Author’s note: this blog post is extremely long, but still cannot hope to be an exhaustive treatise on apocalypticism in the teaching of Jesus. It is a starting point meant to introduce themes and ideas that I will write much more about in the future.
New Testament scholar John Reumann once wrote: “Ask any hundred New Testament scholars around the world, Protestant, Catholic, or non-Christian, what the central message of Jesus was, and the vast majority of them – perhaps every single expert – would agree that his message centered in the kingdom of God.”
I’ve written before about the disagreement among scholars about whether the Kingdom would arrive by human action or divine intervention; my own view falls in the “realized eschatology” camp. Because it is crucial for my understanding of the Kingdom, I want to lay out the case that convinced me here. I will be as brief as possible while also being thorough.
Jesus began as a disciple of John the Baptist, who preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” according to Mark, and “purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” according to Josephus (18.5.2). Ironically, Mark is probably slightly more accurate; Josephus walked a perilous line between his Jewish piety and his allegiance to the Roman Empire, and so the sanitation of a revered figure like John to be palatable to his audience fits in exactly with what we know about him.
John is generally thought to have been an apocalyptic preacher, baptizing sinners in preparation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Interestingly (and tellingly), this notion comes mostly from Matthew, the most apocalyptic of the Evangelists, so there is a distinct possibility (beyond the scope of this essay) that John was not as apocalyptic as he has long been thought to be.
But for the sake of simplicity, let us assume that John was explicitly apocalyptic; that is, he preached that God was about to dramatically intervene and claim lordship over a united, independent Israel. Since Jesus began as a disciple of John, it is safe to assume that at least initially, Jesus accepted John’s eschatology.
I posit that Jesus would come to reject John’s brand of imminent eschatology and replace it with a different paradigm.
The first mention of the Kingdom is in Mark 1:15, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Now it is crucial that we do not make the mistake of assuming that the Evangelists preserved the sayings of Jesus in their original forms and contexts. It is abundantly clear that whatever Jesus’s eschatology, the early church believed wholeheartedly that he himself would soon be returning to consummate an eschatological kingdom. So even if Jesus’s views negated these, by the time the gospels were written any statements he might have made to this effect would have been re-interpreted back into the old paradigm.
Still, I have considerable reason to believe Jesus’s program was non-eschatological, at least in the traditional sense.