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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.

…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….

Christ Pantocrator, Hagia Sophia

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.

Comments

Really, Andrew? Constantine’s imperialism as the victory of the people of God?

(1) These events occurred several hundred years later– clearly not within the anticipated time of “this generation.” I cannot believe that this is what was originally meant. Your argument looks more defensive than ever.

(2) Constantine’s empire has nothing to do with the restoration of all Israel. In fact, Constantine’s Edict of Milan stripped Jews of many of their rights, including the right to live in Jerusalem and the right to proselytise.

(3) Most importantly, it was not the kind of just rule that we should want to see emulated. It was oppressive and intolerant towards others. Even within the church, it discouraged the open discussion of opposing viewpoints (unlike the developing Jewish rabbinical way of dispute). Christians, allied with the state, began to persecute others. The lambs became the lions. Perhaps I am still too influenced by my Anabaptist heritage, but if Constantine’s victory really represents what Christians were longing for, then I hereby give back my ticket. I don’t want it.

(4) The Constantian ideal will also be (rightly) rejected by today’s feminists. This kind of militant Chrisitanity involves a patriarchal, dominating, colonizing masculinity. This is a regressive ideal and not the healing justice promised or hoped for by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Nor is it an ideal that Jesus imagined his death as Suffering Servant would accomplish. He had hoped that his death would result in God’s justice and vindication (God doing the vindication, not any Christian army). This just rule did not happen and has not happened yet. Although we should continue to work for justice, we also need to acknowledge that the early church (and perhaps Jesus, depending on what we regard as his authentic words) were mistaken in what they expected to occur in their time.

Your preterist theology is certainly preferable to futurist premillennial interpretations. But it does not go far enough in its examination of the history and texts of the early church. Nor does it give an adequate answer to those who are seeking authenticity in their Christian faith. My children require more head-on honesty in dealing with the facts. Perhaps predictions of the destruction of the temple were correct, but God’s positive justice did not arrive. And the mistaken belief of Christ’s imminent return contributed to terribly wrong ascetic and misogynistic ideas. Martyrdom was not only accepted but embraced. Celibacy was encouraged. The Jewish ideal of family and children as God’s blessing was abandoned (Paul never encourages having children. Nor does he view them as God’s blessing. The only fruits that are praised are spiritual, not earthly. If Ephesians is authentic, its Haustafeln ethics require children to obey their parents, and slaves their masters, but that is not a joy of procreation and of family). I believe that Christianity remains true and relevant. But not in this way.

Blessings.
Glenn

Glenn, thanks for engaging. Appreciated.

1. It is Jesus who speaks of events that would transpire within a generation. He was speaking of God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the temple system. As I said in the post, he did not have the conversion of the nations in view. The expectation that YHWH would also judge the pagan world is not tied to the same explicit time frame (because it doesn’t involve “this adulterous and sinful generation” of Israel), though I imagine the early church hoped that it would come sooner rather than later, for obvious reasons. Apocalyptic time frames sometimes have to be stretched, as we see from Daniel 9:24-27. Jesus’ eschatological horizon is quite sharply defined; Paul’s horizon, when he is (hypothetically?) standing on/in the Areopagus, is further away and much more hazy.

2. This is obviously a complicated issue. My own view is that the possibility that Israel would be restored passed when Israel failed to “repent and believe” after the Jewish War. I argue that Paul in Romans 11 has given up any hope that his people would repent before judgment, but still hoped that they would see things differently when they saw that Jesus and his apostles had been right. He did not live to see the outcome. There may have been some repentance (4 Ezra), but “all Israel” did not accept that Jesus was the Messiah after AD 70 and therefore was not saved. So the descendants of Abraham (in Paul’s terms) became a predominantly Gentile people. See my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

3. Again, this is a question of how seriously we want to take history. Just as God’s people existed as a flawed kingdom for hundreds of years until its sins caught up with it, so we might argue that God’s people lived in a flawed relationship with empire for hundreds of years, until its sins caught up with it—and now, in the west, lives in a flawed and disappointing relationship with secularism. We are all Anabaptists now and look back on Christendom as a bad thing, but that’s how things were for 1500 years, whether we like it or not, and if you’re looking forward from the position of the early church, in historical terms it was exactly what they were looking for: an end to persecution, public vindication, the overthrow of the old pagan gods, and the confession by the nations of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. Inevitably, then, the church saw itself as a priestly people serving the one true God, now acknowledged as sovereign by the kings of the earth, as in the mosaic of Leo VI.

4. No one’s saying that Constantinianism is an ideal or model for the church today. This is history, and history doesn’t stand still. Your argument here is anachronistic. Christendom is simply what happened, and if we get off our idealistic high horse and accept that the biblical God works with his people in the midst of the sinful messiness of history, I think it’s reasonable to see it as the “fulfilment” of New Testament hopes regarding YHWH and the nations. Jesus’ died for the sins of his people so that there would be new life through the Spirit after judgment. His resurrection was understood by his followers to portend his eventual judgment of, and rule over, the nations. I don’t think my argument discounts the core New Testament narrative in any way provided we allow that the language has the same down-to-earth, concrete historical realism that it has in the Old Testament. My personal belief is that ultimately the creator will make all things new—he will put everything right. But until then, we just have history.

Ironically, we are both arguing for historical integrity in dealing with the texts. For you it means admitting the early church got it wrong. For me it means admitting that, particularly as post-enlightenment believers, we have tended to idealise our theology to the point that it has no real reference to actual historical experience.

Your argument, finally, about martyrdom, asceticism and misogyny seems to me to miss the point entirely and to lack any sense of historical context. Paul is not describing normal Christian life. He is teaching a community of believers how to live under persecution and ostracism. He expected the church in Corinth to face a day of fire when their commitment to Christ and to the new future proclaimed in the gospel would be put to the test (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15). The New Testament church is everywhere a martyr church, at least potentially—communities that were prepared to suffer with Christ in order to be glorified, vindicated, with Christ. It was how the victory over the pagan imperial order would be achieved. And indeed, that’s what happened.

Andrew, you almost persuade me not to be a Christian. I am reversing Agrippa’s statement to Paul (Acts 26:28).

1. I agree that Jesus is reported as saying that these events would occur within a generation. But it is “all these things” that are expected to take place before the generation passes away (Matt. 24:34). “All these things” must include the previous verses of the sign of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory, and “all the tribes of the earth will mourn.” I believe it also includes the following verses. Your attempt to separate destruction of the temple from other events is contrary to the text. The gathering of the elect is surely more than the saving of (some) disciples during the destruction of the temple, but the expectation of justice for God’s people.

1. I strongly object to your view that the Jewish nation lost its chance of salvation after the Jewish War (I assume you mean 66-73 AD, the time of the destruction of the temple, or the First Jewish-Roman War that you refer to on p. 3 of your book, and not the later Bar Kokhba revolt). These ideas about the Jewish nation are:

a) Unhistorical in that they ignore the tensions within the church between the original Jewish views of the Jerusalem church (including the original disciples and Jesus’s brother James) and Paul’s universalizing message. These tensions continued well after the destruction of the temple. If Margaret Barker is correct, the Book of Revelation was written to counter Paul’s views. Other NT texts, including the Gospels, which were written after Paul’s letters and after the destruction of the temple, also display this tension.

b) Unhistorical in that the division between “Jews” and “Christians” was not complete until several centuries after the destruction of the temple. Daniel Boyarin’s book “Border Lines” is excellent here. References to “the Jews” in the John’s Gospel reflect an intra-Jewish dispute and not a separate Jewish nation. It was the heresy hunts several centuries later that defined and delineated borders that had not previously existed.

c) A narrative that has contributed to anti-Semitism within the church. This is something for which the church needs to repent. Your preterist theology seems to continue this slander against the Jews.

d) Unhelpful in that it de-emphasizes the political meaning of the gospel in favour of some spiritual message that “the Jewish nation” rejected. In doing this, it also carries with it a regressive view of justice and politics. Contrary to what you state, the early church was not looking forward to a future “flawed” justice or to a “messy” kind of history. On the contrary, they were looking for an enduring, eternal justice that would end the messiness of history. Nor can Constantine’s empire be considered “exactly what they were looking for.” It may have ended persecution for some, but it instituted persecution against others. Who was vindicated? Certainly not the Jewish people, who were differentiated and discriminated against. And only some Christians were victors. Others were denounced as heretics. This is a justification of the victors, of the strong over the weak. It became a new kind of domination and oppression. To affirm that these things were actually good will only contribute to the same kind of continuing oppression and injustice today. The Constantine confession of Jesus as Lord is a matter of spiritualized belief that is contradicted by the actual practice of the church at that time.

2. Your many adjustments to the expectations of the church seem similar to the adjustments made in astronomy to maintain a Ptolemaic worldview in the face of Copernican discoveries. There are simpler and better explanations, but they will cause an equally radical revolution in traditional theology. Your preterist theology does not go far enough.

3. Yes, the church has “extended” the time frame for its expectations. But that does not deal with the consequences of the original expectations being mistaken. This goes to the heart of the meaning of Jesus’s martyrdom on the cross, the meaning of ‘Messiah’ and the meaning of ‘salvation.’

4. These mistaken expectations brought about “Christian” ascetic, misogynistic and anti-family values that have continued along with these revisions to the time frame. These have to stop, but you skate over these issues. There were other Jews at the time who did not follow Jesus, but who also experienced persecution and martyrdom. They did not draw these conclusions. They continued to emphasize the importance of children, sexuality, and family.

5. Any narrative needs to be grounded in historical fact. In my view, you are confusing the history of the early church with our own experience of history. You and I probably agree that history is messy and uncertain. But the early church was idealistic, and hoped for a justice that would break into time in a sudden way, “like a thief in the night.” Apocalyptic was not viewed as gradual. You seem to be imposing your (our) gradualist views of justice on the texts. I don’t think that that is a fair reading.

Thank you for your extended responses, but it seems that we are too far apart for a continued discussion to be fruitful.

Blessings.

Glenn, thanks again for taking the trouble to explain your perspective. By all means ignore what follows, but for the benefit of others who may be reading this exchange I don’t want to leave the charges and criticisms unanswered.

The gathering of the elect is surely more than the saving of (some) disciples during the destruction of the temple, but the expectation of justice for God’s people.

Jesus says that the Son of Man will send his angels to “gather the elect”—that is, those whom he has chosen to proclaim the message of the coming kingdom to Israel and to the nations (Mk. 13:27; cf. 13:20, 22). This dispersed group, having fulfilled its mission, will be regathered. The scope of the saying is quite limited. The language is symbolic, as is the language of the preceding verses.

I strongly object to your view that the Jewish nation lost its chance of salvation after the Jewish War…

This is not what I said. I said that the Jews did not repent and believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah after the war, therefore the “possibility” envisaged by Paul—that judgment would be followed by restoration—passed, and history moved on.

Unhistorical in that they ignore the tensions within the church between the original Jewish views of the Jerusalem church (including the original disciples and Jesus’s brother James) and Paul’s universalizing message.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I don’t see the relevance of this. However complicated relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians remained throughout the next few centuries, it still seems a pretty secure historical fact that “all Israel” did not change its mind about Jesus after AD 70.

A narrative that has contributed to anti-Semitism within the church. This is something for which the church needs to repent. Your preterist theology seems to continue this slander against the Jews.

It’s not a “preterist theology”. I’m very sensitive about this. It’s a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament—a reading that attempts to give full weight to the historical outlook and horizons of Jesus and the early church. Any resemblance to preterist theologies, real or fictional, is entirely accidental.

But this line of argument bemuses me. I don’t see why exegesis should be made subject to our modern concerns about anti-semitism. My argument about Romans 11 is simply that Paul, writing before AD 70, still held out the hope that his people would repent of their unbelief and be grafted back into the rich root of the patriarchs. Judgment came and went in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and over the next couple of hundred years the divisions between Judaism and Christianity slowly solidified, a process driven as much by the Jews as by the Christians (Boyarin). I fail to see what is offensive in that. What the church subsequently did with the New Testament texts that address the disagreement between Jewish believers and Jewish non-believers is regrettable, of course, and should be repented of, but that’s another matter.

Unhelpful in that it de-emphasizes the political meaning of the gospel in favour of some spiritual message that “the Jewish nation” rejected.

Well, here’s another irony. I argue unfailingly that the gospel is a political message, aimed squarely at the corrupt leadership in Jerusalem, on the one hand, and at the ruling powers of the pagan world, on the other. I argue that the gospel proclaimed by Paul was exactly the gospel of second temple Judaism: that YHWH was about to judge and reconstitute his people and establish his own rule over the nations. Paul differs only in that he was convinced that YHWH had given Jesus, the crucified Messiah, the authority to execute this rule. This is certainly not a “spiritual message” somehow at odds with larger expectations about “justice and politics”.

On the contrary, they were looking for an enduring, eternal justice that would end the messiness of history.

I think that is a misreading of the texts. Both the Old Testament and Jewish apocalypticism look for the rule of Israel’s God in the midst of the nations in history. Some apocalyptic texts, like Revelation, foresee a final cosmic renewal that will bring history to an end. My argument is that the New Testament follows the contours of the Old Testament and Jewish expectation much more closely than we typically think.

Your many adjustments to the expectations of the church seem similar to the adjustments made in astronomy to maintain a Ptolemaic worldview in the face of Copernican discoveries.

My basic argument here is that Paul’s eschatological horizon was considerably wider than Jesus’ eschatological horizon. That seems perfectly reasonable historically. The view from the Areopagus was not the same as the view from the Mount of Olives. It’s more complicated than traditional eschatology, which simply dumps everything at the end of history. But that complication gains us, in my view, the sense that Jesus and the early church were addressing, with prophetic realism, their immediate historical contexts.

These mistaken expectations brought about “Christian” ascetic, misogynistic and anti-family values that have continued along with these revisions to the time frame.

The church may have made the mistake of treating Paul’s historically and eschatologically conditioned teachings as normative, but the answer to that is not to reinterpret Paul to suit our modern predilections. The answer is to tell the whole story—including the transition from the apocalyptically conceived condition of the early church to the settled social context of Christendom.

But the early church was idealistic, and hoped for a justice that would break into time in a sudden way, “like a thief in the night.”

Where does the New Testament connect the “thief in the night” motif with the establishment of a final justice?

Apocalyptic was not viewed as gradual. You seem to be imposing your (our) gradualist views of justice on the texts.

No, apocalyptic is not gradualist, but Jewish apocalyptic has in view real historical outcomes, and history generally does work in a rather more complex and gradual fashion than apocalyptic-prophetic language suggests.

Really friend you want the text to support your idea of God and what is just, just like every group which refuses to hear but would rather dictate.
Jesus, the second Adam is a life giving Spirit, how is that realized see 1John or Rev. 22 but please note that outside the city it’s sin and death for any who would remain in their sins.
Judgment and destruction on Israel and her city to end one covenant, life from spiritual death to all and any who wash their robes in the blood of the lamb.
Your narrative reeks of post Hiroshima justification, seeking a justice that humanity will never realize, simply multiply special interest groups.