31 January 2008

Parousia blues (an apocalypse deferred)

Posted by at 2:32 PM Read our previous post
. . . or

- The trouble with Bart Ehrman.

I downloaded Bart Ehrman's series of lectures on the historical Jesus on The Teaching Company label and have been listening to them sporadically recently. He is certainly very prolific and knowledgeable about all things "earlyChristian," but I think he's wrong in ascribing a "certain" apocalypticism to Jesus like he does. It is one of his repeated maxims throughout these lectures, in fact. He stresses this apocalypticism as the primary context of Jesus' words and deeds. But I think he's missing the forest for the trees.

It is one thing to argue for such an apocalypticism; it is another to smugly declare the subject as settled once and for all by scholars —to be fair, he doesn't explicitly say that, but it is sort of what he implies, that is, that no serious scholar or person could doubt that Jesus was essentially apocalyptic or that Paul wrote Galatians or that Jesus even existed, for that matter.

Here's where I think he misses the point the most, specifically:

Yes, there are traditions in both Q and Mark that are certainly apocalypse-minded. In order to ascribe this eschatological framework (it really IS the foundation on which Ehrman's theses depend—and ultimately fall) to Jesus himself, it is necessary first to explain why, if Jesus' primary genre was the parable, there is no apocalypticism in any of the parables which survived those first few waves of oral tradition. Ehrman of course does bring up the parables of the yeast and of the mustard seed, the only two places that I can think of in the texts that even come close, but fails to persuade me of their relevance to apocalypticism.

Ehrman implies that it is self-evident these are apocalyptic.

I disagree.

It fails my "blind space alien" test:

An example:
Suppose an alien from planet Zircon landed on Earth today and you wanted to evangelize it, or to merely answer its curiosity regarding our religious traditions. If all one showed it are the letters of Paul, it would have no way of knowing whether the Jesus that Paul lauds is a real person or not, so little information do they contain at all about anything having to do with Jesus' physicality or historicity. Only after the details of the story have been filled in by our acquaintance with the synoptic tradition and the later writings can we retrogradely connect those dots and see this historicity reflected in Paul's epistles.

Similarly, if we were to only show this alien the parables themselves and none of the evangelists' narrative, it is impossible to interpret those parables as apocalyptic. Only in light of what we already know about what the gospels had to say about the coming end are they "self-evidently" so. I suggest that we leave those anachronistic accretions aside (as if it were that easy to do once we are conditioned, I know) and I argue that there is no apocalypcism implied at all in those two parables. They are about growth from a lowly state to a lofty one, not about cataclysm or supernatural intervention.

Also, if Jesus preached an impending apocalypse, then Jesus was just flat wrong. After all, the promised 'kingdom" never came. A imminent second coming two thousand years in the making is no imminent second coming at all. No?

1) This lack of apocalyptic material in the parables and 2) Jesus' certain failure as a clairvoyant (what kind of a Son-of-Man could get THAT wrong, after all) are problems that need to be addressed if I am to take Ehrman's construction of an apocalyptic Jesus seriously. Until then, his academic posturing, though prolific, is ultimately but full of sound and fury . . . etc.

. . . all that said . . . I enjoy reading his work and will probably continue to do so.



  1. It's hard to get the idea that Jesus was wrong wrapped around your head, but if you can get past that thought, Ehrman is probably right.

    Look at it the other way -- why was Jesus popular? The answer that makes the most sense is that he preached the coming apocalypse that was taught in the prophets. Why else would he be quoted as saying things that said the end would come in his lifetime or the life time of his listeners? Those things make him look bad in the future, nobody would make up that sort of thing afterwards.

    Christians teach that the Jews were wrong to expect an apocalyptic Messiah, but that is not the way that the Jews at the time understood their own Scripture. It is silly for us now to claim that they were wrong about the meaning of their own books. And disturbing to think that God allowed them to believe things that we now "know" are wrong.

    And why was Jesus killed? Because he preached the ethics of personal salvation? WHy would the Romans care about that? It makes more sense that he taught the overthtrow of the Romans by God and they took that as insurrection, even if it was unlikely or otherworldly.

    Jews during Jesus' lifetime were ripe to believe the end was near because they took the book of Daniel seriously. They added up the years of the seven times seventy and determined that the end was in their lifetime, so the time was perfect for an apocalyptic prophet to gain a following.

  2. Oh, I don't have a problem wrapping my head around Jesus as a failed prophet.

    "Look at it the other way -- why was Jesus popular?"

    He wasn't, as far as I can see, not until the fervor which produced Paul's theological innovations began anyway. Neither Philo nor any other contemporary mentions the Galilean.

    My point, btw, was not to judge the paradigm of an ancient people from a post-enlightenment perch.
    I just think that if Jesus existed, he seems to have taught in parables more often than not and I insist that none of the parable material contains this eschatological language. If it helps, I don't necessarily think that Q is that early. It's earlier than Matthew and Luke to be sure, but to date it precisely would be to make an educated guess at best.
    The parable material, however, if it reflects a real historical figure, should show a hint of this eschatological premonition. It doesn't.

    "And why was Jesus killed? Because he preached the ethics of personal salvation? WHy would the Romans care about that? It makes more sense that he taught the overthtrow of the Romans by God and they took that as insurrection, even if it was unlikely or otherworldly.

    If Jesus headed a movement which promoted an insurrection against Rome, I think that all of the "Apostles" would have been rounded up and executed as well. To kill the leader and then let them all off the hook makes no sense. Romans had no tolerance for Zealot Judeans.

    " . . . . [took]the book of Daniel seriously. They added up the years of the seven times seventy and determined that the end was in their lifetime, so the time was perfect for an apocalyptic prophet to gain a following."

    I don't disagree. Sure. And the mere fact of John the Baptizer and even of Judas the Galilean shows that to be the case. Apocalyptic prophets were not uncommon.

    But the fact remains that none of the parable material reflects this fascination with the end.

    To my heathen eyes, it looks like the apocalypticism we attribute to him crept in later, when the birth of kerygmas and christologies and parousias was well underway, when convert scribes began to comb the Hebrew prophets for possible theological explanations for Jesus' tragic end.

    In other words, I contend that it was these scribes who had Daniel in mind, not Jesus.

    On a tangential note, ethnographic studies on the transmission of oral traditions about folk heroes as they have been preserved in some nomadic near-eastern cultures are a fascinating parallel to understanding the preservation of the integrity of a story while allowing for slight variation along the way. Suffice it to say that I think that some of the parable stuff is the earliest stuff we have. If we have anything at all, that is (I'll add in the interest of full disclosure . . . that the mythicists might turn out to be right, after all).


    Thanks for commenting.



  3. Anonymous2:09 PM

    I think if anything, the parables were more likely added later than the apocalyptic stuff. It's more likely that someone would add wisdom teachings to the words of a failed prophet than the other way around.

    But there is no reason to think that an apocalyptic prophet would also not teach other lessons.

    I'm not ready to go into a blow-by-blow account of the parables here, because it is a complicated subject, but I do think there are many apocalyptic elements in them. And their main purpose was to demonstrate what the new Kingdom ushered in by the apocalypse would look like.

    Maybe the disciples were spared because they fled. Or maybe because the apocalypse was not a direct armed insurgency, but an indirect one. James Tabor has an interesting take in his compelling book, "The Jesus Dynasty."


  4. Though I am open to discussion on the possibility, I think that any apocalyptic interpretation of the parables is just a case of special pleading.

    As John Meir pointed out in his very detailed discussion of Jesus' eschatology:

    "some readers may be surprised to see that very few parables are used in the main part of my argument" [that jesus was an apocalyptic prophet]. Meier, Marginal Jew, vol.2, p 290.)

    The reason for this, as I have stated already, is clear; they are not really helpful in making that particular case and any apocalypticism infered in them is a stretch at best.

  5. Anonymous3:18 PM

    If you had to pick a category for who Jesus was, what would you choose?

    What do you think the the point of the parables was? Do you think he was just a wandering ethicist?

    The beauty of the apocalyptic prophet genre is that it fits with what we know of the times, it provides a reason he would have attracted followers (few or many) who repeated his sayings after he died and explains many (not all) of the things he is quoted as saying and why he was killed.

    There are obviously problems with any category in which you put Jesus, but others have many more problems, in my opinion, when you try to piece it all together.


  6. "If you had to pick a category for who Jesus was, what would you choose?"

    If Jesus existed:
    To me eyes, he seems like a noted first-century Galilean folk thaumaturge and folk orator, whose favorite vehicle was the parable.

    "What do you think the the point of the parables was? Do you think he was just a wandering ethicist?"

    Apparently so— with a twist, though.
    For some reason, it seems that god-fearers (specifically) latched on to him as a focus of their synchretic experience of Hebraic monotheism. Given time he was even deified much like other folk heroes of the pagan variety often were, eventually turned into a personification of Yahveh himself.


    That's a good question. Isn't it? I have some ideas that I'm thinking of posting here regarding why gentile godfearers (proto-Jews-for-Jesus, in a sense) might venture to elevate a Galilean folk hero to such a lofty position in their cosmologies. You can say that the best explanation is that he was an apocalyptic prophet who attracted a following, but lacking any contemporaneous evidence for him having a "following" before Paul's correspondence records it, and lacking the apocalyptic language that one should expect to find in the parable material (which as you've seen, I think preceded the apocalypticism of the dismal years of the war), I don't think the apocalyptic Jesus is the best explanation of all of those things.
    That's a huge gap to me (that the parables seem to show no concern for imminent cataclysms), a gap which I can't gloss over so easily.

    You think that the parables came after the discourses and suchlike, and that's cool, but if that was true, one would expect to find some semblance of apocalyptic symbolism in them, espÉcially if they came after the decidedly apocalyptic sayings were already well known. They surely would reflect this "millenial" tension and they just do not. I conclude from this that the sense of imminent parousia that is so pervasive in the NT, though it was certainly part of the water that the evangelists swam in, does not necessarily (or even probably) reflect Jesus himself. Sure, there was messianic fervor in the air; I don't doubt or deny that. But Jesus' parables show no concern for this.

    To go back to your first question, though . . . . who do I think Jesus was? A man who in all probability had almost nothing to do with the legend that rose up in some abstracted memory of him. A Galilean folk hero who was co-opted by gentiles, buried beneath an avalanche of metaphors he never saw coming.

    I've already hinted at it before, but allow me to state it more explicitly:
    I lean toward a kind of mythicist interpretation.




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