In my previous posts I’ve given some of the evidence that is generally seen among most New Testament scholars today as a clear indication that Jesus delivered an apocalyptic message: the end of the age was coming soon, God was to intervene in the horrible state of affairs here on earth, destroy (through a figure called the Son of Man) the powers of evil aligned against him, and bring in a good kingdom, a utopian world ruled by his own chosen one. This was to happen very soon.
This evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist is old hat to historians of the New Testament. But how then can some scholars contend that Jesus was not an apocalypticist? There are several strategies that have been used, some of them marvels of ingenuity. Two of these strategies are widely enough known among the reading public that I should say something about them. Both involve ways of reconceptualizing our sources so that, strikingly, it is the earlier ones that are non-apocalyptic. Here’s how I describe them in my book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium (Oxford University Press, 1999).
(1) Seeking the Lost
Since one cannot very well deny that our earliest surviving sources portray an apocalyptic Jesus (after all, one only has to read Mark and bam!, there he is), one interesting approach is to claim that the earliest non-surviving sources did not portray him this way. It’s a clever view.
I’ve pointed out that we don’t have the Q source. Since we don’t have it, you might expect that scholars would be fairly cautious in what they say about it. But nothing is further from the truth. Books on Q have become a veritable cottage industry in the field. One of the most popular proposals that has fueled enormous speculation about all sorts of things is that not only can Q be reconstructed, but its entire pre-history and the social histories of the Christian communities lying behind it can be reconstructed as well. Not bad for a non-existent source!
The most important aspect of this proposal relates to the undeniable fact that if Q was the source for the materials in common between Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark, then it was loaded with apocalyptic traditions. How to get around this problem? By arguing that Q in fact came out in multiple editions. According to this line, the original edition of Q didn’t have these traditions. They were added when the document was edited by later followers of Jesus with too much end-time on the brain. Thus Q as we have it (well, even though we don’t have it), may be an apocalyptic document. But in fact it provides evidence of a non-apocalyptic Jesus.
This is the kind of proposal that tends to appeal to people who are already inclined to be persuaded. But it’s easy to see its drawing power: in the earliest edition of this non-existent source, Jesus is said to have delivered a lot of terrific one-liners, but uttered not a word about a coming Son of Man, sent from heaven in judgment.
Still, the proposal is enormously problematic. Let me repeat: Q is a source that we don’t have. To reconstruct what we think was in it is hypothetical enough. But at least in doing so we have some hard evidence, since we do have traditions that are verbatim the same in Matthew and Luke (but not found in Mark), and we have to account for them in some way. But to go further and insist that we know what was not in the source, for example, a Passion narrative, what its multiple editions were like, and which of these multiple editions was the earliest, etc., really goes far beyond what we can know – however appealing such “knowledge” might be.
In fact, the proposal looks too convenient by half, once you realize the pattern of thought behind it all. Suppose you are sure, for some reason or another, that Jesus was not an apocalypticist. You have an obvious dilemma, then, since the earliest surviving account, Mark, portrays him that way. So you look for an earlier account that does not survive, and find it in Q. But Q also portrays him as an apocalypticist. And so you claim that even though Q is apocalyptic, it wasn’t always that way. And what evidence exists to disprove your claim? Well, strictly speaking, none: the document doesn’t exist!
We’ll see that there are still other problems with this kind of approach when we get to the end of this chapter. For now, though, I’d like to mention a second, somewhat related counter-proposal.
(2) Getting a Date
One of the most prominent and interesting scholars engaged in studying the historical Jesus is the witty and indomitable John Dominic Crossan, whose books on Jesus have sold in the hundreds of thousands. Crossan does not think Jesus was an apocalypticist. What does he do with the fact that our earliest sources, Q, Mark, M, and L portray Jesus as an apocalypticist? He denies that these are our earliest sources.
Crossan engages in a detailed analysis to argue that other sources not found in the New Testament are earlier than the sources that are. These others include such documents as the “Egerton Gospel,” a fragmentary text from the second century that contains four stories about Jesus; the “Gospel of the Hebrews,” which no longer survives, but is quoted a bit by some church fathers in the late second to the early fifth centuries; and parts of the Gospel of Peter, which survives again only in fragments. Such sources, Crossan claims, provide more reliable access to Jesus than the New Testament Gospels, which everyone, including Crossan, dates to the first century.
At best, the argument strikes most other scholars as ingenious but odd; at worse it’s an argument driven by the ultimate goal. For if in fact the Gospel of the Hebrews, to pick one example, is older than the Gospel of Mark, even though it’s never mentioned or even alluded to until 190 CE or so — and is seen by nearly everyone else, therefore, as a second-century production — then Mark’s apocalyptic Jesus could well be a later creation formed from the non-apocalyptic Jesus of the Gospel of the Hebrews! This strikes most scholars as a case of special pleading. Most recognize clear and certain reasons for dating the New Testament Gospels to the first century. But giving yet earlier dates to non-canonical Gospels that are, in most cases, not quoted or even mentioned by early Christian writers until many, many decades later seems overly speculative.
Let me stress here, in conclusion, my simple point about the evidence that Jesus was an apocalypticist over the course of the past several posts. The earliest sources that we have consistently ascribe an apocalyptic message to Jesus. This message begins to be muted by the end of the first century (for example, in Luke), until it virtually disappears (for example, in John), and begins, then, to be explicitly rejected and spurned (for example, in Thomas). It appears that when the end never did arrive, Christians had to take stock of the fact that Jesus said it would and changed his message accordingly. You can hardly blame them.
It was put forth initially by a person who is, in fact, a very fine scholar, John Kloppenborg. See his work cited in the bibliography.
Crossan made a major impact on New Testament scholarship with his large and significant study, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant. In terms of sales, though, far more significant have been his two more popular books, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography and Who Killed Jesus?
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