Here’s another example of how we can let theology or dogma get in the way of good biblical interpretation. Bill Mounce, whose mostly excellent exegetical notes I read from time to time, discusses the translation of Mark 13:29, which in the ESV reads:
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
The problem that Mounce addresses is the translation of the phrase engus estin (“is near”). There is no pronoun in the Greek. If we supply “he”, as in the ESV, it appears to make Jesus say that the Son of Man will return within a single generation, which “of course, he didn’t”. This would leave us with what Mounce calls “one of the great conundrums in the gospels”.
The NIV, however, supplies “it”—”it is near”, referring, as Mounce sees it, not to the coming of the Son of Man but to the destruction of the temple. So if the interpreter does not want to entertain the possibility that Jesus got the timing of the end-of-the-world badly wrong, he or she may simply uncouple the train of the second coming from the caboose of the war against Rome and allow history to pull them further and further apart.
Mounce argues that the disciples’ question in Mark 13:4 is really two questions: i) What are the signs that the temple will be destroyed? and ii) What will be the signs preceding Jesus’ return? He suggests that verses 5-23 narrate events leading up to the destruction of the temple. Then, “in typical prophetic telescoping, Jesus skips thousands of years” so that verses 24-27 describe his return, before jumping back thousands of years to the destruction of the temple in verses 28-31, which was to happen within a generation, only to jump forwards once more to the second coming in the last paragraph of the chapter.
Now Mounce knows far more about New Testament Greek than I do, but it seems to me that he has preserved the dogmatically required reading at the expense of the narrative-historical integrity of the text.
1. The disciples ask Jesus two questions: i) When will these things be? and ii) What will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished? In both questions “these things” can only refer to the events leading up to the destruction of the temple. In Matthew, it is true, the disciples distinguish between the destruction of the temple and the parousia of Jesus at the close of the age (Matt. 24:3). But Matthew emphatically connects the vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds with the Roman invasion of Judea: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days…” (Matt. 24:29). Mark also has “in those days, after that tribulation” (13:24). The only reason to drive a massive temporal wedge into the text at this point is to protect the dogma that Jesus is still to return.
2. Luke makes explicit what is near—the kingdom of God:
And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:29–33)
Would Mounce want to say that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple constituted the coming of the kingdom of God and exclude from that the kingdom motif of the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and glory? Notice that earlier Mark linked the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father and the coming of the kingdom of God with power as events that would take place within a generation:
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. … Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power. (Mk. 8:38–9:1)
3. We don’t find the sort of “prophetic telescoping” in the Old Testament that would provide a plausible precedent for Mounce’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching here. Prophetic telescoping is an invention of Christian exegetes. The prophets describe future historical events—judgment on Israel, judgment on the nations. They may generate hopes that are not fulfilled in the actual historical circumstances, as things turn out, but that is not what we have with Mounce’s reading of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. Mounce argues that Jesus speaks in a very confusing manner about two distinct events, separated—as things turn out—by goodness knows how many thousands of years.
4. Mounce has to give a much better explanation of why the discourse is constructed in this chronologically chaotic fashion. The literary signals all work against it, and it removes the climax from the detailed and clearly important account of the tribulation of the coming years. Is it really plausible to argue that Mark’s readers would not have read it as a single, coherent apocalyptic narrative? It makes much better literary and theological sense to suppose that the coming of the Son of Man is conceived as an “event” of climactic significance for the communities of disciples that had to go through the tribulation described in 13:5-23.
5. The imagery of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory points to the expectation that at a time of national crisis for Israel a persecuted individual or community would be vindicated and given authority to rule. Jesus will make this point to Caiaphas: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). The destruction of the temple provides exactly the right historical context for the fulfilment of such an expectation. The coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven is not an end-of-the-world event. The imagery of cosmic disorder—sun and moon darkened, stars falling, powers shaken—is standard prophetic-apocalyptic language for political crisis.
The final point to make, briefly, is that this is not a matter of taking away from traditional dogma. It is about recovering narrative-historical perspective. It is the same as with the Jesus is Lord / Jesus is God debate. Even if the orthodox affirmation is “correct” in some way, it too often diverts attention from the much more important and fundamental argument that the New Testament is attempting to put forward.
In this case, I don’t think that the orthodox affirmation is “correct” in some way. I don’t think that the New Testament presents the coming of the Son of Man in clouds as an end-of-the-world event—the final judgment and renewal of creation is stated in quite different terms. But that is not simply an argument for an alternative eschatological schema. It is an argument for grasping the concrete, historical grounding of the story of God’s people, for understanding the theological force of historical events, and for affirming the historical immediacy of God’s saving action on behalf of a faithful suffering community.