Darkness and Light

“This alteration of darkness and light can constitute a kind of dialogue between the Christian and God, a dialectic that brings us deeper and deeper into the conviction that God is our all.  By such alternations we grow in detachment and in hope. We should realize the great good that is to be gained only by this fidelity to meditation.”

Face to Face with the Sham

“After all, some of the basic themes of the existentialism of Heidegger, laying stress as they do on the ineluctable fact of death, on man’s need for authenticity, and on a kind of spiritual liberation, can remind us that the climate in which monastic prayer flourished is not altogether absent from our modern world.  Quite the contrary: this is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis, of revolution, of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk in his meditation and prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have ‘left’ it.  In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.

This is why the term ‘contemplation’ is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the highest forms of Christian prayer.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and ‘contemplative’ (e.g. Carmelite) tradition in the Church than a kind of Gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevate him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross.  The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the ‘consolation of prayer’ for its own sake.  This ‘self’ is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or madness.

On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called ‘worldly life,’ in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more ‘bearable’ because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes – and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness.  But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential ‘dread’ – a sense of insecurity, of ‘lostness,’ of exile, of sin.  A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth.”

Thomas Merton: Contemplative Prayer Series

Recently I’ve been re-reading some Thomas Merton.  I have never read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, but know him only through some of his shorter works – New Seeds of Contemplation, The Inner Experience, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and Contemplative Prayer.  Merton is an author who I feel differently about depending on which of his works I’m reading. At times, he seems overly harsh (for instance in some portions of The Inner Experience), and this may stem from the fact that he often writes to other monastics.  A true monastic life is one that I will likely never experience and some of the advice given by Christian monastics don’t seem to fit readers who are “in the world.” I feel the same way when I read St. John of the Cross and he advises his readers to “reject attachment to all creatures.”  Nevertheless, there is hardly a more well-known Christian contemplative in modern times than Merton and overall I find him extremely edifying. He is also clearly well-versed in modern biblical scholarship, seemingly falling much more on the liberal end of things, and is open to other religious traditions which I also resonate with.

In this series, I’d like to post some excerpts from Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.  In it, he documents a variety of his opinions on the spiritual life, writing mainly to other monks.  The reader gets to overhear this advice and decide how it may or may not apply to the life of the novice.

In this first excerpt, Merton introduces the work and writes about the earliest form of Christian monasticism, that of the “Desert Fathers.”

“The monk is a Christian who has responded to a special call from God, and has withdrawn from the more active concerns of a worldly life, in order to devote himself completely to repentance, ‘conversion,’ metanoia, renunciation and prayer.  In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer.  The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.

What is written about prayer in these pages is written primarily for monks.  However, just as a book about psychoanalysis by an analyst and primarily for analysts may also (if not too technical) appeal to a layman interested in these matters, so a practical non-academic study of monastic prayer should be of interest to all Christians, since every Christian is bound to be in some sense a man of prayer.  Though few have either the desire for solitude or the vocation to monastic life, all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting to the circumstances of their own vocation. Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom.  To promote this they may often look for moments of retreat and prayer in which to deepen their meditative life. These pages discuss prayer in its very nature, rather than special restricted techniques. What is said here is therefore applicable to the prayer of any Christian, though perhaps with a little less emphasis on the intensity of certain trials which are proper to life in solitude.

Monastic prayer is, first of all, essentially simple.  In primitive monasticism prayer was not necessarily liturgical, though liturgy soon came to be regarded as a specialty of monks and canons.  Actually, the first monks in Egypt and Syria had only the most rudimentary liturgy, and their personal prayer was direct and uncomplicated. For example, we read in the sayings of the Desert Fathers that a monk asked St. Marcarius how to pray.  The latter replied: ‘It is not necessary to use many words. Only stretch out your arms and say: Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how! And if the enemy presses you hard, say: Lord, come to my aid!’ In John Cassian’s Conferences on Prayer we see great stress laid by the early monks on simple prayer made up of short phrases drawn from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture.  One of the most frequently used was Deus in adjutorium meum intende, ‘O God, come to my aid!’

At first sight one might wonder what such simple prayers would have to do with a life of ‘contemplation.’  The Desert Fathers did not imagine themselves, in the first place, to be mystics, though in fact they often were.  They were careful not to go looking for extraordinary experiences, and contented themselves with the struggle for ‘purity of heart’ and for control of their thoughts, to keep their minds and hearts empty of care and concern, so that they might altogether forget themselves and apply themselves entirely to the love and service of God.”

So Long as This is a Genuine Life Process and Not an Intellectual Speculation

“...those who use the term ‘Mysticism’ are bound in self-defence to explain what they mean by it.  Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever theological formula under which that order is understood.  This tendency, in great mystics, gradually captures the whole field of consciousness; it dominates their life and, in the experience called ‘mystic union,’ attains its end. Whether that end be called the God of Christianity, the World-soul of Pantheism, the Absolute of Philosophy, the desire to attain it and the movement towards it – so long as this is a genuine life process and not an intellectual speculation – is the proper subject of mysticism.  I believe this movement to represent the true line of development of the highest form of human consciousness.”

– Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism

I will be taking an extended break from blogging. This site has been a good way to explore some ideas, but ultimately the spiritual journey is not about the intellect. In the words of Underhill, it needs to be a genuine life process, not mere intellectual speculation. I’ve done enough intellectual speculation for now. Hopefully something on the site continues to be valuable to you on your own journey. I will still be available at anthony@thecontemplativelife.org during the break.


From Self to No-Self

There are many ways one could summarize “the contemplative journey.” One definition that seems to work across traditions is that the contemplative journey is “the path from self to no-self.”

Contemplative Practice as Service

Meditative practice has the potential to help you become a better version of yourself.  At least that is the claim from many who have made some form of meditation a serious part of their lives. 

If this is true, then one way to think about contemplative practice is as a form of service to others.  By becoming a better you, your natural response to those in your life, whether they be family, friends, or other people you encounter, will be better responses.  If a tree is healthy, it produces good fruit.  

From a Christian contemplative perspective, some relevant quotations from The Cloud of Unknowing include:


"This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs whether in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them. What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit. It is this which gives God the greatest delight. For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way—though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you. Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and, of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together. Yet for all this, when God’s grace arouses you to enthusiasm, it becomes the lightest sort of work there is and one most willingly done. Without his grace, however, it is very difficult and almost, I should say, quite beyond you. "

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3


"I tell you, that if you keep this law of love and this life-giving counsel, it really will be your spirit’s life, as Solomon says. Interiorly, you will know the repose of abiding in God’s love. Exteriorly, your whole personality will radiate the beauty of his love, for with unfailing truth, it will inspire you with the most appropriate response in all your dealings with your fellow Christians. And on these two activities (the interior love for God and the outward expression of your love in relating to others) depend the whole law and the prophets, as the Scriptures say. Then as you become perfect in the work of love, both within and without, you will go on your way securely grounded in grace (your guide in this spiritual journey), lovingly offering your blind, naked being to the glorious being of your God. "

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 6


"As a person matures in the work of love, he will discover that this love governs his demeanor befittingly both within and without. When grace draws a man to contemplation it seems to transfigure him even physically so that though he may be ill-favored by nature, he now appears changed and lovely to behold. His whole personality becomes so attractive that good people are honored and delighted to be in his company, strengthened by the sense of God he radiates. And so, do your part to co-operate with grace and win this great gift, for truly it will teach the man who possesses it how to govern himself and all that is his. He will even be able to discern the character and temperament of others when necessary. He will know how to accommodate himself to everyone, and (to the astonishment of all) even to inveterate sinners, without sinning himself. God’s grace will work through him, drawing others to desire that very contemplative love which the Spirit awakens in him. His countenance and conversation will be rich in spiritual wisdom, fire, and the fruits of love, for he will speak with a calm assurance devoid of falsehood..."

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 54


Perhaps the next time I think about skipping my Centering Prayer, the thought of practice as service to the world will encourage me to sit.  Authentic contemplative practice is not about a solipsistic focus on self; it is that which allows for the transformation of self, for the good of the world.  

The Historical Jesus: Conclusion

Historical Jesus studies is a complex field.  Scholars from different camps can create vastly different reconstructions of Jesus as a historical figure, and yet these diverse reconstructions can also overlap in many ways.  Nothing is straightforward. 

The first three paradigms presented in this series: the Conservative/Orthodox Jesus, the Liberal Jesus, and the Apocalyptic Jesus are, in my opinion, the major options in the field and can at least potentially provide a springboard for your own personal study. 

One primary question, I think the primary question, in the field is: What did Jesus mean by “the kingdom of God is at hand”?  Your answer to that question will go a long way in determining what camp you fall into. 

This is a deeply personal field of study for many, including myself.  The conclusion one reaches is not a trivial matter; it has the ability to change the nature of one's faith in a profound way.

Jesus, and the spirit that flows forth from him, has had a monumental impact on human life and thought for over 2,000 years.  His impact is ongoing in my own life, and the lives of others, in unique ways, and this impact will continue through time.  His Spirit will continue to work, in both orthodox and non-orthodox ways, oblivious to the arguments of the scholars. 


Historical Jesus Conclusions and Religious Pluralism

Exclusivism is built into the DNA of the New Testament:

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”

– Mark 8:34-38

“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’”

– Mark 16:15-16

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

– Matthew 10:30

”…everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

– Matthew 10:32-33

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

– Matthew 10:34-39

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

– Matthew 11:27

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’”

– Matthew 28:18-20

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”

– John 3:3

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

– John 3:14

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

– John 3:16-18

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

– John 3:36

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”

– John 6:35-40

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

– John 8:12

“So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.’”

– John 10:7-9

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”

– John 11:25-26

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

– John 14:6

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

– John 15:1-5

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

– John 20:30-31

“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

– Acts 2:38

“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

– Acts 2:47

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

– Acts 4:11-12

“And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

– Acts 10:42-43

“And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

– Acts 26:15-18

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…”

– Romans 5:1-2

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

– Romans 10:9

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

– 2 Corinthians 5:17-18

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

– Galatians 2:15-16

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”

– Galatians 3:27-29

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

– Ephesians 1:11-14

“For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…”

– Ephesians 2:18-20

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”

– Philippians 3:8-9

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

– 1 Thessalonians 9:10

“…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…”

– 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

“For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”

– Hebrews 3:14

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”

– Hebrews 4:14

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

– 1 John 4:1-6

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.”

– 1 John 5:1

“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

– 1 John 5:12

The message is clear.  If you don’t accept Jesus, you are not part of the people of God. And not only that, but in the most extreme theologies of the New Testament, you are destined for hell.

I believe that the historical Jesus, represented most clearly in the synoptic Gospels, equated allegiance with himself as allegiance with God because he thought himself to be the final God-ordained prophet before imminent arrival of the eschatological kingdom of God.  As with Jesus, so with his followers, as the rest of the New Testament continues to make the exclusivistic claim that to accept Jesus is the only way to authentically accept God.  Thom Stark, in The Human Faces of God, makes the same observation, and claims that these beliefs, at least in part, stem from the apocalyptic worldview that Jesus and his followers inherited:

"The apocalyptic worldview divides up the entire cosmos into two categories: good and evil, or light and dark. Those on the side of light have given their allegiance wholly to God; everyone else, wittingly or not, has given their allegiance to Satan. Because of Jesus’ conviction that he was the last prophet before the imminent end of the world, Jesus was able to equate allegiance to himself with allegiance to God. As with other apocalyptic sects of his day (such as the Qumran community), Jesus believed that his brand of Judaism was the only brand that could save the people of Yahweh from the coming destruction and judgment. Of course, this black and white perspective is understandable given the character of the times. Apocalyptic Jews considered themselves to be soldiers (some violent, others nonviolent) in a time of war... In wartime it is often necessary to draw up sharp dividing lines between sides in the conflict, and this would have been the logic that underwrote apocalyptic sects’ extreme claims that failure to join their particular cause was tantamount to treason. Only the narrow road leads to life, but broad is the road that leads to destruction."


If the reconstruction of the historical Jesus as "apocalyptic prophet" is correct, then Jesus was mistaken.  The eschatological kingdom did not come.

One implication of taking this view is that Jesus’ teaching, and the teaching of the New Testament as a whole, becomes relativized.  If Jesus was wrong on one thing, he could be wrong on many things.  His theology, his ethics (let alone Paul’s theology and Paul’s ethics), should be accepted or rejected on their own merits, because they appeal to one’s reason or conscience, not because of a default (and orthodox) understanding that everything Jesus says, by definition, must be correct.  This doesn’t mean that all of Jesus’ teaching should be rejected, but it does mean that Christians should engage with that teaching in a different way.

And the salvation of one’s soul ceases to be dependent on accepting Jesus as Lord.

These implications follow if one adopts a non-orthodox view of who Jesus was as a historical figure.  It is very difficult, in my view, for one to accept an orthodox picture of the historical Jesus, say that of N.T. Wright, and also honestly accept religious pluralism.  To do so cuts across the grain of a wide swath of Christian scriptures, and seemingly of the teaching of Jesus himself. 

Of course many Christians have no desire to accept religious pluralism.  To do so, in fact, is often seen as a “selling out,” a diluting of one’s faith. 

For me, after meeting my Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, (and agnostic and atheist) neighbors, it’s a necessity.  We are just too much alike to say that Christians are the only group of people who experience God in a real way.  The insider/outsider dynamic created by conservative Christian theology is just too hard to reconcile with our modern, real-life experience. 


The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith

One distinction that is often made in the historical Jesus field is the “Jesus of History” vs. the “Christ of Faith.”  The idea is that Jesus, as a historical figure, is not who the church worships.  Rather, it is who Jesus has become that is relevant to the modern church.  The “Christ of Faith” is this totality of who Jesus has become, or perhaps the “spirit that comes forth from Jesus” in modern times.

Schweitzer, in his conclusion of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, writes:

“…the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. Not the historical Jesus, but the spirit which goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the world...
 ...Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity."


and ends his survey of historical Jesus studies with the famous lines:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, as He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

For Schweitzer, it is the Christ of Faith who still comes to us today.

It is, of course, notoriously difficult to parse apart the supposed Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith, if one even accepts those categories.  This is the whole business of the Quest. 

I don’t have a whole lot to say on this except to note that this distinction is often made.  Two relevant questions here are: (1) does one accept the distinction between the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith?, and (2) does, or should, this distinction matter to the theology of the modern church?

Case Study: The Eschatological Discourse

One controversial block of material for scholars is the “Eschatological Discourse,” also sometimes referred to as the Olivet Discourse. This block of material appears in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) and involves Jesus predicting both the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man. I will list the Matthean version here for reference:

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”

And Jesus answered them, ‘See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’”

Below, I’d like to take a look at how three scholars from this series handle this text.

N.T. Wright

The following quotation is from Jesus and Victory of God:

“According to this view, Mark 13 has been badly misunderstood by the importation into it of ideas concerning the ‘second coming’ of Jesus. There has been a long tradition in mainline Christianity of reading it this way, which has found its way into sermons, books, and even into the headings in many Bibles, and thence into the bloodstream of generations of pious folk. There has been a comparatively short tradition within mainline New Testament scholarship, going back particularly to Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, of endorsing this reading, with one significant difference. Pietism supposes that, in Mark 13, Jesus was predicting his own coming at the end of time, a prediction still to be fulfilled; Weiss, Schweitzer, and their successors have thought that Jesus here predicted the imminent end of the world, and that he was proved wrong. I suggest that both traditions, the old pietist one and the more recent scholarly one, are simply mistaken.

But does not the passage speak of the ‘parousia’, the ‘second coming’? Yes, the Greek word parousia does occur, in Matthew’s version (24:3, 27, 37, 39; these are, surprisingly enough in view of its popularity among scholars, its only occurrences in the gospels). But why should we think—except for reasons of ecclesiastical and scholarly tradition—that parousia means ‘the second coming’, and/or the downward travel on a cloud of Jesus and/or the ‘son of man’? Parousia means ‘presence’ as opposed to apousia, ‘absence’; hence it denotes the ‘arrival’ of someone not at the moment present; and it is especially used in relation to the visit ‘of a royal or official personage’. Until evidence for a different meaning is produced, this should be our starting-point.

What, after all, were the disciples waiting for? They had come to Jerusalem expecting Jesus to be enthroned as the rightful king. This would necessarily involve Jesus taking over the authority which the Temple symbolized. They were now confronted with the startling news that this taking over of authority would mean the demolition, literal and metaphorical, of the Temple, whose demise Jesus had in fact constantly predicted, and which he had already symbolically overthrown in his dramatic (but apparently inconsequential) action in the Temple itself. The disciples now ‘heard’ his prophetic announcement of the destruction of the Temple as the announcement, also, of his own vindication; in other words, of his own ‘coming’—not floating around on a cloud, of course, but of his ‘coming’ to Jerusalem as the vindicated, rightful king. What the disciples had naturally wanted to know was, when would Jesus actually be installed as king? He responded, equally unsurprisingly, with a reworking of scriptural passages about great cities being destroyed, and about the vindication of the true people of Israel’s god. All was focused on the central point, that the Temple’s destruction would constitute his own vindication. Once grant this premise, and the nightmare of puzzled textual reconstruction is in principle over.”

Wright accepts the Olivet Discourse as authentic, as he does with virtually all material (conceivably in part because of his commitment to the authority of Scripture), but interprets Jesus’ words poetically. According to Wright, when Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man, he was not referring to “the second coming,” but rather simply to the destruction of Jerusalem. This event, the destruction of Jerusalem, vindicates Jesus and the Church, which is the real meaning of the “coming of the Son of Man.” One natural result of this interpretation is that, on Wright’s view, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus refer to his own literal second coming as traditionally understood.

Marcus Borg

The following quotation is from The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions:

“Thus many Christians in the New Testament period believed that the second coming would be soon. A common scholarly shorthand phrase for this kind of expectation is apocalyptic eschatology: the expectation of imminent dramatic divine intervention in a public and objectively unmistakable way, resulting in a radically new state of affairs, including the vindication of God’s people, whether on a renewed earth or in another world.

Apocalyptic eschatology was relatively strong within Judaism near the time of Jesus. For early Christians, it was associated with the expected imminent return of Jesus. Where did this widespread early Christian belief come from? There are two possibilities. Either the expectation of a second coming goes back to Jesus himself, or it is the product of the early Christian movement after Jesus’ death.

From Jesus himself. Most Christians throughout the centuries have thought that the belief originated with Jesus, simply because texts in the gospels attribute it to Jesus. However, mainline scholars generally do not think Jesus spoke specifically about his own second coming. What could such language have meant to Jesus’ followers while he was still with them, and at a time when, according to the gospels, they had not really comprehended that his life would end in crucifixion and resurrection? Could they make any sense of his speaking of a second coming when they hadn’t understood that his “first coming” would soon come to an end?

But many scholars in this century have thought that the early movement’s expectation of Jesus’ imminent second coming was grounded in things Jesus did say and believe, namely in an apocalyptic eschatology that they trace back to Jesus himself. According to this view, Jesus did not speak of his own second coming, but he did expect a dramatic divine intervention in the near future: God would act soon to establish the messianic kingdom. Two lines of argument are used to support this view. The first is based on two categories of sayings attributed to Jesus: imminent kingdom of God sayings, and coming Son of Man sayings. An example of the former: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” An example of the latter: to his disciples, Jesus said, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Both—the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the “Son of Man”—were to happen soon. The second line of argument points out that John the Baptizer was a prophet of apocalyptic eschatology and that Paul and much of the rest of the New Testament affirm an apocalyptic eschatology. Given that Jesus’ immediate predecessor as well as his immediate successors had an apocalyptic eschatology, it therefore makes sense to think that Jesus did, too.

Together, these two lines of argument lead to the following understanding: Jesus did not speak of his own second coming, but he did expect the imminent coming of the kingdom of God and the Son of Man. After his death, this expectation got transferred to the expectation of his imminent return as king of the kingdom that he had proclaimed. Put most simply: Jesus expected the kingdom of God; the early church expected Jesus. Thus, according to this view, the notion of a second coming of Jesus is based on Jesus’ own apocalyptic eschatology.

From the community. A second way of understanding the origin of belief in a second coming denies that Jesus had an apocalyptic eschatology. A recent development in scholarship, this view is a reversal of what had been a strong majority position for much of this century. For this view, the apocalyptic eschatology of early Christianity and the expectation of the second coming of Jesus emerge within the early Christian community after Easter. This is my own position.

I see more than one factor contributing to the expectation of Jesus’ return. To a considerable extent, it was an inference flowing out of the Easter experience. Within Judaism, resurrection was seen as an “end-time” event. Thus the conviction that Jesus had been resurrected led to the inference that the end time (including the general resurrection) was near. A second factor was the conviction that Jesus was Lord: the one who had been executed by the rulers of this world would soon return as the judge of the world. Yet a third factor was the tumult of Jewish history in the first century, including especially the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70. Within a Jewish framework, events like this could easily lead to a sense that “the end” was at hand. This view also emphasizes that the coming Son of Man sayings are in fact second coming of Jesus sayings. That is, I do not think that Jesus spoke of the imminent coming of the Son of Man and that the community later saw these as referring to Jesus. Rather, I see them as a product of the community, created after Easter to express the conviction that Jesus would soon return as the Son of Man.”

Borg speaks generally here about “coming of the Son of Man” sayings, which includes Mark 13 and parallels. In Borg’s view, Jesus never spoke of the coming of the Son of Man. This language and belief was, rather, a product of the early Church. Borg can still find relevance in this belief for the church today, but it does not inform his picture of the historical Jesus. In regards to the Olivet Discourse specifically, in very blunt terms, Borg simply “cuts it out” from data he treats as historically reliable.

Dale Allison

The following quotation is from Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:

”Consider the issue of eschatology. Many of us have, since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, been persuaded that Jesus was an eschatological prophet with an apocalyptic scenario. Our judgment is consistent with the Synoptics' testimony. They contain numerous statements about punishment and reward, about divine judgment and supernatural vindication. They also contain sayings about the coming Son of man and sayings about the coming kingdom of God. Then there is Mark 13, a lengthy prophecy of the latter days, and Q 17:22-37, which depicts eschatological catastrophe. There are also the prophetic woes cast upon those who reject Jesus' mission as well as the promises of eschatological comfort for the poor and the hungry.

Those of us in Schweitzer's camp do not claim that all of this material goes hack to Jesus. But we do affirm that much of it does, and that much of the remainder is in continuity with Jesus' own outlook. Some, however, deny that Jesus' eschatology involved an imminent, apocalyptic expectation with tribulation, resurrection, and final judgment. What do they do with the materials referred to in the previous paragraph? Although they can interpret some of it in a nonapocalyptic sense, much of it-including sayings and themes attested more than once in the earliest sources-they must deny to Jesus.

But is not the excision of so much a dangerous procedure? One can only amputate so much before the patient is killed. If we really decide that our earliest sources-here I have in mind Q and Mark-are so misleading on this one topic, then maybe they cannot lead us to Jesus at all. Similarly, if it turns out that, in accord with the voting of some of the more skeptical members of the Jesus Seminar, Faustina, or someone like her, or several someones like her, really authored the vast majority of sayings in Q and Mark, then one wonders whether we can ever establish what Jesus, as opposed to his early followers, said. The conclusion would seem to be that the historical Jesus cannot be caught if we are left only to our own historical-critical devices. As in the fairy tale, if the birds have eaten too many of the crumbs, the trail cannot be found. Indeed, one might go so far as to urge that, if the sayings in the earliest Jesus tradition, taken in their entirety, are not roughly congruent with the sorts of things Jesus tended to say, then our task is hopeless.

Even if we were to come to such a conservative conclusion, it must immediately be added that we can never demonstrate that our sources do in fact contain enough authentic material-however much that might be- to make questing a promising activity. There is no way around Faustina (a proposed prophet in the early church speaking ‘the words of Jesus’ which conceivably could make it into the tradition), no way ever to establish beyond hesitation that Jesus and no one else said or did such and such. Doubt will never leave us nor forsake us. This chapter is not, however, a plea to give up the quest in favor of agnosticism about Jesus. Our criticism need not become cynicism, and I am not urging that the ax of skepticism must be laid unto the root of the trees in the Jesus tradition. The point is rather that as historians we do something thing different from mathematicians, who since Thales have eschewed intuition and demanded proofs. Unlike them we cannot formulate proofs for our theorems. We are also unlike scientists, if by that is meant people who fashion experimental trials which allow predictions to he concretely falsified. Certainly we will never be able to program a computer with perfected criteria of authenticity, run the Jesus tradition through it, and learn what Jesus did and did not say. There is no foreseeable victory over uncertainty and no way around subjectivity. ‘Persistently personal judgements have to be made about the nature of the gospel material.’

As historians of the Jesus tradition we are storytellers. We can do no more than aspire to fashion a narrative that is more persuasive than competing narratives, one that satisfies our aesthetic and historical sensibilities because of its apparent ability to clarify more data in a more satisfactory fashion than its rivals. But how is this done? The contention of this chapter is that our first move is not to discover which sayings or even what complexes are authentic. Rather, we should be looking for something akin to what Thomas Kuhn once called a ‘paradigm,’ an explanatory model or matrix by which to order our data. The initial task is to create a context, a primary frame of reference, for the Jesus tradition, a context that may assist us in determining both the authenticity of traditions and their interpretation. Most of us have probably been doing something like this all along anyway, even when we have pretended to get our results by using criteria of authenticity. We do not come to our task with nothing more than the Jesus tradition, a knowledge of first-century history, and our criteria in hand. We also always bring with us a story, formed or half-formed, a story about Jesus, a story made up of expectations and presuppositions that tacitly guide us in our use of criteria. This is one reason we have such a variety of results from various scholars.”

Allison does not contend that Mark 13 necessarily goes back to the historical Jesus. Rather, he claims that it fits within a broad pattern from the gospel tradition, one which portrays Jesus as living and preaching within an apocalyptic scenario. He argues that if the broad patterns of the tradition are too unreliable to give us an accurate picture of Jesus, then no amount of sifting through the material with “criteria of authenticity” will help. Regarding the “coming of the Son of Man” in the Olivet Discourse, Allison rejects Wright’s figurative interpretation, and believes the language reflects a belief in the literal return of Jesus, similar to the expression of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

The Historical Jesus: Methodology

One issue that continues to recur in discussions about various portraits of the so-called historical Jesus is that of methodology. That is, how do we go about finding what is and is not “authentically Jesus” in the tradition? There is, conceivably, at least some mix of events which are historically accurate, and some which are inventions of the early church, among our sources.

In many cases, scholars take individual pericopes (individual stories, units, sayings, etc.), and apply various “criteria of authenticity” to determine if that unit is, or is not, historical. This method can also lead to assigning “probabilities of historicity” (i.e. this unit is probably historical, etc.), which tends to muddy the waters. After a scholar has waded through all the gospel (and some non-gospel) material, they generally take the portions of the text which they deem historical, or likely historical, and create their reconstruction of Jesus. Because this method allows scholars to “pick and choose” what they deem to be accurate material, it has led to vastly different pictures of Jesus as a historical figure. In short, contrary to their promise, the criteria of authenticity have not provided a “scientific” and objective way to determine what is historical in the tradition. A common critique is that a given scholar will pick what they like, and “create a Jesus in their own image.”

The criteria of authenticity were briefly discussed in a previous post, but it will be helpful to explore them further here. The criteria are always up for debate, but most commonly they include the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and coherence.

Multiple Attestation: The criteria of multiple attestation refers to the idea that the more independent sources a unit appears in, the more likely it is to be historical. The questions immediately arise: What is an “independent source”? and “Which sources should we give the most weight to?”. A related part of this debate is the dating of various sources, which conceivably adds to the discussion about their accuracy (generally a source with an earlier date is seen as more historically accurate). An example of separating and dating independent sources appears in John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (notice the variety of canonical and non-canonical sources as well as the “splitting” of sources into smaller units):

First Stratum (30-60 CE):
1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Gospel of Thomas I, Egerton Gospel, Papyrus Vindobonensis Greek 2325, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus, Gospel of the Hebrews, “Q”, Miracles Collection, Apocalyptic Scenario, Cross Gospel.

Second Stratum (60-80 CE): Gospel of the Egyptians, Secret Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Mark, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, Gospel of Thomas II, Dialogue Collection, Signs Gospel, Colossians.

Third Stratum (80-120 CE): Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Luke, Apocalypse of John, 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, James, Gospel of John I, Letter of Ignatius, 1 Peter, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 13-14, 1 John.

Fourth Stratum (120-150 CE): Gospel of John II, Acts of the Apostles, Apocryphon of James, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 1-12, 2 Clement, Gospel of the Nazoreans, Gospel of the Ebionites, Didache 1:3b-2:1, Gospel of Peter.

This obviously get complex very quickly, especially when a scholar divides even individual sources up into hypothetical smaller units. Even on this strata system, scholars would debate where each document should be placed and/or if a document is even, on surface level, reliable enough to list in the group of sources. An event which is commonly seen as passing the test of multiple attestation would be the Cleansing of the Temple, which occurs in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

Dissimilarity: The criterion of dissimilarity (sometimes “double dissimilarity”) states that if a unit is dissimilar from the Judaism of his day and/or dissimilar from the early church, it is more likely to be authentic. An example might be Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” This saying is conceivably dissimilar from 1st Century Judaism which saw children as a blessing and, in a sense, a command, as well as the early church which did not encourage “becoming a eunuch” in any source we have. With this criterion, the questions arise: Is this dissimilar enough to pass the test? Was “Judaism” or “Early Christianity” unified enough to have something solid to contrast a saying with?, etc.

Embarrassment: The criterion of embarrassment states that if a saying or story is embarrassing to the church but included in the source anyway, it is likely to be historical. An example of an embarrassing element in a gospel source is Mark 6:5 – “So he could not perform any miracles there, except to lay his hands on a few of the sick and heal them.” The author of Matthew alters the language to read “he did not do many miracles there,” relieving the “embarrassment” of Jesus being unable to do something.

Coherence: The criterion of coherence states that an event is more likely to be authentic if it “coheres” with other data which is already deemed to be authentic by means of other criteria. In general terms, “the whole picture needs to fit.”

Debate remains over whether each individual criterion helps, or hurts, the cause of finding authentic historical data, but these are the waters through which historical Jesus scholars typically wade.

A modern alternative (also already briefly discussed in a previous post) is the method demonstrated by Dale Allison in his The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus. One could fairly call this method “pattern-seeking” – that is, if the tradition as a whole displays a certain pattern about Jesus, it is likely that Jesus acted or spoke in that way. Allison applies this method, for instance, to data from the gospels showing that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands upon people. He also applies it to Jesus’ eschatological expectations and self-conception. For instance, after cataloguing data implying that Jesus held an apocalyptic eschatology, he concludes:

“I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done. As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves.”

Allison’s method privileges general impressions over individual sayings/units.

Methodology in general remains a highly debated issue within the field.


The Historical Jesus: Gospel of John vs. Synoptics

When most people think about Jesus, they have a mashup of scenes from all four gospels in their head.  "The kingdom of God is at hand," healings, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," exorcisms, "Follow me," "You must be born again," the cleansing of the Temple, turning water into wine, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's," "For God so loved the world..."

In historical Jesus studies, not all of the material in the gospels is given equal weight.  And one gospel in particular – The Gospel of John – is cut out almost entirely as a source of historical information about Jesus.  When historical Jesus scholars argue for their unique reconstruction, in regards to the canonical sources, they argue almost exclusively from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  

Before getting into the reasons why the synoptics (called so because they provide a "synopsis" of the life of Jesus from a unified perspective) are nearly universally seen as giving us our earliest, most accurate data, it will be helpful to look at how scholars believe they developed.


source hypothesis.png


Although there is still some debate within the discipline, the graphic above is a pretty standard understanding of how the synoptic gospels developed. Mark is seen as our earliest gospel, often dated in the late 60s (dating is difficult however, and widely debated).  "Q" (standing for "Quelle," which is German for "source") is a hypothetical (but widely believed to have existed) "sayings source" consisting of material that has identical wording in Matthew and Luke, but which is absent from Mark.  Matthew is seen as using Mark, Q, and his own material to create his gospel, Luke using Mark, Q, and his own material to create his.  You can explore the relationship between these gospels by using a synoptic parallel.  

Occasionally the order of composition is challenged and dating debates never end, but this is the most common understanding of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke developed.  Each of these gospels use much of the same material and follow the same basic chronology of events.  The image of Jesus created in them is consistent. 

John is a different beast.  

Some of the primary differences in the Gospel of John include:


Jesus speaks in long, soaring soliloquies in the Gospel of John. The parable-centric teacher of the synoptics disappears and is replaced by one who engages in extended dialogues with individuals and long, theologically heavy monologues. In a typical Bible, this can be seen by the large blocks of red text in comparison to the synoptics. The style of the Gospel of John almost has the feel of a play or production in comparison to the choppiness and unevenness of, for instance, the Gospel of Mark.

Specific Events and Chronology

While the synoptics contain mostly the same events, the Gospel of John contains many unique and memorable stories not found in other sources. For instance the stories of Jesus changing water into wine, the conversation with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus saving the adulterous woman from being stoned, the raising of Lazarus, the healing of a man born blind, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and the resurrection appearance to Thomas are all unique to John. The chronology of John is also markedly different, most famously regarding the length of Jesus’ ministry (in the Gospel of John Jesus’ ministry lasts at least three years while in the synoptics it mostly takes place over the course of one year), and the timing of the cleansing of the Temple (in the Gospel of John Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, while in the synoptics this event takes place during the last week of his life).

The Message of Jesus

It is often claimed that, in the Gospel of John, “the proclaimer becomes the proclaimed.” That is, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ message is not primarily about himself, but, rather, about the kingdom of God. Both Matthew and Mark summarize Jesus’ message with the words “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” While the language of the kingdom of God doesn’t disappear completely from John, it is significantly muted and replaced by the message about Jesus. Jesus’ identity and the importance of believing in him are far more central to the theology of the Gospel of John than in the synoptics. It’s not that the message of Jesus is totally different, but the change in emphasis is very noticeable.


The Christology of the Gospel of John is consistently more advanced than in the synoptics. Personally, I would argue that the synoptics themselves have a high Christology (for instance, Jesus is depicted as the judge who will determine who enters the kingdom of God in Matthew 25), but only in the Gospel of John does Jesus become the Logos, co-equal with the Father. “I and the Father are one,” “the Word was God,” use of the Divine “I am,” etc. are language and concepts that are only found in the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is also widely viewed as the last gospel to have been written.  It wouldn't make sense, for instance, for the synoptic authors to lower their Christology; we would expect the portrayal of Jesus, if anything, to become heightened over time (and we do see this in the synoptics in subtle ways, for instance compare Mark 6:5 – "he could not perform any miracles there," to the later Matthew 13:58 – "he did not do many miracles there," Matthew altering language which seems to limit Jesus' power).  The author of the Gospel of John also seems to be aware of the death of both Peter and the disciple John (one reason that most don't believe John the disciple wrote all of the gospel, if any, despite the internal claim) which would lead to the belief that it was written quite late:

"Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”"

– John 21:17-23

It is unclear whether the writer or writers of the Gospel of John had access to the synoptic gospels.  If he, or they, did have access, it doesn't seem like that material was used in any straightforward way. 

Because of the significant differences between the synoptics and John, it seems that either the picture created by the synoptics gives us historically accurate information or John does.  If Jesus said things like "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," or "I am the Vine and you are the branches," or "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, the whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life," we would expect this kind of language to show up all over our sources. Scholars almost universally trust the synoptic gospels over the Gospel of John for historically accurate information about Jesus. You would really have to argue your case to try to convince those in the discipline that a specific incident from John is historically accurate.  Even conservative scholars like N.T. Wright do not use the Gospel of John much, if at all, in their reconstructions of the historical Jesus. A recent publication from two well-known evangelical scholars/apologists (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition) makes the same point. It is only the synoptic tradition that is argued for.

Personally, I have come to see the Gospel of John as a type of abstract art about Jesus, perhaps faithfully continuing theological lines of trajectory from the synoptics, but not as a valuable source for finding historical information about Jesus.  

But... just to throw a wrench in things, I will mention that there is one place in the synpotics where Jesus does sound strikingly like he does in John.  The passage is sometimes called the Johannine Thunderbolt. 

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."

– Matt. 11:27, Luke 10:22

This saying, found identically in Matt. 11:27 and Luke 10:22, is thus also part of the hypothetical Q source!  So there's your wrench.  

Reza Aslan: Jesus the Political Revolutionary

Every so often a new book comes out on the historical Jesus which captures the popular imagination.  The Jesus presented, of course, must be a Jesus that is shocking to Christians, and the book must present some novel way to view him.  There really are a lot of different ways you can go with the texts depending on how you want to slice them up.  One could claim that Jesus was primarily a magician, looking solely at the healing, miracle, and exorcism texts, ignoring the rest of the gospels as unhistorical or inconsequential.  Perhaps Jesus the Magician faked his death and resurrection so that the apostles could collect tithes.  Or maybe Jesus was a cult leader, his primary aim to gather a large following who worshiped him, including many women. Perhaps he took a harem off to Egypt, started a commune, and never returned.  

Zealot is, to me, such a book.  In it, Reza Aslan presents a political Jesus who aspired to inaugurate the earthly Kingdom of God, possibly by use of force.  Jesus, according to Aslan, pictured himself as the earthly king who would replace the corrupt temple elite as well as Roman rule.  When Jesus announced that "the kingdom of God is at hand," he meant that a new government was immanent, he himself taking the throne.

To open his historical analysis, Aslan states that there are only two things we can be sure of regarding the historical Jesus – that he led a Jewish movement and that he was crucified by Rome:

"In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so. By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived—and thanks to the Romans, we know a great deal—these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels. Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise—a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community. Jesus’s crime, in the eyes of Rome, was striving for kingly rule (i.e., treason), the same crime for which nearly every other messianic aspirant of the time was killed. Nor did Jesus die alone. The gospels claim that on either side of Jesus hung men who in Greek are called lestai, a word often rendered into English as “thieves” but which actually means “bandits” and was the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel. Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome. That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time. The notion that the leader of a popular messianic movement calling for the imposition of the 'Kingdom of God'—a term that would have been understood by Jew and gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome—could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervor that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea is simply ridiculous."

It's an odd claim Aslan makes that there are the only two facts about Jesus we can know, considering he also argues that other events from the gospels are historically accurate.  For instance, Aslan say this about the cleansing of the Temple:

"Of all the stories told about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there is one—depicted in countless plays, films, paintings, and Sunday sermons—that, more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant. It is one of only a handful of events in Jesus’s ministry attested to by all four canonized gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—adding some measure of weight to its historicity. Yet all four evangelists present this monumental moment in a casual, almost fleeting manner, as though they were either oblivious to its meaning or, more likely, deliberately downplaying an episode whose radical implications would have been immediately recognized by all who witnessed it. So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation. Above all, this singular event explains why a simple peasant from the low hills of Galilee was seen as such a threat to the established system that he was hunted down, arrested, tortured, and executed. The year is approximately 30 C.E. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, riding a donkey and flanked by a frenzied multitude shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David!' The ecstatic crowd sings hymns of praise to God. Some spread cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over, just as the Israelites did for Jehu when he was declared king (2 Kings 9:12–13). Others saw off palm branches and wave them in the air, in remembrance of the heroic Maccabees who liberated Israel from foreign rule two centuries earlier (1 Maccabees 13:49–53). The entire pageant has been meticulously orchestrated by Jesus and his followers in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: 'Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Cry out, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass, upon a colt, the son of a donkey' (Zechariah 9:9). The message conveyed to the city’s inhabitants is unmistakable: the long-awaited messiah—the true King of the Jews—has come to free Israel from its bondage. As provocative as his entrance into Jerusalem may be, it pales in comparison to what Jesus does the following day. With his disciples and, one assumes, the praiseful multitude in tow, Jesus enters the Temple’s public courtyard—the Court of Gentiles—and sets about 'cleansing' it. In a rage, he overturns the tables of the money changers and drives out the vendors hawking cheap food and souvenirs. He releases the sheep and cattle ready to be sold for sacrifice and breaks open the cages of the doves and pigeons, setting the birds to flight. 'Take these things out of here!' he shouts. With the help of his disciples he blocks the entrance to the courtyard, forbidding anyone carrying goods for sale or trade from entering the Temple. Then, as the crowd of vendors, worshippers, priests, and curious onlookers scramble over the scattered detritus, as a stampede of frightened animals, chased by their panicked owners, rushes headlong out of the Temple gates and into the choked streets of Jerusalem, as a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem, there stands Jesus, according to the gospels, aloof, seemingly unperturbed, crying out over the din: 'It is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.'“

These three realities – the Jewish political hopes of the times (i.e. Jesus started a "Jewish movement"), the fact that the crucifixion was performed by Romans for sedition, and the incident of the cleansing of the Temple form the backbone of Alsan's argument that Jesus was a political revolutionary.  

The Kingdom of God

Drawing on these historical lynchpins, Aslan has a unique interpretation of Jesus' message that "the kingdom of God is at hand":

"When Jesus said, 'the Kingdom of God has drawn near' (Mark 1:15) or 'the Kingdom of God is in your midst' (Luke 17:21), he was pointing to God’s saving action in his present age, at his present time. True, Jesus spoke of wars and uprisings, earthquakes and famine, false messiahs and prophets who would presage the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (Mark 13:5–37). But far from auguring some future apocalypse, Jesus’s words were in reality a perfectly apt description of the era in which he lived: an era of wars, famines, and false messiahs. In fact, Jesus seemed to expect the Kingdom of God to be established at any moment: 'I tell you, there are those here who will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power' (Mark 9:1). If the Kingdom of God is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological, then what Jesus was proposing must have been a physical and present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king that was about to be established on earth. That is certainly how the Jews would have understood it. Jesus’s particular conception of the Kingdom of God may have been distinctive and somewhat unique, but its connotations would not have been unfamiliar to his audience. Jesus was merely reiterating what the zealots had been preaching for years. Simply put, the Kingdom of God was shorthand for belief in God as the sole sovereign, the one and only king, not just over Israel, but over all the world. 'Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,' the Bible states of God. 'Yours is the kingdom … You rule over everything' (1 Chronicles 29:11–12; see also Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5). In fact, the concept of the sole sovereignty of God lay behind the message of all the great prophets of old. Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah—these men vowed that God would deliver the Jews from bondage and liberate Israel from foreign rule if only they refused to serve any earthly master or bow to any king save the one and only king of the universe. The same belief formed the foundation of nearly every Jewish resistance movement, from the Maccabees who threw off the yoke of Seleucid rule in 164 B.C.E., after the mad Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes demanded that the Jews worship him like a god, to the radicals and revolutionaries who resisted the Roman occupation—the bandits, the Sicarii, the zealots, and the martyrs at Masada—all the way to the last of the great failed messiahs, Simon son of Kochba, whose rebellion in 132 C.E. invoked the exact phrase 'Kingdom of God' as a call for freedom from foreign rule. Jesus’s view of the sole sovereignty of God was not all that different from the view of the prophets, bandits, zealots, and messiahs who came before and after him, as evidenced by his answer to the question about paying tribute to Caesar. Actually, his view of God’s reign was not so different from that of his master, John the Baptist, from whom he likely picked up the phrase 'Kingdom of God.' What made Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom of God different from John’s, however, was his agreement with the zealots that God’s reign required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious, and economic system. 'Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall soon be laughing' (Luke 6:20–21). These abiding words of the Beatitudes are, more than anything else, a promise of impending deliverance from subservience and foreign rule. They predict a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich. In the Kingdom of God, wealth will be redistributed and debts canceled. 'The first shall be last and the last shall be first' (Matthew 5:3–12 | Luke 6:20–24). But that also means that when the Kingdom of God is established on earth, the rich will be made poor, the strong will become weak, and the powerful will be displaced by the powerless. 'How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!' (Mark 10:23). The Kingdom of God is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed. It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful. 'Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you laughing now, for soon you will mourn' (Luke 6:24–25). The implications of Jesus’s words are clear: The Kingdom of God is about to be established on earth; God is on the verge of restoring Israel to glory. But God’s restoration cannot happen without the destruction of the present order. God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders. Saying 'the Kingdom of God is at hand,' therefore, is akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire is at hand. It means God is going to replace Caesar as ruler of the land. The Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite, and the heathen usurper in distant Rome—all of these were about to feel the wrath of God. The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple."


For Aslan, Jesus pictures the overthrow of Rome and an earthly kingdom to take its place.  It is unclear, in Aslan's reconstruction, how Jesus expects this to happen.  He seems to make something of the fact that Jesus's disciples, at one point, have a few swords.  Does Aslan think Jesus went up to Jerusalem prepared for armed conflict?  Does he envision an actual war?  Jesus and the Twelve against the world?  Does Jesus expect God to do something supernaturally to drive out the Romans?  As far as I can tell, Aslan never says.  Thus we are left with a picture of Jesus who comes to Jerusalem with no military plan, but who nevertheless expects to take the land for the true Israel.

Aslans's conception of the Kingdom of God here counters the dominant eschatological understanding promoted by Schweitzer and his line (Dale Allison, EP Sanders, Ehrman, etc.).  Whereas Schweitzer sees the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as a truly eschatological event – a final judgment, end of the world, and a new utopian reality – Aslan sees it as political overthrow.  The Kingdom of God, for Aslan, is roughly equivalent to the kingdom of David – a golden age where Israel has control of the holy land and is "ruled by God."  


Aslan starts with a hypothesis (one in the extreme minority among scholars) – that Jesus was a political revolutionary set on the overthrow of the corrupt Jewish elite and the Roman Empire.  He then gives primacy to a select few texts which confirm his picture, cutting out, reinterpreting, or ignoring any text which doesn't work.  This is a classic example of what the "criteria of authenticity" allow one to do, and why the historical Jesus enterprise has not reached any type of consensus.  

Aslan also tends towards hyperbole and exaggeration throughout and is extremely confident in his historical conclusions, using rhetoric implying that it is "ridiculous" or "absurd" to think otherwise.  

Aslan's position is relatively novel (although a handful of scholars have offered similar reconstructions in the past).  His conclusions wouldn't find much support at an SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) conference.  Nevertheless, as I write this, Zealot has 4,927 reviews on Amazon.  The works of the other scholars in the series have 262 (Wright), 146 (Borg), 130 (Crossan), and 25 (!) (Allison).  Perhaps this is a sign of the times.  Aslan sure knows how to sell a book.

I will say this; it was an entertaining read which brought Roman and Jewish history to life.  


John Dominic Crossan: Jesus the Cynic Philosopher

Of the paradigms presented in this series, the first three – the Orthodox/Conservative Jesus, the Wisdom/Liberal Jesus, and the Apocalyptic Jesus – are, in my opinion, the dominant options in the field.

The next two scholars I will look at, John Dominic Crossan and Reza Aslan, either offer distinct nuance to a major paradigm (Crossan to the Wisdom/Liberal Jesus paradigm), or a unique and esoteric take on the historical Jesus (Azlan and his “Jesus as Political Revolutionary” view).

John Dominic Crossan is a prominent figure in modern historical Jesus studies whose work in some ways parallels Marcus Borg’s. Both Borg and Crossan continue to be favorites of those in the liberal Church. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan winds through the synoptic tradition from birth narratives through resurrection, detailing what he believes is historical fact and what he believes is a product of the early church. In the end, Crossan ends up labeling his own reconstruction of Jesus as a “peasant Jewish cynic,” or simply a “cynic philosopher.”

The Birth Narratives

It is fairly common stock for the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke to be seen as pious fictions which do not seek to display historical events, but rather the significance of Jesus. For instance, Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as being born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophecy; Matthew has Jesus' family go to Egypt and then return in order to portray Jesus as a new Moses, etc.  Crossan is of this mind, seeing little history in the infancy narratives.  He also sees the virgin birth not as historical, but instead as a direct comparison and challenge to Roman imperialism, as the emperors were also thought of as "divinely conceived," and divine themselves.  For Crossan, it is the fact that Jesus, a peasant, is thought of as divine that was a shock, not simply the fact that he was portrayed as divinely conceived.  

"It is not absurd, in Celsus’s mind, to claim that Jesus was divine, but it is absurd to claim that Jesus was divine. Who is he or what has he done to deserve such a birth? Class snobbery is, in fact, very close to the root of Celsus’s objection to Christianity."

Historically, Crossan finds virtually nothing in the early life of Jesus that "actually happened," rather the stories were shaped to show his significance.  

"It is not enough, therefore, to keep saying that Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David’s lineage, not born in Bethlehem, that there was no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants, and no flight into Egypt. All of that is quite true, but it still begs the question of who he was and what he did that caused his followers to make such claims."


John the Baptist

One enduring topic within historical Jesus studies is the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.  Clearly, at some point, Jesus was a student or disciple of John (There is no other reason for the gospels to portray John as baptizing Jesus, as this is an embarrassment – John naturally being seen as "greater than Jesus," and Jesus, needing to be baptized, being seen as sinful.  Both of these issues are implicitly addressed in the gospels with John protesting, saying "you should be baptizing me," and Jesus consenting to baptism, saying "it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.").  But what was John's message?  And did Jesus take John's message and make it his own? Or did he eventually reject the thought of his teacher?

For Crossan, John preached the "kingdom of God" as an apocalypticist.  There are significant differences in how scholars use this term. For Schweitzer, Allison, Ehrman, etc. an "apocalyptic expectation" is an expectation of a literal end of the world scenario. The dead are raised, there is a final judgment, the righteous inherit the incorruptible Kingdom of God – Heaven on Earth. The way Crossan uses the term here, he believes that John, as an apocalypticist, expects a Jewish overthrow of Rome. Normal history continues, but Israel achieves independence.

"John was, then, an apocalyptic prophet like, but also somewhat unlike, many others to follow in the decades leading up to the First Roman-Jewish War in 66 C.E. Jesus was baptized by him in the Jordan. John went, in other words, out into the Trans-Jordanian Desert and submitted himself to the Jewish God and Jewish history in a ritual reenactment of the Moses and Joshua conquest of the Promised Land. He became part, thereafter, of a network within the Jewish homeland awaiting, no doubt with fervent and explosive expectation, the imminent advent of God as the Coming One. Presumably, God would do what human strength could not do—destroy Roman power—once an adequate critical mass of purified people were ready for such a cataclysmic event."


According to Crossan, Jesus starts as a disciple of John, but ends up rejecting John's vision of the Kingdom:

"Jesus changed his view of John’s mission and message. John’s vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had originally accepted and even defended in the crisis of John’s death, was no longer deemed adequate. It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now. By the time Jesus emerged from John’s shadow with his own vision and his own program, they were quite different from John’s, but it may well have been John’s own execution that led Jesus to understand a God who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration."

Jesus' Vision of the Kingdom

In contrast to John the Baptist, Crossan believes Jesus preached an exclusively "present Kingdom of God," one which could be entered into in the here and now.

"Herod Antipas moved swiftly to execute John, there was no apocalyptic consummation, and Jesus, finding his own voice, began to speak of God not as imminent apocalypse but as present healing."

"An alternative to the future or apocalyptic Kingdom is the present or sapiential vision. The term sapiential underlines the necessity of wisdom—sapientia in Latin—for discerning how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers. One enters that kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future."

"He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another. He announced, in other words, the unmediated or brokerless Kingdom of God."

Jesus' vision of the Kingdom was characterized by open table fellowship (Jesus ate and associated with sinners, prostitutes, and outcasts), physical healing, and a radical egalitarian nature.  It did not need to be "brokered" by the Temple, but was immediately available to all.  

Death and "Resurrection"

Crossan ends his life of Jesus with a look at Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus enters Jerusalem and "cleanses" (or "symbolically destroys") the Temple, which, being a dramatic critique of powerful Temple elites, is enough to get him arrested.  Through the cooperation of the Jewish court and some element of Roman government (Pontius Pilate or otherwise), there is a decision made to crucify Jesus.  Jesus thus dies on a cross outside of Jerusalem. After Jesus' death, Crossan, surveying the practice of crucifixion in Rome, concludes that the tradition of Joseph of Arimathea being given access to Jesus' body is pure fiction.  Jesus was either left on the cross, exposed to "the dogs" and the elements, or buried in a shallow grave, exposed to the same wild beasts.  Jesus' body thus becomes unrecognizable and lost.  

After this event, the disciples, who scattered at Jesus' arrest, begin to have visions or see "apparitions," similar to that of Paul (who counts his encounter of Christ among those of the disciples).  There is no concern to find Jesus' body as the disciples continue to experience the ongoing power of Jesus in the community.  The empty tomb narratives are later inventions.


To be honest, I'm not sure why Crossan uses "cynic philosopher" as a label for his reconstruction of Jesus.  He doesn't develop this much during the book.  It is only in Crossan’s conclusion that he fully explains this category:

"Jesus has been interpreted in this book against an earlier moment in Judaism’s encounter with Greco-Roman imperialism. It is not, however, the elite, literary, and sophisticated intellectual encounter of a Philo of Alexandria. It is, rather, the peasant, oral, and popular physical encounter of what might be termed, if adjective and noun are given equal weight, a Jewish Cynicism. Pagan Cynicism involved practice and not just theory, life-style and not just mind-set, in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization—a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage. Jesus and his first followers fit very well against that background; they were hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies. Greco-Roman Cynics, however, concentrated primarily on the marketplace rather than the farm, on the city dweller rather than the peasant. And they showed little sense, on the one hand, of collective discipline or, on the other, of communal action. Jesus and his followers do not fit well against that background. And both similarity and difference must be given equal respect. The historical Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic. His peasant village was close enough to a Greco-Roman city like Sepphoris that sight and knowledge of Cynicism are neither inexplicable nor unlikely. But his work was among the houses and hamlets of Lower Galilee. His strategy, implicitly for himself and explicitly for his followers, was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power. And, lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth nor at Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another. He announced, in other words, the unmediated or brokerless Kingdom of God."

Jesus was a cynic philosopher in the sense that his vision of the Kingdom of God stood against the power structures of his society.  Crossan's Jesus does not expect the "apocalyptic Kingdom of God," but rather believes in an exclusively present Kingdom, one that can be entered into at any moment, anywhere.  It is a "brokerless Kingdom," and thus Jesus himself makes no claim to be its King.  Jesus simply announces the possibility of a different way of life which stands in contrast to both the Temple elites and Roman imperialism.  

The Historical Jesus: Summaries From Other Scholars Who Accept "The Apocalyptic Jesus"

The following are several summaries from a variety of scholars who accept “The Apocalyptic Jesus.”  Not all of these summaries self-consciously end the author's work, as Allison’s does, but the quotations nevertheless broadly convey each writer’s thoughts on Jesus as a historical figure, and especially his eschatological expectations.  I will also repost the conlcusion of Dale Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet at the end of this list, so as to include him in the collection.


“Jesus' intense God-consciousness was of course inevitably structured in terms of the religious ideas of his own culture. The basic concept with which to understand his own existence in relation to God was that of prophet. But it seems that Jesus was conscious, not just of being a prophet, but probably of being the last prophet. 'Jesus,' says E. P. Sanders, 'saw himself as God's last messenger before the establishment of the kingdom' (Sanders 1985, 319). He came as the eschatological prophet, urgently proclaiming the imminent approach of the Day of the Lord. He and those who responded to him were living consciously in the last months or years before the great Day when the present world order would be swept away and God's kingdom established on earth. Widely circulated apocalyptic writings looked forward to this coming new age when 'the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people' (Daniel 2.44). The Dead Sea Scrolls also show, as Howard Kee says, 'how vital the expectation was within first-century Judaism that the present age was coming to an end, to be replaced by the new age in which God would vindicate the faithful and establish his rule over the world!' (Kee 1990, 17). According to one popular expectation, in the coming age Israel would be restored, Jerusalem would be the centre of the world, and peace and justice would reign universally. But beyond this there was a bewildering variety of differing strands of thought expressing the themes of God's long-awaited awaited new age and the expectation of 'one who is to come' to inaugurate it.

However, the expected End, which was also to be God's new Beginning, was delayed from year to year and from generation to generation. As one of the Qumran documents says: 'The final End is taking more time than the prophets predicted, for marvellous are God's mysteries ... The last days will come according to God's appointed time' (I QpHab 7.7-14; Schillebeeckx 1979, 121). But Jesus seems to have been vividly conscious that the End was at last close at hand and that he was called urgently to summon Israel to repentance so that it might be ready for the great day: 'Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel"' (Mark 1.14). As Mircea Eliade says, 'Following the prophets. following John the Baptist, Jesus predicted the imminent transformation of the world: this is the essence of his preaching' (Eliade 1982, 332)…

…Jesus' central message, then, was a call to repent, to believe that the kingdom was about to come, and to begin to live the life of the new age. This was the life of love…

…So what I myself see when I try to peer back through the New Testament documents to the person who lies at a distance of some two generations behind them is a man, Jesus, whose immensely powerful God-consciousness made God, and God's demanding but liberating claim upon men and women, intensely and startlingly real. He did not intend to found a continuing church or a new religion, and he was mistaken in his expectation of an early end to ordinary human history. Nevertheless he was so transparently open to the divine presence that his life and teaching have a universal significance which can still help to guide our lives today.”

– John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate


"For several decades scholars have contemplated the various categories of kingdom sayings, and they have tried to sort out just what Jesus thought. Johannes Weiss (1892) and Albert Schweitzer (1906) fixed especially on the passages in category (3) above (a cosmic event) and concluded that Jesus expected a great cataclysm within the very near future – during his own lifetime. This was, of course, a very uncomfortable conclusion for Christian scholars, since it meant that Jesus’ principal message was in error. Rudolf Bultmann (1926) accepted that Jesus thought of the kingdom as being future, but he was nevertheless able to make this relevant to Christian believers: ‘the Kingdom of God is… a power which, although it is entirely future, wholly determines the present’. Any great impending event influences present action, and Bultmann thought that Jesus’ view of the kingdom worked in that way. Christians should always view the kingdom as imminent; then they will live appropriately. Bultmann’s contemporary, C. H. Dodd, argued that, in Jesus’ view, the eschaton – the decisive moment in history – had already arrived in his own ministry. He proposed, for example, that ‘the kingdom has drawn near’ (Mark 1.15) should be translated ‘the kingdom has come’. Very few people were persuaded by Dodd’s arguments in detail, but many thought that he had a point. There was a sense in which Jesus thought that what was really important was already happening. This led to a consensus that lasted for a few decades: Jesus thought both that the kingdom was future and that it was ‘in some sense’ – never specified – present in his own words and deeds. Norman Perrin offered the classic formulation of this view (1963). In very recent years a few American scholars have decided that Jesus did not expect the kingdom to come in the future at all. Luke 17.20f. – the kingdom of God is among you – is the only passage that really counts when one defines the kingdom. Jesus was actually a political, social and economic reformer, and he did not expect God to do anything dramatic or miraculous in the future. It is my own view that we cannot recover Jesus’ view merely by picking and choosing among the sayings. In particular, I think it impossible to reject any of the major categories completely. I shall soon indicate where my own doubts lie, but I do not think that a historical reconstruction should depend on the notion that we can definitely establish what Jesus did not say. If we calmly survey all of the kingdom sayings, we shall see that most of them place the kingdom up there, in heaven, where people will enter after death, and in the future, when God brings the kingdom to earth and separates the sheep from the goats...
 ...The simplest and in some ways the best view to take of the complicated question of the kingdom in the teaching of Jesus is that he said all the things listed above – or things like them. There is no difficulty in thinking that Jesus thought that the kingdom was in heaven, that people would enter it in the future, and that it was also present in some sense in his own work. Paul’s letters very conveniently reveal that one person could mean different things by the word ‘kingdom’. He sometimes discussed who would inherit the kingdom (e.g., I Cor. 6.9f.), which implies that it was future. Yet he also wrote that ‘the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14.17). The full revelation of the kingdom of God may lie in the future, but in the present people can experience some of its benefits. The passages listed in category (3) above – which predict that the Son of Man will come on clouds while some of Jesus’ hearers are still alive – require further discussion. These are the passages that many Christian scholars would like to see vanish. First, they are lurid and, to many modern readers, distasteful. Secondly, the events they predict did not come to pass, which means that Jesus was wrong. Thirdly, and most importantly, if Jesus expected God to change history in a decisive way in the immediate future, it seems unlikely that he was a social reformer.

I shall not discuss a matter of taste, but I shall make a few comments on the second and third problems, taking the last first. We noted above that a striking conception of how the kingdom comes is the distinguishing mark of the sayings about the Son of Man coming on clouds. But in a very important way this understanding of how the kingdom comes was typical of first-century Jewish thought. God was always the main actor. That is certainly the case in the gospels: the only thing that Jesus ever asks people to do is to live right. In none of the material does he urge them to build an alternative society that will be the kingdom of God. There are few passages that can possibly fit into category (5) above, and even those that I listed there do not urge the creation of an alternate social entity. Jesus said that the kingdom is like leaven; this refers to its invisibility. It is also like a tiny grain of mustard. People who later created a social structure that consisted of small cells in each town or city could of course say that they were the leaven in the dough; they were trying to make society better. But the people who heard these similes in Galilee would have been motivated to look around for clues to the invisible kingdom that would one day erupt as a full loaf or a large tree; the passages do not say ‘create small groups of reformers’. Jesus thought that people should and could commit themselves to his way; they were not to be merely passive. But we must note what he urged. He said that by living right, people can enter the kingdom (category 1 above). According to the evidence, he thought that there was nothing that anyone could do to bring the kingdom, and even he himself could not assign places in it (category 2). It is drawing near, and people await it, but they cannot make it come (category 4). Like leaven, it grows on its own (category 5). In every single case it is God who does whatever has to be done, except that individuals who live right will enter the kingdom. There is no evidence at all for the view that individuals can get together with others and create the kingdom by reforming social, religious and political institutions. The second of the problems mentioned above – if Jesus expected God to change the world, he was wrong – is by no means novel. It arose very early in Christianity. This is the most substantial issue in the earliest surviving Christian document, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. There, we learn, Paul’s converts were shaken by the fact that some members of the congregation had died; they expected the Lord to return while they were all still alive. Paul assured them that the (few) dead Christians would be raised so that they could participate in the coming kingdom along with those who were still alive when the Lord returned. The question of just how soon the great event would occur appears in other books of the New Testament. A saying in the synoptics (discussed more fully below) promises that ‘some standing here’ will still be alive when the Son of Man comes. In the appendix to the Gospel of John (ch. 21), however, Jesus is depicted as discussing an anonymous disciple, called ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, with Peter: ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ The author then explains, ‘So, the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”’ (John 21.21–3).

The history of these adjustments to the view that God would do something dramatic while Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive is fairly easy to reconstruct. Jesus originally said that the Son of Man would come in the immediate future, while his hearers were alive. After his death and resurrection, his followers preached that he would return immediately –that is, they simply interpreted ‘the Son of Man’ as referring to Jesus himself. Then, when people started dying, they said that some would still be alive. When almost the entire first generation was dead, they maintained that one disciple would still be alive. Then he died, and it became necessary to claim that Jesus had not actually promised even this one disciple that he would live to see the great day. By the time we reach one of the latest books of the New Testament, II Peter, the return of the Lord has been postponed even further: some people scoff and say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ But remember, ‘with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’ (II Peter 3.3–8). The Lord is not really slow, but rather keeps time by a different calendar. In the decades after Jesus’ death, then, the Christians had to revise their first expectation again and again. This makes it very probable that the expectation originated with Jesus. We make sense of these pieces of evidence if we think that Jesus himself told his followers that the Son of Man would come while they still lived. The fact that this expectation was difficult for Christians in the first century helps prove that Jesus held it himself. We also note that Christianity survived this early discovery that Jesus had made a mistake very well...
 ...If, then, we were to decide what Jesus really thought by picking and choosing among sayings, we would conclude that he thought that in the very near future God would dramatically intervene in history by sending the Son of Man. This is the most securely attested tradition. He probably also thought what we find in the majority of the passages: that individuals who died would enter the kingdom, and that when God sent the Son of Man there would be a great judgement, with some people being assigned to heaven and some to Gehenna (hell). In addition, he thought that the power of God was especially manifest in his own ministry. He could conceivably have called this present power ‘the kingdom.’"

– E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus

“Here we have to retrieve one of our observable facts, that later tradition continues to attribute to Jesus an already disconfirmed prophecy; and one of our interpretive conjectures, that much of our scattered evidence can be coherently brought together by an appeal to broader Jewish apocalyptic tradition. To the New Testament evidence first. Moving backward along a trajectory from later text to earlier text to, finally, Jesus himself, we might hypothesize a gradient of increasing apocalyptic intensity. Matthew and Luke had Jesus proclaim the coming Kingdom, though they both defined “kingdom” in nonapocalyptic as well as apocalyptic ways, and they linked the Kingdom to Jesus’ glorious Second Coming. In this they follow Mark, whose Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom, conceived apocalypticly: That is, the Kingdom was an event that would happen or a stage that would arrive, not a state that somehow existed concurrent with normal reality. This Kingdom would arrive within the lifetime of Mark’s generation, at the edges of the lifetime of Jesus’. And it would begin with the return of the triumphant Son. Mark’s tone of confident immediacy matches that of Paul, a generation earlier. Paul, too, had proclaimed the imminent return of the Son, the resurrection of the dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom within his own lifetime. Paul said that he inherited this tradition: He has it as a “saying of the Lord” (1 Thes 4:13). Might not some version of this teaching go back through those who were apostles before Paul to the teaching of Jesus himself? Jesus’ messianic, triumphant appearance as the vindicated, militant Son most easily coheres, it is true, with post-Crucifixion developments. It compensates for the disappointment of Jesus’ crucifixion and clearly stands as a specifically Christian embellishment on earlier Jewish traditions of Messiah and Kingdom. But the Kingdom itself, the belief that it is coming, that it will particularly manifest in Jerusalem, that it will involve the restored nation of Israel as well as Gentiles who have renounced their idolatry—all these beliefs predate Jesus’ death by centuries and are also found variously in other Jewish writings roughly contemporary with him (some Pseudepigrapha; the Dead Sea Scrolls). Predicting his own Second Coming may indeed be historically implausible. Preaching the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, not at all.”

”The Jesus encountered in the present reconstruction is a prophet who preached the coming apocalyptic Kingdom of God. His message coheres both with that of his predecessor and mentor, John the Baptizer, and with that of the movement that sprang up in his name. This Jesus thus is not primarily a social reformer with a revolutionary message; nor is he a religious innovator radically redefining the traditional ideas and practices of his native religion. His urgent message had not the present so much as the near future in view. Further, what distinguished Jesus’ prophetic message from those of others was primarily its timetable, not its content. Like John the Baptizer, he emphasized his own authority to preach the coming Kingdom; like Theudas, the Egyptian, the signs prophets, and again like the Baptizer, he expected its arrival soon.”

”If modern believers seek a Jesus who is morally intelligible and religiously relevant, then it is to them that the necessary work of creative and responsible reinterpretation falls. Such a project is not historical (the critical construction of an ancient figure) but theological (the generation of contemporary meaning within particular religious communities). Multiple and conflicting theological claims inevitably result, as various as the different communities that stand behind them. But this theological reinterpretation should neither be mistaken for, nor presented as, historical description. To regard Jesus historically requires releasing him from service to modern concerns or confessional identity. It means respecting his integrity as an actual person, as subject to passionate conviction and unintended consequences, as surprised by turns of events and as innocent of the future as is anyone else. It means allowing him the irreducible otherness of his own antiquity, the strangeness Schweitzer captured in his poetic closing description: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.” It is when we renounce the false familiarity proffered by the dark angels of Relevance and Anachronism that we see Jesus, his contemporaries, and perhaps even ourselves, more clearly in our common humanity.”

– Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews


"So far we have examined four key sayings or blocks of sayings uttered by Jesus: the petition 'your kingdom come' in the Lord's Prayer; Jesus' prophecy at the Last Supper that, his approaching death notwithstanding, he would share in the eschatological banquet; Jesus' prophecy that Gentiles would come from the ends of the earth to share the heavenly banquet with the great patriarchs of Israel; and the beatitudes that promise to the poor, the mourners, and the hungry the reversal of their present suffering when the kingdom comes.  Each of these pivotal sayings has been tested by various criteria and judged authentic.  Furthermore, taken together they clearly indicate (1) that Jesus expected a future, definitive coming of God to rule as king; (2) that this hope was so central to his message that he bade his disciples make it a central petition of their own prayer; (3) that the coming kingdom would bring about the reversal of present unjust conditions of poverty, sorrow, and hunger; (4) that this final kingdom would bring about an even more astounding reversal: it would include at least some Gentiles, not as conquered slaves but as honored guests who would share the eschatological banquet with the Israelite patriarchs (raised from the dead?); and (5) that, despite the possibility of his impending death, Jesus himself would experience a saving reversal; he would share in the final banquet, symbolized by the prophetic event of the Last Supper.  The last tow points make it clear that the final kingdom is in some sense transcendent or discontinuous with this present world.  Quite apart, therefore, from the tangled and hotly debated problem of the Son of Man sayings, future eschatology, tied to the symbol of a transcendent kingdom of God, is a central part of Jesus' message.  
But how close or distant is this future kingdom that is coming?  Exegetes commonly and almost blithely use phrases like 'immanent,' 'very soon,' or 'just around the corner' to describe the kingdom's coming.  Yet in the sayings we have examined, as well as in certain other future sayings with a good claim to authenticity, there is a notable absence of phrases that state explicitly that the coming of the kingdom is very immanent.  Among the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus, it is difficult to find the equivalent of the express promise of the risen Jesus in the Revelation of John: ‘Yes, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:20).

Does this mean that the note of imminence has been read into Jesus’ message by early Christians and/or modern exegetes? While that suspicion is not without some basis, there are reasons for holding that Jesus himself thought of the kingdom’s coming as imminent. First of all, there is the global observation, urged by such scholars as Ben F. Meyer, that the OT prophets in general prophesied events not in the far-distant future but in the immediate future. Indeed, using insights from the social sciences, Bruce Malina claims that the mentality of the Mediterranean peasant did not easily lend itself to thought about the distant future. More to the point, though, it hardly made sense for Jesus to give up entirely his normal mode of living, to ask some of his disciples to do likewise, to dedicate himself full-time to the proclamation of the kingdom’s coming, to call people to a radical reform of their attitudes and lives in light of the kingdom’s future arrival, to issue dire warnings about what will happen to those who reject his message, to make the kingdom’s coming the object of the terse, concentrated prayer he teaches his disciples, and to find in the kingdom’s coming his sole consolation in view of his own impending death, if he did not think that the kingdom would soon arrive. More specifically, his creation of a special inner group of twelve disciples, apparently representing the reconstituted tribes of Israel in the end time, and his demand that this group leave their regular employment and families to follow him constantly in his itinerant ministry also point in the same direction. Surveying the authentic sayings of Jesus, we hear a note of urgency and intense anticipation, a fierce concentration on the theme of the kingdom’s coming, which is out of all proportion if Jesus did not imagine the kingdom’s coming to be close at hand. Then, too, there is the general argument from historical continuity. John the Baptist proclaimed an imminent-future eschatology tinged with apocalyptic, and the first-generation church did the same, at times moving over into full-blown apocalyptic. That the Jewish Jesus who proceeded from the Baptist movement and from whom the earliest leaders of the first-generation church in turn proceeded did not share the imminent-future eschatology of his Jewish predecessor or Jewish successors is possible, but not on the face of it likely…

…Yet how imminent is imminent? Looking at the authentic sayings of Jesus, it is difficult to say. Along with the sense of urgency in view of the proximity of the kingdom, there is a strange vagueness about exactly when the kingdom is coming. In this Jesus again resembles John the Baptist. There is a good deal of the eschatology of the OT prophets in both, along with some motifs from Jewish apocalyptic. But unlike a number of apocalyptic works, neither John nor Jesus engages in timetables or speculation about successive periods or ages. Part of the tension involved in Jesus’ warnings to be ever watching and waiting arises from the fact that the kingdom could come at any time soon, but no particular time is designated. Some scholars might object at this point that there are a few sayings of Jesus, saying with a good claim to authenticity, that do set at least a general time limit to the kingdom’s coming. Matt 10:23, Mark 13:30, and Mark 9:1 are the texts most often brought forward to support this view. While at first glance the evidence looks strong, I think that further investigation makes it likely that all three sayings derive not from Jesus but from the early church and reflect the latter’s preoccupations…

…I think that all the data and arguments point toward the conclusion that the three sayings do not come from the historical Jesus. Most likely, they were formulated by Christian prophets as words of consolation, encouragement, and direction to first-generation Christians who were facing both increasing hostility and an unexpectedly lengthy interval between resurrection and parousia. The upshot of our excursus into eschatological deadlines is that, while Jesus proclaimed an imminent, definitive coming of God’s kingdom, he did not specify any timetable or time limit for this coming. In his reticence on the subject he is closer to traditional OT prophecy (and to John the Baptist) than to full-blow apocalyptic.

I would suggest that this conclusion carries with it an interesting corollary. In this section we have examined three saying referring to the eschatological future that have turned out to be creations of first-generation Christianity. They give us a partial view of what early Christians were doing and what they were concerned about when they fashioned such logia. What we see in the case of these three sayings is not Christians inventing future eschatology out of whole cloth and imposing it upon an uneschatological Jesus. Rather, faced with the given of Jesus’ proclamation of an eschatological kingdom coming in the near future, the first-generation Christians are rather producing sayings that seek to adjust Jesus’ imminent eschatology to their own lived experience and resulting problems. What we saw in our first three sections is thus confirmed: it is the historical Jesus who is the origin of the imminent-future eschatology in the Synoptics. The early church soon found itself pressed to come to terms with the problems occasioned by that eschatology as the years (and deaths of Christians) multiplied. Imminent-future eschatology has its origins in Jesus; attempts to set time limits for that eschatology have their origin in the early church.”

– John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2

“In many ways, as I’ve indicated, this message was like that proclaimed throughout the writings of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Judgment was coming, people needed to repent in preparation or they would be condemned. Those who turned to God, though, would be saved. At the same time, Jesus’ message was different, for his was framed within an apocalyptic context. As a first-century Jew, Jesus lived when many Jews expected God to intervene once and for all for his people, to overthrow the forces of evil that had gained ascendancy in the world and to bring in his good Kingdom on earth. There would then be no more war, poverty, disease, calamity, sin, hatred, or death. This kingdom would arrive in power, and all that was opposed to it would be destroyed and removed. I do not want to leave the impression that these warnings of the coming judgment were the only things Jesus taught about during his public ministry… But it’s important to understand fully the framework within which his other teachings are to be fitted. Many people—Christian and non-Christian alike—think of Jesus as a great moral teacher whose ethical views can help produce a better society for those of us who are determined to make our lives together as just, peaceful, and enjoyable as possible. On one level, I think that’s probably right. But it’s also important to realize that Jesus himself did not see it that way. He did not propound his ethical views to show us how to create a just society and make the world a happier place for the long haul. For him, there wasn’t going to be a long haul. The judgment of God was coming soon with the arrival of the Son of Man—and people needed to prepare for its coming by changing the way they lived. Preparation for the Kingdom—that’s what ultimately lies at the heart of Jesus’ ethics…”

– Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

“One of my undergraduate professors used to enjoy stirring up controversy by declaring matter-of-factly in a classroom full of conservative evangelicals that 'Jesus was ignorant.' Heads would jolt to the left and right, eyebrows would dart up, and my professor would grin from ear to ear, pausing, before going on to quote Mark 13:32: 'But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.' 'See! Jesus was ignorant, by his own admission,' my professor would quip. 'Jesus didn’t know the day or the hour he would return.' After carefully studying and scrutinizing Jesus’ claims about a final judgment, I have slowly and unhappily come to agree with my professor. Jesus was ignorant. But he was more than just ignorant; he was also wrong. Like the apocalyptic Qumran community before him, and William Miller, Hal Lindsey, and so many others after him, Jesus of Nazareth predicted that the world as we know it would come to an end within his own generation. The big difference between Jesus and those other doomsday prophets is that Jesus was fortunate enough not to be around when his prediction failed. He had already been taken up into heaven, where he has been ever since, observing from above as his followers found ways to adapt in the wake of their upset expectations. Jesus watched from heaven as hundreds upon hundreds of end-of-the-world predictions went unfulfilled throughout the centuries. He watched as the Millerites found ways to adapt to The Great Disappointment of 1843 and became the Seventh-day Adventists. He watched Hal Lindsey predict in his worldwide bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, that the world would end in 1988. Then he watched Hal Lindsey write the second edition. Jesus is still watching. After 2000 years of his watching from heaven, and 2000 years of our waiting on earth, I think it’s time we Christians got together and had a little sit-down. It was not easy for me, coming to the conclusion that Jesus was wrong. It went against decades-strong conditioning which told me such a thing was impossible—a contradiction in terms almost. But another thing my Christian faith had conditioned me to believe was that all truth was God’s truth, and therefore that we could never get farther away from God in our relentless search for it. Eventually I had to be honest with myself, and with my scriptures, and call it like it is. In saying this, I want to make it clear that I recognize what a struggle this will be for many Christians. Many may be willing to let go of the inerrancy of the Hebrew Bible, or even of some of the details in the Christian scriptures. But to come to the point of being able to say that Jesus himself was wrong! That’s a horse of a very different color. I understand. I’ve been there. But ultimately we have to decide whether our faith is going to be informed by good evidence and shaped by reason, or determined in advance, prepackaged for us, by women and men just as fallible as we are. I do not see this as a choice between faith and reason, but as a choice between blind faith and reasonable faith. A reasonable faith is mature enough to acknowledge when it needs to be corrected, and it can survive such corrections. In fact, a mature faith learns to thrive on them.”

”Klaus Koch identifies eight basic features common to various strands of second temple Jewish apocalypticism: (1) urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future; (2) the end as a cosmic catastrophe; (3) periodization and determinism; (4) activity of angels and demons as explanation for human history; (5) new salvation, paradisal in character; (6) final manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth; (7) a mediator with royal functions; functions; (8) the catchword “glory.”  Each of these traits is indisputably attested within the Jesus movement. To these, Dale Allison adds several features found cross-culturally among apocalyptic or “millenarian” groups, traits that are also found within the Jesus movement. Like other millenarian groups, the Jesus group:

* addressed the disaffected or less fortunate in a period of social change that threatened traditional ways and symbolic universes
*emerged in a time of aspiration for national independence
*saw the present and near future as times of suffering and/or catastrophe
*envisaged a comprehensive righting of wrongs and promised redemption through a reversal of current circumstances
*depicted that reversal as imminent
*was both revivalistic and evangelistic
*divided the world into two camps, the saved and the unsaved
*broke hallowed taboos associated with religious custom
*replaced traditional familial and social bonds with fictive kin
*mediated the sacred through new channels
*demanded intense commitment and unconditional loyalty
*focused upon a charismatic leader
*understood its beliefs to be the product of special revelation
*took a passive political stance in expectation of a divinely wrought deliverance
*expected a restored paradise that would return the ancestors
*insisted on the possibility of experiencing that utopia as a present reality

…Given the comparative data, it should be clear that the Jesus movement fits squarely within the apocalyptic paradigm. Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker in a time when apocalyptic strands of Judaism were numerous and dynamic…

…according to the portrait painted by the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ peculiar brand of apocalypticism allowed Jesus to see himself as the chief agent of God whose life, death, and resurrection was to herald the imminent end of the present world order and usher in the new age—the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.”

– Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God


“Dr. Schweitzer's book does not pretend to be an impartial survey. He has his own solution of the problems, and it is not to be expected that English students will endorse the whole of his view of the Gospel History, any more than his German fellow-workers have done. But valuable and suggestive as I believe his constructive work to be in its main outlines, I venture to think his grasp of the nature and complexity of the great Quest is even more remarkable, and his exposition of it cannot fail to stimulate us in England. Whatever we may think of Dr. Schweitzer's solution or that of his opponents, we too have to reckon with the Son of Man who was expected to come before the apostles had gone over the cities of Israel, the Son of Man who would come in His Kingdom before some that heard our Lord speak should taste death, the Son of Man who came to give His life a ransom for many, whom they would see hereafter coming with the clouds of heaven. "Who is this Son of Man?" Dr. Schweitzer's book is an attempt to give the full historical value and the true historical setting to these fundamental words of the Gospel of Jesus. Our first duty, with the Gospel as with every other ancient document, is to interpret it with reference to its own time. The true view of the Gospel will be that which explains the course of events in the first century and the second century, rather than that which seems to have spiritual and imaginative value for the twentieth century. Yet I cannot refrain from pointing out here one feature of the theory of thorough-going eschatology, which may appeal to those who are accustomed to the venerable forms of ancient Christian aspiration and worship. It may well be that absolute truth cannot be embodied in human thought and that its expression must always be clothed in symbols. It may be that we have to translate the hopes and fears of our spiritual ancestors into the language of our new world. We have to learn, as the Church in the second century had to learn, that the End is not yet, that New Jerusalem, like all other objects of sense, is an image of the truth rather than the truth itself. But at least we are beginning to see that the apocalytic vision, the New Age which God is to bring in, is no mere embroidery of Christianity, but the heart of its enthusiasm. And therefore the expectations of vindication and judgment to come, the imagery of the Messianic Feast, the 'other-worldliness' against which so many eloquent words were said in the nineteenth century, are not to be regarded as regrettable accretions foisted on by superstition to the pure morality of the original Gospel. These ideas are the Christian Hope, to be allegorised and "'spiritualized' by us for our own use whenever necessary, but not to be given up so long as we remain Christians at all. Books which teach us boldly to trust the evidence of our documents, and to accept the eschatology of the Christian Gospel as being historically the eschatology of Jesus, help us at the same time to retain a real meaning and use for the ancient phrases of the Te Deum, and for the mediaeval strain of 'Jerusalem the Golden.'"

– F.C. Burkitt, Introduction to The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Albert Schweitzer)


“Let me now summarize once more the principal results of our study:

1) Jesus’ activity is governed by the strong and unwavering feeling that the messianic time is immanent.  Indeed, he even had moments of prophetic vision when he perceived the opposing kingdom of Satan as already overcome and broken.  At such moments as these he declared with daring faith that the Kingdom of God had actually already dawned.

2) In general, however, the actualization of the Kingdom of God has yet to take place.  In particular, Jesus recognized no preliminary actualization of the rule of God in the form of the new piety of his circle of disciples, as if there were somehow two stages, a preliminary one, and the Kingdom of Completion.  In fact, Jesus made no such distinction.  The disciples were to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, but men could do nothing to establish it.

3) Not even Jesus can bring, establish, or found the Kingdom of God; only God can do so.  God himslef must take control.  In the meantime, Jesus can only battle against the devil with the power imparted to him by the divine Spirit, and gather a band of followers who, with a new righteousness, with repentance, humility and renunciation, await the Kingdom of God.

4) The messianic consciousness of Jesus consists of the certainty that when God has established the Kingdom, judgment and rule will be transferred to him.  God with raise him to the office of “Son of man” (John 3:14), to which he is entitled (John 5:27), and will make him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).

5) Although Jesus initially hoped to live to see the establishment of the Kingdom, he gradually became certain that before this could happen, he must cross death’s threshold, and make his contribution to the establishment of the Kingdom in Israel by his death.  After that, he will return upon the clouds of heaven at the establishment of the Kingdom, and do so within the lifetime of the generation which had rejected him.  Jesus does not fix the time when this will take place more exactly, since the coming of the Kingdom cannot be determined in advance by observation of signs or calculation.

6) But when it comes, God will destroy this old world which is ruled and spoiled by the devil, and create a new world.  Even mankind is to participate in this transformation and become like the angels.

7) At the same time, the Judgment will take place, not only over those who are still alive at the coming of the Son of man, but also over those who will then be raised from the dead, good and evil, Jews and Gentiles alike. 

8) The land of Palestine will arise in a new and glorious splendor, forming the center of the new Kingdom.  Alien peoples will no longer rule over it, but will come to acknowledge God as Lord.  There will be neither sadness nor sin; instead those who are in God’s Kingdom shall behold the living God, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and bliss. 

9) Jesus and his faithful ones will rule over this newborn people of the twelve tribes, which include even the Gentiles.

10) The rule is not suspended by the rule of the Messiah, but thereby actualized, whether it be that they reign together side by side, or that Jesus reigns under the higher sovereignty of God. “

– Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God


 "He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet. He is Wovoka. He is Mambu. He is Birsa. What we think of the least of these, his brethren, we think, to large extent, also of him.
Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees a rich man clothed in purple and fine linen who feasts sumptuously every day while at his gate is famished Lazarus, whose only friends are the dogs who lick his sores. He sees people who are gorgeously appareled, who live in luxury in royal palaces, and who entertain themselves with the severed head of Elijah come again. What Nietzsche aptly if disparagingly called a "slave morality of chastity, selflessness, and absolute obedience" permits Jesus to see the truth about those who will power instead of justice. They are an evil generation, the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit, the first who will become last. Jesus knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. He prepares for the baptism with which he will be baptized.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet of consolation and hope who comforts those who mourn. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be OK. He declares, against all the evidence, that the oppressed and the destitute are not miserable but blessed. They will have treasure in heaven. They will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet whose realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself. How bad is it? What is the world really like? God's envoy is reviled as in league with Beelzebul, and the city of the great king kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. Clearly all has gone irredeemably wrong. The kingdom of God suffers violence.

But with God all things are possible. So Jesus becomes the visionary, like Daniel. As he watches, thrones are set. He beholds the queen of the South rising from the dead. He sees those who repented at the proclamation of Jonah condemning those who have not repented at the proclamation of one greater than Jonah. Nothing will he hidden. Whatever is covered up will he uncovered.

Jesus' generation, however, passed away. They all tasted death. And it is not the kingdom of God that has come but the scoffers who ask, Where is the promise of his coming? For all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. Jesus the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. Was it not all a dream, an unfounded fantasy-a myth, in the derogatory sense of the word?

Once, long ago, Christ crucified was foolishness, the great rock of offense. For us, however, crosses are jewelry. Today it is Jesus' status as a millenarian prophet that causes those who believe to stumble. No wonder that the debaters of this age, orthodox and liberal alike, have tried to persuade us that we have troubled ourselves unduly. Jesus, they console us, was no fool about the end. He was no apocalyptic enthusiast. Such apologists for God's envoy either pluck out and cast from the tradition all parts that seem to say otherwise, or they wrongly divide the word of truth in overly clever ways. The result is the same. Whether the misunderstanding is that of his first followers or his latter-day interpreters, Jesus himself is exonerated. When he was near Jerusalem he did not suppose that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. We can blame the students, who in their eschatological errors have not been like the teacher.

But not all was in parables, and maybe Mark was right when he wrote that Jesus explained everything in private to his disciples. Certainly Jesus was not a Delphian obscurantist, nor have the sources obscured him so much from us. He seems to have spoken plainly enough. And what he spoke plainly about was an old world made new, a corrupt world made incorrupt. It has not come. Will it ever?

And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

– Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet

On an only somewhat related note, my acceptance of “Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet” took place mostly through scholars who I did not perceive as attacking my faith.  From this list, in my opinion both Ehrman and Stark sometimes come off as hostile, angry, or cavalier about what is, for many people (including myself), a very serious subject.  In my experience as a conservative/orthodox Christian, an aggressive tone from a scholar stopped me from really hearing what they were saying.  I only finally became convinced by reading Dale Allison, who writes with a sincere, authentic, and respectful voice. 

Allison's Conclusion

It seems to be en vogue for those in the historical Jesus business to end their reconstruction with a vivid picture which summarizes their position, a la Albert Schweitzer – who ends The Quest of the Historical Jesus with his famous “As One Unknown” quote. I kind of like it.

This is Allison's conclusion to his first book on the historical Jesus:

"He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet. He is Wovoka. He is Mambu. He is Birsa. What we think of the least of these, his brethren, we think, to large extent, also of him.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees a rich man clothed in purple and fine linen who feasts sumptuously every day while at his gate is famished Lazarus, whose only friends are the dogs who lick his sores. He sees people who are gorgeously appareled, who live in luxury in royal palaces, and who entertain themselves with the severed head of Elijah come again. What Nietzsche aptly if disparagingly called a "slave morality of chastity, selflessness, and absolute obedience" permits Jesus to see the truth about those who will power instead of justice. They are an evil generation, the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit, the first who will become last. Jesus knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. He prepares for the baptism with which he will be baptized.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet of consolation and hope who comforts those who mourn. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be OK. He declares, against all the evidence, that the oppressed and the destitute are not miserable but blessed. They will have treasure in heaven. They will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet whose realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself. How bad is it? What is the world really like? God's envoy is reviled as in league with Beelzebul, and the city of the great king kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. Clearly all has gone irredeemably wrong. The kingdom of God suffers violence.

But with God all things are possible. So Jesus becomes the visionary, like Daniel. As he watches, thrones are set. He beholds the queen of the South rising from the dead. He sees those who repented at the proclamation of Jonah condemning those who have not repented at the proclamation of one greater than Jonah. Nothing will he hidden. Whatever is covered up will he uncovered.

Jesus' generation, however, passed away. They all tasted death. And it is not the kingdom of God that has come but the scoffers who ask, Where is the promise of his coming? For all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. Jesus the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. Was it not all a dream, an unfounded fantasy – a myth, in the derogatory sense of the word?

Once, long ago, Christ crucified was foolishness, the great rock of offense. For us, however, crosses are jewelry. Today it is Jesus' status as a millenarian prophet that causes those who believe to stumble. No wonder that the debaters of this age, orthodox and liberal alike, have tried to persuade us that we have troubled ourselves unduly. Jesus, they console us, was no fool about the end. He was no apocalyptic enthusiast. Such apologists for God's envoy either pluck out and cast from the tradition all parts that seem to say otherwise, or they wrongly divide the word of truth in overly clever ways. The result is the same. Whether the misunderstanding is that of his first followers or his latter-day interpreters, Jesus himself is exonerated. When he was near Jerusalem he did not suppose that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. We can blame the students, who in their eschatological errors have not been like the teacher.

But not all was in parables, and maybe Mark was right when he wrote that Jesus explained everything in private to his disciples. Certainly Jesus was not a Delphian obscurantist, nor have the sources obscured him so much from us. He seems to have spoken plainly enough. And what he spoke plainly about was an old world made new, a corrupt world made incorrupt. It has not come. Will it ever?

And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus

Dale Allison is arguably the foremost historical Jesus scholar representing Jesus primarily as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In the line of Albert Schweitzer, other modern scholars who accept that Jesus expected a final judgment in the near future include John P. MeierBart Ehrman, Thom Stark, EP Sanders, and Paula Fredriksen.

To summarize Allison's reconstruction, I will be using his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.  I have also previously reviewed this book here.  Probably the most natural way to understand Allison is to look at his historical method, and then at how he uses this method to address the questions of Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.  


One question that is often not explicitly addressed, but which underlies historical Jesus research, is that of historical method.  That is, how do we determine what parts of the gospels go back to the historical Jesus and what parts can be assigned to the invention of the early church?  Traditionally, scholars have used four criteria for determining the authenticity of a passage – multiple attestation (if the saying appears in more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic), dissimilarity (if a saying is different from the proclamation of the early church and from 1st Century Judaism, it is likely to be authentic), embarrassment (if a saying is embarrassing to Jesus, the disciples, or the church, it is likely to be authentic), and coherence (if a saying fits with other sayings deemed "historical," it is also likely to be historical).  For Allison, the criteria just don't work:


"Scholars have, since the 1960s, often discussed the so-called criteria of authenticity, the sieves by which we supposedly enable ourselves to pan for original nuggets from Jesus. The names of the chief criteria are now well known: multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence. While they all at first glance appeal to common sense, further scrutiny reveals that they are fatally flawed. Dissimilarity, which allows us to hold as authentic items that are dissimilar to characteristic emphases of Judaism and of the church, presupposes that we know far more about the church and Judaism than we do. Multiple attestation overlooks the obvious problem that the more something is attested, the more the early church must have liked it, so the more suspicious we may well be about it. I do not, however, wish to review here the defects of the traditional criteria. Those failings have become increasingly apparent over the last two decades, and much of the discussion is becoming tedious because repetitious: we have entered an echo chamber. I also wish to say little about recent suggestions for revising our criteria – a trick I was still trying to perform ten years ago – or about replacing them with new and improved criteria. My question is not Which criteria are good and which bad? or How should we employ the good ones? but rather Should we be using criteria at all? My answer is No. In taking this position, I am setting myself against the dominant academic tradition, which has sought to find which bits of our texts represent Jesus' own views. Some may well wonder whether we are good for anything if we cannot sandblast the ecclesiastical soot from the tradition and restore the original. Others, perhaps suffering from a bit of physics envy, may insist that rigorously applying criteria is our only hope for keeping our discipline scientific and avoiding wholesale subjectivity. I am of a different mind. After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even to accurate estimates of their probability. That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it. Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it. There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened. Put otherwise, the set of materials whose origin we can reasonably assign to Jesus or the church is scarcely identical with the set of materials the tradition credits to Jesus. The former is instead a subset of the latter, and a small one at that. Did Jesus utter the golden rule? I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, nor how anyone will ever show that he did not. I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other. Sadly, this example is for me representative."

Because Allison does not believe that almost any individual saying can be conclusively deemed "authentic" or "inauthentic," his way forward – his historical method – is to look for large patterns in the gospels.  For instance, if there are many sayings which show Jesus coming into conflict with religious authorities, we must conclude that Jesus likely came into conflict with religious authorities.  If the large patterns of the synoptic gospels are wrong about Jesus, then we ought to give up the Quest, for our sources are simply too flawed.  

Allison gives an example of his method with an uncontroversial dimension of Jesus' ministry:

"With regard to the sources for Jesus, the traditional criteria of authenticity privilege the parts over the whole. It seems more prudent to privilege generalizations drawn from the whole than to concentrate upon one individual item after another. As a demonstration of how this works in practice, consider the following traditions:

• Jesus prohibited divorce: 1 Cor. 7:10; Mark 10:2-9; Luke 16:18.

• Jesus sent forth missionaries without staff, food, or money: Matt. 10:9-10; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 10:4.

• Jesus instructed missionaries to get their living by the gospel: 1 Cor. 9:14; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7.

• Jesus commanded loving and doing good to enemies: Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36.

• Jesus forbade judging others: Matt. 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to bury his father: Matt. 8:21-22; Luke 59-60.

• Jesus spoke of hating one's father and mother: Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; Gospel of Thomas 55, 101.

• Jesus enjoined disciples to take up a cross: Matt. 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27.

• Jesus enjoined unlimited forgiveness: Matt. 18:21-22; Luke 17:3-4.

• Jesus exhorted hearers to lose their lives in order to save them: Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33.

• Jesus called people away from their livelihoods: Mark 1:16-20; 2:14.

• Jesus figuratively demanded violent removal of hand, foot, and eye: Mark 9:42-48.

• Jesus asked a wealthy man to relinquish his money: Mark 10:17-27.

• Jesus forbade taking oaths: Matt. 5:33-37.

• Jesus commanded money to be lent without interest: Matt. 5:42; Gospel of Thomas 95.

• Jesus called some to a life without marriage: Matt. 19:11-12.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to say farewell to his parents: Luke 9:61-62.

• Jesus asked his disciples to renounce all of their possessions: Luke 14:33.

I infer from this collection of materials that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands on at least some people. Whatever he may have taught about compassion, and whether or not his motivation owed something to eschatological expectation, he insisted on self-sacrifice, to the point of demanding that some individuals follow him immediately and unconditionally. This historical verdict holds whatever tradition histories one draws up for the various units. What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded."


So Allison privileges "general impressions" created by the texts instead of sifting through, trying to find a core of "authentic sayings," and then reconstructing from there.  This method leads him to his conclusions on two hot-button topics, Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.

Jesus' Eschatology

Adhering to his historical method, Allison catalogues material in the synoptics which paint a picture of Jesus expecting a final, eschatological judgment in the near future.  

"Consider the following list of observations, whose length should trouble those who wish to bid farewell to Weiss and Schweitzer:

• A few logia declare that the sands of ordinary time have almost run out: Mark 9:1; 13:30; Matt. 10:23 (cf. Luke 18:8: 'he will vindicate them speedily').

• The same temporal conviction appears in Matt. 23:34-35 = Luke 11:49-51, which declares that all blood shed from the foundation of the world will be 'required of this generation.' In order for this to make sense, 'this generation' must be the last generation.

• 'The day of judgment' and its abbreviated stand-ins 'the judgment' and 'that day' envisage the eschatological assize: Matt. 10:15 = Luke 10:12; Matt. 11:22, 24; 12:36; Luke 10:14.

• Luke 12:5 = Matt. 10:28; Mark 9:43-45 (cf. Matt. 18:8-9); and Matt. 5:22; 23:15, 33 refer specifically to Gehenna, the antithesis of heaven, the frightful place of postmortem or eschatological punishment.

• That place of punishment is depicted as a place of fire in Matt. 7:19; Mark 9:47-48; Luke 12:49; John 15:6 (and perhaps Mark 9:49), as often in Jewish apocalyptic texts.

• Matt. 18:6-7 = Luke 17:1-2 and Mark 9:42 warn that the punishment for harming others will be worse than having a millstone around the neck and being thrown into the sea. Only the eschatological judgment could impose a fate worse than that.

• Matt. 22:13 and 25:30 speak of 'the outer darkness.'

• Matt. 24:51 refers to 'the weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

• As it appears in Matt. 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46, the parable of the unfaithful slave functions as a warning about the coming judgment.

• The enigmatic Matt. 24:40-41 = Luke 17:34-35 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 61), about one being taken and another left, means either that the wicked will be plucked from the earth (cf. Matt. 13:41) or (more likely) that the righteous will be taken to meet the Son of man in the air (cf. Mark 13:27; 1 Thess. 4:17). Whatever option is correct, the final judgment coincides with a supernatural sorting.

• Luke 17:26-30 (cf. Matt. 24:37-39) likens the coming judgment to Noah's flood and sulfur falling upon Sodom, both events being, in Jewish and Christian literature, popular prototypes of the last judgment and end of the world.

• Matt. 13:36-43 interprets Matt. 13:24-30 (= Gospel of Thomas 57) as an allegory of the division of just and unjust on the final day.

• Matt. 13:47-50, the parable of the net, depicts the same division under a different figure.

• Matt. 25:31-46 presents a memorable picture of the great judgment, introduced by the simile of a shepherd separating sheep from goats.

• The threat of eschatological judgment has its counterpart in the promise of heavenly or everlasting reward: Matt. 5:12 = Luke 6:23; Mark 10:29-30; Matt. 5:19; John 6:40; 14:2-3; Gospel of Thomas 19, 114.

• The tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 promotes humanitarian conduct by depicting pleasant reward in `Abraham's bosom' and miserable retribution in 'Hades.'

• The paradoxical sayings about reversal in status – the first will be last, the last first, etc. – are not naively optimistic observations about everyday human experience (Matt. 10:39 = Luke 17:33; Matt. 23:12 = Luke 14:11; Matt. 25:29 = Luke 19:26; Mark 4:25; 8:35; 10:31; Matt. 13:12; Luke 18:14; Gospel of Thomas 4). This is why they use the future tense – 'will be exalted'; 'will keep it [life]'; 'will be first.' They foresee see God turning the world upside down, which can only be the result of the coming judgment.

• In view of the parallel in the Kaddish ('May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon') and the associations that 'kingdom' often has in ancient Palestinian Jewish literature, 'your kingdom come' (Matt. 6:10 = Luke 11:2) is more likely than not a prayer for God to redeem the world once and for all.

• Mark 1:15; Matt. 12:28 = Luke 11:20; and 22:18 attach temporal verbs to 'kingdom' (e.g., Matt. 10:7 = Luke 10:9). They thereby advert not to a changeless reality but rather to the dramatic advent of an unprecedented, supernatural reality. In these sayings, 'the kingdom of God' is nearly synonymous with 'the age to come' or 'the new creation.'

• The futurity of the kingdom is also manifest in the sayings about entering it (Mark 10:15, 23-25; Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 23:13). The future tense in Mark 10:23 and Matt. 5:20, the parallelism in Mark 9:43-47 ('into life' = 'into the kingdom'), the eschatological sense of passing through the narrow door or gate in Matt. 7:13 = Luke 13:24, and the circumstance that it is not the kingdom that enters people but people who enter the kingdom all make the meaning plain enough: the saints will, at the end of days, cross the threshold into a redeemed world.

• The Jesus of Mark 10:30 invokes the distinction, known from the rabbis, between 'this age' and 'the age to come.'

• Some logia about the Son of man clearly allude to the scene of the last judgment in Daniel 7: Mark 13:26; 14:62; Matt. 10:32-33 = Luke 12:8-9; Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30; John 5:27.

• The canonical Jesus believes in the resurrection of the dead: Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 12:41-42 = Luke 11:31-32; Luke 14:12-14; John 5:28-29.

• The belief that unprecedented tribulation will herald the advent of the new age and that the kingdom of Satan will not go away without a fight, appears not only in Mark 13:3-23 but also in Matt. 11:12-13 = Luke 16:16 (the kingdom now suffers violence) and Matt. 10:34-36 = Luke 12:51-53 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 16; it is the time not of peace but of the sword).

• Several times Jesus admonishes people to be on the alert because the eschatological crisis may come at any time: Matt. 24:43-51 = Luke 12:39-46; Mark 13:33-37; Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-38; 21:34-36.

• Mark 14:25 and Luke 14:24; 22:30 look forward to the eschatological banquet.

• Jesus has twelve disciples, their number being that of the tribes of Israel. This circumstance almost certainly reflects the common expectation, with roots in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that, at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel. In line with this, Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30 promises some of Jesus' followers that they will 'judge' – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment upon' – the twelve tribes of Israel. The return of the scattered from the Diaspora is also the subject of Matt. 8:11-12 = Luke 13:28-29, for the 'many' who come 'from east and west' and are hosted by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, must include the scattered tribes.

• Some texts depict Jesus as 'the Messiah;' an end-time deliverer: Mark 8:27-30; 11:9-10; Matt. 23:10; John 1:41; 4:25, 29; 6:14-15; 9:22; 10:24; 11:27 (cf. Mark 15:2, 9, 18, 26, 32).

• The canonical Jesus regards eschatological oracles in the Hebrew Bible as being fulfilled in his own time; see Matt. 11:10 = Luke 7:27, citing Mal. 3:1; Mark 9:13, adverting to Mal. 4:5-6; Mark 14:27, quoting Zech. 13:7; and Matt. 5:17, asserting in general that Jesus fulfills 'the law and the prophets:'

• Jesus, responding to a query from John the Baptist, implicitly equates himself with the latter's 'coming one' (Matt. 11:2-5 = Luke 7:18-23), an eschatological judge (Matt. 3:11-12 = Luke 7:16-17). He does this by taking up the language of prophetic texts in Isaiah (26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1), implying that he is their fulfillment. The beatitudes, where Jesus comforts those who mourn (Matt. 5:3, 4,6,11-12 = Luke 6:20-23), do something similar inasmuch as they too echo Isaiah 61; and Luke 4:16-19 has Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 and finding its prophecies fulfilled in his ministry.

• Luke 19:11 says that, when Jesus neared Jerusalem, his disciples 'supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately'; and John 21:20-23 (discussed below) reflects the belief of some Christians that Jesus promised the end during the lifetime of his disciples."

He concludes:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done.

As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves. Opting, as I do, for the former alternative entails that Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression. More precisely, he envisaged, as did many in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.

This is not to say that Jesus had only eschatology on his mind. Although I once subscribed to and publicly defended Schweitzer's 'thorough-going eschatology,' I do so no longer. I suppose I was the victim of system-mongering, of the rationalistic impulse to make all the pieces of the tradition fit snugly together without remainder. I have come to see that too much associates itself only obliquely, if at all, with eschatology, that the puzzle will always have large lacunae, and that we will always be left with pieces that go nowhere. Nonetheless, Jesus did, when gazing about, perceive a perishing world, and in accord with then-contemporary readings of the prophetic oracles of the Hebrew Scriptures, he hoped for a re-created world, a heaven on earth, a paradise liberated from devils and illness. And this was for him no vague inkling or tangential thought but a consuming hope.

His dream, however, has remained a dream. It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth."


Jesus' Self-Conception

Tied in with eschatological expectations is the issue of Jesus' self-conception.  Allison again creates a list of material which portrays Jesus as an end-times deliverer:

"Consider these Synoptic materials:

• Jesus said that the Son of man will return on the clouds of heaven and send angels to gather the elect from throughout the world: Mark 13:26-27; cf. 14:62; Matt. 10:23 (allusions to Daniel 7's depiction of the last judgment are clear).

• The sons of Zebedee asked to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus and so presupposed his eschatological enthronement: Mark 10:35-40; cf. 14:62.

• Jesus selected a group of twelve disciples, whose number must represent the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28); and as he was not among their number but instead their leader, his leadership of renewed Israel is implied: Mark 3:13-19.

• Peter thought that Jesus must be 'the Messiah': Mark 8:29; cf. 14:61-62.

• Jesus declared that the fate of at least some individuals at the final assize will depend on whether they have acknowledged or denied him: Mark 8:38; Matt. 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9.

• When Jesus went up to Jerusalem, crowds hailed him with the words, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David': Mark 11:9-10.

• Jesus prophesied that he would destroy and rebuild the temple: Mark 14:58.

• When the chief priest asked Jesus whether he was 'the Messiah'; he replied by applying Dan. 7:13 and Ps. 110:1 to himself: Mark 14:61-62.

• The Roman governor Pilate asked Jesus whether he took himself to be 'the king of the Jews'; and Jesus did not say 'No': Mark 15:2.

• Jesus called himself 'Lord' and warned that not to do what he commanded will bring personal destruction: Matt. 7:21-27; Luke 6:46-49.

• Jesus, in response to a query from John the Baptist, equated himself with the latter's 'coming one': Matt. 11:2-4 = Luke 7:18-23 (the answer draws on prophetic texts in Isaiah and makes an implicit claim to fulfill them).

• Jesus warned cities rejecting him – not John the Baptist or someone else – that they will suffer for it at the eschatological judgment: Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; Luke 10:12-15.

• Jesus avowed that people who 'receive' his disciples really 'receive' him, and that to 'receive' him is to receive the one who sent him, God: Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16.

• Jesus interpreted his success in casting out demons 'by the finger of God' – an allusion to Exod. 8:19 that makes him Mosaic – to mean that God's kingdom had arrived; he thereby made himself out to be the chief means or manifestation of its arrival: Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20.

• Jesus assured his followers that they will judge – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment on' - restored Israel, and he cannot have thought of his role as any less: Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30.

• Jesus read from the beginning of Isaiah 61 and proclaimed that its prophecies were fulfilled in his ministry; he thus claimed to be the anointed prophet of Isaiah's eschatological vision: Luke 4:16-19."

Again, Allison concludes:

"As with the argument about Jesus making extraordinary demands, so here too: I do not contend (or deny) that Jesus formulated any of the sayings just cited, or that any event or circumstance referred to must be deemed historical. I am rather displaying a pattern. Jesus' starring role in the eschatological drama is all over the tradition, in words attributed to him and in words assigned to others, in stories as well as in sayings. Mark firmly attests to it. So also does the material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. So too traditions unique to Matthew and Luke. And it would be easy enough to add material from Paul, Acts, John, the Gospel of Thomas, and elsewhere. So my inference is that, whatever titles he may or may not have used, Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgment, someone akin to Melchizedek in 11QMelchizedek, or the Elect One in the Parables of 1 Enoch."

Thus Allison's Christology is "too high" for liberals.  Jesus did, in fact, have an exalted self-conception, that of the final prophet and eschatological judge.  It is also "too low" for conservatives, as Jesus likely did not consider himself "equal with God" – the second member of the Trinity.  His reconstruction also, of course, cuts against traditional, orthodox understandings of Jesus by claiming that he was mistaken about the final judgment and end of the world.  In short, Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is unsettling to both progressives and conservatives.  


Allison accepts the general impressions of the synoptic gospels and concludes that Jesus' primary message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus believed that a final judgment, resulting in a sorting of the righteous from the unrighteous, would soon take place and that the righteous would inherit the Kingdom of God on earth.

This is not to say that this is "all Jesus was about."  For instance, Allison likely wouldn't object to many of Borg's categories for Jesus (healer, charismatic, etc.), but, for Allison, the expectation of a near end was the driving force of Jesus' proclamation: "the Kingdom of God is at hand."

The following is a lecture in which Dale Allison reads large portions of his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. In this lecture, he leaves out portions of the book which deal with Jesus’ self-conception and eschatology.