How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

What did it mean to “see” the coming of the Son of Man in clouds?

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When Jesus says that some people will “see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mk. 13:26), does he mean this literally—picking up on a recent comment? Does he expect people to look up to the sky and actually see a human figure descending to earth on a cloud, like Mary Poppins?

But in those days, after that tribulation…

The saying comes as part of the climax to an account of the “tribulation” that will attend the invasion of Judea by the armies of Rome, the siege of Jerusalem, and the eventual destruction of the city and the temple (Mk. 13:5-24).

Jesus says: “But (Alla) in those days (en ekeinais tais hēmerais), after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken (Mk. 13:24–25). The adversative Alla establishes a clear contrast with the preceding disorder, and in particular, the confusion created by “false christs and false prophets” (Mk. 13:21-22).

“In those days” means “in those days”, not thousands of years later. We find the same expression on two earlier occasions.

John the Baptist is preaching about one who will come after him, and Mark says: “In those days (en ekeinais tais hēmerais) Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mk. 1:9).

Later Jesus returns from the region Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee and heals a man who is unable to hear and speak. Then Mark says: “In those days (en ekeinais tais hēmerais), when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them…” (Mk. 8:1). There follows the feeding of the four thousand, and then Jesus gets into the boat and heads to Dalmanutha. The story is all of a piece: “in those days”—this really shouldn’t need saying—binds the events together in a single joined up narrative.

More to the point, Jesus has twice referred to “those days” in the preceding apocalyptic discourse:

And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! … For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. (Mk. 13:17, 19)

There is an allusion here to Daniel 12:1: “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered…” (Dan. 12:1). Josephus finds in this a way of speaking about the war against Rome: “the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were…” (War 1:12; cf. 6:429). This is a story about a crisis facing Jerusalem and the expectation that God must step in to resolve it.

So by the time we get to Mark 13:21 “those days” has already been established in the reader’s mind as a reference to the period of the ill-judged and ultimately disastrous war against Rome. We cannot separate the saying about the cosmic disturbances and the coming of the son of Man from the preceding narrative.

The powers of the heavens will be shaken

The obscuring of the sun and moon is at one level descriptive: the smoke from the burning city will darken the sky. But the allusion is also, of course, to numerous passages in the prophets that speak of judgment on Jerusalem or the nations in the same terms (cf. Is. 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph. 1:15). It’s Jesus’ way of saying that this will be an event of biblical proportions.

The falling of the stars is perhaps a sign specifically that the “powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mk. 13:25). Any such historical event on this scale must have repercussions in the cosmic order. We may perhaps compare the angelic contests described in Daniel 10:18-21.

They will see…

Here Jesus says that “they will see (opsontai: 3rd pl. fut. ind. of horaō) the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mk. 13:26). Later, at his trial before Caiaphas and the Council he will say: “you will see (opsesthe: 2nd pl. fut. ind. of horaō) the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). It may be, therefore, that it is specifically the leadership of Israel, not people generally, that will see the coming of the Son of Man in Mark 13:26.

The verb for “seeing” here is horaō. It normally has the straightforward literal sense of seeing a physical object: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see (opsesthe) him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). But, as in English, it is also possible to “see” something figuratively, with the mind’s eye: “your young men shall see visions (horaseis opsontai)” (Acts 2:17); “I see (horaō) that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). We rely on context to differentiate between the two senses.

Part of the context in this case, of course, is Daniel 7:13 LXX:

I was watching in the night visions, and lo, as it were a son of man was coming upon the clouds of heaven.

Daniel has a different verb for seeing (etheōroun), but what he sees (one like a son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven) comes to him in “visions (horamati) of the night”.

What he sees is not just visionary; it is also symbolic. He is not foreseeing a literal future occurrence. The coming of the one like a son of man upon the clouds that he “sees” is like the emergence of the beasts from the sea (Dan. 7:3)—a symbolic event. If we may assume that Jesus understood this, he must be saying that the leadership of Israel will see the fulfilment of a symbolic event. The emergence of the fourth beast from the sea symbolised the beginning of the Greek empire. The coming of the “one like a son of man” on the clouds to the throne of God symbolised the beginning of YHWH’s empire, his righteous rule over the nations. The leadership of Israel will see the beginning of a new international order.

Scholars have understood the reference of the phrase “one like a son of man” in different ways. I remain convinced that this is a symbolic figure, analogous to the composite beasts of pagan empire, who represents the righteous in Israel, against whom the little horn on the head of the fourth beast (that is, Antiochus Epiphanes) is making war.

Jesus speaks of himself as the “Son of Man” principally with reference to this narrative. He makes himself the representative of righteous Israel, persecuted by unrighteous Israel, oppressed by Rome, who will remain loyal to the calling of YHWH even to the point of death on a Roman cross, and who expects to be vindicated and to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom”.

The truth of Jesus’ prediction will become apparent to the leadership of Israel, the wicked tenants of the vineyard, when they are dispossessed—destroyed by the owner of the vineyard, according to Mark 12:8—and government over the people of God is taken from them and given to another people, with Jesus himself at their head.

Is there a disjunction between Jesus’ invocation of this narrative (righteous Israel persecuted by pagan kings will be exalted over them by God) and Jesus’ focus on the unjust leaders of Israel? Jesus basically never speaks against the pagan empire and when he describes what the Son of Man must do he says he must be rejected by the priests, scribes and elders (Mark 8:31). It’s as if the rulers of Israel (albeit mediators of pagan rule) take the place of the beasts under whom the righteous Israelites must suffer—and it is their tenancy that is inherited by the worthy in the parable. 

I assume by the time of the writing of the gospels Jewish resistance to the gospel was of little concern to the churches. 

You’re right, and that’s one way of dealing with the problem. I guess Preterists who think that Babylon the great is Jerusalem would agree with it.

Obviously, once we get into the pagan world, the whole story in Daniel 7-12 becomes more relevant: Rome, in my view, becomes the beast that makes war against the churches but is overthrown, and the “one like a son of man” is vindicated and glorified, and the nations which had formerly served Rome now serve the Son of Man.

The other thing to note is that apostate Israel appears in Daniel’s narrative because the crisis of Hellenism in the second century BC was provoked in part by modernising Jews who collaborated with Antiochus Epiphanes: “He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant, but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Dan. 11:32). When Israel is restored, some apostate Jews (the leaders among the people?), will be suffer “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).

So the “one like a son of man” is vindicated, in the first place, with respect to Hellenising Jews, and secondly gains the dominion, glory and kingdom that formerly belonged to the pagan empire. It seems to me reasonable to think that Jesus identified with the first part of this story, the church in the pagan world with the latter.

Good point on Hellenized Jews in Daniel. 

But certainly the Pharisees and the Zealots could not be accused of accomodation to pagans. Can the elders, scribes, and priests? I don’t see Jesus indicting them of such. 

No, but then he is dealing with his own situation, not Daniel’s. I assume he uses the son of man motif in a fairly narrow way, principally to give prophetic credibility to the idea that the one is persecuted and killed during a period of intense political-religious crisis will eventually be proved right, etc. My point was only that there are elements in Daniel’s telling of the story that make it broadly relevant to both aspects of the conflict—the internal Jewish and the external pagan. But you’re right, I think: he doesn’t use Daniel to villainize the leaders of the Jews.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 01/30/2019 - 16:11 | Permalink

I wonder whether there may have been some intended actual visible manifestation. The thought has occurred to me that “the sign of the Son of Man” may have been the AD66 apparition of Comet Halley, which is mentioned in Josephus’ “The Jewish War” as a “sword standing over Jerusalem”.

It has been suggested that the “Bethlehem star” was a comet (Colin Nicholl, “The Great Christ Comet”) though the prior apparition of Halley in 11 BC is too early for conventional datings of Jesus’ birth and there are no records of a comet around the time of the conventional birth date.

[I do like the idea that, on a prior Halley apparition dating, Jesus would have been 40 (or nearly; IIRC the 11BC Halley perihelion date is late in the year) at his AD 30 “departure” and ~80 at his AD 70 “return”, which perhaps would provide an additional connection to a ”prophet like Moses”, but I suspect that it’s not workable within what is known of the historical circumstances] 

More speculatively, there is in Josephus and at least other sources (one of which are dependent on him) mention of “armies in the heavens” appearing in the clouds at one point during the war.

It’s obviously not a proved view, but it seems conceivable to me that there actually were visible “heavenly” manifestations of Jesus’ return in wrath.

Josephus describes how one of the gates of the temple opened of its own accord. Some of the “vulgar” thought that this was God opening the gate of happiness, but the learned realised that the gate was being opened to let in the Romans. He goes on:

So these publicly declared, that this signal (sēmeion) foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them. Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the twenty-first day of the month Artemisius [Jyar], a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it,and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sunsetting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seenrunning about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. (War 6:296–299)

Whether this, or anything like it, is what Matthew was referring to, I’ve no idea. Nice thought, though.