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."  


Conclusion


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.
 

Conclusion


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.  


Method


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.  


Conclusion


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.

Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus


While Tom Wright is typically the historical Jesus scholar of choice for conservative Christians, I would argue that Marcus Borg is the favorite of progressives.  Borg (1942-2015) taught for most of his career at Oregon State University, lectured widely, and wrote about both the historical Jesus and how the Church could function in light of modern critical biblical scholarship.  His most popular works are Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and The Heart of Christianity.  During his career, Borg was in dialogue with many of the scholars in this series, including N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and John Dominic Crossan.  He was also a member of the Jesus Seminar.  To outline Borg's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I will be using his Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

To open his book, Borg details what he believes to be the two dominant pictures of Jesus in modern society – what he calls the "popular image" and the "scholarly image."  Ultimately he believes that both of these pictures are mistaken, and sees his own reconstruction as a "third way."  

This is Borg's description of the "popular image" of Jesus:
 

"The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semidivine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the divinely begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.

The image is widespread, with degrees of sophistication and elaboration. Billboards and evangelists proclaim, 'Jesus died for your sins,' suggesting that this was his purpose in a nutshell. Much of Christian preaching takes the popular image for granted. The celebration of the major Christian festivals in our culture reinforces the image. Christmas, with wise men and shepherds and angels, a manger and a star and a virgin, tells the story of his wondrous birth and thus calls attention to his divine identity; Easter focuses on his triumph over death.

The popular image has its roots deep in the past, indeed in the language of the New Testament itself. Among the gospels, its primary source is John, probably the most loved and familiar gospel. There Jesus speaks of his identity in the most exalted terms known in his culture, especially in the magnificent series of 'I am' statements: 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the bread of life,' 'I am the resurrection and the life,' 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' 'Before Abraham was, I am.' The self-proclamation of his own identity in the 'I am' statements is buttressed by other passages in John: 'The Father is in me and I am in the Father,' 'He who has seen me has seen the Father,' 'I and the Father are one.' In a single verse, the fourth gospel sums up Jesus’ identity, purpose, message, and the proper response to him: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.'"


As Borg notes, this image is highly dependent on the Gospel of John.  It is in the Gospel of John where we find the most exalted conception of Jesus.  Borg then goes on to argue that this image of Jesus has almost unanimously been rejected by modern scholarship, mostly stemming from modern scholars' preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) over John regarding historical information about Jesus.  In the synoptics, Jesus does not overtly and publicly proclaim his Divine Sonship (save, perhaps, a single verse to be discussed later in this series).  In fact, a strong motif in the gospel of Mark is the "messianic secret" – Jesus does not want to publicly declare his messiahship. Borg concludes:
 

"...once this fundamental contrast between John and Mark was seen, a great historical “either/or” presented itself to scholars. Either the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his divine identity and saving purpose (John), or he did not (Mark). To put the issue most directly, Jesus could not consistently proclaim his identity and at the same time not do so. Thus the question became, 'Which image of Jesus is more likely to be like the historical Jesus, John’s or Mark’s?' The nearly universal answer given by scholars was 'Mark.' With that answer, the popular image’s basis as a historical image disappeared. The image of Jesus as one who taught that he was the Son of God who was to die for the sins of the world is not historically true."


Borg thus dismisses the popular image of Jesus as historically untrue.  He then goes on to discuss the dominant scholarly image of Jesus for the past century – that of an "Apocalyptic Prophet."
 

"According to the consensus (of 'scholarship'), from such an examination of Jesus’ message and mission we may surmise that he was an 'eschatological prophet' or perhaps even 'the eschatological prophet.' The phrase needs some unpacking. Eschatology is that branch of theology which concerns the 'end time'—the end of the world, last judgment, and the dawning of the everlasting kingdom. An eschatological prophet is one who announces the end. There is some evidence that some in the Jewish tradition near the time of Jesus anticipated such a prophet, 'one like unto Moses' or perhaps even greater than Moses, who would appear immediately before the end of time. To say that Jesus was the eschatological prophet is to say that he saw himself as the prophet of the end who proclaimed the end of the world in his own time and the urgency of repentance before it was too late. That was the core of his message and mission.

The consensus image of Jesus as eschatological prophet was grounded in the claim that the 'Kingdom of God' was at the center of Jesus’ own message. So Mark describes Jesus’ mission in his advance summary at the beginning of his gospel: 'The Kingdom of God is at hand, therefore repent!' However, the consensus image also depends upon a particular interpretation of the phrase 'Kingdom of God,' namely that 'Kingdom of God' is to be understood eschatologically as referring to the 'final' Kingdom which would bring an end to earthly history as we know it, the 'end of the world.'

This eschatological understanding of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God had its origin primarily in the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) at the beginning of this century. He is most familiar to us as a world-famed medical missionary, Nobel prize recipient, and a modern 'saint.' But as a young man Schweitzer, prior to going to Africa, wrote two brilliant books that decisively shaped Jesus studies for the rest of the century. Calling attention to the element of crisis running throughout the gospels and the statements about the coming of the 'Kingdom of God' and 'the Son of man' who would bring all earthly history to a close, Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected these events in the immediate future and saw his death as playing a decisive role in bringing about the end. Jesus was mistaken; the end did not come, and he died perhaps realizing his mistake.

Though Schweitzer’s work initially created a sensation and still strikes many as outlandish when they first hear of it, his basic image of Jesus as eschatological prophet gradually became the consensus understanding among scholars. Stripped of some of its details, it became the dominant image in German New Testament scholarship and, through the influential role played by German scholarship, in much of North American scholarship. To be sure, scholars also recognized that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as present and not only future, but the future imminent Kingdom continued to be emphasized. The image of Jesus as one who proclaimed the end of the world and the urgency of repentance remained."


Like the popular image of Jesus, Borg believes that this scholarly image – that of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet – is outdated.  In Borg's view, the texts implying that Jesus believed "the end was near" should be assigned to the early church, not the historical Jesus himself.  Excising these texts, and polling the Jesus Seminar allow Borg to conclude that:
 

"The majority of scholars no longer think that Jesus expected the end of the world in his generation."


That is, the scholarly consensus regarding Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is over.  Borg then goes on to detail a "third way" of seeing the historical Jesus.  


Borg's Jesus


After outlining two images of Jesus which he finds unsatisfactory, Borg spends the rest of his book painting his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Borg uses five categories through which to understand the historical Jesus: charismatic (or "mystic"), healer, sage, prophet, and movement-founder.


Charismatic or "Mystic"


Borg's first category for Jesus is that of a "charismatic," "Spirit-filled person," or "mystic."  Drawing from texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus saw visions, spent long periods in prayer, and declared himself to have a prophetic authority ("the spirit of the Lord is upon me," etc.), Borg believes that Jesus saw himself standing in the line of Jewish prophets (and similar to "holy men" or "spirit-people" from other traditions):
 

"The cumulative impression created by the synoptic gospels is very strong: Jesus stood in the charismatic tradition of Judaism which reached back to the beginnings of Israel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray him as a Spirit-filled person through whom the power of Spirit flowed. His relationship to Spirit was both the source and energy of the mission which he undertook. According to these earliest portraits, Jesus was one who knew the other world, who stood in a long line of mediators stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Indeed, according to them, he was the climax of that history of mediation. Moreover, as we shall see, Jesus’ relationship to the world of Spirit is also the key for understanding the central dimensions of his ministry: as healer, sage, revitalization movement founder, and prophet."


Healer


Flowing from Jesus' experience of the Spirit, Borg's second category is Healer.  The tradition is filled with stories of Jesus performing physical healing and exorcisms.  Although Borg is not certain as to the historicity of these events, he remains open to the possibility.  At a minimum, the stories are symbolic, and encourage the Christian community to view Jesus through this lens.

 

"Mediators between the two worlds of the primordial tradition often become 'people of power' or miracle-workers, especially healers. To be sure, not all do. In the history of Israel and other cultures, some were primarily mediators of the divine will as prophets and law-givers, or of 'supernatural' knowledge as diviners or clairvoyants. Others were charismatic military leaders, 'spirit warriors.' But some became channels through which healing power flowed from the world of Spirit into the visible world. Such figures of power ('men of deeds,' as they were called in Judaism) were known in first-century Palestine, both in her ancient tradition (notably, Elijah) and in charismatics contemporary with Jesus such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer. Jesus was one of these 'men of deeds.'"


Sage


Borg's third category for the historical Jesus is that of a Sage.  Borg believes that Jesus, as teacher, showed his disciples a path, or a "way."  This "way of Jesus" involved an inner transformation of the heart and was marked by self-sacrifice.  It was a path that was counter-cultural, an "alternative wisdom."
 

"Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. Regularly addressed as 'teacher' during his lifetime by followers, opponents, and interested inquirers alike, he has been hailed by subsequent generations of Christians as more than a teacher, as indeed he was. Nevertheless, he was not less than a teacher. But what was he a teacher of? Some have thought that he was primarily a teacher of beliefs; or, more precisely, of what was to be believed in order to be saved, providing 'correct information' in the form of divine revelation about God and Jesus’ own role in salvation. Others have stressed that he was a teacher of a new moral ethic, whether understood as a new moral code consisting of highly specific commands, or as a set of more generalized ideals such as love and justice or the 'golden rule' or the 'brotherhood of man.' But Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation. His teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world. As teacher of a way and critic of conventional wisdom, he was similar to other great sages who proclaimed a way or path sharply in tension with the culture of their time. Their number outside of Israel included Lao Tzu in sixth-century B.C. China and the Buddha in fifth-century B.C. India. Within Israel, Moses was the great sage without equal, calling his followers out of Egypt, the culture in which they lived, to a radically different way...

Just as Jesus used a multiplicity of images in his diagnosis of the human condition, so he also used many different images to speak of the cure, that is, the path of transformation. Underlying this diversity is a common conceptual understanding which comes to expression most clearly in the first three images we shall treat: a new heart, centering in God, and the way of death. The images intertwine with each other, even as each works separately as well. Each expresses what the 'cure' involves, even as it adds nuances of meaning that may not be captured by the other images."


Prophet


Borg's fourth category for Jesus is Prophet.  Standing in the line of Israel's prophets, Jesus "spoke truth to power," and radically critiqued the Judaism of his day.  This is especially seen in his critique of Jewish elites (i.e. their treatment of the "holiness code," etc.) and his actions in the Temple.  
 

"Of all the figures in his tradition, Jesus was most like the classical prophets of Israel. Active from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C., they are among the most remarkable people who ever lived. Sharing the feature which defines the figure of prophet as known in many cultures, they were 'verbal mediators' or messengers between the two worlds of the primordial tradition. Indeed, the name of the last of them, Malachi, means simply 'my messenger.' Their role as messengers of God flowed out of the intensity of their experiences of the Spirit, among the most vivid in the Spirit-filled tradition of Israel. As mediators of the Spirit, they spoke 'the Word of the Lord,' and the 'I' of the prophetic speeches is most often the divine 'I.' Moreover, their language was vivid, compact, and poetic, surging with extraordinary energy. Especially characteristic of them was their passionate and critical involvement in the historical life of their people in their own day. Speaking in times of historical crisis, they radically criticized their culture in the name of God and became voices of an alternative consciousness challenging their culture’s dominant consciousness."


Movement-Founder


Finally, Borg sees Jesus as a Movement-Founder.  Although Jesus intended his movement as a revitalization of Judaism, its influence obviously ended up spreading beyond Israel.  Christianity as a separate religion only occurred because of the rejection of most of the Judaism of Jesus's day.  

 

"We commonly think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But, strictly speaking, this is not historically true. Instead, his concern was the renewal of Israel. Toward this end, he created a sectarian revitalization or renewal movement within Israel, now commonly called the 'Jesus movement,' whose purpose was the transformation of the Jewish social world. The relationship between a renewal or revitalization movement and a social world is one of both affirmation and advocacy of change. On the one hand, such movements profess a strong loyalty to an inherited social world or tradition (if they did not, we would speak of them as new movements rather than renewal or revitalization movements). On the other hand, they claim that present circumstances call for a radical response. Spawned by a perceived difference between how things are and how they ought to be, all within the framework of a tradition, they affirm a tradition, even as they seek to revitalize or transform it. The fact that Jesus did not intend to create a new religion but intended the revitalization of his own tradition does not mean that Christianity is a mistake. Rather, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism came into existence as the result of a historical process which took several decades after his death. Two factors were most important. As a revitalization movement within Judaism after his death, the Jesus movement in an important sense failed. Though most of its early members were Palestinian Jews, it did not capture the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people. The second factor leading to separation was the success of the Jesus movement in the Mediterranean world outside of Palestine. There it quickly became a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, and the more Gentiles it attracted, the more it seemed distinct from Judaism. Thus, before the end of the first century, Christianity had in effect become a 'new' religion. Henceforth, though Christianity continued to affirm its connection to Judaism, the connection was increasingly to the Old Testament rather than to the Jewish people themselves. In terms of its membership, it was no longer a peculiarly or predominantly Jewish movement."



Conclusion


Borg's historical Jesus is sometimes classified simply as the "Wisdom Jesus."  Although this is probably an oversimplification (Borg himself objected to his work being boiled down to this), it does give a pretty fair image of his reconstruction.  Borg's Jesus is primarily a Spirit-filled teacher, strongly critiquing the Judaism of his day as part of his message.

A few hot button issues.  In regards to Jesus' self-conception, Borg does not believe that Jesus thought himself to be Divine, or a kind of "final prophet" or Messiah.  Borg's Jesus believes that he is called by the Spirit to renew the Judaism of his day and that he has authority to do so because of his experience of the Spirit.  Anything beyond this is a product of the early church. 

In regards to eschatology, Borg's Jesus has nothing (that I can see) to say about a final judgment, or the coming eschatological kingdom of God.  Texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus does expect this, Borg again treats as products of the early church.  For instance, he doesn't believe that the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and parallels) stems from the historical Jesus. 

Finally, in regards to the use of texts, Borg, like virtually all historical Jesus scholars, works only from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Within the synoptics, Borg seemingly finds a core group of authentic sayings/narratives and forms his picture of Jesus from this selection of texts.  He does not touch on historical method in this book, but I would assume he uses the traditional "criteria of authenticity" (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence).  As far as I can tell he uses the general impression of the synoptic gospels except where Jesus has an exalted self-conception or speaks of a final judgment.  In some cases he lets history slide into the background and is just fine if stories become symbolic or metaphors, for instance with miracle stories and the resurrection narratives.  When Borg does talk about the theme of "the kingdom of God" (which is rare), he emphasizes its present reality over an expected future inbreaking.  

Borg's picture of Jesus – a Spirit-filled man who taught an "alternative path" – is often used in the liberal Church.  I wouldn't hesitate to call Borg's reconstruction "the liberal Jesus."

 
The following is a lecture from Marcus Borg given at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  In it, Borg discusses the impact of Albert Schweitzer on the discipline, and reasons why his paradigm differs from that of Schweitzer (i.e. why he rejects the "Apocalytpic Jesus").  

N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus


It is uncontroversial to say that Tom (N.T.) Wright is the favorite modern historical Jesus scholar of most conservative Christians.  This is because Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth is roughly that of the Council of Nicea.  Although he doesn't like to pigeonhole himself in some of categories of Evangelicalism, Wright's Jesus is, in the end, God's chosen servant, King, Messiah, the Second Member of the Trinity.  He will come again in glory.  Wright's Jesus is an orthodox Jesus who fits into conservative Christianity pretty much perfectly.  

Wright is a theologian, historical scholar, and retired Anglican Bishop.  He writes both scholarly and popular level books, and has commentaries on each book of the New Testament.  He is a prolific author and speaker.  

For this post I will look at his Simply Jesus, a popular level book in which he essentially lays out his view of who Jesus was as a historical figure.  For a very deep dive, check out his The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.  

In his Introduction, Wright lays his theological cards on the table:
 

"...writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."



Again, Wright isn't a pure historian.  He writes self-consciously for the confessing Church.  As he says, there is no such thing as neutral historical study, but knowing that he is first and foremost a churchman at least gives a hint at the flavor of his work.  This doesn't mean he can't be right, but it let's you know where he's coming from.  

Outlining Wright's Jesus isn't overtly straightforward as he often avoids simplified labels and tends toward highly nuanced and poetic descriptions.  In Simply Jesus, Wright begins by overviewing three historical realities and then showing how Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God fits into and addresses those realities.  He ends by discussing Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension as well as addressing how the church ought to live out its call to help "bring the Kingdom" today.  To get a feel for his reconstruction, it is probably best to overview the three major sections of this book.


Part 1: Rome, Judaism, and God


The most obvious political reality of Jesus' time and place was the Roman Empire.  Before Jesus' birth, Rome transformed from a loose republic into a unified state with an emperor.  Julius Caesar led to Augustus Caesar who led to Tiberius Caesar.  Each emperor was considered "divine" and was seen as the bringer of a new age of prosperity to the world.  
 

"…the new age, for which we have waited for a millennium, is now here at last through the peaceful and joyful rule of Augustus Caesar. The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: 'Good news! We have an Emperor! Justice, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!'"


The title "Son of God" would have been immediately recognizable to Romans.  Who was the son of God?  The "son" of Julius – whoever was on the throne.  

The second historical reality that Jesus stepped into was that of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people lived in the story of their Scriptures.  They were the people of God – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  After having their own "golden age" during the time of the Davidic monarchy, Israel had sinned against their God and been led into exile in Babylon as punishment.  Although they had "returned from exile" (as Babylon was conquered by Persia and the Jews were allowed return to their land) and rebuilt their Temple, the Jewish people were still oppressed.  They still lived under foreign, pagan rule, and looked forward to the culmination of their story, when they would once again enter a golden age of independence through the power of their God.  This hope was very alive in the world which Jesus was born into, and sometimes expressed itself as a "messianic hope" – the search for a messiah who would usher in the "rule of God."

Finally, Wright cites the reality and unpredictability of God as the final circumstance of the times.  Although the Jewish people had their own hopes and dreams for the nation, God was not bound to fulfill their expectations, but represented an unexpected Force, a free agent who could surprise.  
 

"To understand this great cyclone, this tropical hurricane, you have to understand, as I said before, something about the ancient Jewish vision of God. This always was the highly unpredictable element within the Jewish story itself. God remained free and sovereign. Again and again in the past, the way Israel had told its own story was different from the way God was planning things. The people, no doubt, hoped that the way they were telling their own story would fit in comfortably enough with the way God was seeing things, but again and again the prophets had to say that this was not so. Often God’s way of telling the story cut clean against the national narrative. And Jesus believed that this was happening again in his own time. God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The Jewish people always hoped that this would simply underwrite their national aspirations; he was, after all, their God. They wanted a divine hurricane simply to reinforce their already overheated high-pressure system. But the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, had always warned that God’s coming in power and in person would be entirely on his own terms, with his own purpose—and that his own people would be as much under judgment as anyone, if their aspirations didn’t coincide with God’s."


Thus, according to Wright, Rome, the hopes of the Jewish people, and the reality of God form the major historical backdrop which Jesus walked into in 1st Century Palestine.  


Part 2: The Kingdom Come


In Part 2, Wright shows how Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God addresses his historical circumstances.  

First, Wright is clear, Jesus' message was summed up in his announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  "The kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus says.  "Repent and believe the good news!"  Wright, paraphrasing Jesus’ message, says:
 

"So where does the story lead? It leads straight to the announcement that Jesus was making: 'God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!'"


Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is here, and God is now in charge.  Wright then spends much of this section of the book detailing characteristics of the Kingdom, drawing from the synoptic gospels.  

According to Wright, the Kingdom of God includes:

 
A New Exodus

"But this was the story that sustained the Israelites for the next thousand years and more, up to the time of Jesus—and, of course, sustains the Jewish people to this day. This was the story Jesus knew from boyhood. This was the story—the tyrant, the leader, the victory, the sacrifice, the vocation, the presence of God, the promised inheritance—within which it made sense to talk about God taking charge. This was the story about God becoming king. This was the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last. Since we have reason to believe that Jesus was one of the greatest communicators of all time, we must assume that this was the story he wanted them to think of. He must have known what he was doing, what pictures he was awakening in people’s minds. When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus."

 

Healing
 

"No point putting the world right if the people are still broken. So broken people will be healed: paralytics, epileptics, demoniacs, people with horrible skin diseases, a servant on the point of death, an old woman with a high fever, blind men, deaf and mute men, a little girl who’s technically already dead, an old woman with a persistent hemorrhage. And so on, and so on. Matthew lets the list build up until we almost take it for granted: yes, here’s a person who’s sick; Jesus will cure her."

 

Celebration
 

"But it wasn’t just healings. It was also parties—celebrations. Jesus, to be sure, often spent long times alone in prayer. But he was also deeply at home where there was a party, a kingdom party, a celebration of the fact that God was at last taking charge. And, as is well enough known but not always fully understood, he seems to have specialized in celebrating God’s kingdom with all the wrong people. Tax-collectors (always disliked; doubly so when they were working for Herod or the Romans or both) were a breed apart, and Jesus went out of his way to meet them, to eat and party with them, to call one of them to be part of his inner team."

 

Forgiveness

"There are many interesting features to the passage—notice, for instance, the way in which Simon, the Pharisee, is mentally criticizing Jesus for not knowing what sort of a woman this is, whereupon Jesus shows that he knows what’s going on, not only in the woman’s heart, but in Simon’s too. But we focus here on forgiveness itself. Jesus, as usual, tells a story to explain what he is doing. This time it’s about a man who had two debtors, one owing him a huge sum and the other a small sum. Neither could pay, so he forgave them both. So, he asks his host, which of the two will love him the more? Clearly, comes the answer, the one for whom he forgave the greater debt. Precisely so, says Jesus, explaining that this is why this woman had poured out love so richly upon him—unlike the host, who hadn’t even begun to show Jesus any love at all. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can tell that this woman has been forgiven, has indeed been forgiven a great deal. She knows, deep inside herself, that she’s been forgiven. That’s why there’s so much love coming out of her. And if she’s a forgiveness person, perhaps that shows that she is already enjoying the fact that God is becoming king, whereas people who aren’t forgiveness people don’t believe it."

 

Transformed Hearts

"So what is Jesus saying? That some people are simply permanently unclean—namely, all those who find these things bubbling up in their hearts? Hardly. There wouldn’t be too many 'clean' people around if that were his point. No, his point is that when God becomes king, he provides a cure for uncleanness of heart. Again and again it comes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), on the edge of one remark after another. When God becomes king, he will come with a message of forgiveness and healing, and this is designed not just to remove old guilt or to cure old disease, but to renew the whole person from the inside out."

 

A Battle Against Satan

"The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. Whatever we think of this theme, it was clearly centrally important for all the gospel writers, and we have every reason to suppose it was central for Jesus as well..."

 

A Redefinition of Temple

"And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up—but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living."

 

A New Creation, On Earth

"...it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people 'how to get to heaven.' That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave 'earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on 'earth'; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality."

 

Thus Jesus is the King who brings the Kingdom in which God reigns.  For Wright, Jesus embodies what God is supposed to do – set the world right.  
 

"Jesus not only believed that this was another of those moments where the true, prophetic vision of the divine hurricane would clash with the current national mood. He believed, it seems—the stories he told at the time bear this out quite strikingly—that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory."

 

In regards to the Roman background, Jesus is King which means Caesar is not.  In regards to the Jewish hope, Jesus is indeed restoring Israel, but in an unexpected way.  Not by defeating the pagans militarily, but by establishing "a spiritual kingdom" around himself.  For those with eyes to see, God is indeed becoming King through the ministry of Jesus.

Wright here also accepts the historical crucifixion, bodily resurrection, and ascension (although he sees this story as highly "metaphorical") of Jesus.  In these events, Jesus' identity is confirmed and he is now "enthroned" (through the resurrection and ascension) as King.  


Part 3: Already, but Not Yet


In Part 3, Wright essentially argues that, although Jesus is already enthroned, it is up to us, the church, to help continue to realize the Kingdom of God on Earth as we wait for his return.
 

"We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’s sovereign rule over the world—a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, he must reign until 'he has put all his enemies under his feet,' including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, 'the son himself will be placed in proper order' under God the father, 'so that God may be all in all.' I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom 'will have no end.' That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah. We cannot, in other words, agree with Billy that this reign is postponed to the second coming. That, on the contrary, is when it will be complete. In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him 'from above' (John 19:11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds!—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account. Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection, and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not. The calling to account has, in other words, already begun—and will be completed at the second coming. And the church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second. What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work."



Conclusion


Wright, treating all material in the synoptic gospels as essentially historically accurate (even if, at times, poetic), finds on their pages the orthodox Jesus.  Jesus is King, the Messiah, he "embodies God" – "doing what God is supposed to do."  He was crucified, buried, raised, and will return again in glory.  And for those who wish to join the Kingdom, he sets us to task to bring the Kingdom to earth today, as a pre-figuring of what is to come at the final consummation.  


The following audio is as good a summary of Wright’s thought as I could find.  In this lecture, you can get a good sense of what he believes about the historical Jesus, as well a taste of his poetic style.  The lecture was given at Calvin College in 2012. 

The Historical Jesus Series


I find myself in the "spiritual but not religious" camp these days.  That wasn't always the case.  I spent roughly ten years as an evangelical Christian.  During this time Jesus was my Lord and Savior.  I worshipped Him, served Him, and gave my life, as best I knew how, to doing His will.  

But, although Jesus of Nazareth has arguably shaped me more significantly than any other historical figure, he no longer plays a huge role in my spirituality.  This is largely because I have come to certain conclusions about his historical identity.  During seminary, primarily through the work of Dale Allison, I became convinced that the historical Jesus is best described as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  That is, Jesus believed that normal history was about to end and would be soon followed by a final judgment in which the righteous would be separated from the unrighteous (cf. Matt 25), the righteous inheriting a new world free of evil, pain, and suffering – the Kingdom of God – the unrighteous destined for eternal punishment.   In my opinion this belief was the driving force of Jesus' ministry.  When Jesus proclaimed that "the kingdom of God is at hand," a phrasing which seems to sum up his message in the minds of the gospel writers, this is primarily what I think he had in mind.  

Not everyone agrees.

The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" has been underway for almost three centuries.  The most famous overview of the Quest comes from Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest of The Historical Jesus.  In it, Schweitzer traces historical Jesus scholarship from Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) through the end of the 19th Century.  Since Schweitzer's time new scholars have added their work to the field, each with their own take on who Jesus was as a historical figure.

It's a confusing field of study, and the portraits that scholars paint often look very different from one another.  When musing about whether Christian theologians should even be concerned with finding a historical Jesus, Allison remarks:
 

"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear. More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers. We indeed have a plethora of them. There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian. There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom. There is the Jesus of E. P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer. There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent violent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination. One could go on. To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions. For the portraits, which serve different constituencies in the marketplace, are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."

– Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus


There is no one Historical Jesus.  There are only various reconstructions.  

For the layman, I don't blame anyone interested in "the Quest" for throwing their hands up in the air.  If the scholars don't agree, how is the layman to decide?  And isn't it presumptuous to think we can know Jesus better than 2,000 years of Christian Tradition has taught?  

Perhaps.  But for those who have gone down this road of study, their personal conclusions often drastically change (or sometimes confirm) the nature of their faith.  It's a big deal.  

In this series, I'd like to outline several different paradigms for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  In the process, I will use the work of well-known modern scholars as representative of a given paradigm.  The outline will be as follows:
 

1. N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus
2. Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus
3. Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus
4. John Dominic Crossan: Jesus the Cynic Philosopher
5. Reza Azlan: Jesus the Political Revolutionary


I will then conclude with some thoughts on several issues surrounding Historical Jesus studies.  

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Final Thoughts


In my opinion, this is John Hick’s tour de force. In The Fifth Dimension, Hick systematically lays out a rational way of understanding how the world religions, and religious experience in general, can fit together from a pluralist perspective. I have quibbles here and there with Hick, but really the only thing I don’t like about this book is the title.

Reading Hick back to back with Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time would be a great introduction to ideas surrounding religious pluralism. If you’re looking to dig deeper into Hick, I’d recommend The Metaphor of God Incarnate as a next read.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Living Within a Religious Tradition


Accepting religious pluralism generally entails seeing each world religion as a relative expression of truth. Instead of one’s home tradition being accepted as the absolute, God-given faith, each faith becomes a “finger pointing to the moon” – a human expression that points to the experience of God.

One question that arises for many people who find themselves in this camp is, “What do I do for religious community?”

Hick, in The Fifth Dimension, advocates a certain way of continuing in traditional religious community – what he calls “living within a true myth.” This naturally entails seeing one’s own religious meta-narrative as a myth – a poetic way of pointing at certain truths of human experience and our relationship to God.

In regards to the “Christian myth,” Hick makes the following observations:

“We have our own narrative of the human story, beginning with creation, continuing through redemption, with the cross of Christ as its pivotal point, and proceeding to the End, God’s grand finale. To say that this is myth, formed by the religious imagination in response to the person of Jesus, is not to say that Jesus never existed, but that the way in which his significance has been understood has been an exercise in mythological thinking. It is certain that there was a Jesus of Nazareth, living in the first third of the first century CE. Some of the stories about what he said and did must be historically true, some partly so, others not at all, and there has long been an academic industry devoted to sorting them into these categories. Such weighing of probabilities is the kind of work that lends itself to keen argument and debate, to the formation of rival schools of thought and to changing fashions of opinion. So the following picture can only reflect what I personally regard as the most reliable New Testament scholarship since the critical rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus in the 1970s.

It seems likely that during the two or three years of his public ministry Jesus was one of several itinerant Galilean preachers and healers who stressed God’s fatherly love and were critical of the more legalistic religion of the priesthood at the Jerusalem Temple. He was intensely conscious of God’s holy and loving presence, a presence that was as real to him as the hills and lake of Galilee. To live in this consciousness is already to be in God’s kingdom or rule, and he sought to bring others to share that consciousness and to live the life of the Kingdom in the here and now. He shared the contemporary Jewish apocalyptic sense of existing in a moment of supreme crisis, expecting God soon to intervene decisively in human history, bringing the present phase to an end and instituting the divine kingdom on earth: ‘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.” It seems that he felt called by God to the unique role of the final prophet before the impending Day of the Lord, a role that gave him a central place in God’s providence. It did not however amount to his being God incarnate. Jesus did not think of himself as God, and can have had no conception of the later Christian doctrine according to which he was the second person of a divine Trinity. This would have been impossible to a faithful Jew. ‘Why do you call me good?’ he is reported to have said, ‘No one is good but God alone.’

But did not Jesus make a claim to deity when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14: 9) and ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10: 30)? The answer of modern New Testament scholarship is ‘No’. These enormously influential sayings were put into his mouth some sixty or more years later by a Christian writer expressing the developed theology of his part of the church. Even very conservative scholars today agree that the deity-claiming sayings of the fourth gospel should not be attributed to the historical Jesus. But again, was not Jesus the Son of God? Here again, modern historical scholarship has thrown a flood of light. The term ‘son of God’, which seems to the modern mind so momentous, was familiar throughout the ancient world. It was applied to pharaohs and emperors, to great philosophers and great heroes; and within Judaism it was a familiar metaphor for anyone who was a special servant of God. ‘Son of’ meant ‘in the spirit of’ or ‘specially blessed by’. And so Adam was God’s son, the Hebrew people as a whole were God’s son, their ancient kings were enthroned as son of God – hence the enthronement formula, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’; and indeed any truly pious Jew could be called a son of God. But within Judaism the term was always used metaphorically.

Jesus then was wholly human. But he was one of the most remarkable, charismatic and God-filled human beings we know. His intense awareness of God was so powerful that in his presence people began, often for the first time, to be genuinely conscious of God as a living reality. And in his moral teaching he spelled out what it is to live consciously in God’s presence, trusting God’s loving providence and giving oneself freely as an agent of the divine love. But the message that God was about to sweep away all earthly rule – proclaimed by a popular preacher to whom the crowds flocked – was alarming both to the Roman authorities and to their clients, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. This was a volatile period of intermittent revolts which Rome was accustomed to squash without mercy. So when Jesus went up to Jerusalem to challenge the Temple priests in the name of God, they collaborated with the Romans in arresting and trying him, and Roman soldiers executed him by the standard method for insurrectionists, public crucifixion. But the powerful memory of Jesus and his teaching continued to inspire many of his followers, who now constituted a small ‘new religious movement’ within diverse first-century Judaism. They fervently awaited Jesus’ return in glory as God’s agent instituting the kingdom on earth. But as this was delayed year after year the expectation faded, and Jesus was gradually transformed in their thinking from the prophet of a future historical salvation to the agent of a present inner salvation. His spirit within them, the spirit of his life and teachings, was objectified as the Holy Spirit, the third member of a divine Trinity. And the Jesus cult developed into the cult of the risen Christ, transfigured and deified. With this the Christian myth was born.

God had descended in the person of his son to be born on earth as a child, had died to atone for our sins, and had risen to continued life on earth and then up into heaven, to return again in majesty on the last day. In familiar words from the creeds (which date from the fourth century), it is the story of God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who existed before all ages and was born on earth of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified for the remission of sins, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father, thence to come again to judge the living and the dead. And revolving around this central story are many sub-themes – the revolt of Satan; the fall of Adam and Eve; the work of angels, kings and prophets, saints and martyrs; and the continuing holiness of the church and its hierarchy.”



If one were to accept this understanding of the historical Jesus and the birth of Christianity, they could still live as a religious pluralist within the church, experiencing the sacraments, participating in the liturgy, and being formed by the Christian scriptures, while, at the same time, knowing that they are “entering into a true myth.”

Marcus Borg, from the same understanding of world religion, advocated living within a religious tradition, seeing the tradition and, in the case of the following quotation, the Bible, as a sacrament, a means of grace and transformation.

“Thus one major function of the Bible is the shaping of Christian vision and identity. The Bible has another primary function as well, and it is a further aspect of the relationship between the Bible and God. Namely, the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred. In the Christian tradition, the word ‘sacrament’ often refers to one of the specific sacraments: for Protestants, the two sacraments of baptism and the eucharist; for Catholics, those two plus five more. Central to the definition of ‘sacrament’ in this particular sense is that something that is sacramental is ‘a means of grace.’ The word ‘sacrament’ also has a broader meaning. In the study of religion, a sacrament is commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced. This meaning thus includes the two (or seven) Christian Sacraments even as it is broader. Virtually anything can become sacramental: nature, music, prayer, birth, death, sexuality, poetry, persons, pilgrimage, even participation in sports, and so forth. Things are sacramental when they become occasions for the experience of God, moments when the Spirit becomes present, times when the sacred becomes an experiential reality.

The Bible often functions in this sacramental way in the lives of Christians. It did so, for example, in the conversion experiences of many of the central figures of Christian history. Augustine’s conversion experience happened when he heard a child singing, ‘Take up and read,’ which led him to read a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that changed his life. Martin Luther’s breakthrough from anxious striving to the experience of grace, as well as the movement of the Spirit in John Wesley’s heart, happened through immersion in scripture. In each case, they experienced the Bible as a means whereby the Spirit addressed them in the present.

The sacramental use of the Bible is also among the spiritual practices of both Jews and Christians. Meditation upon the Torah is an ancient Jewish practice. In the Christian tradition, a spiritual practice designed by Ignatius of Loyola involves meditating upon the images of a biblical text until they become animated by the Spirit. Another practice, lectio divina, involves entering a contemplative state and listening while a passage of scripture is read aloud a number of times with periods of silence between each reading. In these examples, the purpose of the practice is not to read or hear the Bible for information or content. Rather, the purpose is to listen for the Spirit of God speaking through the words of the biblical text. For many Christians the Bible sometimes becomes sacramental in private devotional reading. As with the practices mentioned above, the purpose of devotional reading is not acquisition of content. Rather, it is openness to the experience of God addressing the reader through a phrase or verse, openness to a sense of the Spirit present within. In such moments the Bible becomes sacramental, a means of grace and mediator of the sacred. God ‘speaks’ through the words of the biblical text.

To see the Bible as a sacrament of the sacred also connects us back to the Bible as a human product. The bread and wine of the Christian sacrament of the eucharist are manifestly human products. Somebody made the bread and somebody made the wine. We do not think of the bread and wine as ‘perfect’ (whatever that might mean). Rather, to use a common eucharistic phrase, we affirm that ‘in, with, and under’ these manifestly human products of bread and wine, Christ becomes present to us. So also ‘in, with, and under’ the human words of the Bible, the Spirit of God addresses us. In the worship services of many denominations, including my own, the following words are spoken after the reading of a passage from the Bible: ‘The Word of the Lord.’ With my emphasis on the Bible as a human product, I sometimes joke that we should say instead, ‘Some thoughts from ancient Israel,’ or ‘Some thoughts from the early Christian movement.’ But when I am being serious rather than flippant, I find the words used in the New Zealand Anglican Book of Common Prayer exactly right: ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.’ The Spirit of God speaks through the human words of these ancient documents: the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred.”



Hick ends his chapter on religious traditions as “true myths” by wondering aloud how this could play out in Christianity.


“…can ‘ordinary believers’ be expected to move from a literal to a metaphorical understanding of some of the central themes of the Christian story? Many have already done so in relation to the biblical creation myth, although the change was originally a matter of profound alarm and bitter controversy. But can Christians now be expected to come to see Jesus, no longer as God incarnate, but as our brother, one of us although far ahead of the rest of us in his openness to God? There are two questions here: ‘Can this happen today?’ and, ‘Can it happen gradually during the next fifty to a hundred years?’ As to the first question, the fact is that some church members can, and others, including most of the church leaders, cannot. But it is very difficult to know what is going on in other people’s minds. It is one thing to join wholeheartedly on Sunday in traditional Christian worship, with the ancient absolutist language still enshrined in sacred liturgy and song, and another thing to hold seriously, so as to be prepared to justify in the broad daylight of ordinary life, the idea that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was literally God. If asked in a survey, many people will say ‘Yes’ to the official formulation; but if pressed to say what this means – whether, for example, Jesus was God’s son in the literal sense that half of his chromosomes came from Mary and half from God the Father – they are likely to have doubts and, if questioned further, to retreat, or advance, through a further series of qualifications which eventually empty the original formulation of its content. But of course very many church members do not ask themselves what the traditional language means, and there are always clergy and theologians ready to assure them that they need not trouble themselves about such questions. So it may be too much to ask the core church members in the present generation to see the Christian story as a true myth. But will Christians in fifty or a hundred years time look back and see that the understanding of divine incarnation as a true myth gradually spread in the same way that the idea of evolution, and hence of the mythic character of many Bible narratives, gradually spread so as to become generally accepted? My guess is that just as the evolution debate left, in effect, two Christianities – one fundamentalist-evangelical and the other liberal-progressive – so the debate about the unique superiority of Christianity as having been founded personally by God will develop and intensify that division. Fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity will continue to appeal strongly to believers who need a simple black-and-white certainty, but liberal-progressive Christianity, if it can reconfigure itself so as to be religiously realistic, has the possibility of appealing to that large section of the secular world that is nevertheless open to the signals of transcendence which are all about us. But as to what will in fact happen, we can only wait and see!”



Hick, from what I understand, lived most of his life within the traditional church, but became a Quaker as he neared death.

Personally, I found it too hard to live within the traditional church after coming to pluralist viewpoint and have edged toward spiritual practice outside of religious structures. But there are many who live within the church, sharing this understanding of the tradition.

I also find Quakerism to be a natural alternative religious structure for those who would rather not live within traditional Christianity, but nevertheless desire to have religious community.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: What We Don't Need to Know


From a religious pluralist perspective, there is a lot we don’t know. We don’t have Divine Scriptures which give us infallible knowledge. We don’t know why the universe exists. We don’t know how it will be in the end. We can compare and contrast the myths and hopes from the world’s religious traditions, but all we are left with is speculation.

That’s a hard reality for a lot of people, especially traditionally religious people, to live with. For those growing up in conservative strands of their faith, they are used to having something approaching certainty, at least regarding core matters of belief. As I document in The Evangelical Experience, the move away from this type of thinking can be dramatic, a ripping apart of a worldview on which one has built their life.

But from a religious pluralist view, and as Hick argues toward the end of his work, we really don’t need to know these things.


”According to the world religions we exist not only within our familiar natural environment but also within a supra-natural environment. As we saw earlier, because of its value-laden character we are able, as free personal beings, to shut this out of our consciousness. But even when we allow the fifth dimension of reality to enter our experience, much remains utterly mysterious to us. Going beyond questions about the origin and structure of the physical universe, we do not know what happens to us after death. All that we know, if our big picture is basically correct, is that nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be lost. But although we have guesses, hunches, theories about that fulfilment, we are very probably (as the Buddha suggested) incapable at present of conceiving its nature. We do not know how the sufferings and sorrows of life, the agonies and despairs, can become steps on a long journey leading eventually to that fulfilment, as they will if the cosmic optimism of the world religions is justified. We have our theories, but they are only theories. However we do not need at this stage of our existence to know the solution to these mysteries. To become aware of the divine reality here and now by awakening to the fifth dimension of our own being is to begin to live in trust, trust in the (from our human point of view) friendly, serendipitous character of the vast process of the universe. This is not a faith wherein no harm can befall us in this present life, or those we love, but a faith that ultimately, in Lady Julian’s words, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Notice that the ‘conflicting truth-claims’ of the different religions are concerned with questions to which, if we are entirely honest, we all know that we do not know the answers! Pretending however to knowledge that they cannot have, some traditions and sub-traditions affirm as certain that the universe began through an act of divine creation out of nothing, others that it is a divine emanation, yet others that it is a beginningless and endless process. Again, some affirm that at death we are translated to heaven or hell or purgatory, others that we live again many times on earth or in other spheres of existence. Some affirm the eventual perfecting of the individual ego, others an eventual transcendence of ego-existence in union with the divine reality. Some affirm that all human souls will reach the final fulfilment, others that only a fortunate minority will. But if we can accept that these are speculations, we both allow others to have their own different speculations, and are also freed to apply critical intelligence to them all. This involves a downgrading of religious dogmas to a less than absolute status. Here there is, once again, a thought-provoking teaching of the Buddha, that religious doctrines are not ends in themselves but are ‘skilful means’ (upaya) to aid us on our way to enlightenment. As such they will sooner or later have served their purpose and should be discarded. He told the parable of the raft, in which a traveller comes to a wide stretch of water. The side he is on is dangerous, but the other side is safe. However there is no bridge or boat. So he collects grass, sticks and branches to make a raft, and crosses to the other side. Because the raft has been so useful, he lifts it onto his head and carries it with him. But, says the Buddha, he should leave it behind. It has served its purpose and now can only be a hindrance. ‘You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even of good teachings, how much more of false ones.’”


What we really need to know is how to live. And on this, the religions, at least in general principle, seem to all agree.


”What we need to know is how to live here and now. And it is noticeable that whereas the metaphysical questions about which we can only speculate divide the religions, their basic moral principles unite them. I am speaking here of their basic ethical teachings, not of the detailed codes that have been created within different societies at different times and in different cultural, economic, political and climatic circumstances. These inevitably reflect those circumstances and should be allowed to change as the circumstances change. But because these commandments are usually embodied in sacred scriptures, it is very difficult to revise them, and more often they are officially retained whilst being in practice reinterpreted. And even this process of making them mean something other than what they say is usually a generation or more behind the change of moral outlook that has prompted the reinterpretation. In contrast to this, it is the basic teaching of all the world religions that we should behave towards others as we would wish others to behave towards us. This has appealed to the human conscience in every part of the world and in every generation: ‘One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to oneself’ (the Hindu Mahabharata, Anushana parva, 113: 7); One should go about ‘treating all creatures in the world as he himself would be treated’ (the Jain Kritanga Sutra, I, 11: 33); ‘As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so towards all living things a man’s mind should be all-embracing’ (the Buddhist Sutta Nipata, 149); ‘Do not do to others what you would not like yourself’ (the Analects of Confucius, XII: 2); A good man should ‘regard others’ gains as if they were his own, and their losses in the same way’ (the Taoist Thai Shang, 3); ‘That nature only is good when it shall not do to unto another whatever is not good for its own self’ (The Zoroastrian Dadistan-i-dinik, 94: 5); ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Jesus in Luke 6: 31); ‘What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a); ‘No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself’ (Muhammad in the Hadith Ibn Madja, Introduction, 9); ‘Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves’ (the Bahá’í Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 66, 127); and going behind the post-axial faiths to ‘primal’ religion, ‘Grandfather Great Spirit, all over the world the faces of living ones are alike. With tenderness they have come up out of the ground. Give us the strength to understand, and the eyes to see. Teach us to walk the soft Earth as relatives to all that live’ (Sioux prayer, in Roberts, p. 184). This is the common moral outlook of the great traditions.”


I would add that we need methods of becoming people who actually live, naturally and from the deepest place of our being, how we know we are supposed to live. That is, in my view, where the contemplative practices come in.

But if one adopts a religious pluralist perspective, they need to be comfortable not knowing many things.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Profile of a Saint


The saints play a big role in Hick’s understanding of world religion. They are “pointers” toward the Transcendent, and look remarkably similar across traditions. In the following quotation, Hick engages and expands William James’ “Profile of a Saint.”

“William James’ ‘composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions’, is excellent, except that whilst he does not exclude the political form of saintliness he does not sufficiently stress it. This is understandable, for the phenomenon of the political saint has become much more prominent since his time. James lists the four cardinal features of, first, ‘a feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power’; second, ‘a sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control’; third, ‘an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down’; and fourth, ‘a shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes,” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned’.

To these we must add more explicitly, I think, the rare attribute, evident in the greatest saints, of spiritual joy. This is not to be confused with the natural temperamental gaiety and happiness with which some people have the very good fortune to be endowed. As William James said, ‘There are [people] who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champaigne inscribed to their credit.’ They are not necessarily, however, less self-centred or more Real-centred than others with a naturally dourer temperament. But Teresa of Avila is representative of the great mystics of all traditions in having experienced the overwhelming joy of release from the ego as it becomes open to the Transcendent. This, she says, ‘gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose.’ This experience – either a quietly glowing inner peace and serenity or an outwardly manifest radiance of joy – is characteristic of the true mahatmas and saints.

It is this that William James refers to as an ‘immense elation and freedom’. Julian of Norwich, whose awareness of the divine reality took the form of visions and auditions of Christ on the cross, tells how ‘suddenly, as I looked at the same cross he changed to an appearance of joy. The change in his appearance changed mine, and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be ... Our Lord showed this to me to make us glad and merry.’ Evelyn Underhill, describing Francis of Assisi, Ruusbroec, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle, Catherine of Genoa, and John of the Cross, speaks of the ‘inextinguishable gladness of heart’, the ‘gaiety, freedom, assurance, and joy’, that seems to be a characteristic of the ‘unitive’ state which they reached after a long, arduous, and sometimes painful pilgrimage.

When we turn to the Hindu world we find that the ultimate, Brahman, is spoken of as sat–chit–ananda, being–consciousness–bliss, and that the experience of union with Brahman is an experience of this bliss. ‘I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded. The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman.’ Again Shankara speaks of the goal of mystical practice as ‘the highest bliss’ and declares that in our deepest nature one ‘never ceases to experience infinite joy’. Again, the Buddha taught: ‘He that crushes the great “I am” conceit – this, even this, is happiness supreme.’ One of the perfections of the bodhisattva is joy (mudita). And so the contemporary Buddhist monk Nyanaponika says, ‘Let us teach real joy (mudita) to others. Many have unlearned it. Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights.’ The Sufis of Islam are full of the joy of living in the divine love, which they describe poetically in ‘a great variety of images, most of them connected with love and wine’. ‘Oh, my spirit is joyful over Thee – may my spirit never be without Thee!’, sings Rumi. 

At the same time, we must not imagine that the mahatmas/saints are perpetually cheerful, never weighed down by the pain and injustice around them. On the contrary, the more involved they are in the life and suffering of the world, the more they share its sorrows. For instance Gandhi, whilst he bubbled over with fun and delight much of the time, was emotionally devastated by the slaughter in the Punjab in the wake of the partition of India. And the more introverted mystics have generally been through their dark night of the soul, enduring a period of mental suffering and doubt from which they only emerged after a long ordeal. Nevertheless, despite its ‘dark nights’, and its agonies of suffering with those who suffer, the saintly or enlightened or awakened life is one that we can see to be intrinsically good and desirable, a state in which we would dearly love to be.

We spontaneously feel that such individuals are incarnating some of the higher possibilities of our common human nature. We sense that they are not only more unselfcentred but also, paradoxically, more truly fulfilled than ourselves. But in order to empathize with them we need to have participated, at least to some small degree, in their experience of the Transcendent, and to have experienced, again in however slight a degree, something like their inner illumination and joy. It is when we have known in some tiny momentary way that of which they speak, that we are entitled to trust their much greater and stronger and more continuous experience of the Divine, the Holy, the Real.”



One figure I think of when I picture the ideal “contemplative,” or saint, is Thomas Keating – largely because of the spiritual joy he seemed to radiate.  Keating was a Trappist monk and was extremely influential in the development of the Centering Prayer movement in America.  He passed away this week.  Carl McColman wrote a nice piece honoring Keating here, and much of Keating’s teaching can be found on the Contemplative Outreach Youtube Channel

Shinzen Young once remarked about contemplatives from various traditions that “they give off the same vibe.”  Perhaps Keating, and others of his ilk, truly do experience the same transforming Reality which is open to us all. 

Here is some brief audio from Keating entitled “What’s Next in Religion”:

 

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Criterion of Authentic Religious Experience


One issue that becomes more difficult to deal with on a religious pluralist perspective is determining what is, and is not, an authentic "experience of the Divine."  In conservative circles, this is a somewhat easier distinction to make as experience that aligns with Scripture and/or orthodox theology is generally considered authentic, while experiences which contradict the teaching of the Church (or the synagogue, or the Temple, or the Mosque) are considered inauthentic.  There are also individuals, from all religious traditions, who claim that their spiritual experience has led them to commit acts which harm their neighbors and themselves.    

So how do we determine the genuine from the inauthentic spiritual experience?   

To this question, Hick gives a similar reply to that of Jesus, who, when counseling his followers on how to decipher between true and false prophets, answered, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

“The central criterion can only be the long-term transformative effect on the experiencer. A momentary experience, or an experience lasting minutes or even hours, is only important if its significance is integrated into one’s ongoing life. If, as in the case of the great mystics, their altered states of consciousness have a transforming and energizing effect in their lives, leading to a stronger centring in God, the Holy, the Real, and a greater love and compassion for their fellows, this is the evidence, accepted within each of the great traditions, of their openness to the Transcendent. It is of course the latter element, the love and compassion expressed in their actions, that we are able to observe and for which we therefore rightly look. This has always been evident to the mystics themselves.”



The “hard evidence” of a life changed, of the ongoing display of spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in Pauline language – is the determiner as to whether one has had an authentic experience of God. For Hick, the saints from each tradition play a major role in helping us understand what is, and is not, authentic religion as they, by their character and display of authentic, natural, spiritual fruit, point us toward God.

Hick cites the example of St. Theresa of Avila, who speaks from her medieval Catholic perspective:

“…within the borders of Christian orthodoxy, as this was understood in late medieval Christendom, Teresa of Avila used the much more universal moral-and-spiritual-fruits criterion. It was accepted within the monasteries and nunneries that false as well as genuine religious experiences occurred, that these were sometimes hard to distinguish, and that one should therefore be constantly on guard against the deceits of the devil. That a revelation has come from God, and not from the devil, is assured for Teresa by its observable continuing effects in the soul. As Rowan Williams says, she ‘makes it very clear that, as far as she is concerned, the criteria of authenticity do not lie in the character of the experience itself but in how it is related to a pattern of concrete behaviour, the development of dispositions and decisions’. At one point she uses the analogy of someone who encounters a stranger who leaves her a gift of jewels. If someone else later suggested that the stranger had been an apparition, the jewels left in her hand would prove otherwise. Likewise, in the case of her visions, ‘I could show [any doubters] these jewels – for all who knew me were well aware how my soul had changed: my confessor himself testified to this, for the difference was very great in every respect, and no fancy, but such as all could clearly see. As I had previously been so wicked, I concluded, I could not believe that, if the devil were doing this to delude me and drag me down to hell, he would make use of means which so completely defeated their own ends by taking away my vices and making me virtuous and strong; for it was quite clear to me that these experiences had immediately made me a different person.’”

Regardless of the specific cultural/religious form it takes, the criteria of authentic religious experience is the spiritual fruit it produces.

 

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Religious Meaning of Life


After developing the idea of religious critical realism, Hick goes on to discuss the religious meaning of life. What is the end goal of the religious quest?

This is a difficult question to answer in the abstract, as each world religion has a unique conceptual system (or systems), vocabulary, etc. Nevertheless, Hick believes we can make some generalizations in this regard.

First, Hick notes that the major religions, each in their own way, display some form of “cosmic optimism” – a trust that Reality, often despite present appearances, is benign.


“‘Cosmic optimism’ is not a term that figures in the distinctive vocabulary of any of the world faiths. It is however a generalization of their distinctive affirmations about the Transcendent in its relation to human beings. The great monotheisms affirm that ‘as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [the God of Israel’s] steadfast love towards those who fear him’; or that the heavenly Father of the New Testament is a limitlessly loving God; or that the Allah self-revealed in the Qur’an is ever gracious and merciful. Most Hindus are also, either ultimately or penultimately, theists; and the Bhagavad Gita says of Vishnu that he is ‘the great Lord of the universe and friend of all beings’. But turning to the non-theistic faiths, advaitic Hinduism affirms that in our deepest nature we already are the infinite reality of Brahman, but have yet to become what we truly are. Again, in a more totally non-theistic faith, in Buddhism it is affirmed that our true nature is one with the universal buddha nature of the universe, and again we have to become what in a sense we already are. In both cases they teach that we can, whether suddenly or gradually, whether on earth or in heaven, whether in this life or through many lives, receive or achieve the salvific transformation into a new relationship to, or a newly discovered identity with, that ultimate reality.

Each tradition draws a radical distinction between the state from which we desire to be saved or released, or out of which we need to awaken, and the limitlessly better state to which it shows a way. There is a deeply pessimistic view of our present predicament, combined with a highly optimistic view of what is ultimately open to us. The pessimism understands ordinary human life to be fallen into sin and guilt, or lived in disobedience and alienation from God, or caught in the unreality of spiritual blindness (avidya) and the consequent round of anxious suffering existence (samsara). But there is also the affirmation of a limitlessly better possibility available to us because the Ultimate is, from our human point of view, benign. By divine grace or divine mercy, or by a gradual transcending of the ego point of view and a realization of our own deepest nature, we can attain or receive our highest good. And in so far as this limitlessly better state is said to be available to everyone, the message of each of the great religions constitutes good news for humankind. I mean by the cosmic optimism of the world faiths then, that in each case, if their conception of the nature of the universe is basically correct, we can be glad to be part of it and can rejoice in and be thankful for our present human existence…

…When we speak of the ultimate goodness of the universe from our human point of view, we are talking about the total character of a reality which far exceeds what we can presently see and the physical sciences can ever discover. For it is clear from the evils that afflict humanity, and from the equally evident fact that the human potential is seldom fulfilled in this present life, that if the creative process is ever to reach its completion it must continue beyond this life. Thus the faith that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ presupposes a structure of reality which makes this possible.

The great traditions and their sub-traditions have developed different pictures of this structure, and of the final fulfillment, as heaven, paradise, union with God, the beatific vision; or an absorption into Brahman in which separate ego existence has been transcended; or nirvana, or the universal realization of the buddha nature of all things. But it is important to note that the idea of a good outcome of the life process does not require that any one of these specific conceptions will turn out to be accurate. Indeed thoughtful people within each tradition have always been aware that the scriptural accounts of heaven/paradise are painted in a poetic imagery that points beyond our present imaginations; or in the eastern faiths, that the final unity that is sought is, once again, not thinkable in earthly terms.”


Thus the religious traditions, each in their own way, affirm that the reality we find ourselves in is good. Not in the sense that the things we encounter in our day to day lives are all pleasant, but in the sense that, from the religious perspective, our present experience leads, or can lead, to an ultimately good future. As Hick notes, that ultimate future hope is expressed in a variety of ways, even within each religious tradition. But each faith shares that hope and trust in the structure of existence.

To give some type of synthesis in how this final state is conceived, Hick speaks of our transformed relationship with the Divine:

“…we can, whether suddenly or gradually, whether on earth or in heaven, whether in this life or through many lives, receive or achieve the salvific transformation into a new relationship to, or a newly discovered identity with, that ultimate reality. “


In the contemplative streams of each major world religion, this salvific transformation is most often conceived of in terms of union, unity, or one-ness. Hick, in later chapters, gives examples of systems which entail both literal, and metaphorical, one-ness. He begins by discussing mystic thought in general:

“Mysticism has often been defined as the experience of union either with God or with an ultimate non-personal reality. Thus William James says that the ‘overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we are aware of our oneness.’ Likewise Evelyn Underhill says that ‘mysticism is the art of union with Reality’, and R.C. Zaehner says that ‘in Christian terminology mysticism means union with God’. Many other similar statements could be cited. However I shall argue that whilst the final state, far beyond this life, may well be one in which human individuality has finally been transcended, having served its purpose, talk of union with the Ultimate in this life must be understood metaphorically. Most theistic mystics have in fact used ‘union’ or ‘unity’ and/ or ‘deification’ or ‘divinization’ as metaphors for a union of love or an alignment of wills which does not entail literal identity. Others however, usually but not always non-theistic, have intended to speak of a literal numerical identity, a union without distinction. In order to understand where different authors stand on this question we have to be aware of the metaphysical pictures presupposed in their writings. For there are systems which allow for, and even require, a literal union with the Ultimate; others which allow for this but do not require it; and yet others which exclude it. As well as reading the mystics against their metaphysical backgrounds we also have to distinguish between texts describing a union which the writer claims to have experienced, and others referring to a unitive state to which the writer’s philosophy or theology points, but which the mystic does not profess to have experienced personally.”

Hick then cites examples such as Advaita Vedanta (a school of Hinduism displayed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), for the perspective of “literal unity”:

“The Crest-Jewell of Discrimination uses the analogy of the air and the jar. If there are a number of clay jars containing only air, and you break the jars, what remains? The answer is, the air, as an unbounded totality: ‘The air in the jar is one with the air everywhere. In like manner, your Atman is one with Brahman.’ Again Shankara uses the figure, also familiar in Christian and Muslim mystical literature, of a drop of water becoming part of the ocean. Shankara tells of someone who goes into deep meditation:

His mind was completely absorbed in Brahman. After a while, he returned to normal consciousness. Then, out of the fullness of his joy, he spoke: The ego has disappeared. I have realized my identity with Brahman and so all my desires have melted away. I have risen above my ignorance and my knowledge of this seeming universe. What is this joy that I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded! The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman. The treasure I have found there cannot be described in words. The mind cannot conceive of it. My mind fell like a hailstone into the vast expanse of Brahman’s ocean. Touching one drop of it, I melted away and became one with Brahman. And now, though I return to human consciousness, I abide in the joy of the Atman.’

Again Shankara says, ‘I am Reality, without beginning, without equal. I have no part in the illusion of “I” and “You”, “this” and “that”. I am Brahman, one without a second, bliss without end, the eternal, unchanging Truth.’…

… the mystic path is one of purification of the ego and its self-centred desires and concerns in order to find our true nature in unity with the Ultimate. The classic Vedantic saying, tat tvam asi, ‘that art thou’, means that each of us ultimately is Brahman. Catherine of Genoa provides a direct Christian parallel: ‘Once stripped of all its imperfections, the soul rests in God, with no characteristic of its own, since its purification is the stripping away of the lower self in us. Our being is then God.’ Or again, ‘My me is God.’”

And Rumi (as well as Evagrius, Neo-platonism as a whole, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Ruusbroec, Theresa of Avila, the Kabbalists, and Eastern Orthodox mystics) for the perspective of “metaphorical unity”:

“Again Rumi writes, ‘No one will find his way to the Court of Magnificence until he is annihilated,’ and again, ‘With God, two I’s cannot find room. You say “I” and He says “I”. Either you die before Him, or let Him die before you.’ Such language is common among the Sufis. However, this ‘death’ of the self is not a ceasing to exist, but its transformation into spiritual union with the divine life. Rumi says, ‘The spirit becomes joyful through the I-less I.’ The self-naughted person lives, and lives in fullness of energy and joy; but it is now the divine life that is being lived in and through the fully surrendered servant of Allah. And as in the case of the Christian mystics, union is often seen as the most appropriate available metaphor.”



Regardless of how it is specifically conceptualized, from the perspective of the contemplative traditions, the religious meaning of life is to experience the joyful transformation “out of ourselves,” or beyond the ego, and into the Divine.

Marcus Borg: Seeing Religions Again


This is Marcus Borg giving a lecture on religious pluralism. Both Hick and Borg have been instrumental in my own understanding of world religion and how I understand my own home tradition. I recommend Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time for a written introduction to these ideas and a possible way of understanding the Christian faith from within a pluralist perspective. This lecture is also posted on the Blogcast.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Religious Critical Realism


We now come to what I believe to be the most important, and unique, aspect of Hick’s thought – that of “religious critical realism.”  This concept is the key to understanding his broader ideas about how the world religions fit together.

 Hick defines critical realism as follows:

”The critical realist principle – that there are realities external to us, but that we are never aware of them as they are in themselves, but always as they appear to us with our particular cognitive machinery and conceptual resources – is thus a vital clue to understanding what is happening in the different forms of religious experience.”

 
Drawing on the work of Immanuel Kant, Hick begins by showing how critical realism can be understood in the natural world.

“Our awareness of the material world requires physical receptors, the five senses which enable us to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. These reveal our environment to us, but only those selected aspects of it in relation to which we have to act and react. For in selecting, our senses exclude much more than they let in. They have developed to aid our survival as organisms occupying our particular evolutionary niche, and they accordingly function as meshes through which only a certain range of signals can pass. As Brian Magee puts it, ‘If we think in terms of the metaphor of catching things in the network of experience, [the categories of thought] are the meshes of our net. Only what can be caught in them is available to us. Anything that passes through them untouched will not be picked up by us, and neither will whatever falls outside our nets altogether.’ For example, within the known electromagnetic spectrum extending from cosmic rays as short as four ten-thousand-millionths of an inch, to radio waves as long as eighteen miles, our senses only respond to those between sixteen and thirty-two millionths of an inch. We are likewise deaf to a vast range of acoustic stimuli, and insensitive to the great majority of chemical differences. We thus inhabit a humanly selected and simplified version of our environment. If the whole range of light waves affected us we would be unable to distinguish objects affecting our survival. If every sound wave registered in our consciousness, we would be so confused by the universal cacophony as to be unable to react to the sounds that we need to hear. And if, for example, instead of seeing water as the continuous shiny substance that we can drink, we perceived it as a cloud of electrons in rapid swirling motion, and the glass that holds it as a mass of brilliantly coloured crystals, themselves composed of particles in violent activity, we would soon die of thirst. We can only live in the distinctively human environment registered by our sensors, and this differs in many ways from that of other mammals, insects, birds and fishes…

...We have already noted that light waves impacting the retina of the eye are transformed, through a complex process, into our conscious experience of seeing the world as we humans perceive it. Light waves are not themselves coloured, but their impact is transformed within us into the experience of colour vision. Sound waves, which are not themselves noises, are transformed by our receptive apparatus into the experience of hearing noise. In broadcasting, the sound waves that the speaker emits in a studio are transformed into radio waves, which are then translated back by our receiver into sound waves, which we translate into heard sounds. Likewise TV waves are transformed into lines and dots on the screen, which we then transform into the experience of seeing coloured pictures. Consciousness of our environment always involves a continuous transformation of information from one mode into another. Different life forms, with their different sense organs and differently developed structures of consciousness, experience the world differently. For some (including we humans) the dominant sense, providing our normal framework of consciousness, is sight – a larger area of our brain is dedicated to processing visual than other stimuli. But for others (such as the mole) the dominant sense is smell, and for yet others (such as the bat) it is sound. Insects operate in terms of environmental features too small for large animals, such as the elephant, to be aware of them. The ant is not aware of the elephant, and the elephant is not aware of the ant, although both are part of the same vast network of life. And within this network the same virtual infinity of information is reduced in different ways by different selective mechanisms, and transformed into fields of consciousness with different structures and qualities. That the world is perceived in different ways by differently constituted observers is thus well established. To take us a little nearer to the way in which the Transcendent is experienced by some as an all-powerful cosmic Person and by others as an infinite non-personal reality, consider the difference between, say, the table that we experience as a solid, hard, brown, partly shiny, enduring three-dimensional object, and the account of it given by the physicists as mostly empty space in which infinitesimal packages of discharging energy are moving about at a great pace. None of these have any of the properties of the table that we perceive – neither colour, weight, extension, density, nor even fixed position.”

 
Thus, according to the principle of critical realism, we don’t experience things objectively “as they really are,” but only through the filter of our unique sensory organs and conceptual frameworks.  A bat experiences reality in a much different way than a human.  According to critical realism, we don’t have a “truer” experience of reality than a bat; we just each experience the same reality differently, according to the equipment we are endowed with.  In Hick’s example of the table, the table doesn’t have the objective, fixed attributes of “hardness,” “brownness,” or “shininess,” even though we experience it as such through our unique sensory equipment.  

 I am here reminded of Bertrand Russell’s famous “The Problems of Philosophy” in which he makes similar observations:


“To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Anyone else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected. For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they 'really' have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy--the distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question. To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.”

 
This idea, that we don’t experience things “as they are,” but only through our particular sensory equipment and conceptual frameworks, is the key to understanding Hick’s view of world religious experience.  According to religious critical realism, when individuals from different traditions experience “the Divine,” we may very well be encountering the same reality, but interpreting it through the lens of our traditions – our given conceptual frameworks.  


“The forms that this awareness takes are human constructions created from material within the inherited imagery of a religious tradition and from each individual’s life story and psychological make-up. If our tradition has conditioned us to think of the Transcendent in personal terms, and to practise I–Thou prayer and worship, we shall be conscious of a personal divine presence, or a divine call, claim, leading or revelation. And so Christian mystics have received visions and/or auditions, seeing and hearing the figure of Christ on the cross, or shining in heavenly glory, or of the Virgin Mary or one of the saints as mediators of God’s presence. Within the neighbouring Islamic world, mystics have their own different visions. Al-Ghazali says of a certain stage of the inner path, ‘The mystics in their waking state now behold angels and the spirits of the prophets; they hear these speaking to them and are instructed by them.’ Devout Hindus sometimes see visions of the gods. For example, one tells how, as a fourteen-year-old walking home one day from school, the lord Krishna met him coming out of a rice field, and embraced him. ‘Since then’, he says, ‘I had no other thought but to serve only Krishna, and I became a sadhu.’ But if, on the other hand, our tradition has taught us to think of the Ultimate in non-personal terms and to practise a non-I–Thou type of meditation, our religious awareness will take one of the quite different forms described in eastern mystical literature.”

 
Hick ends his discussion of religious critical realism by referring to the concrete example of the experience of Julian of Norwich:

 ”At this point it may be useful to clarify the distinction between non-realism, naive realism and critical realism. If we take as an example (to be described in chapter 14) Julian of Norwich’s visions of Christ and her hearing him speak of the limitless divine love, the non-realist interpretation is that the entire experience was a self-induced hallucination – not in any sense a revelation, not an expression of the ‘impact’ of the Transcendent upon her. The naive realist interpretation – which was probably her own understanding of her experiences – is that the living Christ was personally present to her, producing the visions that she saw, and uttering in Middle English the words that she heard. But the critical realist interpretation, which I believe to be correct, is that she had become so open to the transcendent, within her and beyond her, that it flooded into her consciousness in the particular form provided by her Christian faith. She was aware of the goodness –from our human point of view – of the Real as the unconditional love of a personal God, expressed in the characteristic fourteenth-century form of the bodily agonies of Jesus on the cross. Her experience was thus a genuine contact with the Transcendent, but clothed in her case in a Christian rather than a Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or other form. In different symbolic worlds, what was for Julian a divine love expressed in the voluntary sufferings of Christ is expressed in other modes. It is known, for example, in the figure of Vishnu who, in the Bhagavad Gita , is ‘as a father with his son, a friend with his friend, a lover with his beloved’.  In Buddhism the ultimate Dharmakaya, in itself beyond human conceiving, is expressed in the infinite compassion of the Buddhas. And the ninety-nine names, or attributes, of Allah in the Qur’an include love, beneficence, mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, generosity, compassion. The mystics of Islam have accordingly been intensely conscious of the divine love. ‘Love is affection without bounds,’ says Rumi. ‘Hence it is said that Love is truly God’s attribute, while it is the attribute of His servants only in a derivative sense ... Know that Love and Affection are Attributes of God.’ In these and many other ways the impact of the transcendent reality upon us receives different ‘faces’ and voices as it is processed by our different religious mentalities. Religious experience, then, occurs in many different forms, and the critical realist interpretation enables us to see how these may nevertheless be different authentic responses to the Real.”

 
This principle – religious critical realism – drives Hick’s broader understanding of how the world religions fit together from a religious pluralist perspective.  It allows one to respect each tradition as an “authentic experience of the Real,” and account for the variety of forms that that experience can take.

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