Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Dr. Neil Shenvi comments on Bart Ehrman’s hypothesis that Jesus was a “failed apocalyptic prophet”.

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

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.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] 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.

[…]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.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

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).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

5 thoughts on “Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman”

  1. The apocalyptic Jesus is not Bart Ehrman’s hypothesis, since there were scholars before him who pointed out the evidence for such a view, there were even three scholars during the Enlightenment who pointed out the evidence for such a view. And Dale Allison has defended the view in more works than Ehrman has. The apocalyptic Jesus is widely recognized as a totally valid historical Jesus interpretation. Apocalyptic passages occur in both Mark and Q, as Allison points out.

    1. Ed,
      Are there really evangelicals who deny that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet? I thought that the non-apocalyptic view came entirely from liberal circles like the Jesus seminar.

      Anyway, the issue is not whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, but whether he was a *failed* apocalyptic prophet. To answer that question, we have to decide what he predicted about the timing of the end of the world, which is what I do in this essay.

  2. I suppose I’m one of those liberals who sees the prophecies of Jesus as ex-post facto explanations meant to reassure those who had recently experienced the destruction of both the Temple and Jerusalem. I believe that event was a major reason Mark wrote his gospel. The descriptions in Mark 13 could almost have been lifted from a back-cover blurb for Josephus’ “Jewish War”. The way you split the coming of the time of troubles from the coming of the Son of Man is both a really perceptive insight, and darn near lawyerly in the way you split the hairs of the text. That is not meant as criticism or disparagement. It’s just with texts we have to ask how subtle the author’s thoughts actually were. I believe the author of Mark was that subtle (in places, at least), and could have made that distinction.

    However, I am predisposed to accept your thesis because, while I believe the theme of the Kingdom was part of Jesus’ teaching, I am not at all convinced he was talking about the end of the world. I think that was added later, as a result of the Jewish War, and its “failure” is why we find almost no trace of apocalyptic thinking in John’s gospel.

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