Monday, 12 September 2011

A Man Of His Time

In the last two posts I explained, ever so briefly, why I came to believe that Jesus issued a failed prophecy.  He was wrong, and so were many of the New Testament's writers

But where did Jesus get these (seemingly) crazy ideas?  He got them from the same place that most of us, still today, get some of our "crazy ideas" from...surrounding culture.  Jesus was a "man of his time", and his worldview grew directly out of the "Jewish apocalyptic context" of his day.

Let's back up a little, to before Jesus came onto the scene...

"Israel was a small nation caught between powerful empires to the north and the south...As a result the Promised Land was constantly under attack...During these periods of intense suffering, prophets such as Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel interpreted Israel's plight as Yahweh's punishment for their sins...Implicit and explicit in the prophetic interpretation of Israel's plight was the belief that if Yahweh's people repented of the worship of other gods, turned from their injustices, and served Yahweh their God with total devotion, then Yahweh would restore them to their land and establish them as preeminent among the nations...

The problem is that the prophets were wrong.  The Jewish people did turn from their wicked ways.  They did obey the law and devote themselves wholly to the worship of Yahweh (see Ezra for example).  But nothing happened.  Yes, they were returned to their land, but the land was never restored to their control.  One century turned into two centuries, two centuries into three, and so on.  Israel continued to be dominated by significantly more powerful nations, and their suffering continued unabated...The apocalyptic worldview was a way of interpreting the reality of Israel's suffering.  In this sense, apocalyptic was a theodicy.

...The question was, 'How can Yahweh be just when his covenant people are suffering?'  The old answer was that Yahweh's covenant people were suffering for their sins.  But now they had repented, and their suffering continued.  The apocalyptic worldview developed as an answer to that question.  'It was not because God was punishing them.  Quite the contrary, it was because the enemies of God were punishing them.'"

And a few paragraphs later...

"Another way to put the matter is that apocalyptic asserted that Yahweh's righteousness would be vindicated when he intervened to deliver Israel from its undeserved afflictions.  The 'morally sufficient reason for the divine sufferance of evil' is thus that the end will be restorative.  The most important thing to be stressed with regard to this theodicy, however, is that in order for its logic to be sustained, the end that justified the means had to be conceived of as imminent.  If Israel was to continue suffering, world without end, Yahweh's righteousness would not be vindicated.  Yahweh's righteousness was expected to be displayed in the fact that he could not suffer the suffering of his people for very long."  (Both of these quotes come from a book that I have already endorsed rather enthusiastically, "The Human Faces Of God", by Thom Stark)

This is the world that Jesus was born into. 

I closed my last post with two questions, namely "What was He thinking?" and "Who was Jesus?".  With the above, by way of background, I'd now like to take a stab at both of these questions (in reverse order)...

Who Was Jesus?

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer did what few scholars have done before him, or since...he re-directed the course of an entire field of study.  Schweitzer argued, in his monograph, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus", that Jesus was an apocalypticist.  Although he was not the first scholar to suggest this about Jesus, Schweitzer was certainly the most influential, and this view has since carried the day (among Bible scholars) for much of the twentieth century.  There isn't complete unanimity, of course (is such a thing even realistic?), and it should also be noted that no one today agrees with Schweitzer's particular reconstruction of Jesus' message and mission.  No one today agrees with Darwin's particular reconstruction either, but he was still "right", in a more general (and important) sense, and so was Schweitzer.

In fact, it occurs to me that Schweitzer and Darwin had one very key thing in common, they both let the evidence speak for itself.  Throughout the course of my investigations, into the "Jesus questions", I read some material that tried to paint Jesus in a rather different light (there are those who would like to say He was a Jewish cynic, a feminist, a mystic, a wise sage...and so on and so on).  But the one thought that I could never shake (and, I think, rightly so) was that these authors were trying very hard to mold Jesus into their image.  They wanted to "soften" his message, perhaps, by focusing on the "nice" parts, or at least the parts that felt palpable and/or relevant to modern life.

So, who was Jesus?  I think the evidence suggests, rather strongly, that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.

On to the next question, and then I'll wrap things up...

What Was He thinking?

Of course we'll never know, for sure, and I am endeavouring to approach this question with humility (and a large grain of salt).  Given all we have learned though, I don't think it's a stretch to present the following scenario (of Schweitzer's) as plausible, but in the broad strokes only.  Listen, as Bart Ehrman explains Schweitzer's position more fully (from "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium")...

"Schweitzer did not think that the historical Jesus shared the problems or perspectives of the twentieth century.  Instead, Jesus was a first-century apocalypticist, who never expected that there would be a twentieth century.  He thought that the end of the world was coming within his own lifetime.  In fact, he expected it to come before the year was out.  When it didn't come, Schweitzer argued, Jesus decided that he himself needed to suffer in order for God to bring the heavenly kingdom here to earth.  And so he went to his cross fully expecting God to intervene in history in a climactic act of judgment.  When at his last meal he told his disciples that he would not drink wine again until he drank it anew with them in the Kingdom, he was not thinking that this would be two thousand years hence, but in the next day or two.  It turns out that Jesus was wrong.  He died on the cross mistaken about his own identity and the plan of God."

Alright, there you have it, I think we have successfully come full circle on this topic.  In these last three posts I have attempted to explain, in an admittedly rushed way, some of the evidence that convinced me to accept the conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.  In fact, there is a great deal more evidence for this conclusion than what I have presented here.  I could have done an in depth analysis, for example, of the "early" vs. the "late" sources (the "early" sources all portray Jesus apocalyptically, the "late" remove and/or modify these elements).  As it happens, I only eluded to this very briefly last time.  I also could have analyzed some of the basic features of apocalypticism, and how they each apply to Jesus specifically.  Even still, it seems to me that the Christian apologists (and others) who reject this basic theory have an awful lot of explaining (or explaining away) to do.  Can they present a more plausible model?  I don't believe they can.   

Jesus was a man of his time

Before I leave this theme behind, I'd like to briefly examine some of Jesus' "other" teachings, in light of this apocalyptic framework.  I'll get into that next time.

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