I realize that this current series of articles is going to turn off some of my Christian readers—hopefully only momentarily. I understand that. The idea that I’m entertaining and arguing for is completely contrary to any form of orthodox Christianity, and it will be seen as heretical and blasphemous. I understand that as well. But before you dismiss what I’m about to argue, please understand that I once felt the same way. The idea that Jesus (wrongly) expected the world to end in his own lifetime is something that I would have scoffed at only about four years ago. But after reading the scholarly arguments put forward for the apocalyptic Jesus thesis, and after a hard road of trying to convince myself otherwise, this viewpoint just seemed to be the most logical explanation of Jesus’ ministry that I had ever come across. I didn’t want this view to be true, I really didn’t. But at the end of the day I had to follow the evidence where it led; and it is this evidence that I will attempt to put forward over the next few articles. I admonish you, the reader, not to let your preconceptions rule your judgment of the evidence—though I know that this is almost impossible. Please try to be as objective as possible and read with an open mind.
It should go without saying that a historical figure’s life, words, and deeds should be studied and judged within the larger context of their immediate culture. Jesus is no different. Jesus lived in the time of second temple Judaism (515 BC-70AD) and during the latter part of this time period a certain worldview was rampant and ubiquitous among the Jews—namely, that of apocalypticism.
Apocalypticism is an eschatology (i.e. set of beliefs about the end of the world) wherein the end of history is brought about by divine intervention and is thought to be happening very soon. It is this belief that became the primary worldview of second temple Jews for a few reasons. You see, starting in the eighth century B.C., the promised land of the Israelites was constantly under attack from foreign powers. The most important of these attacks took place in 586 B.C. and subsequently led to the exile of the Israelites from the southern kingdom and their subsequent oppression by the Babylonians. This exile was interpreted by the prophets as punishment from God for Israel’s lack of faithfulness and sin. So the prophets promised that if Israel got their act together and sincerely repented of their unfaithfulness, then God would restore them their land and would reestablish them among the nations. But unfortunately the land was never restored back to their control and their land was continually dominated by more and more increasingly powerful nations, despite the fact that Israel had indeed repented of their unfaithfulness—this happened for a couple centuries. So if Israel, God’s chosen people, had done what God wanted, then why wasn’t he fighting for them any longer? Why was he now the one no longer being faithful?
This is exactly what Israel was asking itself, and out of these questions apocalypticism was generated. For it was then thought that Israel was no longer being punished by God for being unfaithful, rather Israel was being punished by God’s enemies (both spiritual and physical) for being faithful! Thus, the Israelites were suffering for their faith, instead of suffering for lacking it, as had previously taken place. Moreover, Jews were beginning to stand up to their oppressors, and consequently were being martyred left and right for their faith; thus cognitive dissonance caused the Jews to cook up an afterlife and a day of final judgment, in which the faithful would be vindicated, and the enemies of God who were oppressing his chosen people would finally get what they had coming to them—since God obviously wasn’t doing this currently. This day of God’s intervention, restoration, and subsequent judgment was seen to be more and more imminent, because it was thought that God surely would not let his children suffer needlessly. Hence, it was seen by a majority of Jews in second temple Judaism that God’s cosmic intervention was right around the corner, and any day now the messiah would come and drop the curtain on this inversion of world powers.
We see these pronouncements of apocalypticism in the Assumption of Moses, 1 Enoch, the Book of Daniel, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 9-14, 4th Ezra, the Apocalypse of Abraham, 2nd Baruch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the Essene movement. The point is that second temple Judaism was soaked in an apocalyptic worldview, and it is in this context that the ministry of Jesus must be interpreted—to claim the opposite is anachronistic. To quote critical NT scholar Dale Allison from the book The Apocalyptic Jesus: [T]o propose that Jesus thought the end to be near is just to say that he believed what many others in his time and place believed. (p. 23)
The question then is, Did Jesus really believe the end was near?
Those that came before and after
One way to best understand Jesus’ ministry is to survey the ministry which was the genesis for his own, as well as surveying the ministry that was generated from his. Let us begin with the former.
It is no secret that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. For Jesus to submit himself to be baptized by John, he obviously had some theological and doctrinal continuity with him and his ministry. As Scholar Craig Keener notes in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, the “baptism indicates, at the least, that Jesus knew and accepted John’s message[…] Jesus’ message stood in continuity with John’s[.]” (p. 176) Not only this, but Jesus explicitly praised and endorsed the Baptist himself. He stated that John was “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9) and that “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) Therefore, it seems clear that Jesus thought very highly of John, and, since John preceded him, Jesus believed his ministry to be a continuation of John’s.
But what exactly did John the Baptist preach? Well John was quite clear that Israel needed to turn to God and repent, but why? Well, John asked “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and stated that “the ax is laid to the root of the trees.” (Luke 3: 7 and 9) That is to say, John expected God to intervene soon—the ax is laid to the root of the trees—and therefore repentance was necessary if one wanted to be on God’s side when he intervened. Again, Keener states that “John was a wilderness prophet proclaiming impending judgment.” (p. 167)
Moreover, the fact that John was a prophet living in the wilderness should not be overlooked. You see, many Jews expected Israel’s restoration to occur in the wilderness—partly because of verses like Hosea 2:14-23—and the prophets seem to have insinuated that a new exodus would take place there. The Qumran community was an apocalyptic movement and they lived exclusively in the wilderness for the same reasons—though it is not thought that John was part of the Qumrans. Thus, a ministry in the wilderness, as John had, seems to have clear apocalyptic implications.
So, it seems that Jesus had continuity with John’s ministry, and his ministry seems to have had an apocalyptic element to it. And thus it makes even more sense to view Jesus as an apocalypticist due to his theological predecessor John the Baptist. But what about Jesus’ immediate followers and successors? Did they show any signs of imminent eschatological expectations? You bet they did. Let us survey just a few verses to demonstrate this:
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. (Romans 13:11)
In a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay. (Hebrews 10:37)
You must also be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:8)
The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ (Revelation 22:20)
It should be quite apparent from these verses that the earliest followers of the Jesus movement expected their salvation and vindication—which included the return of Jesus—to manifest very soon. At any moment Jesus would be riding on the clouds to usher in that very thing.
So where did this belief come from? Because this belief was not some peripheral doctrine of Jesus’ immediate followers. It seems to be a ubiquitous eschatology that permeates the deepest desires of the Jesus movement. If Jesus did not believe that the end was near, then why did his posthumous ministry hold to such a belief? How do we explain the ubiquity of apocalypticism in Jesus’ followers? Is it really just plausible to say that Jesus’ followers just all happened to form this mistaken belief independently of one another? Or is it not more plausible that the ubiquity of their belief had its genesis in the teachings and beliefs of him whom they called their Lord?
Now when you pair this with the eschatology of John the Baptist then our thesis becomes even more compelling. For if the Jesus movement branched out from an apocalyticist movement, and if the successors of the Jesus movement maintained apocalypticist beliefs, then it really only makes sense that Jesus himself was also an apocalyticist. The denial of this claim is simply implausible. For then one would have to address why Jesus endorsed John’s ministry, yet had a completely different eschatology—even though his eschatology seems to be apocalyptic, a point we’ll argue for in the next few articles—and why Jesus’ followers jettisoned (their master) Jesus’ eschatology in favor of an apocalyptic one. This latter thesis is too ad hoc and it violates the principle of parsimony. It seems that simplicity prevails here, and it seems most plausible that Jesus, like those immediately before and after him, was an apocalypticist. To quote Dale Allison: “[T]o reconstruct a Jesus who did not have strong eschatological or apocalyptic orientation entails discontinuity […] with the movement out of which he came as well as with the movement that came out of him. Isn’t presumption against this?” (p. 21)