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.
…the Son of Man prophecies go further than just the destruction of the temple. They also anticipate the restoration of Israel in a kingdom that shall have no end where the Son of Man would have authority over all peoples (Dan. 7, Ezek. 37).
I agree that the Son of Man narrative has in view more than the destruction of Jerusalem. In fact, I would say that the Son of Man narrative is not really about the destruction of Jerusalem at all. Daniel 12:1 refers to a great “time of trouble” for Israel from which the righteous would be delivered, but the vision of Daniel 7 makes no reference to this. The conflict is between the aggressive pagan king, the little horn on the head of the fourth beast—Antiochus Epiphanes—and the people of the saints of the Most High; and the “coming” of the Son of Man signifies the transfer of dominion, glory and the kingdom from the fourth beast, which has been judged by God and destroyed. So the political, and indeed imperial, power that once belonged to Greece will be given instead to suffering righteous Israel.
But it seems to me, in any case, that Jesus uses the narrative in a more restricted fashion: i) to speak of his own vindication, particularly with respect to the leadership in Jerusalem; and ii) to include his followers in that vindication—he defeats their enemies and sends out his angels to gather them in. He does not make much of the idea that a new Davidic king will rule over a restored people (Ezek. 37), though I take that as implied—for example, in the regathering of the scattered disciples. And he has very little to say about the critical theme in Daniel 7 of kingdom over the nations (Dan. 7:14, 27). Even the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31-46 is really about the vindication of his disciples—“the least of these my brothers”.
That did not happen. It is not a sufficient answer to say that the early church took the place of a restored Israel. Before the temple destruction, there was no distinction Christian/Jew, and the Jerusalem church continued to worship in the temple. Nor was there a Christian victory following the destruction of the temple.
This is where I think we have to take history more seriously. Jesus is barely interested in the nations, but as his followers move beyond the purview of the Synoptic Gospels into the Greek-Roman world, the eschatological horizon naturally expands. For example, Luke has Paul prophesy a coming judgment on the Greek-Roman oikoumenē as part of a wider confrontation with, and critique of, paganism (Acts 17:31). In Romans Paul expects wrath against the idol-worshipping Greeks to follow wrath against the disobedient Jews (Rom. 2:6-10). A blasphemous pagan opponent of YHWH and his faithful people, inspired by Satan, will be destroyed by the breath of Jesus’ mouth when the Lord Jesus is revealed to the world (2 Thess. 2:12). Revelation says of Jesus that he (along with the martyrs) will judge and rule the nations “with a rod of iron”, evoking the claim of the psalmist that YHWH will give his “begotten” Son the nations as his heritage to rule with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15; 20:6; cf. Ps. 2:7-9 LXX).
So a time is foreseen when Jesus will be “revealed” to the pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world, having the authority to judge them and to rule over them throughout the coming ages. I think that Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 45:22-23 in Philippians 2:9-11 brings the same moment into focus—at some point in the future the nations will abandon their idols and confess Jesus as Lord. This, of course, is what happened with the conversion of the peoples of the Greek-Roman world in the centuries following Constantine. Sometimes you just have to put two and two together….
So, yes, I think the political-religious vindication of Jesus did happen. There was a Christian victory following the destruction of the temple. From the perspective of the New Testament this was a victory for a new Jewish-Gentile people, representing in its novel racial and social unity the prophetic conviction that the God of marginal Israel was about to become the God of the whole oikoumenē: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom. 3:29–30).
In fact, the Gospels themselves evidence their embarrassment of a delayed second coming. If your interpretation were correct, that the coming of the Son of Man refers to the destruction of the temple, one would have expected a very different response than we find in John 21:23 (written well after the temple destruction), as to why the “beloved disciple” died before the return of Jesus. Luke adds a “time of the Gentiles” before the restoration of Jerusalem (Lk 21:24). And much earlier, Paul already had to deal with the fact that some had died before the return of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
I’m not sure I see much evidence of concern about a delayed “coming of the Son of Man” in the Synoptic Gospels. In fact, it seems to me that they remain remarkably “faithful” to the temporal frame assumed by Jesus. Luke does not say that God’s people will not be restored until the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”; nor, in fact, does he say that Jerusalem will be restored after this indefinite period. John, no doubt, has a different perspective, and perhaps we are already having to take into account the second horizon of the vindication of Jesus before a sceptical and hostile pagan world. Paul certainly had to manage expectations, but we are in any case still in the time frame envisaged by the Synoptic Jesus.
We would have to admit that the judgment of the nations and the public vindication of the churches in the Greek-Roman world took much longer than the apocalyptic mind of the New Testament appears to have envisaged. But persecution inevitably engenders a sense of urgency and impatience. It does not, in my view, detract from the fundamental validity of the prophecy: it eventually transpired in history that Jesus was confessed as Lord, in the place of Caesar, by the nations of the oikoumenē.