Back to Square One: Weiss on Jesus' Apocalyptic Kingdom Message
|Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)|
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).
Weiss and Schweitzer changed all that, and their work sparked a series of crises in biblical studies and theology that marked the beginning of 20th century theology. The effects of this revolution continue to this day, though I would argue the older liberal-historical type of reading continues to thrive in certain circles as well, for example among some proposals authored or inspired by the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and 90s.
As with the earlier scholars, so too with me: My first encounter with the apocalyptic Jesus instigated my own crisis of sorts, goading me to pursue graduate studies in theology. I will always partially praise (or perhaps blame) a political philosophy professor for his offhand remarks about Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus and about the problem of "myth" in the Gospels for my decision to enter seminary rather than soldiering on in my little part-time job as a burglary reporter at The Birmingham News (that's Alabama, folks, not the UK). Before long, I had worked through Schweitzer's Quest and then his other major Jesus book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, and before long I was reading one of his books on Paul. Then I was reading Tillich and Teilhard, and on it went.
Bultmann himself found Schweitzer's conclusions to be too extreme and considered Weiss to be the more seminal figure in the field. Weiss (1863–1914) taught biblical criticism at three major German universities -- Göttingen, Marburg, and Heidelberg -- and died as the shock waves from his work were still cresting across the Protestant academy. Bultmann wrote this about Weiss' impact:
When I began to study theology, theologians as well as laymen were excited and frightened by the theories of Johannes Weiss. I remember that Julius Kaftan, my teacher in dogmatics in Berlin, said: "If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossibleto make use of this conception in dogmatics." (Jesus Christ and Mythology, Scribners: 1958, p. 13).
The situation changed dramatically in the decades that followed:
Today (in 1958) nobody doubts that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one -- at least in European theology and, as far as I can see, also among American New Testament scholars. Indeed, it has become more and more clear that the eschatological expectation and hope is the core of the New Tesament preaching throughout (ibid.).
Though I've read a decent amount of Schweitzer's work in Christian origins, I had never read the original text that proved so important in Bultmann's development -- namely, Johannes Weiss' groundbreaking tract, Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. As it happened, I grabbed this book at a church tag sale a while ago, so I thought I'd write a post or two carefully working through the text. The editors of my edition indicate Weiss's work, despite its historical importance, was relatively neglected by the early 1970s. I don't know whether that is still the case, though I do know that the winds of historical Jesus scholarship have shifted in recent decades among a number of the Third Questers, and also that critical research on apocalyptic eschatology has achieved crucial advances. Still, I like old books, and often find they understand newer ones better. So please join me -- ad fontes! -- as I hope to explore in future posts one of the classic texts that spurred a theological revolution more than a century ago.