The Human Faces of God: apocalyptic contortions (part 1)

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 8: “Jesus Was Wrong” (part 1)

I am a full-on, unapologetic non-inerrantist, and I was before reading this book. I have long maintained that the Bible is made up of the opinions and frequently faulty understandings of its human authors rather than divinely revealed and guaranteed dispensations of truth. I have not only been heretofore untroubled by Thom Stark’s exposure of the Bible’s factual and ethical shortcomings, as a lifelong lover of the Bible, I have actually relished the information as revealing its true nature.

But that was the Old Testament. In chapter 8, Stark comes calling on the New Testament. And in spite of myself, I find it rather uncomfortable.

Was Jesus wrong? Not just ignorant about the day or the hour of his return; not even just mistaken about what the smallest of all the seeds of the earth was, or whether Moses wrote the Torah, or the historicity of Noah’s flood. In this chapter, Stark dares us to consider that Jesus may have been wrong about a very important aspect of his mission. Stark takes on virtually all the different eschatological viewpoints, and even for those without firm commitments, this will be tough stuff for virtually anyone who calls Jesus Lord. C.S. Lewis famously called Matthew 24.35 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” and while Stark might point us to other passages perhaps better qualified for that distinction, he would surely agree that Lewis was speaking from a more accurate understanding of the New Testament’s eschatology than most modern Christian eschatology junkies!

Chapter 6 and this chapter are the two longest in the book, differing in a scant three pages’ length. But because this one was much heavier for me and for many of my readers, I have decided to take more than one post to unpack his discussion. This post will deal more with backgrounding the issues, while the next will pick up where it got really sticky for me as a somewhat nuanced preterist.

The first argument, with which I was actually quite familiar already, is that Jesus’ style and message resembled those of the first century Jewish apocalyptic prophets (following Sanders, etc.), several of whom we know from Josephus and other sources. Stark explains the origin of the apocalyptic genre as second temple era theodicy. The ancient prophets had blamed their national misfortunes on Israel’s sinfulness, and had prescribed repentance as the cure. Well, Israel did repent, but to little effect: they returned from captivity, but despite their redoubled devotion remained political nobodies under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans for centuries. This called for a change of explanation: originally it was God punishing them, but now it was God’s enemies who were persecuting them. So, the philosophers came up with a reasonable solution: these enemies would get theirs in the end, even as the faithful were awarded. This was essentially a return to the dualistic cosmology left behind with the rise of monotheism and the denial of other spiritual powers. Here is where the familiar Satan comes into the picture as the archenemy of God; here also began the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

But here’s the thing: within the apocalyptic mindset, the expectation of an afterlife and a final judgment vindicated God for allowing unwarranted adversity only if “the end that justified the means [were] conceived of as imminent. Yahweh’s righteousness was expected to be displayed in the fact that he could not suffer the suffering of his people for very long” (p. 164).

A belief in the imminency of the eschaton was a foundational tenet of second temple Judaism’s apocalyptic movements. It was a belief shared by the followers of Jesus, for the very good reason that the various “time statements” of Jesus throughout the Gospels affirmed it in no uncertain terms: “Surely I say unto you, this generation shall not pass…”; “Some of you standing here will not taste death until…” etc., etc. But this was by no means the only affinity between the Jesus Movement and other Jewish apocalyptic groups. Stark cites a long list of assumptions and beliefs from Klaus Koch and Dale Allison, which all point to the conclusion that Jesus, if the Synoptics are to be trusted, was firmly a part of a much larger “millenarian” tradition, distinctions aside.

Stark supplies full text from the Synoptics that show exactly what Jesus predicted about the future. Interestingly, in addition to the standard-fare expectation of tribulation before the end, Stark states that one of the main distinctives of Jesus teaching in the Gospels was anticipation that the Messiah himself should suffer before ultimate victory. Another distinctive emphasis of Jesus, though not exclusive to him (e.g. the Qumran community), was that of a “realized eschatology” — the idea that aspects of the future world order could be realized even within this current world world order. This whole section reads like a primer to preterism, showing how Jesus unequivocally prophesied his return in glory and the judgment of the nations as within his disciples’ lifetime. Old news for me. I won’t summarize his arguments here, but if you think Jesus’ prophecies could be wrangled into introducing a two-thousand-year-and-counting gap between his disciples’ lifetime and the end times, you’ll want to read this chapter.

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