Notes: Assessing The Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus in Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

Notes: Assessing The Case for an Apocalyptic Jesus in Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium


Review


-Scholars use criteria of authenticity to sift the earliest sources with eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the historical Jesus

-Applying these results yields seven general lines of evidence that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet:
  • #1: The earliest sources portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
  • #2 The later sources tone down the apocalyptic language in the earlier sources
  • #3: Those connected to Jesus and his message before and after his earthly ministry were apocalypticists
  • #4: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his core teachings
  • #5 The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his ethical teachings
  • #6: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his actions
  • #7: The apocalyptic prophet hypothesis makes best sense of his last days 
On the Nature of Ehrman’s Argument

-Ehrman’s argument is best construed as an inference to the best explanation
  • Inferences to the best explanation proceed by listing a range of data, and arguing that one competing hypothesis best explains that data
  • A hypothesis is the best explanation of the data to the extent that it exemplifies the theoretical virtues (simplicity, scope, conservatism, predictive power, etc.) better than any competing theory
Reconstructing Ehrman's Argument
-Call the hypothesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, Apocalyptic Prophet
-Ehrman’s argument can then be stated as follows: 

1. If Apocalyptic Prophet is the best explanation of the relevant data, then Jesus was probably an apocalyptic prophet.
2. Apocalyptic Prophet is the best explanation of the relevant data (cf. 1-7 above)
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3. Therefore, Jesus was probably an apocalyptic prophet


Evaluating Ehrman’s Argument

-The key premise is (2): the Apocalyptic Prophet hypothesis is the best explanation of the relevant data.

-But is it?

-To answer that, we’ll need to answer two other questions:
  • What standards does an explanation have to meet to be the best? 
  • Does the Apocalyptic Jesus hypothesis meet those standards better than any competing hypothesis?
Step 1: What Makes an Explanation the Best?
-In the type of case at hand, predictive power and related theoretical virtues aren't all that relevant, as we're evaluating hypotheses that explain past facts, and not future phenomena.  Determining which hypothesis is the best explanation therefore largely boils down to the following three:
  • 1. Simplicity: One hypothesis is simpler than another if the former adds fewer new assumptions than the latter to explain the data.
  • 2. Scope: One hypothesis has wider explanatory scope than another if the former explains more data than the latter.
  • 3. Conservatism: One hypothesis is more conservative than another if the former requires throwing out fewer of our prior beliefs than the other that are already well-justified.
-In short, then: the simplest, most conservative hypothesis that has the widest explanatory scope is the best explanation of the historical Jesus, and is thus the most probable one.

-The consensus view: The Apocalyptic Jesus hypothesis best explains the relevant data, viz., at least the seven discussed in Ehrman’s book (cf. Sanders, Vermes, Fredriksen, et al.)

-However, some scholars deny this and reject premise 2

-If they are better explainations, then they must meet the criteria above (and perhaps others) better than The Apocalyptic Prophet hypothesis.

-The main obstacle with such approaches is that they have trouble explaining all the early, multiply-attested data for this hypothesis discussed in Ehrman’s book. Let’s briefly look at how they aim to do so:

1. Responses from Conservatives:
A. Divide and Conquer (Craig Blomberg, et al.): the strategy is to take the group of passages that seem to have Jesus saying the apocalypse is imminent (i.e., that it would occur within his generation), and provide an alternative interpretation for each one (e.g., when Jesus said that his generation wouldn't pass away before the apocalypse happened, what he really meant was that the Jews wouldn't pass away before it happened. When Jesus said that his earliest disciples wouldn't finish preaching to the surrounding cities of Israel before the end happened, he was really referring to the perennially incomplete task of evangelism to the Jews; etc., etc..)

B. Destruction of the Temple (NT Wright, et al.): the strategy is to argue that, yes, Jesus really did predict the end within his generation, i.e., we should take those passages at face-value. However, all the end-time passages were fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

C. Possible End Only (Ben Witherington, et al.): the strategy is to assert that what Jesus really meant in all those passages is that the End *might* be at hand, not that it *is* at hand.

2. Responses from Moderates
A. Jesus Didn't Say That: (Raymond Brown et al.): the strategy is to say that all the passages that have Jesus preach the imminent coming of the apocalypse are inauthentic -- i.e., Jesus didn't say those things; they were attributed to Jesus by the early church. However, Jesus is the Son of God.

B. Jesus Said it, and He Was Wrong. But So What! (Dale Allison, C.S. Lewis et al.): the strategy is to admit that the passages where Jesus predicts an imminent end are authentic, and to admit that he was wrong -- the End didn't happen -- but to say that it has no serious implications for the truth of Christianity. Jesus is still the Son of God.

3. Responses from Liberals: 
Jesus Wasn't an Apocalypticist (Crossan, Mack, et al.): the strategy is a variation on the Jesus Didn't Say That response of the Moderates. The strategy is to argue that all those passages that have Jesus preach the imminent coming of the apocalypse are inauthentic -- i.e., Jesus didn't say those things; they were attributed to Jesus by the early church. However, Jesus wasn't the Son of God, either -- at least not in any literal sense. Rather, he was a social reformer, a revolutionary, a sage philosopher, or some variant of thereof.

Evaluation: Which Hypothesis Is the Best Explanation?

-To evaluate Ehrman’s Apocalyptic Jesus argument, then, we need to:
  • Examine each hypothesis
  • Determine which hypothesis is the simplest, most conservative hypothesis with the widest explanatory scope
-The consensus view: hypothesis that Jesus was primarily an apocalyptic prophet (cf. Sanders, Vermes, Fredriksen, Ehrman, etc.)

-Why? The other proposals mentioned above seem to be more complex (i.e., they add new assumptions to explain the same data), have less explanatory scope (i.e., they can’t explain all seven lines of data as well, and sometimes not at all), and/or less conservative (i.e., they require that we throw out some of the seven lines of data discussed in Ehrman’s book).

Conclusion: It therefore looks as though Ehrman is correct: the most probable hypothesis is that Jesus was primarily an apocalyptic prophet of an imminent eschaton.