Was Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet? It’s Complicated.

“Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?” has long been a vigorous topic of debate among scholars. This query digs deep into the very essence of Jesus’ teachings and their implications for our understanding of his message.

Some scholars, such as Dale C. Allison, Bart Ehrman, and Albert Schweitzer, present compelling arguments that Jesus believed he was living in the end times. Warning all to repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Based on a thorough analysis of the synoptic gospels within the context of early Christian beliefs and John the Baptist’s teachings, it is highly indicative that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. His message emphasized the urgency of repentance as he firmly believed that the end of the world was imminent and that God was about to bring history to a conclusion.

On the other hand, there are scholars who put forward differing views.

Seeing Jesus not as an apocalyptic prophet.

These scholars focus on the teachings of Jesus that are centred around love, forgiveness, and moral righteousness rather than apocalyptic predictions. Arguing that Jesus’ message was more about ethical living in the present, focusing on the ‘Kingdom of God’ as a state of being rather than a physical location or imminent event.

Such scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Stephen Patterson posit that Jesus was more of a moral philosopher or a spiritual guide than an end-times prophet foretelling eschatological events.

Both sides have a compelling vision of Jesus.

As with many things about Jesus, how we perceive him impacts his relevance to us today.

Before getting into the details and arguments about Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet, we need to clarify a few terms.

What is Eschatology?

Before we can talk about apocalypticism, we need to go bigger picture.

The much broader term, Escatology.

Escatolgoy comes from the Greek word escaton, which means “end.” In a general sense escatolgoy is a set of beliefs about the end of the world.

The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate p.5

Even within this definition is a spectrum of understandings.

From total destruction of the material world to the end of the known world order.

The key is that it is the end of history as we know it.

Sad for those of us who love history but even more for those who experience it.

The key element is this is a “set of beliefs about the end.”

We all hold beliefs about things. But that does not mean with live them out.

More a philosophy than a lifestyle.

What is an Apocalyptic Prophet?

Apocalypticism is a specific type of eschatology.

Often more time focus.

For our discussion, we will again borrow from The Apocalyptic Jesus, A Debate.

(Apocalypticism) envisions the end of history coming soon and brough about by an overpowering divine intervention.

The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate p.6

It is clear from texts like Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 that Jesus had and taught Escatology beliefs.

Apocalyptic Prophet

So we are asking ourselves, did Jesus live and teach that God was about to end history in his lifetime or shortly after?

It is a matter of timing.

And even more critically to understand his life.

Did he act on it?

Did Jesus do things differently because he believed that life as he knew it was about to end?

Did Jesus Predict the End was Soon?

In the gospels, there are a few times when Jesus prophecies about the end.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Mark 9:1

Later, Jesus is even more specific.

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Mark 13:30

Matthew and Luke have similar statements from Jesus.

This saying comes after a lengthy discussion about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Son of Man coming in power and glory.

When he speaks of the end coming and predicts it will happen to those around him or within their generation.

Dale C. Allison, in the Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, lists over a hundred times Jesus spoke of the end. Including many speaking of the end being near.

Of course, there are debates about how to understand these verses, which we will get to.

But keep in mind that Jesus did speak of the end. Predicting it will happen within his generation.

Even as Jesus was being taken to his crucifixion, he spoke these words to women who were crying for him.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’

Luke 23:28, 29

Even as Jesus was approaching his death, he is predicting a coming catastrophe. One so harsh that the women he was speaking to would wish they never had children.

Seeing not only an apocalypse coming but that it would be experienced by the women he was talking to.

The Contemplative Life lists many more of these apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.

Not only did Jesus speak of the coming disaster and the intervention of God, but also the people that surrounded him.

A Chain Linked Together

Jesus: The Link Between Apocalyptic Movements

The next argument that Jesus was an Apocalyptic prophet is his association.

Did those whom Jesus looked up to and followed believe the end was near?

Did those who followed Jesus believe the same?

It is generally accepted that John the Baptist discipled Jesus, or at the very least, baptized him.

John’s opening message was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matt.3:1)

A more thorough study of John’s life, this belief becomes more evident.

John the Baptist appears to be an Apocalyptic. Believing the end was near and acting accordingly.

The Christians who follow are no different.

Paul speaks of those still living when the Lord returns (1 Thess.4:15)

It is hard to read 2 Peter and Revelation and not see the urgency of the end.

Something that is common throughout many of the books of the New Testament. Giving a sense that early first-century Christians believed they were living in the end.

Apocalyptic Prophecy

If those who came after Jesus were apocalyptic.

If the one whom Jesus submitted and followed. So much as to repeat his message at the beginning of his Galilean ministry. (Matt.4:17, Mk.1:15)

It’s hard to say Jesus was not also an apocalyptic prophet.

But there are those who have given much thought a study to this thought and say no.

Jesus was not an apocalyptic Prophet.

Scholars Who Don’t Believe Jesus Was a Apocalyptic Prophet

Some of the more well-known scholars who believe that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet are.

  • Marcus Borg
  • John Dominic Crossan
  • Stephen Patterson
  • Robert Funk
  • Richard Horsley

Many of them see Jesus speaking less of a coming kingdom, but God’s kingdom is already here.

They, along with many other scholars, have their reasons to think not.

A common approach is simply denying that Jesus said such things.

Which is exactly what the scholars of the Jesus seminar did.

When voting on the authenticity of Mark 9:1. 14 of the 27 participants voted Jesus did not speak it.

But rather is written by the early church, crediting it to Jesus.

An approach being done much more in-depth with the entire Q sources. Dating text with Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings as being later. Not coming from Jesus himself but rather from the early apocalyptic church.

Or even without voting on the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus. Jesus as an apocalyptic is not presented in John or the Gospel of Thomas. Bart Ernman has a theory about that, but it is part of the argument.

Along similar lines, Stephen Patterson argues and accurately so. That “earliest Jesus tradition is not homogenous.” (The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate p.143).

Removing the argument that the followers of Jesus were all apocalyptic. Maybe the lines from Revelation and Thessalonians only represent some early Christians’s beliefs. That there were others who did not.

He also raises the question of failure. If the first Christians believed that the end was imminent. Why is there not more literature dealing with the crisis of confidence when it doesn’t happen?

Unless it wasn’t predominant in early Christian beliefs.

In The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate, Patterson points out that, the Mandaeans, modern-day followers of John the Baptist. View him as a “descending/ascending redeemer, not an apocalyptic prophet.

Both undercutting the argument that Jesus was part of a chain of apocalypse.

Leaving you wondering if our texts aren’t accurate and understanding of the people before and after Jesus are different than we first thought.

Was Jesus not an apocalyptic prophet?

Scholars Who Believe Jesus Was an Apocalyptic Prophet

Many scholars will claim they are in the majority of thought.

Those who view Jesus as an Apocalyptic prophet are no different.

Apocalypse

“The largest divide today is between the view that Jesus was a Cynic-type wisdom teacher and the view that he was an eschatological prophet. The latter remains the majority view,”

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels p.33

But there are many current historians who hold Jesus to be an apocalypse.

  • Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus
  • Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium
  • Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet
  • Maurice Casey; Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching
  • James D.G. Dunn; Jesus Remembered
  • Klaus Koch
  • E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus
  • Paula Fredricksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
  • John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate
  • John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2
  • Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God
  • Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
  • Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

This movement was started by Johannes Weiss in 1892, when he proposed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in his book Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

It did not gain much traction till Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. A book I highly recommend to those interested in knowing the history of the historical Jesus.

While reviewing the many books and views about the historical Jesus, Schweitzer proposed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.

Soon, it became the dominant view among scholars.

It has lost some of its popularity in recent years but is still advocated by many.

Two of the most prominent apologists that Jesus was an apocalypse are Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison.

There are variations between scholars, but most who hold Jesus to be an Apocalyptic prophet do so because of the many sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The logic is that if John the Baptist was, the early Christians were. Jesus must be, too.

Dale Allision, while admitting it doesn’t account for everything about Jesus’ life and teaching.

Jesus’ many sayings are explained best in the context of end-time prophecy.

Jesus’ high demands on his followers and the urgency of the moment also fit well with a view of limited time remaining.

In regards to the dating of the texts, Bart Erhman sees it as the exact opposite of the Jesus seminar.

As time goes by, the gospels’ writers are toning done the urgency and apocalyptic nature of Jesus’ saying.

A good example is from Jesus’ trial.

Mark records Jesus telling 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).

Mark 14:62

Many scholars consider Mark to be our earliest written gospel.

But in the same scene in Luke, Jesus responds as such.

“from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God”

Luke 22:69

The change goes from Mark having Jesus tell the High Preist that he will personally see the Son of Man coming. A key event in many Jewish apocalyptic prophecies.

But with Luke, the Son of Man is only exalted. Not part of the climatic end of the world.

The debate regarding whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet can be intricate and influenced by personal biases.

And as we see with interpreting text. Bart Ehrman and Marcus Borg have the same text in front of them but see a much different Jesus.

There are a great deal of good scholars who hold to the view that Jesus was an apocalypse.

But there are many equally learned who see Jesus much differently.

Maybe the key thought is what does it matter to us.

What are the benefits and disadvantages of seeing Jesus as an Apocalyptic prophet?

Positive Aspects of Jesus as an Apocalypse Prophet

I don’t feel that many historians or theologians begin here, but they should land here.

Why would we want an Apocalyptic founder of our religion?

There are problems with this view, but there are benefits.

A big takeaway that Allison points out is his humanity.

“Much of the popular Christianity I have know seems to think that Jesus was at least three-fourths divinity, no more than one quarter human being.”

The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate p.148

I agree 110% with this, and is one of the driving reasons for this blog.

So many “Christians” seem to miss that takeaway. A frail man. A human with all our weaknesses, blinders and limitations.

A Jesus who lived as if the world was to end. Didn’t know it all. He didn’t know that we would still be here, but from his limited knowledge and his understanding of the scriptures, he made an assumption.

Was it right?

Maybe. Maybe not. But he made that call from his limited knowledge. Just like all of us have to do every day.

Living out his conviction, as he felt were right. He looked to God to act because he was limited in what he could do.

An apocalyptic Jesus represents a man looking to God to act.

A key pillar of Jewish apocalypse vision is dependency on God.

Jesus didn’t live a self-made life. That by his strength, cunning and resourcefulness, he would change the world.

No, Jesus lived knowing that God would have to act to really change things.

Yes, he had a role which is often missed when we think of an apocalyptic prophet. But it was because he believed that the end was near.

He longed to gather Jerusalem under his wings, but she wouldn’t. Therefore, her end was nigh.

But within the context of the coming destruction of his homeland, he went to Jerusalem to do his part.

God must act, but he must, too.

An apocalyptic Jesus is also a man focused on the will of God.

He did not preach what would draw a crowd. He did not work miracles to increase his fame.

Jesus knew it all was fleeting. But doing the will of God would bring him through the apocalypse. Even if death took him.

And maybe that is the greatest encouragement to us.

Many of us are born in the wrong time and place. There are many things that are just not right in our lives.

Or looking out for those who truly are disadvantaged.

Allison commented of the 5-year-old dying of cancer.

That is wrong. How could someone so young be robbed of life and all that it has to offer? Or whatever catastrophe overtakes us.

But we can draw hope and encouragement from a man who was also robbed of long life of pleasure. For Jesus faced the end with grace, and we can, too.

But there are drawbacks.

Things that tarnish the picture of Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet.

Problems of Jesus Being an Apocalyptic Prophet

The biggest and most obvious is.

He got it wrong!

Jesus believed that the world was about to end. That God was about to intervene and end history as we know it.

AND.

It didn’t happen.

Jesus lived and died believing the world was about to end. His disciples did the same, but we are still here 2,000+ years later.

Some can merely blow it off as Collins does.

“But I still think Jesus expected God to intervene in history, that he was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic views of his day,” Collins said. “It doesn’t bother me that things didn’t work out as he thought.”

Adela Yarbro Collins of Notre Dame

But for many, it is a deal breaker.

If Jesus got the end of the world wrong.

What else did he get wrong?

It is something to wrestle with.

Others like Marcus Borg fear that

“the apocalyptic Jesus provides no warrant for seeking to transfrom the world; rather the transformation will occur only through the apocalyptic act of God”

The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate p.155

Leaving Christians doing nothing.

End of the world

He also comments about how irrelevant an apocalyptic Jesus is to our current times. As he does not fit in or have anything to offer for our times and struggles.

All valid points.

One response is to reinterpret.

Re-Interpretation of Jesus Being an Apocalyptic Prophet

There are not many scholars who fall into this camp.

Most either affirm that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or something else entirely.

A mystic healer, a cynic, a wise sage or any number of possible paradigms for understanding Jesus, just not apocalyptic.

N.T. Wright is one such exception.

He proposes in Jesus and the Victory of God that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Preaching about the end, believing that it was near.

But that we are misunderstanding what he meant.

That the “end of the age” is fulfilled in Jesus.

Not that the space-time matter of the world being destroyed. But that in Jesus, everything changes.

Similar to many of John Dominic Crossan’s thoughts regarding the understanding of texts in a metaphysic way. True, but not real. It happened, but not in a literal sense. 

Conclusion

I am uncomfortable with my conclusion, but we must follow the evidence.

Using Accom’s razor, the simplest explanation is the best.

Reading the gospels, you can easily see that Jesus both acted and taught that the end of the world was at hand.

Jesus Semiar and the like, with their dating and voting sayings as inauthentic, can be done to remove the apocalypse nature of his message, but that feels more like injustice and manipulating the evidence to frame the results you want than following the evidence.

Marcus Borg is right in pointing out that the early Christians were diverse. However, he does not provide any evidence that in this diversity, there are Christian sects that did not believe that the end was near. That God was about to act in history.

On the other end.

If you gathered all the sayings of John the Baptist and had to choose. Between apocalyptic saying or not.

Most are.

Jesus went to be baptized by an apocalyptic prophet, calling in the wilderness to make the paths straight, for the kingdom of God was bursting into history.

The Mandaeans’ beliefs are interesting, but 2,000 years probably changed them too.

Our sources, closer to the time, record an apocalyptic mentor of Jesus.

As I said, I am uncomfortable with calling Jesus an apocalyptic prophet.

I am uncomfortable for many of the reasons of those who say the is not.

If Jesus said, the end was to come within a generation. Clearly, he was wrong. Not only has 1 generation passed, but many.

What do we do with this?

I have no satisfactory answer.

I agree with Marcus Borg that an apocalyptic worldview. Waiting for God to intervene to right all wrongs leaves us doing nothing.

What kind of Christian community does nothing to right the injustices of this world?

Or improve the lives of those around them?

Because they believe that nothing can be done as it is all doomed to destruction. The only thing to do is wait for God to intervene.

It is fatalistic to a fault.

As he saw the end rapidly approaching. What did he do?

Did not advocate for better laws or improved agriculture practices for the Galileens would live better lives. NO!

He is also right about relevance.

In a rapidly improving world. Where we are living longer, enjoying more material blessings than ever before.

What do we need, an apocalyptic prophet of doom?

Albert Schweitzer was right that he refuses to stay in our time and slips back into his.

“The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring Him straight into our time as a Teacher and Savior. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed, to meet it. But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to His own. What surprised and dismayed the theology of the last forty years was that, despite all forced and arbitrary interpretations, it could not keep Him in our time, but had to let Him go. He returned to his own time, not owing to the application of any historical ingenuity, but by the same inevitable necessity by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position.”

Albert Schweitzer, book The Quest of the Historical Jesus Source: The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), p. 397

But no matter if I like it or not.

I think that the apocalyptic crowd is probably right.

Fitting together over 100 pieces of evidence, the picture becomes clear.

Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Seeing the end was near, he called people into the kingdom of God so that they may be saved from the coming judgement. Not living for this world but the coming one that God would bring soon.

However, this is not a settled matter between scholars.

Much time and thought has gone into the debate, but many of us are still left wondering.

Was Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet?

Reading The Apocalyptic Jesus A Debate as I did will help clarify the debate in your mind. Or at least help to know what the conversation is about.

Reading one of the many books written by scholars about Jesus’ life. In particular, those who believe Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.

It really is a question of what paradigm best fits Jesus.

We all have peculiarities that will not fit a stereotype, but often, one will explain most of our worldviews and actions.

The same could possibly be said about Jesus.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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