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I agree with mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, et al.) that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Such a hypothesis, if true, would be a simple one that would make sense of a wide range of data, including the following twenty:
- John the Baptist preached a message of repentance to escape the imminent judgment of the eschaton. Jesus was his baptized disciple, and thus accepted his message — and in fact preached basically the same message.
- Jesus’ Son of Man passages are allusions to the son of man figure in Daniel 7:13-14 and Enoch ch 37-71 (both texts were widely discussed in first century Palestine). This figure was an end of the world arbiter of God’s justice, and Jesus kept preaching that he was on his way (e.g., “From now on, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matt. 26:64).
- The earliest canonical writing: Paul taught of an imminent eschaton, and it mirrors in wording the end-time passages in the synoptics (especially the so-called “Little Apocalypse” in Mark, and the subsequently-written parallels in Matthew and Luke).
- Many passages depict Jesus predicting the end within his generation.
- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15)
- “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mark 13:30)
- “You will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23)
- “There are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” (Mark 9:1)
- “From now on, you shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds” (Matt 26:64)
- A sense of urgency permeates the gospels and the other NT writings. For example:
- The disciples must hurry to send the message to the cities of Israel before Daniel’s “Son of Man” comes
- Jesus’ statement that even burying one’s parents has a lower priority
- Paul telling the Corinthians not to change their current state, since it’s all about to end (e.g., don’t seek marriage, or to leave one’s slave condition, etc., since the end of all things is at hand)
- Relatedly, Jesus and Paul taught a radical “interim ethic” (e.g., don’t divorce, radical forgiveness, don’t judge others, love one’s enemies, etc.). This makes sense if they believed that the eschaton would occur within their generation, and that all needed to repent and prepare for its arrival.
- Jesus had his disciples leave everything and follow him around. This makes sense if Jesus believed that he and they were to be God’s final messengers before the eschaton.
- Jesus gathered twelve disciples, which is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. He also said they were to sit on twelve thrones and serve as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. This reflects the common expectation that at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel.
- There is a clear pattern of a successive watering down of Jesus’ prediction of the eschaton within the generation of his disciples, starting with Mark (widely believed among NT scholars to be the first gospel written), and continuing through the rest of the synoptic gospels. By the time we get to John, the last gospel written, the eschatological “kingdom of God” talk is dropped (except for one passage, and it no longer has clear eschatological connotations), along with the end-time predictions, and is replaced with “eternal life” talk. Further, the epistles presuppose that the early church thought Jesus really predicted the end within their lifetimes. Finally, this successive backpedaling continues beyond the NT writings and into those of the apocrypha and the early church leaders, even to the point where some writings attribute an anti-apocalyptic message to Jesus. All of these things make perfect sense if Jesus really did make such a prediction, and the church needed to reinterpret his message in light of the fact that his generation passed away, yet the eschaton never came.
- Jesus’ base followers were all considered to represent the “bottom” of society in his day: the poor, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, tax collectors, lepers, and the demon-possessed. This is perfectly in line with the standard apocalyptic doctrine of the reversal of fortunes when the kingdom of God comes: “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.
- Jesus performed many exorcisms, which he claimed marked the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on Earth. They were thus signs of the imminent apocalypse. Satan and his minions were being cast out of power, and God’s power was taking its place.
- Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration, and his subsequent activities there, are best explained in terms of his apocalyptic message and his perceived role in proclaiming it. Jesus went to the temple during the Passover Festival, and spent many days teaching about his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming kingdom of God. The apocalyptic message included the idea that the temple in Jerusalem would also be destroyed.
- Jesus caused a disturbance in the temple itself, which appears to have been a symbolic enactment of his apocalyptic teaching about the temple’s destruction.
- Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’ subsequent arrest, is best explained in terms of Judas’ betraying to the religious authorities (the Sadducees and the chief priests) Jesus’ teaching (to his inner circle of disciples) that he would be the King of the Jews in the coming Kingdom of God.
- Jesus was executed on the charge of political sedition, due to his claim that he was the King of the Jews. His execution was therefore directly related to his apocalyptic message of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.
- The fact that not just all New Testament authors, but the early church as a whole, believed the end would occur in their generation makes perfect sense if Jesus really did make such claims.
- The passages that attribute these predictions to Jesus and Paul satisfy the historical criteria of multiple attestation (and forms), embarrassment, earliest strata (Mark, Q, M, L, Paul’s earliest letters, the ancient “Maranatha” creed/hymn) etc., thus strongly indicating that these words go back to the lips of Jesus.
- Jesus’ parables: virtually all explicitly or implicitly teach a message about an imminent eschaton.
- Jesus’ “inversion” teachings (e.g., “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first”): a common theme among Jewish apocalypticists generally. The general message of apocalypticists is that those who are evil and defy God will not get away with it forever. The just are trampled, and the unjust prosper; thus, this situation needs to be inverted – as it will be when the “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel comes to exact God’s judgment at any moment.
- The earliest Christians believed that Jesus’ putative resurrection was (to use Paul’s terminology) the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This is an agricultural metaphor. When farmers reaped and ate the first fruits of the harvest, they would then reap the full harvest the very next day — the “general” harvest was “imminent”, as it was “inaugurated” with the reaping of the first-fruits. Similarly, the earliest Christians believed that the final judgement and the general resurrection were imminent, given their belief that Jesus’ resurrection was itself the inaugurating event of the general resurrection and the end of all things. Thus, there is a continuity between the beliefs of the early Christians and the beliefs of many Jews of his time: Jesus’ resurrection was fundamentally construed in these eschatological terms
And so, no matter which way you slice it, the “statute of limitations” has run out on Jesus and his apostle’s claim for an imminent end, within a single generation.
It needs to be emphasized that this line of reasoning isn’t controversial among mainstream, middle-of-the-road NT critics. I’m not talking about a view held by the Jesus Seminar, or earlier “radical” form and redaction critics like Norman Perrin. Rather, I’m talking about the kinds of considerations that are largely accepted by moderates who are also committed Christians, such as Dale Allison and John P. Meier. Indeed, conservative scholars of the likes of none other than Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright largely admit this line of reasoning. Why are they still Christians, you ask? I’ll tell you: by giving unnatural, ad hoc explanations of the data. For example,
- Meier gets around the problem by arguing that the false prediction passages are inauthentic (i.e., Jesus never said those things; the early church just put those words on the lips of Jesus, and they ended up in the gospels).
- Witherington gets around the problem by saying that what Jesus really meant was that the imminent arrival of the eschatological kingdom might be at hand(!)
- Wright gets around the problem by adopting the partial preterist line that the imminent end that Jesus predicted really did occur — it’s just that it was all fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem.
- Oh, really? So are we also to think that since he’s already come again, he’s not coming back? Or perhaps there will be a third coming?
- And why does Paul tell various communities very far outside of Israel about the same sorts of predictions of an imminent end that would affect them — one that, like the one Jesus talked about, involved judgement, destruction, and the gathering of all the elect?
Are you convinced by these responses? Me neither. And now you know why nobody outside of orthodox circles buys them, either.
To all of this, I say what should be obvious: you know, deep in your gut (don’t you?) that such responses are unnatural, ad hoc dodges of what we know to be the truth here: Jesus really did predict the end within the lifetime of his disciples, but he was simply wrong.
This isn’t about some remark Jesus said in passing. It was his central message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Putting it all together, we get the following argument for Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet:
- Let H1 be the hypothesis that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton.
- Let H2 be the hypothesis that Jesus is the Son of God of orthodox Christianity.
- Let D1-20 be the data sketched above.
Then the argument can be expressed as follows:
- H1 is a better explanation of D1-20 than H2.
- If H1 is a better explanation of D1-20 than H2, then H1 is more probable than H2.
- Therefore, H1 is more probable than H2.