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The Difference Between Eschatology and Apocalypticism

QUESTION

I have recently been reading John Meier’s books and he almost always calls Jesus (and John the Baptist), eschatological prophets (once stating Jesus having a “tinge of apocalypticism” or something to that effect). And you always refer to Jesus as an “apocalyptic prophet”.   Do you make any distinction  in the terms “eschatological” and “apocalyptic”?

 

RESPONSE

Ah, it’s a good question.  These terms are an endless source of confusion for people – even scholars sometimes.  I think the problem is that different scholars work with different definitions and often they have not thought through carefully the implications of their terminology.  So let me explain how I work it all out, by defining/describing a set of terms that are all closely related but distinct (in my head):  eschatology (and eschatological); apocalypticism; apocalyptic; and apocalypse.

Eschatology.   This is a broad term that simply means …

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Comments

  1. Lev
    Lev  October 29, 2018

    When you were a believer, how did you reconcile the prediction made by Jesus and Paul that the apocalypse was imminent, with the fact that it didn’t happen and still hasn’t happened 2000 years later?

    I’ve heard some Christians suggest the predicted apocolypse applied to the destruction of Jerusalem, but that doesn’t seem to work as the “utopian kingdom where there is no more pain, misery, and suffering” did not appear.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      When I was a fundamentalist, I didn’t think they *had* predicted an imminent end. When I was older and wiser, but still Christian, I thought they were wrong about the calendar but right about the main point: despite appearances, God is still in control and in the end will have the last say.

      • Lev
        Lev  October 30, 2018

        Thanks, Bart. Do you know how the early church dealt with this problem?

        I know of 2 Peter 3 (and I share your view that it wasn’t written by Peter, but instead many decades after he died), but are you aware of other early Christian sources that try to explain why Jesus hadn’t returned within his generation?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 31, 2018

          Yes indeed, it was one of the first big crises. Various authors had different ways of dealing with it. One of the most interesting is that Jesus’ words were changed over time, so that he no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon (Luke somewhat; John even more) and eventually that he explicitly said that the kingdom was NOT coming soon (Gospel of Thomas).

          • Lev
            Lev  October 31, 2018

            Many thanks. I don’t think you covered this in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (unless I missed it?) Could you recommend a decent book that covers this crisis? It’s a subject I’m becoming increasingly interested in.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 2, 2018

            I deal with it in various places, including my first trade book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet and in my new book on the afterlife. (But yes, it’s not a topic related to what I cover in Orthodox Corruption)

          • JohnKesler  October 31, 2018

            What does Luke have in mind when he refers to “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24)? And why does Luke’s Jesus still say, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” rather than leaving the timing of the Parousia open-ended?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 2, 2018

            Times of Gentiles appears to refer to the idea that salvation will now go to the gentiles for a period, before the end comes. Luke seems to think that the end will come within the generation following the fall of Jerusalem.

  2. RonaldTaska  October 29, 2018

    My “guess” is that humans, like most other species, will eventually become extinct either due to global warming or world wars. There have been lots of amazing species which went the way of extinction. Why should humans be any different?

    • randal  October 30, 2018

      Agree. I would also throw in biological weapons and drug resistant superbugs. Our big brain is a blessing but also a curse in tha we can now destroy our own species. My eschatological view is there’s no long term hope for humanity.

    • rivercrowman  October 30, 2018

      Ronald, wouldn’t it be exciting to have dinosaurs thundering through your front yard? … I think human population control is the issue that’s still not PC to debate, and may never be.

      • SidDhartha1953  November 16, 2018

        Maybe nature was wise to implement its own brutal methods of population control, given that no species coul be trusted to go extinct when it had outlived its usefulness.

  3. Robert
    Robert  October 29, 2018

    “I have recently been reading John Meier’s books and he …”

    Dr Ehrman, it would be extremely interesting for you to list the most important differences between your reconstruction of the historical Jesus and that of John P. Meier.

    I’ve only occasionally dipped into his currently 5-volume Marginal Jew, and these are a few of the differences I’ve noted:

    0. Of course you agree on the most important point about Jesus being a messianic apocalyptic prophet predicting the near term end of the age and the beginning of the Kingdom of God.

    1. If I recall correctly, he is more open to idea that the historical Jesus may have used ‘the son of man’ as an enigmatic self-designation instead of that Aramaic phrase referring to a separate heavenly figure soon to come as part of God’s definitive intervention.

    2. Meier is more inclined to accept Johannine chronology and ‘John’s knowledge of authentic Jewish practice at the time of Jesus.

    3. Meier is more inclined to accept as historical Jesus’ activities as an exorcist and healer (likely psychosomatic).

    4. Meier does not think the gospel of Thomas is independent of the synoptics (otherwise your source-critical methodological assumptions are identical).

    5. If those are correct (are they?), surely there must be other important differences???

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      Yes, those are some of the main differences. I strongly object to the idea that a disinterested observer looking at the Gospels for what is historically accurate would come away saying that Jesus really did miracles.

      1
      1
      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 30, 2018

        just as a reply since i just finished vol 2 of the work which discusses miracles

        Of course Meier doesn’t claim that Jesus did ‘God intervening miracles’, he claims that some of the miracle stories had a basis in historical events in Jesus life and that some miracle stories began circulating before Easter

        • Bart
          Bart  October 31, 2018

          Ah thanks. I may have been overreading him. (I haven’t looked at the book since it first came out, many years ago)

        • Robert
          Robert  October 31, 2018

          Tompicard: “Meier … once stating Jesus having a ‘tinge of apocalypticism’ or something to that effect …”

          I think Meier uses ‘eschatological prophet’ as more or less equivalent to ‘apocalyptic prophet’, as can be seen in the first part if the quote below (from Volume 5, Ch 37, N 27). The end of this quote seems to be placing the ‘tinged with apocalyptic’ remark as distancing Jesus’ teachings from full-blown examples of the apocalyptic literary genre. Professor Ehrman would not disagree with this.

          “Jesus the eschatological prophet represents in particular the eschatological and/or apocalyptic stream of Jewish prophetic tradition. As I have indicated in Volume Two of A Marginal Jew, I think that it is best to classify Jesus’ eschatological utterances as eschatology tinged with apocalyptic motifs and imagery, as distinct, e.g., from the full-blown apocalypses of 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch.”

  4. godspell  October 29, 2018

    Does the term apocalypticism refer exclusively to those influenced directly by Jewish/Christian/Islamic ideas about the end of the world, or could it also refer to ideas from Non-Abrahaminic systems of belief?

    Probably the most famous ‘apocalypse’ other than the one described in Revelation is Ragnarok (Gotterdammerung if it’s a German opera). The many points of similarity between that myth and Revelation have been noted, and various explanations have been offered. I have no dog in that fight.

    But basically most religions (even Buddhism!) seem to have some concept of the world ending in a great confrontation of cosmic forces, and then somehow being remade into something better. It wasn’t something only Jewish people thought about. I think it’s probably human nature to assume everything with a beginning has an ending. And based on what we know about the universe, it’s probably also factually correct.

    I ask because ‘Ragnarokicism’ is clunky.

    ‘Gotterdammerungian’ is even worse.

    And there are people who still profess to believe in the Norse gods and myths, though I’m never sure how seriously to take them.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      No, there is apocalyptic thought in other traditions as well (e.g., Zoroastrianism).

  5. flshrP  October 29, 2018

    Thanks for the clarifications. This post goes in my Bart Ehrman folder for sure.

  6. fishician  October 29, 2018

    “Apocalypses were a popular form of writing in early Judaism and early Christianity.” Did you mean to say late Judaism? If not, can you clarify how you define the life cycle of Judaism? (Also, in my experience a lot of eschatology would be better called “scatology” for what it’s worth!)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      Scholars now refer to Judaism in the first two centuries BCE (or so) and onward as “early” Judaism, since the older Israelite religion had changed radicatlly by this time. “Late Judaism” was an older expression, popular especially among German scholars, and taken over by others, to denigrate the forms of Judaism that had developed as “later” corruptions of the “true” Israelite faith.

  7. dankoh  October 29, 2018

    I think there is another aspect here. “Apocalypsis” is Greek for “uncovering,” and indicates that an angel “uncovers” a vision, but this vision does not have to be eschatological. Zechariah 1-6 is an apocalypse promising the restoration of Jerusalem to glory. It’s with Daniel (and other books of that time) that apocolypticism became a kind of eschatology. And with Revelation (if not before), it became a violent one.

  8. dankoh  October 29, 2018

    A different question: Judaism never fully subscribed to a God-Devil dualism; Satan (or the evil impulse) is never accorded any kind of equal power or status in opposition to God. This has certainly been true since Talmudic times. Even the Qumran scrolls, as far as I have seen, do not make this kind of equivalence. Do you know of any materials that suggest otherwise? (And I don’t count Revelation; if “John of Patmos” was Jewish, he was not writing from the Jewish tradition.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      No, in the Jewish tradition God’s personal enemy was never his equal, unlike, say, in other ancient dualistic systems of thought.

  9. darren  October 29, 2018

    I have a somewhat related question. I’ve been reading Suetonius’ ‘Lives of the 12 Ceasars’ again, and I’m struck by how much stock the ancients put into prophetic ‘signs’ — lightning strikes, visions of birds, etc. Suetonius mentions a widespread belief in Judea that the leader of the world would come from there, and Josephus made a similar prediction, helping him gain favour with Vespasian. As Suetonius writes: “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted and after killing their governor, they routed the consular ruler of Syria as well, when he came to the rescue, and took one of his eagles.” Was this prophecy based on Jewish apocalypticism that had spread into the pagan world? Or did ancient Jews adopt the prophecy as their own?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      It was evidently based on the jewish belief that there would be a future messiah, in fulfilment of the prophecies.

  10. mikezamjara  October 29, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman

    off topic. I am engaged in a debate about King David´s existence. What do you think is the position of the majority of the scholars you know. Do you believe he existed?. Or do you agree with Dr Finkelstein that he existed but didn´t had an empire as the bible say?.

  11. mikezamjara  October 29, 2018

    Another comment Dr Ehrman, Could I suggest a notifications bell in the blog? I have difficulties in finding when I get a response. greetings

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      I”m not sure how that would work without being terribly distracting to some people!

  12. John Uzoigwe  October 30, 2018

    Why Was books of The New Testament not arranged chronologically? I mean since mark was probably written first, followed by Luke…. Etc

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2018

      Mainly because ancient Christians weren’t interested in that question, the way we more historically minded moderns are.

  13. John Uzoigwe  October 30, 2018

    Dr Bart German I would to make a suggestion. I’m thinking…why not put up an application for this blog. A kind of e-book application people can download on there smart phones or computer to read the latest threads about the Bible and ask questions. I think it will further promote the blog.

  14. DavidNeale  October 30, 2018

    I’ve never been sure how the “ch” in eschatology is pronounced in English. (Sorry for the basic question! I’ve read the word often but never heard it said.)

  15. teg51  October 30, 2018

    First, let me just say im happy to be back commenting on the blog, its been awhile! Anyways, I have a question dr. Ehrman that is unrelated to this post. it’s concerning the unity of the early Christian movement and Paul’s version of events. Here it goes: in his letters Paul claims that he had a dispute with peter concerning gentiles and the mosaic law, but he also says that the leaders of the Jerusalem church gave him the right hand of fellowship to minister to the gentiles. if that’s the case, does that mean that James ,Peter and the rest of the disciples agreed that Gentiles didn’t have to follow the mosaic law to be followers of Jesus? Did they, like Paul believe that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised to be Christians?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 31, 2018

      We don’t know the real situation, but what Paul *claims* is that the Jerusalem apostles came to agree with him that Gentiles did not need to become circumcised to be followers of Jesus and members of the church, but that later Peter didn’t understand the implications of this, that it was good and right (and just OK) for Jews to have table fellowship with the uncircumcised believers (Peter thought it wsa important for him to keep Jewish customs intact)

  16. Hormiga  October 30, 2018

    Eschatology/apocalypticism has had a rebirth these secular days in the notion of a future technological Singularity, aka “The Rapture of the Nerds.” It comes in various forms, but the basic notion is that advances in biology, genetics, brain science, computing etc will transform humanity into something totally different (and hopefully better).

    http://singularity.com/

  17. JohnKesler  November 2, 2018

    Bart:
    One of the most interesting is that Jesus’ words were changed over time, so that he no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon (Luke somewhat…

    JohnKesler:
    [W]hy does Luke’s Jesus still say, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” rather than leaving the timing of the Parousia open-ended?

    Bart:
    Luke seems to think that the end will come within the generation following the fall of Jerusalem.

    JohnKesler (Today, Nov. 2)
    Since that’s the case, how is it that Luke’s Jesus “no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon,” since Luke 21:32–“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”–is *identical* to what Matthew’s Jesus says in Matthew 24:34?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      For Luke, the end was indeed coming soon — but “soon” in relation not to Jesus but to Luke’s own time, some fifty or so years later.

      • JohnKesler  November 7, 2018

        Bart:
        One of the most interesting is that Jesus’ words were changed over time, so that he no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon (Luke somewhat…

        JohnKesler:
        [W]hy does Luke’s Jesus still say, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” rather than leaving the timing of the Parousia open-ended?

        Bart:
        Luke seems to think that the end will come within the generation following the fall of Jerusalem.

        JohnKesler:
        Since that’s the case, how is it that Luke’s Jesus “no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon,” since Luke 21:32–“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”–is *identical* to what Matthew’s Jesus says in Matthew 24:34?

        Bart:
        For Luke, the end was indeed coming soon — but “soon” in relation not to Jesus but to Luke’s own time, some fifty or so years later.

        JohnKesler (Nov. 7):
        It seems that you are now saying that Luke’s time of the Parousia would be later than Matthew’s (and Mark’s) simply by virtue of the fact that you think that Luke wrote later than Matthew. However, in your first message, you said, “Jesus’ words were changed over time, so that he no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon (Luke somewhat…” How, then, were Jesus’ *words* changed by Luke to delay the time of the Parousia?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 9, 2018

          I have a friend who wrote his dissertation, later published as a book, on this. John T. Carroll, Response to History.

          • JohnKesler  November 9, 2018

            Thanks for the recommendation of Carroll’s book *Response to the End of History*, but did you not have any passage(s) in mind when you typed that Luke changed Jesus’ words, so that Jesus no longer was reported as predicting that the end was coming very soon?

            https://tinyurl.com/carrollendofhistory

          • Bart
            Bart  November 11, 2018

            Notice how the words Jesus speaks to the high priest (mark 14:67; Luke 22:69) are significantly changed; no longer does he indicate that the high priest will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to judge the earth. By the time Luke was writing, the high priest had died and the son of man had not come yet.

  18. balivi  November 3, 2018

    Dear Prof!
    Do you see any difference beetwen Paul and Jesus apocalyptic vews?

  19. Sixtus  November 3, 2018

    Thanks for this unusually clarifying post. And for confirming that ‘apocalyptic’ is an adjective. I will now consider scholars using it as a noun to be pretentious, if not ill-informed. What word would they use, pray tell, if they needed the adjectival form?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      They make the word “apocalyptic” do double duty as both a noun and an adjective.

  20. JohnKesler  November 11, 2018

    Bart:
    Notice how the words Jesus speaks to the high priest (mark 14:67; Luke 22:69) are significantly changed; no longer does he indicate that the high priest will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to judge the earth. By the time Luke was writing, the high priest had died and the son of man had not come yet.

    JohnKesler:
    I think that you mean Mark 14:62. I was already aware of that one, as well as Luke’s changing Mark 9:1 in Luke 9:27, so that seeing “that the kingdom of God has come with power” is now simply seeing the kingdom of God (no reference to coming “in power”).

    1) To clarify, you don’t see anything in Luke 21 itself that significantly modifies Mark 13 to delay the time of the Parousia?

    2) Why do Luke 9:26 and Luke 21:27 omit reference to angels compared to their putative Markan sources, Mark 8:38 and Mark 13:26-27, respectively?

    Mark 8:38
    38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

    Luke 9:26 (this passage mentions the *glory of* the angels, but not angels themselves)
    26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

    Mark 13:26-27
    26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

    Luke 21:27 (Luke’s version has no parallel to Mark 13:27)
    27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2018

      I have to admit, I haven’t combed through Luke 21 with this question in mind for a very long time. So off hand I don’t know. So too on Luke 9:26, 21:27. Sorry!

      • JohnKesler  November 13, 2018

        “I have to admit, I haven’t combed through Luke 21 with this question in mind for a very long time. So off hand I don’t know. So too on Luke 9:26, 21:27. Sorry!”

        No problem. I also note that there is no Lucan parallel to Mark 13:32/Matthew 24:36, which says that not even the angels–or the Son–know the date of the Parousia. Maybe Luke had a higher view of angels than did the other evangelists?

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