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The Later De-apocalypticizing of Jesus

Yesterday I started mounting the case that rather than being a zealot interested in a military overthrow of the Romans to reclaim the land for God, Jesus was an apocalypticist who believed that God himself would intervene in history to destroy the forces of evil (presumably including the Romans; and certainly including the Jews who were not “on the right side”) to set up his kingdom.

It is worth re-emphasizing that all over the map in our early sources Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God. He does not speak about the Kingdom of Israel, or about the use of military force (I’ll get to the scattered exceptions eventually), or about “retaking the land.” This is a key point because Aslan thinks that for Jesus it was all about getting rid of the Romans and taking the land back; but Jesus doesn’t talk about that in our earliest sources – even the ones that Aslan cites (as I showed in earlier posts: unlike zealots, Jesus told his followers that they *should* pay taxes to Rome!). He instead talks about the coming Kingdom, to be brought in a cosmic act of supernatural force, by the judge sent from heaven, the Son of Man. (I’ll say more about that figure in a later post.)

In any event, yesterday I showed that the teachings of the coming Son of Man (as opposed to the raising of the Jewish armies) was multiply attested, in all our earliest sources (Mark, Q, M, and L). As an intriguing side note, I want to stress that this heavily apocalypticized message comes to be muted in later sources, the further we get away, in time, from the historical Jesus. I make that point as well in my book on Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet, as follows:

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More Evidence that Jesus was an Apocalypticist
Back to Aslan’s Thesis. An Alternative View: Jesus the Apocalypticist

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    gavm  January 13, 2014

    it seems to me the key here is to read Mark. it is the earliest gospel but probably the least referenced hence its the best source of info of historical Jesus and his movement.

  2. Avatar
    GokuEn  May 19, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, I am curious on what are our sources to understand non-Christian apocalypticism in the 1st Century. You defined apocalypticism as having these components:
    1. Dualism
    2. Pessimism
    3. Very near vindication
    4. Resurrection and Judgment

    What do you think are the texts that most clearly illustrate these thoughts? I know the Book of Daniel has some of these components as well as the the Book of Maccabees, but what other sources do we have? Could you point me to the passages where these features are most prominent?

    Thank you very much!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2014

      Some of the best texts are the book of Revelation, 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the War Scroll from Qumran.

  3. Avatar
    nomogods4me  July 19, 2014

    Professor Ehrman, you mention Mark 9:1. I have a little story in connection with that verse.

    Recently, I had an auto body guy put two bumper stickers on my rear bumper: on the left, Mark 9:1; on the right, 2 Peter 3:4. (Right gnarly they look, too, in their black-on-white inyourfacedness.) Just a few days later, I got my first “bite”: a woman parked behind me at the supermarket blurted out, “I like your stickers!” as I exited my car. Figuring she’d mistaken me for a fellow biblicist, I answered with a smile & said, “Are you sure??” She seemed a bit flummoxed. “Are those verses familiar to you?” I asked. “Well—no,” she replied—at which point she hauls her trusty pocket bible out of a loaded purse. “You might change your mind about those stickers once you’ve read those verses,” I remarked, just before leaving her to do groceries.

    Five or so minutes later, I notice her standing alongside me in produce, smiling. “I read the verses, but I deny the connection,” she told me. I started in by quoting Mark’s verse, emphasizing the words, “there are some standing here.” She interrupted me to inform me that the verse refers to the Transfiguration, as reported in the verses that follow it (2-8)—an interpretation not unfamiliar to me. The coming of the kingdom prophesied in 9:1, she explained, did indeed occur when Peter, James & John saw Christ transfigured (six days after he’d uttered the prophecy). Ergo, Mark was not speaking about the end times.

    “Well, no,” I countered. “The verse’s connection is with the preceding verses (8:34-38). Mark 9:1 is the concluding verse in that context and speaks of the end times.” (The connection between 8:34 & 9:1 is hardly deniable.)

    She dropped the matter & asked me, “Don’t you believe in creation?” (She obviously had the 2 Peter verse in mind, which speaks of creation at the end.) “No,” I replied; “the why & wherefore of our life here escapes me.” “One day,” she went on, “you’ll have to stand before God and be judged, you know.” “No, I won’t.” “I feel sorry for you,” she concluded. “Don’t,” I answered, and with that we parted.

    When I’d finished shopping & returned to my car, I found her sitting in hers & pouring over her little bible, looking a tad dour. As for me, not long after I returned home I took out my copy of Burton Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels to see how Mark 9:1 compared with Matthew & Luke’s accounts (a comparison I’d never made before). While doing so, something dawned on me that confirmed me in my conviction that Mark 9:1 is apocalyptic and has no connection with the Transfiguration.

    In Mark 8:34, we’re told that Jesus called together “the crowd with his disciples” to speak to them about the conditions of discipleship. It’s to this same group that he speaks the words of 9:1, viz., “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’” Now if this prophecy was fulfilled six days later at the Transfiguration, as witnessed by Peter, James, and John alone, then it would be necessary to maintain that everyone else to whom Christ spoke the words of 9:1 dropped dead in the interim. Picture it: those three men excepted, this crowd all died within a period of—count ‘em—six days. To boot, these dead would’ve had to include the remaining nine apostles.

    No, Mark 9:1 only makes sense when taken apocalyptically. But, as we here all know, Christ’s prophecy was never fulfilled (nor will it be—ever), which is what rightly gave rise to the “scoffing” spoken of in 2 Peter 3:4: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.”

    (Addendum: Isn’t “from the beginning of creation” yet another biblical error, considering that death, sin, & suffering entered the world only later as the consequences of the fall of Adam, a state of affairs that could only be corrected by the Redemption whose apex was to be the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth at the end of time?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      Very interesting. Though I have to say, I don’t think I’d take my car to a body guy who of his own volition stuck some bumper stickers on once he was finished doing his job!!

  4. Avatar
    Benevolent  September 26, 2017

    This is really great. I have a theory…Jesus told his disciples that they did not know who he was..his own disciples….he said he would return as the Comforter, the Spirit. Then they would know who he was, remember his words.

    I’m wondering if the Gospel of John was written after Paul’s writings and Acts. In other words, after the Spirit came (if we are looking at this according to the Bible claims). If that were so, perhaps many of the gospels were written before they really understood who Jesus was and his purpose in creation.

    If the gospels go through this de-apocalypticising, as you theorize, it makes you wonder why they kept Mark in the bundle. If the changing of Jesus’ words was deceptive to make him divine and form a religion, why would they leave any trace of Apocalyptic Jesus? Simply to have ample accounts to affirm his existence and importance?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 27, 2017

      Christians in antiquity interpreted the apocalyptic Jesus in light of their own beliefs of his divinity — just as people do today.

      • Avatar
        Benevolent  September 27, 2017

        I agree. I noticed a couple “apocalyptic sayings” of Jesus which seem to reference time:

        Mat 10:23 But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

        AND

        Mat 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
        Mat 24:15 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)

        First, these definitely have the “apocalyptic” tone of Mark. The first one seems to imply that they won’t finish fleeing over Israel till the end. If that’s the reading, it contradicts the next verses which seem to imply that not only will they have to deal with fleeing persecution over Israel but that Jesus’ “apocalyptic” message will be preached in *all the world* and only then will the end come. In 24:15 there’s also the curious “whoso readeth, let him understand.” (is this a later edit?) which would imply on the surface Jesus knew his words would someday be in leatherbound book formats?

        So, if you’re reading on the surface level, those two sections seem to contradict – and yet both have that “apocalyptic” tone. Further, it shows that somebody didn’t believe the coming of the Son of Man would come in Jesus’ lifetime in 24. But can we really read these things historically…or read them on face value and critically examine them on face value if in these same two “apocalyptically-heavy” books, the author claims that everything Jesus said was in parables (even his words to his disciples many times). (I don’t find this saying in the more “mystical John)

        Mar 4:34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

        Mat 13:34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.

  5. Avatar
    prestonp  June 15, 2018

    The Christ’s Kingdom has several meanings. Jesus coming to earth represents the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Those who have the Holy Spirit inside them know His Kingdom literally lives within His followers. Pentecost is another manifestation of His Kingdom arriving on earth and when He comes for all of us at last, He will usher in the complete Kingdom. Once we assume there are an abundance of significant errors in the N.T., the race is on to find them in every word and everywhere.

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