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The Apocalyptic-Eschatology of Jesus and Paul

Mon, Apr 20, 2015

Introduction

The dominant worldview of Jesus, Paul, and the contemporary Hebrews was that of apocalyptic-eschatology. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible had spoken of the coming Kingdom of God and Jesus had declared himself a prophet who was the sign that the time of the end was coming for the world. Jesus, Paul, and their contemporary Judaism all have something to say about the Hebrew god’s revealing of the end of time. In many instances all three streams share a common narrative; however, each reinterprets and recasts the narrative for a particular audience and context.

Apocolyptic-Eschatology

Within modern, Western popular culture “the apocalypse” has taken on many forms; some inline with traditional Judaeo-Christian thought and theories, others more inline with science fiction or fantasy. With so many divergent ideas about what apocalypticism is, any conversation about the “end times” must begin by defining the terminology of the conversation and by putting those terms within the correct context. For the task at hand, I will focus on the context of post-exilic Palestinian and Greek diaspora Jews as well as the first decades of the Jesus movement1 and seek to define terminology to assist in discussing the theological worldview held by many within those communities.

The prophetic books of Israel — mostly clearly Daniel — document a then nascent genre, the apocalypse, as well as the beginnings of a new stream of Hebrew theological thought, apocalypticism.2 Within this worldview the Hebrew god is not a god focused simply on the present circumstances of the Hebrew nation, but a god with a larger plan in mind; a plan where the rewards for faithful worship await the faithful in some future time.3 To scholars, apocalypticism — as it developed as part of the ancient Jewish worldview — is best seen as a socioreligious movement brought about in reaction to empire and exclusion from the dominant culture.4 Modern academics propose that for a community that has lost control both politically and culturally, a worldview which focuses on a future time when the community is divinely brought to their rightful dominant place would be very appealing.5 Such a worldview was held by many in the Jewish community at the time of both Jesus and Paul.

The apocalyptic worldview places a definitive eschaton6 within control of the Hebrew god. The Hebrew god, Yahweh, determines all that has and will take place and though Yahweh presently allows those who oppose the divine will to reign, Yahweh will eventually return all things under divine control and execute judgement on those who have disobeyed. The final will and plan of the Hebrew god is revealed7 over time through prophecy and visible happenings that eventually result in the establishment of a divinely empowered and protected kingdom on earth.8

Within this contextual framework it is clear that unlike modern, Western notions, apocalypse refers more to the means to an end — the “how” — rather than the “what.” The “what” is the eschaton where the reign of the Hebrew god is fully revealed, evil is constrained, and Yahweh’s people are freed from their present cultural and political repression.9 The worldview of Jesus, Paul, many contemporary Jews, and early Christianity is better defined as apocalyptic-eschatological or, as Boer would define it, “revealed eschatology”;10 they believed in a true end to the present age and saw present events and people as playing a part in the Hebrew god’s unfolding of that end, the eschaton. More so, to the true followers of Yahweh, Yahweh should reveal11 “divine mysteries” which would point believers to unseen events unfolding in the heavenly realms and well as give meaning to contemporary historical events.12

The Kingdom of God

On the face of things “the Kingdom of God” sounds like an easy term to define. It must refer to a kingdom which is sovereignly governed by a god-king. One must simply define where the kingdom is in time and space and then determine which god is the kingdom’s monarch. However, in actuality, when looking at the ideas held by the early Jesus Movement and the Hebrew religion contemporary to its time, the Kingdom can be a term that means many different — and sometimes contradictory — things to many different people.13 As the apocolpytic-eschatological worldview is focused on the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, it is critical to fully understand what “the Kingdom of God” meant to Jesus, the early Jesus Movement of which Paul was a part, and contemporary Judaism.

Hebrew Kingdom

The Judaism contemporary to Jesus and Paul was steeped in apocalyptic thought and, thus, the Kingdom of God was a topic of much conversation.14 To both the Palestinian and diaspora Jew of Jesus’ day, it was clear that the present, Roman rulers of Israel were not appointed by the Hebrew god and, thus, the present political situation was not the eschaton, or final goal of Yahweh.15 Within this political situation where the Hebrew people where dominated by a foreign political power and culture, they looked to their god to deliver them to a place of power in the future.16

In this light, the common Jewish understanding of the Kingdom of God contemporary to Jesus was that it had always existed in the heavens with the Hebrew god, but that Yahweh would in the future bring the Kingdom here to earth.17 The apocalyptic book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible declares that, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries […]”18 To the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day this god revealed not only meaning to the present situation of the Hebrew people, but also the future they could await if they remained faithful. The Kingdom was both something that existed presently in the heavenly realms and something that was being revealed19 now that would fully exist in the future along with a “radical reorientation of values and power.”20 To the Hebrew contemporary with Jesus and Paul, talk of the Kingdom of God was thus tightly bound with the apocalyptic-eschatological worldview; it was something of the present and something that was to come.

Jesus’ Kingdom(s)

Despite the contradictory conclusions made over the years by various members of the academic community about what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God,” it is well-established that Jesus taught something about the Kingdom.21 The question, then, for scholars is what exactly did Jesus teach. Did Jesus simply believe and teach the common Jewish understanding of a Kingdom that “is and is to come22,” or did he teach something else?

To answer the many questions about Jesus’ view(s) on the Kingdom of God, scholars have undertaken a critical investigation into the earliest Christian documents, the synoptic gospels,23 where the teachings and beliefs of Jesus, to academics, can possibly be recreated. Biblical scholar E.P. Sanders breaks the things Jesus is to have said about the Kingdom of God into six main categories.24 These six categories of kingdom-sayings along with the ideas already presented by Albert Schweitzer and C.H. Dodd25 begin to give a clearer picture on the type of message that academics believe Jesus most likely delivered.

In the first category of sayings, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as simply heaven; the place people go after death if one is judged worthy by the Hebrew god. In these sayings, heaven — the uncreated, eternal realm of Yahweh — is presented as the transcendent, final resting place of the righteous in opposition to the wicked who rest finally in hell.26 The kingdom, then, is only experienced after death, but exists — always — in the present. In a sense, the first category of sayings can be seen as an almost gnostic27 spiritualization of the second category of sayings attributed to Jesus. In these sayings the synoptic gospels present Jesus as teaching the same views as the Jewish religious community contemporary to his time; the Kingdom of God is in heaven now, but will come down to earth sometime in the future. In these sayings, eternal life is only experienced after the Kingdom has arrived in the eschaton where society is completely transformed and completely ruled by Yahweh and the followers of the same.28

The third category Sanders gives to Jesus’ kingdom-sayings relates strongly to the Weiss/Schweitzer school of thought29 around what Jesus thought, that the Kingdom of God will be brought about by some sort of unexpected, cosmic event which will usher in a time of judgement and the complete reversal of the present order by establishment of the total reign of Yahweh.30 It is this category of sayings where much of the modern apocalyptic imagery is drawn, such as figures descending from the heavens and celestial bodies changing their properties or normal orbit.31

The final three categories of kingdom-sayings as defined by Sanders are all related to the more ambiguous teachings of Jesus around the Kingdom. In some, the Kingdom is definitely in the future, but not necessarily or otherwise defined.32 In others, Jesus is recorded as talking about the Kingdom as some sort of parallel realm on earth. When in Jesus says that the “kingdom is among you, ” the teaching, to some scholars, should actually be taken literally; Jesus means that the Kingdom of God is a special realm on earth only available and visible to his followers as revealed through the Hebrew god.33 Finally, in some passages Jesus seems to portray the Kingdom of God as something that is present in the miracles and exorcisms he performs.34

Given all of the above related and yet conflicting kingdom-sayings, is it possible for scholars to even derive what the historical Jesus might actually have taught and believed? Dale Allison believes that the evidence points to Jesus seeing himself as being in the middle of events which were bringing in the eschaton.35 Jesus held the conventional, contemporary Jewish views of a now and future Kingdom with all of its ambiguities and contradictions.36 In a similar way, E.P. Sanders believes the evidence points to a Jesus who believed that the Hebrew god had actually guided his people out of bondage in Egypt and would again in the future act in an even more miraculous way to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.37 As originally proposed by the likes of Weiss and Schweitzer, Sanders and Allison both agree that Jesus was an eschatological prophet38 seeking to prepare people to for the Kingdom of God which was near.39 What made Jesus unique was not his apocalyptic-eschatological worldview, but how he interpreted contemporary events and his own ministry as being part of the Hebrew god’s revelation that the “Kingdom of God [was] at hand.”40

Paul’s Kingdom

The death of Jesus left the early Jesus Movement at a pivotal point. Contemporary Hebrew apocalyptic-eschatology taught that the eschaton could strike at any moment,41 but was probably still a ways off. The early Jesus Movement and Paul, however, interpreted the resurrection of Jesus as an eschatological event signaling that the eschaton had already begun.42 This presented Paul with a difficult task. The kingdom that was once there — heaven — but someday here43 — earth — was now much closer to here than heretofore imagined in Hebrew theological circles.

Paul, like Jesus, was brought up within the apocalyptic worldview of the Hebrew culture.44 As such, he interpreted the life, works, and prophecies of Jesus within a Jewish apocalyptic-eschatological framework. If Jesus were the “anointed one” of the Hebrew god then he must also be the “Son of Man” who would bring about eschaton, the restoration of Israel, and the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus’ return — parousia — was just the final step in a train of eschatological events started in Jesus’s earthly ministry.45

As a follower of the teachings of Jesus, it is unsurprising that Paul’s view of the Kingdom — at least of face value — matches that of Jesus. Paul holds a combination of beliefs contained within the first three categories of kingdom-sayings as defined by E.P. Sanders.46 He accepted the notion of a present heaven that the righteous would receive upon death — category 1 — but added the notion that Jesus was also there with the Hebrew god reigning.47 The Kingdom of God would indeed be established in the future on earth by the “Son of Man,” according to Paul, — category 2 — but this figure was now recast48 as Jesus. Jesus — as the “Son of Man” would not only establish the Kingdom but also would be the source of the earth’s transformation and its ruler.49 In a recasting of the cataclysmic event that would bring about the final scenes of the eschaton —category 3 — , Paul awaits Jesus’ return in the sky where all the believers will meet him as he defeats evil and completely transforms the entirety of creation.50

Paul taught that the eschaton was near, near enough that most alive during his time would be present at Jesus’ parousia. Many academics believe that this is also what Jesus taught.51 The seemingly missed arrival of the parousia never became of problem for Jesus because he was crucified and did not have to deal with the issue. However, for Paul, the perceived delay of the parousia became a real issue.52 Just as the early gospel writer of Luke, according to scholars, modified Jesus’ eschatological parousia statements to account for them not yet having happened53, Paul gives the early followers of Jesus a new54 teaching that in actuality those who have already died when Jesus returns will be the first to meet him in the sky.55

Conclusion

For Jesus, Paul, and the Judaism contemporary to their time the Kingdom of God was both a present and future reality. The apocalyptic-eschatological worldview at the root of Jesus and Paul’s eschatology was formed by the political and cultural marginalization of the Hebrew nation. So too, the modifications made to the originally Jewish ideas about the end times made by Jesus and Paul fit the context they worked within. Jesus gave meaning to present events in his ministry, the ministry of John the Baptist, and the lives of contemporary Hebrews under Roman rule. Paul gave the early Jesus Movement reason to continue believing in the great eschatological hope offered by Jesus even when generations has passed since his ascension. In each situational recasting of the idea, the original apocalyptic-eschatological worldview formed within the crucible of the Hebrew nation is clearly seen.


Bibliography

Allison, Dale C., Jr. “The Eschatology of Jesus,” in The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.

Collins, John Joseph, Bernard McGinn, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. Nachdr. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, ed. by Bernard McGinn, John J. Collins and Stephen J. Stein ; Vol. 1. New York, NY: Continuum, 2004.

Collins, John J. “From Prophecy to Apocalypticism,” in The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.

De Boer, Martin “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.

Ehrman, Bart D. A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Holloway, Paul A. “Introduction to the New Testament” Lecture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, January 5, 2015.

Horsley, Richard A. “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel,” in The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.

Powell, Mark Allan. Fortress Introduction to the Gospels. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998.

Redding, Jonathan. “Introduction to the New Testament” Lecture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, April 8, 2015.

Sanders, E. P. Paul: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions 42. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.



  1. The “Jesus Movement” as used within this essay refers to early Christianity from the crucifixion of Jesus to the completion of Paul’s ministry and the Synaptic Gospels. [return]
  2. John J. Collins, “From Prophecy to Apocalypticism,” in Collins, Origins, 129-134. [return]
  3. Holloway, Paul A. “Introduction to the New Testament” (lecture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, January 5, 2015). [return]
  4. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 347-348. [return]
  5. Holloway, Paul A. “Introduction to the New Testament” (lecture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, January 5, 2015). [return]
  6. Eschaton is Greek for “the end.” Eschatology is that which relates to discussing or thinking about the end times. [return]
  7. The Greek word for “revelation” is the same root English derives the word “apocalypse” from. [return]
  8. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 345-350. [return]
  9. Redding, Jonathan. “Introduction to the New Testament” (lecture, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, April 8, 2015). [return]
  10. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 351. [return]
  11. The revealing of “divine mysteries” is the apocalyptic part of apocalyptic-eschatology. [return]
  12. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 350-351. [return]
  13. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 169-171. [return]
  14. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 278. [return]
  15. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 169. [return]
  16. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 347-348. [return]
  17. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 169. [return]
  18. Da 2:28 RSV [return]
  19. Again, the revealed, progressive nature of the eschaton is what makes this worldview apocalyptic. [return]
  20. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 169. [return]
  21. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 267-272. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 184, 188.

    [return]
  22. Rev 4:8 RSV [return]
  23. The synoptic gospels are the canonical books of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — which contain the deeds and sayings of Jesus and, due to their similarities, — according to scholarship — share common sources. [return]
  24. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 171-175. [return]
  25. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 267-272. [return]
  26. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 171-172. [return]
  27. Gnosticism, in an over-simplified definition, was an early Jesus Movement that rejected the physical world and the god of the physical world and looked to Jesus as the one with special knowledge about how to transcend the physical to the higher, spiritual realm. [return]
  28. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 172-173. [return]
  29. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 175. [return]
  30. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 267-269. [return]
  31. Mark 13:24-27 is an excellent example of this type of imagery. [return]
  32. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 174. [return]
  33. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 174. [return]
  34. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 175. [return]
  35. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 275. [return]
  36. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 299. [return]
  37. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 184. [return]
  38. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 290. [return]
  39. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 188. [return]
  40. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 299. Mark 1:15 RSV

    [return]
  41. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 355. [return]
  42. Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Eschatology of Jesus, ” in Collins, Origins, 283. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 355.

    [return]
  43. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 169. [return]
  44. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 347. [return]
  45. Martin de Boer, “Paul and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Collins, Origins, 346. [return]
  46. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 171-175. [return]
  47. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 38. [return]
  48. Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel,” in Collins, Origins, 322. [return]
  49. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 37. [return]
  50. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 37. [return]
  51. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 32. [return]
  52. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 33. [return]
  53. Bart D. Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, 3rd ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 108. [return]
  54. Paul’s teaching would be new given the academic consensus that Jesus taught that we would return before any of his contemporary followers died. [return]
  55. E. P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 42 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 33-34. [return]