Deuteronomy 18:21-22 states: You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken(NIV).Loftus shows that while the historical Jesus scholarship has come to a number of different conclusions, the dominant view that is held today is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. This view first popularized by Albert Schweitzer in 1906 (The Quest of the Historical Jesus)has been defended in the current day by such eminent NT scholars as E. P. Sanders (The Historical Figure of Jesus), Dale Allison (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet), Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium), and Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus).
Apocalypticism (i.e., the idea that God would visit the earth, destroy his enemies, raise the saints, and establish his kingdom) was prevalent in the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born. Loftus writes:
We see Jewish apocalypticism everywhere stemming from such texts as Isaiah 24-27, Daniel, Zechariah 9-14, parts of I Enoch, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, 4th Ezra, 2nd Baruch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves show apocalyptic elements in them, especially the War Scroll, where there is a war between the “children of the light” and the “children of darkness” in which God intervenes in the seventh battle and the Sons of Light are given their victory. So in this contextual milieu it’s not difficult at all to think Jesus believed and taught what others did in his day. In fact, this is what we would expect to find (pp. 318-19).The synoptic gospels open up with the ministry of an apocalyptic prophet, John the Baptist, who was preaching that judgment was at hand, the wrath of God was about to be unleashed, and the Kingdom age was at hand (Mark 1:15; Matt. 3:1-12; Luke 3:16-17). Jesus identified with the message of this prophet by being baptized by him. Then Jesus began preaching the same message of John (Matt. 4:17).
Jesus' use of the title "Son of Man" is a clear apocalyptic reference from Daniel chapter 7. It is his favorite way to refer to himself throughout the Synoptic gospels. He tells the Sanhedrin at his trial: You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62). In the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13), Jesus foretold the end of the age and told his disciples that they would be alive to see it happen: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; cf. Matt. 10:23; 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).
When we come to the writings of Paul, it is obvious that he believed he would live to see Jesus return, raise the believers, destroy the wicked and establish a kingdom (1 Thess. 4:15-5:4; 1 Cor. 15:51-52). As a matter of fact, he told the Corinthians that the time was so short, it would be better for them not to marry or give their daughters in marriage. He wrote:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away (7:29-31).But Paul died, the Corinthians and the Thessalonians died, and all the believers since that time have died. Was Jesus then wrong? The NT scholar James Dunn thinks so: Jesus had entertained hopes which were not fulfilled. There were "final" elements in his expectation which were not realized. Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events (Jesus Remembered, p. 479 cited by Loftus, p. 325).
Why didn't Christianity cease to exist then, since their founder's prophecies failed to occur? Because the early Christians did what other cults with failed prophets have done, they reinterpreted their prophet's words (see Leon Festinger, When Prophecies Fail).E. P. Sanders writes:
…his followers preached that he would return immediately—that is, they simply interpreted "the Son of Man" as referring to Jesus himself. Then, when people started dying, they said that some would still be alive. When almost the entire first generation was dead, they maintained that one disciple would still be alive [John 21:23]. Then he died, and it became necessary to claim that Jesus had not actually promised even this one disciple that he would live to see that great day (Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 180 cited by Loftus, p. 332).Later books in the NT reveal the dilemma faced by the followers of Jesus. Loftus states:
By the time the pseudonymous 2nd letter to the Thessalonians was written at the end of the first century to reassure Christians that Jesus would indeed return, unlike some who thought he had already done so (2:1-2), and unlike others who quit their jobs to wait for it to happen (3:6-15), additional signs must take place first. A rebellion must take place and “the man of sin” revealed who will “exalt himself over everything that is God” (2:3-12). And although the power of this “man of sin” (or anti-Christ) is already at work in the world, he is being held back until the “proper time” when he will be revealed and later destroyed when Jesus returns in glory.This reinterpretation of the prophecies of Jesus has continued throughout Church History. Today, there are a multitude of various eschatological positions held by Christians. As Loftus points out:
By the time the even later second-century pseudonymous epistle of 2 Peter was written scoffers were mocking the Christian claim that Jesus would return. These things were an embarrassment to the church of that day. The answer given was that with the Lord, “a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness…the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet. 3:3–10). . . . This is just what apocalyptic movements do with the prophetic texts when their prophecies fail. They use what has been aptly described as “secondary exegesis” (ala Dale Allison) to reinterpret them, and this is exactly what we see in the New Testament (pp. 332-33).
One way to observe whether a theory is in crisis is to note how many versions of that theory there are. When it comes to Christian eschatological theories there are Historicist, Preterist, Futurist and Idealist versions of it. Specific millennial theories include premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. Then there is dispensational premillennialism with pre-mid-and post-tribulational rapture theories, even though there is no room in the New Testament for the idea of a rapture separated from the final eschaton. There also are partial and full preterist views. There are so many questions and disputes between Christians over this issue that the evidence seems clear: attempts to harmonize the statements in the New Testament are a failure. Christians misunderstand what is going on in the New Testament writings themselves. The authors were reinterpreting these prophecies just like every failed doomsday cult has done in order to survive as a community (pp. 333-34).So, what is one to conclude from this evidence? I think one has to conclude that Jesus predicted the end of the age along with all of its apocalyptic grandeur to occur within the first generation of his hearers and it did not happen. Thus, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet in a long line of failed prophets who have predicted the end of the world.