Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet

by Bart D. Ehrman. Published by Oxford University Press..

Who was Jesus? Biographies of him are plentiful and arouse intense passion among authors and readers - more so than with the biographies of other figures. Everyone seems to have their own opinions as to who Jesus "really" was and what his "genuine" intentions must have been.

Bart D. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has added yet another such biography - but is there anything different or speical about this one? Perhaps.

Ehrman is unusual in that he does not try to argue that Jesus was a figure whose interests, concerns or attitudes were something which just "happen" to coincide with the interests, concerns and attitudes of people today. Ehrman writes about Jesus who was an "apocalyptic prophet," someone who was convinced that the world would soon end and that a new age, ruled by God, would soon be ushered in.

The Jesus of history, contrary to modern "common sense"...was not a proponent of "family values." He urged his followers to abandon their homes and forsake families for the sake of the Kingdom that was soon to arrive.

He didn't encourage people to pursue fulfilling careers, make a good living, and work for a just society for the long haul; for him, there wasn't going to *be a long haul. The end of the world as we know it was already at hand.

The Son of Man would soon arrive, bringing condemnation and judgement against those who prospered in this age, but salvation and justice to the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. People should sacrifice everything for his coming, lest they be caught unawares and cast out of the Kingdom that was soon to arrive.

This is a very strange and foreign sort of Jesus to readers in the West. Most people don't hear about this sort of thing in Sunday School, in church sermons, or in the news. It seems that a complacent, middle-class perspective among scholars and clergy has allowed a counterfeit, even domesticated Jesus to develop.

This Jesus, only concerned with "ethical" teachings, manages to conceal the fact that he was wrong about the end of the world and no one - most especially believers - quite knows how to reconcile their devotion to him with his obvious error.

Ehrman is not, however, bringing up a completely new or revolutionary idea - scholars and believers have seen the apocalyptic nature of Jesus' message for centuries. Yet because it normally isn't very appealing to anyone except those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, those aspects tend to be simply glossed over.

Thus, few have taken the time to really focus on the apocalyptic imagery which can be seen both in the earliest portions of the gospels and in the earliest history of the developing Christian Church. Ehrman does, however, and that is makes his book a valuable and interesting contribution to the general discussion about Jesus.

Ehrman does more, however, in that perhaps half the book isn't really about his thesis. Instead, he takes the time to provide readers with a detailed lesson about New Testament scholarship, how to judge early Christian documents, how to undestand the development of books in the New Testament, and more.

He does not assume a great deal of experience or knowledge on the part of readers, and as a result his book serves both as a mini-course in New Testament studies and an explanation of his opinions about Jesus. This means that average readers who don't have an advanced degree can still get quite a lot out of this.

As suggested above, Ehrman is critical of those researchers who just "happen" to discover in Jesus the same sorts of ideas and concerns which they themselves have. Reading their own beliefs into the early texts, Jesus becomes a tool for some to validate their own agendas:

...very few people who devote their lives to studying the historical Jesus actually want find a Jesus who is completely removed from our own time. What people want - especially when dealing with such potentially dry matters as history and such potentially inflammatory matters as religion - is relevance.

Ehrman, unlike most, is willing to take seriously some of the more uncomfortable and unpleasant passages in the New Testament.

In this, he follows in the tradition of Albert Schweitzer, one of the first to emphasize the darker nature of some of the things Jesus is recorded as having preached. Ehrman argues that Jesus really did mean it when he said that the "meek and poor" would inherit the earth because, for apocalyptic thinkers, the current world is one which is characterized by corruption and evil.

Therefore, anyone who is "on top" in this world must be participating in that corruption and evil - which means that they will be unfit for the coming era of God's Kingdom. Only those who are poor, meek, and in desperate straits must be righteous enough to deserve to inherit the coming revolution.

It is only natural that this vision of the future has been most popular with the poor and oppressed wherever Christianity spread. They could identifiy with the suffering of the early Hebrews, the suffering of Jesus and the promise of swift and certain justice.

Institutions, however, have much to fear from such a vision - as a result, the organized Christian churches have rarely had anything very positive to say about those who get worked up about a coming apocalypse. Such a focus threatens the stability of the current social order upon which the churches depend.

Jesus certainly wasn't the last to preach the approach of an apocalypse - Christian groups throughout history have relied upon his words to once again tell people that the "End is Near" and that they really should get ready. They, like Jesus, were always wrong - the world never ended, there was never a great destruction of the world, and things have pretty much continued as they always have.

Some of these groups disappeared and some, like Christianity itself, found ways to reinterpret or revise the apocalyptic visions in order to achieve some measure of worldly stability.

Ehrmans book covers a lot of ground, from the nature of New Testament research to the study of the earliest records of Jesus and down through apocalyptic movements in Christian history.

Fortunately, he writes well and it is easy to follow his arguments, even if you don't always agree with them. There are certainly a lot of books available on Jesus, but if you are interested in the topic, this one deserves a place on your reading list.