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James Tabor’s failed failed apocalypse of the New Testament argument

Read time: 12 minutes

The standard simplified evangelical understanding of New Testament eschatology is that Jesus will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” the world will be brought to an end, all evil and death will be destroyed, and there will be a new heaven and new earth, “his kingdom will have no end,” etc.; and we continue to affirm that hope, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in our creeds.

The standard sceptical or critical response to that dogma goes back to Albert Schweitzer. Yes, Jesus and his followers expected some sort of final transcendent intervention in the world from outside, but they expected it to happen soon, and they were wrong. So James Tabor asserts that the “messianic apocalyptic eschatology” of the New Testament, as he labels this outlook, has had a 100% failure rate. The prophecies of Jesus and his followers all came to nothing. I think that the argument that Tabor puts forward in this video demonstrates a lack of historical and literary imagination.

[It looks like the video has been renamed and relocated.]



The righteous person by faith will live

Tabor begins with the Qumran community’s interpretation of Habakkuk 2:3-4. The biblical text addresses the problem of the slowness or delay of God’s judgment on the Chaldeans. Why does this powerful, corrupt, bloodthirsty, and barbaric nation get away with it for so long? Why hasn’t God done something to stop the killing? Habakkuk is told that the vision awaits its appointed time. If it seems slow in coming, the prophet must be patient, it will not delay. In the meantime, the righteous person, for whose safety Habakkuk is especially concerned, will live by his or her faith.

At Qumran the question, of course, was how long before the God of Israel would overthrow the Kittim—that is, Rome. Habakkuk is told to write the vision down, but it is not made clear when the prophecy will be fulfilled, and the writer infers that the “Last Days” will be dragged out much longer than the prophet had expected, for “God’s revelations are truly mysterious.” Nevertheless, “those loyal ones, obedient to the Law,” who are righteous, who remain faithful no matter how long the delay—that is, the Qumran community—will live (1QpHab 7:1-17). Then the writer quotes Habakkuk 2:4b: “And the righteous man by his faith will live.”

Tabor correctly takes this as a statement about how the righteous in Israel will live when the last days are prolonged and the end is delayed: they will live by their faith, by their trust in God. In his view, however, Paul has taken this critical affirmation out of context, stripped away the apocalyptic perspective, and reinterpreted it as a statement about how people become righteous—not by works of the Law but by faith. The person who is righteous-by-faith will live, rather than the person who is righteous will live-by-faith.

Oddly, therefore, given the overall thrust of the interview, Tabor is saying that Paul is here uninterested in eschatology—in fact, it sounds like Tabor just wanted to take a swipe at the Reformed crowd. In any case, I think he has misread Paul’s argument.

Paul is not ashamed of the proclamation about the resurrected Son of God because it is the power of God for salvation, first to the Jew, then to the Greek (Rom. 1:1-4, 16). That already picks up the narrative shape of Habakkuk’s prophecy: judgment against unrighteous Israel by means of the Babylonian invasion (Hab. 1:5-11), then judgment against the violent, arrogant, and idolatrous Babylonians (Hab. 2:6-20).

In the gospel that he proclaims both to Jews and Gentiles, Paul says, the “right” or “righteous” response of God to the current crisis has been revealed. As it is written in Habakkuk: “The righteous person from faith will live” (Rom. 1:17, my translation; cf. Hab. 2:4).

Paul has simplified the Old Testament verse. The Hebrew reads: “The righteous man by his faith will live.” The Greek version reads: “The righteous man by my faithfulness shall live”—the point being, presumably, that the righteous person will live because God is faithful, which is just the other side of the coin.

Paul then explains why this assurance is so important: the wrath of God has been revealed from heaven against both Jews and Greeks, and this wrath will find expression in future events (Rom. 1:18; 2:6-10). This is clear evidence, surely, that Paul has not forgotten or overlooked the “eschatological” setting of the signal verse in Habakkuk.

He undoubtedly thought that under these new conditions what made a person “righteous” or put him or her “in the right” with God would not be works of the Law but belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, eventually to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations. This sets his reapplication of the Habakkuk verse apart from that of the Qumran community (cf. Gal. 3:10-11).

But it is not the controversy over the means of justification that is at issue in Romans 1, and it may well be that his point is precisely the one made by Habakkuk: righteous people will live through the long period of turmoil leading up to God’s judgment against both Jew and Greek by virtue of their trust in the righteousness of the God who raised his Son from the dead.

Grammatically, the phrase “by faith” may qualify either “the righteous person” or “will live”. Both work for Paul. Faith in Jesus determines who is righteous, but equally they have been made righteous for an eschatological purpose, and it is only their day-to-day trust in the God who is doing this that will see them through the protracted time of waiting.

Still, the answer is Habakkuk…

So that was all a bit of a digression, frankly. The central claim put forward in the video is that Jesus and his followers expected the final transformation of the created order to happen soon, probably in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, certainly within the lifetime of some of those who saw him executed. The time was at hand, the axe was laid to the root of the trees, the night was far spent, and so on….

But if, as Tabor thinks, Habakkuk 2:4 was a critical verse for Paul, then we should give due weight to the historical orientation of its argument. Ironically, I suggest, Habakkuk gives us the solution to the problem raised by Tabor and others.

For a start, Habakkuk does not expect a new creation. He envisages, first, a devastating attack on Israel as punishment for its many acts of violence and its perversion of justice, and secondly, some manner of retribution against the Babylonians, because they are “mercilessly killing nations for ever” (Hab. 1:17). The cup of wrath in the Lord’s hand “will come round to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory” (Hab. 2:16). Habakkuk does not think that such wickedness will be resolved by a literal new creation; none of the prophets do.

In view of that, we should at least consider the possibility that Paul, a first century Jew whose presuppositions would not have been so different from those of the Qumran community, was thinking in similar terms.

What he had to factor into the Jewish-apocalyptic argument was his conviction, going back to the encounter on the road to Damascus, that the crucified man Jesus had been raised from the dead. This was God’s entirely novel solution to the present historical crisis of injustice in Israel and violence among the nations: a person bears witness, is opposed, suffers and is killed by powerful, unrighteous enemies, is raised from the dead and vindicated, glorified, and at some point in the future is confessed as Lord by nations which no longer serve the many gods and many lords of the Greek-Roman world (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:10-11).

So in addition to the basic apocalyptic storyline about the “wrath” of God, derived from Habakkuk, grounded in history, which raised the poignant question of what would happen to the righteous, he had to reckon with 1) the role of Jesus as a heavenly Lord at the right hand of God; 2) the eventual public vindication of Jesus and acclamation of him as heavenly Lord at the time when the wrath of God came first upon the Jews, then upon the Greeks; and 3) the comparable vindication and glorification of those who had borne witness to this new state of affairs.

This, I think, explains almost all of New Testament eschatology, but without displacing the underlying realistic and properly historical Old Testament paradigm.

Jesus was indeed acclaimed as Lord by the nations to which Paul had set out to proclaim the good news of his coming political-religious rule over the peoples of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The ground-level vision of a judgment against Israel followed by a judgment against the overweening enemy of God’s people was fulfilled. Stage one occurred within a generation, as Jesus had predicted. Stage two took much longer than Paul imagined, no doubt, but that does not invalidate the fundamental prophetic conviction that sooner or later this most powerful pagan civilisation would give way to a monotheistic, Christ-honouring civilisation.

When this happened, the existing churches were, of course, publicly vindicated for their loyalty to the God and Father of their Lord Jesus Christ, etc. But over the centuries many had suffered, many had lost their lives, for the sake of Jesus’ name and reputation in the world.

In fact, it had occurred to people very early on that the dead in Christ would miss out on the public vindication when their Lord “came” in his parousia as a triumphant king to be embraced by the peoples of the empire. So Paul tells a story, in precisely this idiom, about the dead in Christ being raised, as Jesus was raised, to join with the living believers as they welcome him and celebrate the eventual eschatological victory (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

We can argue about how exactly he imagined such a vision might be fulfilled in reality—literally, visibly, spiritually, or symbolically—but that is not the main point. The main point is the historical transformation: the peoples of the ancient pagan world would sooner or later acknowledge the fact of Christ’s rule at the right hand of the one God, and at that moment the persecution of his witnesses would be brought to an end.

The form of this world is passing away, etc.

The other passages to which Tabor alludes add little to his claim that Jesus and the apostles expected a fundamental remaking of the cosmos to happen within a lifetime.

There will be a final destruction of death, but the exultant declaration that death is powerless in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 refers not to that final destruction but to the resurrection of the martyrs at the parousia, when the dead in Christ will be raised to be rewarded on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, when his authority is finally recognised by the nations. For those who died on account of their witness to Christ, death has been “swallowed up in victory.” This anticipates the termination of Christ’s reign when the last enemy, death, is finally defeated (1 Cor. 15:25; cf. Rev. 20:14), but the resurrection of those who belong to Christ marks not the end but the beginning of his rule over the nations (cf. Rev. 20:4-6).

Paul says that the “outward form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). That form is characterised by the “wisdom of this age,” which failed to understand God’s methods, and by the “rulers of this age,” who crucified Jesus but are doomed to pass away (1 Cor. 2:6-8). The current age under which they live and bear witness, marked by its hostility to the living God, his Son, and his people, will pass away; a “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” will come (1 Cor. 1:8); and a new age will dawn, the world will take on a new “form,” a new wisdom will take effect, and the churches will come into their inheritance. This social transition will be tumultuous and hazardous for the churches, hence the “interim ethics” of chapter 7, but nothing is said here to suggest that he is preparing the saints in Corinth for the end of the world.

Finally, Tabor lays some emphasis on Romans 8:19-22 as the “clincher” to his argument: creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to decay, “biological death” will be abolished, when the sons of God are revealed in glory.

I think this passage has been badly misunderstood. I have written about it before, and I hope to have a scholarly article on it published at some point soonish. So I’ll keep it brief.

First, I think that the ktisis subjected to futility is the “creature,” the idol, worshipped by the Greeks in the futility of their thoughts (Rom. 1:21-25; 8:19-21), and that it is this created object that awaits the revelation of sons God at the moment of Christ’s parousia and God’s judgment against the pagan order.

Secondly, the whole of creation is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” not to bring forth its own rebirth, which hardly makes sense, but to bring forth the new age that will begin when the “sons of God,” those who have suffered as Jesus suffered, his brothers and sisters, who are being regarded as sheep to be slaughtered (Rom. 8:17, 29, 36) are raised and glorified and united with their Lord at his royal parousia (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17), to reign with him throughout the coming ages.

That’s all perhaps rather debatable, I know. I argued in my book on Romans that Paul imagines creation eagerly looking forward to the redemption of the bodies of the witnessing community, the resurrection of the martyrs, because this limited victory over death would be a foretaste of the ultimate liberation of creation from decay. I think now that there is sharper polemical edge to Paul’s argument in this passage, but I would press the general point that it’s not obvious that any final renewal of creation is meant to coincide with the revelation of the sons of God. Paul is not alone among Jewish apocalyptic thinkers in differentiating temporally between the triumph of YHWH over pagan opposition and a more stylised final remaking of the created order.

I don’t know if the failed apocalypticism argument is getting tired or if I’m just getting tired of it. I’m sure that Paul believed that the creator God would have the final say on his creation, but that was more by way of a presupposition than an urgent apocalyptic vision. What fundamentally framed his thought and drove his mission was the conviction that at some point in a realistic historical future the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain, would as peoples abandon their idols and confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of the God of Israel. Sure, it took longer than expected, and we don’t know what form the resurrection of the martyrs took (Rev. 20:4). But Paul got it right.

edwardtbabinski | Thu, 03/24/2022 - 04:36 | Permalink

The “77 generations” from Adam to Jesus, and the mini-apocalypse, both in the Gospel of Luke (chapters 1 & 21), echo apocalyptic beliefs in the intertestamental books of Enoch and Daniel. See Jona Lendering, “The 77 Generations”

One of the five parts of 1st Enoch is the so-called “Book of the Watchers,” which was written in the 3rd century B.C.E. It describes the fall of the angels and their punishment:

“And the Lord said to [the arch-angel] Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel… and throw him into the darkness!’ And Raphael made a hole in the desert… and cast him there… And he covered Azazel… that he may not see light and… may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment. […] And to Michael the Lord said: ‘[…] Bind them for SEVENTY GENERATIONS underneath the rocks of the ground until the day of their judgment is concluded.’” (1 Enoch 10.4-6, 11-12; tr. E. Isaac)

In other words, the day of judgment was to take place seventy generations after Enoch. Now this patriarch, ‘Enoch’ was recorded as having lived in ‘the seventh generation from Adam,’ and we may therefore conclude that the author of the Book of the Watchers assumed that the end of history would be in the ‘seventy-seventh generation from Adam,’ or the seventieth generation from Enoch. 

In another part of the First book of Enoch, the “Book of Similitudes” (first half first century BCE), we learn more about the Last Judgment. We read how the Messiah, who is said to have been created before the universe and is called the “son of man,” will judge humanity which was undergone a general resurrection.

Like Enoch, the Book of Daniel mentions a “son of man.” And like Enoch the Book of Daniel came to light during the intertestamental period, but was only to be unsealed at “the end of time”: “Conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time… These words are concealed and sealed up until the end of time.” [12:4,9] 

Therefore intertestamental expectations of a soon coming final judgment directly preceded Christianity. Daniel, Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls were part of an apocalyptic movement. Enoch was composed from the alleged point of view of “Enoch, the seventh from Adam” [and quoted in those exact same words in the canonical book of Jude]. Daniel was composed from the alleged point of view of a Jew living in ancient Persia who had visions of “the end of time,” or, “the end of the age,” when all men would “rise again” and be judged [12:2,13]. “Seal up the book,” Daniel was commanded, until the day of final judgment. But the book came to light or was “unsealed” during the intertestamental period. And its obsession with sevens and seventies is echoed in Enoch, and even in the Gospel of Luke who makes Jesus of Nazareth the “seventy-seventh” in his genealogy from Adam to Jesus.

The author of the Gospel of Luke is playing with these Enochian and Danielian ideas. What he is saying is that… the last judgment is near. After all, when Luke composed his gospel [plausibly] during the persecution by the emperor Domitian [in the late first century], there were only a few survivors of the generation of Jesus.

For further information visit these websites: 

Jesus the erroneous millenarian prophet websites: 

“Eschatology: Here to Stay,” a marvelously succinct presentation in Dale Allison’s, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)

New Testament Texts on the imminence of the End at Dr. James Tabor’s site:

The Imminent End in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Ignatius, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas)

James D. G Dunn in Jesus Remembered, and in, The Evidence for Jesus, admits that Jesus believed in an imminent  eschatological climax that did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.”

In Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Intro, Dr. Frederick J. Murphy concludes, “Christianity is the result of failed prophecy.” Urgent expectation of an imminent supernatural end pervades the NT

The Apocalyptic Worldview of Mark by Dr. David A. Sanchez [podcast from Loyola Marymount University]

Mark’s Jesus is a Thoroughly Apocalyptic Jesus

For a discussion of how and why Old Testament prophecy developed into apocalyptic see Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Was Jesus a False Prophet? Probably

Scholarly Quotes on Paul the Apocalypticist

Apostle Paul on the urgency engendered by the Lord’s soon coming in final judgment:…

Paul the deluded apocalypticist

A look at the wide array of “soon coming” passages in the NT and why the question of false prophecy is unavoidable, The Lowdown on God’s Showdown…

Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic Jesus view summarized

Thanks, Edward. Interesting stuff and some good resources, but I’m not convinced.

The eleven-times-seven patterning of Luke’s genealogy (Lk. 3:23-38) is no doubt significant, but he shows no special interest in Enoch, he makes no reference in this context to judgment, and crucially he reverses the order, going backwards to “Adam, the son of God,” presumably in order to reinforce the identification of Jesus as the “beloved Son” at his baptism and as “Son of God” in the temptation story (Lk. 3:22; 4:1-13).

The activity of Satan in the Gospel story perhaps has echoes of the apocalyptic themes: the man possessed by Legion is bound with chains and kept under guard, but still breaks loose (Lk. 8:29-30); Jesus has bound Beelzebul by resisting the temptations (Lk. 11:21-22; Matt. 12:29; Mk. 3:27). But these ideas are associated with the belief that Jesus would defeat Rome and liberate his people. So Satan is finally imprisoned in the abyss only once Rome has been overthrown, leading to the rule of Christ with the martyrs throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:1-6).

The decisive judgment in view, even in 1 Enoch, I think, is the reform of God’s people and the triumph of the elect over the pagan oppressor. It’s a political scenario, not a cosmic one, and the real question is not whether Jesus was mistaken in expecting a cosmic event but to what extent the apocalyptic language of political-religious transformation should be read literally.

Finally, Luke makes use of the coming of the Son of Man motif for a very specific purpose. Jesus has nothing to say about the transformation of the cosmos or even of Israel. There is judgment against Israel but not against the nations. The parable of the vineyard climaxes in the destruction of the wicked tenants and the transfer of the business to others. The thought is only of the vindication of his elect (Lk. 21:28, 36), which may have included a limited resurrection of some of the dead to share either in that vindication or in the disgrace of apostate Israel, as in Daniel 12:2-3.

The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel shows not the slightest interest in the end of the world.

I see you are a Reformed Pre-Millenialist. Good answer to that dodgy theologian apart from your dispensational views which are not scripturally correct. 

Hi Rosemerryn, thanks. Just for the record, I’m not a Reformed Pre-Millennialist, nor am I a dispensationalist. I am simply trying to be a historian.

I AM a scientist and have discovered 7 cutting-edge science/’Beyond Einstein Theories’ that fulfill the prophecy of Rev 5:1 of “a book/scroll sealed with 7 seals”; . According to the end of the Bible, only the Returned Christ can produce that. And according to the science, only Albert Einstein reincarnated could compose that. 

This has triggered The Apocalypse/Revelation which is NOT the ‘end of the world’. COVID-19 was added to Seal #4: S=19 (18.6) Theory. 

-    Brad Watson, Miami