Reimarus on the second coming of Jesus

Read time: 7 minutes

I had two emails from friends recently, within a few minutes of each other, recommending books to read. The first pointed me to an online edition of Fragments from Reimarus: consisting of brief critical remarks on the object of Jesus and His disciples as seen in the New Testament. The English translation was published in 1879, more than a hundred years after the death of the German philosopher. The original Wolfenbüttel Fragmente arguably prised open the Pandora’s box of critical research into the life of Jesus. My friend thought I might be interested in some comments Reimarus made on the second coming of Jesus, and we’ll come to that in a moment.

The second email recommended a book by Seth Heringer called Uniting History and Theology. It is a response, coincidentally, to the sort of positivistic approach to historical reconstruction that, in Heringer’s view, dominated New Testament research from Reimarus right down to N.T. Wright. The hardcover is £70 on Amazon, but if the blurb is anything to go by, it might well be worth looking at:

Setting out five cairns that mark the path forward for such a method, the author argues that narratives must be taken seriously; objectivity and neutrality do not exist in historical accounts; historians must find ways to unite the past, present, and future; aesthetics should be used to judge historical narratives; and Christians should write boldly Christian history.

I don’t know what he means by writing “boldly Christian history,” but there are things here which resonate: the focus on historical narrative, the continuity of history, and the place of aesthetics.

My way of preserving the balance between “history” and “aesthetics” is to differentiate between the history that is outside the texts and the history that is in the texts. Neither is objective history, of course, but I think it helps to think of scripture as the narrative that is told by a historical community about itself. This is what keeps it “evangelical.” The central “theological” question is: what did the historical community mean by telling this story about itself and its experiences? Thus I am a partial positivist.

But now back to Reimarus…

The idea that it would be eighteen hundred years or more before Christ returned, Reimarus says, is historically absurd (51). Since the first coming must have taken place for the sake of the second, “there was no good reason why the kingdom of glory should not begin soon.” Who would have given up livelihood and possessions for such a remote second coming? Who would have given financial support to the mission of the apostles if there had been no real prospect of it happening within people’s lifetime? Let’s be realistic about this.

If Reimarus had been a little less eager to debunk tradition, the church might have been spared two centuries of unedifying disputation.

Moreover, Jesus made statements which “point to his return before that generation of Jews had passed away.” When the disciples asked about the coming of the end of the age, they meant, “according to Jewish language, the end of the time previous to the kingdom of the Messiah.”

Jesus’ answer was that immediately after the coming tribulation, the sun would be darkened, etc. By this he meant, “in the prophetic language of the Hebrews, that the existing world or the existing constitution of the Jewish republic should come to an end” (52). Then the Son of Man would be seen coming in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory. All this would happen before the current generation of Jews passed away.

An earlier saying made the same point: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing among you who shall not taste death until they have seen the son of man come into his kingdom.” Reimarus’ concludes emphatically:

No speech in this world can more distinctly fix the time of the visible glorious return of Christ to a certain period and within the bounds of a not very distant one. (54)

In the next section he observes that Christ did not come in the appointed manner within the appointed time. And still hasn’t come. So modern interpreters try to “remedy the failure of the promise by giving to its words an artificial but very meagre signification.” The words “this generation”, people argue, must refer to the Jewish people or nation. Reimarus goes as far as to suggest—debatably—that throughout the centuries Christians preserved “that gentle nation” precisely in order to maintain the exegetical “subterfuge”. The Jews could not be allowed to disappear off the face of the earth before Christ came back.

But this is a nonsense argument, he thinks. The “people who in one particular spot stood around Jesus before his suffering, could certainly not signify the whole Jewish nation after many successive centuries.” He then proceeds to expound the exegetical reasons why genea cannot mean “nation” or “people” (55-57).

The solution was staring him in the face

This all looks rather obvious rationalist criticism now, and it is extraordinary, frankly, that we are still rehearsing the same arguments, on both sides, today. Sceptics still make the (indisputable) point that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels expected an eschatological climax to come within the lifetime of those listening to him. Defenders of the tradition still argue that there are cracks in the timeline or semantic loopholes in the text.

Part of the problem is that it would be another two hundred years before New Testament scholars began to reckon seriously with the Jewish language and conceptuality—after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, after the Holocaust.

But it seems to me that Reimarus had grasped the three main components of a sensible historical interpretation of the parousia motif in the Synoptic Gospels:

  1. Jesus’ premonition of the impending end to the “existing constitution of the Jewish republic”;
  2. his use of Old Testament narratives to interpret the foreseen events as the means by which the rule of Israel’s God over the nations would be established (48-50);
  3. his death and resurrection as the event that redefined the coming rule of God.

So (1) the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans would constitute (2) the sort of vindication of the righteous and the transfer of power which Daniel envisaged in patently symbolic terms. But (3) it was the one who suffered—and that community which suffered in him and for his sake—who would receive honour, glory, power, and the right to rule on behalf of God throughout the coming age.

The coming of Jesus at the end of the Jewish republic was like the coming of “one like a son of man” to receive the kingdom. But because he gained this status by way of death, resurrection, and exaltation, his rule is exercised from heaven, not on earth. What happens on earth is that his status as Christ and Lord is publicly acclaimed, if not by Israel, then by the nations of the Greek-Roman world; and the churches, which have suffered opposition and violence, are vindicated for their steadfast belief in this concrete historical outcome.

There is no question that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels predicted the disastrous war against Rome. It happened, as he had foreseen, within a generation. It impacted the Jerusalem that he knew—let’s be realistic here—the Jerusalem that welcomed him and then rejected him.

Nor was he alone in thinking that Daniel’s visionary drama of empire, oppression, persecution, judgment, and kingdom made as much sense under the conditions of Roman rule in the first century AD as it had done at the time of Greek incursions in the second century BC. Josephus wrote, with hindsight rather than with foresight:

And indeed it so came to pass, that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel’s vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass. In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them. (Josephus, Ant. 10:276; cf. 2 Bar. 39:1-8; 4 Ezra 12:10-12; b. Seb. 20; b. Abod. Zar. 2b; b. Yoma 77a; Meg. 11a; Qidd. 72a; Lev. Rab. 13:5)

So why not give Jesus some credit as a Jewish prophet for reshaping this prominent apocalyptic tradition according to a messianic self-understanding that pivoted around his death and resurrection, in light of the foreseen catastrophe of the war against Rome? He says nothing that cannot be accommodated within such a historically focused interpretation. If Reimarus had been a little less eager to debunk tradition, the church might have been spared two centuries of unedifying disputation.

It was the later apostolic mission that extended Jesus’ Israel-centred “coming of the Son of Man” vision to include the rule of the exalted Christ over the nations. But if we take seriously the actual outcome of the apostolic mission, which was the conversion of the empire, this hardly stretches the credibility of the prophetic vision.