The Historical Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

It is accepted by many historians that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or Jewish apocalypticist who preached an eschatological message about an imminent apocalypse [1]. According to New Testament scholar and professor Bart Ehrman, “the majority of biblical scholars outside the ranks of the conservative evangelicals had good reason to think that Jesus’ overarching message was in fact one of coming apocalyptic doom” [2].

Jesus believed that God would soon intervene in history in a spectacular and cosmic way to overthrow the forces of evil. This would not occur through political revolt be rather through a supernatural show of power and the ushering in a kingdom on Earth in which there would be no more injustice and oppression, poverty, misery, pain, or suffering. Evil will be overthrown and only those who have repented and placed their faith in Jesus will enter this kingdom. Judgment will occur through the Son of Man, a cosmic figure who could arrive at any moment from heaven. 

Apocalyptic Background

It is important to briefly acknowledge the apocalyptic thought that would have been familiar to many Jews of the first century and to Jesus himself [3]. This thought would no doubt have influenced Jesus too.

The Jewish apocalypticists were dualists [4]. They believed in two opposing forces in reality: the forces of good and the forces of evil. The forces of evil are headed by Satan, Beelzebub, or the Devil, and the forces of good by God himself. On God’s side there are good angels and righteousness; on the side of the Devil are demons, sin, and death. These are cosmic forces and powers to which human beings are subject. People are either on the side of God or with Satan. There is no neutral ground. The apocalypticists believed that the present age is one of sin and evil. It is an age in which the cosmic powers of darkness are present and those on the side of God suffered by those in control of this world. It is in this world that sin, disease, famine, violence, and death are present and active.

But a view had developed offering a solution to this problem of evil and oppression. This was that an imminent apocalypse is coming and that the Kingdom of God would be ushered in. God will destroy evil and there will be no more despair, war, disease, or death, and the Messiah, sitting at the right hand of God, will judge the dead and the living. God will be the ruler of all, in a kingdom that will never end. This view was one held by many Jews of the first century and would have been familiar to them.

For the apocalypticists there would be vindication. God will intervene on the behalf of his people who are suffering. God is a redeemer and vindication will be universal for all people, not only for the Jews. According to some apocalyptic beliefs, God will send a human messiah to spearhead an army into battle against the forces of evil. Another view is that God will send a cosmic judge of the Earth, sometimes also called the messiah or the “Son of Man.” This figure would bring about a cataclysmic overthrow of the demonic powers.

Finally, there is the notion of imminence basic to Jewish apocalypticism. The vindication of God is believed to happen very soon. The end is almost here and those who do evil need to repent before the end arrives. On the other hand, those who do good and are suffering as a result only need to persevere. Very soon God will send a savior on the clouds of heaven to judge the Earth. As Jesus taught in Mark, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that that kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1).

Jesus’ Apocalyptic Teachings

The apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are broadly attested in the gospels and the sources lying behind them. We find these teachings in the earliest gospel Mark, as well as in Q (the common “source” behind Matthew and Luke), L (unique material behind the Gospel of Luke), and M (unique material behind the Gospel of Matthew). All our earliest sources for Jesus and his teachings present us with an apocalyptic message. From the Gospel of Mark we find several important texts of Jesus predicting an imminent end to history:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in this good news.”(1:15)

“Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels… Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power” (8:38-9:1)

“And in those days, after that affliction, the sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the sky will be shaken; and then they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send forth his angels and he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of earth to the end of heaven. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (13:24-27, 30).

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (13:30).

In Mark 14:62 Jesus proclaims himself to be the Messianic “Son of Man.” He predicts that the high priest will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

We find the following in two texts from Q predicting the coming of the Son of Man:

“For just as the flashing lightning lights up the earth from one part of the sky to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. And just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating, drinking, marrying, and giving away in marriage, until the day that Noah went into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all. So too will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:24; 26-27, 30; cf. Matt. 24:27, 37-39).

“And you, be prepared, because you do not know the hour when the Son of Man is coming” (Luke 12:39; cf. Matt. 24:44).

From M:

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the culmination of the age. The Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom every cause of sin and all who do evil, and they will cast them into the furnace of fire. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun, in the kingdom of their father” (Matt. 13:40-43).  

In the Gospel of Matthew we find more predictions of the imminent coming of the Son of Man:

“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (10:23).

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:43-44).

Further, the parable of the bridesmaids ends with the warning: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).

Finally, from L we have Jesus teaching:

“But take care for yourselves so that your hearts are not overcome with wild living and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and that day come upon you unexpectedly, like a sprung trap.  For it will come to all those sitting on the face of the earth. Be alert at all times, praying to have strength to flee from all these things that are about to take place and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

In these texts, Jesus is teaching that the Kingdom of God will come in power and that the Son of Man will come in glory. Various cosmic signs will accompany the end of the age. Further, everyone needs to be prepared for this hour is soon but unknown. It could happen at any moment. Jesus teaches that not even this generation will pass before these things happen.

Jesus and John the Baptist

Another important tenet illustrating Jesus to have been an apocalyptic prophet is his association with John the Baptist [6]. That Jesus was associated with and baptized by John the Baptist is one of the strongest historical facts concerning Jesus’ ministry. For example, it is independently attested in multiple sources: Mark, Q, and John, and it passes important historical criteria.

John himself was an apocalypticist who preached a message about the coming Kingdom of God. In Q, John proclaims imminent apocalyptic destruction and urges people to repent: “The axe is already laid at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire” (Matt. 3:10; Luke 3:9). Here John is teaching that judgment is imminent: the ax is at the root of the tree. 

This is an image of coming destruction. Those who do not live worthily of God by “bearing good fruit” will be cut down and destroyed by fire. Since the ax is already at the root of the true, the chopping has begun: judgment is here and will soon take place.

And as we know, Jesus is willingly baptized by John. Why? Because he agreed with John’s message. According to Ehrman,

“But what he did instead was go to John the Baptist, a preacher of imminent apocalyptic doom, and join his movement. He associated with an apocalyptic prophet in the wilderness who anticipated the imminent end of the age. That was how Jesus began” [7].

In other words, Jesus decided to begin his ministry on an apocalyptic note. He was an advocate of a Jewish apocalyptic message and was also expecting an imminent judgment by God.

Apocalypticism After Jesus

After the death of Jesus, Jesus’ earliest followers embraced an apocalyptic message [8]. This is found prominently in the letters of the Apostle Paul. For instance, First Thessalonians seeks to resolve the confusion of the Christians in Thessalonica. Paul teaches that the end of the age will soon appear. Jesus will return to judge the Earth and those who believe in him will be given an eternal reward (1 Thess. 4:13-18). However, this end of the age had not yet occurred and some Christians in Thessalonica had died, which led to concern in their church: have those who died lost out on their reward? Paul replies that they haven’t. The dead will be rewarded at the apocalyptic day of judgment and the Thessalonians need only wait for this imminent end (5:1-12). These Christians also believed that the apocalypse was almost here.

Anticipation for this imminent end is also found in First Corinthians 15: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Accordingly, Christians are living at the end of the age and Jesus will very soon return as a cosmic judge of the Earth.

The Beginning and the End Are Keys to the Middle.

Ehrman argues that the “beginning and the end are keys to the middle” [9]. In other words, by looking at the way Jesus began his ministry (by being baptized by the apocalypticist John the Baptist) and what the Christians at the end of Jesus’ ministry believed (in apocalypticism), strongly suggest that Jesus’ teachings during his ministry (the “middle”) must have been apocalyptic too. Ehrman articulates,

“This means that Jesus’ ministry began with his association with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet, and ended with the establishment of the Christian church, a community of apocalyptic Jews who believed in him.  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? My conclusion is that Jesus himself must have been a Jewish apocalypticist… Since Jesus is the link between the two, his message and mission, his words and deeds, must also have been apocalyptic. That is to say, the beginning and end are the keys to the middle” [10].

Jesus’ Apocalyptic Message Muted in Later Gospels

When viewed chronologically, the apocalyptic message found prominently in Mark and Q later begins to fade and become muted in the Gospel of Luke. It is then omitted in the Gospel of John. This toning down of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching would suggest that he taught this but that later gospel writers found it an uncomfortable teaching. Why is Jesus’ earlier apocalyptic message muted in the later gospels? The likely answer is because the apocalypse and the Kingdom of God had not come as anticipated and so the teaching was played down. This leads some scholars to think that Jesus’ teaching on this topic was modified over time.

We can see this muting in Luke. In Mark, when Jesus is trialed before the Sanhedrin, he states to the high priest, “You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). In other words, the end will come and the high priest will see it. But the author of Luke’s gospel, written several years later than Mark, changes this saying to: “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69). Jesus no longer claims that the high priest will be alive when the end comes.

In the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to have been written, there is no coming Kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus teaches eternal life being available in the here and now for believers. The kingdom is present and is not in the future.

In conclusion, that Jesus was an apocalyptic who preached about an imminent apocalypse appears to make the best sense of the data. It makes much sense in light of the apocalyptic background of Jesus’ day and his various teachings in the earliest gospels and their sources. Jesus’ association with John the Baptist, an apocalypticist anticipating the end of the age, is further evidence that Jesus accepted this message.

References

1. Sanders, E. P. 1985. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM Press. p. 91-95; Schweitzer, Albert. 2005. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. United States: Dover Publications; Ehrman, Bart. 2001. Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Yale Courses. 2009. The Historical Jesus. Available; Ehrman, Bart. 2013. Back to Aslan’s Thesis. An Alternative View: Jesus the Apocalypticist. Available.

2. Ehrman, Bart. 2014. Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus Parts 1. Available.

3. O’Neill, Tim. 2018. Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet. Available.

4. Ehrman, Bart. 2016. The Apocalyptic Background to Jesus’ Messiahship. Available.

5. YaleCourses [YouTube] 2009. 13. The Historical Jesus. Available.

6. Ehrman, Bart. 2015a. The Baptism of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Event. Available.

7. Ehrman, Bart. 2015a. Ibid. 

8. Ehrman, Bart. 2015b. The Beginning and End as Keys to the Middle. Available.

9. Ehrman, Bart. 2013. More Evidence that Jesus was an Apocalypticist. Available.

10. Ehrman, Bart. 2013. Ibid.

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