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Back to Aslan’s Thesis. An Alternative View: Jesus the Apocalypticist

I have spent considerable time showing just how problematic Reza Aslan’s view of Jesus is, as he set it forth in his bestselling Zealot. But it is not enough to attack someone else’s position if you don’t agree with it. You also have to have an alternative that is more attractive. So it’s time to move into that realm.

As I have repeatedly stated on this blog, the view of Jesus that has dominated scholarship since the classic of Albert Schweitzer in 1906, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (actually, it was in German, with the title, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, which, frankly, is not nearly as catchy….), is that Jesus is best understood to have been – as were many of his contemporaries – a Jewish apocalypticist, one who believed that God was soon to intervene in history in a spectacular and cosmic way to overthrow the forces of evil in a supernatural show of power, and bring in a good kingdom on earth in which there would be no more injustice and oppression and poverty, no more pain, misery, or suffering. This would not happen through political revolt but through a divine display of cosmic power. And it would all happen soon – within Jesus’ own generation.

I have pointed out that Aslan does not ever explain what his criteria are for determining whether a tradition of Jesus is historical or not. In my book on Jesus (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) I deal at length with historical criteria; I have dealt with them before on this blog and so won’t go into them now. But I will say this: as historians utilizing the Gospels as historical sources, if one wants to know what actually goes back to the historical Jesus, among other things one looks at the earliest sources available and tries to find patterns that permeate all of these sources. The earliest sources are Mark (our earliest Gospel), Q (the sayings source shared by Matthew and Luke, and usually dated at least as early as Mark), M (the source for Matthew’s special material), and L (the source for Luke’s).

Aslan’s idea that Jesus may have been a zealot interested in the political overthrow of the Romans by a show of force in which Israel would be established as a nation by use of the sword is based on very scanty evidence – a hint there, a hard to explain detail there, in one source or another – as I have already pointed out. These hints and details do indeed need to be explained. But there is no way at all that they dominate the early tradition. Not even close. The idea that Jesus proclaimed a cosmic, supernatural, intervention of God (rather than a political revolution), on the other hand, is all over the place, abundantly attested precisely in our earliest sources. It is, in fact, in all of them.


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The Later De-apocalypticizing of Jesus
2009 Debate With Mike Licona: Can Historians Prove the Resurrection of Jesus?



  1. Avatar
    toejam  December 29, 2013

    What are the odds though that what you’re calling “M” and “L” are actually part of Q, only they appear to be different sources because the other left it out? I mean, I can see why someone might say the nativity scenes are distinctly “M” and “L”, because they clearly can’t have come from the same source given the discrepancies. But surely there is other Q matieral scattered throughout Matthew that Luke left out and vice-versa?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, it’s certainly possible. But a lot of M and L are not sayings material, so if Q was mainly sayings, that wouldn’t work across the board. And it seems really unlikely that all of Q is in either Matt or Luke, that they both managed to incorporate everything from just two sources (esp. since Luke says he had “many” predecessors.

  2. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 29, 2013


    There you go again. Saying Jesus promised he was coming soon to establish his kingdom “ON EARTH”. How many times will you say this unsupportable contention, especially when it flies in the face of clear indication to the contrary in John 18:36? These allusions to “sun growing dark, moon not giving its light, stars falling, lightning lighting up the earth from east to west, and the Son of man coming on the clouds” are METAPHOR. They describe sights seen INSIDE the devotee in meditation, when concentration is sufficiently complete that the inner eye is opened (Matt. 6:22). If you would open your mind to the teachings in INDIA which has for millenia been describing just such internal experiences in her mystic devotees, you would recognize what I am saying is true. But, alas, Western “higher education” turns a blind eye to modern mystic teaching such as Sant Mat of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, with membership of, oh …. three MILLION or so …….. http://www.RSSB.org

    Btw, Bart. Jesus isn’t the one to say: “You will see the Son of man coming with Power and on the clouds of heaven” in an apocalyptic entrance. It was JAMES. ‘Jesus’ is invention. >


  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 29, 2013

    Dividing this argument up into four sources is quite helpful. Thanks.

  4. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  December 29, 2013

    Hi Bart,

    Are there any historical accounts of other apocalyptic prophets before Jesus that promoted acts of insurgence?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Great question. Josephus does mention some charismatic figures who wanted to storm Jerusalem; it’s hard to know what their ideological views were — whether they were apocalyptic in the sense Jesus was or not.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 29, 2013

    I know you have posted at length on the “Son of Man,” but refresh my memory: Do you think Jesus considered Himself to be the “Son of Man” in these quotes or is He referring to another?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      I’ll get to that soon. Short story: I think Jesus, when he used the phrase (as opposed to when the Gospel writers *claim* he used the phrase), was referring to someone other than himself, a cosmic judge of the earth to be sent from heaven at the end of the age.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  December 30, 2013

        At death, not “the End of the Age”, It’s the “Last Days” for YOU, not the world.. The distinction is important. The Son of man is the Holy Spirit within the Master and disciple.

  6. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 29, 2013

    I read Schweitzer’s ‘Quest” in 1979. If there had ever been any doubt in my mind that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, that book erased it.

  7. Avatar
    magmack  December 29, 2013

    Have you written elsewhere on what Jesus meant by the phrase “Son of Man” (especially versus how the phrase was later interpreted)? Did others besides Jesus use this phrase? (Would his followers have recognized and understood this phrase? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, I’ve written about it, but not on the blog. Sounds like I better. It’s a *very* complicated issue!

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  December 29, 2013

    Do you think Jesus might have been both an apocalypticist and a zealot? It seems like the people behind the Qumran texts also believed in an upcoming intervention of God and ultimate defeat of evil by the forces of good, but they also assumed that they would be fighting along with the good supernatural forces. The community of Qumran could be zealots in the same way that Saul of Tarsus called himself a zealot.

    What was unique to Jesus’ message? Was it perhaps the universalist accent implied by the idea that ‘being a member of Israel will not be enough to escape the coming judgment’?

    Would an apocalyptic prophet believe that the coming destruction of the world was unavoidable? Or would he hold out hope for repentance, such as did Malachi? Was perhaps the sign of Jonah that the gentiles repented and were saved?

    I do believe that Jesus shared an apocalyptic worldview with others of his time, but I don’t think that apocalypticism (or zealotry) should be understood as a simplistic caricature. If Jesus was some kind of religious genius of his time, and not just a raving lunatic, I suspect he was capable of a fair amount of depth and nuance. His followers felt free enough to develop and apply his teachings to their changing times and circumstances. I’m not sure we can really recover the ‘the’ Jesus of history in all his intended nuances because our sources are rather remote from Jesus himself and full of differing interpretations. But that does not mean we must be satisfied with caricature.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, I see your point, and it’s a good one. But normally apocalypticists are not classified as zealots, the difference being that one group believed that the final victory would be through an intervention of God (whether they were called to help the angels out or not) and the other believed in a political/military solution to the problem that a foreign power was in charge of the Promised Land. Aslan thinks that Jesus was the latter kind of figure; I think the former.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  December 30, 2013

        No, I do not want to argue for Aslan’s anachronistic portrayal of Jesus as a Zealot more akin to the later context of the Jewish War, but even there we do see in Josephus some importance attributed to miraculous and heavenly signs and wonders being used to create a kind of apocalyptic propaganda to encourage the populace during the war. For me the more important question pertains to what kind of apocalypticism did John and Jesus likely espouse? I doubt they thought that everyone should merely sit back and passively await God’s imminent and definitive vengeance. Repentance and moral action seemed to be very important to both John and Jesus, making them also akin to the traditional prophets within the tradition of Israel and Judah. Might they have preached that God’s imminent judgment might be avoided through radical repentance? Was there any attempt to build the beginnings of the kingdom prior to this side of the apocalypse? Josephus does not seem to note any hints of apocalypticism among John, Jesus or their followers. Of course, that does not negate the heavy weight of evidence for the apocalyptic character of the early Christians and of Jesus and John before them, but it should allow us to appreciate some nuance in our hypothetical reconstructions of the kind of apocalypticism John and Jesus espoused. Even in Paul, whose pharisaic apocalypticism was raised to a fever pitch with his experience and tradition of a risen Messiah, we find an extremely strong emphasis on morality and the building of egalitarian communities. The continuing delay of the parousia did not destroy Christianity because there was something more there that inspired a continuing movement that was likely not completely discontinuous with the preaching and vision of its founders.

  9. Avatar
    hwl  December 29, 2013

    Before the modern era, did anyone seriously propose anything like an apocalyptic view of Jesus?
    Also during the modern era, how come no historical-critical scholar struck upon the apocalyptic view before Schweitzer, when the evidence is, as you put it, “all over the place” in the gospels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Depends how you define modern. The first to propose it rigorously was Johannes Weiss, in 1892 (German book; English Title is “Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom”). Schweitzer’s entire book is designed to show why earlier scholars didn’t see it, even though it was right before their eyes. It’s a brilliant demonstration, and completely convincing in my view (it’s not convincing in its particular reconstruction of Jesus’ life, though).

  10. Avatar
    hwl  December 29, 2013

    Do you think the “rapture” view of Jesus has some similarities to the apocalyptic view of Jesus, just that the former got the date wrong by two millennia? Given you have taken the effort to comment on some whacky views out there, how about doing a post on why the popular view of Rapture does violence to the biblical texts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, I talk about this a good bit in the first chapter of my book on Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. It would make a fun set of posts though.

  11. Avatar
    hwl  December 29, 2013

    Would it be correct to characterise the Qumran sects as both apocalypticists as well as zealots – after all, all of them joined in the Jewish revolt, when they could have safely stayed in the deserts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      I don’t think they would normally be thought of as zealots, since they were not principally interested in reclaiming the Promised Land for Israel through military force.

  12. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 29, 2013

    Wasn’t John the Baptist also an apocalyptic prophet? Do we think Jesus was influenced by him, or did Jesus have his own message?

  13. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 29, 2013

    I recall in your book, Jesus, the Apocalyptic Prophet, you referred to The Gospel of Peter and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas as possible sources for the historical Jesus. Does Peter actually claim to be the author of this Gospel? Is it written in the first person?

    Also I find it interesting that both the Infancy Gospel and the Coptic Gospel claim to be written by Jesus’ twin brother but one is in Coptic and the other in ( I assume) Greek. I assume no one thinks the same person authored both, correct?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, the Gospel of Peter is written (in part) in the first person, by someone claiming to be Simon Peter.

      The Coptic Gospel of Thomas is a translation into Coptic of a Greek original. But no, one thinks the same author wrote both, and no one thinks either author was actually Jesus’ own brother. (Let alone his twin!)

  14. cheito
    cheito  December 29, 2013

    DR Ehrman:
    The problem with the sources you quote is that most of them are not historically accurate. You can’t know the exact truth from these documents. It’s disingenuous on your part to state anything as true based on them. And as for Jesus, if He didn’t rise from the dead then all these other matters don’t matter at all. When you quote Luke you’re not quoting the entire chapter. Luke 21:24-and they (Jews) will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. The jews had to be scattered throughout all the nations. This didn’t happen while Jesus was alive or while the apostles were alive. Also the fullness of the gentiles did not occurred in Jesus time. Luke 21:24 is a prophets declaration. So what is Luke talking about? Luke is Historically accurate in it’s original form, but it has been tampered with. We must extract the precious from the worthless. You’re responsible for this task. God will judge you for your assertions. If jesus did not rise from the dead then why pursue the matter any further? If not truth what is your motivation. God will judge you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      No, it’s not disingenous. Historians work with unreliable sources *all* the time. It’s what they do. The point of historical analysis is to discern, following rigorous methodology, what in these sources can be trustworthy (and explaining why).

      • cheito
        cheito  December 30, 2013

        DR Ehrman:

        Do you consider Luke 21:24 Reliable? This verse implies a long period of time will pass before Jesus returns again. The events described in this account will take time to happen. According to this prophecy Jesus could not have been teaching that He was returning in His own generation. I think the times of the gentiles referred to in Luke 21:24 is still active and is soon to come to an end. Afterwards Jesus will return to Jerusalem from His place in the heavens and restore everything in a manner similar to when God revealed himself to Moses and dealt with all the nations back then. All the nations that are left after the initial judgement by fire will witness God’s power through the person of Jesus when He ushers in Eternal Life, righteousness, and destroys all wickedness in the sight of all the people.

        1-The Jews will fall by the edge of the sword.

        2-They will be led captive into all the nations.

        3-Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 1, 2014

          I think 21:24b was clearly written after 70 CE.

          • cheito
            cheito  January 1, 2014

            DR Ehrman:
            Why do you think Luke 21:24 was written after 70 CE?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2014

            I bet you can figure out why!

          • cheito
            cheito  January 4, 2014

            Luke was written with the sources collected from eyewitnesses. That’s what the author says in the beginning of his account. That’s one reason why I ask you why do you think 21:24 was written after 70 CE.
            WAS Luke alive after 70 CE?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 6, 2014

            Luke never says that he got his information from eyewitnesses — look again at 1:1-4. And yes, Luke was definitely writing after 70CE This is not a controversial view.

          • cheito
            cheito  January 6, 2014

            YOUR COMMENT:

            Luke never says that he got his information from eyewitnesses — look again at 1:1-4.

            MY COMMENT:

            I think that’s exactly what Luke is saying in Luke 1:2. Luke includes himself among the ‘us’ as one who had received the accounts of what Christ said and did from those who were from the ‘beginning’ ‘eyewitnesses’ and ‘servants’ of the word. I think it’s clear what Luke is writing here.

            Who were those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning?
            What accounts did they relate to Luke?
            Was Luke’s investigation based on these eyewitness accounts?
            Do we know what year Luke compiled this information?
            Was Luke in circulation before the Apostolic Father’s.

            LUKE 1:2-just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 8, 2014

            Too many questions! I think Luke is saying that the traditions about Jesus ultimately go back to eyewitnesses. He doesn’t claim personally to have talked to any. Since he was almost certainly writing no earlier than 80 CE, he couldn’t have known eyewitnesses. In my view, his books were in circulation before the AF, but they show no definitive evidence of knowing them.

  15. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  December 29, 2013

    The gospels were evangelistic in purpose. If you want to see Jesus as a Zealot because that’s who you believed he was, or if that’s what your sect of Christianity believed he was, then you can find something to identify with. But it’s impossible to miss the portrayals of Jesus (and John the Baptist) as apocalypticists. No surprise, since that was the dominant philosophy among the Jews of Second Temple Judaism, as well as many of their neighbors.

    The gospel diarists make a very clear point. Whether or not you think he was a Zealot, they show him being accused as just that. Pilate and Herod both declare him innocent of that charge, but execute him anyway to prevent riots. Since the Jews at the time were not practicing capital punishment (and weren’t permitted to do so by the Romans), a different agent needed to be found. If you want your human sacrifice to be killed, but you can’t do it, and you want to portray the sacrificial human as good, then have him falsely accused and executed by Rome.

  16. Avatar
    donmax  December 30, 2013

    I quite agree with your premise. While he may have associated with Zealot-like disciples, he was NOT a leader of rebels in the ordinary militaristic sense. He was much more than that and too complicated a character to be pigeonholed into a single theoretical or thematic category. However, there are sufficient references to suggest a *kingdom* as it is commonly understood, not to mention those *genealogies* of Jesus’ Davidic kingship (I know, they came after Mark), and the descriptions of *thrones* as well as who will be sitting on them in the new kingdom. Then, too, there is the revolutionary rearrangement of seating at the table and the unprecedented suggestion that the last shall be first, etc., culminating in an act of violence in the Temple, all of which would have been considered a threat to social and political norms. From a Roman/Herodian point of view any claim of the imminent coming of a *new kingdom*, one with different kings and a change of the aristocratic status quo, would have ended as it did — A CAPITAL OFFENSE and PUBLIC EXECUTION. That’s why later traditions softened who he was and why authors and editors changed his message as they did, from anti-Roman to anti-Jewish.

  17. Avatar
    Steefen  December 30, 2013

    Bart Ehrman:
    Jesus is best understood to have been – as were many of his contemporaries – a Jewish apocalypticist, one who believed that God was soon to intervene in history in a spectacular and cosmic way to overthrow the forces of evil in a supernatural show of power, and bring in a good kingdom on earth in which there would be no more injustice and oppression and poverty, no more pain, misery, or suffering. This would not happen through political revolt but through a divine display of cosmic power. And it would all happen soon – within Jesus’ own generation.

    Jesus does not qualify as a prophet of an apocalypse because, as Thomas Paine said about applying “a virgin shall bear a son,” the prophecy is limited in time. Second, the prophecy failed.

    Dr. Ehrman or anyone else participating in this blog, please identify a prophecy of Jesus that did come true. Jesus may be a prophet in the sense of Religion speaking “Truth” to Power but until we have a prophecy of Jesus that did come true, he is less than Nostradamus and he is less than Joseph in the Hebrew Bible (seven years of harvest, seven years of famine).

    The title of your book is Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. For the reason stated above, the term prophet is not substantiated by a successful prophecy.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

      I don’t use the term prophet in the sense of “crystal ball gazer whose predictions come true.”

    • Avatar
      donmax  December 31, 2013

      I think you are overstating the case, Steefen. Prophets are not prognosticators or fortune tellers, and predictions written about after-the-fact can easily be made to appear 100% accurate…in hindsight.

    • cheito
      cheito  January 2, 2014

      YOUR COMMENT Steefen:

      Dr. Ehrman or anyone else participating in this blog, please identify a prophecy of Jesus that did come true.

      Here is a prophecy that Jesus predicted about Himself which happened:
      Jesus prophesied that he would rise from the dead. He did! End of story!

      • Avatar
        FrankofBoulder  January 6, 2014

        You say that Jesus prophesied that he would rise from the dead. You should consider the possibility that the gospel writers put those words in Jesus’ mouth. We don’t know for sure what Jesus actually said. It’s all hearsay and legend written down many years (decades) after his death.

  18. Avatar
    jhague  January 2, 2014

    Would it be correct to view Jesus, the other Jewish apocalypticists, Paul, etc. as delusional? Having a belief in an intervention by God and cosmic forces to miraculously bring about a change seems so absurd. Or is it better understood as a product of their time due to teachings and beliefs?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 3, 2014

      I don’t think they were delusional, any more than most Christians are today who think that when you die your soul goes to heaven or hell. They may be *wrong* but they’re not *crazy*!

  19. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  January 4, 2014

    The role of a Jewish prophet was to carry specific messages directly from God to the people. When Isaiah begins a section with “Thus saith the LORD”, he is acting in the role of a prophet. We have no account of Jesus doing that. We have only gospel narratives of Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. For someone being portrayed at least partly as a Zealot, to predict your own violent death was simple common sense. In some gospel texts, when Jesus talks about the son of man, he is not necessarily talking about himself. But there are gospel texts portraying Jesus as predicting his own resurrection. Whether that happened is a different historical question. Did any assertion of that ever come from an unbiased (not Christian) source? Is that plausible?

    Practically everyone in the ANE and the Roman Empire believed in the gods. What we would call an atheist was practically nonexistent.

  20. Avatar
    aimless  January 15, 2016

    I’m so late to the party, but my understanding of prophets is that they can be fore-tellers and/or forth-tellers.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Yes, they do “foretell” — but they are thinking of what’s going to happen to *them* and their society very soon, not what is to happen thousands of years later.

      • Avatar
        aimless  January 15, 2016

        I agree, Bart. As a reformed fundamentalist apocalyptic Socinian Unitarian Christian who is seriously rethinking everything to do with religion, I had to finally come to terms that pretty much none of the so-called messiah prophecies had a thing to do with Jesus. Unless you want to stretch and ignore context.

        And I would pay money to see you debate Aslan.

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