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The Origins of Apocalypticism

In my previous post I began to explain how, in 1985, while teaching a class at Rutgers on the Problem of Suffering, I came to realize that I simply didn’t accept any longer most of the views of the Bible on why there was suffering in the world.  But one view did continue to appeal to me, the apocalyptic view that emerged toward the end of the New Testament period, and became the view of Jesus, John the Baptist before him, the apostle Paul after him, and, in fact, most of the early Christians.

This would be a good time to review where this view came from and what motivated it.  For that I am going to return to a post that I made on the blog a couple of years ago.  Here I set up what apocalypticists believed (especially about suffering) by contrasting it with the view out of which it arose and to which it was reacting, the view of the traditional Hebrew prophets.


The Prophetic Perspective

We have seen that the classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible differed from one another in a number of ways, in the historical contexts that they addressed, in their manner of addressing them, and in the specifics of their messages.   But there are certain common features that tie all the prophets together, especially with respect to their understanding of God, his reaction to Israel’s failure to do his will, and the coming disasters that will occur as a result.   If you were to ask a prophet like Amos, Isaiah, or Jeremiah why it is the people of God suffer, they would have a clear and ready answer.  They suffer because …

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The Essence of Biblical Apocalyptic Thought
Apologies to All Colombians



  1. Avatar
    Steefen  July 13, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman: If you were to ask a prophet like Amos, Isaiah, or Jeremiah why it is the people of God suffer, they would have a clear and ready answer. They suffer because God is punishing them.

    Steefen: Why not include Noah? One would think that is where it began, with the greatest apocalypse the Bible has recorded.

    Dr. Ehrman: This apocalyptic view contrasts with the prophetic view up and down the line. God is not making people suffer; the forces aligned against God are. The people are not suffering for doing wrong; they are suffering for doing right.

    Steefen: The apocalyptic prophets John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and others would have to admit the exception: when God specifically says God is making bad people suffer, as in the Noah story?

    What’s persuasive is that God makes bad people suffer and the forces aligned against God make innocent people suffer, even if the suffering is the same event (flood, military loss, exile).

    In your description of apocalypse, there is no admittance of wrong doing.

    To speak of the apocalyptic view of Jesus is to speak of the Jewish Civil War, the Jewish attack on a Roman legion, Rome’s policing of the situation which escalated into the First Jewish-Roman War, and finally the “apocalypse of Temple Judaism”.

    Was it wrong
    A) for Jewish authorities to have civil arguments escalate to civil war and
    B) for a Jewish contingent to attack a Roman legion (and then not act with contrition and self-policing but to act as if independence had been won)?

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  July 30, 2017

      I’m confused: Are you calling the Jewish revolt against the Romans a civil war? The Romans were brutal, vicious occupiers. The Jews were revolting against their oppressors. Perhaps you’re not using the phrase “civil war” in a technical sense.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  July 31, 2017

        The Jews attacked the Romans, defeating a legion. In that short term victory, the Jews acted as if they were independent of Rome. The short term victory did not produce united leadership. There was civil war in that short interim. I made a short video about just a segment of it:https://youtu.be/Kct4cZttfP8 . There were more than two factions in the Jewish Civil War. Idumeans, outside of Judea, were a separate faction. If I remember correctly, one faction was led by a John (of Gischala), another faction was led by Simon (ben Gioria), there was a Jesus in Galilee who was more of a rebel leader than a civil war faction leader. When the Romans got to Jerusalem, the generals said: let them kill themselves: less work for us to do. So the timeline is something like this 1) Jewish Revolt starts, 2) Civil War a) for leadership in the short period before Rome regained control and there is civil war b) between those who did not want to rebel against Rome vs those who did, 3) the Romans reply turning the Jewish Revolt attack into the First Jewish-Roman War a) replying to the attack that defeated one of their legions and b) putting down the infighting of the Jewish Civil War in which the various factions were starving citizens, killing priests on the temple mount, etc.

  2. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 24, 2017

    Your account of the apocalyptic view seems like a more theologically developed version of Job’s problem. What happens when God “makes a deal with the devil?” It’s an interesting question, not least because it seems like admitting God negotiates with the forces of evil leads to admitting God is not really in charge at all. Why else would he bargain?
    I was reading Mark’s verson of the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ interpretation of it. (ch 4) and was taken aback by Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah insinuating that he used parables so some people wouldn’t understand them and REPENT. Was that a common part of the apocalyptic view, that some people were predestined to come down on the wrong side and be destroyed or consigned to flames in the end? It doesn’t fit the popular image of the loving Jesus who wants all to be saved, if possible.

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