The view of Jesus advanced in this book is not new. It was first put forward by John Samuel Reimarus in the eighteenth century and achieved prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century when Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest for the Historical Jesus. It is now, Ehrman tells us, the view of probably the majority of modern scholars. However, it is not familiar to most practising Christians, who are likely to find it a surprise, to say the least, if they read this popular exposition.
In outline, we are invited to see Jesus as an apocalypticist. That is, he was sure that the world was about to come to an end almost immediately; God would intervene to overthrow the forces of evil, destroying huge masses of people in the process, after which the Kingdom of God would be instituted to usher in a new order of peace and harmony. All this was supposed to happen within the lifetime of Jesus himself, or at least the lifetimes of his disciples.
As the years went by after Jesus's death it became obvious that his expectations were not going to be literally fulfilled, at least in the immediate future. Many Christians therefore interpreted his words in a figurative sense; perhaps they referred to a judgement that people faced at the time of death, or the Kingdom might be the community of the faithful living in peace and harmony with one another. And Jesus himself was transformed from a Jewish teacher and miracle-worker into a divine incarnation.
Readers to whom the apocalyptic understanding of Jesus is unfamiliar will naturally ask for the evidence on which it is based, and Ehrman provides this in some detail. In fact, he uses at least half of his space, eight chapters, in showing how New Testament scholars go about assessing the evidence. That might sound as if it would be dry and off-putting, but in fact Ehrman scores highly for readability. He provides, in effect, a potted introduction to contemporary New Testament scholarship.
He starts by describing the religious and political state in which Jesus lived. Apocalyptic ideas were widespread among first-century Jews under Roman domination, following a long period of occupation and repression by earlier invaders, so it would have been natural for Jesus to share them.
Next, Ehrman sets out all the sources we have for our knowledge of Jesus. The most important by far are the canonical four Gospels, though significant information also comes from other writings such as the Gospel of Peter, as well as from Gnostic texts and non-Christian literature. None of this material, however, is wholly reliable, and Ehrman describes the standard criteria that scholars use in assessing how much reliance we should place on particular accounts.
These criteria, Ehrman finds, definitely support the idea of Jesus as apocalypticist. Taking this as established, he then goes on to consider how we should understand the reported teachings and deeds of Jesus that appear to be authentic, as opposed to those that may have been ascribed to him by his later followers in order to make theological points. All this material can best be understood if we see it in an apocalyptic context.
There is some danger of falling into the trap of circularity here, I think. If we first decide that Jesus is an apocalypticist we could find ourselves accepting as authentic only those reports about him that fit into that scenario and dismissing the rest as inauthentic. However, Ehrman seems to be alive to this possibility and offers a reasoned discussion for the choices he makes. Further information comes in chapter notes and all the textual quotations are indexed at the back of the book.
There are frequent references in the Gospels to the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God. These have given rise to a huge amount of scholarly discussion, but they do seem to make most sense in an apocalyptic context. At least in the early pages of Mark the "Son of Man" seems to refer to someone other than Jesus himself. Ehrman thinks that this was supposed to be the divine Judge who would be sent from heaven to inaugurate the Kingdom. Jesus, therefore, was not supposed to be the Son of Man but he was the Messiah, which meant that he would rule the Kingdom, probably with his twelve disciples alongside him.
All four Gospels devote most of their space to the last days of Jesus's life and his death, and Ehrman finds that an apocalyptic interpretation of these events clarifies a number of problems that the texts present. Why, for example, was Jesus executed? The reason, Ehrman believes, is because he was claiming Kingship—something the Romans would not tolerate. (The legend affixed to the cross confirmed this.)
Judas's betrayal also makes sense in this context. There does not seem to be a need for this in the narrative as we have it. Jesus had not made a public claim of kingship, though he had probably done so to his disciples privately or had at least allowed them tacitly to assume it. Judas's betrayal consisted in his telling the authorities of the claim, thus providing them with the pretext they needed to have him executed.
If this view of Jesus's preaching is right, our understanding of what his words really meant needs radical revision. He was not, as many Christians today suppose, advocating "family values" or working for a just society; indeed, he urged his followers to leave their homes and their families for the sake of the Kingdom that was soon to arrive, and he seems to have had bad relations with his own family. A recurrent theme in Ehrman's account is that modern people interpret Jesus with modern preconceptions and so arrive at misleading conclusions about his message.
Those Americans who believe in the "Rapture" are probably closer than most to Jesus's original inspiration! But they are heirs to a long series of Christians who have expected the Second Coming within their lifetimes, going right back to Paul in the early years of the Christian era.
Ehrman has written a number of good books on different aspects of early Christianity, but this seems to me the most important and far-reaching of those that I've read. Seen from this point of view, the otherwise (to me) obscure Gospel references to the Kingdom of God and the Son of Man at last make sense.
See also Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come
24 January 2007