Why Scholars Came to Think of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

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by Neil Godfrey

It has not always been so. Times change and so does the “conventional wisdom”. Judas, for example, began something of a rehabilitation in response to ecumenism and to the world being confronted with the horrific results of anti-semitism in the early half of the twentieth century. Instead of a malicious villain, he became in some quarters seen as a well-meaning zealot, a victim of misguided aspirations. The idea that Jesus taught a message that focussed on the cataclysmic “end of the world” as the way to establish the righteous kingdom of God may be off-handedly mentioned as if it is an established fact that is not questioned by most scholars, but something changed that brought about this common viewpoint.

One reason often given in support of this view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is one that has often troubled me:

[T]he apocalypticism of Jesus is such a potentially embarrassing thing, so scandalous to the post-Enlightenment intellect of the twentieth century that its acceptance has long been considered a test of scholarly objectivity; anyone who would reject this hypothesis is viewed by his or her peers as a hopeless romantic, unable or unwilling to accept the scandalous reality that Jesus did not think like us. (Patterson, 30)

If there is one “certainty” about ancient authors, including biblical ones, that is in other contexts pointed out over and over, it is that if an author found a particular fact embarrassing he or she would be quite capable of simply glossing over it or, less often, re-writing it in a way that totally changed its character and left no room for any alternative interpretation. If the evangelists really believed that the prophetic utterances of Jesus failed to take place as he had promised then why on earth would they have recorded those failures in their gospels? One answer sometimes offered to this question is that, say, the Gospel of Mark was written just prior (by a matter of months) to the fall of the Jerusalem in the full expectation that it was about to be destroyed and that Jesus would then descend on clouds from heaven. Another, even less plausible notion, is that the gospel was written just after the fall of Jerusalem and the author was in daily expectation of the coming of Jesus. Both explanations are surely special pleading. Why even write a gospel if one sincerely believed one all saints were about to be transformed into immortality at any moment and the rest of the world judged? If one did write something that one only months, or even a year or two, later realized was undeniably wrong, then one would surely expect the work to have been re-written to either deny what had been said or to add an explanation for why it was not fulfilled in 70 CE, or scrapped entirely.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892

But I am changing the theme I began to address in this post. I will post later a more detailed case for a reinterpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies apparently put in the mouth of Jesus. For now, let’s return to the “conventional scholarly wisdom”.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources (e.g. Mark 13, Matthew 24. Luke 21) has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892. Historical inquiry into the cultural miliew into which Jesus was born and within which he preached was still a relatively young field in the late nineteenth century. It was philosophical analysis, not history, that served as the interpretive key to understanding the Scriptures. Theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, for example, were at work transforming the ethical idealism of Immanuel Kant into the full flowering of liberal theology. (Patterson, 30)

Johannes Weiss

The first scholar of note to have published an argument that Jesus did preach that the world was coming to a violent end and God’s kingdom was about to enter with cosmically-overturning violence was Johannes Weiss. His 1892 Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (German title, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes) had little impact. For Stephen Patterson the explanation was “the times” in which it appeared:

The German idealism of the nineteenth century was, above all else, optimistic about the future; the Jesus of Weiss would have been utterly irrelevant to its credo. Weiss would not find popular acceptance until after the year 1906 when another young scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer published the book that established him as one of his generation’s great biblical scholars: The Quest of the Historical Jesus. (Patterson, 31)

Yet as most of us well know, Schweitzer’s thesis was widely acclaimed and its shadow remains cast over many modern interpretations of Jesus.

But why was Schweitzer able to succeed in 1906 where Weiss had failed in 1892?

The answer is simple. Times changed. The optimism of the nineteenth century had, by 1906, almost completely evaporated with the increasing political instability that characterized Europe in the years leading up to World War I. In its place, there arose a profound sense of dread and uncertainty as an increasingly dark future loomed ever larger on the horizon. The mood is captured most poignantly in the autobiography of Sir Edward Grey, who, on the eve of World War I, recalls having uttered to a close friend words that would be used repeatedly to capture the spirit of times: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the midst of the cultural optimism of 1892, Weiss’s apocalyptic Jesus was a scandal; in the atmosphere of cultural pessimism that was just beginning to come to expression in 1906, this apocalyptic Jesus was just what the doctor ordered.

This state of affairs in Western culture has not altered much over the course of this century. This has been true especially in Europe, devastated by two World Wars and the economic instability and collapse that fueled the fires of discontent, and disturbed by the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over the European psyche as a constant reminder of humanity’s potential to social pathology and unfathomable evil. (Patterson 32)

One could add more to the post-World War II situation — as anyone slightly aware of modern history will know.

North America, on the other hand, maintained its “cultural optimism” longer than Europe. World War 2 did not leave Northern America devastated as it had Europe. For the US the war was recollected as a victory.

But by the 1950s, the cultural pessimism that began with the political collapse of Europe and the catastrophe of two World Wars eventually began to wash up onto the victorious, self-confident, can-do shores of North America as well, as we faced the psychologically debilitating realities of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear or environmental disaster, and the social upheaval of the 1960s. We too began to experience the cultural malaise that had held its grip on Europe for the first half of the century. This change in attitude is expressed perhaps most eloquently by Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1952 essay, The Irony ofAmerican History:

Could there be a clearer tragic dilemma than that which faces our civilization? Though confident of its virtue, it must hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration. . . . Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb. . . . Our dreams of moving the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.

What Niebuhr, as a member of the generation that created the nuclear age, saw as a tragic and bitter irony has become for the present generation an existential presupposition. The result has been a pessimism about culture and its future, pervasive throughout Western society, that has not gone unnoticed in the annals of philosophical history. The great historian of Western thought W. T. Jones has written about our age:

Students of contemporary culture have characterized this century in various ways — for instance, as the age of anxiety, the aspirin age, the nuclear age, the age of one-dimensional man, the post-industrial age; but nobody, unless a candidate for political office at some political convention, has called this a happy age. . . . The rise of dictatorships, two world wars, genocide, the deterioration of the environment, and the Vietnam war have all had a share in undermining the old beliefs in progress, in rationality, and in people’s capacity to control their own destiny and improve their lot.

(Patterson, 33)

There have been a few notable voices arguing for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan are relatively well-known. But the Jesus Seminar (with which they were associated) has been surprisingly (to me) dismissed out of hand, even ridiculed, by so much of the academy of biblical scholarship today. Their presentations of a “non-apocalyptic Jesus” appear to be relegated to curious oddities by popular names like those of Bart Ehrman.

My point here is not to argue the case against the apocalyptic Jesus. My point is to draw attention to the realization, at least among one scholarly quarter, that scholarly interpretations change over time and with the times. What is often addressed as “a fact” may “in fact” be an interpretation that is a product of the times and in other times it may well become nothing more than a “curious oddity”.

Patterson, Stephen J. 1995. “The End of Apocalypse: Rethinking the Eschatological Jesus.” Theology Today 52 (1): 29–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004057369505200104.