The Son of Man sayings and the horizons of New Testament eschatology

My last post, arguing against Dale Allison that Jesus’ saying about the Son of Man coming in clouds relates to the vindication of Jesus and his followers after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, elicited a good critique on Facebook. The point made is that there is more to the prophecies than the destruction of Jerusalem and that this “more” never happened. So we need to acknowledge that “the early church was mistaken, both as to the timing and the nature of the return”. Let me address the critique as it is developed. My contention will be that the New Testament language is more coherent and more plausible if we differentiate between two historical-eschatological horizons: the war against Rome and the overthrow of classical paganism.

Can we believe what Mark believed about the coming of the Son of Man?

I’m about a third of the way through Dale Allison’s book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. So far, it’s been an introspective, ambivalent—if not vacillating—but engaging reflection on the difficulty of doing historical Jesus research in a way that is theologically or religiously useful. Here’s one way of pointing out the challenge:

Remarkably, many pew-sitters are happily oblivious of what has been going on in the thinking world for two and half centuries. They have somehow avoided most or even all of the serious intellectual commentary on the Gospels since the Enlightenment. (3)

I think that we need to be doing a lot more to bring the two sides together in a constructive dialogue—the critical scholars, on the one hand, and the practitioners and pew-sitters, on the other. But that’s not the issue I want to pursue here.

What makes us so sure that the harvest is plentiful?

Here’s another proof-text beloved of evangelists: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38; cf. Lk. 10:2). It will no doubt get a good airing in the coming months as the Church of England prepares for a week of prayer for evangelism in May, leading up to Pentecost. It will seem obvious to many that Jesus’ saying is as relevant now as it ever was—he wouldn’t have said it otherwise. The harvest is waiting to be brought in. We just need to pray for more people to go out and share their faith.

But do we have any reason—exegetically speaking—for thinking that Jesus’ words hold true for the situation that we face in western Europe in the 21st century? Should the text be applied in such a simple fashion to our own context?

Putting the apocalyptic back in apologetics

Peter’s exhortation to the “exiles of the dispersion” to be ready at all times “to make a defence (apologian) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) has been a key text for those wishing to promote either a rational apologetics or personal evangelism.

It suggests a slightly passive strategy—don’t push your views on people, but if they ask you to explain or defend your beliefs, make sure you’ve done your homework. Either pack your mental toolbox with some tried-and-tested logical rebuttals to flummox the atheists and evolutionists and secular humanists who push you up against a wall and call you an idiot. Or be prepared to share your formulaic personal testimony: my life used to be a mess, then I met Jesus, now everything is sweetness and light. Either way, do it all with “gentleness and respect”. In other words, keep smiling inanely….

Yeah, but it didn’t happen: prophecy and historical fulfilment

Matt Colvin offers a well thought out rejoinder to my latest attempt to show that John’s account of the fall of Babylon-the-great refers to Rome. The point he makes is a challenging one: John says that the great city will be thrown down by violence and will be found no more (Rev. 18:21). But Rome was not destroyed: it did not suffer the fate of cities such as Nineveh and Babylon, which Matt says were buried in the sand. So if John was prophesying the catastrophic fall of Rome, it was a false prophecy. Jerusalem, on the other hand, certainly suffered utter destruction, so for the sake of saving the integrity of biblical prophecy, let’s stick to the view that Babylon-the-great is Jerusalem.

Babylon the great: all intertextual roads lead to Rome

I was provoked to write this over-long post by a comment dismissing the relevance of Nahum 3:4 for the interpretation of John’s description of the fall of Babylon the great in Revelation 18 as a “tenuous consideration”. I have spent too much time on this matter already and I don’t expect anyone to read the piece unless he or she has a strong interest in refuting may basic position—and even then maybe we’re all getting a bit bored with the topic. It’s just something I need to do…. Humour me.

Anyway, what I have done is set out what appear to be the obvious cross-references for the chapter. The proclamation of the fall of Babylon the great draws extensively on the Old Testament, and the point made here is that nearly all of the passages referenced speak not of God’s judgment on Jerusalem but of the fall or destruction of a powerful pagan city, typically for having defied the God of Israel. To my mind this strongly suggests that John thought he was describing the fall of the city of Rome.

If the means are political, so is the end: Wright and the Jewish message of Paul

In the opening chapter (“Setting the Stage”) of Paul and His Recent Interpreters Tom Wright makes the basic point that our modern culture has separated religion from politics and public life and has confined Paul to the religious sphere. Both in the academy and in the church he is viewed as a proponent of ideas and beliefs—about God, Jesus, salvation, the life of the church, the end times, etc.—that do not directly impinge on those aspects of modern life that would normally be classified as politics, economics, or culture. We are so thoroughly conditioned by this defining premise of secularism that we do not think twice about its relevance for interpreting the New Testament.

“A woman sitting on a scarlet beast”—who is the woman? what is the beast?

Don Preston has been arguing at length in comments on an earlier post against the identification of “Babylon the great” with Rome (Rev. 14:6-11; 16:19; 17-18). One reason he gives for the view is that the great harlot, which is Babylon the great, is not to be identified with the beast on which she sits: “the woman (Babylon) is not the beast, the woman rides on the beast. Babylon sits on the seven hills. It is the seven hills that equal the beast”. He notes, in particular, that “the Beast turns on the woman and destroys her” (Rev. 17:16-17).

Rather, in his view, Babylon the great is Jerusalem. Revelation 17 describes a “partnership of persecution” whereby the Jews incited Rome to persecute Christians. He quotes Gentry: “The fact that the Harlot is seated on the seven headed beast (obviously representative of Rome) indicates, not identity with Rome, but alliance with Rome against Christianity.” Evidence that Jews poisoned the mind of Nero against the Christians in Rome is alluded to. But in the end, Rome turns against Jerusalem and destroys it.

Why we need to let some theological air out of the over-inflated balloon of atonement theory

I recently chanced upon this quotation from a book by Vernon White, Atonement and Incarnation, published in 1991:

The universal claims of the Christian faith are not easy to sustain. It is sufficient merely to spend some time sitting at a roadside café in a busy, cosmopolitan city, watching the world go by. It is a big world, with too many people. It stretches the imagination a long way to think how God could have significant personal interest in every individual.… How are we to imagine our little local Christ event reconciling all that?

I don’t know where White takes this line of thought. Is the failure of the imagination a reason not to believe in a universal atonement? Is he encouraging his readers to explore new ways of making the universal claims in a busy cosmopolitan context? Does he have a better way of believing in “our little local Christ event”?

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