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The Essence of Biblical Apocalyptic Thought

I earlier pointed out that my views of suffering in the 1980s were heavily influenced by the biblical perspective that scholars call apocalypticism.  I have discussed the major views of apocalypticism on the blog a couple of times over the years, but some review would be useful at this point, both for those whose memories are as sieve-like as mine, and for those who weren’t around yet for all those years of previous fun   on the blog.

Let me stress, 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.  This is a widely held view among critical scholars – by far the majority view for over a century, since the writings of none other than 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.

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The Origins of Apocalypticism



  1. Avatar
    Seeker1952  July 13, 2017

    When I was reaching maturity from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, I can see in retrospect that I had a semi-apocalyptic though secular view of social progress. Things were on the verge of becoming radically better whether through the “revolution,” or in the new age, or in the counter-culture, or in post-industrial society, or whatever. Boy was I wrong–and pretty disappointed and embarrassed.

    Christians tended to deal with that sort of disappointment by reinterpreting the expected change “vertically” (rather than “horizontally”). Do we know of any previously Christian thinkers or groups or schools of thought who dealt with the failure of God’s kingdom to arrive–as predicted by Jesus–by acknowledging that they were mistaken and by developing a more realistic worldview? I’d find that very interesting and possibly very helpful.

  2. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 13, 2017

    Much of this aligns with what is in the Quran. Yes there is light and darkness. Good and evil. There are devils and his army. Yes evil people do evil under influence of devil. He is the whisperer. But we have our soul also that gets corrupted by doing evil and wants to do more evil even in absence of devil. Such as desire for power and wealth, etc. So yes previous prophets knew this also.

    However where does old testament say that devil caused a natural disaster? Or devil killed someone? Or devil made someone sick?

    Did Jewish scholars base their theory on scripture or was it pure conjecture? Since as Muslims we don’t base our theology on conjecture.

    Force of evil is the humans doing actions under the whispers of devil. Devil himself is a flimsy creature and does not control nature. Death and life is only in hands of God.

    Finally Jesus could not have said some of you will live to see the judgement day. None of the prophets knew when is it. They all only know that it’s near. Near compared to when earth was formed. So compared to millions of years, few thousand years is like around the corner.

    People have added words on behalf of Jesus in earlier scriptures. Doesn’t necessarily mean everything written was actually said by him.

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 15, 2017

      HasanKhan what is your historical understanding of Jesus. According to Islam what do you all say about him?

      • Avatar
        hasankhan  July 16, 2017

        Jesus (peace be upon him) was a prophet of God like Moses, Jacob, Job, Joseph, Abaram, etc. He was sent to children of Israel (Jews) to guide them back to teachings of Torah (restore the law) and to also reveal some changes in the law from before to make things easy on them. Jews rejected him because they didn’t want to change their ways and reported him to the roman authorities (by accusing him of treason) to have him executed. He was saved by God and raised up to sky. Someone else was captured and executed that looked like him.

        He preached worshiping one God like every other prophet, he never said I’m God or worship me or I’m son of God or I’m one of three, or anything of such sort. He could perform miracles like other prophets with the help of God. Romans adopted christianity and mixed their own pagan concepts into it like ‘son of god’, ‘resurrection from dead’, etc. Jesus had already informed coming of another prophet after him i.e. Muhammad.

        You read this powerpoint for some highlights on his life: http://bayyinah.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/The-Messiah.pdf

        Or watch the lecture: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLrbExf4Pztsrypw02fw6SQ24zhCFmaiNG

        Or you can read the chapters of Quran:
        3) Family of Imran
        5) Table Spread
        19) Maryam (Mary)

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 17, 2017

      HasanKhan it just seems to me that Islam has an Ebionite view of Jesus. So could it be that one of Muhammad’s wives was an Ebionite Christian who influenced Muhammad’s revelations?

    • tompicard
      tompicard  July 21, 2017

      Dr Ehrman I tried twice before to post this answer to hasankhan, website seemed to accept it, but it hasn’t shown up for me to review as usual – so if 3 attempts are visible when you get around to approving please only post one thanks

      (( does old testament say that devil caused a natural disaster?
      (( Or devil killed someone? Or devil made someone sick?

      in the book of Job seems like God allowed Satan to cause a house to fall on Job’s children killing them
      as well as causing Job to get terribly sick. But I would say generally neither the old nor new testaments present Satan as killing people. For instance, God not the devil killed Judah’s (Jacob’s son) eldest 2 sons.

      I would agree that the devil in the NT is presented as a being whose power rests in his being able to influence the actions of human beings to behave in manners contrary to God’s Will, as opposed to explicitly controlling nature. as examples
      Satan tried to convince Jesus to worship him rather than God
      Satan entered Judas, influencing him to betray Jesus
      Jesus referred to his disciple Peter as Satan because Peter was opposing God’s will.

      Some one else correct me if they can think of another instance, where the devil killed someone or the devil performed some evil independent of influencing a human being.

      • Avatar
        hasankhan  July 24, 2017

        Thanks for the reference. In Qur’an, God does not mention devil being used for causing suffering to Job. However Qur’an does reference Job saying that devil has inflicted suffering on him.

        Qur’an (38:41) And remember Our servant Job, when he called to his Lord, “Indeed, Satan has touched me with hardship and torment.”

        Generally devils are mentioned as whisperers but in exceptional circumstances, they are given ability by God to physically interfere with environment. We know from Qur’an that Prophet Solomon had devils as his servants who worked for him.

        Qur’an (21:82) And of the devils were those who dived for him and did work other than that. And We were of them a guardian.

        These are exceptional cases but not the norm. Basically the position of Qur’an is that devil cannot do anything unless God allows him to do it. So God does let suffering happen, God sometimes inflicts suffering intentionally, etc but at the end of day it is not against His will. Since no one can override His will.

        Qur’an (64:11) No disaster strikes except by permission of Allah . And whoever believes in Allah – He will guide his heart. And Allah is Knowing of all things

  3. Avatar
    Cristian  July 13, 2017

    Do you really think Jesus did not believe himself as being the Son of Man? That seems completely nonsense to me!

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 17, 2017

      I do not believe Jesus thought he was God/Yahweh (if we are talking about the historical Jesus that Dr. Ehrman has identified in his historical findings).

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  July 24, 2017

      Critical scholars think that Jesus did NOT think of himself as the Son of Man. Jesus did talk about Daniel’s Son of Man, and instances where he speaks of him in the third person are thought to be actual sayings of Jesus. In other places in the gospels Jesus apparently refers to himself as this person, but these sayings are thought to not originate with Jesus, rather with later followers who did think of him as the Son of Man. Bart talks about this in one of his books, possibly How Jesus became God, but i can’t really remember.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  July 28, 2017


        This is explained by Dr Ehrman in his “Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”, which is an excellent book. I think I remember from that book Dr Ehrman states that Jesus’ usage of the term ‘Son of Man’ is one of the largest debates amongst scholars so I don’t think the above statement “Critical scholars think that Jesus did NOT think of himself as the Son of Man” is broadly true.

        Dr Ehrman’s understanding that “Jesus did not believe himself as being the Son of Man” is consistent with his belief that Jesus preached supernatural aspects of apocalypticism. For if Jesus really referred to himself personally as ‘Son of Man’ (and saw himself as a human, which Jesus obviously did) as opposed to an angel or some other supernatural creature, like what a literalist would believe based upon Dan 7, then it would eliminate at least one presumed (probably the primary) supernatural aspect from Jesus apocalyptic ministry.

  4. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  July 13, 2017

    I gather that the apocalyptic view is still held by a minority of Christian theologians, but that at some point the majority view shifted away from apocalypticism. What is the majority view today?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      That’s a great question, and I don’t really know. With 2 billion Christians, no one has (could?) survey them all. It sure would be interesting if someone did!

  5. Avatar
    doug  July 13, 2017

    I like the quote from Dale Allison regarding the Kingdom of God: “The rule in the ancient sources is this: if it is coming, it must be close.” (“Constructing Jesus”, pg. 45). That makes sense. If people believed God was going to save them from suffering, they probably believed that would happen in their life-time, rather than letting evil drag on for thousands of years.

  6. kadmiral
    kadmiral  July 13, 2017

    Hi Bart,
    Concerning the imminence of the coming kingdom (“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” (Mark 9:1), and, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30)), how does what Jesus says at the end of Matthew 28 correspond—Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”?
    Is this Matthew 28 “age” referring to the same imminence of the kingdom arriving, that was supposedly coming in their lifetimes? It seems like making disciples of all nations is something that would take awhile, and that these disciples would/should not have thought the Jesus was returning next week, or maybe even in their lifetimes? Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      I think the idea is that the age is very nearly over, and the disciples need to make converts quickly while they can. Jesus will be with them in their efforts.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 13, 2017

    Being one who likes to learn stuff by subdividing concepts into parts and numbering the parts, I really like your subdividing “apocalypticism into these four parts. It makes it easier to understand. Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    jhague  July 13, 2017

    It seems to me that most Christians today are some sort of combination of Dualism and Imminence. Is that what you find to be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      Certainly that’s true of very conservative evangelicals.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  July 13, 2017

    It wouldn’t be so worrisome if cosmic apocalyptic pessimism was merely a historical phenomenon of interest to a few scholars. But no matter how far removed in time we are from early Christianity and how far it might have backed off from the original idea of imminence, the faith has never completely emptied itself of the apocalyptic impulse. And over the centuries impulses have frequently flared into fervors. In these latter days when humankind really does have the ability to induce a genuine apocalypse, how frightening is it for our political and religious discourse to be dominated by people who take every disaster as confirmation of their hopes and every secular achievement as evidence of Satanic deception?

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  July 13, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I was thinking of sifting through the apocalyptic literature to see if there was some kind of correlation between the name used for the Evil One (i.e. Satan, Belial, Mastema, Azazel, Samael, etc.) and a particular apocalyptic sect. Is there research on this question? Is there anything you can recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      No, I don’t know of any such research, probably because it won’t likely pan out. One problem is – if you’re talking about *ancient* sects — is that most of them haven’t left us any literature AND, even more important, most texts cannot be securely located as belonging to one sect or another (what sect does 1 Enoch belong to, e.g.?)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  July 15, 2017

        I was thinking the reverse process. That is, take all the documents that speak of Satan together, all the documents that speak of Belial together, all the douments that speak of Mastema together, and so on, and from that see if there is any other correlation between the group of documents and any particular eschatology or soteriology, etc. For example, the Essenes seem to prefer refering to Belial (Bliy’al in Hebrew = “worthless”), which may be a clue as to how they viewed the Evil One and any connection they had with other groups who refered to Belial.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2017

          Yeah, my sense is that you won’t come up with a consistent pattern. But let us know!

  11. Avatar
    Tony  July 13, 2017

    Mark’s 13:30 apocalyptic words did not come from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark based his apocalyptic views on the Pauline letters and made his Jesus of Nazareth character comment accordingly. It was Paul and his followers who identified what was to happen at the imminent end-times. Here is the reason was for their struggle:

    Eph 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    Notice that the “rulers”, “authorities” and “powers” are NOT earthly rulers. They are the demonic forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

    It was Paul and his followers who decided that their celestial Jesus, the son of God, was sacrificed to pay for the original human sin. The demonic rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms were humiliated and destroyed in the process:

    Col 2:13-15: “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross (Gr. Stauros). He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

    Paul himself re-states this in 1 Corinthians:

    1Cor 15-24 “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. “

    Which brings us to the question as to who killed Paul’s celestial Jesus. Paul leaves little doubt – it was the demonic heavenly rulers (doomed to perish) who, mistakenly, killed Jesus.:

    1 Cor 2:6-8 “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified (Gr. stauros) the Lord of glory.”

  12. Avatar
    dragonfly  July 14, 2017

    When your views of suffering were heavily influenced by apocalypticism, we’re they influenced so much you thought there was no point trying to do anything about it? I would find it hard to believe you would be so pessimistic.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      No, my view at the time is that we were to fight against the forces of evil.

  13. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  July 14, 2017

    A lot of people on this site argue against the existence of God. I am not able to satisfactorily justify, through reason, my belief in God in a way than does not raise powerful questions that discounts my reasoning. So, I have turned to someone far more intelligent than me to improve my reasoning.

    Anthony Rizzi is a physicist who is known for solving an 80 year old problem in Einstein’s theory. He wrote a book, THE SCIENCE BEFORE SCIENCE, A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century, published by the Institute for Advanced Physics in 2004. I highly suggest everyone who is interested in sound reasoning to read this book. It may take more than one reading to understand the power in what he writes. I am reading it again because, obviously, I have not yet mastered sound reasoning.

    He has a chapter on the existence of God. However, if you read that in isolation from the rest of the book, you won’t understand it correctly. As such, I recommend you start at the beginning and read the whole book. Even if you maintain your disbelief in God, your reasoning abilities may be greatly improved.

  14. Avatar
    Silver  July 14, 2017

    Why in Christian thought is Jesus still Jesus i.e. the man (albeit glorified) rather than reverting to ´The Word’ as, according to John, he was ‘in the beginning’?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2017

      I suppose because they Word became incarnate and remains that way. Though Christians can and do still refer to Christ as the Logos ( = Word)

  15. Avatar
    Jana  July 15, 2017

    I’m sorry I haven’t much to add to the discussion Dr. Ehrman .. my emotional reaction is that I’m struck by the simplicity of this world view. How did one become “good” and align themselves with the forces of God? Were there specific rules of conduct in addition to loving everyone? Perhaps you’ve written about this before? Sorry then I don’t recall.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 16, 2017

      These ancient Jews would have said that you know how to align yourself with God because of the sacred Scriptures (Hebrew Bible)

  16. Avatar
    Tempo1936  July 15, 2017

    The Bible is absolutely correct there will be in in time. But it will not be the Son of Man coming on a cloud, but rather a large astroid hitting the earth and destroying all life .

    It is an undisputed fact that An asteroid impact around 65 million years ago causing a chain reaction that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and affected all life on Earth,
    according to scientists.
    You can see the outline of the astroid crater from space so this is a fact.
    The Bible does not mention Astroids and their impact on end times. So all the biblical writings about demons /angels/Son of mAn coming on a cloud is just a fiction
    written by men with vivid
    It’s just beyond comprehension that fundamentalist spend endless hours send endless hours studying biblical prophecies when it’s just a bunch of nonsense.

  17. Avatar
    Aage  July 23, 2017

    I wholly concur in your summary but I’m left with two questions arising from it:

    1. In the Synoptics, Jesus came to restore the fortunes of Israel while in the Pauline and Johannine literature, he came to deliver the world. Question: to what extent was Jewish apocalypticism ethnic in nature? Could a Paul or a “John” claim that their ‘catholicism’ was true to its nature?

    2. You talk about the annihilation of evil at the end of the age while also talking about everlasting punishment. How do you resolve the conflict between these two points of view?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Apocalypticism could come in both varieties: it could be national (the vindication of Israel) or universal (the salvation of the entire world). And on annhihilation vs. eternal punishment: again, some apocalypticists could believe one and others the other. It was not a strictly doctrinaire affair but was flexible and dynamic (like Christianity: it’s impossible to say, for example, to say what “the” Christian view is about abortion, or the afterlife, or American exceptionalism, or … anything else! Different Christians subscribe vehemently to one view or another and claim it is “the” Christian views, whereas other Christians subscribe vehemently to the opposite view and claim *it* is the Christian view. So too with ancient apocalypticists.

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 25, 2017

    I have two questions, one relating to the parables of Jesus, the other a translation question.

    I have heard that Christianity began as an urban religious movement, but many of Jesus’ parables focus on agricultural themes. What do you make of that? Why are they not more focused on urban life? Did apocalypticism see the city as a manifestation of the forces of evil that God would destroy?

    In Mk. 4:21, the NRSV uses the term “bushel basket,” which the HCSB annotates as “a dry measure of about 2 gallons.” But a bushel in U.S. weights and measures is 8 gallons. Why would the NRSV choose a term with a defined meaning that doesn’t fit?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 27, 2017

      When people say that Xty started as an urban movement, they mean *after* the death of Jesus, as the faith spread throughout the Roman world. It mainly went into cities, and it stayed that way, principally, for decades.

      It is a Latinism (a Latin word that has been taken over into the Greek). And yes, it refers to a container that would hold about two gallons. We don’t have an equivalent term in English, so translators have to come up with an approximation. (My sense is that almost none of us would have known that a bushel was 8 gallons!)

  19. Avatar
    ddorner  August 22, 2017

    In Jesus Interrupted you talk about illiteracy in the ancient world and you mention that Jesus was highly exceptional in that he could evidently read.

    What would have been the exceptions for Jesus? Or rather, what were some of the exceptions in the ancient world for how someone could have learned to read? And does his education imply Jesus came from a family of some means?

    I imagine his apocalyptic thinking must have been shaped by his understanding of scripture.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2017

      I’m afraid we don’t know. He would have had to have someone teach him. Was there a local person in Nazareth who happened, against all odds, to be literate, who was his teacher? Possibly. I don’t think there is any other plausible option (though it’s easy to come up with lots of implausible ones, such as that he went off to Sepphoris for years for schooling)

  20. Avatar
    Benevolent  September 28, 2017

    “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.”

    Based on my research, Judaism didn’t believe in a hell nor did very early Christians. If you’ve found the opposite, that would be fascinating to me…as I’ve been under the impression that early Christians were a kind of Universalists and that Judaism believed that when you died you were simply sleeping.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 29, 2017

      I had a whole series of posts on this a couple of months ago.

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