The Human Faces of God: apocalyptic contortions (part 2)

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 2)

As a preterist with a fully “realized eschatology”, I had no trouble with most of the discussion in the first part of my chapter 8 summary. Where I began having a problem was in Stark’s insistence that “Each apocalyptic community had their peculiarities, but the end result was the same–the restoration of Israel and the judgment of the nations” (p. 168). Even that isn’t a problem unless you accept Stark’s contention that “the restoration of Israel” means exactly what it sounded like to the first century audience: the ascendancy of Israel as a political force, headed up under a triumphant Messiah in David’s model that would free the nation from Rome. Stark focused on much more than that in this chapter, but it’s that contention that will drive the discussion in this post.

We’re always told that the expectation that the Messiah would set up a physical kingdom based in Jerusalem and free Israel from Roman rule was a misunderstanding the disciples had until the resurrection, when the light bulb finally came on; it’s never intimated that they believed this because Jesus himself had believed this, and that this belief fueled the faith of the Jesus Movement all the way until the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus himself is always thought of as knowing the full story, trying to get through to his nationalist followers with little success. I think there is textual support for this, but one cannot exclude the possibility of post hoc, hindsight clarity put in Jesus’ mouth, although this was just as likely to be honest speculation, to the effect of, “Surely the Messiah understood it all correctly, and we just didn’t understand.”

The sayings that even most secular scholarship agrees were spoken by Jesus lead to the conclusion that he believed that the national misfortunes of Israel were drawing to a close, that the foreign powers and their unrighteous Jewish collaborators were going to be punished, and that he, the Messiah, would bring this all about. Thus Stark believes that Jesus’ prophecies sound a lot like the vision of the future held by most dispensationalist futurists: Jesus physically coming back to reign, with physical Jerusalem a place of eschatological interest.

Most preterists will dislike this interpretation and insist that a spiritual revolution, heralded as it was by the physical destruction of Jerusalem c. 70 AD/CE, was always in mind. What evidence does Stark cite against this view?

Stark spends a considerable portion of this chapter responding to many of N.T. Wright’s popular teachings on eschatology, which are basically preteristic. The target of Jesus’ oracles is a crucial aspect of disagreement between Stark and Wright, with the latter affirming the view that Jesus was referring to a spiritual kingdom alone.

We preterists pride ourselves on having a leg up on our literalist brothers and sisters in that we recognize the eschatological idioms within the Olivet Discourse as having been carried over from earlier prophecies in which the promised events (the moon turning to blood, the Lord’s coming on the clouds, etc.) did not happen literally. Stark agrees that this language is from the Old Testament prophets, but essentially asserts that preterists don’t take it far enough: if, as preterists forcefully contend, Jesus prophesied using the language of the Old Testament prophetic tradition and if his audience recognized it as such, then his audience also had no reason to think that Jesus was using that well pedigreed prophetic diction somehow divorced from the greater context and traditions behind those idioms.

Specifically, the source texts for many of Jesus’ apocalyptic language are Isaiah 13-14, Joel 2, and Ezekiel 32, and they all use those prophetic metaphors such as stars falling from the sky to describe God’s judgment. But, Stark argues, the key is that in each case the recipient of the judgment was a foreign power of oppression. A holistic liberation was expected from Messiah, yet in the preterist system, it is apostate Jerusalem – the home team – which is the sole target of Jesus’ prophecies, as indicated by the predictions about the destruction of the temple. For Stark, it is manifestly clear what Jesus was saying: that God would use Rome to sack the holy city in judgment of the shortcomings of His own covenant people, but that, as described again and again in the Old Testament prophets, God would then turn around and send judgment upon His own instrument of judgment — in this case the Roman Empire.

Wright’s reading of Zechariah 14, Stark notes, is essentially a summary of his view of the events described in the Olivet Discourse: “Yahweh calls down the wrath of the Gentiles against Jerusalem; Jerusalem is attacked and destroyed; Yahweh is made king and glorified as Jerusalem is punished for its sins” (p. 194). But this is not the whole story.

This passage hardly supports Wright’s interpretation of Mark 13, and it hardly reflects the events of 70 CE. It does, however unfortunately, reflect very much what Jesus of Nazareth predicted would take place at that time. In both Zechariah 14 and Mark 13, Yahweh punishes Jerusalem with foreign armies, before immediately turning around and punishing the Gentiles that were used to punish Jerusalem. In both oracles, after the judgment of the nations, a new age of unfathomable glory ensues. In neither case were the oracles fulfilled. (p. 195)

As evidence that the Jerusalem religious machine and not the foreign oppressor was the target of Jesus’ prophecies, Wright has argued that Jesus’ counsel to flee Jerusalem in Mark 13 was an allusion to the situation of the refugees from Babylon in Jeremiah 50.6,28. But in Jeremiah why are they told to flee Babylon? “Because,” answers Stark, “Yahweh is coming to take vengeance on Babylon for destroying his temple–precisely what Rome would do to Jerusalem in 70 CE. If anything in Mark 13 echoes these verses in Jeremiah 50,” Stark continues, “it would not be the instruction to flee but the proclamation of doom against Rome as repayment for the desecration of the temple” (p. 193). Rejecting Wright’s correlation of Jeremiah 50.28 to Mark 13, Stark sees Jesus’ instruction to flee to the mountains following the Romans’ desecration of the temple as an allusion to the Maccabees’ flight to the mountains to regroup and await reinforcements for a military invasion after the original “desolating sacrilege” by Antiochus Epiphanes. Only this time, they would be led down from the mountains by the returning Messiah.

Like most other preterists, Wright sees the desolation of the temple as the liberation and vindication of faithful Israel, yet Stark contends that God’s vindication was envisaged as being made necessary because of the desolation, reading the Gospels’ anticipation of the desolation as foreboding, not as a positive, glorious hope. The final battle, the Day of the Lord, would come when God swiftly responded to the local judgment on unfaithful Jews using the Romans with a global judgment upon the Romans.

Stark also takes issue with Wright’s understanding of the timing of the events prophesied by Jesus. For instance, for all the “time statements” that preterists rightfully bring out in support of a first century fulfilment, there is something of a forgotten or at least misplaced “time statement”: although Wright equates the judgment on Jerusalem with a symbolic “coming of the Son of Man”, the coming of the Son of Man was said in Mark 13.24/Matt 24.29 to occur “after the suffering of those days” — that is, following the sacking of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem could not itself be the coming; the divine vindication/retaliation is pictured as coming in response to the events that required vindication/retaliation, namely the Roman decimation of God’s holy city. Thus when Jesus warns his disciples not to follow any others claiming “I am he,” he is teling them that “they are not to follow after those messianic hopefuls who claim to have a divine commission to wage war on Rome. Yet note that not one of the gospels denies such a war is to be waged” (p. 179, emphasis original). Another observation that I found particularly impressive in setting up Stark’s picture of an inevitable Jesus/Rome clash was this:

Apart from being theologically “liberal,” belief in the resurrection [i.e., of the dead = an afterlife] was also politically explosive, for the same reason that contemporary extremist Islamic belief in the resurrection is politically explosive. Belief in the resurrection freed one up to walk a dangerous path of hard-line opposition to Rome and to the puppet temple regime in Jerusalem. (p. 167)

Jesus would have been considered a walking time bomb. This helps explain Rome’s participation in the Jews’ plan to eliminate him.

The applicability of the judgment is another important subject of Stark’s critique of Wright. Preterists contend that the scope of the judgment of Jerusalem was local in implementation but global in significance. All language implying worldwide activity is conceived of as spiritual in nature. Stark is singularly unconvinced, and contends that the predicted judgment was described unmistakably worldwide in physical scope: judgment was to fall on “all who dwell on the face of the earth” (Lk 21.35); Matt 24.30 says that “all the tribes of the earth” would mourn. Preterists will counter that universal language is used in the Old Testament to describe non-universal events, but I don’t think they’re considering that those prophecies’ targets were world empires and, absent a knowledge of the Far East, Africa, or the Americas, the scope was probably conceived of as truly universal even then. Taking into account the argument that the opponent of the last battle prophesied by Jesus was the nation responsible for desecrating the holy city, Stark is convinced that “…what Jesus means is dreadfully clear: Rome’s time is up…The worldwide mourning of the tribes indicates in no uncertain terms that this is a picture of the final judgment” (p. 182). Partial preterists such as Wright are more scandalized by this interpretation than full preterists, who would agree that this was the “final judgment”, resurrection of the dead included, only that it was somehow invisibly and universally appropriated from that localized event.

Stark notes Jesus’ response in Acts 1.7-8 to the disciples asking him if he was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at that time:

He does not deny that he intends to deliver Israel from Rome. He simply declines to tell them when. Pentecost is therefore presented by Luke as the empowerment of the disciples to prepare the world for the Messiah’s coming to restore the kingdom to Israel. (p. 203-204, emphasis original)

Having addressed the prophecies attributed directly to Jesus, Stark turns to what are considered the earliest extant Christian writings, the epistles of Paul. As with Jesus, much of Paul’s teaching came out of his conviction about an already-not-yet realization of the end times, a partial overlapping of the coming world order onto the current one. From counseling people not to marry until the end came (1 Cor 7.36), to teaching that “social norms were topsy-turvy in light of the imminent reconstitution of the cosmos” (p. 202; 1 Cor 7.26, 29-31), to stressing the urgency of the Christian mission because they were over halfway to the eschaton since Jesus’ time (Rom 13.11), Paul and the other early Christians were clearly of the opinion that the new day was about to dawn. Once again, for the countless proofs of early Christians’ expectations of imminency, read the book (or search my site — I’m pretty sure I’ve got a lot of the “time statements” cataloged somewhere on here!).

Stark asserts that Paul too envisaged the coming Kingdom of God as the end of Roman political domination. Citing several scholars, he avers that when Paul in 1 Thess 5.3 speaks of people immediately before the eschaton obliviously repeating “peace and security” (Gk. ειρηνη και ασφαλεια), Paul is consciously alluding to one of Rome’s official state slogans, Pax et Securitas, from Augustus’ propaganda campaignl; Paul was declaring the days of Pax Romana at an end when Christ returned. Stark also infers from Romans 12.14-21 that Paul’s counsel to the Christians in Rome to bless their persecutors and await God’s vengeance on them is an indication that he at least believed the “end of the age” to mean a shakeup of power in Rome and not merely in Jerusalem.

From here Stark notes the response to what might be called “the Great Disappointment of 70” as documented within the New Testament itself. The late, pseudepigraphical 2 Peter (which he discusses in a footnote) abandons the imminency expectation altogether, reversing the old apocalyptic argument that swift deliverance was a sign of God’s justice and arguing instead that God’s waiting was a sign of His compassion, in order that He might save more people. Like Stark, I find this an unhelpful solution, since delay only allows more to perish in the interim. Another response is evident in the Fourth Gospel, also written some time after the Great Disappointment, which in its abandonment of an earthly kingdom for a spiritual kingdom (e.g. John 18.36) and near exclusion of apocalyptic elements has become the standard Christian understanding, although many futurists still hold out hope for a future millennial kingdom on earth as well.

As for points of weakness in Stark’s argumentation in this chapter, I noticed that Stark does not address why Matthew and Luke/Acts at least, if written after 70 CE as scholarship generally supposes, do not do more to reframe the picture of redemption in a form better conforming to the deflation of expectations as the authors of the Fourth Gospel and 2 Peter did. To the contrary, Luke in particular seems at pains to identify the Olivet Discourse as relating to the siege of Jerusalem, when “Jerusalem is surrounded by armies.” If nothing else, Stark’s interpretation strikes me as an argument for an earlier dating of Luke than is often supposed. If he has anticipated this response, as I suppose he has, I wish he had included it.

There are a number of ways of dealing with all of this information. It is at least possible that Jesus was speaking subversively about the Romans, as any liberation theologian (like Stark) could appreciate; that he appealed to Messianic expectation by speaking in terms of militaristic triumph over the empire while quietly subverting this by teaching love for one’s enemy and the inversion of least/greatest; that his disciples truly did just “miss it”. Of course, how exactly the “redemption” promised in Luke 21.28 happened as a result of Jerusalem’s defeat in any imminent sense is of course a difficult question. Yet at least it is hard to dispute that the Christian principle of inversion, the ideal of voluntary servanthood and love of one’s persecutors, when it has infiltrated hearts and minds, is indeed one of the greatest possible enemies of empire.

Perhaps, alternatively, Jesus himself wasn’t fully aware of the spiritual implementation of his oracle against Rome, and that in Jesus’ prophecies we’re seeing yet another of the “human faces” of God. I’m open to the idea of Jesus “growing into” his mission, such as is argued by those who see the Syro-Phoenician woman incident as the moment in which Jesus realized that his ministry applied to more than just the Jews, so I can stomach the possibility of his own understanding of the nature of the kingdom developing over time, and even of its being crystallized in incomplete form by his untimely death.

I don’t know that scholars do them justice when they speak of “millenarians” and “apocalyptic prophets” in such broad terms as though there were a school that taught “How to Be a Charlatan” as a vocation. Can we really boil Jesus or those other men down into a category and say that each of them, based on several overlapping thematic factors (described by Koch and Allison), were merely “dime a dozen”, “run of the mill” end time hacks, individual distinctives admitted but notwithstanding? Was Jesus an “apocalyptic prophet” any more than I am, ontologically or existentially, a “blogger”? I wonder if we would be less scandalized if we thought of Jesus as a teacher and moral philosopher who happened to have Jewish apocalyptic leanings and interests, even preoccupations, which understandably got more attention when so many of his prophecies seemed to come true (earthquakes, wars, famines, the temple’s destruction within 40 years, etc.; as Stark admits, “nine out of ten ain’t bad”). I’m merely saying that even if we allow Jesus to be mistaken in some of his apocalyptic expectations, we needn’t draw the conclusion that he should be dismissed as merely a “failed apocalyptic prophet”, or that he was not someone who said things that God wanted humanity to hear. After all, it’s not his doomsday prophecies that have shown the potential to change the world, which any self-respecting Messiah would want to do above all else.

Another point of criticism: Stark mostly dismisses in a footnote reference to Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth the possibility that Jesus prophesied a spiritual kingdom signified through some real world events (like the destruction in 70 CE) and that it was the New Testament writers who misunderstood it. Although various comments littered throughout the chapter obliquely challenged that contention, I think that perhaps it deserved a bit more dedicated commentary than he gave it. If Allison conclusively demonstrated the folly of this supposition as Stark implies, it would have been invaluable to summarize it in full text.

At very least, I’d say that Stark has convinced me that the Gospels (by and large) and the Epistles (by and large) teach that Jesus’ imminent return would be about more than just the vindication of Christians as implemented through the destruction of Jerusalem. So as I see it, eschatological systems as understood by most preterists and futurists alike that refuse the idea that Jesus was wrong can only thrive either upon distortion of the text or a claim that the NT authors got Jesus wrong — neither of which are compatible with inerrancy.

If indeed the New Testament is correct that Jesus prophesied Israel’s restoration as a nation and Rome’s demise, then he was wrong, at very least about the timing. Stark’s answer to this? He is sympathetic to the concerns Christians will have about Jesus being viewed as merely a “failed apocalyptic prophet”. In the conclusion of this chapter, he responds, essentially, with “wait for chapter 10”! Sounds like a great way to make people skip the chapter that comes in between this chapter and that one! (Don’t worry; I won’t.)

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