Who Was Jesus?

By Callahan, Tim | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Who Was Jesus?


Callahan, Tim, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


A Review of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, by Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford University Press, 1999.273 pp.

IN THIS BOOK Professor Bart D. Ehrman has done an excellent job of stating the obvious fact that the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all make it clear that Jesus expected the world to end in his generation, as do the epistles of Paul. This is something many Christian apologists tend to gloss over, with the result that most Christians are unaware that Jesus was, as Dr. Ehrman asserts, an apocalypticist. Let us review some of the key passages. In Mark 8:38, 9:1 (parallel verses are Matthew 16:27, 28 and Luke 9:26,27) Jesus says:

For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels. And he said to them, "Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

It would seem that this could only refer to the second coming. Yet some Christian apologists maintain that the "kingdom of God" merely refers to the Christian church and that it would "come with power" refers to the miracle of Pentecost (see Acts 2). That Jesus wasn't referring to Pentecost can be seen in Matthew's version of the quotation above (Mt. 16:27,28):

For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father. Then he shall repay every man for what he has done. Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man come with power.

This prediction of the return of Jesus as the apocalyptic figure, the Son of Man, with an angelic host to effect the last judgment can only mean the establishment of the millennial kingdom. In any case the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) all contain a description of the last days given by Jesus to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, thus called the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), which is capped in Matthew by Jesus proclaiming (Mt. 24:34): "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all those things take place."

This is another verse certain Christian apologists often try to interpret other than literally, even going to the lengths of saying that the word genea translated as "generation' is here actually used as a synonym for genos which means "race.' In other words the Jewish people will not pass away before these things take place. But--assuming the gospels do indeed preserve at least the gist of what Jesus taught--he keeps saying things that undo these attempts to avoid his apocalyptic bent. Upon being arrested he is brought before Caiaphas, the high priest, who asks if he is the Christ. Jesus responds (Mark 14:62b, parallel verse in Mt. 26:64): "I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."

Paul, in writings which probably antedate the gospel of Mark by as much as 20 years, also understood the end of the world as being in his generation. In I Thessalonians 4:13 through 5:11 he describes how those who have already died will rise and how all believers will be caught up with them and rise into the air to meet Jesus. He also says in 1 Corinthians 1 5:5 1,52:

Lo! tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed.

The Greek word translated here as "sleep" is koimeo, which can either mean to sleep or to die. So Paul is saying here what Jesus said. Not everyone in his generation will have died by the time the millennial kingdom is established.

While the gospel of John is seen by scholars as being later than the synoptic gospels and has somewhat blunted the apocalyptic thrust of Jesus' message, this gospel has Jesus say (John 5:25-29):

Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. …

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