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Does the historical interpretation of the parousia really make historical sense?

In this rather long post I want to address some questions put to me about the general plausibility of my reading of the parousia texts as prophecies regarding two historical developments—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of pagan Rome and the overthrow of pagan Rome through the witness of the churches to the lordship of Jesus. There are undoubtedly things that I have overlooked, but these are the texts and questions that immediately stand out.

The main issue has to do with whether there is evidence that the early church had to come to terms with a delayed parousia—the failure of Jesus to show up when expected. But I’ll begin with a more general point about a historical eschatology.

The imprecision of a historical eschatology

Large numbers of Jews appear to have repented in response to the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Are we to suppose that they all, to a man and woman, escaped the destruction of the war against Rome—if that was what it was really all about? Isn’t it easier to think that it was their personal eternal destiny that was a stake—those who repented went to heaven to be with Jesus, those who didn’t ended up in a post-mortem Gehenna?

My response to this is that we should not expect a historical eschatology to play out in precise, rationalistic metaphysical terms. Its fulfilment will not escape the messiness and imprecision of history. The promise to the disciples was ambiguous enough:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Lk. 21:16–19)

Beyond this, I think a prophetic eschatology is interested not in individuals primarily but in communities, cities, and nations. Perhaps a significant number of believers in Jesus escaped death by fleeing to Pella before it was too late (Eusebius, Church History 3.5.3; cf. Matt. 24:16), but even then it was the survival of the community, not of every individual, that mattered. The dominant prophetic narrative operates at the broader level: if Israel repents, the nation will not suffer devastation; if Jerusalem repents, the city will not suffer destruction. Romans 9-11, of course, must be read on the same basis.

Luke and the destruction of Jerusalem

Of the three Synoptic writers, it is Luke who most clearly focuses Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching on the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome. Jesus weeps over the city because the things that make for peace have been hidden from it; enemies will besiege the city, raze it to the ground, and slaughter its inhabitants (Lk. 19:41-44). The disciples ask him when this will take place, and he sets out the events that will culminate in the catastrophe of the destruction of the city: nation will rise against nation, they will see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, the Jews will fall by the sword or be led captive among the nations, and “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:20-24).

This will cause people to wonder what sort of chaos is coming upon the world, but they will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and the rule of Israel’s God will soon be inaugurated (Luke 21:27). When? “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Lk. 21:32).

Luke’s language may reflect knowledge of the event, though I think he remains faithful to the limitations of Jesus’ distinctive prophetic perspective. I would suggest that we are in the early days after the Jewish war, with the city trampled by the Gentiles, when it should be apparent to the disciples, who have been sent out to proclaim to the world just this outcome and who have suffered greatly as a consequence, that their “redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:28). So they are to stay vigilant; they will soon have to stand before the Son of Man, who has received kingdom, power and glory, to be rewarded for their faithful endurance. Mission accomplished.

The question then is what sort of “event” Luke imagined this vindication before the Son of Man to be. My view is that the language of both the shaking of the powers of heaven and the coming of the Son of Man in a cloud is symbolic and that it draws on Old Testament antecedents. The “signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves” signify political upheaval and transformation (Luke 21:25; cf. Is. 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph. 1:15; Ps. 65:7). The coming of the Son of Man with the clouds of heaven is a vision of the vindication of the persecuted righteous in Israel.

Arguably, Luke means no more than that the disciples sent out by Jesus to proclaim to Israel and the nations the coming of the kingdom of God would be publicly vindicated by this train of historical events. If the climax is supposed to be some dramatic cosmic collapse, with Jesus descending to earth from heaven in spectacular fashion, Luke is remarkably restrained in his description: the Son of Man is seen coming, and the disciples stand before him to be assessed (cf. Lk. 19:15). Luke’s focus—and therefore Jesus’ focus—is almost entirely on what it will mean for the disciples.

Neither the further rule of Jesus over the nations of the empire, nor the renewal of creation is in view. Luke’s interest extends no further than the confirmation of the stone rejected by the builders as both the stone of judgment for the wicked tenants of the vineyard of Israel and the cornerstone of the new people of God (Lk. 20:17-18).

This restraint is important. Luke does not attempt to update Jesus’ perspective, but he also does not betray any obvious concern about the fact or manner of its fulfilment. It was enough to let Jesus predict the historical outcome and the prophetically conceived vindication of the disciples as the persecuted community of the Son of Man.

Be patient until the coming of the Lord

James’ exhortation to the brothers to be patient until the parousia of the Lord because the judge is standing at the door (James 5:7-9) presupposes the Judean context and Jesus’ apocalyptic vision. He is waiting for judgment on unrighteous Israel (cf. James 5:1-6).

Sudden destruction for those who think there is peace and security

The day of the Lord would mean “sudden destruction” for people who said “There is peace and security” (1 Thess. 5:2-3). This was a day of wrath that would impact the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:9), so it seems likely to me that at the forefront of Paul’s mind was the judgment of God, enacted by Jesus (cf. Acts 17:31), on the overweening confidence of the empire in a military and economic success founded on the repudiation of the creator God (cf. Rom. 1:18-32). My assumption is that he foresaw judgment on the Jews followed not long after by judgment on the Greek-Roman world (Rom. 2:9).

This raises the question of whether Paul knew that Jesus had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem. Why is this not an explicit part of his defence of the inclusion of Gentiles? It perhaps lies behind this question:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:22–24)

The perplexing narrative of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8 may also point towards some sort of collision between Rome and the temple. But generally speaking, Paul seems reluctant to explain how he thought wrath against the Jew and wrath against the Greek would be manifested in the real world.

That is odd, but it’s not historically problematic, as far as I can see.

The defeat of the man of lawlessness

The Thessalonians had been led to believe, “either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us,” that the day of the Lord Jesus Christ had come and that they were about to be gathered together to him (2 Thess. 2:1-2). We can only guess quite what they thought was going on, but they must have imagined the epicentre of this day of the Lord to be some distance away.

Paul addresses their alarm by setting out a detailed apocalyptic narrative: first there will be a rebellion, a man of lawlessness will carry out some manner of supremely blasphemous action, but Jesus will kill him by the “breath of his mouth” and bring him to nothing “by the appearance of his parousia (2 Thess. 2:3-8).

Assuming that the letter was written by Paul around 50 AD, I understand the “rebellion” (apostasia) to refer to a massive failure of first-century Judaism that is probably both the abandonment of trust in the God of the Mosaic covenant (cf. Josh. 22:22; 2 Chron. 29:19; Jer. 2:19 LXX; 1 Macc. 2:15) and a revolt against Rome (Jos., War 1:164; Life 43), for now somewhat restrained by a faithful element in Jerusalem (2 Thess. 2:7). The man of lawlessness is a Roman king who, like Antiochus Epiphanes, actively defies the God of Israel (cf. Dan. 11:36). This king or, perhaps better, régime will be destroyed by the public revelation of Jesus as the Lord through whom Israel’s God will judge and rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

The narrative seems to me entirely consistent with my general line of interpretation. The degree of uncertainty and obscurity is only what we would expect from an apocalypticism that endeavours to hold in creative tension Old Testament antecedents and the constraints of historical experience.

How Paula Fredriksen narrowly misses the mark

In this connection a recent Gospel Coalition review of Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle is worth considering briefly. I think the book is very good, but it’s a while since I read it so I won’t comment directly.

In the review Guy Waters criticises Fredriksen on three grounds: she makes too much of the future aspect of the kingdom of God, overlooking the fact that it has already broken into history; she makes too little of Jesus’ saving death; and she reduces Paul to a footnote in the development of Christian thought by saying that he was wrong about the imminent return of Christ.

I would defend Fredriksen on the first two points: for Paul the gospel is fundamentally the announcement of the political-religious transformation of the Greek-Roman world in the foreseeable future. The atonement is secondary. Evangelicals need to learn to trust history.

But I would say the same for Fredriksen. I think she reads Paul too literally. The problem is that modern interpreters on both sides of this debate tend to discount the hermeneutical force of the pressing historical reality. It’s not just that Paul was a Jewish apostle who assumed the fundamental historical orientation of biblical prophecy. It is that a real world with real threats and challenges and possibilities imposed itself upon his consciousness. This concrete reality has to be factored into interpretation. His apocalyptic narratives were not pious flights of fancy; they were about something.

As with Jesus’ teaching, Paul’s interest in the parousia extends no further than the deliverance and vindication of the churches and the defeat of their persecutors. Since this is exactly what happened when the empire converted to Christianity, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be regarded as the realistic historical fulfilment of these visions.

The time is short, the day is at hand

When Paul says that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor. 7:29) or that “the night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:11), he is not saying that the parousia is coming soon but that persecution is coming soon. Paul’s ecclesiology is geared towards building communities that will survive a coming “day of fire,” that will be fully armed and prepared when the day of conflict dawns.

The heavens will be set on fire

The author of 2 Peter directly addresses anxieties or disillusionment about the as yet unfulfilled promise of the parousia of the Lord Jesus or of the day of God (2 Pet. 3:1-7, 12). The ostensible temporal setting is the early sixties: “I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me” (2 Pet. 1:14). The letter is supposed to have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

The author conflates Old Testament prophecy, the teaching of Jesus, and apostolic proclamation into a single and final eschatological vision of a judgment by fire, analogous to the judgment of the flood, by which an impious world will be destroyed (2 Pet. 3:1-7). Fire differs from water in that it destroys not only life on earth but also the heavens: “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn” (2 Pet. 3:12). The old world will burn away, and a new one will be born “in which righteousness dwells” (3:13).

Arguably the letter is addressed, like 1 Peter, to a Jewish-Christian community (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1), and has the crisis of Judaism in the foreground. But the author does not entertain the sort of chronological development that we find elsewhere in the New Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic literature: first, God deals with the problem of his own unrighteous people, then he restores his people and gives them rule over the nations, then he renews all of creation. In 2 Peter only one end is in view.

So here we perhaps have the sort of eschatological paradigm that scholars from Reimarus to Fredriksen have found fault with. The author shows no interest in linking the day of the Lord with the Jewish war, either prospectively or retrospectively. We could just dismiss it as a fabrication, but it bears witness nevertheless, to a significant first-century Jewish-Christian perspective on the future.

Ironically, it is probably the perspective closest to the modern evangelical position. I would suggest that precisely because it is so little interested in history it exhibits the severest anxiety about the delay of the parousia.

The Son of Man and the seven churches

The climactic event in Revelation is the overthrow of Babylon the great, which I think is Rome. Whatever date we assign to the composition of the work, the defeat of pagan Rome through the faithful witness of the martyr church is in the future. The significance of the Son of Man in John’s vision is defined in relation to the suffering churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:9-20), so it is their fate, rather than that of Jerusalem, that is in view when it is said, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev. 1:7; cf. 22:20).

We hear the martyrs crying out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). It would be three centuries before the fall of Babylon the great could be declared and the martyrs raised in a first resurrection of the dead to share in the reign of Christ over the nations (Rev. 18:2; 20:4).

This must reflect some real impatience. The early church may well have expected victory over the oppressor to come quickly on the heels of the judgment of Israel.

But as the church lost touch with its Jewish-apocalyptic origins, the relevance of this “delay” declined. In any case, Christianity became established as a viable ethical-religious option in the Greek-Roman world long before the political climax of the conversion of the empire.

Comments

My assumption is that [Paul] foresaw judgment on the Jews followed not long after by judgment on the Greek-Roman world.

This single “mistake” seems to go a lot of the way in explaining why the NT links both the Jewish War and the judgement of the nations with the coming of the son of man. Like in Zechariah 14:1-3, judgement upon God’s people is immediately followed by judgement on the nations and the restoration of Jerusalem. Actual history would be messier.

Yet the Jewish War can still rightly be identified with the coming of the son of man because it was in that moment that Christ began to publically vindicate his people.

The thought has occurred to me frequently in the months since I have been reading this ‘blog that the Church lost a great deal when the Jewish Christian part of the movement faded away. I imagine that had they persisted as a vital part of the movement, the ecumenical councils would come to conclusions that looked a bit different, or at least the pronouncements may have been “fewer”.

I’m not confident that we live in the best of all possible church histories.

But since history is always and consistently imperfect, I think we just have to take it as it is—and was. If the aim of the apostles was to win the Greek-Roman world for YHWH, it’s hard to see how it would have worked out very differently. Sooner or later the older Jewish-Christian paradigm would have been superseded. Probably better just to critique and celebrate the patristic period for what it was and then move on. We perhaps have a better historical perspective on the New Testament period now than the church fathers had, but what we are actually believing and doing, across the board, is unlike anything that has gone before.

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for writing this.

You write, “It would be three centuries before the fall of Babylon the great could be declared and the martyrs raised in a first resurrection of the dead to share in the reign of Christ over the nations.”

What is the historical antecedent of “the martyrs raised in a first resurrection”? If the fall of babylon’s historical correlate is the Roman Empire’s decleration of Christianity, are you also saying that the martyrs who died previously were bodily raised at this occasion? Im just unclear as to what the first resurrection looks like as a historical reality.

Thanks for everything,

Josh

Hi Josh. Thanks.

I’ve listed a few posts below which may help.

There are two parts to the question, I think.

First, from the point of view of first century Jewish-Christian apocalyptic thought it made good sense to expect a resurrection of the righteous following the resolution of an eschatological crisis in which God’s people suffer persecution. This goes back to Daniel 12:2-3. The exegetical logic is very powerful and needs to be taken seriously.

Secondly, there is a question of whether we can reasonably say, in historical hindsight, that a first resurrection actually happened at the time of the defeat of pagan Rome. That is a question of whether we feel bound to expect a literal fulfilment of the promise of resurrection—after the manner of Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s worth pointing out that John does not say that the bodies of the martyrs would be raised from their graves. He sees the “souls of those who had been beheaded” and says that they “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”

Notice the allusion to Daniel 7:9-10 in Revelation 20:4: thrones are set up presumably on earth for judgment, including the vindication of the persecuted people of the saints of the Most High. This is an apocalyptic judgment at which God resolves a severe political-religious crisis.

Since the heavenly city does not descend from heaven until after the renewal of heaven and earth, at the end of the thousand year period, John presumably understood this as a heavenly reign, while the living church served God on earth.

This suggests to me that John did not think of the “first resurrection” of the martyrs as an event like Jesus’ resurrection: the dead souls simply came to life and lived with Christ in heaven. In that respect, Jesus’ bodily resurrection and appearance on earth should perhaps be regarded as the anomaly. It is important that there is apostolic witness of resurrection, but he soon ascends into heaven because there is no new creation in which a new creation body might exist.