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The Future of Christian Eschatology 2

posted by Scot McKnight

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.



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posted March 10, 2009 at 3:39 pm


Scot,
Several years ago, New Orleans Theological hosted a forum with Crossan and Wright, amongst others. Added the url here – good lectures, good discussion. I didn’t make the forum, but was one of first to get CD’s…definitely worth it. May help along the tsunami…by adding more energy to the wave!!!
Looking forward to next post…I too ride the wave…desperately hanging onto surfboard!!! Several years ago, was “firmly fixed” in pre-trib views…but…
http://www.greer-heard.com/about2005.shtml



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Leo

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:41 pm


Did it again!!! Previous post from Leo…



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John W Frye

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:45 pm


Scot,
Supposing the Apostle Paul, a good Jewish mind, understood Jesus’ eschatology (Matt 24/Mark 13) the way you and N. T. Wright do (and the way I’m leaning toward), will you explain why Paul expected the *parousia* in his day and what these “last days” that we’ve been in since Pentecost are leading to next?



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Chris E

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:46 pm


Well, Scot, to quote Ricky Ricardo, “You got some splainin’ to do!”
>>>In other words, he saw everything taking place, in an indeterminate sense, at A.D. 70.>>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… but he is speaking figuratively about his vindication before God through the destruction of Jerusalem.



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Virgil Vaduva

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:57 pm


Well, I can only applaud this entry and say “bravo” Scot. I hope many minds will be influenced by your thoughts and positive outlook on the future as a result of preterist eschatology.



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David Brown

posted March 10, 2009 at 4:04 pm


Scot,
Great post – my journey is somewhat similar. Looking forward to reading more.



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Darren King

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:27 pm


But Scot, careful now… You are contradicting one of our holiest books – I am of course referring to the “Left Behind” series. And, by the way, when I say holiest – I actually mean most full of holes – as is the theology, and specifically, the eschatology of said books.
Bottom line, on the explanation of your position, I think you’re spot on – as much as we can be sure about these things that is. After all, as Tom Wright says, to talk about these matters is a bit like exploring the fog beyond a signpost.



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Taylor George

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:27 pm


Great post. It’s a very complex and hard to understand area of theological study. Is this going to open the door to slightly more optimistic view on end times?



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Glenn

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:39 pm


Scot said – “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”. Perhaps this will be answered later in the series, but would a preterist or realized eschatological view accept the bodily return of Jesus at some future date? I have been taught this is one of the central doctrines of orthodoxy and the Church. Yet many I know struggle with this view and I am left wondering, is the rejection of the bodily return of Jesus heresy or within the bounds of belief?



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Peggy

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:58 pm


Good, good…waiting for tomorrow, again!
Scot, it does seem to me that when you say Jesus was thinking about A.D. 70, it was the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred that year, not the actual “year” (as if he knew the exact number) … which might answer some of John’s question about why Paul might have expected it to occur in his lifetime — it wasn’t that far after it….



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Jeff Hyatt

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:10 pm


Scot,
Would you define ‘prophetic’ and ‘apocalyptic?’ That would help us understand your statement regarding both that they are “the philosophically indeterminate.”
Thanks,
Jeff



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Dave Leigh

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:32 pm


With you so far as I too have preterist leanings. I have wondered if the term “The Great Tribulation” might refer to the whole of history, or at least that time between Christ’s comings. I have had the same thought about the “Millennium.” Might not these terms be like those layered city maps, one showing streets, another showing the subway system, another the bus system? In other words, might they not both be overlays for looking at different aspects of the same reality? I look forward to hearing your thoughts (and that of others here).
Bravo for another great and thought-provoking post!



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Derek Leman

posted March 10, 2009 at 6:39 pm


Scot:
A few reasons I don’t think the Temple destruction of 70 A.D. was the appearing of the Son of Man in the clouds, nor was it a vindication of Jesus:
(1) Nearly everyone in Judaism believed the Temple system was corrupt and Jesus was not alone in this. Jewish writing about the Hurban (destruction) acknowledges that this was God’s judgment for a divided and politicized Judaism.
(2) The Temple destruction sent Judaism in more helpful directions (Modern Judaism) than if Judaism had continued as a fractured, politically violent group of movements. God was furthering the cause of Jewish development toward Messiah and not punishing Judaism per se in the Temple destruction.
(3) Any concept that the Hurban was a vindication of Jesus’ death sounds like retribution against Israel and God rejecting Israel in favor of a New Israel. This does not match well with Romans 11:2 and 11:26-29.
(4) The sign of the Son of Man in the clouds involves all the tribes of the earth mourning. This does not sound remotely like anything that happened in 70 C.E.
(5) It is possible to understand Matthew 24 as structured in answer to the three questions of the disciples. D.A. Carson has an excellent commentary on this in his Expositor’s Commentary on Matthew.
Derek Leman



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Rich Goulette

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:06 pm


Glenn,
Partial Preterists like RC Sproul believe that the events Jesus talked about in the Olivet Discourse and the events of Revelation were fulfilled in 70AD, but that Christ is coming back to judge the world/raise the dead. This is considered “orthodox preterism,” at least biblically, because everyone’s supposed to know when Christ comes back
Full Preterists believe that the resurrection of the dead was a “spiritualized resurrection” and that there is no future judgment. This is called hyper or consistent preterism, because it is a fully realized eschatology, where partial preterism is a “mostly” realized eschatology.



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Derek Leman

posted March 10, 2009 at 7:17 pm


Let me clarify that I did not mean that Professor McKnight buys into old anti-Semitic ideas (“the Jews killed Christ”). I meant only that the view of the destruction of Jerusalem as a vindication of Jesus requires, in my opinion, distancing from such historical statements of anti-Semitism.
Derek Leman



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Chris E

posted March 10, 2009 at 11:32 pm


Derek #15
Didn’t the Jews kill Christ? Peter thought so (Acts 4:10). This doesn’t make me an anti-Semite or Jew hater, it just is.



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Ron Newberry

posted March 10, 2009 at 11:32 pm


Great post, Scott. Looking forward to more. Your journey is very similar to my own.



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RonMcK

posted March 11, 2009 at 2:56 am


“Did did Jesus think his predictions also applied to the Great Tribulation?” is really the wrong question because the Great Tribulation is not a biblical concept. Tribulation is normal for Christians (who have not sold out).



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phil_style

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:08 am


ChrisE #16, some have argued that the writer of Acts was pushing an anti-Jewish agenda by pinning the blame for Jesus’ death at their feet. It has been suggested that this was done to placate Romans, who were seen by many as the future of christianity (after many Jews had rejected the faith). It may also be argued that Jesus was killed by the Romans, however to push this point might upset potential new Roman converts to the faith.
In modern times, the perpetuation of this idea (that the ‘jews killed jesus’)is seen by many as anti-semitic.
However weak or strong you find this reasoning is up to you. But that’s much of the basis for the anti-semitic discussion.



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Derek Leman

posted March 11, 2009 at 7:15 am


ChrisE #16:
Perhaps you don’t understand the history of the statement “the Jews killed Christ.”
This is not merely saying the conspiracy against Christ was led by a few hundred Jewish leaders and their immediate circle. It is saying that all Jews then and now killed Christ.
Thus, the way the expression has been used historically by churches, church fathers, Crusade and Inquisition preachers, Luther, and so forth is both historically inaccurate and egregiously hateful.
I’m sure you did not understand this and so I am clarifying for you.
It would be more accurate to say, “The Sanhedrin and the administration of Pilate in 30 C.E. killed Christ.”
Derek Leman



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Mason

posted March 11, 2009 at 9:32 am


Scot,
Thank you for posting this series, I look forward to more.
It really has resonated with me, for I’ve followed almost the exact same journey in my eschatology, with the same influences.
I was raised in a very Dispensational background, and had little idea that there were any legitimate eschatologies besides pre-trib Left Behind type of stuff.
Over time I read more widely and came across Ladd and other whos arguments along with my own inspection of Dispensationalism led me to a post-trib position.
In recent years the works of R.T. France and N.T. Wright have taken me one more step, to partial preterism. It just does so much more justice to the text and historical context than other approaches, and does not have that fanaticism of pop-eschatology.
I think full/consistant preterism is off base, and denies some core doctines, but a chatened preterism seems to be the most coherent approach out there.
Thanks again for taking this on.



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Keith Schooley

posted March 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm


I’m sure you’ll be getting to this, but I have similar questions to some of those above: namely, if we assume that the Olivet discourse (and whatever else Jesus may have had to say in terms of then-future prophecy) refers to AD 70 and nothing beyond that, are we also to assume that eschatological passages elsewhere in the NT are also exclusively about AD 70? If so, does the Bible have anything to say about any end-of-history scenario? In other words, are we to look for God to bring this world order to an end at some point, or has that been a category mistake that the Church has made throughout its history?



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