The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus

Is Jesus Christ best understood as a prophet of the apocalypse?  Yes, argued Albert Schweitzer in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Moderns, said Schweitzer, tend to miss this reality, turning Jesus into a wise and pacific God-man.  Schweitzer’s claim has been renewed and popularized by Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.*  

It’s a strong argument, though a complicated one, for there exists no history of Jesus without its own theological agenda.  The first Gospel, Mark, as well as the hypothetical source called Q, are filled with apocalyptic sayings of Jesus, many emphasizing that the end of the age would fall within the lifetime of his followers. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1).

The problem, of course, is that Jesus was wrong.  The Kingdom did not come within the lifetime of his followers.  It has yet to arrive.  Though the revision of the message is present in all the Gospels after Mark, it was most clearly changed in John.  The Kingdom was in heaven.  It was not coming to earth, at least not for some time.  Jesus was telling us how to live now, not how to prepare for the apocalypse.

“Already but not yet” makes it complicated

The complexity is best captured by what is called inaugurated eschatology, and reflected in the phrase already but not yet.”  There is much in the New Testament, virtually our only historical source, that says that the Kingdom of Heaven is already at work among the followers of Jesus.  The Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit . . . ) or the antitheses, also in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5:21–48), are exemplary.**  There is virtually no way to read them but as advice for how to live in this world now.  It is a stretch to argue that the Beatitudes are a statement about the reversal that will occur when God’s Kingdom is realized on earth.  About the antitheses, Ehrman argues simply that they are not independently attested, an especially weak argument about a Gospel he relies on heavily (p 171).

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Is eschatology important?

EschatologyIs Eschatology Important?

Eschatology is the study of last things (εσχατολογία).  Most often it refers to the end of the world, particularly Jesus’ prediction that within the lifetime of some of his disciples he would return to usher in the end times.  The prediction is found in Olivet discourse, referring to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered his prediction in Matthew and Mark.  It is found in all three synoptic gospels in similar form (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). 

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . . . 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. (Mark 13: 26,30-31)

Jesus was wrong.  He didn’t return within the lifetime of some of his followers.  He hasn’t returned yet, and doesn’t seem likely to.  His return is unlikely because we live in a different world, in which the magical reappearance of the Lord is unbelievable. 

A great deal of energy and ink has been spent justifying Jesus’ claim.  Rudolf Bultmann states the problem clearly.  Modern man no longer believes, and can no longer believe, in the cosmology of the biblical world, the world of myth, magic, and wonder, where heaven is above and hell below.  The return of Jesus on clouds of glory only makes sense in that world.  In today’s world, the hope that someday Christ will return is impossible even for many who want to believe.  What is a deeply religious man like Bultmann going to do?  What are the rest of us who long to believe going to do?

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