Part two in our series on the eschatology of Jesus.
A word about this so-called “third” quest for the historical Jesus. In
the wake of WWII Christian scholars awoke to the view that their
understandings of Judaism were skewed and those understandings
distorted our understandings of ancient Judaism and both Jesus and
Paul. So, scholars began to quarry the mines of ancient Jewish evidence
- apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, targums (Aramaic
paraphrases of the Old Testament), and the rabbinic documents – and in
so doing the minds of ancient Jews suddenly were once again alive and
well. Into this newly-found knowledge about Judaism, scholars had to
fit both Jesus and Paul. The fitting of Jesus into Judaism is called
the “third” quest – the first two quests were dominated by European
Protestant Liberalism and Ernst Kasemann. This third quest has three
major scholars: Marcus Borg, whose Jesus is a religious genius and a
channel of the divine; Dominic Crossan, whose Jesus is a Jewish peasant
Cynic, with very little emphasis on the “Jewish” part; and N.T. Wright,
whose Jesus is a prophet who calls the nation to repentance before the
destruction of Jerusalem and who also fulfills massive roles of
redemption from the Old Testament. My own study of Jesus, called A New
Vision for Israel, builds on this scholarship.
There are two major camps of scholars in the ‘third quest’: those who see Jesus in eschatological/apocalyptic terms and those who see Jesus in religious, non-apocalyptic terms. Borg and Crossan fit into this latter camp; Wright and McKnight fit into the former. The Jesus Seminar, directed as it is by Robert W. Funk, fits into the non-apocalyptic set of categories for understanding Jesus and is quite well-known for its skeptical conclusions regarding the reliability of the (especially) canonical Gospels. Funk himself has many good things to say, but frankly, his book has too much anger in it and I think it shapes his methods and conclusions too much.
I should like to talk about him but I’ll … continue with my biography: if I began my life catching the dispensational wave and riding it in with my peers, I soon found myself treading water with the post-tribbers. We were a confident bunch, but we were muted. Then I received a post at Trinity and began to teach seminary students post-trib views (when the subject arose – we post tribbers have learned to guard ourselves and not talk about it much!), until I encountered two pieces of literature that shook my beliefs to the core and, once I had sorted out the biblical evidence for a third time, I knew I was no longer treading water but was in fact swimming into a Tsunami!
Those two pieces of literature are G.B. Caird’s Jesus and the Jewish Age and R.T. France’s Matthew commentary (on Matt. 24:29-31). I had read Caird’s little book, a published lecture in fact, while a doctoral student but had mentally shelved it until a later date. That date arrived when I had to get my lectures on Matthew 24 up to snuff, gathered up all my sang froid for class where my conclusions gave my students something to think about – McKnight, they said, teaches us that A.D. 70 was the focal point of Jesus’ predictions. The question they wanted me to answer, which I could not at that time answer, was did Jesus think his predictions also applied to the Great Tribulation? I thought “no,” but it took me awhile to work through this to come to what I thought were reasonable and compelling conclusions. It is this that I want to share with you now. How I came to a position of facing the Tsunami – and by “Tsunami” I mean the bulk of Christians, including Evangelical academics. I know my view is not typical; I also know it is a view that has been held in the Church (J.S. Russell in some ways); and I also know that it is consistent with the central tenets of Evangelicalism, and that matters to me (but even more to some of my critics, who think my view doesn’t fit). If it is nice to be known, it is even nicer to be talked about – especially if you have a little vanity as I do. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid” (Autobiography, 212). Here, at last, I thought I had clamped down on something solid enough to satisfy the Gospel evidence. I wish now to speak to this.
What I offer to you for consideration is a way of entering the Jesus puzzle discussion and the way we shall walk is by examining what Jesus thought of the future. In this way we can get at several destinies: what Jesus thought of the future and who Jesus was.
The Basic View
Let me summarize my view briefly, a view that has recently been called by R.C. Sproul “partial preterism.” Sometimes scholars call this view “realized eschatology,” because the view articulates Jesus’ view of the Kingdom as totally wrapped up in his life and in the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem, in 67-73 CE (=A.D. 70). Others, however, might see my view as “consistent eschatology” because it sees Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom as driven by his eschatology.
Where I part from many Evangelicals is in my view that Jesus’ language is prophetic and apocalyptic, and therefore ambiguous, and his knowledge is also prophetic, and therefore limited. When I say “ambiguous” it is in the sense of “the philosophically indeterminate”, rather than determinate and his knowledge of the future is not a “snapshot of God’s future”. Instead, Jesus’ vision of the future is impressionistic and metaphorical, conveyed as it is in the language of apocalyptic. Further, I think Jesus’ vision of the future did not extend beyond A.D. 70 and that, in predicting the “end” of the Jewish nation’s privileges in its destruction, Jesus attached teachings about the general resurrection, the final banquet, and the great judgment. In other words, he saw everything taking place, in an indeterminate sense, at A.D. 70.
I said that my world is not simple any more: let me add a permutation – when Jesus talks about his “coming” in Mark 13:24-27, he is not talking about skiing down the celestial slopes on clouds from heaven to earth, riding them down – to change metaphors – like a supernatural parachutist, but he is speaking figuratively about his vindication before God through the destruction of Jerusalem. Let me proceed now to back up these conclusions, and others if I need to, by examining the so-called Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24/Mark 13. One more conclusion before I go on: I think some of the writers of the NT, like Paul and the Seer of Revelation, knew what Jesus had said and used and reworked the language of Jesus to refer to still distant events – and this, too, is quite like OT prophets and their successors.