Jesus Didn’t Promise to Return, Bible Scholar Group Says

Times Religion Writer

A group of 30 biblical scholars assessing the most likely teachings of the historical Jesus agreed overwhelmingly Saturday that Jesus did not say that he would return to Earth and usher in a new age.

Predictions of a Second Coming were put on Jesus’ lips by later followers and gospel writers, according to the Jesus Seminar, a controversial but academically mainstream group that has involved more than 100 scholars at one time or another in twice-yearly voting sessions.

The seminar’s stance, which contradicts the Apostles Creed and standard Christian doctrine, was called “heretical” by a fundamentalist pastor who attended the meeting here.

“They’re robbing the church of its blessed hope,” said the Rev. Marion H. Reynolds of Los Osos, Calif. He said the impact of the group cannot be dismissed because “our society tends to place scholars on a very high level.”


However, the seminar findings on the Second Coming reflect what is quietly taught in most major universities and seminaries, said Father Edward F. Beutner, campus minister at Santa Clara University and a seminar member.

“These are not maverick scholars,” Beutner said. “They take a very careful approach to how sayings of Jesus were transmitted and to the evolution of the Bible texts.”

Unprecedented Frankness

Nevertheless, it is unprecedented for biblical scholars to be so frank and public about their views. Seminar leaders admit that they want to be provocative in order to publicize what they feel are standard, modern interpretations, and thus offset what they see as unsophisticated Bible teachings by television preachers and others.


To the proposition, “Jesus expected to return as the Son of Man and usher in the new age,” 26 seminar participants said they “strongly disagreed,” two said they disagreed and two said they agreed.

Seminar member Marcus Borg, who chairs the religious studies department at Oregon State University, said the Gospels depict Jesus uttering words linking the Last Judgment and worldwide calamity with the coming of the Son of Man. Many Christians believe that Jesus will return as the Son of Man.

“The Jesus Seminar thinks he didn’t speak of the coming of the Son of Man at all,” Borg said.

On the other hand, the seminar was virtually unanimous in giving credibility to sayings attributed to Jesus in which he said the kingdom of God was already present in his day.

Jesus would not have made mutually contradictory statements, scholars said. “You can’t have Jesus saying both the kingdom is here and is off in the future,” said Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Graduate Seminary in Tulsa.

The physical return of Jesus is a constant expectation in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Undeterred by mistaken predictions in the past, starting with the Apostle Paul in the mid-1st Century, the only question among conservative Protestants today is “how soon?”

A Miscalculation

Last summer, hundreds of thousands of Christians, particularly in the Bible Belt, believed, debated or scoffed at the prediction of an engineer, Edgar Whisenant, who said Jesus would return in September, 1988. Four million book sales later, and after the September period had passed, Whisenant said he miscalculated.


Most evangelical leaders, evangelist Billy Graham included, assume that Jesus’ return is close but they set no dates, citing a gospel verse saying that no one knows “the day or the hour.” The continuing debate in these circles is over whether Jesus will come after or during Armageddon--or before that conjectured worldwide destruction. The latter position was argued by Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in the February cover story of a magazine for charismatic Christians.

The Second Coming is a rarely heard topic in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. But a 1983 Gallup poll showed that 62% of the general populace had “no doubts” that Jesus will return. Among the 80% in the survey who said they were Christian, four out of five said they had no doubts about the Second Coming.

The Jesus Seminar, a project of the Westar Institute headed here by Robert Funk, invited two conservative scholars to argue the case for the historical reliability of sayings of Jesus related to the Second Coming.

One of them, G. R. Beasley-Murray of London University, now teaching at a Southern Baptist seminary in North Carolina, cited what many consider the strongest argument for authenticity--the presence of Second Coming predictions by Jesus not only in Mark but in all four Gospels.

In addition, St. Paul--writing about 25 years after Jesus’ death and about 25 before the Gospels were composed--refers to Jesus’ return more than once.

But Beasley-Murray observed that he had little chance to sway the seminar on this issue. The Jesus Seminar in earlier votes virtually ruled out the apocalyptic preacher image of Jesus. The seminar has concluded that Jesus did not expect a cataclysmic end to the world, ushering in a new age.

Distance Themselves

Many biblical scholars have distanced themselves from the Jesus Seminar’s unorthodox procedure and from what they see as the potential for driving a deeper wedge between church and scholarship.


Yet, a common premise among New Testament scholars, even non-seminar members, is that the historical Jesus spoke mainly about the kingdom of God, not about himself. But after Jesus’ lifetime, scholars say, the churches speculated about the divine nature of Jesus and thus invented sayings in which Jesus described his identity in terms that included a future role as the “Son of Man.”

Helmut Koester of Harvard Divinity School, a non-seminar member, wrote in his 1982 “Introduction to the New Testament” that, “expectation of the coming of Jesus as the Son of Man seems to be missing from the oldest stages” of traditions about Jesus.

The seminar, in its four years of voting, has decided that “way less than 25%" of the words attributed to Jesus were His, Funk said. At last fall’s meeting in Atlanta, the seminar majority concluded that the Lord’s Prayer did not originate with Jesus (except for some phrases) but was composed instead by the early churches.