In his work The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings, Bart Ehrman describes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. But what does this mean? In our popular culture, we think of prophets as people who foretell future events. But the oracular element of the Jewish prophetic tradition is only one piece of the whole.
Ehrman defines the label prophet as a subversive teacher who "proclaim[s] the imminent downfall of the social order and the advent of a new kingdom to replace the corrupt ruling power" (262). Several such prophets are recorded in extra-biblical sources. For example, in his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts that a man named Theudas attempted to rally a crowd to follow him to the banks of the Jordan river, where he would demonstrate the power of God by reenacting Moses great parting of the river and invoking the story of the exodus from oppression (XX:5.1). This sort of acting out of prophetic messages appears to have been common enough to be understood by the prophets’ audience. In Jesus own ministry all four gospels report the episode of the cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus turned over tables and chased out the livestock brought to sell for sacrifices (Mt 21:12-27, Mk 11.15-19, Lk 19:45-46, Jn 2:13-17). This act is reminiscent of some of the scenes acted out by Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Hosea. For the prophets, these public displays serve as visual metaphors used to convey a message from God.
Jesus began his ministry by all accounts by submitting to baptism by John the Baptist. John’s own message that Israel repent from its evil ways and prepare the way for the One who is to come also belongs to the apocalyptic tradition. This association, attested to by independent sources through both Mark and John, would add credence to the claim that Jesus endorsed the apocalyptic tradition. Further, Jesus own choice of 12 disciples who would sit in judgment over the tribes of Israel in the age to come (Mt 19:28) is a clear allusion to the reestablishment of a new Israel whose scattered tribes will be reunited (Ehrman 265).
The synoptic gospels each ring with their own distinctive tones as they herald the coming of the new order. For Mark, the Kingdom of God is already at hand. For Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven comes in judgment and those who do not embrace it will find themselves in a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. For Luke, the new order is a place of reversal where the lowly are raised up and the mighty are brought low. While scholars like Marcus Borg attempt to downplay the eschatological nature of these judgments, stressing instead the impetus of humans as agents of change (19), even the Q source contains apocalyptic themes, beginning with references to the ministry of John the Baptist.
Finally, Jesus’ teachings refer to the "Son of Man," a cosmic deliverer who would act as God’s agent of divine justice in judging the wicked and bringing about the new order. This language shows up in the canonical scriptures in Daniel, but is also present in extra-canonical writings such as 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra (Ehrman 273). Those who believe in Jesus’ message about the coming of the Son of Man are urged to repent, change their ways, and prepare themselves for the imminent arrival of the new order. Those who reject the Son of Man will suffer the penalty of their unbelief. This construct is typical of the language of the prophets and the apocalyptic genre.
With these characteristics in mind it is easy to embrace the claims made by Ehrman regarding Jesus’ identity as an apocalyptic prophet. However, it is important not to limit Jesus to only this aspect of his identity. Other clues – such as the accounts of Jesus’ appearance to his followers after the crucifixion and their testimony of his presence made known to them through their table worship – point to an identity that exceeds the definition of apocalyptic prophet. Though we cannot use historical critical means to substantiate miraculous claims or theological teachings, some of the earliest sources of teaching about Jesus (the synoptic tradition, Paul’s epistles) reveal communities that experienced something out of the ordinary in coming together and sharing in the common meal that they claim Jesus taught them to observe.  Thus while Ehrman’s claim of Jesus’ identity as an apocalyptic prophet is completely justifiable, we should not discount the independent streams of testimony given by those who bore witness to his life and teaching.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 9 May 2008 <http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-20.htm>.
Critical Reflections. In response to given questions throughout the course of the semester, students will contribute three brief critical reflections. In a typed, double-spaced response of 400-750 words (i.e. 2-3 pages), students will offer a reasoned reply to one of the questions posed for the topic under consideration. Critical reflections should demonstrate:
- thorough consideration of relevant textual evidence,
- explicit and substantial interaction with assigned readings and classroom discussion, and
- rational argumentation in support of a focused thesis statement or claim.
Ehrman describes Jesus as an “apocalyptic prophet." Do you agree?