In a comment Peter asks about Acts 10:42: “So it seems you would say that Jesus’ role as judge of the living and the dead… already happened at the parousia (70 AD). Is this correct? If so, in what way did he judge the dead?” The main texts have to do with Peter—confusing, I know (Acts 10:42; 1 Pet. 4:5); but we can also bring Paul into the picture (Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 14:9-12; 2 Tim. 4:1). My contention is that this is not the language of a transcendent final judgment. The arguments have historical developments in view, though not just the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.
I have been getting a kick out of Albert Schweitzer’s 1930 book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. What’s so refreshing about the book is that Schweitzer attempts consistently to frame Paul’s thinking eschatologically. The book’s dated in many ways, and a lot of exegetical water has passed under numerous hermeneutical bridges since then, but it still has something to teach us.
He does not do justice to the missional-evangelical and political-religious dynamics which I think fundamentally explain the shape and purpose of Paul’s eschatology; and his insistence on using the term “mysticism” has probably been a stone of stumbling for many readers. But if we keep in mind that by mysticism he means the solidarity of the community of the Elect with Christ, who died and was raised, in the period leading up to the inauguration of the Messianic Kingdom, then this metaphor of the spider’s web makes the point very well:
As the spider’s net is an admirably simple construction so long as it remains stretched between the threads which hold it in position, but becomes a hopeless tangle as soon as it is loosed from them; so the Pauline Mysticism is an admirably simple thing, so long as it is set in the framework of eschatology, but becomes a hopeless tangle as soon as it is cut loose from this. (140)
One of the most serious exegetical-hermeneutical-theological failings of modern evangelicalism has been to take soteriology out of eschatology, to disconnect the saying about the Son of Man giving his life as a ransom for many from the expectation that the Son of Man will be seen coming in glory on the clouds of heaven to the consternation of Caiaphas and the Council (Mk. 10:45; 14:61-64).
I would say that we should all go back to Schweitzer and start again. This statement requires careful reading, but it hits the nail on the head. Almost.
Foreign to our ideas as is the thought of Jesus’ atoning death as shaped by the eschatological idea of redemption, it is nevertheless both simple and profound. The atoning tribulation, which man was to suffer in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins, the future Messiah takes, by the gracious permission of God, upon Himself. How much more living and fruitful is this historically true version of Jesus’ thought, growing naturally as it does out of the universal attribution of atoning value to suffering, than the host of theological or untheological inventions which have been foisted upon Him! (A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, 61-62)
In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Dale Allison argues for an apocalyptic Jesus—that is, for a Jesus whose mind was resolutely set on a cataclysmic and transformative event in a not-too-distant future. He thinks that the “shared hypothesis of Weiss and Schweitzer is not just tenable but compelling”. The argument is right, and I am firmly of the view that an evangelical reading of the Synoptic Gospels has to recover the apocalyptic dimension. The question, however, is what sort of impending cataclysmic and transformative event Jesus had in mind.
Like many scholars, Allison thinks that Jesus expected a final cosmic transformation:
he envisaged, as did many in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.
My last post, arguing against Dale Allison that Jesus’ saying about the Son of Man coming in clouds relates to the vindication of Jesus and his followers after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, elicited a good critique on Facebook. The point made is that there is more to the prophecies than the destruction of Jerusalem and that this “more” never happened. So we need to acknowledge that “the early church was mistaken, both as to the timing and the nature of the return”. Let me address the critique as it is developed. My contention will be that the New Testament language is more coherent and more plausible if we differentiate between two historical-eschatological horizons: the war against Rome and the overthrow of classical paganism.
I’m about a third of the way through Dale Allison’s book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. So far, it’s been an introspective, ambivalent—if not vacillating—but engaging reflection on the difficulty of doing historical Jesus research in a way that is theologically or religiously useful. Here’s one way of pointing out the challenge:
Remarkably, many pew-sitters are happily oblivious of what has been going on in the thinking world for two and half centuries. They have somehow avoided most or even all of the serious intellectual commentary on the Gospels since the Enlightenment. (3)
I think that we need to be doing a lot more to bring the two sides together in a constructive dialogue—the critical scholars, on the one hand, and the practitioners and pew-sitters, on the other. But that’s not the issue I want to pursue here.
Here’s another proof-text beloved of evangelists: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38; cf. Lk. 10:2). It will no doubt get a good airing in the coming months as the Church of England prepares for a week of prayer for evangelism in May, leading up to Pentecost. It will seem obvious to many that Jesus’ saying is as relevant now as it ever was—he wouldn’t have said it otherwise. The harvest is waiting to be brought in. We just need to pray for more people to go out and share their faith.
But do we have any reason—exegetically speaking—for thinking that Jesus’ words hold true for the situation that we face in western Europe in the 21st century? Should the text be applied in such a simple fashion to our own context?
Peter’s exhortation to the “exiles of the dispersion” to be ready at all times “to make a defence (apologian) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) has been a key text for those wishing to promote either a rational apologetics or personal evangelism.
It suggests a slightly passive strategy—don’t push your views on people, but if they ask you to explain or defend your beliefs, make sure you’ve done your homework. Either pack your mental toolbox with some tried-and-tested logical rebuttals to flummox the atheists and evolutionists and secular humanists who push you up against a wall and call you an idiot. Or be prepared to share your formulaic personal testimony: my life used to be a mess, then I met Jesus, now everything is sweetness and light. Either way, do it all with “gentleness and respect”. In other words, keep smiling inanely….
Matt Colvin offers a well thought out rejoinder to my latest attempt to show that John’s account of the fall of Babylon-the-great refers to Rome. The point he makes is a challenging one: John says that the great city will be thrown down by violence and will be found no more (Rev. 18:21). But Rome was not destroyed: it did not suffer the fate of cities such as Nineveh and Babylon, which Matt says were buried in the sand. So if John was prophesying the catastrophic fall of Rome, it was a false prophecy. Jerusalem, on the other hand, certainly suffered utter destruction, so for the sake of saving the integrity of biblical prophecy, let’s stick to the view that Babylon-the-great is Jerusalem.
I was provoked to write this over-long post by a comment dismissing the relevance of Nahum 3:4 for the interpretation of John’s description of the fall of Babylon the great in Revelation 18 as a “tenuous consideration”. I have spent too much time on this matter already and I don’t expect anyone to read the piece unless he or she has a strong interest in refuting may basic position—and even then maybe we’re all getting a bit bored with the topic. It’s just something I need to do…. Humour me.
Anyway, what I have done is set out what appear to be the obvious cross-references for the chapter. The proclamation of the fall of Babylon the great draws extensively on the Old Testament, and the point made here is that nearly all of the passages referenced speak not of God’s judgment on Jerusalem but of the fall or destruction of a powerful pagan city, typically for having defied the God of Israel. To my mind this strongly suggests that John thought he was describing the fall of the city of Rome.