The Apocalyptic Jesus
- Dear Professor Allison,
Your very interesting survey of the different strands of thought about the
apocalyptic Jesus omitted reference to one strand of thought which, in my
opinion, is important. This strand was advocated by, among others, Francis
Glasson, whose work has been unduly neglected. This is the view that Jesus
was indeed apocalyptic, but in the sense that he was prophesying a change in
this world, not the advent of a new world. As a Jew, Jesus would certainly
have access to this kind of apocalypticism, which is found in many, perhaps
most, Jewish sources. This is the ground of the Talmudic distinction
between 'the days of the Messiah' (yemot ha-mashiach) and 'the world to
come' ((olam ha-b)a). The 'days of the Messiah' is primarily a political
concept (though not without spiritual aspects), while 'the world to come' is
entirely spiritual. As one Talmudic rabbi (Samuel) put it, 'The difference
between these days and the days of the Messiah consists in the removal of
foreign oppression.' In the 'world to come', on the other hand, 'there is
no eating or drinking or sexual activity, and the righteous sit and enjoy
the radiance of the Shekhinah'.
Judaism has an ideal of a world (on this earth) in which injustice and
oppression and warfare and military empires have ceased, and human potential
is fulfilled. Jesus died on a Roman cross, and this indicates that he was
regarded as a threat to Roman power, i.e. he was a political figure. His
clash with the High Priest, a Roman appointee and quisling, also points in
this direction. Of course, the Gospels try to remove all political aspects
from Jesus' message (since the early Christians wished to dissociate
themselves from Jewish rebelliousness), but the political aspects keep
Jesus, as many passages show, was particularly impressed by the prophecy
of Zechariah, which is a vision of a world released from political
oppression by miraculous means - and the miracle takes place on the Mount of
Olives, where Jesus situated himself in preparation for the miracle. He was
also inspired by Isaiah's vision of a world in which the wolf would lie down
with the lamb. These visions are not apocalyptic in the sense that this
word is generally understood, but they are authentically Jewish.
Francis Glasson expounded very well the existence of the concept of
this-worldly apocalypticism in the sources, but I do not agree with his view
that the Christian Church constitutes the fulfilment of Jesus' expectations.
Glasson was trying to show, like so many other commentators (as you point
out), that Jesus was not, after all, wrong in his expectations.
With thanks and all good wishes,
Centre for Jewish Studies
University of Leeds
Direct lines: tel. +44 (0)113 268 1972
fax +44 (0)113 225 9927
- Dear Prof. Maccoby:
Thanks. I'm glad to get a question about Glasson. I share your interest in his work, and have never thought that he has been given his due. Despite my disagreements with him, his work is worth wrestling with. He first expressed his views as far as I know in The Second Advent (1945); later he followed this up with a little book called Jesus and the End of the World (1980). I've never I believe seen anyone cite the latter. The former greatly influenced John A. T. Robinson's Jesus and his Coming, but otherwise didn't have much of a reception.
Glasson's work is largely convincing in tracing how early Christians developed the doctrine of the parousia. But I have problems with his understanding of Jesus' eschatology. It starts from the sort of scheme you find in 4 Ezra 7, where the hope of an earthly messianic kingdom (of 400 years duration) is found together with the notion of a supramundane "age to come" (see 7:27-31). Of course this parallels the rabbinic distinction between the days of the messiah and the world to come. While acknowledging that no one conception was universally held by Jews of the first century, Glasson asserts that 4 Ezra contains "the late Jewish view," which is that of a temporary messianic kingdom followed by the resurrection and the new creation. He then argues that Jesus' proclamation squared with the then prevalent expectation: he looked for a first fulfillment, a temporary messianic reign (of considerable although unspecified duration), and beyond that to the resurrection and the final fulfillment, a new heaven and a new earth. In addition, the time from Jesus until now, the time of the church, can, according to Glasson, be legitimately equated with the messianic age. In other words, Jesus' expectation of a temporary kingdom has found its fulfillment in the new era that came into the world with the first advent.
One problem is that talk of "the late Jewish view" with reference to eschatology is difficult to accept. Few generalizations stand up to scrutiny. E.g., if by "messianic kingdom" one means a blessed era of limited duration (so Glasson), then a number of Jewish writings know of no such kingdom (Daniel; 1 Enoch 6-36; Psalms of Solomon 17; Pseudo-Philo; the Similitudes of Enoch). I don't think that the idea of two future fulfillments or two decisive climaxes in the eschatological drama plays any role in these books. They all promise an earthly kingdom of eternal or immeasurable continuance or simply a new heaven and a new earth (Dan 2.44; 7.27; 1 Enoch 10.16; Sibylline Oracles 3.49f; Psalms of Solomon 17.4; Pseudo-Philo 3.10; and 1 Enoch 49.2). Maybe cf. what some say in John 12:34: "We have heard that Christ remains for ever." Even when we come to rabbinic sources, I'm not sure how coherent and consistent the sources are.
What about Jesus? Did Jesus look for an initial fulfillment, an earthly kingdom of temporary duration (which has been realized in the last 2000 years), and past that to a second fulfillment, the age to come? I have my doubts. First, Jesus' words about the coming kingdom are not so mundane as to find their natural fulfillment in the history of the church. It is important in this connection that the portrayal of a coming earthly kingdom of God is, in Jewish sources, almost invariably pictured as bringing sweeping changes and great wonders, even in the sphere of nature. According to Jubilees 23, the coming time will be without Satan or any evil destroyer, and children will grow to be a thousand years old, and there will not be old men for all will be as youths. According to 4 Ezra 7.25-27, the messianic kingdom will bring the descent of an invisible city and an invisible land, the heavenly Jerusalem and paradise. And according to 2 Baruch 73, there will be no more war, disease or anxiety; joy, rest and gladness will come to all; passion and hatred and untimely deaths will depart; and gladness will so cover the earth as to transform the animals into harmless servants of children (cf. Papias in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3-4). Even granted the good measure of symbolism in these exalted depictions of the future, the apocalyptic seers obviously believed in a God who would some day transform the physical environment.
I think that Jesus thought the same. "Blessed are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6.20b cf. Matt 5.3). "Blessed are you who hunger now for you will be satisfied" (Luke 6.21 a and par). "Blessed are you who weep now for you shall laugh" (Luke 6.21b and par). Don't the beatitudes imply that the kingdom of God will banish hunger, poverty and suffering? Don't they envision a world very much different from the one we know now? Of similar import is Matt 8.11-12 (from Q), which foretells a messianic feast in which the resurrected patriarchs will participate (cf. Mark 14.25). Although the liturgies of the churches cite this text, it surely hasn't been fulfilled in the church. I can't identify the eschatological kingdom of which Jesus spoke with a history that has seen want, unrighteousness and war (you agree).
I think that your observations about politics—"the days of the Messiah" is a political concept—go against Glasson's thesis. Yes, when the Messiah comes, the Romans go—but not for Glasson. He completely spiritualizes the messianic kingdom. The political aspect, as you indicate, is inevitably there with Jesus.
If we can't interpret Jesus' words in terms of a fixed Jewish scheme that they must reflect, is there any good reason to suppose that he had in mind a temporary messianic kingdom which would be concluded by the resurrection of the dead? I just don't see it.
I'm inclined to think that for Jesus as for the authors of 1 Enoch 6-36; Sibylline Oracle 3; Psalms of Solomon 17 and 1 Enoch 37-71, the eschatological promises were to find their realization not in a completely new world but in a transformed world, an old world made new, in which the boundaries between heaven and earth would begin to disappear. There is moreover nothing which points to the temporal character of the coming era--although its everlastingness is also nowhere made perfectly plain. The question of duration is simply not addressed. So I doubt that Jesus envisioned a temporary messianic kingdom. I'd rather say, as you do, that Jesus imagined "a change in this world, not the advent of a new world." Heaven come to earth. But like you, I certainly can't identify this with the last 2000 years of history or church history. I think Jesus was envisaging something much more dramatic and supernatural, indeed a state that would be free of all evil.
Finally, I'm not sure, Prof. Maccoby, what you mean by "apocalyptic in the sense that the word is generally understood." In my experience, we have many problems because there is no general understanding of that word! But I'd like to avoid getting into that one. In fact, I wish I'd written my Jesus book with using the word; I find that people have read into it all sorts of things I didn't intend.