Jesus thought the world as he knew it was about to end, and he taught and acted accordingly.
That’s what I tell people when they ask me who Jesus really was.
Many are taken aback when they hear me say this. Such doomsaying conjures up images of unctuous televangelists and megaphoned prophets in New York’s Times Square. Most people imagine Jesus as a more exalted figure than a mistaken herald of the end-times.
But such a view of Jesus is not as odd as it might seem.
While for modern Jews the notion of end-times seems peripheral at best, it aroused great fervor among our ancestors in first-century Judea.
Some history: decades of Roman domination had worn on the Jews’ independent spirit. Some at the top of Jewish society did not mind foreign rule, or at least they learned to live with it: They helped the Romans to administrate and owed their well-being to their imperial overlords. But many more Jews wished to see the hated Roman regime toppled, some advocating violent means.
Other Jews warned that expelling the Romans would require more power than mortal soldiers could possibly muster, as the enemy was far mightier than the legions of Rome. For these Jews, Roman soldiers were but human pawns of a cosmic evil force that controlled the world, an array of demons led by Satan. Only a rival cosmic force headed by God could be victorious. Soon, they believed, God would intervene in history and redeem the world, conquering the ruling powers (and their Roman deputies); restoring the twelve tribes of Israel; and replacing death, disease, and famine with life, health, and abundance.
This worldview is known as apocalypticism, from the Greek word for “unveiling” or “revelation,” as many of these Jews expressed their ideas as revealed visions. We cannot readily gauge the popularity of apocalypticism in the late second temple period, but numerous and unique Jewish texts, from Daniel (ca. 164 B.C.E.) and a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 150 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) to 1 Enoch (ca. 200 B.C.E.–100 C.E.) and 4 Ezra (ca. 100 C.E.), reflect the belief that the world as it existed was about to end, setting the stage for a new chapter in human history.
Jesus of Nazareth shared this view, as best we can determine from ancient Christian sources. Culling such information is not easy when the four Gospels of the New Testament, the primary resources for reconstructing Jesus’ life, do not offer straightforward historical reportage, but rather accounts obscured by legendary material reflecting the interests and concerns of the first Christian communities. Nonetheless, by submitting these Gospels to methodological criteria, most scholars believe that we can winnow at least a few reliable reminiscences of what Jesus actually preached and did.
One of the major themes in Jesus’ preaching was what he called the “kingdom of God.” Especially according to the Gospel of Mark, the first written Gospel and a primary source for both Matthew and Luke, this kingdom was to manifest itself imminently, probably within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples: Amidst great tribulation—storms, celestial phenomena, and the like—God would send forth from above a heavenly figure called the “Son of Man” who would judge the world, gather together those who passed muster, and with them initiate a new kingdom (Mark 13:24-27). Not only would this happen soon, it would also occur abruptly and without warning, thereby requiring vigilance and preparation (e.g., repentance and upright conduct) from those hoping to participate in the new regime.
Just what role Jesus envisioned for himself in this scenario is difficult to ascertain. Was he merely a herald, charged with the task of preparing as many Jews as possible? Was he to be the earthly ruler of the new kingdom? Was he the “Son of Man” himself, who would return on the clouds soon after his death?
We do know that of the few ethical teachings we can confidently trace back to Jesus some appear apocalyptic. These encourage his followers to renounce material or cultural attachments, presumably to focus on the repentance and radical love required for the impending kingdom of God. The rich were to discard their wealth (Mark 10:23–25), the powerful their authority (Mark 10:42–44). Even families were to be abandoned if they interfered with one’s preparation (Luke 14:26). Corresponding to this ethic of renunciation was a celebration of the poor and downtrodden, whose status would be dramatically reversed under God’s rule. The poor, meek, and ostracized were to be blessed, since the hierarchies of the reigning order soon would be stood on end—the last would be first, and the first last (Matthew 5:3–5; Mark 10:31).
Admittedly, not all scholars agree. Some well credentialed historians insist that Jesus was not apocalyptic at all, but a sage, cultural critic, or prophet of spiritual renewal whose aim was to transform his society rather than proclaim its imminent replacement by a new cosmic order. These scholars view the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels as inventions of the earliest Christians: Since these Christians expected Jesus to return at any moment to judge the world, they ascribed to him a similar apocalyptic expectation. While his followers may have made it seem as though Jesus himself had predicted the imminent onset of a kingdom of God, instead, these scholars argue, Jesus viewed the kingdom as manifest within his own ministry, present when his followers embraced toleration, humility, and radical love. From this viewpoint, Jesus was not an apocalypticist but an advocate for social justice or, perhaps, personal enlightenment.
Alluring as this non-apocalyptic perspective of Jesus as champion of human progress and preacher of compassion and equality may be, it is difficult to accept.
First, most of the sayings cited in support of this theory hinge on less reliable evidence: the Gospel of Luke, which, while utilizing Mark as a primary source, aims to tone down Mark’s depiction of Jesus as apocalyptic. Writing near the end of the first century, Luke knew the end had not come in the lifetime of Jesus or Jesus’ disciples, and adjusted his presentation of Jesus’ message accordingly. The non-apocalyptic Jesus more likely reflects Luke’s perspective than Jesus himself.
More importantly, nearly everything Jesus did looks apocalyptic. The few details of Jesus’ life which historians widely accept as authentic and not embellished by the early church correspond more aptly with an apocalyptic prophet than with an advocate for social change.
Consider Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist. Nearly every scholar concedes that Jesus began his public life under John’s tutelage. After all, early Christians hardly would have invented the idea that Jesus had been baptized by John, and hence subordinated to him. According to the Gospels (and to a lesser extent the testimony of Josephus), John was an apocalyptic prophet who roamed about the wilderness immersing devotees and encouraging repentance in preparation for the judgment associated with God’s imminent intervention into history. Jesus’ decision to initiate his career under the guidance of such a well-known apocalyptic proponent suggests he was similarly inclined.
Likewise, the few widely-accepted details of Jesus’ own ministry point to an apocalyptic outlook. His inner circle of disciples totaled twelve, a number many scholars interpret as a gesture toward the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel—an event eagerly anticipated by apocalyptic Jews. Many also see Jesus’ acclaimed role as a powerful exorcist capable of dislodging people’s demons and thereby freeing them from personal afflictions as a prelude to the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, when all demonic forces controlling the world would be dispelled. And they explain the Gospels’ report of Jesus causing a minor commotion on the temple grounds not as a protest against corruption, but as a foreshadowing of the temple’s imminent destruction and replacement by a more pristine temple, to be established during the reign of God.
Perhaps no aspect of Jesus’ ministry is as historically certain as its end. Here, too, an apocalyptic context best accounts for what transpired. Crucifixion, the Roman punishment usually meted out for especially violent or seditious acts, was an agonizing public death intended to discourage imitators. Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, ordered Jesus’ crucifixion on the grounds that he claimed to be “king of the Jews,” and, as such, Jesus was executed as a political claimant, a rival to Rome.
But there’s the rub: How is it that Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean preacher and wonder-worker, so worried the Roman regime that he ended up crucified as an enemy of the state? Those who portray Jesus as a sage or cultural critic are hard-pressed to answer. Typically they rely on the plotline of the Gospels, which intentionally transfers responsibility for the execution from the Romans to the Jews: the Jewish establishment opposed Jesus’ message and wanted him dead, but they needed Rome to do the deed. At best this explains why Jesus was executed, not why he was crucified as a threat to Rome. This hitch has led others to suppose that at some point Jesus took up arms against the state, but this hypothesis fails to explain why none of his followers was hunted down and executed, as was typical practice when the Romans quashed revolts and executed those they deemed insurrectionists.
An apocalyptic message best accounts for Jesus’ crucifixion. Most likely the Romans viewed Jesus as a seditious prophet who preached the imminent destruction of Rome at the hands of a contending kingdom of God.
This explanation also best accounts for Jesus’ followers’ feverish apocalyptic expectation in the wake of his death. The earliest Christian documents we possess, the letters of the apostle Paul to various Christian communities in the Mediterranean (50–60 C.E.), expect the imminent end of the present age to be replaced when Jesus will return from the heavens in the blink of an eye to judge the world (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Corinthians 15:51–57).
While no one can speak with certainty about Jesus’ bona fide identity, no proposed framework better accommodates the evidence than Jewish apocalypticism. So when I’m asked who Jesus really was, I say: “Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet. He thought the world as he knew it was about to end, and he taught and acted accordingly.”
Rabbi Joshua D. Garroway is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Second Commonwealth Judaism at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.