RE: [Allison-Seminar] The Utility of an apocalyptic Jesus
- Dear Vince:
Your questions are important, and they indicate that I'm not always perfectly clear. Sorry for that.
You say that I make five points:
1. Jesus is meaningful today in the Christian faith. You never actually
stated this, but I feel it is a fair assumption to make.
2. Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet.
3. Jesus was wrong about when the end of the world was going to come.
4. Jesus was wrong about eternal punishment.
5. Jesus’ value as a religious leader is simply that he was able to see
beyond this world to another world where “our wounds” do heal, and where
“the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness” IS
undone, and where there is SOMETHING more “for those who were slaughtered in
the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer.” (Millenarian
Well, you're right about 1 and 2. You're only partly right about 3 and 4, and wrong about 5. I've written re 3 that Jesus may have been mistaken but he wasn't wrong. I'd say the same about 4. What I mean by this is that of course, from one point of view, Jesus was wrong because he took apoc. language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn't, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, hold us responsible, etc. I continue to be amazed that we can't do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we've given up the literal sense--which was the sense the ancients gave to it, or at least one of the senses they gave to it (even the allegorizers). Why can't we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world--it didn't take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc.--but he wasn't wrong--God made the world, the world is good, responsible human beings wreck things, etc. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about, which I can't do as long as everybody is stuck with literalism. Even Dom Crossan has in effect complained that my Jesus was literally wrong. I don't get it. What's the difference between this and people dismissing Genesis because it doesn't account for evolutionary theory? I recognize that giving up the literal reading of Genesis caused and still causes trouble in some circles, but theologians have certainly been able to stay in business. It should be the same with eschatology.
I also dissent from your fifth generalization, Vince. Where did I ever say that Jesus' value as a religious leaders is simply that he was able to see beyond this world to another world? The context for that comment is Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, which is all about eschatology. I suppose that using eschatology as my paradigm might mislead a reader to suppose that I see nothing but eschatology in Jesus. But that's just not true. I can't reduce his ethics to eschatology. I don't reduce his wisdom to eschatology. I can't reduce his theology proper to eschatology. In fact, in Millenarian Prophet, I associate with eschatology only seven or eight of the seventeen themes I hightlight. See pp. 46-49. Here I think I've got some distance from Schweitzer. I don't think Jesus was an eschatological machine who produced only eschatological products. I think he was an eschatological prophet who passed on tradition and said new things in the light of his eschatological expectation. Eschatology colors everything, but there is much more to most things than color.
You ask: if Jesus was wrong about hell, what about heaven? Well, Jesus says very little about heaven or life in the kingdom of heaven. That strikes me as wise and in accord with his reticence about hell. But to the extent that he was literal about this or that, to that extent I'd have to disagree. I'm fine with thrones and streets of gold as long as they aren't taken literally. I want to separate what I think is the real message from its cultural clothing. A million tough philosophical questions there to be sure. But if I believe, as I do, in a life after death, in God holding us responsible, and in God making things right, isn't that a plausible start toward what heaven must mean? And why should it trouble me to learn that first-century Jews were more literal about their images of hope than I am? So again, wrong about heaven and hell but right about heaven and hell.
(As an aside: in debate with me, Dom Crossan has said that he thinks about the afterlife what he does about UFOs: he doesn't know and he doesn't care. I'm sure he speaks for many. He and they will obviously have to reinterpret traditional ideas of heaven and hell rather differently than I'm doing here. All I can say in response is that I have always cared deeply about this subject and, despite the great philosophical and scientific problems, about which I try to stay informed, I believe in a world to come and don't in fact know how to speak about divine justice without such a world.)
Could Jesus have had heaven without hell? No, since I think that, in his proclamation, they function as exhortation and as statements of responsibility and as statements of justice. You can't, if you want to exhort people, say: When the kingdom comes, or when we die, everybody, no matter how evil they've been, goes straight to heaven. You can't, if you want to teach human responsibility, say: When the kingdom comes, or when we die, everybody, no matter how evil they've been, goes straight to heaven. You can't, if your want to uphold divine justice, say: When the kingdom comes, or when we die, everybody, no matter how evil they've been, goes straight to heaven.
Finally, what do I want students to come away with? What can Christianity learn from the apocalyptic Jesus? Well, I ofer a few things at the end of The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, ed. Bob Miller. I won't repeat those theological points here--one is in fact Jesus' genuine humanity--but just direct you to that book. Beyond that, two things.
i. My focus on eschatology has several explanations, but one is this. I have been uncomfortable with the Jesus Seminar for several reasons, but one has been that they've given us a Jesus who has, on my reading, little traditional eschatology (dead wrong), no real christology (surely wrong), no traditional soteriology (proabably wrong), and not much Bible (just plain wrong). Millenarian Prophet was an attempt to address the first defect or, if you prefer, disagreement. The Intertextual Jesus was (in part) an attempt to address the last defect or, if you prefer, disagreement. Whether I will deal with the other two issues I don't yet know. Other things seem to be calling to me. In any case, Millenarian Prophet is really focused on one topic; it is not a comprehensive view of Jesus. So please don't think that Jesus, in my mind, is nothing but eschatology (cf. above). The preface clearly states that the book is a collection of fragments from an abandoned project. The project was comprehensive, MP is not.
ii. I've pushed the mistaken Jesus in order to clear the decks for a more sophisticated reinterpretation of eschatology (again, see above).
iii. Insofar as the mistaken Jesus remains a problem for christology, I want the theologians to explain why and I want them to give me some answers. No one can do everything. My modest task is to say to theologians: So, here he is, what do you do with that? I'm hoping they can help us and do a much better job of thinking clearly than I've been able to do in these pitiful, rushed emails. One respected scholar recently told me I could find some guidance in Maximus the Confessor. So I'll be reading Maximus in a bit. Anyway, I live within this tradition and I want others who live within this tradition to pay attention to the modern quest and help us all interpret it. I certainly don't have all the answers because I'm posing more questions than I'm answering.
One final comment. The epilogue to Millenarian Prophet has received some attention. Reynolds Price, the novelist, read MP and told me I wrote well--what a compliment that was!--and had in mind the epilogue. I told him the truth, which was: I didn't write it, I dreamed it. I'd been impoverished and searching for a full time NT post for 10 years. One night, after I'd finished MP, and after I'd given up on the last job interview because it'd been weeks and weeks since my visit, I quit. I called W.D. Davies, who'd been writing letters on my behalf for years and years, and told him I was through. I reconciled myself to the fact that I would not ever, for no good reason I could fathom, land a position in the field. I had to cast aside and abandon the only dream I'd ever had. So I was, as you can imagine, utterly confused and alienated from this world. Right before waking up, I dreamed the words of the epilogue. I woke up, went downstairs, and typed them just as I dreamed them. I then changed only a word or two, sent off a copy to Joel Marcus to see what he thought, and then, out of the blue, got a call offering me the post I now have. I retained the epilogue as I originally wrote it because I thought it expressed well the miserable alienation from this world and the sense of injustice (if in my case on a relatively small scale) that lies behind so much apocalyptic eschatology. If I may mingle hellenism and Judaism, the muses gave it to me and I think Jesus would have liked it.