If there was a historical Jesus, we should be able to place him within the proper historical context and from that point, determine what his message was and how it was interrupted by his followers. I will demonstrate through the use of the New Testament, that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher but not only that, he was also a failed apocalyptic preacher. This is C-Webb’s Sunday School.
Not wanting to miss the Reza Aslan boat, I think it’s a good idea to talk about one aspect of the historical Jesus. I’ve said this before, I’m agnostic on the historicity of Jesus. Given the limited evidence and lack of historical record outside of the bible, it’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion that Jesus was indeed a historical person. Does this change my opinion on Christianity? If I accept a historical Jesus, does that mean I have to accept the other claims made about him? If I still reject Jesus as the Son of God am I doing it out of stubbornness? These are some questions you’d likely receive from theist if presented with the question of a historical Jesus.
What does this have to do with Reza Aslan’s book Zealot? It’s rather simple, if I were to accept the historical Jesus, then a zealot apocalyptic preacher would make the most sense and fits the limited evidence presented. What I find hilarious about the whole Aslan incident was the idea of Jesus being a person growing up and living within a particular cultural context and the fact that people freaked out about it. I think in Western cultures, the idea that Jesus lived in the Middle East during Roman rule is so far removed for the white washed Jesus most people recognize today. Aslan’s book struck a nerve when he presented this culture clash and it frightened a lot of people, not to mention Aslan is a muslim writing about Jesus. Now to be fair, I have yet to read Aslan’s book but I’ve read a few reviews from scholars and the consensus is that he’s not presenting any new information, stuff that has been known by scholars for centuries. Aslan is presenting this story to a popular audience and this is something I can get behind. Another thing that is important is that Aslan is portraying Jesus as a criminal and he was according to Roman law. If he did claim to be the King of the Jews, this was treason according to Roman law and his execution was not unjustified, according to Roman law.
This episode is not about Aslan’s book Zealot but about Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. In this episode, I’m going to look at the evidence that supports this claim but before we go any further, I have to make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the New Testament. It’s important to know the dating of the Gospel’s and the writings of Paul. Matthew is said to have been written between 37 to 100 CE, Mark between 40 to 73 CE, Luke around 100 CE and John between 65 to 100 CE. The high numbers are what most scholars agree upon as the actual dates even though we don’t have the original writings. Even though Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, Mark was actually written first. The Pauline letters are typically dated earlier than the Gospels with Galatians being dated around 49 CE and First Thessalonians around 51 CE. Of the 13 epistles of Paul only seven are classified as genuinely Pauline and they are Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians and Philemon. The other six are said to be pseudographical. When looking at the Gospels, it is widely believed that Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and some other source text referred to as Q. John was written last. If we place Mark at around 70 CE, we can see the Pauline letters were written before that so Paul is a good source for understanding early Christian thought. The dating of the books of the New Testament are important especially when dealing with Jesus and his preachings. As time moved on and the imminent return of Jesus seemed less likely, interpretations changed to fit that narrative so it’s important that we go to the earliest sources which are the Pauline letters, Mark and in some case Matthew and Luke.
Back when I was a Christian, I was fascinated with the End Times and the Book of Revelation. I even read those lame Left Behind books thinking they were describing actual events that were to actually occur. I still have books about the end of the world in my book case. I was a die hard believer in the End Times and Christ inevitable return. My how far I have come. I still hold a fascination for the End Times but not because of it’s inevitability but for it’s overall nuttyness. It still blows my mind when I hear preachers and politicians claiming that we are living in the End of Days and that global warming is no big deal because God promised to never flood the world again. Like most pew potatoes, these Christians never really read their own source material. They never crack open their holy bible and read the text or they never try to understand it outside of superficial bible study groups. To look at it on a scholarly level takes effort and when done properly, usually leads to a weakening of belief, which should be avoided at all cost. If we are to take the synoptic gospels and the writings of Paul at face value, the evidence strongly suggest that Jesus was an Apocalyptic Preacher and going even further, it can be said that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic preacher and I’ll tell you why.
In order to understand Jesus’s role as an apocalyptic preacher, we have to place him within the correct historical context. This may come as a shock to Western believers but Jesus was a Jew and because of this we have to place him within the context of Jewish eschatology. Eschatology is concerned with death, judgement, heaven and hell [link]. Jewish apocalypticism was very common during the life of Jesus and we can find such examples in Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, first Enoch, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, fourth Ezra, Second Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. Being a Jew during this time of Roman rule, it only makes sense that Jesus would have grown up knowing about these writings and their teachings. Even the two major factions of Judaism held apocalyptic beliefs. The Essenes “saw themselves as living on the edge of time, in the very last days; and they dedicated every moment and aspect of life to preparing, after their fashion, for the coming kingdom of God.” The Pharisees “were as much touched by eschatological hopes as most other jewish groups.” Hopefully you can see what I am doing here. I am creating a picture of the times in which Jesus is said to have lived. I’m creating context to judge to words I’ll quote from the New Testament. This is very important for understanding Jesus as this apocalyptic preacher.
When speaking about Jewish apocalypticism and Roman rule, Jesus is often compared to other revolt leaders. The first is Judas the Galilean who lead a revolt against the Romans do to a new taxation census in 6 CE. The revolt is chronicled by Josephus in his Jewish Wars and he says that a fourth sect of Judaism arose with it’s leader being Judas and they are referred to as the Zealots. This group preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel and urged that no taxes should be paid to Rome [link].
There was another Jewish revolt that was lead by Theudas in 46 CE but it was short lived. Theudas gathered around 400 men on the shores of the Jordan river and said that he was a prophet and that he would divide the waters for easy passage. The Roman procurator Cuspius Fadus quickly put an end to this by dispatching troops of horsemen to break up the party. Many of Theudas’ followers were killed, along with Theudas himself with his head being carried away to Jerusalem. It has also been said that Theudas claimed to be the Messiah [link]. He is even mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a warning of other failed Messiah’s. The Act of the Apostles however get the dating of the revolt wrong because it places Theudas before the Judas revolt but according to Josephus, the Judas revolt occurred four decades before Theudas.
Finally, John the Baptist and Jesus are closely related and for this we have to look at the historical evidence of whether or not John the Baptist existed. The only two historical accounts of John the Baptist are found in the Gospels and in Josephus. However, the account in Josephus can only be dated back to the third century as it was quoted by Origen, an early Christian apologist. Given how similar the Gospel accounts and the Josephus accounts match it could be said that the Gospel writers copied the Josephus account or it was added to Josephus later. I’m more inclined to believe the Josephus account was added at a later date to match the gospel account. John is often portrayed as an apocalyptic preacher that was gaining a large following. John preached of the coming Messiah and according to the gospel accounts, this coming Messiah was Jesus [link]. The Messiah was sent by God to usher in the coming kingdom of God so it seems to make sense that John was indeed an apocalyptic preacher. Also, if John was the leader of this movement and Jesus his disciple, it makes sense that Jesus would hold similar beliefs, specifically apocalyptism. According to the gospel accounts, John is only a few months older than Jesus, so it appears they were contemporaries as well. Given this evidence, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher similar to others during this time period. Now that we have the context created, let’s look at the New Testament and see what it has to say.
Dale C. Allison writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet that there are eight dominant themes in the New Testament that shows Jesus carried on the message of John the Baptist. They are: the kingdom of God, future reward, future judgement, persecution of the saints, victory over evil powers, a sense that something new is here or at hand, the importance of John the Baptist and reference to the “Son of Man.” When looking at the sayings of Jesus within the gospels, it’s important to keep these eight themes in mind. These themes create a pattern of eschatology that demonstrates the immediate fulfillment of what Jesus was preaching. Mark Chapter 13, which is known as the “Little Apocalypse” shows that Jesus was preaching the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God.
Mark Chapter 13 starts with the disciples saying how magnificent the temple is and then Jesus says:
“Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Moving on to Mark 13:14 Jesus says “when you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong-let the reader understand-then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” I find it odd that it says “let the reader understand.” Did Jesus say this or is Mark putting words in Jesus’s mouth for the benefit of the reader of the text? If this is supposed to be an eyewitness account, why would Jesus say this, it would come across confusing if you heard in person. This verse references Daniel 9:26-27 “After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
The Mark verse is in reference to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. We can look at it two ways. 1) Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple or 2) Mark was written after the destruction of the Temple. Given the dating of Mark, it appears the 2 option is most probable. Now, if we take the first assumption, that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, then what he says later in Mark holds significance because Jesus predicted that after the Temple is destroyed, this will start the process of ushering in God’s Kingdom and the coming of the “Son of Man.” Mark 13:24-31 “But in those days, following that distress,“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Given the context I’ve created and given the verse’s just quoted, it stands to reason that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was the sign of the coming of the “Son of Man.” Verse 30 really drives home the message of an immediate fulfillment of this prophecy “Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
Let’s look at some more verses which will show that Jesus and his followers were expecting an immediate apocalypse within their generation.
Matthew 10:23 “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Matthew 26:64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Even Paul had an understanding that the Son of Man was due to return at any moment, even though some have “fallen asleep”, the end was still coming soon.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
1 Thessalonians 4:15 “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
Looking at other verses we see similar perspectives on the immediate return of Jesus
1 John 2:18 “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.”
Revelation 3:11 “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”
Revelation 22: 6-7 “The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
Jesus as an Apocalyptic preacher also explains the interim ethics that we see in the Gospels.
Luke 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Matthew 6:34 “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Jesus instructs one of his disciplines in burying his dead father.
Matthew 8:21-22 “Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
This reinforces the idea that the dead will take care of themselves, the immediate coming of the kingdom of God is more important.
Matthew 10:37-38 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
What these verses tell us is that Jesus and his followers expected an immediate return and expected an immediate coming of the kingdom of God. All of this is predicated on the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. I don’t have to point out the obvious but after almost 2000 years, the kingdom of God as described in the New Testament has not come nor has the Son of Man returned. This can only mean one thing, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic preacher, just like every other apocalyptic preacher throughout history. And, you can see this realization as we get further and further away from the original text in the New Testament. The later writings have to spin this apocalyptic Jesus and this is exactly what happens and it happens as soon as the writings of Paul. And remember, the Pauline letters are said to be dated earlier than the Gospels and this is important because just a few decades after Jesus’s death, we already see followers coming to the realization that what Jesus preached about the coming end times was not coming true. This is important to know when it comes to understanding the evolution of the New Testament and the evolution of Christian theology and the reinterpretation of Jesus’s message throughout history.
We don’t have to travel too far into the New Testament to find this revisioning occurring. Because the Pauline letters are dated before the Gospels, this seems like a good starting point to check on how that whole apocalypse thing was going. What we find with Paul is that he placed a high importance on his ministry. If Paul’s ministry last twenty-five years, holding onto to the notion of an immediate eschaton had to be difficult. Paul places his ministry to the gentiles as the key to unlocking Christ return. Paul says that the eschaton would only come once he completes his ministry to the gentiles and only then will Israel be saved.
Romans 11:25 “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…”
What I find most interesting about Paul is that he was in constant conflict with other Jesus movements. Paul’s ministry focused on the gentiles while the Jesus movement that focused on the Jews blamed Paul for delaying the return of Christ because too many gentiles and not enough Jews were coming into Christ. Paul’s response was the opposite. God hardened the Jews hearts so the end would be delayed so Paul could redeem the full number of Gentiles and once that was complete, the end would finally come…and then Paul died. 2000 years later, here we are.
Let’s take a look at the gospels and see how they changed the text to explain away the delayed eschaton. Looking at Matthew’s “Little Apocalypse” speech, which was written decades after Mark, we see a subtle change. Remember in Mark the disciples asked “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to be fulfilled?.” This was in reference to the destruction of the Temple specifically which signified the beginning of the eschaton. In Matthew, the disciples ask “Tell us when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” It’s tricky but let me explain. This conversation is about the destruction of the temple. In Mark, the disciples ask when will the destruction of the temple occur. Nothing was said about the coming of the Son of Man because it assumes that the destruction of the temple was the only sign needed for the coming of the Son of Man. In Matthew, the question is phrased as if the temple has already been destroyed, which is has, and it ask for additional signs of the coming of the Son of Man. In Mark, the destruction of the temple goes hand in hand with the sign of the coming of the Son of Man. In Matthew, the destruction of the temple plus additional signs are needed for the coming of the Son of Man. The reason is because by the time Matthew is written, the temple has already been destroyed and the eschaton did not occur. It’s subtle but significant.
If we continue to look at Matthew, we see that the idea of this specific generation, the generation that Jesus is speaking to, will not pass away until these things are fulfilled:
Matthew 24:34 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
In Matthew we see an emphasis on being patient for the coming of the Son of Man. This is rather simple to figure out, the failed eschaton is weighing heavy on Jesus’s followers.
Luke-Acts takes this step further because Luke-Acts was written even later than Mark and Matthew. By this time, the followers of Jesus are probably having serious doubts about the return of the Son of Man. In Mark 9:1, we have Jesus saying this:
“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
In Luke 9:27 we have Jesus saying this:
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Luke omits the last three words that Mark included “come with power.” This is significant because in Mark, it is anticipated that Jesus will come with power to institute God’s kingdom on earth and overthrow Roman occupation. Since Luke was written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and Jesus had not yet come with power, Luke has to modify what Mark wrote to make that statement more vague and eliminate the idea that the coming kingdom of God will be coming with power which indicates an immediate return.
Luke is also the first time we hear of a different kind of kingdom of God, one that comes from within. In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says this: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” This is a huge shift from Mark where Jesus says there will be signs and the most important sign is the destruction of the temple, which has long since passed when Luke was written. If we look at Acts, we have this interaction between Jesus and his disciples in Acts 1:6-7 “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus says to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” It’s evident from the text that the prophecy from Isaiah, the one that Jesus is said to have fulfilled in Mark, has not yet been fulfilled or why else would the disciples be asking this question? Later Peter says this in Acts 3:21 “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Again, why have Peter say this unless Jesus failed to fulfill the prophecy laid out in Mark?
The later the writing, the more they have adjusted to fix the failed prophecy of Jesus and the immediate eschaton. Remember from Mark and Matthew, we have Jesus saying that his disciples would see the eschaton in their day and that some will not taste death. By the time John was written, the last remaining disciples are dying until there is all but one left. Eventually that disciple dies so John has to adjust what Jesus meant about some disciples not tasting death. In John 21:20-23 we see this happening “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
E.P. Sanders, in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, sums this up as follows:
“His followers preached that he would return immediately— that is, they simply interpreted “the Son of Man” as referring to Jesus himself. Then, when people started dying, they said that some would still be alive. When almost the entire first generation was dead, they maintained that one disciple would still be alive. Then he died, and it became necessary to claim that Jesus had not actually promised even this one disciple that he would live to see that great day.”
Things keep getting worse as the later pseudonymous letters tried to adjust even more like in Thessalonians where it assured followers that Jesus has not yet returned and will indeed return in the future but additional signs must take place first. FInally,in 2 Peter 3:3-10 we get the ultimate spin and the final nail in the coffin of the idea of Jesus’s immediate return:
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” …But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”
I’ve presented a lot of information and I feel like I made a compelling case for Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher. I’ve demonstrated, using the bible as a source text, that the earliest writing portrayed Jesus this way and as time went on those writings changed along with interpretations. It’s important to remember that even though Jesus was most likely portrayed as an apocalyptic preacher in the New Testament, this says nothing about his historicity.
This is where apologist get into trouble. It’s safe to say that the historical Jesus is foundational to Christianity. Without a historical Jesus and a resurrection Paul said “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Now this doesn’t imply a historical Jesus as my gnosticism episode pointed out but it does explain how Christian apologist spin the text. Often you hear believers say atheist reject God because they love sin. I would say Christian’s reject the evidence of their saviors existence because they can’t fathom a world without their belief system. They know, that no matter how many times they say Christianity is based on logic, reason and evidence, that it ultimately comes down to an emotional response.
Jesus is a failed apocalyptic preacher even given the flimsy historical evidence within the New Testament. The Christian apologist has been battling this for over 2000 years and that is why, in 2013 we still have believers saying that now is the End Times. Of course they’ll be wrong, just like every other person before them…even Jesus.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Jesus failed in his prediction about the eschaton and the end times and as history progresses on, it’s obvious that if the historical Jesus ever existed, he was another failed preacher. The next root to chop at is the empty tomb. Once that root is destroyed, which I will demonstrate in another episode, the only plausible conclusion is to reject the Christian hypothesis.