Sunday, December 23, 2007

Jesus and the Eschaton (Part 2: Jesus and 'Apocalyptic' Language)

2. Jesus and “Apocalyptic” Language
One of the most significant reasons scholars have distanced the historical Jesus from the teaching of the early Church has been the notion that Jesus preached an imminent end to human history. In this view, the Christian Church had to reformulate his teaching once this failed to occur.[1] Indeed, with a look at the “apocalyptic discourse”[2] of Jesus recounted in Mark 13 (cf. Matthew 24 // Luke 21), one can easily understand how they could have reached such a conclusion.[3] There, after describing the dissolution of the celestial bodies (Mark 13:24-25), the coming of the Son of man in the clouds (Mark 13:26) and the final gathering of the elect by the angels (Mark 13:27), Jesus concludes: Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη μέχρις οὗ ταῦτα πάντα γένηται. ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται ["Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away"] (Mark 13:30-31).

At first glance (as well as second and third!), it is hard to see how this language could not lead to the conclusion that Jesus was describing an imminent end of the physical universe. In this section, however, we will argue that such a reading only emerges due to a lack of understanding of the use and function of Jewish apocalyptic language. Once one grasps Jesus’ use of this prophetic style from within a first-century Jewish context, it is easy to see how Jesus’ description of a cosmic catastrophe indeed had a first-century referent. In this section, we will highlight what has been one of the most common themes in recent studies of apocalyptic, namely, the recognition of the “this-worldly” referent of its cosmic language.

Upfront it should be noted that defining “apocalyptic” is a notoriously difficult task and the literature on the topic is immense.[4] One of the reasons why it remains a challenging category to delineate is, like “eschatology,” “apocalyptic” is a modern term.[5] Technically, the term refers to “revelation,” which the figures described within “apocalyptic” texts often receive from a heavenly source through some kind of ecstatic/mystical experience.[6] Yet, there are other elements that also characterize the style: cosmic imagery, oracular language, heavenly figures, etc. Here we will use the term more broadly to describe passages which employ cosmic language in divine oracles relating to judgment and/or the dawning of the eschatological age.

[1] For an overview of the history of the discussion in Jesus research see George R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 1-162; Scott M. Lewis, New Testament Apocalyptic (WATSA; New York: Paulist Press, 2004). For a contemporary advocate see Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ (2d ed; New Haven: Yale Nota Bena, 2000), 134-5.
[2] Of course, the term itself is problematic, since the sermon contains elements which are not characteristic of “apocalyptic” texts. Moreover, the problem is compounded inasmuch as it relates to the ever shifting definition of what exactly constitutes “apocalyptic” (see discussion below). Nonetheless, the term serves us well as it highlights this sermon’s relationship with certain Old Testament texts which emphasis cosmic upheavals. Indeed, many books, such as Isaiah, relate apocalyptic-like imagery alongside non-apocalyptic passages. For a fuller discussion, see T. J. Geddert, “Apocalyptic Teaching,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (J. B. Green, S. McKnight, I. H. Marshall, eds.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 21-23 [20-26].
[3] Interestingly, Albert Schweitzer, who is credited with highlighting Jesus’ apocalyptic message, did not base his interpretation on Mark 13, but derived his conclusion primarily on the grounds of Matthew 10:23. Apart from a passing reference dismissing its authenticity, Schweitzer never treated the sermon in his work. See Beaseley-Murray, The Last Days, 46.
[4] See, for example, the recent collection of essays in Knowing the End from the Beginning: The Prophetic, the Apocalyptic and their Relationships (L. L. Grabbe and R. D. Haak, eds.; JSPS 46; London: T & T Clark, 2003). Also see, R. E. Sturm, “Defining the Word ‘Apocalyptic:’ A Problem in Biblical Criticism” in Apocalyptic and the New Testament (JSOTSup 54; J. Marcus and M. L. Soards, eds.; Leiden Brill, 1997), 17-48; Michael A. Knibb, “Prophecy and the emergence of the Jewish apocalypses,” in Israel’s Prophetic Tradition; Essays in Honour of Peter Ackroyd (R. C. Coggins, A. Phillips, and M. Knibb, eds.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 155-80. Groups from the society of biblical literature focusing on apocalyptic published their findings in Semeia in 1979 and 1986. Other major works include: J. J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (New York: Crossraod, 1984); P. D. Hanson, The Dawn of the Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); P. D. Hanson, Old Testament Apocalyptic (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987); L. Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
[5] The use of the term as specific literary genre is traced to Gottfried F. Lücke, Versuch einer vollständigen Einleitung in die Offenbarung des Johannes: oder, Allgemeine Untersuchungen über die apokalyptische Litteratur überhaupt und die Apokalypse des Johannes insbesondere (Second ed.; Bonn: Weber, 1852). The term was borrowed from Revelation 1:1 and used to describe Daniel and other books which shared literary and conceptual similarities with the book of Revelation. See H. S. Kvanvig, Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and of the Son of Man (WMANT 61: Neukirchen-Vluyn:Neukirchen, 1988), 40, 56; David Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic” in Word and World 25/3 (2000): 234. [233-245]
[6] See J. J. Collins, “Apocalyptic Literature," in the Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds (C. A. Evans and S. Porter eds.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 41; William Dumbrell, The Search for Order: Biblical Eschatology in Focus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 132. Also see the balanced discussion of the definition of “apocalyptic” which takes into account both the heavenly and earthly dimension of the genre in Adela Yarbro Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 6-7.

1 comment:

John said...


there's no denying that some things, even many things, that Jesus alluded to by means of the language about the Son of Man coming on the clouds - a reference to a predicted complex of event described in the book of Daniel - did come to pass in the generation of his hearers.

But, just as was true already in the case of book of Daniel within the horizon of the second century BCE, it is just as clear that a full fulfillment of the Danielic prophecies Jesus alludes to did not take place in the first century of this era.

Both aspects of the situation need to be stressed. I encourage you to consider what I've written on the topic on my blog. See the two posts listed under "Unfulfilled Prophecy Series" in the subject index in the left sidebar there.