed time, “season” (Kennedy Sources. 153). Cf. ‘appointed time’ Eze. 7.12, Dan. 12.4, 9 (cf. Eph. 1.10). The word (as Arndt & Gingrich 4, point out) is one of the chief eschatological terms in the Bible: kairos is supremely God’s time.
kai ēggiken hē basileia tou theou : ‘and the kingdom of God has drawn near’ (or, ‘has arrived’).
eggizō (11.1, 14.42) ‘approach,’ ‘draw near.’ The force of the perfect has been the object of much debate. Dodd (Parables. 44). Lagrange, Black (Aramaic. 260–62) argue that the meaning is ‘has come’ or ‘has arrived’ (Manson). Kilpatrick (TBT 7.53, 1956) rightly observes that one’s conclusion “must be determined in part by other considerations” than purely grammatical ones. Black’s argument that the words ho kairos peplērōtai ‘the time is fulfilled’ are decisive for the meaning ‘has come’ is not lightly to be denied (for a forceful presentation of the meaning ‘has drawn nigh’ see R. H. Fuller The Mission and Achievement of Jesus, 20–49, and W. G. Kummel Promise and Fulfilment, 19–25).
hē basileia tou theou ‘the kingdom of God.’ Dalman (Words, 91–147) has conclusively demonstrated that the meaning of basileia is that of exercise of royal power. Arndt & Gingrich: “kingship, royal power, royal rule, especially the royal reign of God.”
metanoeite (6.12) ‘repent (you, pl.)’ (cf. v. 4).
pisteuete en tō euaggeliō ‘believe (you, pl.) in the gospel.’
pisteuō (5.36, 9.23, 24, 42, 11.23, 24, 31, 13.21, 15.32, 16.13, 14, 16, 17) ‘believe.’ Here only in the N.T. is the construction pisteuō en ‘believe in’ to be found (John 3.15 and Eph. 1.13 are not true parallels). Moulton (Prolegomena. 67 f.) at one time agreed with Deissmann that pisteuō is here used in an absolute sense, being correctly translated “believe in (the sphere of) the Gospel” (cf. Moule Idiom Book. 80 f.). Later, however (cf. Howard II, 464). Moulton changed his mind and accepted the construction as translation Greek, meaning simply, “believe the Gospel.” Gould comments: “The rendering ‘believe in the Gospel’ is a too literal translation of a Marcan Semitism.” Manson translates: “Believe the Good News.”
euaggelion (cf. v. 1) ‘gospel’: some (Taylor, Gould, Lagrange) hold that the meaning here is literally ‘the good news’ (cf. Weymouth: “this Good News”), while others maintain it has the technical Christian sense of “the Christian message.” In the light of v. 1 the latter is to be preferred.
Translation: In rendering and saying one must often separate it from the preceding verse and make it an independent verb expression ‘he said,’ with whatever appropriate connective (if any) may be employed.
Since time in this instance is a point of time (an opportunity or occasion), its equivalent in many languages is ‘day.’ One must avoid using a word which implies extent of time (which is an entirely different Greek term, see above).
Is fulfilled is admittedly a difficult expression, unless one translates the idea, rather than the word—this, of course, is fundamentally what one must always do. One can either say ‘the day has come’ or as in some languages ‘this is the day.’ In Shipibo there is an interesting idiom ‘the when-it-is (referring to any occasion) is already coming-up’—very appropriate equivalent of the Greek. In some languages, however, one cannot speak of ‘days coming’ but only of ‘people coming to the day,’ which is equally acceptable, if this is the normal way in which people describe the fulfillment of time.
If in verse 1.14 the Textus Receptus is adopted, it is possible to speak of the kingdom of God as ‘where God rules’; in this verse, however, we must speak of the kingdom of God in terms of time. Accordingly, in Huastec, even though in 1.14 kingdom is translated as ‘where God rules’ (the more usual form of the expression), in 1.15 it must be rendered as ‘now is when God is going to reign.’ The idea of immediate future implied in the expression is at hand is rendered in Zoque as ‘God is soon going to rule.’ In Pame the translation is ‘God is soon going to make himself the ruler.’ Another possibility is ‘God the ruler is here.’
For repent see 1.4.
A key word in any Scripture translation is believe. However, finding suitable equivalents (several are usually necessary depending upon the context) is admittedly very complex, for such expressions as believe a report, believe a person and believe in a person are frequently treated in other languages as quite different types of expressions. For discussions of some of the problems relating to the translation of believe and faith (these contain the same basic root in Greek), see TBT, 1.139, 161–62, 1950; 2.57, 107–8, 1951; 3.143, 1952; 4.51, 136, 167, 1953; 5.93, 1954; 6.39–41, 1955; BT, 230; GWIML, 21, 118–22, 125. Cf. Hooper Indian Word List , pp. 172–73.
Since belief or faith is so essentially an intimate psychological experience, it is not strange that so many terms denoting faith should be highly figurative and represent an almost unlimited range of emotional ‘centers’ and descriptions of relationships, e.g. ‘steadfast his heart’ (Chol), ‘to arrive on the inside’ (Trique), ‘to conform with the heart’ (Timorese), ‘to join the word to the body’ (Uduk), ‘to hear in the insides’ (Kabba-Laka), ‘to make the mind big for something’ (Putu), ‘to make the heart straight about’ (Mitla Zapotec), ‘to cause a word to enter the insides’ (Lacandon), ‘to leave one’s heart with’ (Kuripako), ‘to catch in the mind’ (Valiente), ‘that which one leans on’ (Vai), ‘to be strong on’ (Shipibo), ‘to have no doubts’ (San Blas), ‘to hear and take into the insides’ (Karré), ‘to accept’ (Bare’e).
Though these are the expressions used in a variety of languages to express faith, one must not conclude that they can be used automatically in all types of contexts. For example, though in Uduk to believe in God is generally translated as ‘to join God’s word to the body,’ in this context one must speak of ‘joining the joyful word to the body’ (‘joyful word’ is the gospel). In Valiente, however, it is possible to speak of ‘catching the word in the mind’ (if one is talking about believing a statement), but ‘catching God in the mind’ (if one is speaking of faith in God). In some instances one must use a kind of paratactic construction to indicate faith in a statement, e.g. ‘to declare, It is true.’ This type of inserted direct discourse may be rather awkward, but it is an effective equivalent in some languages.
One special problem should be noted, namely, the tendency for some languages to make no distinction between words for ‘believe’ and ‘obey.’ At first this may seem to be a clear case of deficiency in the language, but it can be a distinct gain in the task of evangelism, for it prevents people from saying that they believe the gospel when they have no intentions of obeying its implications.
O’Neill points to many other passages that he claims agree with or support his interpretation of Mark 1:15, that Jesus preached that the rule of God was going to come some day soon. I don’t think I really need to address each of those passages here because any thoughtful reader can surely see that the passages he cites do not, at least in most cases, declare that the kingdom of God is going to come “very soon” from now. Read them. Most of those passages say that the judgmental arrival of God could happen “any time” — either very soon or a long time from now. The message is to be ready at all times, not just for the immediate future. The instruction is by implication to persevere even for a long time but to be ready “now” just in case.
Some of the other verses referenced by O’Neill can suggest the “coming in a day not far away” but they could also be interpreted to accord with the sense of the kingdom being here now in the presence of Jesus. We have to beware of circular reasoning once we start calling on such passages to support our view of a disputed phrase.
Other passages O’Neill claims refer to a cataclysmic shaking of the earth and heavens, but anyone familiar with the Old Testament sources of the imagery knows that references to stars falling from shaken heavens are metaphors for the destruction of cities.
Overlooked by O’Neill but surely significant is the way the Gospel of Mark conflates elements of his apocalyptic prophecy of Mark 13 with the Passion narrative of Jesus. Why is “Mark” messing with readers’ minds like that?
Notice, too, a very specific prophecy involving the high priest in Mark 14:61-62:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Stop and think a moment about that. The author of this gospel was writing some time after 70 CE so he surely knew that the high priest failed to live to see “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” — at least if we read Mark literally. So why did he record a prophecy of Jesus that he surely knew had failed? We are forced to ask how much of the Gospel of Mark is meant to be interpreted literally. Perhaps the following may help us come to an answer:
He did not say anything to them without using a parable.
14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
There are many scenes in the Gospel of Mark that make no sense as history or biography but are perfectly intelligible if read as parables or metaphors. (R.G. Price’s book Deciphering the Gospels covers this theme as well.) A classic example is the need for four men carrying a paralytic to dig through the roof of a house to bypass the crowds preventing access to Jesus through the doorway, yet when the paralytic is healed he has no problem waltzing through the suddenly cleared doorway back to his home! Certainly we can imagine many extra details to make a sensible story out of it, but that’s the point: the story and many others like it don’t make sense as they are written. It is left up to “Matthew” and “Luke” to rework some of those scenes so they do make sense as realistic stories.
I am not prepared to bet my life on Mark 1:5 meaning either that the kingdom is “coming some day soon” or that the kingdom is “here now”. Or perhaps it even means both. The more familiar one becomes with the Gospel of Mark the more instances of such ambiguities one sees. One begins to wonder if the author was deliberately playing with ambiguities of meaning throughout his entire narrative.
A reliable historical reconstruction needs to rest on more secure sources than disputed interpretations of Greek terms or a disputed point of theology.
In the next and probably final post I want to make in response to O’Neill’s argument for a genuinely historical apocalyptic Jesus I will zero in on the most fundamental flaw in his method, one that is all too common among biblical scholars and that sets apart historians of the New Testament from other historians of ancient times.
Bratcher, Robert G., and Eugene A. Nida. 1993. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. New York: United Bible Societies.
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