Which way did he go? The coming of the Son of Man and the theology of crisis

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Two papers by the same person given at the SBL International Meeting in London this week cut across each other in a rather alarming fashion, in my view, creating a dangerous hermeneutical intersection, with the risk of a serious theological pile-up. Well, yes, that’s overstating it, but the two papers, when juxtaposed, certainly give some insight into the nature of the tension between a dogmatically driven theology and newer perspectives on the New Testament.

In his first paper Alexander Kirk looked at how Paul makes allusion in Romans 9-11 to salient moments of crisis in the Old Testament in order to account for what God is doing in Israel in the present. He highlighted two types of crisis: first, “Annihilation Averted but Judgment within Israel Deferred” (Exod. 32:30-35; Num. 14:11-38), which underlies Paul’s argument in Romans 9:1-13; secondly, “God is Faithful in Preserving a Remnant” (1 Kgs. 19:1-18; Ezra 9:1-15), which underpins Romans 11:1-5). Kirk provided methodological warrant for this by citing Richard Hays’ definition of the figure of speech known as “metalepsis”, which “functions to suggest to the reader that text B should be understood in light of a broad interplay with text A, encompassing aspects of A beyond those explicitly echoed”.1 All very good. I wish I had a copy of the paper.

But it seems to me that Kirk then abandoned this excellent approach in his second paper, which was a defence of the traditional understanding of Jesus’ statement to Caiaphas in Mark 14:62 that he would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. Kirk set out to refute what he took to be the three main premises of the contention of France and Wright that it is absurd to interpret this as a reference to the visible return of Jesus at the end of time: i) that “coming with the clouds of heaven” is a metaphor drawn from Daniel 7 for the vindication of Israel; ii) that  parallel language in Mark 13:26 has in view the destruction of the temple as the vindication of Jesus’ mission; and iii) that reference to an end-time event in mark 14:62 “would involve either a false prophecy or an unwarranted de-historicizing of Jesus’ prediction.

The paper was well argued in a flawed sort of way. It certainly highlighted some problems with Wright’s interpretation, but I don’t think I heard anything to make me change my view that Jesus uses this language to construct a narrative about the vindication of himself and of his disciples through public events in the foreseeable future. Sadly, Wright himself wasn’t in the session to offer a rebuttal.

The point I would make here, though—not least in light of Kirk’s earlier paper—is that we can make very good sense of what Jesus is saying if we suppose that he is doing exactly what Paul does in Romans 9:1-13 and 11:1-5. That is, he draws metaleptically on a type of crisis found in the Old Testament in order to account for and interpret momentous events that would take place within a generation.

Daniel 7 is a visionary and symbolic account of the clash between Israel and an overweening pagan power that sought to suppress worship of YHWH. Three savage beasts emerge from the chaos of the sea and “devour much flesh”. They are powerful kingdoms that consume other peoples. A fourth beast arises, more terrifying than its predecessors, and makes war against the “holy ones” (7:8). This is a historical crisis that threatens the integrity and survival of the people of God.

At this point thrones are set, the Ancient of Days takes his seat, the fourth beast is killed and its body burned in the fire that issues from the throne of God. Then the Son of Man figure comes with the clouds of heaven. He is given dominion, glory and a kingdom, “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:14 ESV).

I will set aside for now important questions about the identity of the Son of Man figure and his relation to the “saints of the Most High”, which he somehow represents. What I want to consider here is the direction of the Son of Man’s travel. The traditional interpretation of Jesus’ words has the Son of Man coming downwards from heaven to earth. The view of Wright and France, on the other hand, is that the Son of Man travels upwards from earth to heaven in order to be vindicated and enthroned.

But Daniel stresses the fact that he “kept watching” the conflict between the beast and the “holy ones” (7:8-9 LXX) “until thrones were set”. The conflict is taking place on earth, so presumably the thrones are set up on earth, in the midst of the crisis and for the purpose of passing judgment on the crisis. There would be no need for thrones to be set in place if this were happening in heaven, because God already has a throne in heaven; and a heavenly throne would not need wheels (7:9 Masoretic text). We are not told that the fourth beast or kingdom is transported to heaven in order to be judged and destroyed; and if the Son of Man figure stands for the persecuted saints of the Most High—as is certain in my view, however Jesus may later have adapted the symbolism—these saints are being persecuted on earth.

The whole scene is played out on earth, in the midst of the crisis of the covenant provoked by the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes, the arch opponent of YHWH, to eradicate Jewish covenantal distinctiveness. God intervenes to put things right.

The only real difficulty with this reading is the detail of the “clouds of heaven”. If this is all happening on earth, why does the Son of Man figure have to travel on the clouds? My suggestion would be that although the throne of the Ancient of Days has been set on earth, it is regarded still as creating a “heavenly” environment, with myriads of angels in attendance (7:10). Also the clouds naturally serve to associate the “saints of the Most High” with YHWH, in contrast to the beasts which emerge from the sea.

So if we take Kirk’s “crisis theology” approach, I think that we have to ask this: what sort of crisis might Jesus have had in mind that could be explained metaleptically by reference to this earlier, analogous situation? For the language to be at all meaningful he must have envisaged a situation in which a pagan aggressor threatens the existence of Israel, resulting in a massive crisis of faith within the community of Israel and the persecution of those who chose to remain faithful to YHWH under these extreme conditions. This is exactly the crisis that was acted out over the next forty years—and it is very difficult not to put two and two together and make four.

What I think Jesus affirms—to his disciples, on the one hand, and to Caiaphas, on the other—is that in the midst of this crisis God will act to vindicate both himself as the first martyr, the firstborn from the dead, and the community that would be persecuted for his sake. This is not to say that there is no divine descent-and-deliverance motif present in the accounts of the parousia in the New Testament, only that this is not what the Son of Man symbolism is about.

  • 1R. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 20.