The winter vacation is over. Missouri is still frozen. But I escaped for a while.
This is the year of our fiftieth wedding anniversary. So we plan to break up the year with several celebrations. This may slow down my blogging on occasion.
Now on to my next reading project. . . I have been reading Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, The Pagans’ Apostle.
Fredriksen is among those who see the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Specifically, she believes Jesus was executed because he had brought a message of an immediate world-ending divine intervention. This had caused the kind of mass excitement that the Roman and Jewish authorities found threatening.
But then, however you explain this, the disciples of Jesus reported experiencing Christophanies or appearances of Jesus as risen from death. As the reports from the first Pentecost event after his death show, this only intensified the apocalyptic excitement. More Jews sought to prepare by purifying their bodies through baptism and their moral state through repentance and the appeal for forgiveness—the actions both John the Baptist and Jesus had called for.
After the festival, this excitement spread far into the world beyond Jerusalem, where there were Jewish colonies in many cities. It even spread to some sympathetic non-Jews.
These Hellenistic cities became the context for the career of Paul. I will come back to the way she develops this context.
But today I want to stick with her notion of the hair-trigger nearness of the end. Paul held the idea that preparing for the end is urgent because it is something that will happen, for most people at least, before they have a chance to die. The delay of the return of Jesus is already a problem for Paul. He has to explain the unexpected reality that some have died before the end (1 Thessalonians).
Paul wrote in the decade of the +50’s. Jesus preached twenty years before that. And Mark wrote 15 or 20 years after that. So Paul is in the middle. Jesus expected the end in his generation. Paul could still see this as his generation. But Mark, writing after the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, had to explain why the hope had been deferred to another generation.
So Fredriksen has an interesting interpretation of Mark:
The sinful and adulterous generation of Jesus’s contemporaries were not to receive the sign of the Kingdom’s coming (Mark 8:38). It was only the righteous generation—Mark’s generation—that would be given the sign, namely, the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:1-4, 26).
This set the stage for further attempts in later generations to mitigate the failure of the apocalypse such as Luke’s salvation history and John’s realized eschatology.
I have a few words in evaluation. First, I fundamentally agree that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. For all of us who think that, the problem is that Jesus was wrong about the end. That, not only the Bible but Jesus, could be in error is deal-breaker for many.
However, I think Jesus was indeed wrong about the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and, for a trivial example, that the mustard seed is the smallest seed. Even those of us who believe in the divinity of Jesus, can hold with the belief that Jesus emptied himself (Philippians 2: 7).
Jesus limited himself to the Aramaic language and the Galilean/Jewish cultural milieu. The historical Jesus had divested himself of knowledge and beliefs that were beyond that. So it was always true that only the Father knew the times and the seasons.
So, in my faith, the important thing is God. Jesus was one of God’s ways of being God. I am not uncomfortable with saying “God the Son” or with directing prayer and worship to the now-risen Jesus. However, I am not a “red-letter” Christian. That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and that his words were historically conditioned, human, and subject of error is not a deal-breaker for me.
I am not sure, though, that Jesus and John the Baptist had exactly the same timetable, or that Jesus was as sure about the immanent Kingdom as Fredriksen assumes. John said that the ax was already laid to the root of the tree. Jesus told a story about a tree that got a brief reprieve (Luke 13:6-9). So perhaps there was room, even in the teaching of the historical Jesus, for God to defer judgment in favor of mercy. Jesus was, after all, familiar with the book of Jonah.
At any rate, Fredriksen says that Paul, in between Jesus and Mark, saw the delay of the Kingdom in the light of his outreach to pagans. The “full number of the Gentiles” had not yet come in (Romans 11:25 ff.).