I’ve blogged on this topic before, but I’ve recently gotten a few questions on it in email. I decided to revisit it by posting some PDF resources.
Here’s the short answer to “Was Jesus a failed prophet?” Yes, if you don’t understand the idea of conditional prophecy, which occurs frequently in the Bible, and therefore read the New Testament deficiently. (Even shorter: Yes, if you’re ignorant).
When I blogged about this before, I drew attention to Chris Tilling’s post on a new book (now not so new): When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia, by Christopher M. Hays, in collaboration with Brandon Gallaher, Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Richard J. Ounsworth OP, and Casey A. Strine.that covers the subject. Chris introduced his post this way:
So Christians must choose. Either the NT isn’t even somewhat reliable, or Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. In either case this falsifies Christianity ”. So says John Loftus in his conclusion to his essay “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet”, in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Got your attention?
He sure did. Chris goes on to talk a bit about how prophecy is conditional — more than many realize. Lapsed fundamentalists like Loftus, who seem incapable of talking about Christianity in any way other than his caricature of the movement he left, certainly doesn’t know that (and likely has still not read the book recommended by Tilling). When I posted the link to Tilling’s blog, I mentioned conditionality as well. Below are three papers / essays by scholars relevant to this topic. The ones by Chisholm and Pratt specifically address conditionality in prophecy. Chisholm utilizes the work of Pratt, so it may help to read Pratt first. Bauckham’s essay goes a different direction. He points out, using examples outside the Bible, that the idea of “eschatological delay” wasn’t uncommon in apocalyptic literature. So, while something like the delay of the parousia might be upsetting or puzzling to us (because how many pastors actually teach their people about genre and context?), it would have been more familiar to ancient readers and thinkers.