Wednesday, September 2, 2015

II Baruch, "Soon" Eschatology, and Grace and Works

I read II Baruch recently for my daily quiet time.  Scholar A.F.J. Klijn in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha dates II Baruch to the early second century C.E.  It is a Jewish work.  I have two items about II Baruch: one about “soon” or “near” eschatology, and the other about grace and works.  My quotations of II Baruch will be from Klijn’s translation.

1.  Many New Testament scholars have maintained that early Christians, and even Jesus himself, believed that the end was near.  This can pose a challenge to Christian believers because, two thousand years later, the world continues to go on.  A question that I would ask, though, is “How near is near?”, or “How soon is soon?”

In II Baruch 82, Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, is writing to the lost tribes of Israel.  Baruch affirms that “the end which the Most High prepared is near,” and that “the fulfillment of his judgment is not far.”  In II Baruch 83, Baruch states that “the Most High will surely hasten his times.”

Here is the problem: Baruch lived in the sixth century B.C.E., during the ministry of Jeremiah and the fall of Jerusalem.  II Baruch was written in the second century C.E., about eight centuries after the time of Baruch.  II Baruch depicts Baruch, during the sixth century B.C.E., telling fellow Israelites that the end is near, when the author of II Baruch knows fully well that the end will not occur for at least eight centuries.  How near is near, in II Baruch?  Well, at least eight centuries!

There are a variety of considerations when it comes to II Baruch.  Could the author of II Baruch have actually been addressing his own contemporaries in the second century C.E., encouraging them that the end was near?  Well, he was, but, in the story that he tells, Baruch in the sixth century B.C.E. is telling fellow Israelites in that time that the end is near.  Eschatology in II Baruch should probably also be unpacked.  I will not do so here, but it does seem to me that II Baruch, in some sense, treats the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. as connected with the end times.

Then there is the question of the relevance of my observation to the New Testament.  When Jesus and Paul appeared to preach imminent eschatology, did they believe that “near” or “soon” could encompass a lot of time?  I have my doubts that this was the case, but I do admit that, later in the New Testament, there was some attempt to redefine “soon” in light of the passage of lots of time.  II Peter 3 seems to explain the delay in the Lord’s coming by saying that God is not slack, but that a day in God’s eyes is like a thousand years.  According to II Peter 3, what is “soon” to God is not necessarily what is “soon” to us.

2.  In II Baruch 63, we read that grace came upon King Hezekiah of Judah.  Yet, the chapter also says that “Hezekiah trusted upon his works,” and that God “paid attention to [Hezekiah’s] prayers for he was righteous.”

Hezekiah received God’s grace, yet he was trusting in his own good works, plus God heard Hezekiah because of Hezekiah’s righteousness.  This would probably puzzle evangelicals, especially the ones who define grace as God’s unmerited favor, or who distinguish receiving God’s free grace by faith from trusting in one’s own good works for salvation.  In my opinion, these evangelicals are faithful to the spirit of Paul, who drew a firm distinction between grace and reward for good works.  For Paul, trusting in one’s good works to become right with God is trying to make God indebted, and it is conducive to boasting (Romans 4:2, 4).  Grace, however, is something that God gives to people, even though they do not deserve it.  That’s what makes it grace.

How does II Baruch hold together a belief in God’s grace with a belief that God heeds the righteous?  Well, II Baruch may hold that even the righteous need God’s grace because they, too, sin: they are not perfect, but they try to do what’s right.  Another explanation may simply be that II Baruch defines grace differently from how Paul does: that II Baruch simply sees God’s grace as God’s favor.  This is not necessarily undeserved favor, but it is favor.  And why, in this scenario, for II Baruch, would God favor a person?  On account of that person’s righteousness and good works.

I remember a slight disagreement that I had with people in an evangelical Bible study group that I attended.  Genesis 6:8 states that Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD (KJV).  Some of the evangelicals in this group were interpreting that passage in light of the Protestant teaching that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, not on account of our good works, or righteous deeds.  One person in the group may have even suggested that Noah was no better than his wicked contemporaries—-that Noah was saved on account of God showing him undeserved favor, not on account of anything in himself morally.  But what stood out to me was Genesis 6:9, which states that Noah was just and perfect in his generations.  Noah, I thought, stood out as a righteous man in his violent, corrupt time.

Someone else in the group suggested that Noah was saved through faith, which Noah manifested when he trusted God’s word and built the Ark.  I am cool with that.  I just have issues with the idea that there was nothing about Noah himself that persuaded God to save him and his family.  I do not think that such an idea is consistent with what the text is actually saying.  A lot of evangelicals, in my opinion, like to beat people over the head with what “the Bible says,” when they themselves are projecting their own theology onto biblical passages, even though those passages probably meant something different.  “Grace” in Genesis 6:8, in my mind, probably just means “favor,” without all of the trappings that Paul applied to the term.

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