Posted by: Dan | April 23, 2006

Jesus as "Prophet": Part I

[This post is the first part of the paper that was the reason why I've hardly been blogging — it maxed out at 41pp. I seriously apologise for the absence of footnotes, I'm still struggling with how footnotes work with livejournal.]

Who do you say that I am? Jesus as an Apocalyptic, Social, and Charismatic Prophet

Introduction

The last century has seen an explosion of interest in the historical Jesus. Within the realm of New Testament scholarship, scholars talk about a Quest for the historical Jesus, a renewed quest, and now a third quest, incorporating new perspectives on Jesus. As various traditional, liberal, historical-critical, sociological, and neo-liberal voices have contributed to the discussion, Jesus has been provided with a wide variety of portraits. One meets Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, Jesus as teacher of timeless truth, Jesus as social radical, Jesus as Cynic philosopher, Jesus as magician, Jesus as wandering charismatic, and so on. St. John tells us that, were all the acts of Jesus written, the books would fill the world, but recent scholarship seems to be doing a fine job of filling libraries with books based on the material we already have!

This paper will examine Jesus as prophet. The prophetic type is somewhat ambiguous and has been filled with various levels of meaning by various scholars. Sometimes those meanings are played against each other, while at other times they are synthesised to varying degrees. There are basically three major divisions within scholarship that studies Jesus as prophet: those who see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, those who see Jesus as a social prophet, and those who see Jesus as a charismatic prophet. Each of these positions will be examined and critiqued before a final synthesis will be offered. For the sake of ease, various scholars have been positioned within these three divisions, but it should be emphasised that this typology is limited and there is often a more nuanced overlap between categories in the work of individual scholars (as we will especially discover when we examine the likes of John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Thiessen and Marcus Borg). Indeed, speaking of Jesus as “prophet” is already slightly problematic because Jesus stubbornly refuses to be fit into a single type, be it “prophet” or any of the other types listed above. As James Dunn writes, “Since Jesus seems to have broken through all the available categories to the extent that he did, it becomes almost impossible to find suitable terms to describe his role or define his significance”. Therefore, one must be cautious when studying Jesus as prophet, especially when one considers how the prophetic must be enacted today — a topic this paper will return to in the conclusion.

It is impossible to study the historical Jesus as prophet without noting the lasting impact that Albert Schweitzer and Rudolph Bultmann have had upon contemporary scholarship. Schweitzer is largely responsible for the streams within the quest for the historical Jesus that propel the notion of Jesus as prophet into the foreground, and Bultmann is largely responsible for the streams that reject the notion of Jesus as prophet. Schweitzer, as we shall see, painted a portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, participating in an world-ending event… and who was, therefore, misguided and failed to bring about the results he expected. Bultmann found this Jesus to be quite unpalatable, and so he discarded the apocalyptic and prophetic elements of Jesus altogether. In recent years it seems that those who belong to Bultmann's school of thought have carried the day at the popular level, and it is necessary to comment on this school of thought before this paper engages in a sustained study of Jesus as prophet.

Jesus as less than a prophet? Rudolph Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar

'Jesus Christ, Jewish prophet thought to be the Messiah'… Delete 'Christ,' replace 'prophet' with 'teacher'. [From recent revisions made to social science textbooks in California]

Bultmann, as we already suggested, was hardly attracted to the picture of Jesus that was sketched by Schweitzer. Yet Schweitzer had engaged in a sustained historical study of Jesus and his life. Thus, Bultmann expresses a serious scepticism about any contemporary claims to knowledge about the events of Jesus' life or Jesus' actual intentions. He thus discards the category of apocalyptic and any “wishful thinking about the world to come”. However, he is much more certain about the content of Jesus' message, and triumphs the form-critical approach, confident that he can get back to what Jesus said despite the ways in which those sayings were corrupted by the Christian tradition. Thus, Bultmann focuses upon a kerygmatic Christ by means of an existential hermeneutic. The Jesus that emerges from this study is Jesus as “a preacher of a timeless call for decision”. Eschatology is essentially transformed by existenialism. This Jesus teaches timeless moral truths, which challenge people of all ages, and this is the Jesus better known through faith, and not through history.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bultmann's anti-apocalyptic, anti-prophetic (and rather non-Jewish) position was championed at the popular level by the neo-liberal Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is a carefully self-selected group of North American scholars, that bring a particular view to the study of Jesus and the early church and then apply that view to a detailed list of sayings. It is largely due to the successful marketing of the work produced by the Jesus Seminar that schools are changing textbooks in order to call Jesus a “teacher” rather than a “prophet”. Because of the focus on sayings much weight is placed upon hypothetical documents like Q and Secret Mark, or much later documents like The Gospel of Thomas,. Thus, most of Jesus' sayings are stripped of their literary settings in order to discredit fundamentalist and traditional portraits of Jesus. Stripped of all apocalyptic elements the result is “a counter-cultural Jesus who serves as an iconic precedent for all anti-establishment restiveness, or a Jesus who was more sophisticatedly subversive than an apocalyptic prophet”. Thus, in the writings of Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, one finds that the Jesus of history has been separated from the Christ of faith so that the real non-eschatological Jesus of the sayings can be freed from both the Christ of the creeds, and the Jesus of the Gospels. In a similar vein, Burton Mack, another prominent member of the Seminar, argues that texts like Mark are early Christian creation myths used to legitimate a particular version of second generation Christianity. Really, Mack argues, Jesus was an “innocent Cynic wordsmith” who would have little to do with contemporary Christianity.

Of course, members of the Jesus Seminar have particular reasons to be attracted to a non-apocalyptic, non-prophetic Jesus. Living as North Americans at the end of the twentieth century they have seen the way in which apocalyptic expectation and prophetic fervour can be manipulated by the State in order to engage in vicious acts of violence and terror around the globe. Apocalyptic expectations are used to fund Israeli terror against the Palestinians, and an appeal to prophesy is made to garner fundamentalist votes for a political party that makes war in the Middle East. In response to these things, the Seminar tries to offer a largely apolitical subversive sage, who ends up looking strikingly like a sophisticated, and somewhat counter-cultural (or at least counter-cultural in the way that most middle-class liberals consider themselves to be counter-cultural), American university professor. We can therefore conclude that, despite their good intentions, the Jesus Seminar has largely thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to examining the historical Jesus. These neo-liberals, have made the same mistake that Schweitzer argued the liberals had made — looking for Jesus, they have found their own reflection.

Jesus as Prophet

While the Jesus Seminar was marketing itself as the authoritative and objective scholarly voice on all things related to Jesus, several other North American scholars, and almost all European and international Jesus scholars were drawing very different portraits of Jesus. One of the problems with the Jesus Seminar, as we have noted, is that they often recourse to hypothetical documents in order to create a picture of a Jesus that would have been strikingly out of place in first century Palestine, and Second Temple Judaism. Although other portraits vary greatly it seems that the title most applied to Jesus, that actually meets with considerable scholarly consensus, is the title prophet. This is so because it is the title most reflected in the first century material that we actually have access to (as opposed to hypothetical documents), the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Within these documents, the title prophet is attributed to Jesus by the crowds, by his disciples, and, significantly, by Jesus himself. Conversely, his opponents condemned him as a sorcerer and a deceiver leading Israel astray — titles often used for false prophets. Thus, it is fairly safe to conclude with James Dunn that “little doubt need be entertained that Jesus was seen in the role of a prophet during his mission”. It is also likely that Jesus saw himself as a prophet, and self-consciously shaped his message, mission, and actions, in terms of classical prophetic principles. Tom Wright also notes that it would be highly unlikely for the later Christian tradition, including the early church, to invent sayings which called Jesus prophet, for “it might have seemed risky theologically to refer to him in this way; it might have appeared that he was simply being put on a level with all the other prophets”. As a prophet, Jesus is well grounded within a particular moment within the history of Israel, and this is one of the largest attributes that set this Jesus apart from Bultmann's Jesus as the teacher of timeless truth. As a prophet, Jesus' teaching is spoken out of, and addressed to, a particular situation in history. His teaching is marked by both prophetic insight, and prophetic foresight.

The notion of Jesus as prophet if further strengthened by the fact Jesus' early connection to John the Baptiser is one of the most indisputable elements of the early Jesus tradition. There is no question that John was a prophet and, in his baptism by John, Jesus “plunged into the prophetic and eschatological task he took to be his destiny”. However, it is worth exploring what sort of first-century prophets John and Jesus were because, contrary to the popular notion that prophecy had died out during the intertestamental period, there were three main types of prophets in the first century. There were clerical prophets, who were priests fulfilling a prophetic function; there were sapiental prophets, like the Pharisees and the Essenes; and there were popular prophets divided into two types: the oracular prophets and the leadership prophets. The oracular prophets tended to be solitary, and warn of impending doom whereas the leadership prophets promised salvation and attempted to initiate new liberation movements. What makes John the Baptiser such a striking figure is that he managed to unite both of the popular prophetic types; he warned of doom but he also gathered followers. Furthermore, he bears some striking resemblances to sapiental prophets like the Essenes, and he was born of a priestly family, so it could be said that he is the culmination of all the major types of first-century prophecy.
As a follower of John, Jesus continues to combine the oracular type with the leadership type. As a leadership prophet Jesus, with his followers, acted out the great return from exile, showing that Israel was being reconstituted through a new exodus; and as an oracular prophet he was urgent, itinerant, and warned of a near total annihilation that was fast approach Israel. Furthermore, it seems likely that Jesus modelled his ministry on the whole range of Old Testament prophets from Micaiah ben Imlach, to Ezekiel, to Jeremiah, to Jonah, to Amos, and especially to Elijah and Elisha. Where John is the climax of first-century prophecy, Jesus is seen as the climax of the entire prophetic tradition.

This brief survey of Tom Wright's position provides a fairly solid foundation from which to explore the various perspectives that contemporary scholars bring to the study of Jesus as prophet. The distinction between oracular and leadership prophets is quite helpful, because the two main streams of scholarship today that approach Jesus as prophet tend to emphasise each of those elements respectively. Thus, the first group of scholars we will examine — those who view Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet — have emphasised the oracular elements of Jesus' ministry. The second group of scholars — those who view Jesus as a social prophet — have emphasised the leadership elements of Jesus' ministry. Finally, we will discover that the third group of scholars — those who view Jesus as a charismatic prophet — are the least helpful because they have moved the furthest away from the specifics of Jesus' appropriate context.

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