Thursday, April 22, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (BIBLIOGRAPHY)

The posts took up 5 parts, so scroll through the last week to find parts 1-5. I can't get my footnotes to show on the blog, but here is my bibliography.

Allison, Dale C. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Fortress, 1998.

Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus. New York: T&T Clark, 2005.

Allison, Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

Bokser, Ben Zion. The Jewish Mystical Tradition. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1993.

Borg, Marcus and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York:
HarperOne, 1999.

Collins, Adela Yarbro and John J. Collins. King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine,
Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,

Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination. New York: The Crossroad Publishing
Company, 1984.

Dunn, James D.G. The Evidence For Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Interrupted. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Meir, John P. A Marginal Jew, Vol. II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles. New York:
Double Day, 1994.

Miller, Robert J. The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2001.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press,

Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. UK: Fortress Press, 1985.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1973.

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 5)

In agreement with Marcus Borg, Jesus was an inspired wisdom teacher and social prophet, and not all he said and did should be discounted as apocalyptic angst. He was a compassionate friend of the poor and outcast, a moral genius, as well as a subversive enemy of empire. He insisted that the kingdom was now partially present in his ministry – but he was not intent on establishing a utopian society. He believed that only God could truly bend the world back to justice. To prepare for the coming fullness of the future kingdom, Jesus was not only calling for repentance, but he was teaching subversive strategies to his community for resisting exploitative economics and Roman imperialism through nonviolent means that would avoid needlessly bringing down Rome's wrath. His motivation was the coming kingdom of God, and he hoped that by promoting subversive survival tactics his community could get the word out more effectively in the short time they had left. Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way one hopes.

If taken to be historical, Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” may have been a real cry of anguish that came when he realized that the imminent arrival of the kingdom would not come before his death. He died in confusion, and the disciples were left to figure out what to do next. After Jesus’ followers came to believe that God had raised him from the dead ahead of the general resurrection, they reinterpreted the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. Jesus, having been raised from the dead as the first fruits of the eschaton’s general resurrection, must be much more than the future Messiah of the age to come – he must also be the angelic Son of Man. Jesus was now up in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, preparing to return within a generation to usher in the kingdom and judge the world. The end had already begun, and the disciples believed they were entrusted with the job of spreading Jesus’ message in the last days before he returned on the clouds of heaven.

In the end, the mystical Jesus is the apocalyptic Jesus. His proclamation that the end was not only near, but that it would come within a generation was obviously off by at least two thousand years. Even so, his apocalypticism was a powerful framework provided by his religion at the time to express a legitimate dissatisfaction with the cruel injustices of human life. If read mythologically like Genesis 1-3, the eschatology of Jesus still has transcendent power. It forces many of us to hope, along with Jesus, that his intuitions were basically right: there is something more beyond ordinary existence, and that it ultimately bends toward justice. To affirm the resurrection is to affirm that Jesus was ultimately right about the justice of God, even if his timeframe was off and his vision of how justice would be enacted required ancient Jewish mythology to express. To affirm the incarnation is (at minimum) to affirm that Jesus is the ultimate moral exemplar, the ultimate revelation of God in a human life. To affirm ourselves as followers of this 1st century Jewish man is to align ourselves with his cause, adopt his hope, and live out the radically subversive kingdom of God in the present. Jesus passionately protested against the evil he saw in the world and proclaimed that liberation was at hand from the evil of empire and death itself – the ultimate injustice that the resurrection dealt a devastating blow to. Like many before and many since, Jesus responded to the problem of evil in the best way he knew how, and his deep longing for radical justice is something we all should deeply resonate with. Dale Allison affirms the hope of cosmic liberation as he writes, “…Jesus had it right: he so thirsted for justice on such a grand scale that he had to embrace his tradition’s belief in the transcendence of history and death. He may have been mistaken, but he wasn’t wrong.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 4)

Aside from a vast amount of evidence in the synoptics, E.P. Sanders argues that Jesus should be seen as an apocalypticist for three primary reasons. First, Jesus predicted the imminent destruction and replacement of the temple by God. This notion is clearly derived from apocalyptic literature. Second, Jesus significantly chose twelve disciples as future leaders over the restored twelve tribes of Israel. This is in apocalyptic literature as well, and a later Jewish messiah named Sabbatai Sevi does a similar thing, choosing twelve rabbinic scholars as leaders over a future restored Israel. Lastly, Jesus was mentored by John the Baptist and immediately followed by the early Christians like Peter and Paul, all of whom were Jewish apocalypticists.

It is a stretch of the imagination to believe that Jesus did not share the worldview of his mentor John and his later followers whom he had taught. Still, many scholars attempt to deconstruct the apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who are otherwise quite brilliant scholars, have been the most persistent in this deconstruction. Their solution is to essentially cut out large portions of the synoptics, claim that they are the product of later Christian imagination, and thereby forge a more convenient non-apocalyptic Jesus. Unfortunately, this solution beggars belief and seems to be a misuse of historical critical methods.

Another solution comes from scholars like N.T. Wright, who try to make the case that apocalyptic language is primarily metaphorical. Wright would even have us believe that Jesus was actually predicting the destruction of the temple in 70CE in the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic as other modern scholars including Ehrman, Allison, Fredriksen, and Sanders all convincingly insist. Allison explains, “Most eschatological language…has a literal referent…and a symbolic dimension…when the Jesus tradition envisions the Son of man coming on the clouds or foretells the general resurrection, we should…think of the redeemer literally flying upon the clouds and of the redeemed literally coming forth from their graves – and also of all that those events represent – the vindication of Jesus, the triumph of believers, the judgment of the wicked, the fulfillment of prophecy…That many Jews took their eschatology more or less literally seemingly follows from their struggles with unfulfilled prophecy.”

Some scholars will always resist and reinterpret, but the best evidence seems to continue to point toward an apocalyptic Jesus who believed he had been called by God to spread the gospel of imminent liberation for those on the bottom of society and the warning of judgment to those on top. God was literally about to overthrow the forces of evil, raise the dead, send the Son of Man to judge the world, replace the temple, and rule his eternal kingdom through the Messiah Jesus as earthly king, and the twelve disciples as rulers over the tribes of Israel.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 3)

Scholars have vigorously debated the eschatology of Jesus since Schweitzer threw down the apocalyptic gauntlet. One of the most prominent modern defenders of Schweitzer’s basic apocalyptic theory is Bart Ehrman, who explains it as follows: “Jews who subscribed to this worldview maintained that God had revealed to them the future course of events, in which he was soon to overthrow the forces of evil and establish his Kingdom.” Against the claims of Marcus Borg, Jesus seems to have interpreted his mystical experiences as revelatory prophetic knowledge of the eschaton, not just as sacred ecstasy. Sidney Spencer’s explanation of prophetic mysticism seems to fit Jewish apocalypticists: “…if the prophet’s union with the divine is a functional union, if (as he believes) he is made one with God as his messenger for a particular end, his experience has nonetheless an essentially mystical quality.” Though they may not fit traditional Jewish mystical categories, apocalyptic prophets like Jesus are nonetheless Jewish mystics.

Jewish apocalypticism came into existence only about 150 years before Jesus. Apocalyptic theology is distinctly Jewish, and was derived from contemporary sacred and popular texts of the time. The Hebrew Bible supplied the notion of God’s kingly rule, with the book of Daniel supplying apocalyptic imagery, such as bodily resurrection, an eschatological judge (“Son of Man”), and cosmic dualism. Other apocalyptic literature, such as 1 Enoch and the Temple Scroll present the notions of a supernatural Messiah (by equating him with the Son of Man), placing one’s faith in the Messiah, and the imminent destruction and replacement of the temple. The Testament of Moses and the Psalms of Solomon reveal beliefs in catastrophes leading up to the eschaton, permanent reversals of fortunes, a final defeat of the Devil, and God’s re-establishment of the tribes of Israel in an eternal earthly kingdom through a Messiah. Along with Jesus, other ancient Jews such as Theudus, The Egyptian, Jesus son of Ananias, and John the Baptist all formulated a common apocalyptic theology derived from the available Jewish literature. They all preached repentance in the face of imminent catastrophe, judgment, and cosmic restoration. In the words of Jesus, "…there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” and similarly, “this generation shall not pass away until all is fulfilled.” Jesus believed the kingdom was just around the corner, and that individuals either stood with God or the Devil.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 2)

Important for a plausible historical reconstruction of the mystical Jesus is his immediate Jewish context. Geza Vermes attempted to keep the mystical Jesus in context by pointing out the tradition of charismatic Judaism in the first-century. Like Jesus, charismatic Jews (Hasidim) were known for their performance of healings and exorcisms. This is historically quite certain according to Vermes, and we should interpret the Hasidim in mystical terms: “That a distinctive trend of charismatic Judaism existed during the last couple of centuries of the Second Temple is undeniable…their supernatural powers were attributed to their immediate relation to God.”

According to Vermes, other roughly contemporary charismatic Galilean Jews such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina Ben Dosa were known for healings and exorcisms. The problem with this parallel is that our sources for both figures are much later than our sources for Jesus – in the case of Honi, they are written in the Mishna some 200 years after he lived. John Meir suggests that the most we can say about Honi and Hanina is that they were Jews living around the time of Jesus who were known for having their prayers answered in astonishing ways. Meir also argues that the nature of their recorded miracles is different than that of Jesus’ miracles, and whether they were Galilean is highly questionable. On the other hand, Josephus wrote a first-century eyewitness account of a famous Jewish exorcist named Eleazar, offering some support to Vermes’ intuitions. Still, what we have are historical parallels for Jewish wonderworkers in the time of Jesus, not a precise fit with charismatic Judaism.

There is something more distinctive in the synoptic portrayal of Jesus, without perfect parallel in contemporary pagan or Jewish literature. Meir claims that Jesus was not just another Jewish wonderworker on good terms with God, but also a “preacher and teller of parables…an authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality…[and] a proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God.” That the message of Jesus was eschatological should not be minimized, for it has great explanatory power for other aspects of his life and teachings, such as his miracles and exorcisms.

E.P. Sanders notes that the synoptics all portray the significance of the miracles and exorcisms as pointing toward the ‘age to come’, that God had literally begun his battle with evil in the miracles of Jesus. Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles seem to be oriented in this way, though his disciples are portrayed as unconvinced until they had come to believe in his resurrection. Ultimately, Jesus’ miracles mainly stood out as peculiar from other Jewish wonderworkers because of how he interpreted them himself. Jesus was motivated not just by compassion for those he was healing, but by his eschatological convictions. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus’ eschatological convictions can be accurately framed by Jewish apocalypticism.

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet

Here I will begin a series of posts of my short essay on the apocalyptic Jesus. I think I will break the posts into four or five parts. Enjoy, think, and decide for yourself whether I am right or not. These issues are far from conclusive, although many scholars side with the basic views about to be expressed in this series. The apocalyptic view is not popular in the pew, but I feel that it is the most honest historical analysis of Jesus.

Whether you are liberal or conservative, I highly recommend reading Marcus Borg and NT Wright's book "The Meaning of Jesus" for two different views than what I will be expressing here. While I deeply appreciate both of these fine scholars, I am less convinced by their views on the eschatology of Jesus anymore. Both take the evidence of the text further than it should be allowed to go (I will address this in a final post later). To my scholarly friends, this is not a comprehensive treatment of the difficult issues at play here. It is meant as a very brief overview of an enormous topic. I will post a bibliography soon enough, although the footnotes will not be included in this post.


The quest for the historical Jesus is one of the great fascinations of our time. Most forcefully beginning with Albert Schweitzer around the turn of the 19th century, the quest has now taken dozens of different turns. Within all of the different theories of the historical Jesus set fourth – whether rabbi, Cynic, sage, or prophet – there are two qualities that seem to run through all but the most skeptical portrayals of him: first, Jesus was a second-temple Palestinian Jew from Galilee; second, he had immediate experiences of the divine that shaped his life. As such, the Jesus of history is at least in some sense participating within the broader tradition of mystical Judaism – but how did he interpret his mystical experiences for his life and mission? Recent scholarly analyses of history, as well as Jewish and Christian texts have yielded possible answers to this question.

Scholar Marcus Borg has helpfully outlined five aspects of Jesus’ identity: healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, movement founder, and Spirit person. The first four of these categories are self-explanatory, while “Spirit person” implies that Jesus was a mystic. According to Borg, “Jesus was one for whom God was an experiential reality…[his] experience of God was foundational for the rest of what he was.” This is illustrated by Jesus’ dramatic mystical experiences in Mark 1:10-13: “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” Here we have a mystical vision and then a traditional vision quest, both of which are seen as the events where Jesus received his divine calling. Additionally, Mark highlights Jesus continually being “led by the Spirit.” In short, we get a strong historical impression of a mystical Jesus, guided in thought and action by the Spirit.