- Great swaths of agreement
- Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
- Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
- Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
- Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?
Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
In the last section, I dealt with the issue of Jesus self-identity: did Jesus claim to be divine, or did he merely see himself as a prophet? I argued that even using Ehrman’s methodology and only considering a small subset of Jesus’ teachings, we have good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7, the divine judge of all humanity.
In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine. So what did Jesus believe about the end of the world and the coming Son of Man?
Before we can answer this question, we need to consider how background beliefs can affect our historiography. Most non-evangelical scholars including Ehrman date the gospels’ composition to between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death: “Mark… was between the mid-60s and early 70s. Matthew and Luke were… perhaps around 80 or 85. John was written perhaps… 90 to 95” (p. 48). In contrast, evangelicals tend to place the gospels earlier; many would put Mark, Matthew, and Luke within 35 years of Jesus’ death. At first glance, these differences don’t seem huge, but they have a tremendous impact on how we view Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching because of a major event which took place in 70 A.D.: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
If we accept early dates, then all three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) predate the destruction of Jerusalem. As a consequence, neither Matthew nor Luke knew for certain whether Jerusalem would be destroyed or whether the end of the world would shortly follow when they wrote their gospels. However, if we accept the later dates, then we must immediately question the motives of Matthew and Luke, since they were writing after the temple’s destruction while Mark was writing prior. For example, Ehrman says “It’s a relatively simple business, then, to see how the earlier traditions of Mark fared later in the hands of Luke… some of the earlier apocalyptic emphases begin to be muted” (p. 130). We can now see how background beliefs about the dating of the gospels will impact our reading of, for instance, the Olivet Discourse. Evangelicals, who often accept earlier dates, (and non-scholars who simply take the Bible at face value) tend to read the Synoptic accounts as complementary descriptions of Jesus’ teaching. But non-evangelical scholars, who tend to accept later dates, will have reasons to seriously question the objectivity of Matthew and Luke. This is just one example of how prior beliefs and methodology can dramatically affect our reading of the text.
That being said, I propose again to try to adopt Ehrman’s methodology by considering only Mark’s version of the Olivet Discourse, the most important and lengthy of Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Son of Man. Even if we confine ourselves to the earliest gospel which, in Ehrman’s opinion, has the most stark apocalyptic predictions, do we see Jesus prophesying that the end of the world would come within a few decades of his death? I don’t think so. I will offer an alternative which I think is the most historically plausible even in the absence of any theological considerations. Of course, if we believe that the Bible is inspired, we obviously do not need to confine ourselves to Mark’s gospel; we can also ask what the rest of the Bible says about the chronology of the end of the world. But since these kinds of arguments will be irrelevant to skeptics, I’ll try to examine this issue from as non-theological a perspective as possible.
Let me first quote the most relevant portions of the Olivet Discourse and then provide three pieces of evidence that I think make it unlikely that Jesus foresaw the world ending within the lifetime of his disciples. Crucially, the Olivet discourse begins with Jesus’ disciples commenting on the beauty of the temple. In response, Jesus makes a startling announcement: “”Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). Jesus’ disciples then ask him privately: “when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” His answer references a number of signs of this destruction: “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines (v 7-8).”, “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (v.10) “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
After a few more predictions, Jesus makes the following statements, which I will quote at length:
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Verse 30 is key in supporting Ehrman’s contention that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Obviously, Jesus’ prophesy of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple within a generation of his death is not a problem because both of those events occurred as Jesus predicted. Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian, recounts the four-year war in his work The Jewish War which culminated in the horrific five-month siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Instead, the difficulty comes in events which seem to relate the end of the entire world, particularly those described in v. 24-27 (“the sun will be darkened”, “the Son of Man coming” “gather his elect”). Since no such cosmic events occurred in 70 A.D. or shortly thereafter, Ehrman concludes that this part of Jesus’ prophesy failed.
However, I will argue in this section that Jesus’ prophesy in the Olivet Discourse did not fail. The key to my argument is understanding the phrase ‘all these things’ in v. 29-30 to refer only to the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem, not to the end of the world which Jesus said would occur “after that tribulation” (v. 24). I’ll advance three arguments in support of this idea.
First, notice that Jesus’ use in v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.
As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.
I can think of two possible responses to this first argument. One could argue that Jesus’ repetition of Peter’s phrase does not require that both Jesus and Peter used ‘these things…all these things’ to refer to the same event. While Peter used it to refer to the temple’s destruction, perhaps Jesus used it differently. While that is possible, I don’t think it is the best explanation. In biblical exegesis, in the interpretation of legal documents, or in everyday speech, we tend to take deliberate repetition of key phrases as prima facie evidence that a questioner and speaker have the same referent. I see no reason to treat this case differently.
Alternatively, we might appeal to Matthew’s (but not Luke’s) version of the Olivet Discourse to show that Peter did have the “end of the age” (Matthew 24:3) in mind when he asked his question. While -as an evangelical- I agree with this principle, we’re now forced back to a question of methodology. The full verse in Matthew’s gospel records Peter asking Jesus: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). If we accept this statement as historical to show that Peter was asking about the end of the world, we must also accept that he believed Jesus to be the Son of Man, contrary to Ehrman’s thesis. For our methodology to be consistent, we cannot simply accept some statements solely because they help advance a particular theory and discard others solely because they conflict with it. So if we confine ourselves to Mark’s gospel, it makes more sense to affirm that Jesus is presented as answering Peter’s question about the timing of the destruction of Jerusalem, which would foreshadow -but not necessarily immediately precede- the end of the world.
Second, the timing of the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man seem to be different in whether they can be foreknown. For example, Jesus assumes that his statements will give his followers ample warning of the destruction of the temple: when they see the ‘abomination of desolation’ they are to ‘flee to the mountains’ (v. 14) for those days will witness “such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now” (v. 19). All of these statements indicate that the timing of the destruction of the temple can be known sufficiently far in advance that Christians should be able to avoid the devastation. In contrast, Jesus states that the time of the Son of Man’s coming cannot be known in advance. He insists, “you do not know when the time will come” (v. 34) and “stay awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come” (v. 35). Most starkly, Jesus says: “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v 32). This saying clearly passes the criterion of dissimilarity, since the early Christians -who worshipped Jesus as God- would hardly have imagined him professing ignorance as to when the Son of Man will return!
With regards to these observations, two related points can be made. First, if Jesus really meant to predict the coming of the Son of Man within “this generation” (v 30), it is surprising that he denied knowing “the day or the hour” (v. 32) just two verses later. Second, if Jesus believed that the coming of the Son of Man would occur immediately after the fall of Jerusalem and tribulation worse than any the world had ever seen, it seems extremely odd for him to tell his disciples to “stay awake” because “they do know when the master of the house will come” (v. 34) or to compare his arrival to a “thief” who comes when people are “not expecting” (Lk. 12:39-40/Matt. 43-44, which Ehrman cites approvingly on p. 160-161).
One response to this second argument is presumably to suggest that while Jesus did not claim to know the exact day or hour of the end of the world, he nonetheless claimed to know that it would occur within ‘this generation.’ Interestingly, Ehrman himself seems to ridicule this very idea in the first chapter of his book, when recounting the story of Edgar Whisenant, who was “unfazed by Jesus’ words [that the day and hour cannot be known” and responded that he “had not predicted ‘the day and hour’ of the end, just the week” (p. 5). Most evangelicals -myself included- would agree with Ehrman’s reasoning here: Jesus was not merely saying that we can’t know the day with certainty, but that we can’t know the timing in any sense with certainty. But if Jesus really did deny having knowledge of the timing of the end in any sense, wouldn’t this statement apply not just to the ‘day and hour’ but to the ‘week’, ‘year’ and even ‘generation’?
Jesus’ likening the end of the world to a ‘thief’ whose coming the disciples cannot predict also seems incompatible with him predicting the end of the world within a generation. Given that Jesus predicted a horrific tribulation (which presumably corresponded to the 1.1 million Jews slaughtered -according to Josephus- by the Roman army after the siege of Jerusalem), it seems unlikely that he would need to warn his disciples to ‘stay awake.’ This admonition makes far more sense if Jesus saw the destruction of Jerusalem as a necessary sign that would precede the coming of the Son of Man at some unspecified future time, thus necessitating the warnings to ‘stay awake’ and ‘be on guard.’
Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.
One immediate response to this final argument is that while “these things” might refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem, “all these things” could still refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. But if we return to Peter’s question which opened this passage (v. 4), we see that he used both of these phrases to refer to only one event: the destruction of the temple. Although it’s possible that Jesus decided to make a distinction that Peter did not make, I think it’s more plausible that he used the terms in the same way Peter did.
The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).
But what of Jesus’ claim that the Son of Man was “near” and “standing at the door”? And what about the other apocalyptic preaching that Ehrman cites in Chapter 8? Isn’t it clear that Jesus viewed God’s judgment as imminent? As a matter of fact, I absolutely agree that Jesus saw God’s judgment as imminent! But here, I think we can turn to Ehrman himself for a good explanation of this aspect of Jesus’ teaching.
According to Ehrman, Jesus taught that the Son of Man would rule over God’s Kingdom, where sin, disease, sorrow, injustice, oppression and death itself would all be defeated. This Kingdom would be come in the future, at the end of the age, when the Son of Man came to judge humanity. But, says Ehrman, this is not the whole story. In a powerful passage, he writes:
“In the Kingdom there would be no more war. Jesus’ disciples were not to engage in acts of violence . In the Kingdom there would be no more poverty. Jesus’ disciples were to give away all they had and give to the poor now. In the Kingdom there would be no more oppression or injustice – Jesus’ disciples were to treat all people equally and fairly now– even the lowest classes, the outcasts, the destitute; even women and children. In the Kingdom there would be no more hatred. Jesus’ disciples were to be living examples of God’s love now, giving of themselves completely in the service of others. The ways Jesus’ disciples were to live in the present in preparation for the coming Son of Man reflected life as it would be when the Kingdom fully arrived. They had not, obviously, yet begun to experience the Kingdom in its fullness. But they had experienced a foretaste of the glories that law ahead… In a small way -a very small way- they had begun to see what it would be life when God once and for all established his Kingdom on earth.” (p. 181)
Now we see why Jesus taught that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent; it was imminent in precisely the same way that the coming of the Kingdom was imminent. In the positive sense, Jesus’ followers were to live in light of the coming kingdom. Its arrival was certain; therefore, all people must radically reorient their lives according to its values. They were to live in confident expectation of its arrival. They were to believe or ‘trust in’ the good news of God’s kingdom. But the necessary corollary of Jesus’ message was repentance. Jesus called all people repent in light of the coming of the Son of Man, the king of God’s kingdom. His arrival was certain; therefore, all people must radically reorient their lives according to His values. They were to live in confident expectation of his arrival. They were to repent or turn away from their sin and ask for God’s mercy. Ehrman gives us the key to understanding the imminence of God’s judgment that Jesus preached. The judge is standing at the door in the sense that He may arrive at any moment, whether “in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning” (Mark 13:35). Whether his arrival is near or far in temporal terms, we are to live each day with the knowledge that He is close at hand.
In conclusion, even if we accept Ehrman’s methodology, I do not think we need to characterize Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet. While he certainly preached of God’s imminent judgment, his warnings had the same “already/not yet” character as his declaration of God’s kingdom. Those who accepted Jesus’ teaching entered the Kingdom, both in the present and when it would come in its fullness at the end of time. Those who rejected his teaching, stood under the judgment of the Son of Man and would one day experience his wrath. Until then, Jesus’ message to all people was and is “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.”