Over at the Facebook group for the Sheffield Biblical Studies, a certain individual who may not have been aware of what is entailed by the academic study of biblical literature left this fun message on the wall:
2012 is here. Signs suggest a highly destructive future. Good News is Light or Knowledge of Life and Nature. It is the only Hope for the world edging to great disorder and destruction to survive. It is time we awaken and know Calvary sacrifice of Jesus and Good News as a science beyond the boundary of religion. This is the only way to adapt to end time and survive 2012
Now, there will be the inevitable cognitive dissonance when 2012 does not turn out to be the apocalypse, but the evangelist “Mark” was similarily steeped in the expecation that the end of the age was at hand (see my posts under eschatology, though unlike the gentleman above I think Mark 13 discourages sign-watching by arguing all the preliminary signs will be fulfilled in a generation but not even the Son knows the day or hour of that great eschatological Day). But did the historical Jesus share Mark’s imminent eschatological expectation? A number of scholars since Albert Schweitzer would say yes (Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Paula Fredriksen, John P. Meier, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, Gerd Lüdemann, Maurice Casey, etc.), including many conservative Christian scholars who share the view in my last post on the historical reliability of the Gospels (Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Scot McKnight). This accords with the overall Synoptic presentation, is plausible in light of the baptism by an apocalyptic prophet (John the Baptist) and the earliest Christian sources as apocalyptic (Pauline epistles, including pre-Pauline fragments like the Aramaic prayer in 1 Cor 16:22 “Our Lord, come”), and fits many arguably authentic words/deeds of Jesus even if one demurs on the authenticity on some points (e.g., future kingdom sayings, reversal language such as “first will be last” or “blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom”, Lord’s prayer with petition “your kingdom come”, belief in general resurrection and warnings of divine judgement, many coming from east & west to dine with the Patriarchs, the Twelve symbolizing the regathering of the twelve tribes, the so-called “temple cleansing” as symbolic of eschatological destruction & restoration, Jesus’ forthcoming death interpreted as undergoing the tribulation and drinking the cup of wrath, Jesus as messianic king, apocalyptic Son of Man, etc.).
However, the other major option is to see the historical Jesus as a non-eschatological sage, with Jewish sapiential literature (traditional wisdom such as Proverbs or Sirach, or counter-cultural such as Ecclesiastes) or Greco-Roman Cynicism as analogies for comparative purposes (many critics of the “Cynic Jesus” miss this nuance) (see John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, Burton Mack, Stephen Patterson, Ron Cameron, collectively Jesus Seminar, etc). According to Borg (Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 87), Mark may be an intensification of Jewish eschatological expectation in light of tensions created by the Jewish War (he judges the apocalyptic Son of Man and Mark’s framing of Jesus’ message as the coming of God’s kingdom in 1:15 [cf. 9:1] as redactional). In this group many scholars turn to “Q” (from Quelle or “source”, the hypothetical sayings source many argue underlies the non-Markan sayings shared by Matthew/Luke) and follow John Kloppenborg who argued on form critical grounds that the earliest layer (Q1) was non-eschatological (for explanation of the literary stratification of Q see this post by William Arnal, for critique see this post by Stephen Carlson), accept the independence of the Gospel of Thomas (a collection of 114 sayings) from the canonical Gospels and provides multiple attestation for many of the sayings in Q1, and see many of the aphorisms, parables and pronouncement stories do not need to be read in an apocalyptic light.
So did Jesus share Mark’s apocalyptic worldview or didn’t he, and what is to be done with this scholarly maze? First, I think we need to get past the “Jesus Wars” and especially the unfair insinuation that Jesus Seminar types has argued for a “non-Jewish” Jesus (the essentialisms involved when some scholars invoke “Jewish identity” and some of the latent Christian triumphalist assumptions are ably deconstructed by William Arnal, Jonathan Z. Smith, James Crossley, more sources here). Lets have an honest, charitable debate about why scholars differ, without creating strawmen and with a willingness to learn from other perspectives even as we seek to defend our own. Second, as I tried to make this point in my review of Casey (see here, here, here, here, please share feedback in the comments?), I think before one makes a decision about the historical Jesus he or she must do their homework on source and form criticism: is Mark the first Gospel on which Matthew/Luke depend or a later abridgement of Matthew/Luke, is Luke independent or dependent on Matthew, if Luke and Matthew are independent did they get their shared non-Markan material from a single source (Q) or multiple written or oral sources, is John independent or dependent on the Synoptic tradition, is Thomas independent or dependent on the Synoptic tradition, when do these sources date, can we detect earlier hypothetical sources behind the Synoptics (Q, pre-Markan pronouncement stories, pre-Markan parable collection [Mk 4], eschatological discourse, pre-Markan passion narrative?), how was the Jesus tradition transmitted in the oral period, etc. Finally, to give my own general opinion on the reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I believe that both wisdom speech and eschatology are bedrock material and found in every layer – that is, Jesus challenged the contemporary status-quo of the socio-political order in Judaea under Roman imperialism with a counter-cultural wisdom and promised a dramatic reversal in fortunes when God’s empire comes in power.