The Apocalyptic Jesus and Anti-Judaism in the Gospels


So over the last two days I’ve been listening to Ehrman’s course from the Teaching Company on the Historical Jesus. This is a really excellent course that seems to closely follow his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. It was a nice refresher and reminded me even more why I support the apocalyptic Jesus over the Jesus Seminar’s de-eschatologized Jesus. While I can’t rehearse the many arguments he makes to support his position, I did want to highlight a couple of points. From Ehrman’s perspective, it is absolutely crucial to understand the Son of Man that Jesus both refers to and identifies with in the Gospels. For instance, consider Mark 13:26-27

“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

Notice Jesus does not identify as the Son of Man. Rather, he makes an allusion to the cosmic figure mentioned in Daniel who will come riding on the clouds to establish a new Kingdom in which the proud are humbled and humbled are exalted. However, it seems clear that Jesus is predicting in this apocalyptic passage that his followers should be preparing for the Son of Man’s coming.

In fact, much of Jesus’ ministry was an attempt to enact this Kingdom on earth by spending time those who would be exalted in the age to come (i.e. prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors). Another thing that Ehrman highlighted was that apocalyptic thinkers believed that evil forces (power and principalities) ruled the world. Hence, Jesus identified with the down and out in society because he believed that the coming Son of Man and the imminent apocalypse would be a complete reversal of the current world order where the ‘least of these’ would have power.

The ethics and actions of Jesus are so much easier to understand when one situates them within this apocalyptic framework.

One of Ehrman’s most convincing argument for the apocalyptic Jesus is this. If Jesus is baptized by an apocalyptic prophet (hence suggesting Jesus’ support of John) and his leaders form apocalyptic sects (read 1 Cor 15 and 1 Thes 4), then isn’t it fair to assume that Jesus was likewise an apocalyptic prophet? Some will try and argue that Jesus argued for a realized eschatology (Crossan, think the verse in Luke the Kingdom is amongst you), but they are forced to make the assumption that the followers of Jesus betrayed him and returned to John the Bapitzer’s apocalyptic message. This seems unrealistic. Basically, reading from the earlier material Q, Mark, Paul’s epistles to Luke and Matthew and finally to John one can easily trace the gradual de-eschatologizing of the gospel. John’s Jesus is utterly stripped of any apocalyptic fervor.

Finally, I’ve read some on the many anti-Semitic elements in the Greek Bible, but Ehrman made the interesting observation that the changes in Pilate’s involvement in the crucifixion is especially telling of the early Christians’ resentments towards the Jews. First off, let me say that Pilate was a horrible person. So, any idea that Pilate was some contemplative, sensitive man is absolutely absurd. Anyway, let’s start the analysis with Mark. Notice, that in this story Pilate offers the Jews the choice between Barabbas and Jesus. In, Mark 15:15

“Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

In Luke’s gospels, on three separate occasions Pilate tries to release Jesus because he finds him innocent, but the Jews demand his crucifixion. Again, it is obvious that the gospel writers want to place the blame on the Jews. In Matthew 27 we not only have Pilate’s wife’s dreams, but we also have these two extra verses between the crowd’s demand and Pilate’s acquiescence. Matthew 27:24-25

“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!””

Yeah, so things are evolving quickly. Not only is Pilate apparently worried to have innocent blood on his hands, apparently the Jews are wishing curses on themselves and their children. In all reality, this was likely just one thing on Pilate’s agenda that morning. Remember he also signed off on (at least) two more executions that very morning. It’s doubtful he would’ve given a damn, but it is telling to see how the Jews are becoming more culpable over time.

John’s gospel is by far the least believable account, but probably the most interesting. Pilate asks Jesus, ‘what is truth?’, and Jesus makes the (in)famous statement ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’. Again, Pilate attempts to free Jesus three times, but the crowds stubbornly refuse. Eventually, the Jews threaten Pilate by saying that you are not a friend of Caesar if you release this supposed King. Even more interesting, Ehrman claims that in the Greek it says that Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jews to execute him. Usually this is left out of the English translations because it doesn’t make any damn sense. But again, we can see just how innocent Pilate appears in John’s gospel. This also helps confirm in my mind, the many ways in which John’s gospel is written as a apology for why Christianity is not an enemy of Rome. Not only are the Romans not blamed for Jesus’ death, but also we have a de-politicization of Jesus’ teachings along with the statement about the otherworldly Kingdom.

Finally, in the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, it is in fact Herod, the Jewish ruler, who orders Jesus’ execution. Ehrman makes the observations that Pilate was actually canonized as a Christian saint in the early Ethiopian church. Quite absurd.

One other thing I’ll touch on briefly is the obvious anti-Semitism in the gospels revolves around the descriptions of the scribes and the Pharisees. From what I understand, the Pharisees were religiously devout Jews who dedicated their life to scrupulously following the Torah. Sure, some might have been hypocritical, but they were certainly the exception. The way in which the New Testaments presents them would be analogous to the way the new atheists describes theists. Sure their critiques describe some believers, but it’s mostly a gross caricature. This is why it’s ultimately wrong to play this game that Jesus was against the law in favor of love while the Pharisees blindly adhered to the law. That’s just unhistorical, anti-Semitic nonsense.


7 Responses to “The Apocalyptic Jesus and Anti-Judaism in the Gospels”

  1. John Anngeister Says:

    Hi Jeremy, it’s been a while since I commented here (a.k.a. “Reader”)

    Thank you for bringing up the idea that John is downplaying Roman involvement as an accommodation to the Empire. But there needn’t be any insinuation that this idea suggests that the Pilate material in John is fabricated.

    If we assume that the writer has read the synoptics, we might just as easily view his Pilate material as factual, supplemental, and corrective of their one-dimensional reports. You see, the desire to accommodate Rome may still be there, without jumping to the conclusion that the Fourth Gospel cannot bring additional knowledge to the story.

    I have not studied Ehrman, but I hesitate to follow any scholar who would give the last word on the Incarnation to Caiaphas (i.e. any idea that Jesus is in sum a danger to political stability, a rebel or royal pretender, etc.).

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I have a difficult time imagining how one can reconcile the events of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of the different Gospels. Hell, John has Jesus dying on the morning of Passover, the day before Jesus is executed in the Synoptic gospels. The discrepancies in the Gospels are numerous and irreconcilable. John’s Jesus doesn’t even preach the Kingdom, perform exorcisms, or speak in parables. Either John’s Jesus is somewhat of a theological fantasy or the Synoptics have grossly misrepresented Jesus’ ministry. Furthermore, how do we even get a record of Jesus’ conversation with Pilate? I mean it seems a bit unbelievable that it would have been written down, much less that Pilate would have even bothered to ask a delusional, illiterate peasant (from Pilate’s perspective) some deep philosophical question.

    I’m not sure I understand your point on Ehrman, but I believe his general take on the historical Jesus is in line with many other accredited scholars. For instance E. P. Sanders also argues for an apocalyptic Jesus contra the Jesus Seminar scholars.

  3. John Anngeister Says:

    I am just now studying some early British defenses of the Fourth Gospel (Sanday, with Drummond and Stanton in hand, all from the first decade of last century). At the outset I see the main arguments on both sides in play one hundred years ago. I don’t think an actual refutation was made, only a major swing in theological tastes.

    John is not scientifically historical, but there are many ‘eye-witness’ elements in the gospel. Mark and the other two might be judged to have had a specific program too which, if true (see Wrede), would imply some misrepresentation or at least neutralize much of their alleged historical value as standards against John.

    Maybe I missed the gist of Ehrman. No “political” Jesus there? Your roll of ‘historical’ puzzles sounds Ehrmanish (and again, over 100 years old).

    I don’t wish my non-eschatological view to be associated with many of those in the Jesus Seminar, but I have Sanders’ 1985 book and you are right there are many great names in addition who are in the ‘general take’ on the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I agree with you all four gospels certainly have programs. Mark tends to emphasize the Jesus as the suffering Son of God. Luke wants to frame Jesus as a sort of prophet much like Elijah whose ministry is focused on the oppressed. Matthew (and this becomes especially obvious when one takes into account the parallels in the birth narratives) wants to frame Jesus as a second Moses giving a new reading of the Law.

    So yes, the Synoptics are not neutral, objective historical biographies, but they are closer to representing Jesus of Nazareth’s life than than the Gospel of John.

    Are you asking if Ehrman believes Jesus was political? I suppose his Jesus might be less politically and economically focused than Crossan’s peasant Jesus, but he does not discount the political aspects of Jesus’ ministry altogether.

    I’m glad, if nothing else, we can both be in solidarity against the Jesus Seminar scholars. Although, I don’t mind Crossan all that much, but Borg’s Jesus frustrates me beyond belief.

  5. ericdarylmeyer Says:

    Hey there Jeremy,

    Glad that you enjoyed Ehrman’s course, sounds like it gave you some good food for thought. I’ve been meaning to respond for a few days now (and leaving a window open on my desktop for that reason…); finally getting around to it.

    My main issue is this: Using the term “anti-Semitism” for the writers of the gospels (or, I’d argue, of anyone in the ancient world) is misleading and anachronistic. In the first place, the authors of the gospels are themselves “Semitic” in ethnicity, so you can’t possibly mean that they are anti-Semitic in that sense. I presume you mean something more like “Anti-Jewish,” which is at least a plausible charge to lay at the feet of the gospel authors.

    Even so, I’m not sure that the charge will stick quite as tightly as you suggest. The notion of an “evolution” that runs from Paul through Mark, and on to John is historically misleading insofar as all of these texts came out of different communities, and spoke to various experiences and needs within those communities. “Evolution” seems to depict a single Christian community (perhaps geographically dispersed) which gradually “changed its mind” on various issues, and in this case, gradually came to espouse lower and lower esteem for Jews.

    The reality as I understand it, is that Christians were gathered in small assemblies in towns and cities, sometimes gathering with a synagogue, sometimes not. There is evidence in polemic texts that in some small communities “Christians” and “Jews” were still meeting together for prayer and worship as late as the fifth century. At any rate, it is certianly not the case that there was early and everywhere a “parting of the ways” between two “religions.”

    At the time in which “Christianity” as a religion was beginning, there was no such thing as “Judaism” as a religion either—at least not in anything like the form we have come to know it. Both “Christianity” and “Judaism” are among the religious options for continuity with the worship of Israel after the destruction of the temple, but both have some valid claim to that continuity.

    Further, even John’s gospel, which you rightly note is the most aggressively polemic in this regard is often misread precisely on this point. Throughout the gospel the Ioudaioi and Jesus are in conflict, but how should we translate the name for this group? Most English translations use the phrase “the Jews,” but one could make an equally strong argument for “the Judeans,” which obviously has a much different connotation. And the decision between the two, must be based on some idea of the argument that is, in part, the occasion for John’s gospel. It strikes me as much more likely that John is making a case for the continuity of Jesus’ followers with Israel’s faith against some other Jews—namely “the Judeans” (i.e. the Pharisees and nascent Rabbinic Judaism) rather than that he is opposed to “Jews” as such.

    As to the notion that Pilate’s handing Jesus over to the Jews is “left out” of most translations—it seems sensationalistic to me at best. John 19:16 is not papered over in any of the translations I’ve got on hand. I’m not sure what point Ehrman is trying to make from the Greek, but perhaps the text (within the frame of its own narrative logic) should be read to mean something like, “Pilate capitulated to their [the ioudaioi] demands and handed him over to them to be crucified [by Roman soldiers, of course].” After all, they come running back to Pilate a few verses later asking to change the charges listed on the sign over Jesus’ head, if they were the ones crucifying Jesus, surely they could have written whatever the hell they wanted.

    More positively, I like the apocalyptic Jesus, and agree that “eschatology” is often simply a way of taming and rationalizing the wilder apocalyptic. I would only note that while Mark’s gospel does not identify Jesus with the apocalyptic Son of Man, the apocalyptic text of Revelation 1 certainly does. That is just to say that the identification is made relatively early. And for what it’s worth, if Revelation is coming out of the same Johannine community from which the gospel derives, the idea that John is all about taming Jesus and cozying up to the Empire might need some more thought.

  6. ericdarylmeyer Says:

    One more point… sorry.

    There is also evidence that early Christians were trying to make the claim that they were Jews, precisely because Judaism was recognized as a valid religion where Christians were (in some places) being persecute. Distancing from “the Jews” is not necessarily a move that would endear to the Empire a community that still refused to render ritual offerings to Caesar.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    Point taken about Anti-Semitism.

    With regards to an evolution, while the community was scattered the different gospels were in circulation. Obviously, Matthew’s community read Mark’s gospel and thought it necessary (for whatever reason) to include the part where the crowd demands his death and accepts his blood for themselves and their children. So, if more consistent claims are being made to portray the Jewish leaders and scribes in a negative light, it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest there is some sort of agenda to make the Jewish opponents of Jesus more culpable.

    The translational issue is certainly interesting. I have no knowledge of Greek, but I’d be really curious to know why Jews as opposed to Judeans is usually included in copies of the Bible. I cannot speak about the issue in John’s gospel with regards to Pilate, I was merely repeating what Ehrman said. The whole point though about the sign is a curious fact. A fact I suspect also has an element that makes Pilate look good, and the Jews bad. Essentially Pilate refuses them to include the phrase He claimed to be to supplement the rest of the sign Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. I read that as saying the Jews were wanting to make clear he’s not their King while Pilate isn’t entirely convinced he might not be someone special.

    In the gospel of Luke Jesus is this crazy prophetic voice fighting for justice and the poor against Herod the fox, declaring the coming Kingdom. What does John offer us? A Jesus who offers us these poetic monologues that no peasant could ever grasp. A Jesus who seems to have forgotten about the Kingdom, and much more obsessed with himself than with the oppressed and marginalized. This good news is now simply about Jesus’ unique relationship to God, no more about an alternative Kingdom where God can reign and the powerful and rich will be overthrown. The transition is so stark that it seems to suggest some of the earlier material might have been seen as potentially dangerous politically whereas the John’s gospel seems to remove so much of the bite of the Synotpics’ wild, political Jesus.

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