Sunday, April 18, 2010

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.

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