At the risk of looking like some kind of liberation theologian, I wanted to look at Batstone’s article primarily to learn a little about apocalyptic. I was surprised to find that Batstone did a decent job of making generalizations about the statue of New Testament scholarship at the time of his writing (1992). Additionally, he offers an interesting definition of apocalyptic, a term that has been understood in a variety of ways over the years.
Batstone’s assessment of trends of “apocalyptic” thinking in New Testament scholarship fall under four different dichotomies:
- The Particular versus the Universal
- Time versus Culture
- The Individual versus the Sociocommunal
- A Spirituality of World versus an Aworldly Spirituality
Within each of these categories, Batstone discusses the traps into which some scholarship and modes of thinking have fallen. His hope is to create a picture of the social milieu in which Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. For Batstone, this proclamation was not innocuous religio-speak. Rather, Jesus is revolutionary on both religious and political levels. Modern scholarship has confused its own contemporary categories and modes with those of 1st century Palestine, and this has ultimately led to our understanding of the benign Jesus.
At least, this is how I read Batstone.
Time to Take Issue
First of all, I do take issue with this whole idea of Jesus’ self-understanding (as I have noted in my recent review of an article by N. T. Wright). Batstone concerns himself with these notions of what Jesus thought about himself. I just don’t see how we can get there without resorting to psycho-analysis.
Akin to that particular problem, Batstone generalizes the thought-world of 1st century Palestine. While, in principle, I do think that we can say: “Notion X could not have been thought by people who had understanding Y.” For example: The notion that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths would not have occurred to people who understood the Earth to be the center of the universe. However, there is a lack of evidence for some of these thought-limitations that Batstone proposes.
How exactly do we arrive at the idea that time was not linear for the average Julius Q. Publicus of the Roman Empire? I don’t know. That being said, I am glad to see Batstone call out academics for applying modern categories to ancient situations.
Definition of Apocalyptic
One of Batstone’s goals is to redefine “apocalyptic.” I rather enjoy this rendition:
In sum, apocalyptic was a dynamic medium of spiritual power and life in the social world of Jesus…It offered a way of looking at the world that rejected the dominant powers as the ultimate point of reference for the world and posited another horizon where justice may reign. (395)
Too often we are seduced by the friendly Jesus. The New Testament, however, offers plenty of examples of the fiery, apocalyptic Jesus. In reality, this guy spoke with power, touching topics both social and religious. The Kingdom of God presented a total reversal from the norm—especially as presented in the Gospel of Luke where social reversal (e.g., poor supplants rich) plays such a prominent role.
Batstone has some interesting ideas. I think he’s barking up the right tree in wanting to re-examine apocalyptic. I don’t know his background, but I would assume that he is a theologian who dabbles in history. Though he is widely read, I’m not sure how well-read he is. This is not a knock on him, unless, of course, he is a historical-critic by trade.