jesus & john the baptist
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Collins is a Professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(more about Collins)

Jesus and John the Baptist I think can accurately be described as either as eschatological or even apocalyptic prophets. Meaning that they were people who expected an abrupt and decisive change, that you might describe as the manifestation of the kingdom of God. Now you can quarrel as to whether apocalyptic is quite the right word for them, but they at least had that much in common with most apocalyptic literature, that they expected some big overturning. Now, one has to realize, though, that there were many kinds of people in Palestine in the first century, or around the turn of the era, who expected some big upheaval, who expected some massive change. And within that umbrella, they might have disagreed most vehemently with each other. Many of the Pharisees might have had apocalyptic beliefs. Might have expected the resurrection of the dead and a great overturning of the status quo, but they and the Essenes hated each other, basically. What makes the difference, for an apocalyptic group, is not whether you believe that there was an end coming, but who you think will be vindicated at the end. You all believe that there will be a judgment, but the question is, "What will be the criteria for the judgment.? Whose interpretation will stand?"


Is it fair to describe John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher?

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

I think the texts that have survived in Christian scripture certainly present John as viewing Christ as the figure who will bring on the kingdom, who will bring about this glorious moment of transformation. What John actually said, who John actually was, what his message was, is very difficult to recover at this point, but his role in the Christian scenario certainly has been that of foretelling the coming of the Messiah, and that then is a step toward the ultimate triumph of righteousness.

Did Jesus himself believe the ending was near?

There are certainly passages in the Gospels that make it clear that Jesus is anticipating an imminent moment of apocalypse. That the end is very near. Certainly the earliest Christians took away from his message the belief that his return would occur in their own life time. And in his final sermon to his disciples before his arrest, when he's asked, "What are the signs of the end times?" He tells them about wars and conflict and wickedness and evil, that then ends with the promise, "All these things shall be fulfilled in your own time. So yes." ...

It was a very serious issue for the early church because Christ after all said to his disciples, "This generation shall not pass away before all of these things have been fulfilled." That's a fairly explicit promise. And there's considerable evidence that the early Christian church was rooted in an intense apocalyptic anticipation. That indeed the end could come, at any moment. And when the decades past, and the first generation did pass away and the Second Coming did not occur, Christianity went through a sort of major period of re-assessment. And what emerged from that I think was a reinterpretation of these apocalyptic texts, taking a much longer view of things, and in fact the early church as it becomes institutionalized in Rome discourages apocalyptic speculation. They viewed it as dangerous, and basically take the view that Christ's kingdom will gradually unfold over time. There will be a culmination of righteousness at some point in the future. But we don't know the precise details. So you can see a quite dramatic change in Christian theology from the very earliest Christians to the medieval church.

James Tabor

Tabor is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

(more about Tabor)


The best evidence we have as to what the followers of Jesus thought about the imminence of the end after his death is clearly Paul. We have very early letters from Paul. They date from the 50s AD and they're first hand, they're autobiographical. They're undisputed. And they say the most startling things. For example in First Corinthians, which we date about 54 AD, Paul says that it's better not to get married. The end of all things is at hand. In view of the present distress that he thinks is coming on the world, he's actually advising people, "Slaves, remain a slave. Don't try to really change the social order, because everything, very rapidly, is coming to an end." One of his phrases is that "the appointed time has grown very short." It's a phrase right out of the Book of Daniel, about the appointed time, the time of the end. He's our earliest and best evidence. So that tells us that in the 50s, around the Mediterranean world, Christian communities are sprouting up, believing that Jesus is the messiah. That he's going to come again, probably in their lifetime and that they shouldn't really worry too much about their economic and social order, and even their marital state, because the end is coming so soon. ...

What did Jesus warn about the end time?

When you read the gospels and try to discern what Jesus actually said about the end, particularly what we call the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, he really says two things. One's very specific and one's more general. The specific thing he predicts is right out of the Book of Daniel and that is that a foreign power would invade Palestine, presumably Roman, because that's his time, but would set up what he calls a desolating sacrilegious statue of some type in the very temple, the Jerusalem Temple, the Jewish Temple. That's the specific thing. And he says, "When you see this, leave Judah, people should flee, they should go to the mountains. Don't even go back in your house, then everything will come to an end." As far as when this is going to come, that's the more general prophecy. He simply says, "This generation will not pass till all of these things are fulfilled." Now that statement of his caused a great deal of problems for the early Christians. If a generation is forty years and it's been fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, a hundred years, how do we read that? It created a kind of a crisis, I think, for the Christians. The end should have come and yet it didn't. ...

If you look at some of the later letters of some the New Testament, Second Peter for example, he begins to say something rather amazing. "A day with God is a thousand years, and a thousand years is a day," which is this typical kind of adjustment--it's only been one day, but maybe a day is longer than we think, so how do we really know? Even in the later letters of Paul, which we think were written by a Paulean school actually, Timothy and Titus, you don't find any more waiting for the end, we find Paul talking about his own death and then he says, "And in that day, whenever that might be, I will come before Jesus to be judged." But he's not telling anybody any more "don't get married." He's establishing a system of church government. It looks like the movement is more in for the longer haul. We don't find those sorts of apocalyptic statements in some of the later books. ...


Can you convey the atmosphere of the Book of Revelation?

Fredriksen is a William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.

(more about Fredriksen)

I think that it's impossible to look at the New Testament evidence and read it as a non-apocalyptic text. Most Christians, or most Christians I hang around with who are academics, have no problem looking at the New Testament and seeing it as the language of authenticity, nice ethics, doing good and being good. But in fact if you look at the idea of the Kingdom of God as it functions in the first century, and the Kingdom of God as the phrase is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament text, the way the Kingdom of God is used in the letters of Paul who stands closer to Jesus than the authors of the gospels do, that idea is an apocalyptic idea. ... I think that when Jesus says, "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand," he means something. For him to have been understood by his own Jewish contemporaries he must have meant what they meant by that phrase. And when we look at the broad range of evidence we have, the Kingdom of God means the end of normal time, and the beginning of a reign of goodness and peace. Yes, I think Jesus was apocalyptic. ...

There's a rebellion against Rome in the first century. It breaks out in 66. It finally terminates in 74. And in the course of the revolt against Rome, in the year 70 Jerusalem and the Temple are utterly destroyed. This is a tremendous watershed, not only in the history of Judaism but also in what will become the history of Christianity. The Temple's destruction is something that immediately resonates, if you have a bible. Because the Roman destruction of Jerusalem immediately sets up a vibration with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem half a millennium earlier. So once you have those two events, you have the re-articulation of the apocalyptic idea. ... In the aftermath of the revolt, with the destruction of the Temple, many Jews, including those Jews who were Christian, interpreted the destruction of the second Temple as an apocalyptic signal that the end of time is at hand. And that's what we get in the gospel of Mark. ...

The gospel of Mark is the shortest, sparest, most muscular, most tightly-written of the four canonical gospels. ... What the gospel of Mark does, the evangelist lines up Jesus' prophecy of the coming Kingdom of God with the apocalyptic event that Mark knows happened: the Temple is destroyed. And what he does is put into the mouth of Jesus the prophecy that the Temple will be destroyed. This is in Mark 13. ... What Mark's Jesus talking about, is a reference to the Book of Daniel. That when the temple is destroyed, the Kingdom of God will arrive. And that's what Mark has his Jesus announcing. But Mark is a Christian Jew, not a non-Christian Jew. So what the Kingdom of God means for Mark is not only the destruction of the Temple as the immediate foregoing event before the kingdom comes; he weds the idea of the Kingdom of God with the Second Coming of Jesus ... .

If we take Jesus of Nazareth as the starting point for Christianity, Christianity is apocalyptic in its origin. If we take Paul's letters as the starting point of the New Testament, then the earliest textual level, the kernel, if you will, of the New Testament collection is apocalyptic. If we take the New Testament canon as beginning with Matthew, but ending with Apocalypse, then the entire New Testament canon is apocalyptic. In other words, apocalypticism is Christianity. That's what distinguishes it from other forms of Judaism in the first and second centuries. Apocalypticism is normative. ... It's a perpetual possibility within Christianity itself. If you think of the shape of the Christian story, Jesus doesn't only come once. He was crucified the first time he came. He has to come back a second time to finish what he started. This is the point that Paul makes in First Corinthians 15. That the Kingdom hasn't been established until Christ comes back. ... So if you will, in the Christian idea of history, as opposed to the Jewish idea of history, which is its foundation, the church lives in this charged period between two poles of the First and Second Coming, so this idea of the Second Coming is intrinsic to the idea of Jesus Christ as a universal savior. And in that sense, it's available constantly. In antiquity in particular, the vivid belief in a Second Coming was traditional Christianity. It seems otherwise to us, because Christianity had another fifteen centuries to develop. When I was being trained for my first communion, way back in the 1950s, I certainly wasn't taught to stay up late at night waiting for Jesus to come back. ... And certainly many of my friends who are professional theologians, they're not apocalyptic. But once I was giving a lecture on precisely this topic, Christian apocalyptic, to a pastors college. We were together for four days, and I was talking to these churchmen, these are pastors. I was talking to these churchmen about apocalyptic and I did this liberal arts, comparative, secular review of the Book of Daniel, the Book of the Apocalypse, and he was wrong and these people and Montanus, they were wrong, on and on and on and on; four days of listening to these wrong prophecies that described the history of Christian apocalypticism. I should add that I was doing this during Operation Desert Storm. When I took questions, the first one was from a pastor in the back of the room who said, "Yes, Professor Fredriksen, but now that Saddam Hussein is raining nerve gas down on Israel, now that he's the power from the north raining fire from the sky on God's elect, isn't it clear that now is the time of the Second Coming?" Nothing I had said touched his belief. The amazing thing about apocalyptic thought is that a specific prophecy can be disconfirmed, but the idea can never be discredited. You just recalculate. ...

Apocalyptic thought is native to Christianity. ... Nothing will ever end Christian apocalypticism, especially now, with literacy at the high level it is. Where people who were even brought up on non-apocalyptic Christian traditions, like I was, all you have to do now is pick up a bible and read it. And if you're not familiar with the elite reinterpretation of those texts, the proclamation of Jesus' Second Coming is right there, waiting for you. It's the last line in the New Testament. "Come Lord Jesus."

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