A consistent critique of the Jesus Seminar, even after thirty-five years, is that the scholars of the seminar created a Jesus in their own image. The Jesus they created, the critique goes, is a wisdom teacher congenial to a postmodern agenda who advocates equality, inclusion, and non-violent resistance in solidarity with the poor and presumably in favor of taxes for the wealthy.
The critique is not new. It is taken from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus written in 1906 and first published in English in 1910. In the concluding chapter, Schweitzer states with confidence that the Jesus of liberal Protestantism “who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God” never existed. For Schweitzer, liberalism and the historical Jesus go together, and the death knell of the liberal Jesus was also the death knell of the historical Jesus.
Key to Schweitzer’s critique was his conviction that his liberal predecessors created Jesus in their own image. The followers of Schweitzer have since repeated the same critique over again. When someone raises the Jesus Seminar, the standard charge is that the seminar created a Jesus in their own image.
To Schweitzer and critics who follow in his wake, Jesus was an eschatological prophet who played the end time game and lost.
Perhaps the most serious scholar in this regard is John P. Meier, who suggests that Jesus was an Elijah-like prophet announcing that the coming Kingdom of God would soon bring an end to this present world. It is important to note, in Meier’s case, how he concludes first that Jesus was an eschatological prophet and then, as a second act, he interprets the parables. Meier also incredibly states that if Jesus is not read as an eschatological prophet, then Jesus will be read in any way whatsoever. I wish I had the nerve to say, essentially, that if you don’t agree with me, then no matter what you think, you’re wrong. Despite appearances to the contrary, I have managed to hang on to a bit more humility.
Meier is a good example of the problem of eschatology in historical Jesus studies. Scholars tend to read the parables of Jesus with the assumption that Jesus is apocalyptic. The assumption leads to some incredulity in research. For example, Meier must interpret the mustard seed parable as an eschatological announcement. The mustard seed grows to become a large plant, and the largeness of the plant is the message of Jesus, which is presumably, “God is going to be great, someday.”
A mustard plant, though, is hardly a symbol of power or greatness, and it is not even a decent symbol of growth. It’s more like a joke. The plant is a fragile, spindly shrub that collapses in the fall. A child can crush it underfoot. Seriously, that is the Empire of God?
The gospel writers do not know what to make of the mustard image. In Luke the “shrub” (lachanon) is converted into a “tree” (dendron) because a shrub is too ludicrous as an image. Mark keeps the “shrub” in play but focuses on the growth from a small seed to a spread-out shrub. Mathew can make neither heads nor tails of the parable, suggesting it is both a small seed but also a giant shrub that becomes a tree. No one gets the joke. Everyone wants an eschatological tree or, at the very least, a really big shrub (see Daniel 4:11–12).
A Field of Mustard photo credit V. Keiman Unsplash
In the mustard seed parable, it is eschatology, not postmodernity, that is projected upon the historical Jesus, and the tradition of Schweitzer, rooted in the gospel writers and shared by Meier, freely assumes eschatological apocalypticism for whatever Jesus had to say. Basically, in the school of Schweitzer, if it’s not apocalyptic, it’s not Jesus.
There is yet another problem with projecting eschatology upon the historical Jesus. The eschatological Jesus is conveniently the Jesus of orthodox Christianity and the cultural Jesus of Western history.
We do not need to look further than the crisis mentality at work on January 6, 2021, to see the apocalyptic Jesus in our culture.
Jesus at the Capital Photo Credit Lloyd Wolf
The assumptions that might makes right even when you’re wrong is apocalypticism to its core. Violence is normative in the history of empires, and a non-violent Jesus of wisdom rarely makes an appearance in such contexts. When he does appear, he is very uncomfortable and usually crucified again. Martin Luther King, Jr., is an immediate example to turn to, but there have been others before and since.
The Jesus of apocalypticism is actually the “easy” Jesus, the one who we all know, the Jesus of our own creation very much to our liking. He is the Jesus who likes to wear robes and bless sacraments.
It is disingenuous to critique the Jesus Seminar for creating a Jesus of their affections when, in fact, at the start of the seminar the majority of scholars were in the apocalyptic camp. What they discovered was the very uncomfortable conclusion that Jesus was non-apocalyptic and that to follow Jesus means to change your values in life. Few have been able to do so.
A Marginal Jesus, Volume 2, (Double 1994), 349 and Volume 5, (Yale University Press, 2016), 239.
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