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Monday, April 14, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Apocalyptic Jesus- A Debate


Was Jesus an apocalyptic preacher?  Did he preach and teach with an urgency rooted in the belief that God was – soon – to intervene in the affairs of human history?  The debate has gone on for nearly a century, and shows no signs of being decided.  The book, The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, represents not the final word in this ongoing discussion, but an opportunity for those involved in the debate to clearly present and argue their position.

In this volume Dale Allison presents the pro argument – yes, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. While Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Stephen J. Patterson present the con – no, Jesus was not an apocalyptic preacher.  It does feel a little weighted to one side, yet Allison holds up well against his three opponents.  All of the participants in this debate present their arguments with clarity and without ad hominem attacks.

The outline of the book follows a standard debate format:  Allison presents his case, the three opposed present their arguments against, and then Allison responds.  This is followed by an interesting chapter in which each of the participants answers 4 questions: What is the strongest point in my argument?  What is the weakest part in my argument?  What is the weakest part of my opponent’s argument?  What is the strongest part of my opponent’s argument?  
I like this book – but there are some caveats to that.  1) Though the terms “apocalyptic” and “eschatological” are defined by the editors in the preface, it still seems that they’re being used in different ways by the different authors.  This causes them to appear to be arguing past each other at various points.  2) It feels a bit like jumping into the middle of a discussion that’s already been going on for some time about a book that I haven’t read yet.  Much of the debate in these pages refers back to Allison’s book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (1998).  3) (and this one has nothing to do with the quality of the various arguments…) the book seems to have been published on the cheap… This is minor and nit-picking, I know.  But the text is fuzzy – like it’s been reproduced, a copy of a copy on a copy machine.


I’ve enjoyed reading this debate – but find myself not altogether convinced by either side, not completely anyway.   I agree with Allison against his opponents, somewhat.  I believe that apocalyptic concerns were probably very important for the “historical Jesus” – but I am not impressed by Allison’s assessment that “Jesus, the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong,” or that Jesus, like other millenarians, was “irrational.”  I’m not prepared to accept his description of Jesus as a failed apocalyptic visionary whose followers have carried on in spite of their leader’s failure.

But I’m also not convinced by the opposing voices in this debate (at least the portion of the larger debate captured in the pages of this book).  Patterson makes much of hypothetical developments of apocalyptic material in the Q traditions.  This doesn’t convince me.  It’s an argument built on hypothetical developments in a hypothetical book.  Even as inclined to accept the existence of the Q source as I am, I still think this argument is a house of cards.  As is Patterson’s appeal to the “competing Christianities.” It is one thing to acknowledge that Christianity was (and is) not a monolithic uniform body – it’s another to build an argument based on hypothetical reconstructions of that these various traditions might have taught.

Borg raised a good point in his refutation; namely that interpreting everything Jesus said and did through an apocalyptic millenarian grid flattens the dynamic ministry of Jesus into a monotone.  But Allison counters that we don’t do this to people like Billy Graham, who believe that end is near, why would we do that to the historical Jesus?

I found Crossan’s argument that his own ideas were built by allowing the ‘material to precede the method’ – to be a distinction without a difference.  The material he allows / disallows to construct his “historical Jesus” was chosen by a method…  He is not a disinterested, unbiased scholar.  This is not really possible.

The debate contained in this book may not have convinced me of the singular merits of any one its participants, but it has allowed me to continue to rethink my thinking on this issue.  If nothing else it has succeeded in this.

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