I’ve written this article as a supplement to the following video, segments from my friend Zeke Piestrup’s documentary Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. The End of the World. Check it out!
- Apocalypse Later?
- The Quest for the Historical Jesus
- Context: The Development of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology
- Apocalyptic Sayings of Jesus: A Comparative Analysis
- Manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth
- Resurrection of the dead
- Victory over the forces of evil
- Restoration of Israel
- Messianic banquet
- Imminent arrival
- The Religion of Jesus Becoming a Religion about Jesus
- The Apocalyptic Sandwich: Jesus between John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul
- The Kingdom of God as Present and Future
“The sky is falling!” Chicken Little called out [as she held up a sign citing Mark 13:25]. Soon she had gathered a flock and sent them out to warn others.
“How do you know it?” strangers would ask.
“Chicken Little told me,” her disciples would say.
“How do you know it?” they’d ask Chicken Little. She disclosed her revelation: “O, I heard it with my ears, I saw it with my eyes…”
Though the doomsday cult of Chicken Little preached the imminent end of the world, they all met a brutal death before their prophecy came to fruition. With versions dating back centuries, this iconic folktale reflects the historical persistence of the apocalyptic mindset: the world as we know it is falling apart; we must warn others so as to prepare for what is soon to come. When one turns back the clock it quickly becomes apparent that this Christian expectation has been prevalent in every generation of the common era. Let’s highlight some interesting examples, including some surprising appearances by Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, and at least a couple Popes.
- In 2011, senior Christian radio host Harold Camping made national headlines when he predicted with absolute confidence that come May 21st of that year Jesus was going to return and rapture the saved into heaven.
- In his bestselling work of the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey predicted that the end-time prophecies of the bible of war and famine were being fulfilled in today’s time, and that by the late 1980s the world would be engulfed in a nuclear armageddon that would conclude with Christ’s return.
- Shortly after President Truman’s announcement of the first Soviet atomic test, a young Billy Graham proclaimed that we only have another couple years at most until Jesus returns, saying, “We may have another year, maybe two years to work for Jesus Christ, and [then] ladies and gentlemen, I believe it is all going to be over…Two years, and it’s all going to be over.” In 1952, as the end of the designated two years approached, his persistence remained: “Unless this nation turns to Christ with the next few months, I despair of its future.’” Graham has been pushing for an imminent doomsday ever since.
- What came to be remembered as the Great Disappointment, baptist William Miller interpreted passages from the Book of Daniel to proclaim that Jesus would return between March 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844. When the deadline passed, devoted followers extended the day to October 22nd, 1844. Like those who came before and after them, the Millerites quit their jobs and sold their possessions during what believed to be their final weeks.
- Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, wrote that one day he was praying for God to reveal to him the time of the Second Coming when he heard a voice telling him that he shall not see it occur until he reaches the age of eighty-five. As some of you know, Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844.
- Here’s a fun one. In 1806 villagers in Leeds, England were convinced that doomsday had arrived after a hen had laid prophetic eggs with the inscription “Christ is coming.” It turned out to be a hoax by esteemed fortune teller Mary Bateman, who had written on the eggs with acid and reinserted them into the hen.
- Some are often shocked to learn that Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time, also used biblical data from the Book of Daniel to make a prediction about the end of the world, stating that it would arrive no earlier than the year 2060. He made this calculation not with the incentive to proselytize but rather “to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”
- In a letter to his monarchs, famed adventurer Christopher Columbus predicted that he was on a mission from God to convert the pagans in Asia and that fulfilling this deed would result in the end of the world in 1656.
- Martin Luther, the father of the Protestantism, once wrote, “I hope the last Day of Judgment is not far, I persuade myself verily it will not be absent full three hundred years longer.” Writing around 1540, Luther set a time limit for no later than 1840.
- 1284 marked the 666th anniversary of the rise of Islam, convincing Pope Innocent III that it was this year civilization would witness the Second Coming.
- Forget Y2K. Y1K threw many into absolute panic for an expected Armageddon, including Pope Sylvester II.
- Notable theologians Sextus Julius Africanus, Hippolytus, and Irenaeus, believed the Second Coming would arrive in 500 CE.
Needless to say, the history of apocalypticism has had its fair share of letdowns.
Many Christians today scoff at such date-setters, and yet roughly half of those living in the U.S. believe that Jesus will return in the next forty years. Indeed, one only has to look a little closer to witness just how lively apocalyptic enthusiasm continues to be: The Latter Day Saints believe we are living in the latter days; the sole purpose of the most widely circulated magazine in the world, The Watchtower, is to announce “Jehovah’s Kingdom”; dispensationalist media continue to make best seller lists; there are even websites which help you prepare for armageddon, including one which will automatically send your letters to your less fortunate loved ones after you’ve been raptured into heaven.
Sometime soon, at any moment, God will put an end to this nefarious age and usher in a glorified kingdom for all eternity. Specific dates aside, this has been a central Christian message for nearly two-thousand years. And it goes back to the sayings of Jesus himself.
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1)
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mark 13:30)
In this article I intend to demonstrate that of all the portraits that have been painted of the historical Jesus (e.g. rabbi, zealot, magician, social reformer), he is best encapsulated – by far – as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who, like other Jews of the first century, anticipated the soon arrival of God’s eternal Kingdom on earth. A kingdom that he expected to be established within his own lifetime. Equally significant, shortly after his death we begin to see the Church’s remodeling of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom as well as a gradual muting of its imminence.
Despite being two-thousand years removed, it is a frightening and dubious notion for many to think of the historical Jesus as having limited relevance today. After all, Jesus taught how we should our lives now in preparation for the next, didn’t he? Isn’t Jesus currently at the right hand of God? Isn’t God’s kingdom “within” us (Luke 17:21)? There’s one slight problem: Jesus didn’t anticipate a two-thousand year preparation period. Jesus was a first century Jew who, like other Jews of his age, was living under an oppressive Roman government. As such, he expected God to answer his people’s call for restoration by imminent intervention. To fix the problems of this generation. God would destroy the forces of evil who were pulling the puppet strings of said foreign rulers and reestablish his kingdom on earth – one that would now last forever.
To the credit of theologians everywhere, there are indeed sayings in the gospels which support the theology of a present kingdom, ones that many find relevance for how to live today. Some are sayings which I argue below do indeed go back to the historical Jesus. At the same time, such sayings are greatly overshadowed by others that promote the long standing Jewish hope for a future, tangible kingdom of God on earth; a kingdom Jesus expected to arrive before the end of his generation.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, ensuing the scientific standards of the enlightenment, that scholars began to recognize that the quest for the historical Jesus must fully center itself within this context of antiquity. At the forefront of this approach were German theologians Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer. Weiss saw a Jesus whose kingdom was “a radically super-worldly entity which stands in diametric opposition to this world (Jesus’ Proclamation, 114). Schweitzer agreed with Weiss, but thought he had been too repressive in his thesis. In his tour de force The Quest for the Historical Jesus, the young Schweitzer shook the scholarly community with his emphasis on Jesus’ prophesied kingdom as an eschatological event – one which failed to come to fruition before his death on the cross. Here was a Jesus far removed from the one preceding scholars had constructed in their own image; a historical Jesus of the past contrast to the theological Jesus of the present. While the Christian can still experience Christ in spirit, Schweitzer maintained, “the historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma” (Quest, 399).
Schweitzer’s work was an exposé of brutal honesty. It was what liberal scholarship had been waiting for, having “loosened the bands” theology had placed on Jesus research – forcing us to come to grips with a Jesus that was imperfect yet historically reliable. While most scholars of today now reject some of the arguments proposed by Schweitzer (for instance, that Jesus believed he had to suffer on the cross to jump start the kingdom’s arrival), they’ve come to accept the general picture of the historical Jesus Weiss and Schweitzer had painted – that of an apocalyptic prophet who prophesied the kingdom of God as an eschatological event that would be made manifest by the end of his generation.
Understandably, this radical new approach to the historical Jesus wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, not even for its founders. Weiss intentionally held back in the first publication of his work until his father-in-law scholar Albrecht Ritschl had died, while Schweitzer’s final chapter rings with pessimism.
There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus…He will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe…We must be prepared to find that the historical knowledge of the personality and life of Jesus will not be a help, but perhaps even an offense to religion. (398, 401)
And yet despite these potentially devastating conclusions, Schweitzer and Weiss were too convincing to ignore. They dominated the discussion of historical Jesus research throughout the twentieth-century. Indeed, scholars found more and more evidence in support of an apocalyptic Jesus as well as a fuller understanding of what Schweitzer called “Jewish apocalyptic dogma” (much owed to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
So what is the evidence? Why is the historical Jesus best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet? I’d like to present the two best reasons: 1. his best attested sayings in the gospels echo every major theme of Jewish apocalyptic literature, and 2. his mission is sandwiched between and links to two significant apocalyptic thinkers, John and Baptist (his teacher) and the Apostle Paul (his apostle).
Before focusing on the apocalyptic/eschatological sayings of Jesus I’d like to give a quick definition of these two central words and their origin. “Apocalypse”, an adjective from the Greek apocalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις), is literally a “disclosure” or “revealing” of hidden knowledge – knowledge that is sometimes disclosed to a prophet or other privileged individual. Usually such sacred information has to do with the inner workings of heaven as well as the end of human history as we know it and what is to follow. This subject on the last days is called “eschatology”, from the Greek noun for “last”, eschaton (ἔσχατον). And so, “apocalyptic eschatology” refers to the unveiling of details concerning the last days of human history and its transformation into the age to come. Since the highlight of most apocalypses in Judeo-Christian literature tend to be the eschaton, the two words are often used interchangeably today.
The concept of apocalyptic eschatology arose from cognitive dissonance within Jewish thinking during its several hundred year period of persecution. At the cornerstone of Judaism is the belief that God had made a covenant with his people – a mutual agreement that if they maintained devotion to him and followed his laws that he would provide for them and protect them as his children. During the monarchy of King David and others it worked pretty smoothly. And then foreign politics got in the way. First came the Assyrians, who in 721 BC overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel and dissipated ten of its twelve tribes. Then, in 587 BC, came the Babylonians who conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and sending its leaders into exile. Things started to get better fifty years later when the Persian Empire overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish exiles to return and build their Temple…that is until Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians and spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean following his death. The tyrant king Antiochus Epiphanes forced Hellenism upon his Jewish subjects and a revolt erupted in 167 BC lead by a Judean rebel group known as the Maccabees. It was during this period that our first apocalyptic writings emerge, notably the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch. Eventually the Jews succeeded in driving out the Seleucid Greeks, only for their promised land to be taken over again, this time by the Romans in 63 BC. Like rulers before them, the Romans initially allowed the Jews to a high priest to govern the Jewish population of Palestine. This changed for the worse in 40 BC when Rome appointed Herod the Great, a false Jew and “madman” to rule over them as king. In short, the Jews had the worst streak of bad luck a people could ask for.
What was going on? God had promised us this land (Gen 15:18, Josh 1:4)! God had promised us a kingdom that would last forever (2 Sam 7:12-13)! The answer, according to the prophets, was that they as God’s people hadn’t held up their end of the covenant. They had disobeyed God, and for their sin he had abandoned them.
In time this solution lost support with the increasing awareness of suffering among even the most pious Jews, and another answer gained affirmation: it wasn’t God doing these terrible things to us but the spiritual forces of evil. Although Yahweh used to be able to safely proclaim, “I make peace, and create evil” (Isaiah 45:7), he had now “left out evil and created good…” (4 Ezra 2:14). His darker side had gradually become personified as its own separate entity known as Satan, Mastema, or Belial. In other words, post-exilic Jews made attempts to wipe God’s record clean; in retellings of Jewish legends what had been previously attributed to God was now attributed to the Devil.
God tested Abraham…(Gen 22)
Prince Mastema came and he said before God…”Tell him [Abraham] to offer him [Isaac] (as) a burnt offering upon the altar.” (Jub 17:16)
The Lord met him [Moses] and tried to kill him. (Ex 4:24)
“And you [Moses] know what was related to you on Mount Sinai, and what Prince Mastema desired to do with you when you returned to Egypt, on the way when you met him at the shelter. Did he not desire to kill you with all of his might…?” (Jub 48:1-4)
Within the matrix of apocalyptic literature was a cosmos now separated into two opposing forces – a concept scholars refer to as “cosmic dualism”: on one side was God, his angels, righteousness, and life; on the other side was the Devil, his demons, sin, and death.* The latter was now responsible for everything wrong in the world, including human sin (Ethiopic Enoch 9:6; 10:8). But this new solution to theodicy naturally granted a second question of why God had allowed the devil and his minions to prey upon the earth instead of binding them all earlier (Jub 10:7-14). While the apocalyptic writings never fully explain God’s reasoning, they nonetheless reveal God’s plan to soon fix this mess in the days to come. Any day now, he was expected – either directly or through his viceroy – to vindicate his people by wiping out the forces of evil and usher in a new age. Ever since the Babylonian exile in the sixth century this hope of restoration became stronger and stronger, cultivating new ways of envisioning the eschaton at every subsequent oppression. It’s in the intertestamental literature following the Maccabean revolt that certain apocalyptic themes really began to flourish, and by the first century, Jewish literature (both within the Hebrew Bible and pseudepigrapha) offered a pretty concurring list of themes surrounding the eschaton. Generally speaking, the main themes found in some or all of these texts include the following:
- The manifestation of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”
- The Great Tribulation
- Resurrection of the dead
- Coming Son of Man
- Reversal of Status
- Victory over the forces of evil
- Restoration of Israel
- Replacement of the Jerusalem Temple
- Restoration of the Twelve Tribes
- Restoration of a Messiah on the throne of David
- A Messianic banquet
- An imminent arrival
Like other Jews in his day Jesus held onto such apocalyptic expectations — so much so that he made it his mission to prophecy them to the Jewish masses so as to prepare them for God’s kingdom. As Schweitzer and those after him argue, this is what qualifies Jesus an apocalyptic prophet. To best demonstrate this let’s go down the list and see how Jesus’ best attested sayings as recorded in our gospels parallel the eschatological expectations of preceding Jewish literature.
At the start of this article I pointed out just how strong the hope for God’s future presence on earth continues to be, as seen from various protestant denominations. But Catholics also frequently express this, whether they are fully aware of it or not. They do so every Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer which Jesus taught his own disciples.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matt 6:9-13 // Luke 11:2-4)
Scholars have good reasons for attributing this prayer to the historical Jesus, a devout Jew, in that the essential kernels of the prayer reiterate aspects of Jewish eschatology. “Hallowed be your name” is the call for God’s name to be sanctified or made holy. While this idea is absent from the other synoptic sayings of Jesus, it can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. Ezekiel has God declare, “My holy name I will make known…” (39:7). The opening of the Lord’s prayer is also strikingly similar to the ancient Jewish prayer known as the Kaddish:
Hallowed by his great name…may he cause his kingdom to reign…very soon and in near time. 
Clearly, God’s “kingdom [to] come” also resonates in both prayers. This central aspiration for God to save his people and restore his political power is found repeatedly throughout preceding Jewish literature during those centuries of foreign oppression.
Yahweh will become king over all the earth. (Zech 14:5-9, 6th century BC)
And then his [God’s] kingdom shall appear throughout his creation, and then Satan shall be no more, and sorrow shall depart with him. (Testament of Moses 10:1, 1st century BC)
In short, God is still king in heaven, but soon his kingdom will come to earth “as it is in heaven.” Jesus was merely promoting what was already a strong Jewish ideology. Indeed, we know from Josephus that Jesus wasn’t the only Jew in the first century who gained a following revolving around the restoration of God’s kingdom.
How will we know that God’s kingdom is about to transpire? According to apocalyptic prophets, things on earth will only get worse before they get better. A variety of catastrophes are to mark the very last days of this corrupt world before God sets things right. In the synoptic Gospels Jesus’ disciples ask their teacher, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Luke 21:7; cf. Matt 24:3, Mark 13:4). Jesus reveals to them the same kind of catastrophic signs listed by prophets before him, such as those “spoken of by the prophet Daniel.”
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken (Matt 24; cf. Mark 13, Luke 21)
As the parallel verses below show, such explicit signs included war, earthquakes, suffering, and darkness. Notice the verbatim phrases Matthew takes from Isaiah and Daniel.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light…Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt (Isa 13:10; 24:6)
There shall be a time of suffering, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. (Daniel 12:1)
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements…in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zephaniah 1)
Noises and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult on the earth!…every nation prepared for war, to fight against the righteous nation. It was a day of darkness and gloom, of tribulation and distress, affliction and great tumult on the earth! (Greek Esther 11:8)
Expectation of signs didn’t stop with Jesus either. The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament written around the end of the first century, expands upon the “Great Tribulation” with ferocious embellishments (7:9-17). Another interesting preliminary woe sustained in the sayings of Jesus include division of family (Matt 10:34; cf. Mic 7:8)
Not even the dead were exempt from God’s judgement preceding the arrival of his kingdom. It was widely held in Jewish apocalypticism that the righteous who had died would be vindicated and granted eternal life, while those less fortunate would finally receive their punishment. Like the Pharisees but unlike the Sadducees, Jesus anticipated a universal resurrection. Moreover, like those before him and Paul after him, he envisioned a resurrection in which the righteous would be angelically transformed.
…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14)
…the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. (John 5:25-29)
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matt 22:30; cf. Luke 20:34-36, Mark 12:22-25)
the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting life, because we have died for his laws… (2 Maccabees 7:9)
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky… (Daniel 12)
You have redeemed my soul from the pit. From Sheol and Abaddon You have raised me up to an eternal height…The perverse spirit You have cleansed from great transgression, that he might take his sacred with the host of the holy ones, and enter together with the congregation of the sons of heaven. (1QH 11:19-22)
…now you will shine like the luminaries of heaven, you will shine and appear, and the portals of heaven will be opened for you…And the righteous and the chosen will have arisen from the earth, and have ceased to cast down their faces, and have put on the garment of glory. (1 Enoch 104)
the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor 15)
He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory (Philippians 3:21)
Within the theme of judgement are several key elements that Jesus echoes in the gospels. First, repentance. Central to Jesus’ mission was to convince his fellow Jews to “repent, and believe in the good news,” just as John the baptist had before him (Mark 1:14-15). Since the exile the good news had been a forthcoming salvation with God’s reign on earth (Isaiah 52:7-10). But in order to be saved one had to repent (i.e. turn away from sin and turn towards God for forgiveness).
I [Jesus] have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized [washed away sins]. (John 3:22) 
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. (Isa 1:27)
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. (Jer 4:14)
The Second and perhaps the most vivid hallmark of apocalyptic literature is the ancient belief that judgement itself was to be carried out by God’s viceroy known as the Son of Man. Throughout the Hebrew Bible “Son of Man” simply refers to a human being. This changes with the apocalyptic vision of Daniel, where “one like a Son of Man” (emphasis mine) is seen “coming with the clouds of heaven” to establish God’s kingdom (Daniel 7:13). Some scholars believe this to be the archangel, Michael. In the First Book of Enoch, composed around the same time as Daniel, the Son of Man sits on a “throne of glory”, destroys the sinful kings of the earth, and judges the righteous and the wicked (37-71). 2 Esdras 13 (aka 4 Ezra) is a Jewish work contemporaneous with the gospels and also echoes the vision of Daniel. Should it be any surprise then that Jesus too expected the Kingdom of God to be ushered in by this powerful figure? In the Gospels this prophetic vision first seen in Daniel is very much apparent:
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:24-26)
Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:61-62)
But wasn’t Jesus the Son of Man? Didn’t he see himself as the one Daniel spoke of? According to the gospel authors, he did. For instance,
And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58 // Matt 8:20 // Thomas 86)
But with an honest evaluation of such verses it is clear that such passages are creations of the early Church, who identified Jesus as the Son of Man he had spoken of. Prior to his crucifixion this synonymy wouldn’t make sense; why would Jesus be coming on the clouds of heaven if he was already on earth? It did make sense, however, after Jesus was believed to have been resurrected and exalted to heaven.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22)
Moreover, we see the author of Matthew revising sayings in Mark in order to make this point. In Mark Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27) while Matthew has ““Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13). In Mark, Jesus distinguishes himself from the Son of Man by declaring, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38). Matthew, however, changes this to, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (10:32). Nice try, Matthew.
Despite the tactics of the early church to promote Jesus to a higher christology by identifying him as the Son of Man (see also Rev 1:13), we can see in the earlier gospel sayings that Jesus echoed the apocalyptic expectation of God’s viceroy when he prophesied about the Kingdom of God.
Third, there’s the act of judgement itself. In the discourse known as “The Sheep and the Goats” (Matt 25:30-46) Jesus explains that all of humanity will be divided into two: the righteous and the wicked. What must people have done to gain eternal life in the kingdom? Caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. This supports Jesus’ other remark that “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (19:17), the greatest of which are loving God and your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).
The qualifications Jesus lays out for inheriting the kingdom of god are wholeheartedly Jewish in origin, as encapsulated in Deuteronomy.
If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves. (Deut 11:22-23)
In regards to “loving the Lord”, Mark quotes Deuteronomy directly.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut 6:5)
“…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul” (Mark 12:30)
Concerning “walking in all his [God’s] ways”, we see it expressed in the judgement discourse just mentioned; one loves thy neighbor by imitating the love of god. Such is promoted in other Jewish texts from antiquity.
walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked…He, visited the sick…He, comforted mourners, (bSotah 14a)
I was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I was alone, and God comforted me: I was sick, and the Lord visited me: I was in prison, and my God showed favour unto me; In bonds, and He released me (T Jos 1:5-6)
Sound familiar? About two hundred years before Jesus we were told to do the same by another Jesus: Jesus ben Sira of the Book of Sirach
Stretch out your hand to the poor [cf. Matt 19:21], so that your blessing may be complete. Give graciously to all the living; do not withhold kindness even from the dead.* Do not avoid those who weep, but mourn with those who mourn [cf. Matt 5:4]. Do not hesitate to visit the sick [cf. Matt 25:36], because for such deeds you will be loved. (Sir 7:32-35)
Jesus of Nazareth was also not the only Jew from the first century to link this commandment with eschatological reward and punishment. The similarities to Matt 25:30-46 in the Second Book of Enoch are striking.
This place, O Enoch, is prepared for the righteous, who…give bread to the hungering, and cover the naked with clothing, and raise up the fallen, and help injured orphans, and who walk without fault before the face of the Lord, and serve him alone, and for them is prepared this place for eternal inheritance…[on the opposite side, as also expressed in the Judgement discourse] This place, O Enoch, is prepared for those who…seeing the poor take away their goods and themselves wax rich, injuring them for other men’s goods; who being able to satisfy the empty, made the hungering to die; being able to clothe, stripped the naked. (2 Enoch 9:1-10:4)
It’s also worth noting that Jesus favors the humbled for the kingdom, a trait praised highly in the Hebrew Bible (Job 22:29; Ezek 21:26; Prov 3:34 [quoted by 1 Peter 5:5])
Finally, following the judgement there will be a reversal of status in the kingdom. In the beatitudes Jesus blesses those less fortunate such as the poor, the mournful, the meek, and the hungry – the same looked after in Isaiah 61. Such individuals on the bottom of society shall be lifted to the top, and visa versa.
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Mark 10:31 // Matt 20:16 // Luke 13:30)
That this was an enduring Jewish hope about the world to come is evident from at least a couple other ancient sources.
And those who died in sorrow shall be raised in joy; and those who died in poverty for the Lord’s sake shall be made rich; those who died on account of the Lord shall be wakened to life (T. Jud. 25:4)
Those who are on top here are at the bottom there, and those who are at the bottom here are on the top there. (b. Pesah. 50a)
5. Victory over evil forces
As mentioned above, a cornerstone of apocalyptic eschatology was cosmic dualism – the belief in a universal struggle between the forces of good and evil. First century Jews were convinced that Satan was currently in control of the earth’s kingdoms, and that his legions of demons were responsible for everyday woes, especially sickness and mental disability. Indeed, we learn from the second century BCE Book of Jubilees that although God had initially “bound” the demons (the offspring of angels and humans) “in the depths of the earth for ever, until the day of the great condemnation, when judgment is executed” (5:10), he allowed the devil (here called Mestema) to keep a tenth of them on earth (10:5-9). In order for God’s kingdom to come to fruition, then, the remaining spirits needed to be imprisoned and await punishment (Isa 24:21-22).
The authors of the gospels subscribe to such thinking and have Jesus act on it in accordance with his mission as a prophetic miracle worker. First, Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the earth, affirming his control over them (Matt 4:8 // Luke 4:5; cf. John 12:31; 1 Peter 5:8). Second, Jesus clearly equates the first stage of the defeat of Satan with his and his disciples’ exorcisms.
But no one can enter a strong man’s house [kingdom] and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man [Satan]; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Mark 3:27)
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” (Luke 10:17-18)
One of the most certain aspects of the historical Jesus is that he gained attention as an exorcist during his ministry and taught his disciples to also cast out demons. At one point he proclaims that his exorcisms mark the arrival of the kingdom of God.
But if it is by the Spirit [or finger] of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Matthew 12:28 // Luke 11:20)
A striking parallel can be found in the Song of the Sage at Qumran which associates the Kingdom of God with the expulsion of evil spirits.
By the splendour of the swelling of the glory of his kingdom…I proclaim the majesty of his beauty to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels and the spirits of the bastards, the demons, Lilith… (4Q510, 1.4)
The point to be made is that although the practice of exorcism was common in the first century, Jesus stood out not only in his methods but more importantly by tying exorcisms with his message about the coming kingdom. As Graham Twelftree explains in his paramount work Jesus the Exorcist, “Jesus’ mighty acts were in his own eyes as epochal as the miracles of the Exodus and likewise heralded a new age…For him, his exorcisms were the first or preliminary binding of Satan who would finally be destroyed in the eschaton” (224).
As has been suggested multiple times already, at the heart of apocalyptic eschatology was the promise of God’s eternal kingdom on earth. But where exactly? The Promised Land of course. Naturally, this meant a restoration of a virtuous Israel along with its main components: the Jerusalem Temple, the Twelve Tribes, and a Messiah on the throne of David. This hope for a restored Jerusalem predates apocalyptic literature itself. Indeed, it is expressed soon after the Babylonian exile, by prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Ezekiel.
First, there’s the prophecy that Solomon’s Temple would be rebuilt. It was in fact rebuilt under Cyrus of Persia following the end of the exile in 539 BCE (Ezra 1:1-4, 2 Chron 36:22-23), however this restoration hardly met prophetic blueprints. The Temple was to be constructed with precious stones and metals (Isa 54:11, cf. Tob 13:16-18). Those of all nations were going to pay homage there (Isa 66:18-21). Its foundations would be laid upon a new heaven and new earth (Isa 66:22). Surely when it had come time to cut the red ribbon there were a few disappointed faces.
As a result, such fanciful prophecies about a new temple were kept on the shelf and revamped for the end-times, when the second temple would be replaced by a third. In the Book of Enoch we read that the offerings of the current temple were polluted (1 En 89:73), after which
they folded up that old house; and carried off all the pillars, and all the beams and ornaments of the house were the same time folded up with it, and they carried it off…And I saw till the Lord of the sheep brought a new house greater and loftier than that first, and set it in the place of the first. (1 Enoch 90:28)
[Following the judgment of sinners] a house shall be built for the Great King in glory for evermore, (1 En 91:13 // 4QEn 91:12)
in your allotted place will be the temple of God, and the latter temple will exceed the former in glory. The twelve tribes shall be gathered there and all the nations, until former in glory. (TBenj 9:2)
I shall sanctify My temple with My glory, for I will cause My glory to dwell upon it until the Day of Creation, when I Myself will create My temple. (11Q19 Col. 29:8-10)*
not until the proper time has come…they will rebuild God’s Temple in Jerusalem, just as Israel’s prophets have foretold. (Tob 14:5)
Where does Jesus fit into this? As you may recall, Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple on two occasions according to the gospels, once in a saying and another through symbolic action.
“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1 // Matthew 24:1 // Luke 21:5)
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. (Mark 11:15 // Matt 21:12 // Luke 19:45 // John 2:13-15)
Regarding the former first, it is often thought that Jesus – or the author of Mark – is referring to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 CE, around the time Mark is believed to have been written. One of the problems with this is that Jesus envision the Temple being completely destroyed, while the Romans left much of the Temple wall standing. This prophecy, then, is likely to predate the actual destruction and may indeed derive from the apocalyptic Jesus himself.
As for Jesus’ visit to the Temple, it is widely held that his rather violent actions were not an act of cleansing/moral reform but rather a symbolic action. Just as the prophet Jeremiah broke a pot to proclaim that the Temple would be destroyed (Jer 19:1-13), Jesus flipped over tables to proclaim the Temple’s imminent destruction. Unlike Jeremiah’s though, this would not be a military destruction. Rather, God himself was going to remove the temple and restore his own – just as Enoch had foretold.
Even though Jesus envisioned the destruction of the temple as God-performed and eschatological in nature, it is not surprising that the authorities would see this message as a threat – especially when it was promoted by a hostile gesture (Mark 14:5, 15:29; Acts 6:14). Many scholars believe that this public prophecy by Jesus at the temple – one strongly rooted in contemporary Jewish eschatology – is what primarily lead to his arrest and crucifixion.
It is interesting to note that there was another Jesus in first century Palestine who was arrested and punished for prophesying the destruction of the Temple. According to Josephus, Jesus ben Ananias traveled around Jerusalem in 66 CE shouting, “Woe once more to the city and to the people and to the temple!” (War 6.5.3). While the authorities let him go following an insanity defense, this Jesus met his Monty Python-like demise when he was struck by a stone hurled from a Roman ballista while continuing to prophecy.
As stated explicitly in the Testament of Benjamin above (9:2), to accompany the restoration of the Temple was the regathering of the Twelve Tribes of Israel who had ruled God’s territory before being exiled by the Assyrian army in 721 CE.
You, Israel, will be gathered up one by one. And in that day a great trumpet will sound. Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem. (Isa 27:12-13)
I will bring your [Jacob’s] children from the east and gather you from the west. (Isa 43:5-6; also 63:17)
They shall rank the chiefs of the priests after the Chief Priest and his deputy; twelve chief priests to serve in the regular offering before God…one to a tribe. (1QM 2:1-3; cf. 4QpIsa frag. 1)
Even the other Jesus (ben Sira) mentioned earlier envisioned a time when God would “Gather all the tribes of Jacob, and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning” (Sirach 36:11).
Although the church didn’t have a very good memory when it came to remembering their names, Jesus’ gathering of twelve disciples is well rooted in our textual sources. Even Paul attests to them (1 Cor 15:5).
This selection of twelve surely served as a prophetic sign. The Q tradition (a hypothetical source used by Matthew and Luke but not Mark) even has Jesus promise his twelve disciples that they will “judge” (i.e. rule over) the twelve tribes of Israel when the kingdom arrives – a striking parallel to verses from the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30 // Matt 19:28)
Compare this to a promise given unto the resurrected sons of Jacob:
Then shall we also be raised, each of us over our tribe (T Benj 10:7; cf. T Jud 25:1-2)
One popular argument for this saying originating from Jesus is that Judas was among the twelve when this was delivered. Surely Christians living after the betrayal would have preferred him to have been left out.
If the twelve disciples were appointed over the twelve tribes of Israel, who would rule above them as messiah? After all, the restoration of one on the throne of David was vital for most Jews when thinking about the eschaton.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety (Jer 33:14-15)
But what exactly was the messiah? At the very least, one who had been “anointed” (Heb. māšîăḥ) by God and stood in his special favor. This included the kings of Israel but also priests and prophets. Which traits were expected of the coming messiah? The Jewish texts aren’t always consistent. The title was primarily a synonym for “king”, often described as a mighty warrior who would “shatter unrighteous rulers” and “have the heathen nations to serve him under hike yoke” (Ps Sol 17:23-36; cf. Isa 11:4, Num 24:17-19).* Others, like the sect at Qumran, expected two messiahs – one priestly and one kingly (1QS 9:1). A third model was that of a prophet similar to Elijah and Moses, anointed to “bring good news to the oppressed” (Isa 61:1; 11Q Melch 18; Deut 18:18).
Unlike our other eschatological themes, Jesus says very little about a messianic Son of David, and some instances in which he does are historically problematic. On the other hand, it appears that at least some of Jesus’ followers identified him as the messiah very early on (Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 15:3).
Did Jesus also see himself as the messiah? The details are hotly debated among scholars, but the general conclusion appears to be in the positive. Not surprisingly, as leader of the twelve disciples Jesus saw himself ruling above the twelve tribes when the kingdom arrived – though no mention of a Davidic throne is made (Mark 10:35-45 // Matt 20:20-28).
While this appears to confirm a proclamation of a restored like one envisioned by apocalyptic prophets before him (even if self-fulfilled), the real question is which messianic model Jesus fits best. When we compare the image of Jesus in the gospels with the various expectations of the messiah summarized above, it is most likely that Jesus was initially identified – by himself and others – not as a Davidic king but a messianic prophet.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (Isa 61:1-3; cf. 11QMelch 18)
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me [Jesus], because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
While Jesus seems to have kept his exact identity on the down low (thus the “Messianic secret” in Mark), it shouldn’t be surprising that followers began to associate Jesus with a kingly messiah while he preached the imminent kingdom of God.
At last, the kingdom of God has been established and those judged righteous can live happily ever after. Time to party. And what better way to celebrate than an extravagant banquet with the messiah and patriarchs?
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. (Isa 25:6)
The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil. (Joel 2:24-26)
And the Lord of Spirits will abide over them, and with that Son of Man they will eat, and they will lie down and rise up forever and ever (1 Enoch 62:12-14)
They are called to the banquet held by the society of the Yahad, when God has fathered the Messiah…When they gather at the communal table, having set out bread and wine so the communal table is set for eating and the wine (poured) for drinking. (1Q28a)
There will be no shortage of bread and booze, and the messiah will even “grant to the saints to eat of the tree of life” (T. Levi 18:11; cf. 1 En 25:5-6; Apoc. Mos 28:4). The hope for a messianic banquet survived even into Rabbinic times (m. ‘Abot 3:16-17; b. Pesah. 119b; Num Rab 13:2).
Jesus prophesied to his followers the same expectation.
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11 // Luke 13:28-29; cf. Luke 14:15-24)
The phrase “east and west” occurs a number of times in Jewish texts in connection with the return of Jews to the holy land (Deut 30:4 LXX; Zech 8:7-8; Bar 4:4; 5:5; Ps Sol 11:2; 1 En 57:1)
Additionally, during his final meal with his disciples Jesus says to them
“I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25 // Matt 26:29 // Luke 22:18)
Indeed, many scholars believe that prior to his final meal (first attested by Paul in 1 Cor 11:23) Jesus regularly ate in a ritual fashion with his disciples as a foretaste of the coming banquet in the Kingdom of God. For instance, just as Jesus had the disciples divide their meal at the last supper (Luke 22:17) so too did he divide their meal in the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:41 // Matt 14:19) – possibly a metaphor for the endless quantity of food the righteous will receive in the kingdom. If such meals were indeed frequent during his ministry it’s no wonder that Jesus’ critics mocked him as “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matt 11:19).
Stepping back from the plotline of the eschaton, we return to a fundamental question: when will the Kingdom of God arrive? Parallel to apocalyptic prophets before and after him, Jesus proclaimed that the end was near. Moreover, he instructed his disciples to spread this exact message.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. (Mark 1:15 // Matt 4:17)
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matt 10:7 // Luke 10:9)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” (Matt 11:12)
When one examines earlier and contemporary Jewish scripture it is evident that imminence is standard of eschatological prophecy.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:3)
I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. (Isa 46:13)
The age is hurrying swiftly to its end…judgement is now drawing near. (4 Ezra 4:26, 8:61)
The advent of the times is very short…the end which the Most High prepared is near. (2 Bar 85:10, 82:20)
May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and at a near time. (Kaddish prayer; cf. Q11:2)
But how near is “near”? At the cost of uneasiness among post-first century Christians, Jesus gives a deadline to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1 // Matt 16:28 // Luke 9:27)
“Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things [signs] have taken place” (Mark 13:30)
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for amen, I say to you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of man comes.” (Matt 10:23)
Not surprisingly, attempts have been made to bend these sayings away from imminent eschatology. For instance, some interpret Mark 9:1 as Jesus foretelling his transfiguration…which would occur only six days later (Imagine the look on the disciples’ faces when the prophecy was fulfilled and they survived a whole nother week!). Still, skepticism isn’t without warrant, for surrounding verses seem to point to the days of the early church, when followers of Jesus will be “brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles” (Matt 10:16-20) and will encounter “false prophets and false messiahs” (Mark 13:22). But the deadline sayings themselves work independently, and as Dale C. Allison has pointed out, all three are structurally related, consisting of
- “Amen” +
- “I say to you” +
- statement about what will not happen +
- temporal conjunction +
- statement about the consummation
Therefore, it is likely that they are three variants of one saying emphasizing the kingdom’s imminence. Of the three, I find Mark 9:1 to be the most likely candidate for church authorship as it fits well with the anxiety Christians began to experience when their fellow members were dying while the kingdom had yet to arrive – a problem Paul copes with in his letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18). Even if we throw all three deadline sayings out the window, the theme of imminence itself stands strong in Jesus’ eschatology, just as it always had been in his Jewish forerunners and contemporaries. On that note, I’d like to stress that we can hardly say with certainty that Jesus said exactly this or that since the gospels were written decades after his death by anonymous, non-eyewitness Christians. In other words, none should be treated as direct quotes from Jesus but rather early Christian traditions. The best we can do is filter alleged sayings and deeds through historical criteria to find those which probably do originate from the historical Jesus on a general level. Jesus need not have said everything above and in that exact way for his apocalyptic image to stand; the point is that these sayings are multiply attested in our earliest sources (i.e. Q, Mark, synoptic traditions) and often they make better sense coming from the Jewish mission of Jesus than the early church.
Thus concludes the (much larger) first part of my two-part argument for Jesus the apocalypticist. We have seen how traditions of Jesus – as recorded in our early Christian texts – present him prophetically echoing at least eight general themes of Jewish eschatology – including a number of specifications regarding Judgement and Restoration ideology. Like other Jews who lived under foreign oppression, Jesus envisioned a future manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, preceded by dramatic tribulation. When God finally intervened he would resurrect the dead so that all would be judged by the Son of Man in accordance with their observance of the commandments. The righteous would be rewarded with angelic eternal life while the wicked cast away for punishment – generating a reversal of status. Although Satan and his demons ruled this current age, they will be bound and defeated. What was once part of Israel’s golden monarchical age will be restored – even more supreme than before: the Second Temple will be replaced by one of purity, the Twelve Tribes will return from distant exile, and a messianic figure will serve as god’s viceroy in the new Jerusalem. Once all had been accomplished, a messianic banquet would be held, summoning the righteous from all encompassing nations. This is what writers of the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature believed; it’s what Jews living in first century Palestine believed; it’s what Jesus himself believed and made a mission prophesying about. The abundant amount of eschatological parallels we’ve surveyed – some of them quite striking – between these ancient Jewish texts and the earliests traditions of Jesus are arguably more than enough to validate Schweitzer’s portrait of the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.
But what are we to make of passages in the New Testament which seem to contradict those which scholars attribute to an apocalyptic Jesus? We’ve seen for instance how Jesus distinguishes himself from the coming Son of Man in some sayings while equating himself with him in others. It was shown how the latter was the work of the early church, who had exalted the resurrected Jesus and now aligned the future kingdom with the parousia (i.e. Jesus’ return).
A second change was in the terms of salvation. As a Jew, Jesus endorsed the Law of Moses:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17)
Adhering to the Law included first and foremost the commandments, the greatest of which were to love God and thy neighbor. In short, following the Law was the ticket to eternal life (Matt 19:16-19; Mark 12:28-34). After Jesus’ crucifixion, belief in his sacrificial death and resurrection became a necessary inclusion. As Christianity spread among the gentile populace through Paul, the commandments became so insignificant to the point that “a man is justified by faith and not by works” (Rom. 3:28). Jewish Christians disagreed. While faith in Christ was now obligated, Jesus’ message about following the Law still mattered. Contrary to Paul’s theology, these Christians maintained that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
The final and perhaps most significant change worth mentioning is in regards to the imminence of the coming kingdom. We noted how like the prophets before him, Jesus wasn’t informing the masses to reform their ways for the long haul. Rather, they needed to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2). The end was coming soon, at any moment before this generation was out. God’s people needed to cease their sinful behavior before it was too late. Indeed, this seemingly controversial view of Jesus first promoted by Weiss and Schweitzer is one that critical scholars have agreed on for some time now. But as time passed and the first Christians began to die, anxiety arose within the church as to why the Lord was delaying his return. What resulted were tactics by some of the early Christians to mute the idea of imminence when talking about God’s kingdom. Scholars have noted how a timetable of adjustments to the kingdom’s eminence is fairly easy to reconstruct using our sources.
- During his mission, Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom would arrive within his generation, probably while his disciples were still alive (Mark 1:15, 13:30; Matt 10:7).
- When Christians began to die decades following the crucifixion, Paul and others coped with the anxiety of the delay by stating that some would still be alive (1 Thess. 4:15-17; Mark 9:1), including the high priest (Mark 14:62).
- To deal with the delay, the author of Luke tones down Mark by removing “in power” in Mark 9:1. This is because for Luke the Kingdom has already “come to you” in Jesus’ own ministry (11:10). He also changes Mark 14:62 since the high priest was long dead (Luke 22:69).
- When almost the entire first generation had died, “rumor spread in the community” that one disciple would still remain when the Kingdom arrived (John 21:22-23)
- Then he too died, so it must have been that “Jesus did not say that he would not die.” (Ibid.). Increase in delay caused “scoffers will come…saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” New arguments of defense arose, such as our concept of time being irrelevant because “With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:3-8).
- The author of John uses the “spiritual” tactic seen so often in apocalyptic movements following a delay. In short, the earthly kingdom is now a spiritual one, available in the present for all who are “born from above” (3:3, 5). The apocalyptic message about a coming Son of Man is absent.
- By the time the Gospel of Thomas was written a future kingdom is completely rejected by many Christians. “Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you,” and “is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it” (Thom 3, 113; see also 18).
In order to survive, apocalyptic movements must come to terms with delays and supply persuasive antidotes. Jewish apocalypticism had done this already; the end of the Book of Daniel offers two dates for the end of days (12:11-12), while Qumran scroll 1QpHab – similar to the author of 2 Peter – comments on an earlier promise of no delay (Hab 2:3), instructing readers that “the Last Days will be long, much longer than the prophets said; for God’s revelations are truly mysterious” (7:6-13; cf. Mark 13:32).
It has been shown at length how the gospels have preserved a Jesus who was just as much a Jewish apocalyptic prophet as those before him, firing on all eschatological cylinders. As a final push to validate this image of him, it’s important to realize that his message is directly tied to those of his teacher John the Baptist as well as his apostle Paul. In other words, if both John and Paul preached an apocalyptic message then it would only make sense that Jesus did as well.
John the Baptist
Jesus wasn’t the only first century Jew who gained a following in his hope for a restored Israel. Indeed, the New Testament even compares him to a few of them. In the Book of Acts, Rabbi Gamaliel compares Jesus’ character and movement with that of Theudas the prophet and Judas the Galilean (5:35-39). But most often and accurate of all, Jesus was compared to John the Baptist, who “appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). The first thing we learn about Jesus as an adult is that he was baptized by John, who ritually washed away people’s sins in preparation for God’s judgement. Here was a first century prophet who, before Jesus, proclaimed that the Lord’s wrath was imminent – using harvest imagery found in apocalyptic literature.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:12 // Luke 3:17; cf. 4 Ezra 4:30, 39; 2 Bar 70:2)
Among the few certainties historians attach to Jesus, his baptism by John the Baptist is one of them. Certainly it should come as no surprise then that Jesus was a disciple of the Baptist agreed with his message.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 3:1-2, 3:10)
“After John was put in prison” Jesus appears to have taken over the mission in “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). Indeed, the fourth gospel tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were those of John’s (John 1:35-1:51).
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 4:17, 7:19)
Like John the baptist, Jesus preached outside (Matt 5) and taught his disciples how pray (Luke 11:1-4). The two were so much alike that some thought Jesus was John the Baptist, including King Herod (Mark 6:14, 8:27). Moreover, the gospel authors go out of their way to present John as the forerunner of Jesus, with Luke mirroring the two’s birth narratives. While Jesus differed from John in a number of ways, the point to be made here is that Jesus took on the role of an apocalyptic prophet like John before him.
Around twenty years after Jesus’ death come our earliest surviving Christian writings – letters by the apostle Paul. Paul never met Jesus before his crucifixion but had met with his disciples on at least two occasions (Gal 1:18–19; 2:-12; Acts 15). When we read the letters Paul wrote to his various churches we learn a bit about what early Christians such as himself believed and taught regarding the eschaton. Now the religion about Jesus, the return of Jesus as the Lord Christ overshadowed the arriving kingdom; a deliverance of the kingdom was still expected (1 Cor 15:24), however these early Christians did not exclaim “Thy kingdom come”, but “Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22; cf. Rev 22:20).
Had Jesus’ eschatology vanished? Let’s compare what Jesus has to say about the coming Son of Man and compare it to Paul’s scenario, which he says he received from “the word of the Lord.”
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt 24:30-31)
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt 16:27-28)
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the appearance of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:15-17)
As the bolded words show, Matthew and Paul have the same key components: (1) the coming of the Son of Man/Lord Jesus, (2) his angels blowing their trumpets, (3) the righteous who are alive gathering together. The fact that Paul includes himself in that list reveals his preservation of an imminent kingdom – one that will arrive before he dies.
Other parallels between the eschatology of Paul and Jesus include belief in the resurrection of the dead mentioned earlier (1 Cor 15; cf. Matt 22:30), a “coming wrath” (1 Thess 1:10; cf Matt 3:7), the day coming like a “thief” in the night (1 Thess 5:2-3; cf. Matt 24:42-44), and the abandonment of worldly possessions due to how little time is left (1 Cor 7:29-31; cf. Mark 10:21). From the looks of it, a belief in an imminent judgement was too firmly grounded in the message of Jesus for Paul and the young Christian church to ignore.
And so we conclude the final and probably most convincing argument in support of Schweitzer’s thesis. An apocalyptic beginning and end beg for an apocalyptic middle, a middle which we’ve seen is filled with apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus. As Bart Ehrman puts it, “The only connection between the apocalyptic John and the apocalyptic Christian church was Jesus himself. How could both the beginning and the end be apocalyptic, if the middle was not as well?” (Jesus, 139).
At this point it may seem that the case for the apocalyptic Jesus is pretty air tight; that our New Testament texts overwhelmingly present a historical Jesus who prophesied a future judgement and subsequent kingdom on earth. There’s just one little discrepancy left untackled: there are passages in the gospels which Jesus seems to proclaim that the kingdom is already here.
Recent years have spawned new criticism of Jesus’ future eschatology as first asserted by Weiss and Schweitzer. Instead of an apocalyptic prophet whose mission centered around preparing for the end of this age, some scholars, notably those from the Jesus Seminar, argue that Jesus is best understood as a social reformer of the present. Those sayings about an impending kingdom? Metaphors. Sure, Jesus may have initially a disciple of John the Baptist, but he soon went his separate way and preached what C.H. Dodd described as “realized eschatology,” or “sapiential eschatology” as phrased by John Dominic Crossan. For this Jesus, the kingdom was already here on earth, ready to be experienced by all who followed his ethical manifesto. After all, Jesus is recorded to have said
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed…For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
For supporters of this theory, this passage in Luke is the crux of their argument. But as others are quick to points out, the passage is only found in Luke; unlike the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus analyzed above, it is not multiply attested. Moreover, the only gospel it is found in is also the one most intent on de-emphasizing Jesus’ future expectation (as we saw an example of above with Luke muting Mark’s imminence of the kingdom). Moreover, the logic supposing that this passage overrule the abundant number of sayings which do paint the eschaton as future is nil.
However, Dodd and his supporters have a point. There are other passages in the gospels which give the impression that the kingdom was – in a way – present; that what the righteous were going to experience when the kingdom arrived could already be experienced in Jesus’ presence as God’s agent.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt 11:2-6)
“But if it is by the Spirit [or finger] of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matt 12:28 // Luke 11:20)
It is unlikely that Jesus meant that the kingdom was fully present in his actions. At most (because it is never clearly stated), Jesus believed that those who experienced his miracles and teachings “were experiencing a kind of foretaste of what life in the Kingdom would be like” (Ehrman, Jesus 177). This makes sense when we compare what Jesus did and taught during his mission with the expectations of the world to come: Jesus cast out demons and rebuked Satan; God would soon vanquish Satan and his demons for good. Jesus cured the sick and raised the dead; when the kingdom arrived there would be no more sickness nor death. Those who followed the ethics of Jesus – observing the commandments and becoming “like little children” – were in a way practicing the law of the future kingdom in which there would be no more sin and the righteous would have the humility of a child. In short, while the full Kingdom of God has yet to be made manifest, by God’s spiritual presence on earth one can benefit from it in the present.
In further support of this concept of the kingdom as both future and in a way present is the fact that Paul presents it in such a way. As E.P. Sanders explains, Paul “regarded Christians as already experiencing something and as still awaiting something. He could write that Christians were ‘justified’ (Rom 5:1); that they were a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17); that they were ‘being changed’ (2 Cor 3:18) and ‘being renewed’ (2 Cor 4:16). ‘Salvation’ itself, however, he put in the future (Rom 5:9f.; 10:13; and often). Thus Rom 8:23 presents no difficulty as the two phases are distinguished” (Jesus and Judaism, 151)
To review then, it’s not unfounded to claim that Jesus believed that the Kingdom of God was both future and present so long as distinction between the two is emphasized. For Jesus, the kingdom of the future was the same one his Jewish forerunners and contemporaries looked forward to – one “on earth”, complete with twelve tribes and a new temple. The Kingdom was present in the sense of God’s power working through his prophet and unto others. Jesus seems to have stood out from John the Baptist in his belief that the spirit of God surrounding his mission allowed the faithful to experience some of the benefits of the future Kingdom before it had been fully realized.
Rejoice, for the end of our comprehensive inquiry is at hand. By now it should come as no surprise that the majority of critical scholars today continue to encapsulate the historical Jesus in an apocalyptic framework. Our comparative analysis has revealed a Jesus whose well attested sayings are strikingly similar to those of his predecessors and contemporaries who also longed for vindication by God – echoing at least eight eschatological themes. To help put it in perspective, our Jesus wasn’t even the only Jesus who expected a restoration of the twelve tribes and a replacement of the temple. Most compelling of all, Jesus’ mission stemmed from the Baptist movement and is immediately succeeded by apocalyptic Christianity – a point even opponents of the apocalyptic Jesus concede and believe to be a strong point in favor of the apocalyptic Jesus. Finally, while Jesus probably believed “the kingdom” – in the sense of “the power of God” – was present on earth, it is nearly impossible overemphasize the imminent future eschatology so well recognized by Weiss and Schweitzer more than a century ago. For millions of Christians today that kingdom is still imminent, with a need to get right with God before it’s too late. I ask such individuals to forgive myself and others for not seeing the need to rush.
Sources and Further Reading:
- American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism by Matthew Avery Sutton
- The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer
- Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart Ehrman
- Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet by Dale C. Allison
- Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison
- The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate by Dale C. Allison (Contributor), Marcus J. Borg (Contributor), John Dominic Crossan (Contributor), Stephen J. Patterson (Contributor)
- The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature by John J. Collins
- Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
- The Continuum History of Apocalypticism by John J. Collins
- The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity edited by John J. Collins
- Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature by Craig A. Evans
- The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha by James H. Charlesworth
- Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell
- Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders
- Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes
- The Authentic Gospels of Jesus by Geza Vermes
- A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2 – Mentor, Message, and Miracles by John P. Meier
- Paul Boyer, “The Growth of Fundamentalist Apocalyptic in the United States,” The Continuum History of Apocalypticism, eds. Bernard McGinn, John J. Collins, Stephen J. Stein (New York: Continuum, 2003), 534
- 130th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verses 14-17
- McGovern, The World of Columbus, 17
- Bell, The Familiar Discourses of Martin Luther, last paragraph of page 7
- The prime example being the Left Behind series, which recently became a movie starring Nicholas Cage.
- While attributed to the prophet Daniel of the 7th century BCE, most critical scholars agree that the text was written in the period of the Maccabean revolt.
- See “Hebrew Personifications of Evil” in Jeffrey Burton’s Devil.
- See Meier, 294.
- See online Kaddish. Meier states that, “Whether or not this early form of the Kaddish can be dated to the time of Jesus, it demonstrates the continuing trajectory of a theme launched by Ezekiel and perduring in Judaism in the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D.” (297).
- See a list of first century Jewish Messiah claimants, notably Theudas and the Egyptian.
- While John later says that it was his disciples that did the baptizing (4:2), the point still stands. It is also plausible that Jesus did in fact baptize on occasion like his teacher John the Baptist did.
- For instance, Num 23:19. See Son of Man in Contrast to Deity in Jewish Encyclopedia.
- See John J. Collins, “The Son of Man and the Saints of the Most High in the Book of Daniel” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 93 No. 1 (Mar 1974): 50-66.
- See list of Exorcisms by Jesus and his disciples
- Jesus tells us that other Jews cast out demons (Matt 12:27 // Luke 11:19). Ancient sources also tell of famous exorcists that were close contemporaries of Jesus such as Apollonius of Tyana and Eleazar. See Cotter, “Daimons/Demons In Greco-Roman Antiquity” in Miracles In Greco-Roman Antiquity.
- Josephus, War 6.4.5 249-253
- Sanders argues against an interpretation for cleaning, saying, “Contemporary Judaism would not expect ‘cleansing’ from an eschatological prophet or teacher; and nothing which is reliably attributed to Jesus points towards cleansing.
On the other hand we have from Jesus a saying about the destruction of the temple, and the gesture itself – overturning the tables – points naturally towards destruction” (Jesus and Judaism, 90). That Jesus wasn’t completely against the Temple is evident from his willingness to pay the Temple tax (Matt 17:24-7) and instruct people to visit the priest (Matt 8:4).
- The Temple authorities and Roman Goverment were always on edge during massive Jewish gatherings as they were afraid of riots breaking loose. Like John the Baptist, Jesus probably came across as too influential and was therefore put to death before he became more of a risk.
- Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13.
- Even the Persian emperor Cyrus was given the title of messiah (Isa 45:1).
- For instance, the Life Application Study Bible (NIV) supports this interpretation of Mark 9:1.
- See Meier, 339-348. Meier would surmise that while “Imminent-future eschatology has its origins in Jesus…attempts to set time limits for that eschatology have their origin in the early church.” Allison is not convinced that setting a time limit was beyond Jesus, suggesting that “Perhaps, as Schweitzer conjectured, Jesus and those around him already experienced the delay of the end and so a saying about living to see the fullness of time had a purpose even before Easter.” Indeed, If a text as old as Isaiah says there’d be no delay (Isa 46:13), surely this generation would be the last.
- Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, 149.
- See “Criteria” in Meier, A Marginal Jew Vol. 1.
- See Ehrman, 130-131; also Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 383-384.
- Two examples stand out. In 1987 one by the name of Dr. Leland Jensen proclaimed that Halley’s Comet was going to be the end of us all. When the destruction failed to occur he argued that it was had been a spiritual impact. Over a hundred years earlier, Pastor Charles Taze Russell became interested in time prophecy after reading a copy of Barbour’s publication Herald of the Morning. The end had not come in 1874, as the Adventists had predicted. However, Barbour explained that Matthew 24:27 meant Jesus’ invisible/spiritual presence commenced in 1874.
- Josephus mentions Theudus in Antiquities 20.97-98, and the Egyptian in War 2.261-26.
- The criteria of embarrassment alone allows the baptism tradition to pass with flying colors. It doesn’t make sense for Christians to invent a tradition in which their Lord Messiah was baptized by one who was spiritually inferior to him (Matt 3:14), let alone that he needed baptism – the washing away of sins – in the first place. See Ehrman, 93.
- See Allison, Constructing Jesus, 137-41, 206-13. Notably, the Baptist didn’t (as far as we know) accompany his eschatological mission with miracles like Jesus did.
- This comparative analysis is in regards to the seven most authentic Pauline epistles out of the thirteen in the New Testament.
- See Sanders, This Historical Figure of Jesus, p 176-178. Also, Jesus and Judaism, p 152-153.
- Jesus ben Sira envisioned a future regathering of the Twelve Tribes (Sir 7:32-35), while Jesus son of Ananias traveled around prophesying the temple’s destruction (Josephus, War 6.5.3).