Was Jesus “More Apocalyptic” Than His Mentor?

I don’t post often enough on my current research area, the historical study of Jesus, so I’m glad when a conversation turns my thoughts (and my blogging) in that direction.

A recent comment mentioned one of the classic arguments for an ‘apocalyptic’ Jesus – i.e. one that proclaimed the imminent ‘end of the world’. The argument is that it makes little sense to have an apocalyptic John the Baptist, followed by a non-apocalyptic Jesus, followed by an apocalyptic early Church.

I’ve started thinking that perhaps Jesus may have grown more apocalyptic than his mentor over time. John predicts one who is coming who will carry out judgment. Is that necessarily an apocalyptic vision of the future? It involves God, but does it involve the end of history as known up until that point?

I wonder whether John did not expect something to happen within history by human players with God’s aid, rather than a climactic divine intervention that would bring human history to a close. Jesus’ action in the temple, if it was carried out during the period before John was imprisoned as the Gospel of John suggests, might have been an action he undertook while still under the auspices of John’s ministry, delivering, as it were, a message from his mentor.

After this, and after John is imprisoned (perhaps because of the stir one of his disciples had created by doing this), we might envisage Jesus withdrawing to Galilee and finding himself interacting with people who didn’t meet John’s righteous standards, but impressed him nevertheless as more open to God and to change than many of the religious leaders, who were not enamoured with John and his message. As a result of this, and of increasing activity as an exorcist, Jesus becomes persuaded that the time has come not simply for a radical change in the direction of Jewish history, but the end of history itself.

These are just some thoughts and speculations at this stage. I present them here not as a statement of conclusions I have drawn, but in the hope that they will promote discussion (which may in turn help me to draw conclusions!)

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04144487212639973542 Bryan L

    I’ve always wondered about the idea that John the Baptist was Jesus’ mentor. Where does that idea come from? I mean if you take the accounts of their birth in the Gospels halfway seriously then John must have only been a few months older that Jesus. What would qualify him to be Jesus’ mentor? What do we find besides him baptizing Jesus that leads us to believe he was his mentor? What do we know about Jesus before his baptism that would lead us to believe Jesus was being mentored by John? Maybe you could help me out here.Thanks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    The baptism is a key piece of evidence. One can add to it the language used in the Gospel of John, where the Baptist is presented as saying that “one who comes after me is before me” – the language of ‘coming after’/’following’ is frequent in the Gospels as a way of referring to discipleship. The Gospels’ frequent concern to counter the impression that Jesus is in some sense dependent on or subordinate to John, coupled with the other bits of evidence that suggest that Jesus was part of John’s movement, persuades most historians of this. Note, for instance, the way Matthew depicts Jesus’ message as having been the same as John’s, summarizing both in the same way.Let me close with a question. Apart from offering strained attempts to explain away a more obvious significance, what would Jesus’ baptism by John mean if not that he was becoming his disciple, joining his group, and/or repenting, if not of a sense of individual guilt, certainly a sense of a need for collective repentance as a people?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04018824090441668781 ntWrong

    I think you wrote the opposite of what you meant here:Jesus’ action in the temple, if it was carried out during the period before John was imprisoned as the Gospel of John suggests, might not have been an action he undertook while still under the auspices of John’s ministry.I don’t think you meant to say “might not”.If your suggestion hinges on an early date for the cleansing of the temple, you’re bucking the scholarly consensus. (But I’m sure you know that.) I tend to accept Sanders’s argument that the cleansing of the temple was the act that precipitated his crucifixion. (Jesus’ betrayal was thus the work of the Sadduccees, who ruled the temple, and who had direct political ties to the Roman overlords.)Of course, you could argue that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, which is still a dominant view among evangelicals.Perhaps your suggestion doesn’t require that piece of evidence, but it’s an interesting conjecture. Are you suggesting that John was concerned with defilement rather than the more ethical (social justice) concerns that motivated Jesus? In that case, we would have to consider the expansion of John’s message in Luke’s gospel, which presents John as concerned with social justice.The evidence of John’s asceticism would seem to imply a concern with purity. On the other hand, the Gospels seem to turn the cleansing of the temple in a social justice direction, rather than evidencing a concern with purity per se.I’m not making a coherent argument here, I know … just thinking out loud. Your proposal is certainly intriguing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    I take the accounts of his birth about one sixty-fourth (1/64) seriously, though.:)But seriously . . .I think that prof McGrath is right in talking about John “the dunker” as a mentor of Jesus. The very fact that the Jesus story begins with Jesus being right there at one of John’s river lectures, when screened through the criteria of embarrassment, is evidence that at least the community that produced the gospel thought that there was such a direct influence (and in that direction – i.e. from John to Jesus).It would have been an interesting scenario if, instead of beginning with an explanation of why John matters to the story of Jesus, the authors of the NT gospels had omitted mentioning John as his direct predecessor. For one thing, we would be wondering aloud right now about who this John that Josephus mentions in the Antiquities (who sounds kinda like Jesus in that account) might be. For another, they would have had to compose a scene in which Jesus himself baptizes someone (not once does he in the NT) in order to explain that practice as an initiation ritual into the nascent “cult” (winks). James wrote: “I wonder whether John did not expect something to happen within history by human players with God’s aid, rather than a climactic divine intervention that would bring human history to a close.”This touches on the discussion that sparked this ripple – i.e. can the apocalypticism intrinsic to the gospels be demonstrably traced back to a historical Jesus?I understand your reasoning above, but I see a problem with this:If you can put a “cap” on the magnitude of eschatology in John’s preaching . . .1- By what criteria can we judge that?and . . .2- Given some such criteria . . . Why stop at John?If the gospel’s eschatology was put on Jesus’ lips by Mark and the others (and to those who wince at this suggestion I will insist that we cannot rule this out as a possibility), a “kingdom of God” ministry could be non-apocalyptic in nature, if one interprets the language as an open call from God to partictipate in this kingdom which “is already among us” instead of as a future event that will bring the world to an end. The kingdom, viewed in this way, is a participatory event, not a cataclysmic intervention.Forgive the length of my comment, but this subject is fascinating to me.peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04144487212639973542 Bryan L

    I’ll have to think about that James. Thanks for the response.I’ll be back later.Blessings,Bryan L

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks – I’ve fixed the typo and will say more on another occasion. For now I’ll just mention that John’s reference to the amount of time the Temple had been “built” fits intriguingly well, and it is a case of one against one and not three against one (John vs. Mark, the latter being followed by Matthew and Luke). The Synoptics, of course, had nowhere else to place it.I also have wondered whether the cutting off of the ear wasn’t a bigger deal in leading to Jesus’ crucifixion than historians have yet supposed – perhaps the Jewish authorities would have simply kept Jesus locked up until after Passover, had that not happened…