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The Apocalyptic Context for Jesus’ View of the Messiah

In this thread I am trying to argue that Jesus understood himself to be the messiah.  So far I have made one of my two main arguments, with the understanding that *both* arguments have to be considered in order to have a compelling case.  So the first prong doesn’t prove much on its own.  But in combination with the second argument, it makes a strong case.  The first argument is that Jesus’ followers would not have understood him as the messiah after his death (as they did) unless they believed him to be the messiah before his death – even if they came to believe he had been raised from the dead, that would not have made them think he was the messiah.   I’ve explained why in my previous post.

The second second involves showing that it was not only the disciples who understood Jesus to be the messiah before his death, but that Jesus himself did.  This is even harder to show, but I think there is really compelling evidence.  There are two major points I’m going to make, from two different sets of data.  But before explaining either one, I have to lay out the overarching context for Jesus’ teaching and ministry, the world view known as Jewish apocalypticism.

Jewish apocalypticism was a very common view in Jesus’ day – it was the view of the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Pharisees, of John the Baptist, later of the Apostle Paul – and almost certainly of Jesus.  I can demonstrate that in some later thread if it seems appropriate.  For now, let me just say that this is a widely held view among critical scholars – by far the majority view for over a century, since the writings of Albert Schweitzer.

What did early Jewish apocalypticists believe?  Let me break it down into four component themes.  I have drawn this discussion from my textbook on the New Testament.

 

Dualism

Jewish apocalypticists were dualists.  That is to say, they maintained that there were two fundamental components to all of reality: the forces of good and the forces of evil.  The forces of good were headed by God himself, the forces of evil by his superhuman enemy, sometimes called Satan, or Beelzebub, or the Devil.  On the side of God were the good angels; on the side of the Devil were the demons.  On the side of God were righteousness and life; on the side of the Devil were sin and death.  These were actual forces, cosmic powers to which human beings could be subject and with which they had to be aligned.  No one was in neutral territory.  People stood either with God or with Satan, they were in the light or in darkness, they were in the truth or in error.

This apocalyptic dualism had clear historical implications.  All of history could be divided into two ages, the present age and the age to come.  The present age was the age of sin and evil, when the powers of darkness were in the ascendency, when those who sided with God were made to suffer by those in control of this world, when sin, disease, famine, violence, and death were running rampant.  For some unknown reason, God had relinquished control of this age to the powers of evil.  And things were getting worse.

At the end of this age, however, God would reassert himself, intervening in history and destroying the forces of evil.  There would come a cataclysmic break in which all that was opposed to God would be annihilated, and God would bring in a new age.  In this new age, there would be no more suffering or pain; there would be no more hatred, or despair, or war, or disease, or death.  God would be the ruler of all, in a kingdom that would never end.

 

Pessimism

Even though, in the long run, everything would work out for those who sided with God, in the short term things did not look good.  Jewish apocalypticists maintained that those who sided with God were going to suffer in this age, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.  The forces of evil were going to grow in power as they attempted to wrest sovereignty over this world away from God.  There was no thought here of being able to improve the human condition through mass education or advanced technologies.  The righteous could not make their lives better, because the forces of evil were in control, and those who sided with God were opposed by those who were much stronger than they.  Things would get worse and worse until the very end, when quite literally, all hell was to break loose.

 

Vindication

But at the end, when the suffering of God’s people was at its height, God would finally intervene on their behalf and vindicate his name.  For in this perspective God was not only the creator of this world, he was also its redeemer.  And his vindication would be universal: it would affect the entire world, not simply the Jewish nation.  Jewish apocalypticists maintained that the entire creation had become corrupt because of the presence of sin and the power of Satan.  This universal corruption required a universal redemption; God would destroy all that is evil and create a new heaven and a new earth, one in which the forces of evil would have no place whatsoever.

Different apocalypticists had different views concerning how God would bring about this new creation, even though they all claimed to have received the details by a revelation from God.  In some apocalyptic scenarios, God was to send a human messiah to lead the troops of the children of light into battle against the forces of evil.  In others, God was to send a kind of cosmic judge of the earth, sometimes also called the messiah or the “Son of Man” to bring about a cataclysmic overthrow of the demonic powers that oppressed the children of light.

This final vindication would involve a day of judgment for all people. Those who had aligned themselves with the powers of evil would face the Almighty Judge, and render an account of what they had done; those who had remained faithful to the true God would be rewarded and brought into his eternal kingdom.  Moreover, this judgment applied not only to people who happened to be living at the time of the end.  No one should think, that is, that he or she could side with the powers of evil, oppress the people of God, die prosperous and contented, and so get away with it.  God would allow no one to escape.  He was going to raise all people bodily from the dead, and they would have to face judgment, eternal bliss for those who had taken his side, eternal torment for everyone else.  And there was not a sweet thing that anyone could do to stop him.

 

Imminence

According to Jewish apocalypticists, this vindicaton of God was going to happen very soon.  Standing in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, apocalypticists maintained that God had revealed to them the course of history, and that the end was almost here.  Those who were evil had to repent, before it was too late.  Those who were good, who were suffering as a result, were to hold on.  For it would not be long before God would intervene, sending a savior — possibly on the clouds of heaven in judgment on the earth — bringing with him the good kingdom for those who remained faithful to his Law.  Indeed, the end was right around the corner.  In the words of one first-century Jewish apocalypticist:  “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that that kingdom of God has come with power.”  These in fact are the words of Jesus (Mark 9:1).  Or as he says elsewhere, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30).

Our earliest traditions about Jesus portray him as a Jewish apocalypticist who responded to the political and social crises of his day, including the domination of his nation by a foreign power, by proclaiming that his generation was living at the end of the age, that God would soon intervene on behalf of his people, sending a cosmic judge of the earth, the Son of Man who would destroy the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom.  In preparation for his coming, the people of Israel needed to repent and turn to God, trusting him as a kindly parent and loving one another as his special children.  Those who refused to accept this message would be liable to the judgment of God, soon to arrive with the coming of the Son of Man.

 


Albert Schweitzer and the Apocalyptic Jesus
Readers’ Mailbag November 13, 2015

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Comments

  1. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 15, 2015

    Since Jesus thought he was the messiah, did he believe he was a direct descendant of King David as well? Wasn’t that one of the requirements to be the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      We don’t have any reliable record of him saying so, but I would assume he did.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 15, 2015

    Frankly, I don’t think *any* of the Catholics I’ve known would still be Christians if they knew (and believed) that this was what Jesus and his contemporaries believed.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  November 15, 2015

    So, Jesus’ rock bottom, basic, “You better do it” message was “Prepare”? All his other teachings were subordinate to this one?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      In some sense, yes!

      • Avatar
        willow  November 18, 2015

        My understanding is that Jesus’ entire message was one of repentance/getting right with God, and then doing that which was right/required (keeping the Law) thereafter, in order to be spared God’s imminent wrath.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  November 16, 2015

      Just substitute “Jesus Christ” for Santa Claus in any verse of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and you get the picture. Any number of other references to this theme, including but certainly not limited to Mat. 25:1-13 and the Lutheran chorale “Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme,” written late 16th century in a time of “plague.”

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 15, 2015

    Followup to what I posted earlier… I always understood Catholic teaching to be that after you died, your soul would go immediately to Heaven, Purgatory (which guaranteed eventual promotion to Heaven), Hell, or Limbo. And because Judaism had supposedly been the One True Faith until the ancestors of the people still practicing it failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, *I took for granted that those long-ago Jews had believed the exact same things* about Heaven, Hell, etc. If that was the truth, shouldn’t it *always* have been the truth?

    Okay, I’d never understood the reference in the Apostles’ Creed to Jesus’s someday coming back to judge “the living and the dead.” (Shouldn’t all the dead have been “judged” already?) Or the reference to Catholics’ being expected to believe in “the resurrection of the body.” But I never thought much about the Apostles’ Creed…and I doubt anyone else did, either.

  5. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  November 15, 2015

    At the end of this age, however, God would reassert himself, intervening [in history] and destroying the forces of evil. There would come a cataclysmic break in which all that was opposed to God would be annihilated, and God would bring in [a new age]. In this new age [incarnation], there would be no more suffering or pain; there would be no more hatred, or despair, or war, or disease, or death. God would be the ruler of all, in a kingdom that would never end.

    Except for your imposition of a universal upheaval, this is as true now as it was then. Most people back then, as now, probably misinterpreted the wise men’s preaching about a renewal OF THE MAN, not the world. The “apocalypse” was an internal apocalypse of spirit, mainly desires and poor living habits, and it would “end the evil age” not by ending the world, but by taking the practitioner *out of it*. I told you. You need to understand Mysticism. Until you do, you will never ‘get it’. These habits (lust, anger, greed, attachment, vanity) are well known in the East as “the five bad boys” (or the five evil ‘Kings’, destroyed without mercy in Joshua 10). They appear clearly in the Gospel of Judas as “the five combatants”, or the “Kings” that have “grown weak” just before Judas enters “the luminous Cloud” — destroyed in ‘The End’, “along with their creatures”, desires — when “the man that bears me” is finally given up. No Mystic thinks the world will ‘end’.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  November 15, 2015

    All of this is true, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. Jesus’ ideas would have been changing, adapting, as his shortlived ministry moved forward. And much as his special emphasis was on the Jews of Palestine, there are too many stories about him extending God’s mercy to non-Jews for me to believe he thought this was only about them. God was coming to rule the whole world, not just Israel. For him, the final criteria was faith.

    These are strong arguments you are making. But there are depths to this man I doubt we’ll ever fully plumb.

    • Rick
      Rick  November 17, 2015

      “And much as his special emphasis was on the Jews of Palestine, there are too many stories about him extending God’s mercy to non-Jews for me to believe he thought this was only about them. God was coming to rule the whole world, not just Israel. For him, the final criteria was faith. ”

      But, are those stories ( about him extending God’s mercy to non-Jews ) true, or are they in scripture to turn the Jewish Messiah into a … Catholic one? The final criteria being faith and the universal message are particularly Pauline slants to the story.

  7. Avatar
    smackemyackem  November 15, 2015

    So you are saying that the Pharisee’s were apocalyptic? I have never heard that and would have assumed otherwise. What do you base this on? Any reading material you can recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      The evidence is that they believed in the future resurrection of the dead, which was a distinctively apocalpytic view.

  8. Avatar
    Robert Wahler  November 15, 2015

    According to Jewish apocalypticists, this vindication of God was going to happen very soon.

    And it did!
    It happened for the daily practitioners of the time. They ascended (their “end of days”) — some even while “STANDING HERE” — meaning while alive. Is this not making sense somehow?

    You should read Dr. Eisenman, “The New Testament Code” if you don’t believe me, Bart. “Standing” is a Qumranism for righteousness.

    What happened was Paul. Paul’s ‘blood atonement’ doctrine, “stemmed from the Pauline corruption of Jamesian Jewish ‘Christian’ blood purity observances, specifically niece marriage (Herodians), eating carrion or things sacrificed to idols (condemned by the ascended ‘Jesus’ in Rev. 2:1 – 2:14), and those sleeping with women in period. Paul is specifically singled out, in Rev. 2:2, as “those [Paulines, specifically Paul] CALLING THEMSELVES APOSTLES” — to the church in Ephesus (see Ephesians 1:1, first phrase, right off the bat! > “I, Paul, AN APOSTLE…”). He taught to eat whatever is sold in the market with no thought to the Law in letters to the Corinthians. That’s why he was known to the Jamesians as “the Spouter of Lying”.

  9. Avatar
    Ronhenn  November 16, 2015

    Jehovah’s Witnesses still believe that, as do many others I suppose. Funny how long the end can be right around the corner.

  10. Avatar
    Omar6741  November 16, 2015

    Where do you think these views came from, given that we do not see them in the Pentateuch? With qualifications, these apocalyptic views are also found in Islam and Zoroastrianism.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      They arose in Israel in the 2nd c. BCE during the Maccabean revolt

      • Rick
        Rick  November 17, 2015

        Second century BCE was well into the Hellenic period.. Wonder if Elysium and Tarturas influenced Jewish apocalyptic thinking?

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  November 16, 2015

    Well done. I like this summary of what Jesus was really preaching.

  12. Avatar
    living42day  November 16, 2015

    Our only sources for John the Baptist are the NT and Josephus. These sources portray John in markedly different ways. Much of what the NT says about John seems rather doubtful–e.g., that he saw himself as the forerunner of the messiah, the messenger who prepared the way of the Lord (i.e., Jesus), etc. So why should we automatically assume that what the NT says about John’s apocalypticism is an accurate reflection of John rather than Christian propaganda conflating John’s views with those of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      One issue is that if Jesus was John’s follower, it was probably because he subscribe to his message.

      • Avatar
        Robert Wahler  November 16, 2015

        John was his Master, if Jesus was real at all. If you baptize someone, you are the Master. Only Masters initiate. The Church dreamed up the proxy BS. Why do you buy this made-up pablum? You can learn all about the real thing in Sant Mat – http://www.rssb.org

  13. talitakum
    talitakum  November 16, 2015

    *Very* very interesting. A couple of questions:
    1) the term “messiah” (/mashiach/meshiha) means “anointed one”; can we assume that at the time of Jesus such generic term was also unambiguously understood as a title for a specific figure?
    2) do you think that a possible davidic lineage of Jesus could explain the belief that Jesus was the messiah-king-of-Israel since he was considered son-of-David?
    Thank you dr. Ehrman, keep up the good work!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      Yes, it does appear to be a title in Jesus’ day. And possibly — but since David lived 1000 years earlier and had lots of descendants, I would assume that *most* Jews could trace their lineage back to him.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  November 17, 2015

        Consider how a not incidental percentage of the world’s population (1 in 200) can be genetically traced back to Genghis Khan and he died less than 800 years ago. Imagine who DIDN’T claim ancestry to King David in 1st century Palestine!

  14. Avatar
    Luke9733  November 16, 2015

    I’ve thought about this a bit recently. One thought that I’ve had concerns accusations that were supposedly made against Jesus by opponents claiming that he said he was going to destroy the temple. In Mark, this accusation comes up at the trial before the Sanhedrin, and in Acts, opponents claim Stephen said “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place”. The Gospel of Thomas saying 71 has Jesus say: “Jesus said, “I shall throw down [this] building, and no one will be able to build it “.

    The thought that I’ve had is what if the “false” witnesses weren’t so false. I’ve read that some scholars think Jesus may have predicted the destruction of the temple, but I wonder if there’s more to it than that. I wonder if Jesus may have actually thought (and said publicly) that he would personally destroy it, perhaps in some way ushering in God’s new Kingdom (maybe he thought he would rebuild it and then rule as King in the new Kingdom).

    What are your thoughts on this reconstruction?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      Yes, it’s possible. Or it’s possible that his followers later elevated his role in the coming destruction of the temple. I lean toward the latter.

  15. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 16, 2015

    It would be one thing for Jesus, in the context of Jewish apocalypticism, to believe God was about to call a messiah. What made him believe he was the one? Was he mentally ill, as his family believed?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      No, I don’t think he was crazy. He just had a very different view of the world from ours.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 16, 2015

    The Old Testament prophets are really, really hard for me to understand. What parts of the Old Testament best support this apocalyptic view? The Old Testament support of this view is just not clear to me. If this view were widespread among first century Jews, then one would think that this view would be clearly outlined in the Old Testament. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      The most clear passage is Daniel 7. But also the rest of Daniel 8-12 as well. It’s one of the later views of the Heberw Bible. (Daniel was the last book written)

  17. Robert
    Robert  November 16, 2015

    “Jewish apocalypticism was a very common view in Jesus’ day – it was the view of the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Pharisees, of John the Baptist, later of the Apostle Paul – and almost certainly of Jesus. I can demonstrate that in some later thread if it seems appropriate. ”

    It would indeed be very interesting if you could give a summary of the various different kinds of apocalyptic perspectives and nuances among these groups. This would be helpful for dispelling what sometimes seems to be an overly simplistic caricature.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 16, 2015

      Yes, it would be nice if we had enough evidence to do that!! We can describe the views of the Essenes and of John the Baptist, and of individual apocalyptic texts, but it’s hard to establish “the” views of the Pharisees, e.g., on such things.

      • Robert
        Robert  November 16, 2015

        Even among the texts that we have, including and among the Dead Sea Scrolls and even late biblical books, there appears to be quite a bit of variation and nuance among viewpoints. I suspect that Jesus, being some kind of religious genius, was probably capable of a rather profound and nuanced perspective beyond our ability to specify but a discussion of the known views is at least helpful in looking at part of the available range of apocalyptic perspectives.

  18. cheito
    cheito  November 17, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that that kingdom of God has come with power.” These in fact are the words of Jesus (Mark 9:1). Or as he says elsewhere, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30).

    MY COMMENT:

    These, in fact, ARE NOT the words of Jesus! They ‘re not the Words of Mark either! The HISTORICAL FACT is we don’t really know who wrote these words. We can’t be sure Jesus said the words recorded in (Mark 9:1) nor in (Mark 13:30), therefore, your argument that Jesus stated the above words mentioned is null and void!

  19. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 17, 2015

    I’ve always been interested in Jewish Apocalypticism, but never came across much to read on it. From your description it’s easy to see how pre-Gnostic ideas could have grown out of it well before the time of Jesus (the claims of early Christians writers that it came out of the East AFTER Jesus notwithstanding).

  20. Avatar
    Jana  November 18, 2015

    OK .. I’m digressing radically again from the blog topic … and I get what you are saying and better understand too the historical framework “box” context. However, reflecting on what I’ve read and am reading. And digressing !! IF Christ’s miracles were in fact actual events and not contrived by later followers to enhance Jesus (for whatever motives), then wouldn’t he be a Messiah of a more complex nature than that of a historical agent or the miracles work to support that he is in fact powerful enough to be the historical Messiah as well (I can perceive both ways)? I am just wondering Dr. Ehrman??? … I concluded last night that IF Christ’s miracles were in fact actual then this would tweak or torque the definition of Messiah. I see the status of the miracles as then also central. Have you treated the miracles? You really do present some lovely puzzles !

    • Bart
      Bart  November 18, 2015

      Yes, if his miracles are historical, that would certainly change everything!

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