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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Twelve--At Best Jesus Was A Failed Apocalyptic Prophet

In chapter 12 of The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, the editor, John Loftus, returns to write a chapter entitled, "At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet." Loftus maintains that even if one assumes that the canonical gospels are historically reliable, the portrait presented of Jesus is one of a failed prophet. He predicted the end of the age within the generation of his initial followers and it did not happen, thus proving that he was not from God (much less God himself).
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.

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).
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:
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.


  1. Christian pretzelization efforts to follow in 3, 2, 1 ...

  2. John Loftus is spot on in this chapter. I, too, had long ago been persuaded to favor the Apocalyptic Prophet view (or "Eschatological Prophet", as Sanders prefers -- semantics, I think). I came over to this view from a mythicist position, having previously been in the neighborhood of the Earl Doherty / Robert Price camps (Price is a bit weaker on mythicism). To this day I still favor the Apocalyptic Prophet view. I'll add that Geza Vermes appears to also possibly hold to this view, at least from what I can tell from having read several of his books. He's a notable scholar (extensive Dead Sea Scrolls work), which I so far only disagree on his view of the "Son of Man" meaning in the gospels, which I see as his oversimplification in proposing that Jesus always or almost always used this phrase to simply mean "me/myself", which I think often refers to an eschatological third party other than Jesus. He doesn't seem to think so.

  3. key point: "The authors were reinterpreting these prophecies just like every failed doomsday cult has done in order to survive as a community (pp. 333-34)."

    The survival of the community trumps all other considerations. Their sense of identity comes from association with their group, so revising the group's self-definition or disbanding it would be disastrous for them. An individual has a certain amount of safety and self-efficacy through belonging to a family, but much more by belonging to the extended family of believers.

    And like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and all the other Doomsday prophets, those of early Christianity would do anything to hold their power over their people. In those days, it wasn't as difficult as it is today, though who knows? The Dead Sea Scroll writers could have committed mass suicide too. Nobody would have lived to tell the tale.

  4. I for one totally disagree. Just because you made a mental acceptance of Christ at the age of 18 does not negate the fact that there are thousands of us who have lived a long life, with many difficulties, yet the Lord has always proved faithful when called upon. One thing is for sure, even in my darkest hours I refused to bow to the enemy and denounce my Lord and Savor Jesus the Christ. My life has been a continually growth and change as I have learned to trust Him in all circumstances.

    1. You did not read one word of the article nor could you ever understand it.

  5. "Historical J....."!?!

    The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

  6. As usual, and by his own admission (Loftus quote: "My goal was to overwhelm the believer") Loftus tries to overload the reader with data that he hasn't even gone through or tried to understand himself.

    He even admits as such: "in order to overwhelm the believer I had to question every key belief of Christianity, my problem was that as a mere mortal I could not have a scholar's grasp on every topic in it... sometimes I merely refer believers to what scholars in their respective fields of research have argued... I constantly refer my readers to the scholars who argue my case for me. "

    IOW, Loftus throws stuff around that he doesn't understand. Pretty honest, eh? Funny thing is, when his stuff is shoveled up and cast back at him, he ends up out of his league, getting his backside handed to him. Exhibit A:

  7. Chaz,

    I don't want to turn this blog into another TWEB where insults are thrown around constantly. If you have a specific argument against the post, then make it and we can discuss it civilly.

  8. Ken, I post @ TWEB, finding it on the whole congenial for my naturalism1!John and you don't agree, fine. I ignore the insults.
    Chaz, is putting contrary words into our friend's mouth. John provides enough evidence for us to follow up on: otherwise, the chapter would be a whole book in itself.
    Skeptic Griggsy, besides similar names, Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn and many others to Google.
    Yes to retirement! Go to Thales, and Carneades amongst others of my blogs.
    Google that name to see that I mean to eviscerate Godism!
    Morgan-Lynn Griggs Lamberth

  9. I think this guy has the best response to this challenge:

  10. Read the passages in the tanakh (that supposedly refers to jesus) and you'll see that it has nothing to do with him. The new testament never was, can or will be the word of yah. Apologetics can't save this sinking ship.

  11. Weren't these people talking about the end of astrological ages?