Home>Willibald Beyschlag

Willibald Beyschlag

Professor of Theology at Halle | German Idealist

New Testament Theology: Historical Account of the Teaching of Jesus and
of Primitive Christianity according to the New Testament Sources



“The common error..  of conceiving the parousia as a single historical event instead of the whole course of Christ’s victory and triumph over the historical world, dominates also the writer of the Apocalypse. But this error marks simply the necessary limits of prophecy, which Paul describes in the words (1 Cor. xiii. 12): “Now we see (in our prophecy) through a glass in a riddle, but then face to face.” To see the things of the future face to face is granted only to the after life ; to him who looks forward the future appears only in the mirror of the present ; the symbol of the future hovers before him in the signs of his time. Hence the conflict of Christian history and the hope of eternal victory were to the writer of the Apocalypse symbolically reflected in the confusions of his time ; and if he saw close at hand the eternal triumph of the kingdom of God, he simply erred in the same way as Isaiah or his greater post-Exilic successor, the former of whom expected that the Assyrian oppression and deliverance from it, and the latter that the Babylonian captivity and deliverance, alone separated them from the Messianic salvation.”


“But the Pauline view gave way to the Jewish Christian expectation when the tolerant policy of fifty years was changed into a fierce hostility against the Church of Christ, and so there was revealed in Rome the beast with the iron teeth ” of the Book of Daniel. This change appeared in the Neronic persecution of the year 64. The monster who sat upon the throne of the Roman world, the murderer of his brother, his mother, and his legal wife, the incendiary of his own capital, in order to turn away popular indignation from himself, inflicted on the Christians in Rome the most frightful tortures, which surpassed the horrors of Antiochus Epiphanes, and the news of which convulsed Christian circles everywhere. Now they recognised the last enemy, that final fruit of hostility to God which must call down from heaven the Judge of the world. And thenceforth the signs of the times were crowded together in a remarkable way. Three years after the beginning of that persecution, insurrection broke out in the East and West at the same time, in Gaul and in Judea, and its flames laid hold of Rome also ; Nero perished forsaken by all, and with him ended the Julian race ; the framework of the Roman Empire cracked at every joint. And at the same time the iron Vespasian encompassed rebellious Jerusalem ; the judgment of God which Jesus had predicted for the city in which the prophets were murdered, and which the Christians viewed as the beginning of the judgment of the world, was in sight. How could Christian prophecy at such a moment doubt that the coming of the Lord was at the door ? All the signs of it seemed to be present. And the story which ran through the excited East, that the monster Nero was not dead ; that he had fled to Parthia, and would soon return with an immense army, and take vengeance on apostate Rome (Tacitus, Hist. ii. 8), furnished the prophetic fancy with the most expressive figure for the personal Antichrist, in whom one looked for the concentration of Rome’s opposition to Christ. Nero redivivus in his dying and his miraculous revival, the distorted, dœmonic counterpart of the dead and risen Son of God, must be the Prince of the world, who as Satan’s instrument would bring about the final conflict between the divine and its opponents, and call down from heaven the judgment of the world. These are the facts and feelings of the time from which the Apocalypse of John proceeded, and by which it is to be explained.” (pp. 349,350)

“It is not hard to reckon which Roman king, that is, emperor (for the East called the Roman emperor king), is meant ; five, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, have been, the sixth is, that is, Galba, under whose rule, therefore, the seer writes ; a seventh is to come, and continue for a short space, presumably Vespasian, in whom the author, writing in the East, might already perceive the next ruler. But the ” beast” is the eighth as well as one of the seven, that is, one who was, and is to come again, the Nero redivivus of current expectation, whose march of vengeance from the Euphrates, in covenant with the ten kings against the revolted Rome, is fancifully described in chap. xvi . 12-21. It may be said that the clearness of this explanation leaves nothing to be desired, and that all other attempts at explanation as contrasted with it are arbitrary, feeble, and lifeless. Even in chap. xiii., where it first appears, we have the same twofold meaning of the beast as an emblem of the Roman Empire and of Nero.” (p. 351)

“In the same way may be solved the riddle of the number 666, which the author propounded, at the close of chap. xiii., as the ” number of a man,” that is, a number whose letters yield a man’s name. The two interpretations most worthy of notice are \aтeîvoч and nerón caesar, according as we take the number as written in Greek or Hebrew letters ; and presumably both are right. The author undoubtedly sought a double allusion in the number, which in itself was symbolical, for six is the antithesis to the sacred number seven, and 666 is therefore the intensified opposition to the Holy One ; there is an allusion to the universal dominion of Róme, and to the person of the Emperor Nero, just as in chap. xvii . Now, if this be the key to the riddle of the Apocalypse, it is manifest that the author has erred in his interpretation of the signs of the time. The crisis of the years 68-70 passed without issuing in the judgment of the world, as the seer imagined : Nero did not return from hell, and Jesus did not come down visibly from heaven.”  (P. 352)

“At this point, then, the seemingly invincible difficulties of the eschatological discourses of Jesus become acute, and appearances strongly favour the view that Jesus, seeing the judgment of God coming upon Israel and Jerusalem, and having reason to expect it within a generation, conformed to the Jewish view of the world, and contemplated the catastrophe of Judaism in immediate connection with the catastrophe of the world. But though such a view would be conceivable in a national Jewish prophet who considered Israel and Jerusalem the pivot of the history of the world, there are very weighty reasons against it in the case of Jesus, apart from dogmatic considerations. First, that well-attested saying, which as a confession of Messianic ignorance is proof against suspicion of later falsification : ” The day and the hour knoweth no man, not even the Son” (Mark xiii. 32 and parallels). This saying cannot be reconciled with the other which stands naively beside it, “This generation shall not pass away till all these things shall be fulfilled,” by making it mean that Jesus disclaimed only the power of fixing the year or the day, but approximately placed it within a generation. “

§ 4. The Final Picture Of The Judgment Of The World (Vol 2, 193)

A gloomy picture of the history of the world in its closing stage forms the foreground to this promise of the parousia. A distress unequalled will immediately precede the second coming of Messiah (Matt. xxiv. 21). The disciples of Jesus will be hated by all the world for His name’s sake ; the unrighteousness of the world and the oppression of believers will reach their climax (Matt. xxiv. 9, 12). The love of many disciples will wax cold; they will go astray, and hate and betray one another (Matt. xxiv. 10, 12). Others will fall into fanatical errors; false prophets and saviours will appear, seeking to win faith for themselves by signs and wonders, and will declare the return of Christ the end of time, so that if it were possible even the elect must be deceived. But they are not to believe these fanatical assurances, not even regard as signs of the end of the world the universal convulsions in the history of the world, wars, earthquakes, and pestilence. One sign alone is sure, that the gospel must be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations, that the message of salvation must do its work in the world of history (Matt. xxiv. 4, 7, 14). In those days will God’s attitude towards His Church appear like that of an unrighteous judge who refuses to do justice to a poor, shamefully persecuted widow. But the Church, like that widow, should not desist from importuning the eternal Judge, who will at last be moved to procure her help suddenly (Luke xviii. 1-8).

So will the day of the Lord be delayed for the waiting and persecuted; but at length it will come suddenly, for the days of the great affliction will suddenly be shortened for the elect’s sake (Matt. xxiv. 22). It will come when it is least looked for, as a thief in the night (Matt. xxiv. 29, 43 ; Luke xii . 39, 40). It will break upon the Jewish people while they are in the hottest persecution of the disciples of Jesus (Matt. x. 23). All at once, the abomination of desolation will appear in the holy city, as predicted in the Book of Daniel (Matt. xxiv. 15), and will announce the fall of the desecrated Jerusalem; for ” wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together,” the vultures who tear it to pieces (Matt. xxiv. 15, 28). [We are reminded of the events in Palestine which followed one another in the years between sixty and seventy, the persecution in which James the Just and others fell a sacrifice, the scenes of uproar and party slaughter in Jerusalem and the temple, and the Roman eagles which completed the judgment on the nation which had morally become a corpse. It will break upon the world at the very moment when it feels most secure, as the Flood came in the days of Noah, and as the rain of fire in the days of Lot. Men will be planting and building, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, when all at once the judgment will fall on them (Matt. xxiv. 37, 39 ; Luke xvii. 26 f.). And so the second coming of the Lord appears as a sudden catastrophe in the world and in history, which redeems those who are ready but devours those who are not ready, even though they belong to the Church (Luke xvii. 32 f.; Matt. xxiv. 40-42),—a catastrophe in which those only stand who with singleness of heart seek for the salvation of their souls, and who do not look back like Lot’s wife on the earthly things which they have to leave (Luke xvii. 31,33; cf. Matt. xxiv. 16). [The exhortations which Matthew interprets literally, and refers to the flight of the Christians in the siege of Jerusalem, were probably at first meant in the symbolic sense in which Luke xvii. has strikingly repeated them.] But however sudden this catastrophe may be, it will be quite manifest and unmistakable. The Church should not therefore put any faith in fanatical assurances that Christ is here or there, in the desert or in an inner chamber (that is, in a corner), because His actual coming to judgment will be as powerful and startling as when ” the lightning flashes from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. xxiv. 25-27). The sun and moon will pale before ” the sign of the Son of Man ” appearing in the heavens; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Matt. xxiv. 29, 30); the sea and the waves will roar, and an unspeakable suspense will seize men regarding the things that are coming (Luke xxi. 25, 26). And then will they all see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, attended by His holy angels, in His power and glory, and will beat their breasts in the consciousness of their guilt as they recognise in Him their Judge (Matt. xxiv. 30 ; Mark xiii. 26 ; Luke xxi. 27). But He will send forth His angels with loud sounding trumpets to gather His elect from the four winds, not merely the living, but— as the trumpet with its awakening call signifies—those also who sleep in the bosom of the earth (cf. 1 Thess. iv. 16); for then shall be gathered the whole Church of the elect to share in His kingly glory, and be united with Him in judging the world (cf. Matt. xix. 28 ; Luke xxii. 30 ; 1 Cor. vi. 2, 3).

§ 5. The Destruction Of Jerusalem

The thoroughly poetical character of this picture of the. end of the world is clear as day. It is not history such as ever has or will take place in bare fact; it is ideal history evolved from the idea that the contrasts of good and evil, wheat and tares, must ripen in the world, and that when the opposition to God in the world has reached its climax, the judgment of God must break out over it. And yet this conception, which alone is true to the nature of all genuine prophecy, gives rise to doubt, for in Christ’s discourses the epic of ideal prophecy is mixed up with the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem. Have we not here the prediction of a definite historical event, and must we not regard the whole as a foretelling of actual history. [Mark has indeed (ix. 1) changed the words—offence manifestly being given by them ; but even John xxi. 22, 23 must be taken as an echo of them.] And if we are compelled to take it thus, is not the whole prediction false, as the destruction of Jerusalem took place without involving such a universal disturbance of the history of the world, and especially without bringing with it the judgment of the world ?

It cannot honestly be denied that the first evangelist has identified the catastrophe breaking upon Israel in the years between sixty and seventy, with the last affliction and the crisis of the crisis of the history of the world, and has attached the immediate signs of Christ’s return to judge the world with a evdea>s fierd to the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. xxiv. 16, 21, 29); and if Mark and Luke strive to relax somewhat this connection, they only show how embarrassed they were by the picture furnished in their common source. Moreover, Jesus also (Matt. x. 23) incontestably makes the return of the Son of Man coincide with the historical catastrophe of the Jewish nation; in Matt. xvi. 28 there is likewise given a saying of Jesus, which in its natural sense directly assures some of the listening disciples that they will live to see His coming again to judgment (ver. 27);    and, finally, in. the three repetitions of that great eschatological discourse, the words appear: …genea… (Matt. xxiv. 3 4 ; Mark xiii . 30 ; Luke xxi. 32). In accordance with this, as we may see from the whole New Testament, the early Church expected the Lord’s return within a generation, and even hoped themselves to see it (cf. Jas. v. 3, 9 ; 1 Pet. iv. 7 ; Rom. xiii. 11; 1 Cor. vii. 29 f., xv. 51, 52 ; Rev. i. 1, xxii. 12, etc.). At this point, then, the seemingly invincible difficulties of the eschatological discourses of Jesus become acute, and appearances strongly favour the view that Jesus, seeing the judgment of God coming upon Israel and Jerusalem, and having reason to expect it within a generation, conformed to the Jewish view of the world, and contemplated the catastrophe of Judaism in immediate connection with the catastrophe of the world. But though such a view would be conceivable in a national Jewish prophet who considered Israel and Jerusalem the pivot of the history of the world, there are very weighty reasons against it in the case of Jesus, apart from dogmatic considerations. First, that well-attested saying, which as a confession of Messianic ignorance is proof against suspicion of later falsification : ” The day and the hour knoweth no man, not even the Son” (Mark xiii. 32 and parallels). This saying cannot be reconciled with the other which stands naively beside it, “This generation shall not pass away till all these things shall be fulfilled,” by making it mean that Jesus disclaimed only the power of fixing the year or the day, but approximately placed it within a generation. Though the editor of the prophetic sayings in Matt. xxiv., Mark xiii., may have in this way quieted himself about the contradiction, an interpretation of day and hour so insipid and so alien to the prophetic style is inconceivable in the mind of Jesus. The conjecture rather forces itself upon us that the two declarations, which exclude each other, referred originally to two different objects of prophecy, the words, ” day and hour knoweth no man ” to the time of the judgment of the world, the words ” this generation will not pass away ” to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus elsewhere deals very differently with the two future events. He says most decidedly of the judgment of God on Jerusalem, ” it will come upon this generation” (Matt. xxiii. 36). It is to Him essential that the generation which will fill up the measure of the sins of the fathers, will also have to taste the full measure of the divine wrath (cf. Matt. xxiii. 34-39; Luke xi. 50, 51, xiii. 1-9, xxiii. 28-31). But He Himself speaks quite differently of the end of the world in Matt. xxiv. He warns against hasty expectations; He insists that wars and rumours of wars, and the rising of one people against another, by no means signify that the end is near, and He only allows one fact to be seriously regarded as a sign of the end, viz. that the gospel has been preached to all nations. Did He confine the accomplishment of that world-wide task to one generation ? We have express evidence of the contrary. In the Parable of the Vineyard (Mark xii. 1-12; Matt. xxi. 33-46; Luke xx. 9-18) it is said in conclusion, “The lord of the vineyard will miserably destroy those wicked men, and commit his vineyard to others who will render him the fruits in their season,” that is, to the Gentiles, or the Christian Church detached from the Jewish commonwealth. And in the Parable of the Marriage Supper of the King’s Son, which immediately follows in Matthew, the rejection of the gospel on the part of the Jewish authorities passing into open hostility, and the divine judgment which that calls forth, are described in words which unmistakably allude to the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. xxii. 7). But after the punishment of the ” city of murderers ” the end, the judgment of the world does not follow, but messengers are sent forth anew to call in the people from the streets and lanes, that is, the Gentiles, instead of the unworthy guests ; and only after this has been done, and the house is full, does the king come in to see his guests and expel the unworthy; that is, only then does the judgment of the world begin. According to this, the spirit of Jesus clearly saw beyond the near judgment of God on Judaism, not the immediate end of the world, but a growing history both of the world and the Church, the greatest fact of which should be the calling of the nations of the world to the kingdom of God. But if that is so, how are we to explain the traditional form of His utterances about the parousia as set forth above, which fix His second coming within one generation ? and how are we to explain the view held by the whole apostolic age ?

§ 6. The Parousia As A Historical Process

The consideration of this question may perhaps lead us deeper into the understanding of the thoughts of Jesus about His second coming. The synoptic tradition has preserved to us a remarkable saying of Jesus before the Sanhedrim which does not fit into the conception of His second coming as following close upon the destruction of Jerusalem:

(Matt. xxvi. 64 ; cf. Mark xiv. 62; Luke xxii. 69). In the first place, these words put beyond doubt what we might have supposed from their prophetic style and their derivation from Dan. vii. 13, that the second coming of Jesus in the clouds of heaven is not a visible coming from the visible heavens. The coming in the clouds of heaven would no more be seen with the bodily eye than His sitting at the right hand of power. But as the … (whose meaning is also confirmed by Luke) refers assuredly to both the participles dependent on …, Jesus here describes His coming in the clouds of heaven as something of which His deadly enemies are to become sensible, “henceforth,” that is, immediately after His apparent defeat, as something that from the time of His death is to affect the whole history of the world. When His judges and murderers, the authorities of Israel, are compelled to note a few weeks after His death that their victory was but a seeming one, that He who was ignominiously slain by them lives and rules from heaven, and that He has returned with spiritual power to the world from which they fondly imagined they had expelled Him for ever, then would they see Him coming in the clouds of heaven, and sitting at the right hand of power. This idea of His second coming, so startlingly prominent in this passage, the thought of it as a triumphant return to the world which had expelled Him—a return beginning from His death and advancing from victory to victory—may not, perhaps, have been so clearly and distinctly before the soul of Jesus from the first. The thought of His second coming in glory was called up in His soul by the other thought of His shameful death, and so it may have appeared to Him as belonging to an indefinite but not a remote future, and embracing, though under a veil, all that should come after His death to perfect His work on earth; and many of His prophetic words above alluded to may have been conceived and spoken before this new thought had fully taken shape. But as He revolved this idea in His mind, and the historical fulfilment of it came nearer, it became more fully developed and more distinct, so far as that is possible in a prophetic view; the indefinite point extends into a line in which a beginning and an end with something lying between may be distinguished. In other words, Jesus comprehended the realisation of the kingdom of God, which is generally represented by the prophets as momentary, like a flash of lightning, rather as a process of growth, a historical development; and according to the same law He consciously viewed also the future completion of His work as a course of history, achieved not in a single act, but in an advancing series of acts. Testimonies to this may be found also in addresses to the disciples only inferior in importance to those last words before the Sanhedrim. The repeated proverbial statement, ” Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together,” manifestly expresses a general law which is fulfilled in the history of the world, not once but again and again ; and the way in which Jesus (Luke xvii. 37) answers the question of the disciples, irot), Kvpie, that is, where will Thy coming to judgment be ? with this general law, gives the meaning, wherever there is anything ripe for judgment. With that agrees, further, His speaking of the days of the Son of Man in the plural (Luke xvii. 22). The rjfiepai Tov viov Tov dvdpa>irov, of which the disciples in their future applications would fain see even one, cannot, according to grammar and context, be the past days of the Messiah on earth, but must be the future judicial rjfiepa in the plural. And this attests the presentiment of Jesus, that more than one judgment day of God and of His anointed is coming ; that the future history of the world will be filled with such epochs, in which the triumphant glory of the Son of Man, and the impotence and nothingness of all world-powers coming into conflict with Him, will be made clear. Certain main elements of that future course of history must now have stood out prominently in the consciousness of Jesus; the triumphant issuing of His life from death, and its immediate entrance into the life of His Church; further, His triumph in the world, Judaism breaking down before Him on the one hand, and heathendom opening itself to Him on the other; lastly, the final overcoming of all powers opposed to God, of evil and death, and the setting up of God’s eternal kingdom. All these essential elements of His triumphant progress, in which, stage after stage, the world opposed to God is judged, were wrapped up as in a seed in Jesus’ simplest view of His coming; all could be conceived and predicted under this one name. But, under the conditions of all prophecy, each stage was not seen as something apart, they were felt and described as so many phases of the whole according to the suggestion of the moment. And this made the description necessarily imperfect, and even the sense of words was not always the same.” (201)

The Apocalypse of the Gospels

1. Authenticity And Difficulties

These very difficulties have recently driven men to the declaration that a great part of these eschatological discourses of Jesus is not genuine. It has become a favourite assumption among critical theologians that especially the prophetic discourse in Matt. xxiv. and its parallels did not in large measure originate with Jesus Himself; it is a short apocalypse, which, arising in the troubles before the Jewish war, was attributed to the divine (Luke xi. 49), and so to Jesus Himself, and thus came to find a place in the Gospels which were then taking shape.1 This hypothesis has really nothing to support it; that short apocalypse is a mere production of the critical imagination; no evidence of its existence can be found. But even if it had existed it would still be inconceivable how in a circle possessed of a first-hand tradition of Jesus’ words Jewish predictions of quite recent origin could at once have been accepted for genuine sayings of Jesus, and been incorporated into the Christian Gospels then being formed. The essential contents of the great prophetic discourse, Matt. xxiv., Mark xiii., Luke xxi., belong to the original document common to our Gospels, which must have been composed about the beginning of the Jewish war (cf. Mark xiii. 14; Matt. xxiv. 25). Other prophetic sayings, contained in the first and third Gospels, manifestly sprang from the apostolic collection of sayings, and therefore the descent of the synoptic prophetic addresses from Jesus’ own lips is certified on as good authority as the Parables of the Kingdom or the Sermon on the Mount. The difficulties which they present to us in their traditional form must be solved in another manner and by other means than by cutting the knot, which, besides, would not remove all difficulties. They must be solved, above

1 For example, Keim, Leben Jesu, iii. 199; Pfleidcrer, Urchristmthum, p. 402 f.

all, by remembering the peculiarity of all prophecy, and by considering how imperfect must be the prophet’s own view and expression, and how imperfect also must be the hearers’ comprehension and report of it. We must apply to the predictions of Jesus what Paul says of the necessary limits of all prophecy (1 Cor. xiii. 9-12); it is not a seeing face to face, but a seeing in a glass; from it, therefore, no perfect knowledge can spring, nothing but a child’s thought in comparison with a man’s. Even He was, in regard to the future, a prophet looking in order to learn, not God who knows all; and this He Himself expressly acknowledged in the words, too little considered, ” The day and the hour knoweth no man, not even the Son, but the Father only ” (Mark xiii. 32 ; Matt. xxiv. 36). The prophet does not see the shape of the future development, but only its idea and ideal truth; and even this he does not see as an abstract thinker, but as an inspired poet; he sees it in emblem and image, or rather, in a changing series of images, always in a riddle, as Paul says. An artist who paints the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment knows that his form is unreal, but takes it as the only form in which he can represent an idea which he believes to be true; and the prophet is subject to the same law. And if he does not write his visions down, but tells them, as Jesus did, on various occasions, and using different images, to disciples who are children in apprehension, it is evident that, however faithful the disciples are, the repetition will lead to new imperfections and errors. These errors may be corrected to-day, and the ideas contained in the images may be known, but the actual facts of the future we can no more describe than Jesus Himself could.

Train Of Thought From Chap. i.-ix.

The marvellous structure of the book unfolds itself from this standpoint. First of all, we now understand the ” speedily,” which runs through the book from its first sentence to its last (i. 1, xxii. 20), and which it is the grossest perversion to interpret into ” within a thousand years.” Further, the seer writes of things which he expects as near at hand, not, of course, to gratify curiosity, but to prepare Christendom for the last and hardest conflict. Hence the introductory vision and the Epistjes to the seven Churches. The seer dedicates his book to the seven Churches which are in ” Asia ” ; that is, in Western Asia Minor, near to which he himself undoubtedly dwelt, and in which, as representative of the whole of Christendom, he sees its condition as in seven different colours. The exalted Christ, ” who walks among the seven golden candlesticks, and holds the seven stars in His right hand,” the Lord of the Church (i. 16), has given him this revelation for the seven Churches, and impresses it on each of them in a special Epistle (i. 1—3, 22). After this introduction the seer translates his readers to the higher world, which, in spite of contrary appearances, has in its power the destiny of the earthly and historical ; he shows us the glory of the eternal God in heaven throned above the cherubim, the symbol of creation praising God, surrounded by the four and twenty elders, presumably the representatives of the Old and New Testament Churches of God, and celebrated by the united songs of both (chap. iv.). In the right hand of God lies a book with seven seals, the final course of the world’s history not yet unfolded ; no one can open it but the Lamb, which, as slain and yet alive, and endowed with the symbols of spiritual omnipresence and royal power, stands midway between the throne of God and the worshipping creatures ; the Saviour of the world slain in sacrifice and raised to divine glory, who, as Saviour of the world is also its Judge, can alone open the seals of the future, that is, carry out the decrees of God to the end (chap. v.). The Lamb opens the first six seals, and each time at His call its meaning in history appears. The preliminary signs of the world’s judgment, which have already begun, appear in these six seals ; and of them it is said (Matt. xxiv. 6-8) : ” All these are the beginning of sorrows.” First, we have a vision of riders copied from the sixth chapter of Zechariah. The first rider on a white horse, with bow that can send its arrows far, is perhaps the symbol of the universal mission of the gospel in its course of victory (Matt. xxiv. 14). The others on a red, a black, and a pale horse, signify war, famine, and pestilence, mournful signs of the government of Caligula and Claudius, of which also Matt. xxiv. 6, 7 reminds us. As the contents of the fifth seal appear a multitude of martyrs, who cry to heaven for vengeance, without doubt the symbol of the Neronic persecution ; as the contents of the sixth a mighty earthquake appears, the natural image of the political earthquake of the year 68, when, with the death of Nero and revolution everywhere, the Roman Empire seemed to be falling in pieces (chap. vi.). This brings us to the time of the seer, and his seventh seal contains the last things, which were still future for him. But before it is opened, the storms of the end, desiring to break loose, are restrained for a moment, in order to comfort the elect of God on earth about all the fearful things that are coming ; the twelve times twelve thousand servants of God, that is, the full number of the people of the New Testament covenant, are sealed. A second picture immediately added shows what that means; an innumerable company of conquerors stand triumphantly around the throne of God singing praises ; “they have passed through great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb ” ; that is, sanctified by Christ’s blood, they have passed victoriously from the last conflict to eternal glory. This, and not an outward preservation in the coming great tribulation, is the meaning of the sealing ;  it is the symbolical presentation of the thought of Jesus (Matt. xxiv. 22), that the elect cannot possibly be overwhelmed by the terrors of the last day. And now the seventh seal is opened : it again unfolds in seven trumpets, the signals, the immediate signs of the judgment of the world. The prayers of the saints on earth are in heaven converted into fire of the divine wrath against their oppressors (viii. 3-5), and so a series of penal judgments break over the impenitent world at the trumpet blasts of judgment, which—still in the future even for the seer— could only be described in a purely fanciful form as monstrous events of nature and of history. The first four trumpets bring terrible phenomena of nature ; the fifth, after the Old Testament example (Joel ii.), a plague of locusts ; the sixth, an inroad of barbarians fierce as fiends, a Scythian invasion of the cultivated world (chap. ix.). Before the seventh and last trumpet, the seer again pauses. It again should be divided into seven thunders, into the seven thunderbolts of the world’s judgment ; but these thunders are ” sealed up and not described.” Instead of that there is given to the seer a little book opened to devour ; that is (cf. Ezek. iii. 1-3), a new summary of revelation is given for him to appropriate, pleasant to receive, but hard to master. In this remarkable and obscure phrase the seer probably means to mark his passage from the prophecy, with its numerical symbols, to another and a freer form. He must leave that scheme of symbolic seven, because he could not in that form clearly and suitably express the circumstances and events of the immediate future which he had at heart, and so he makes a new start.


He begins by introducing the parties concerned in the final history. In the first place, he is careful to announce the special fate of Israel in the approaching catastrophe of the world’s history. The Roman legions were already treading the Holy Land, and surrounding Jerusalem ; the eyes of Christendom were turned to the fortunes of the city. Hence the seer in the eleventh chapter anticipated the future of Israel from the siege of Jerusalem up to the catastrophe of the world’s judgment. The outer court will be given up to the heathen, not the sanctuary ; that is, probably, the outer form and constitution of the Jewish nationality will be broken up, but not the kernel of the nation and its religious character. On the contrary, God will send two great preachers of repentance, another Moses and Elias, to call the people to repentance. These will indeed fall a sacrifice to the “beast,” the Antichrist, who is to appear ; but God will gloriously raise them from death, and then, in a second penal judgment (the ” second woe,” the first was under Vespasian and Titus), the greater part of the nation will be converted immediately before the last trump, that is, before the appearance of the catastrophe of the world’s judgment, and with it the ” third woe ” (xi. 14-19). The seer applies his thought to the world only after this separate prophecy about Israel, in which, of course, he anticipates in a measure his universal revelation of the future. In the first place, he sketches the two main powers opposed, between whom must fall the final decision of the world’s history : the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of the old dragon, the prince of this world. The first, conceived in forms taken both from Old and New Testament, is presented in the image of that star-crowned woman, who is clothed with the sun of divine revelation. She has given birth to the Messiah, against whom the old dragon has risen to devour Him : he has not succeeded, the child of God has been caught up into heaven, and Satan cast down from heaven. Hence the decision between God and Satan has already in principle been reached ; Satan has been hurled from his heavenly throne by that which Messiah has done on earth, especially by His suffering and death (xii. 11); the dark power which accuses man day and night before God, the power of evil that rules the world, is essentially conquered. But on earth the power of him who has been cast out of heaven is still, for я short time, great, and he gives vent to his rage at his ejection in persecuting the kingdom of God and its members, the brethren of Jesus (chap. xii.). As instrument of this rage he calls forth from the abyss the counterpart of the woman clothed with the sun and her divine Son, the ” beast,” which means at once the Roman Empire in its complete hostility to Christ, íind its wicked head, the returning Nero. The thirteenth chapter pictures the time of terror that is at hand under this Antichrist ; his world-wide power, his blasphemous self-deification, his cruel persecution of the children of God, his union with the lying prophets, that is, the seductive arts of heathen wisdom and magic ; finally, the enforcing of His divine worship aud its emblem, the mark in forehead and hand. But—the fourteenth chapter continues—the Church of the chosen hundred and forty and four thousand stand on the mount of salvation closely gathered round their Saviour, the name of their Lord and their heavenly Father in their forehead, and sing a song of victory which none but the elect can learn. They come forth from the last tribulation spotless, with virgin purity, amid all the temptations of the world, victorious over all its terrors in following the Lamb of God. When antichristian wickedness and the oppression of the Church reach their height, the judgment comes. In the remainder of the fourteenth chapter this thought is impressed upon the readers in every way both for warning and comfort ; by calling on the whole world to repent, by announcing the first act of judgment to be executed on Babylon or Rome, by a sharp warning against following the tyranny of the Antichrist, and by extolling those who resist unto blood. Whereupon the judgment of the world itself, the return of the Son of Man with sickle and pruning knife, is announced in figures taken from the corn and wine harvest; and in connection with Isa. Ixiii., the wine-press in particular, with its crimson juice, is employed as the emblem of the slaughter that is to be expected. But all these are merely incidental hints ; the real picture of the world’s judgment begins with chap. xv., and with it the prophetic poet turns back to his solemn scheme of seven. The history of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt serves him for a poetic example. While Christians stand on the shore of this new Red Sea, the sea of the revelation of divine wrath, and sing the triumphant song of victory, ” the song of Moses ” translated into that of the New Testament, the streams of divine wrath in seven vials are poured over the kingdom of the antitypical Pharaoh, the Antichrist. The first five vials repeat the plagues of Egypt in an intensified form. But the sixth bears a new and peculiar character; it represents the enormous military expedition from beyond the Euphrates, which was undertaken by the kings of the East in the service of the Antichrist of Nero redivivus, against apostate Rome ; and the seventh vial of wrath under the image of a fearful earthquake, with lightnings,—the emblem of a world-wide catastrophe, already employed in vi. 12 f.,—brings the expected destruction by burning of the capital, which is the revenge of the incendiary Nero. The seventeenth chapter dwells on the execution of this first act of the world’s judgment, and shows the full reason of it in the shameless image of the great courtesan, and at the same time gives the readers hints for understanding it; and the eighteenth, following Old Testament examples, pictures the lamentations of the world over Rome’s perished glory. With the nineteenth chapter these lamentations give place to a song of jubilation over the victory of the kingdom of God on earth ; for now the kingly Christ on a white horse comes forth from the opened heaven with His heavenly hosts against the Antichrist triumphing over Rome, and in the decisive slaughter already announced (xiv. 19, 20), the hosts of Antichrist are annihilated, but he himself with his lying prophets are taken captive and thrown into the hell of condemnation. That is the second act of the world’s judgment : in place of the world-kingdom which was opposed to God appears the victorious kingdom of Christ, the Messianic dominion of the world, which is to endure a thousand years, and to comprehend all faithful members of the militant Church, both those who are alive and those who are to be raised from death. But even this thousand years’ kingdom of Christ is not the completion. The evil one is bound during these thousand years, but is not yet annihilated ; the elements of a final attack of the old dragon on the kingdom of God still exist. At the end of the thousand years Satan is loosed, and leads the mythical nations, “Gog and Magog,” from the ends of the earth (Ezek. xxxviii.-xxxix.) against the kingdom of Christ, the ” holy city.” Therefore a third and last act of the world’s judgment is required ; God Himself enters the arena against the old dragon and annihilates him, together with his accomplice death. Then follows the general resurrection of the dead and the final judgment of men, which is again followed by the transformation of heaven and earth, the setting up of the ideally perfect world. The seer hastens rapidly over the thousand years’ kingdom of Christ to this eternal kingdom of the Father (cf. 1 Cor. xv. 28), for the delineation of which he has reserved his brightest colours and his sweetest tones. What has ever been the ideal of faith and hope comes down from heaven to earth, the tabernacle of God among the children of men, the ” heavenly Jerusalem,” and the wonderful b
ook closes with the sublime delineation of this symbol of the blessed fellowship of the redeemed with God.”  (Vol. 2, pp. 356-359)

“Some recent critics, who suppose that the best way of removing obscurities in Scripture is by dismemberment, have sought to change this masterpiece of early Christian prophetic poetry into a patchwork from different hands and times. In one case we have two fragments from the years 66 and 68, which were afterwards supplemented on three distinct occasions, under Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus ; another views it as entirely a Jewish book, to which a Christian writer supplied the seven Epistles, and which he revised with small interpolations; again, a Christian Apocalypse of the year 70, and two Jewish Apocalypses of the time of Pompey and Caligula, have been brought together in one work by a redactor at the end of the century, etc. We may fairly disregard these so-called discoveries of a bewildered ingenuity, because each of the critics in question refutes his predecessor, in order to be immediately again convicted of an illusion by discoveries entirely different. [Cf. the instructive analysis of the Apocalypse in Pfeiderer’s Urchristenthum, pp. 318-355, which rests upon what was at that time the most recent hypothesis of dismemberment, viz. Vischers and my Essay against the treatise of Vischer (Stud.  Krit. 1888, 1).] Even apart from this, a critical hypothesis which makes a book historically meaningless — and every Apocalypse which mixes up different conditions and times is meaningless—is not a solution of any difficulties ; on the other hand, the exhibition of a uniform artistic formation of our book proves the unity of its origin and authorship. No doubt the author of the Apocalypse had his models and predecessors both among the Old Testament prophets whom we know and the New Testament prophets whom we do not know. Both thoughts and forms were at his disposal when an exalted hour of prophetic conception suggested to him, under the influence of the awful condition of the world, the main features of his book. But from this uniform conception he has shaped everything with an independent mind, and with marvellous artistic skill. If the only date which explains all its difficulties is the year of Nero’s death, the year 68, as we think we have proved, then its genuineness is beyond question ; and the only question that remains is as to who the John was who, living in the circle of the seven Churches of Asia Minor, and well known to them, composed it. There is nothing to favour John Marcus (Acts xii. 25), whom some moderns have adopted ; for there is no proof that he was a prophet, or that he had relations with the Churches of Asia Minor, and antiquity knows nothing of his having written anything except the reminiscences of Peter described by Papias. Far more likely is the conjecture of Dionysius of Alexandria, that the author is Johnwho is mentioned in a fragment of Papias alongside of the Apostle John as a personal disciple of Jesus, and who is likewise said to have lived at Ephesus. It may be urged in favour of this that the writer of the Apocalypse does not describe himself as an apostle, but rather seems to count himself among the ” prophets,” and to distinguish himself from the apostles whose names he makes the foundation-stones of the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. xviii. 20, xix. 10, xxi. 14, xxii. 9). All, therefore, who are convinced of the apostolic composition of the Gospel of John, and yet regard it as impossible to ascribe both writings to the same author, gladly fall back on this conjecture of John the Presbyter. Yet it cannot be denied that it has a very weak foundation. It is a hypothesis, and not a tradition ; it conjectures a man of whom, apart from his existence, we know next to nothing ; while the sojourn of the Apostle John in Ephesus belongs to the best attested facts of Christian antiquity, and it is opposed by the unanimous tradition, which, even in its Patmos legend, describes this apostle as the author of the Apocalypse. It is particularly difficult to accuse of error and misunderstanding the testimony of Justin, who lived so near the time, and of Iremeus, who was so well instructed by his teacher Polycarp about the apostle. It cannot be maintained аs impossible that the Apostle John, when he spoke as a prophet, should reckon himself among the ” prophets,” and yet that he should be so proud of the immortal privilege which the Lord had bestowed upon him in receiving him into the number of the Twelve, as to see in spirit his name written on one of the twelve foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem. The difference, both in language and mode of thought (the latter especially in prophetic things), which undeniably exists between the two writings has more weight with one who cannot gainsay the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel. Yet a man of such historical and literary taste as Karl Hase regarded it as possible to conceive both as productions of the same man at different stages of his life ; and even Baur has insisted on a certain affinity between the Apocalypse and the Gospel of John. The difference of language is to some extent explained by the difference of the poetic and the historical style, and especially by the effort of the writer of the Apocalypse to imitate many solemn Hebrew formulas in Hebraic and incorrect Greek ; besides, it is easy to understand that a native of Palestine, transferred from Jerusalem to Ephesus, would write a purer Greek after twenty years’ sojourn among the Greeks than in the first years of his settlement. But as to the different mode of thought about prophetic things, it may be asked whether the destruction of Jerusalem and the period which followed, disappointing the early notion of the parousia, might not have urged such a man as the Apostle John to a reconstruction of his prophetic ideas, to a new and more spiritual understanding of the Lord’s words about His second coming, such as we have in the farewell discourses of the Gospel and in the first Epistle, as compared with the Apocalypse. Yet the contrast between the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel is hardly so great as that, for example, between Goethe’s first drama and his Iphigenia, and yet the same man wrote both at different stages of his life. The Apostle John, whether judged by the Apocalypse or by the Gospel, was, at any rate, one of the profoundest minds of early Christianity, and the meagreness of our knowledge of this extraordinary personality must  restrain us from questioning his ability on this or that side. For all that, the difference between the Apocalypse and the rest of the Johannine writings is so great, and the question of authorship so unsettled, that we must consider them for biblical theology separately, as even though the author should be the same, they give expression to a different view of the world. And this makes the question of authorship of little importance for our present task.

The poetic and prophetic character of the book involves that we are not to seek in it developed doctrinal ideas, but only intuitions—for the most part symbolical. For that very reason it is impossible for anyone to expound the Apocalypse aright without some poetic feeling and taste. For the true prophet is a true poet, only he is not moved by his own ;esthetic ideas, but by religious ideas sent to him from God : and the writer of the Apocalypse in particular, as the whole arrangement and execution of his work shows, is a poet of the most magnificent and conscious kind. But exegesis has sinned against him to an incredible extent, and at the same time has accumulated unanswerable riddles in his book by always taking in sober earnest the forms of poetry. Nevertheless, important and peculiar doctrinal ideas are implied in the symbolico-poetic views of the book, and still more in its occasional dogmatic indications. ” (Vol. 2, pp. 359-362)




William Rainey Harper
“New Testament Theology.  Historical Account of the Teaching of Jesus and of Primitive Christianity according to the New Testament Sources. By DR. WILLIBALD BEYSCHLAG, Professor of Theology at Halle. Translated by REV. NEIL BUCHANAN. T. & T. Clark, 1895.

Professor Beyschlag in this, as he tells us, his life-work, treats of the teaching of Jesus according to the synoptists and according to the Gospel of John ; the views of the first apostle, according to the Acts, the epistles of James and Peter ; the Pauline system (flesh and spirit, Adam and Christ, God and the world, the establishment of salvation, the way of salvation, the life in the spirit, the Christian church, the consummation of the kingdom); the theology of Hebrews ; and Johannine conceptions. In this review we are concerned only with the author’s presentation of the teaching of Jesus. The contemporaneous Judaistic didactic ideas are in no way “indispensable to the understanding of the teaching of Jesus …. quite apart from the fact that we have not sufficient sources at our command to gain a clear conception of the state of pre-Christian ideas of the time.” Is the teaching of Jesus, or the doctrine about Christ, Christianity? The author occupies a mediating position as to this question, maintaining that the teaching has for its background a unique self-consciousness, the incomparable significance of his person, the latter rather than the teaching as such, accomplishing the founding of the kingdom of God. Jesus did not come into the world to preach the kingdom of God simply, but that there might be a kingdom of God to preach.

But what is meant by the kingdom of God, or of heaven? “The kingdom of God in the perfect original order of things which has its home in heaven, in order to come down thence and realize itself on earth, — that ideal condition which humanity and history are to reach, that God may in his inmost essence, as eternal spirit and holy love, fill all and condition all that is in the world,” p. 43. Its historical root was theocracy imperfectly realized in the land of promise, more vividly in the view of the prophets as the ideal picture of the future, but a theocracy the hope of whose realization on earth sank lower and lower, till Israel’s eyes were raised to heaven in the hope of seeing what they longed for coming thence. There is a striking contrast between the conceptions of the kingdom held even by John and Jesus. John makes the kingdom act immediately in the way of blessing or condemning; ” his preaching demands conversion, but only demands it, and therefore drowns the sweet sounds of promise by the thunders of approaching judgment.”

Jesus regards it from the first as his mission not to condemn but to save. Not the axe and the fire and the winnowing fan, but the condescending love of God, in virtue of which the spiritually poor may become divinely rich, is, rather, the characteristic trend in the Master’s thought. The apparent contradiction between the view of the kingdom as at hand and as yet to be, Beyschlag resolves at length by reference to progressiveness and growth. As to the personal relation of Jesus to the idea of the’ kingdom, he was conscious of bearing in himself personally that very thing which he desired to set up in the world. What, then, was Jesus’ thought of himself ? From the beginning of his public ministry he was conscious that he was the Messiah.

This was the presupposition of all his preaching, but he did not utter the name, nor allow others to do so, till a late period. The motive for this remarkable procedure is to be found in the gulf that lay between the popular idea of the Messiah and his own Messianic consciousnesses well as between the popular idea of the kingdom and his own. ” If Jesus from the first had thrown the exciting name among the people, he would have called forth the most fatal misunderstandings and excitements.” He must first beget a purer, higher, more spiritual idea of the Messiah, in the mirror of which he might be recognized as the Coming One. But, avoiding the name Messiah, he gave in lieu thereof the name Son of Man. How is this to be interpreted ?

By this term Jesus did not mean to describe his human nature, nor to declare thereby that his human existence is miraculous, a form of existence not original to him (against Meyer), nor to set himself forth as the ideal man (against Schleiermacher, Neander, Reuss), nor to show that nothing human was foreign to himself (against Baur), nor to emphasize thereby his being a son — referring to the seed of the woman — the protevangel (against Cremer); but he meant by this expression, furnished him by the well-known passage in Daniel, that he was “the God-invested bearer of the kingdom that descends from above,” l., p. 67. But not this name, but the name Son of God leads us into the heart of the self-consciousness of Jesus.

As the name Son of Man designated his office and calling, so the name Son of God designated his personal consciousness. He is God’s beloved and God’s likeness. He was conscious that he was Son of God before he knew himself to be the Messiah.

Jesus regarded the divine sonship as resting on inner moral likeness to God, but in his case unique because absolute. Yet, inasmuch as the Son of God cannot be God Himself, we should not in any way confuse the name Son of God with the later name ” God the Son,” uttered in the doctrine of the church, —
a name which sprang from an entirely different world of ideas. Jesus had no feeling of consubstantiality with God. His was a purely human consciousness, — yet sinless. What was Jesus’ thought of God ? Beyschlag controverts the position of Weiss (N. T. Theol. l., p. 64) that Jesus had no new idea of God to announce, as his God was simply the God of the Old Testament.

One of his apostles made his whole gospel consist in the revelation of a new and perfect idea of God (i John 1:5). Jesus first stamped the name Father as one proper to God, and meant to express thereby a purely personal relation that has no equal, — holy love. What was Jesus’ conception of man ? Recognizing the two factors, body and soul, flesh and spirit, Jesus saw in ethical personality man’s capacity for immortality. Jesus presupposes the universality of sin. The best need to be converted. Continuance in sin means the irrevocable ruin of the inner man. What was Jesus’ doctrine of righteousness ? Here the author’s thought is rich indeed, and one despairs of adequately expressing it. God is rAtios in the ethical sense, hence the preaching of the kingdom is a preaching of the way of righteousness. In the teaching of Jesus this exacting side is fuller than even the announcement of grace. He even amended the law of Moses, repudiating parts of it. His ” fulfilment ” of law was didactic. His religious ethics rest on love to God and love to man. In reference to the latter, while the duty of rebuke goes with that of placability and forgiveness, the duty of love to forgive remains even where there is no apology or change of mind. Jesus does not make so much of the former, yet it is the background of all his teaching here. What is Jesus’ doctrine of salvation ? ” Rationalism, in turning back from the doctrine of the church, which was based essentially on Paul, to Jesus’ own plainer gospel, received the impression that this gospel is essentially a system of ethics.” This is not the case, else we had therein, not gospel, but law more penetrating, more cheerless, more exacting than ever. Jesus presented the kingdom of heaven as salvation. The doctrine of righteousness merges into a doctrine of salvation. The way of salvation through calling and election, conversion and forgiveness, sonship and sanctification, is worked out at length.

As to the saving significance of Christ’s death, Beyschlag has no comfort for the traditional dogmatists. On Matthew 22:28, he remarks: …. “The traditional doctrine of vicarious satisfaction, as may be readily conceived, is imported into these words the more confidently, that it for once finds here the indispensable drrl peculiarto it, which is wanting in almost all the rest of the New Testament.” This is best explained by the image of redemption from slavery,- in this passage slavery to sin. Jesus cannot have thought of paying the debt of death due by others, by enduring death for them, because by the presupposition that God neither can nor will be gracious or forgive without a Xtfr-fov, he would have destroyed everything he had up till then taught of the free grace of God, and the forgiveness which depends only on the sinner’s return,” pp. 152 ff. The author’s chapters on the church are of deep interest, but we refrain from remark, save to note that Jesus came not simply to redeem the individual, but society.

Space will not permit our following the author farther. We return in conclusion to his point of view. He properly expects New Testament theology to rejuvenate dogmatics. But it seems to us that, while his own contribution is masterful and real indeed, his treatment of the subject is colored by his own dogmatic preconceptions. To this criticism he replies, however, in his preface. ” History is not chronicles,” he says, ” but living reproduction of the past, and therefore must be to some extent subjective.” This is of course true ; and his biblical theology does not merge into biblical dogmatics, as has been charged. But at times his allusions to systems of doctrine are more than incidental, — so much so that “the scientific impartiality andobjectivity of his historical account” is disturbed by them. Apparently, e.g. he goes out of his way to oppose the Ritschlians, pp. 6-8. G. B. F.” (The Biblical World)

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Date: 13 Jun 2009
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