Kingdom of God and Failed Prophecy: Did Jesus Make a Mistake? A Remark From an Interesting Conference

Yesterday I participated in a conference organized by the History Students Association at the Faculty of Croatian Studies. The topic was pretty dark: death! The way they organize it was actually quite good! And I applaud them for that! They wanted it to be a conference where scholars from different research areas will present various topics related to death. Based on that idea, students invited professors from all the departments of our faculty (philosophy, history, psychology, communicology, sociology, etc.) It was a nice event and I had the pleasure to hear a lot of interesting lectures. My lecture was about the Historical Jesus and the belief in Hell. Did Jesus of Nazareth believe in Hell? How did he conceptualize death? What did he think about what comes after? Don’t worry! I won’t bore you with the details of my speech. Rather, I would like to concentrate on a different (but related) topic. It came to me after a short discussion I had with a colleague (and a friend) during the Q&A section. But first, I have to apologize in advance! This topic deserves, at least, several posts! So, this one will definitely be superficial and, in some aspects, really close to the “land of simplification”!

As you probably know (if you ever read anything on this blog), most critical scholars hold that the core message of the Historical Jesus was the coming of the Kingdom of God. As his introductory words that he utters after baptism illustrate: “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1, 15). On another occasion, he also stated: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mk 9, 1). He spoke as well about the coming of the Son of Man. Take, for instance, his conversation with the high priest Caiaphas. Caiaphas asked Jesus if he really is Messiah. Jesus responds:  “I am. You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of the sky.” (Mk 14, 62).

I recall years ago seeing for the first time all the arguments pro and against the idea that the Historical Jesus was first and foremost an apocalyptic prophet and asking myself the natural question: What did he mean by it? If he really thought that some kind of cataclysmic event will soon take place, was he wrong? Is it even possible that he was wrong? After all, as you are (I hope!) probably aware, the Day of Judgment didn’t arrive. God did not stop and overturn the forces of evil and establish the Kingdom of God in the land of the Jews. So, how do we explain this? It is absolutely impossible to present all the different ways modern theologians and theologically inclined historians have tried to interpret Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God in a way that would avoid what would for them be a frightening conclusion. As a great scholar and an Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright famously said: “If Jesus expected the end of the world, then he was mistaken.” But the more I look at the evidence, the more I think that this is exactly what happened. Wright wrote a detailed book about Jesus and his eschatology in which he (basically) claimed that Jesus while preaching about Judgment Day and the Kingdom of God, used metaphorical language. Wright sees the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven as a symbolic way of speaking of the judgment of Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were all about the fate of the Jewish capital (which was eventually really destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and 135 AD) and the Jewish people (who were really exiled from Jerusalem after 135 AD). And when Jesus talked about a new Temple that God would build, he actually thought that he (Jesus) and (perhaps) his followers were the “embodiment” of that Temple. Basically, it is all allegoric and symbolic deeply embedded within the political dimension of the relationship between Romans and Jews. Historical Jesus, according to Wright, never preached the coming of an actual apocalyptic (cataclysmic) event on Earth.

How do we decide one way or the other? Well, if we want to look at this problem from a historical point of view, it is necessary to observe in what way other Jews (and even Greeks) or early Christians understood the apocalyptic material. (W)right is absolutely right (see what I did there :)) that in some of their prophecies, Jews saw poetry or pure metaphorical language. I sincerely doubt that Joel really expected Moon to become bloody (Joel 2,31). Similarly, the beasts from Daniel 7 are indeed a metaphor. I can’t imagine a Jew waiting on a Mediterranean shore for the fulfillment of that prophecy. However, I do think that the eschatological hopes of the Jews were quite often understood literally in a sense of a real cataclysmic event. The Qumran War Scroll prophesies an actual eschatological battle, complete with literal angels. Even a highly Hellenized Greek-speaking Jew Philo (who was prone to an allegorical reading of the Scripture) believed that the events from Exodus 19, 16-18 (the descent of God on the mountain, a huge fire, and smoke, a piercing sound of trumpets and the whole mountain shaking) really happened. As did his predecessor Aristobulus who was also a highly educated Helenized Jew from Alexandria known for his allegorical method of biblical exegesis. Philo also asserted the historical supremacy of the Torah over all Greek historiography (e.g. Thucydides). He even tried to measure the date of the Great Flood based on the information he gathered from Genesis. Furthermore, Philo believed that at Judgment Day (an eschatological worldview):

“the bears and lions and panthers and the Indian animals, elephants, and tigers, and all others whose vigor and power are invincible, will change their life of solitariness and isolation for one of companionship, and gradually in imitation of the gregarious creatures show themselves tame,” and “thus the age-long and natural and theretofore primary war will be brought to an end through the change which makes the wild beasts tame and amenable” (De Praemiis et Poemis, 85-88).

The same holds true when we look at the early Christian writers. Take, for instance, Origen. Known as a highly educated Christian philosopher and a master of allegorical interpretation who lived in an urban center of the ancient world, he used metaphorical solutions to escape the deadly reality of the contradictions in the Gospels. Consequently, he, for example, rejected the historical authenticity of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. But still, he held a literal understanding of some of the most incredible (apocalyptic) things in the Gospels. Take, for instance, Matthew’s recollection of things that happened in Jerusalem at the moment of Jesus’ death: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Mt 27, 51-52). And to my knowledge, not a single Christian writer from the ancient or medieval times found those apocalyptic scenarios to be allegorical language. Today almost every scholar on the planet thinks it didn’t really happen. Wright, however, is not among them. He leaves open the possibility of the historicity of Matthew’s surreal episode. His argument? He claims that “some stories are so odd that they may just have happened“. It’s a poor argument! Who would argue that, for example, Lot’s wife (a famous story from the OT) was really turned into a pillar of salt because some stories are so odd that they may just have happened? If anything, oddness suggests fiction, not reality. Anyway, Matthew’s darkness and other surreal events only follow a topos already being described in Mark while recounting the events surrounding Jesus’ death: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mk 15,33). Everyone understood it literally. After all, it is precisely dated (noon). It doesn’t begin with a “once upon a time” sort of story! Just as Jesus (sort of) dates the coming of the Son of Man when he asserts that some of his disciples will be alive when the Son of Man comes. We shouldn’t conflate what seems legendary to us today with what seemed legendary to people living in another time and place. As I always emphasize to my students: The past is a foreign countrythey do things differently there.

In my opinion, it is inconceivable that – in a world where upper-class highly educated (Hellenized) Jewish and Christian intellectuals and allegorists who lived in urban centers find literal, not metaphorical, events in the fire, darkness, trumpet, and other elements within the Jewish apocalyptic framework – a humble lower-class Jewish peasant from a rural area of Galilee without any formal education would understand his own apocalyptic language in a purely (advanced) metaphorical way. As Bart Ehrman amusingly pointed out to me in our recent correspondence: “Not a lot of Hellenists in Nazareth, I should think.” Moreover, I suspect that Wright has cleverly forced us to choose between two extremes: either you choose the metaphorical understanding of Jesus’ eschatology (It’s all about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem) or you understand it in terms of the end of space-time cosmos (Not to mention that the idea of the end of space-time cosmos that Wright brings into the discussion is absolutely meaningless within the context of pre-modern times. I seriously doubt that early Christians (or anyone living in pre-modern times for that matter) thought about the universe in those categories. It’s an anachronistic approach par excellence! In other words, Wright committed both red herring and false dichotomy fallacy). There is a whole spectrum of choices between those two extremes. One that I find most convincing is that the Historical Jesus’ eschatological view implied the cataclysmic (real) event of remaking (not the end of space-time cosmos) of the natural world. In a nutshell: The end time will be a recovery of what was lost. Paradise will be regained! Here on Earth! The Kingdom of God! And it didn’t happen. At least, it didn’t happen in a way, I believe, Historical Jesus predicted. Does that mean Christians should abandon their religion? Of course not!

CONCLUSION: DOING HISTORY IS NOT THE SAME AS DOING THEOLOGY

In the end, I think Wright can’t escape his own theological presuppositions. He (tacitly) assumes that Jesus (or, for that matter, Paul who clearly believed Jesus will return soon) can’t be wrong and then proceeds to the conclusion that Jesus when speaking about the coming of Judgment Day and the Kingdom of God, must have been thinking about something metaphorical. But this is not history. It’s theology. And it is quite illuminating that by using metaphorical solution Wright (an Anglican Bishop!), as Paula Fredriksen observed, transports Jesus’ eschatological teachings into the “surprisingly contemporary, recognizably Protestant theological key“. Surprise surprise! And this brings me to a final conclusion I tried to explain yesterday during a later Q&A section. I hold that there is a deep methodological chasm between history (as a professional academic discipline) and theology (as a professional academic discipline). Not a contradiction! After all, some of the greatest Biblical scholars have been (e.g. J. P. Meier) and still are (e.g. J. Fitzmyer) ordained priests. Similarly, there are numerous excellent historians who are also believers in Christ. However, there is a deep methodological chasm there. What do I mean by that? Theology is always generating meaning from religious texts. A meaning that corresponds to the contemporary needs and viewpoints of a religious community. To put it bluntly, it constantly “updates” ancient texts giving them a satisfactory meaning for the contemporary Church. Alister McGrath described it as “the conceptual expansion of the contents of the Christian faith” which is a persistent process throughout the history of Christianity.

Moreover, most often theology ends up confirming its author’s religious beliefs. It doesn’t astound me at all that Protestant theologians, again and again, recover Protestant-like Jesuses. The same goes for Catholics and other denominations (If you don’t believe me just talk to Protestant and Catholic theologians about Jesus’ brothers!). One could even push this observation to its limits and note how various atheistic proponents (e.g. Richard Carrier) recover mythical-atheistic-like Jesus who never actually existed at all. Again: Surprise, surprise! In other words, theology is, first and foremost, textual! On the other hand, the task of history is to (re)construct (as much as it is possible) the past by looking at the context! Primary sources (inscriptions, archeological evidence, papyri, narrative, and other available documents) are our guide in the critical reconstruction of the past. Not creeds or dogmas. To put it differently, history is temporal and contextual! Theology is textual and transtemporal! While history looks at Jesus as a person who lived 2000 years ago in a specific cultural and social context thus emphasizing that his concerns and worries often don’t correspond at all with our own, theology finds Jesus as the Son of God whose significance goes beyond any region or time period. In my opinion, this presents an unbridgeable methodological chasm.

1 thought on “Kingdom of God and Failed Prophecy: Did Jesus Make a Mistake? A Remark From an Interesting Conference”

  1. Pointing out the connection and difference between the historical and theological approach, without trying to make them fit an agenda is brilliant.

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