Towards A Non-Apocalyptic Jesus

Towards A Non-Apocalyptic Jesus July 22, 2016

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.

Red clouds

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.

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    I agree with a lot of what you say: it’s a shame you feel the need to re-write or ignore great chunks of the Bible to do so. You are doing I think what Jesus didn’t, which is to confuse the destruction of the temple and the end of the Jewish state with the end of the world. In so far as Jesus was apocalyptic it seems to me he was warning the Jewish nation about their own end, with the Kingdom of God the alternative they could bring about instead, and which, I agree, it is for us to bring about, but in conjunction with God. I don’t see a need or basis for slicing out “your will be done on earth as in heaven” from the “authentic” Lord’s prayer to support your case since I would have thought that this is a precondition of the kingdom coming in exactly the way you argue.
    I personally (although I may be wrong) can’t help viewing the apocalyptic narratives on Mark as almost “non-apocalypses” warning that the destruction of the temple us not the end, and that one should not believe the end is nigh until we actually see the sky fall in.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      I see the Mark passages in much the same way, however you must remember that Mark was writing after the Temple’s destruction and so he would’ve had a very different viewpoint than Jesus did. I do not believe that Jesus saw the destruction of the temple 40 years after his death coming.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        I don’t see why not: quite a few prophets were saying the same thing, and given the temple’s corruption, its deluded belief that it could be clever in its negotiations with Rome and several previous rebellions brutally crushed in hindsight where things were going might be seen to be if anything flaming obvious rather than anything else.