Jesus with an eye on the apocalypse

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Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium By Bart Ehrman Oxford University Press

Bart Ehrman has a sympathetic ear for those who have been predicting the end of the world for 2,000 years. They hark back to Jesus himself, who, according to Ehrman, can best be understood as predicting the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own generation.

Ehrman writes from his perspective as a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Like many of the current biographers of Jesus, he gives attention to the peculiar cultural tensions of the Greco-Roman-Jewish world of Jesus' time. And he makes a historian's attempt to write about Jesus apart from the risen Christ of traditional Christian faith.

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Ehrman's conclusions match Albert Schweitzer's 100 years ago: Jesus' message and acts can all be interpreted under the mantle of apocalyptic prophecy. That is, Jesus was predicting a coming day of judgment, after which God would establish a new era of righteousness on earth.

Ehrman's approach asks this of the reader: Try to read the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, without the theology that John projected onto the life of Jesus or the theology contained in Paul's letters. He summarizes his approach: "Christians were modifying and inventing stories about Jesus, and ... our written sources preserve both historically reliable information and theologically motivated accounts. In light of this situation, the traditions that we can most rely on as historically accurate are those that are independently attested in a number of sources, that do not appear to have been created in order to fulfill a need in the early Christian community (the criterion of dissimilarity), and that make sense in light of a first-century Palestinian context."

Ehrman takes as one kind of proof of his interpretation Jesus' preaching in the book of Matthew, in which the son of man judges those who will enter the kingdom. "What is striking about this story, when considered in view of the criterion of dissimilarity," Ehrman writes, "is that there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. That is to say, the future judgment is not based on belief in Jesus' death and resurrection, but on doing good things for those in need."

He takes as further evidence the fact that "Jesus' ministry began with his association with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet, and ended with the establishment of the Christian church, a community of apocalyptic Jews who believed in him. "

Jesus' ethics, particularly as shown in the parables, showed how one should live now to experience the kingdom of heaven. But even an ethical life here and now was seen as only a foretaste of what life would be like in the coming kingdom, Ehrman maintains.

This book represents a serious and highly readable attempt to interpret Jesus' life based on a knowledge of the context of his times and the written sources in the Bible. As with other new works on Jesus, the reader who is inclined to read one should read several.

*Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor and author of 'Persistent Pilgrim: The Life of Mary Baker Eddy.'

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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