Jesus as an Apocalyptic (Oracular) Prophet: Schweitzer, Sanders, Casey, & Ehrman
If Jesus' mentor was eschatological, and Jesus' followers were eschatological, it would seem logical to suppose that Jesus was eschatological.
Within this section, we will examine key scholars that have emphasised Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. These scholars all tend to bring a fairly literal interpretation to the apocalyptic elements of Jesus' ministry, and see Jesus as a prophet proclaiming, and expecting, the imminent end of the world. We will begin by examining the work of Albert Schweitzer, who is the single greatest impetus for this perspective, and then will comment on the works of E.P Sanders, P.M. Casey, and, most recently, Bart Ehrman. Finally this section will conclude by critically reflecting on the contributions of these scholars.
Albert Schweitzer: Jesus the Failed Apocalyptic Prophet
Albert Schweitzer believed that Jesus understood himself to be the final prophet before the cataclysmic in-breaking of the kingdom of God that would bring about the end of the world. Based on the fact that the Synoptics only recount Jesus going to one Passover in Jerusalem, Schweitzer argues that Jesus' ministry lasted only one year. He argues that Jesus was baptised by John in the Spring, and expected the kingdom of God to arrive at harvest time. From this perspective, Jesus sees his prophetic call to repentance as sowing the seeds that will ripen into the final harvest. Thus, Jesus sends out his disciples and expects the kingdom of God to arrive when they come back. Yet the kingdom fails to come and this is a critical turning point for Jesus. When the disciples return, he departs from the crowds and awaits the kingdom “… in vain”. At this point, Schweitzer argues, Jesus realises that he must prophetically take on the suffering that would act as the birth pains of the new age — “[Jesus'] death must at last compel the coming of the kingdom”. And so Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die, expecting to be immediately raised to life along with all of the dead in the final resurrection. Yet even here, Jesus fails. Thus, Schweitzer concludes, “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus”. Jesus, the apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the world, was gravely mistaken and failed in his task.
E.P. Sanders: Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet of Israel's Restoration
Schweitzer's view has had a lasting impact upon New Testament scholarship, and it is picked up and developed in the monumental work of Ed Sanders. Sanders follows Schweitzer and argues Jesus expected an imminent end to the age, and thus Jesus functioned as an eschatological prophet calling for the final renewal of Israel. Thus: “Jesus looked for the imminent direct intervention of God in history, the elimination of evil and evildoers, the building of a new glorious temple, and the reassembly of Israel with himself and his disciples as leading figures in it”. From this perspective, Sanders stresses that Jesus must not be understood as a social reformer but as an eschatological prophet, whose message cannot be reduced to a sociological construct, for it is too oriented towards an imminent futurity. Jesus expectations were primarily focused upon an other-worldly in-breaking. He saw himself as “God's last messenger” before the new order was created through a mighty act of God. Thus, Sanders follows Schweitzer and argues that Jesus was mistaken. Jesus is not unique as an apocalyptic prophet, but he ends up being unique because of the ongoing impact of his life and work.
Sanders differs from Schweitzer because he roots Jesus within a Jewish restoration movement, and not within the context of a global cataclysm. Furthermore, he prefers to rely on historical “facts” (such as the baptism by John, the calling of the twelve, and the outburst in the Temple), versus Schweitzer's reliance on, what Sanders calls, “dubious texts”. The “fact” that the Christian community, shortly after the death of Jesus, still espoused an eschatological perspective, and held on to apocalyptic expectations, further supports Sanders' thesis. It is these “facts” that lead Sanders to argue that “prophet” is the best type to apply to Jesus, rather than “charismatic” or “magician”. Therefore, Jesus was a “charismatic and autonomous prophet” and a “radical eschatologist” calling for the final restoration of Israel. In all of this, Sanders paints a rather unique picture of Jesus as a prophet because he removes the notion of repentance from Jesus' prophetic message. Jesus does not issue a national call for repentance, John had already done this, and so Jesus freely offers restoration to the rejects within Israel.
P.M. Casey: Jesus the Apocalyptic Renewal Prophet calling for Repentance
P.M. Casey follow closely on the heals of Schweitzer and Sanders and argues that Jesus was acting out of the prophetic conviction that he was to bring Israel back to God as the final messenger to bring the good news before the kingdom of God burst into history. Jesus saw his ministry as the final in-gathering of the flock of Israel. The main point of difference between Casey and Sanders is that Casey emphasises that the return of Israel to YHWH is premised upon repentance, and he therefore argues that Jesus prophetic call is a call to repent and return to YHWH. Casey also further emphasis the type of prophetic renewal that Jesus embodied — a renewal wherein Israel returned to God as Father, a renewal that centred on healings, and was marked by a concern for the poor.
Bart Ehrman: Jesus the Misguided first century Apocalypticist
Finally, we come to Bart Ehrman who is recently gaining notoriety for almost completely resurrecting Schweitzer's portrait of Jesus. Ehrman argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet expecting the imminent end of the world. He argues that, on one hand, Jesus began his ministry associated with John, who was an apocalyptic prophet expecting the end of the world, and, on the other hand, the early Christian communities and early Christian tradition were quite apocalyptic. Therefore, with these apocalyptic bookends, Jesus must have been a “Jewish apocalypticist”. Jesus expected an imminent universal judgement upon all people and all institutions. Thus, he was an essentially misguided apocalyptic prophet, and Ehrman argues that the primary reason why this historical presentation of Jesus is rejected is because people desire a more relevant Jesus.
What then are we to make of the apocalyptic prophet Jesus presented by these scholars? To begin with, these scholars must be commended for desiring to locate Jesus within the context of first century Palestine and Second Temple Judaism. They are right to emphasis that Jesus was a prophet, and they are also correct to draw a close correlation between the prophetic and the apocalyptic and eschatological. The Jesus presented by these scholars is more thoroughly historical and Jewish than the Jesus of the preceding liberal tradition or the Jesus presented by much of the orthodox Christian tradition as well.
However, there are at least four areas where this approach to Jesus as apocalyptic prophet is problematic. The first has to do with the definition that these scholars give to “apocalyptic”. Tom Wright cogently argues that apocalyptic, within Second Temple Judaism, had very little to do with a cataclysmic end to the space-time universe. Wright argues, convincingly, that apocalyptic denotes a particular visionary form of literature and speech that discloses states of affairs not ordinarily made known to humans. Apocalyptic is used to refer to events within Israel's history in order to invest them with their full significance. Thus, to read apocalyptic sayings in a “crassly literalistic” manner is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of apocalyptic, which tends towards cataclysmic imagery in order to reveal the magnitude of an event that remains thoroughly this-worldly. It is true that apocalyptic is full of dualities (between the present age and the age to come, between God and creation, between good and evil) but these dualities do not posit a duality between matter and spirit, as if all matter is evil and must be destroyed. Thus, all the events of apocalyptic language remain grounded in time and space and we can conclude with Wright that: “there is no justification for seeing 'apocalyptic' as necessarily speaking of the 'end of the world' in a literally cosmic sense”.
Secondly, we must note that the apocalyptic Jesus presented by these scholars is quite apolitical, and this is largely due to the emphasis upon the total futurity of Jesus' eschatology. Here the kingdom of God is coming, it is not yet present. However, this understanding of Jesus' prophetic ministry must be challenged, in part because apocalyptic, properly understood, was quite political. The apocalyptic form was favoured by those who “[found] themselves on the wrong side of history” and it is written cryptically so that it can pass by the authorities, thereby functioning as “the subversive literature of oppressed groups”. Thus, apocalyptic does not look for the end of the cosmos, it looks for the end of the present world order. From this perspective it must be said that Sanders, and those like Casey who follow him closely, have a far too narrow understanding of politics. Sanders argues for an apolitical Jesus because Jesus was not planing “to liberate and restore Israel by defeating the Romans and establishing an autonomous government”. Be that as it may, there are far more ways to be political, as we will discover when we explore the notion of Jesus as a social prophet.
Thirdly, we must question the form-critical methodology preferred by these scholars. Because the historical Jesus posited by these scholars differs so strongly from the Christian faith tradition (that tends to appeal to the Gospels as they exist today), these scholars posit various layers of redaction that must be peeled back in order to get to the true Jesus. However, the process for discerning what parts of the Gospels are genuine, and what parts are later additions, remains difficult and rather arbitrary. One wonders whether Sanders “facts” are any more solid than the “dubious” texts that he cuts out and discards.
Fourthly, because these scholars desire to build a Jesus of history that is not only different from, but also antagonistic to, the Christ of faith, the Jesus that is presented here is certainly no less than a prophet (albeit a failed one), but he is just as certainly no more than a prophet. This Jesus has little to do with Christological claims of divinity. When all such claims, and all such material is excluded a priori one wonders how accurate a portrait of Jesus can be presented. At the end of the day, these scholars should be commended for their desire to find a Jesus different than the Jesus that twentieth century Westerners are comfortable with, and for providing us with some helpful insights into Second Temple Judaism. Beyond that one should be rather cautious of their understanding of Jesus and first century apocalyptic prophets.
Finally it is worth noting how various elements of this portrait of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet have implicitly or explicitly impacted the present day charismatic prophetic movement. This movement is also largely apolitical, and is also often marked by the expectation of the imminent cataclysmic end of the world. Due to these things the contemporary charismatic prophetic movement would do well to listen to voices from the next group of scholars, to which we now turn.
Jesus as an Apocalyptic (Oracular) Prophet: Schweitzer, Sanders, Casey, & Ehrman