RE: [Allison-Seminar] the apocalyptic jesus
- Dear Jim:
You label your question elementary. Maybe it is; but the answer sure can't be, if only because so many have approached it in so many different ways.
I suppose I'm a professional historian and an amateur theologian, which means I'm much more confident making historical judgments than I am making theological judgments. So let me approach this by doing some quick history.
(i) There is great reluctance on the part of the early church to attribute any error to Jesus. John 21 is the clearest illustration of this with regard to eschatology. Someone thinks that the Beloved Disciple shouldn't die before Jesus returns. This must be someone's natural interpretation of some saying akin to Mark 9:1. But the author denies that Jesus intended this in a way that would make him mistaken. John 2 offers something similar. The evangelist makes it clear that when Jesus is talking about taking down and rebuilding the temple, he's talking about his body. Were he talking instead about the temple in Jerusalem, it could be objected that it has never been rebuilt, and in any case Jesus didn't take it down in three days. So the author wants us to know that Jesus' words came to pass in the way he envisaged they would.
(ii) This reluctance to attribute to Jesus any error is on display in the early church's christological debates. The orthodox were so opposed to the thought of Jesus making a mistake that they couldn't even admit that he was ignorant. So the saying in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, where Jesus says he doesn't know the day or hour of the end, was not taken at face value. Some said it was not original, that it came from the Arians. Others said that Jesus knew in his divine nature but not his human nature. Origen said "the Son" here equals the church, obviously absurd. Anyway, the dominant position has always been that, just as Jesus didn't sin, so likewise he never erred. How could he be God incarnate? This just wasn't an issue for traditional Christians. Jesus was divine, therefore he was right, and exegesis went ahead accordingly.
(iii) Things began to change with the deists, who argued that eschatological statements in the NT and the canonical gospels should be taken at face value, and that therefore Jesus was wrong. I've documented this in one of the essays for this seminar; I believe I entitled it "Liking and Disliking the Apocalyptic Jesus" or some such. Anyway, the deists used eschatological error to prove that Jesus was not God. At first, theologians responded by denying all error. They did this largely by what I would call spiritualizing the relevant texts. "Liking and Disliking," as the title indicates, also documents the resistance.
(iv) Later on, however, under what I think is exegetical honesty, many Christian theologians came to see that the Jesus of the canon does seem to think the end near. They then developed several strategies for responding to this problem. (a) Some developed, esp. in the late 19th century, a doctrine of kenosis, that the Deity left behind certain attributes in becoming a human being, among those attributes omniscience. (b) Others argued that all biblical prophecy is contingent; it is never set in stone. God is always responding to people's responses. It's like the book of Jonah, where "Yet thirty days and Nineveh will be destroyed" is a divine prophecy that doesn't come to pass. Repentance makes it not happen. (c) Others argued that Jesus' prophecies were fulfilled in ways that he simply didn't anticipate. His resurrection was the fulfillment of the eschaton in miniature, or some such. (d) Others said that Jesus was only wrong about the timing, which doesn't really matter much anyway. Jesus got only the clock wrong, not the facts. This is what Oscar Cullmann thought. (e) Some Christians have simply come to reconcile themselves to a very human Jesus and so reinterpreted or dispensed with the creeds. Some of these have decided that eschatological language is mythological language, and being literally wrong about the end is no more damning than being literally wrong about Genesis 1—one can still interpret the texts fruitfully.
I don't have the ability to sort through all of these issues myself. They involve I suppose going through the old christological debates, seeing whether the notion of two wills, one human, one divine, in Athanasius and Maximus the Confessor and others might be developed; or deciding whether the old debates have any value any more. They involve evaluating the debate over a kenotic incarnation. They involve one's conception of the Deity, and what one understands by incarnation. I'd be fumbling around were I to attempt to address those subjects here. What I do think is that Jesus hoped for and clearly proclaimed a near end, and that the world has not yet seen that end; from which it follows that Jesus was, literally, wrong. But I'm with those who think that, just as we don't throw away Genesis because it isn't literal history, we shouldn't throw away eschatological language because it hasn't become literal history. If you're interested in some of what I think can be done, you might consult my last chapter in The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, ed. Robert J. Miller (Polebridge). It's quite brief, however.
Two more questions, Jim. First, the publisher of my book? Well, I have spoken with a publisher who is interested, but I haven't signed a contract because I don't have the thing ready yet. As you can tell from the selections I've sent, I'm still working on the chapters (lots of typos), and I don't know when I'll be done. Also, I'm in no hurry, because I've published so much the last decade that I'm beginning to fear it's too much. I already have one book coming out this year; another seems extravagant to me. I'm thinking of holding this thing another year and polishing it a little further, or just letting it rest a bit.
As for Mark 13 being an effort to ameliorate the near end difficulty, maybe the saying about the Son not knowing functions this way. Also, putting things along a sort of time line might make people wonder about whether they're really at the end. But my main impression from this chapter is that of a near expectation. I think it in fact intensifies expectations. How could it not if it appeared shortly before or after 70? So I think Mark 13 is part of the problem, not someone's solution. Historically, it has certainly been an exegetical headache because it seems to link the fall of Jerusalem and the parousia.
Thanks for the questions,