Thom Stark on the coming of the Son of Man: the Bible gets it right, Jesus gets it wrong?

Thom Stark’s book The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong is an attack on the doctrine of inerrancy—or perhaps better, an attempt to reframe the problem of biblical errancy. In chapter 8, which is the only chapter I’ve read so far, he argues that Jesus proclaimed that “the world as we know it” would end within a generation. He comes to the “paradoxical conclusion” that if the Gospels are right, then Jesus was wrong. “In the inerrantist universe, this is surely a paradox of cosmic proportions.”

After some introductory remarks about the relation of Jesus to Jewish apocalyptic thought, Stark looks closely at two passages in which he thinks that Jesus predicts the end of the world—the wholesale overhaul of the created order if not quite the end of the time-space continuum—within the lifetime of his disciples. The first is the teaching in the region of Caesarea Philippi about the cost of following him, the second is the apocalyptic discourse in Jerusalem.

I think Stark gets it half right. Yes, Jesus expected people to see the coming of the Son of Man within the lifetime of some of his disciples. No, this was not going to be a final judgment.

The Son of Man will come before some of those standing here taste death

Stark reads the words about the Son of Man coming while some of his disciples are still alive (Matt. 16:28; Mk. 9:1; Lk. 9:27) as a statement about the “last judgment.” In Jewish apocalyptic thought the common expectation is that faithful Israel will “experience an intense period of suffering” before the end of the age. Mark says that those who do not persevere through these birth pains will be judged and will lose their lives (Mk. 8:35-36). Matthew’s version makes the reference to a final judgment “clear and unequivocal”: the Son of Man will “repay everyone for what has been done” (Matt. 16:27).

Stark is right to dismiss face-saving attempts to interpret the “some will not taste death” saying as a reference to Jesus’ mighty works, the transfiguration, the resurrection, or the day of Pentecost. I disagree, however, that Jesus is speaking of a final judgment here.

First, it is only Jesus’ disciples who will be subjected to shame or repaid when the Son of Man comes with his angels. There is no mention of the rest of Israel, let alone of humanity generally. Stark has been misled by the NRSV, which translates “he will repay everyone for what he has done.” Jesus says, “he will repay each (ekastōi) according to his action,” and in context this can only refer to those who choose to take up their own cross and follow him. The saying anticipates the parables of the return of an absent master or bridegroom, which Jesus will attach to the parousia vision (Matt. 24:45-25:30). The judgment, in other words, is very narrowly conceived.

Secondly, I fail to see how the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of the Father with his angels refers in any “clear and unequivocal” fashion to a final judgment. The presence of “glory” and “angels” does not necessarily make this a final event, but we need to look at the later passage to see what Jesus was really getting at.

The Olivet discourse

The second prediction of a final judgment is found at the end of the lengthy prophetic teaching given on the Mount of Olives. Stark puts forward his own argument, addresses some common objections, and then looks in some detail at N.T. Wright’s “novel interpretation” of the passage.

The main narrative, Stark argues, describes events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome in AD 70. Palestine descends into chaos, false prophets and messiahs promise liberation, a nation rises up against a nation, the gospel is proclaimed throughout the known world, the faithful must endure suffering, a “desolating sacrilege” is placed in the temple, the faithful flee to the mountains just Mattathias and his sons fled to the mountains at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism, and Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles.

That is all largely unobjectionable. I also agree with Stark that the saying about the ignorance of the Son cannot be used to accommodate an indefinite delay in the fulfilment of the events described.

He argues further, however, that Jesus predicts the destruction of Rome as part of a final judgment following on from the fall of Jerusalem. After the tribulation that climaxes in the destruction of Jerusalem sun, moon, and stars are darkened, and the powers in the heavens are shaken (Mk. 13:24). This is taken to be an allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment on Babylon:

Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. (Is. 13:9–10).

Similar language is found in Joel 2:30-32 and Ezekiel 32:5-8, and on the basis of these parallels Stark draws the conclusion for Jesus’ own vision: “Israel is attacked by a foreign power, but Yahweh intervenes and destroys the foreign army, just in time to save the remnant of the faithful”—those who fled to the hills earlier.

Thus, when Jesus says that “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,” what Jesus means is dreadfully clear: Rome’s time is up.

So Jesus was right about everything except the “little detail about the end of the world as we know it.

This is a compelling thesis in many ways. Judgment against Israel followed by judgment against the instrument of that judgment is certainly the Old Testament pattern:

Woe to him who makes his neighbours drink…! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’S right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! (Hab. 2:15–16)

When YHWH restores the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, he will bring the nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat and “enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:1-2). The Lord will gather the nations to ravage Jerusalem, but then he will “go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle,” and the survivors form the nations will come each year to Jerusalem to “worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 14:1-3, 16).

Stark’s reading also fits Daniel’s vision rather well. The “one like a son of man” is seen coming with the clouds of heaven after the fourth beast has been judged and consumed in the fire that flows from the throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9-14). The destruction of Jerusalem does not even feature in this vision.

The darkening of the heavens

The problem is that Jesus says nothing about a battle against the armies of Rome directly after the destruction of Jerusalem. He says nothing about a transformation of the world as they knew it. The interpretation hangs pretty much entirely on the meaning we attach to the darkening of the skies over Jerusalem.

Stark has not read the Old Testament texts carefully enough. The imagery of unnatural darkness in Isaiah 13:10 attends judgment against the city and land of Babylon. The Medes will come, the land will be devastated, the people will be slaughtered, and the city will be left in ruins. This does not fit Stark’s scenario, which requires a defeat of the Roman armies in Palestine.

The same imagery in Joel 2:30 is applied not to the hostile nations but to Jerusalem, and the reference to “fire and columns of smoke” rather suggests that, at one level, it is the burning of the city that causes the darkness. Those who call on the name of the Lord at this time will be saved, and subsequently YHWH will enter into judgment with the nations in the valley outside the city. But the “wonders in the heavens and on the earth” pertain to the judgment of Jerusalem, not to the defeat of the nations.

In the Old Testament prophetic visions the sky is darkened over the city that is being judged, not subsequently over the armies that have come against the city.

So two related but distinct outcomes are in view in Jewish and Jewish-Christian apocalyptic, which Stark tends to confuse—as he does in his comment on Acts 1:6-8, for example: “Overthrowing Rome and restoring the kingdom to Israel is exactly what he said he would do in the Olivet Discourse.”

First, there is the prospect that God will restore Judah and Jerusalem, first by eradicating wickedness from his own people, then by defeating the hostile nations that have been gathered against Jerusalem. This is also the story in Zechariah 14, which Stark discusses at some length in his attempt to show that Jesus was looking beyond the destruction of Jerusalem:

In both Zechariah 14 and Mark 13, Yahweh punishes Jerusalem with foreign armies, before immediately turning around and punishing the Gentiles that were used to punish Jerusalem. In both oracles, after the judgment of the nations, a new age of unfathomable glory ensues. In neither case were the oracles fulfilled.

That Zechariah has in mind a dramatically transformed world of “unfathomable glory” is a bit of an overstatement. Idolatry will be eradicated from the land Jerusalem will be established as a place of worship for the surrounding nations (Zech. 13:2; 14:16). But any nations in the region—notably Egypt—that do not go up to Jerusalem will suffer drought and plague. Sin and death remain a part of this new political-religious order.

Secondly, there is the larger prospect that the distant centre of empire—in this case Rome—will be judged and overthrown and replaced by the glorious New Jerusalem.

Jesus was realistic enough to know that a local victory over the armies that had gathered against Jerusalem would not mean that Rome’s time was up. In the New Testament this prospect only arises in the course of the apostolic mission to the nations, as Gentiles begin to abandon their idols to serve the living God and wait for his Son from heaven to deliver them from the wrath yet to come on the pagan oikoumenē (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10).

When Peter takes up the Joel passage in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, it is exclusively with reference to the prospect of judgment against Jerusalem and “this crooked generation” of Israel (Acts 2:14-41). When the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and the sun is turned to darkness and the moon to blood, those in Jerusalem who call on the name the Lord will be saved. Judgment on Rome is not remotely within the purview of the preaching of the early church.

So the point to grasp is that in the Old Testament prophetic visions the sky is darkened over the city that is being judged, not subsequently over the armies that have come against the city. In the context of Jesus’ Olivet discourse the language can only apply to Jerusalem; nothing is said to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem will be followed by the defeat of the armies of Rome. Instead, what is emphasised is a shake-up in the heavenly realm in advance of the appearance of (the sign of) the Son of Man (Matt. 24:29-30; Mk. 13:24-26; Lk. 21:25-27).

The coming of the Son of Man

Stark takes “Son of Man” to be a “true messianic warrior,” who presumably will fight against Rome. We certainly have something like this in Revelation. Jesus is the rider on a white horse, whose name is the Word of God, who will strike down the nations, rule them with a rod of iron, tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God, and defeat the beast of idolatrous Roman power (Rev. 19:11-21). But no reference is made here to the Son of Man. The Son of Man is never a militant figure.

Daniel’s figure in human form is not, in fact, a warrior but a victim: he represents the faithful people of the saints of the Most High, against whom Antiochus Epiphanes made war (Dan. 7:25-27). It is the Ancient of Days who destroys the fourth beast of Greek imperial power; then the one like a son of man only receives dominion, glory, and a kingdom.

The direction of the coming of the Son of Man is probably not important. Jesus means only to evoke Daniel’s vision as a statement about the vindication and empowerment of righteous persecuted Israel. The emphasis is not on the movement but on the seeing. In effect, the leadership of Israel will see a reproduction of what Daniel saw and should draw the conclusion that in the course of these traumatic events authority has been transferred from the old régime, the wicked tenants of the vineyard, to a new people represented by the Son of Man.

In his critique of Wright, Stark argues that the coming of the Son of Man cannot be seen as a direct implication of the destruction of the temple. He gives three reasons.

  1. There is nothing in the Olivet discourse to indicate that the suffering in Jerusalem “is to be seen as vindication for Jesus of Nazareth.”
  2. Both Matthew and Mark make it very clear that the coming of the Son of Man happens after the destruction of Jerusalem.
  3. The coming of the Son of Man is not confined to Jerusalem but is “global in scope”: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” (Matt. 24:30), and the judgment of the Son of Man will come like a trap “upon all who dwell on the face of the earth” (Lk. 21:35).

I don’t think the argument holds up.

  1. The emphasis on false prophets and messiahs in the discourse, promising deliverance from destruction, sets us up for the vindication of the true messiah by the actual turn of events. The preaching of the good news about the impending kingdom of God to Israel and the nations naturally requires the vindication of the person who sent out the messengers.
  2. The argument that the destruction of the temple was the “impetus” for the coming of the Son of Man is unconvincing. The darkening of the sky over Jerusalem comes “after that tribulation” but not after the actual destruction of the city, which is not explicitly described in the discourse. The celestial chaos is a sign that the predicted events will lead to a new political-religious order, which will begin with the recognition that Jesus and his disciples were right all along.
  3. It is not certain that Matthew’s “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” constitutes the sort of “worldwide mourning” that in Stark’s view would be indicative of a “final judgment.” Arguably, this is a reference, as in Zechariah 12:12, to the tribes of the land, who mourn over “him whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10; cf. Rev. 1:7). It is important to keep in mind that this vision is principally the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the high priest and the Council when they condemn him: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).

Is this a metaphor I see before me?

Stark seems inclined to disagree with Wright that the language of darkened skies, coming on the clouds, sending out of angels, blowing of trumpets, etc., would have been understood metaphorically in the ancient world. He doesn’t go into details but cites Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth and Adams’ Stars Will Fall from Heaven, neither of which I have.

So I will make the point bluntly that there is no difficulty with the assumption that that the Old Testament prophets used such language metaphorically. Isaiah imagined the stars, sun, and moon being darkened when Babylon is punished, but the event remains part of normal history: the city becomes like Sodom and Gomorrah, and wild creatures inhabit its ruins (Is. 13:19-22). When God judges Israel’s neighbours, all “the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll,” but Edom simply becomes a wasteland, a haunt of jackals and ostriches (Is. 34:4, 8-15).

There’s no reason why Jesus should have taken the coming of one like a son of man with the clouds of heaven any more literally than Daniel did: it is a visionary and symbolic event on the same level as the emergence of the beasts from the sea and the setting up of thrones on the earth.

And did Zechariah literally believe that YHWH would fire an arrow, “sound the trumpet,” and “march forth in the whirlwinds of the south in order to deliver his people from their aggressors (Zech. 9:14)?

Jesus tells his disciples that when they see all these things happening, they will “know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:33; Mk. 13:29). Stark understands this to mean that Jesus would literally return to Jerusalem to “deliver his people from the hand of the enemy.” In Luke’s version, however, it is the kingdom of God that is near (Lk. 21:31), and it’s quite possible to read Matthew and Mark in a similar way: not the Son of Man but the climactic moment of God’s judgment is near, at the gates. The purpose of the Son of Man’s coming, by contrast, is to gather and assess the envoys whom he sent out into the world to proclaim this future for Israel: he dispatches angels to gather them back, he judges the ten virgins, he repays the servants.

Finally, and curiously, Stark does not mention the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46, in which the Son of Man comes in glory with the angels to judge all the nations. Significantly, this is not framed as a comprehensive judgment, whether of Rome or of all humanity. It is presented quite narrowly as a judgment of the nations on the basis of how they responded to the presence of the “elect” envoys of the Son of Man. It is an aspect of the vindication of those who took up their crosses to follow him. It does not interrupt the flow of history.


In the closing chapter Stark asks what should be done with the “morally and theologically problematic texts” that he has been examining in this book. His answer is that they must be “retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts. Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value. That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God” (italics removed). That is honest and worth considering in general terms, but I think that his reading of Jesus’ predictions about the future is flawed; and we are advised, at least, to make sure that we have given the texts a fair hearing before we condemn them. It is not easy to make sense of history.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 08/18/2021 - 03:26 | Permalink

> as he does in his comment on Acts 1:6-8, for example: “Overthrowing Rome and restoring the kingdom to Israel is exactly what he said he would do in the Olivet Discourse.”

I think that what Stark here (mistakenly, I agree) attributes to Jesus is a very plausible interpretation of what was behind the disciples’ thinking about the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ mission. They may still have been longing for the kind of redemption of Israel that was in the minds of the disciples on the Emmaus road, a redemption that would be frustrated rather than accomplished by the death of the movement leader.

> Stark takes “Son of Man” to be a “true messianic warrior,” who presumably will fight against Rome.

Oh dear. That’s definitely not the kind of leader who would reckon that his death at the hands of the Romans would be instrumental in the ransom of many of his countrymen.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 08/18/2021 - 15:46 | Permalink

Thanks for doing the review Andrew, which I found mostly even-handed and everywhere thoughtful.

Just to separate the wood from the trees somewhat, there are three major strands to Stark’s argument in this particular chapter of his book.

The first two strands argue for a somewhat literal “coming of the Son of Man”, and this is bracketed with, and seen as, the heralding of final judgment.

The third strand is that Jesus got the timing of the first two wrong, in that they did not occur when he had expected, soon after the destruction of the temple. His mindset, according to Stark, was the apocalyptic view of history, in which the “end time” was characterised by distress, triggering a supernatural intervention. The apocalyptists anticipated additionally prosperity without end and worldwide dominion for God’s people following this event.

In the “coming of the Son of Man”, according to Stark, Jesus envisaged a warrior messiah who would defeat the Romans within Palestine, aided by believers who regroup in the mountains as instructed by him, and according to him, to prepare for such an eventuality. This would be followed immediately by the final judgment.

As regards particular points made by you, I add the following according to your breakdown into four sections.

The Son of Man will come before some of those standing here taste death

You argue that the three passages (from which this quotation is taken) where Stark says Jesus predicts final judgment, Matthew 16:24-28, Mark 8:34 – 9:1, Luke 9:23-27 cannot be describing final judgment because Jesus is promising a narrower “repayment” for his disciples if they remain faithful.

Apart from the language throughout the passage not being narrow — Jesus speaks of “anyone”, “whoever” (twice), “a man” (twice) in a broad call to discipleship and to take up the cross — the same discourse is made to the crowd as well as the disciples in Mark. Whatever was of relevance to the disciples in Matthew and Luke was also of relevance to the crowd – ie to everyone who would hear him.

The darkening of the heavens

You say “Stark has not read the Old Testament texts carefully enough.”

I think you’re wrong to say this with regard to Stark’s interpretation of the Isaiah texts in Matthew 24, and certainly his supporting texts Ezekiel 32:5-7 and Joel 2:30-32. Stark says “Jesus was using the traditional language (darkened skies etc) the prophets employed to foretell the fall of Israel’s enemies.” This was true of Babylon in Isaiah, where it was the Medes who brought about the downfall, and it was true of Egypt’s defeat at the battle of Carchemish.

You say “the point to grasp is that in the Old Testament prophetic visions the sky is darkened over the city that is being judged, not subsequently over the armies that have come against the city.”

But it’s not the city in the texts cited. In Isaiah 13 it’s the land v.9;  habitable earth v.11; in Ezekiel 32 it’s Egypt; in Joel 2:30-31 it’s not the city (Jerusalem) in view but the whole land, in continuation with the vision of the army of locusts and the northern army. There will be “wonders in the heavens and on the earth” (2:30). By contrast, instead of judgment on the city, “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance” (2:32).

That said, I don’t find Stark’s argument here compelling either, in his extension of the very brief extracts from Isaiah 13 and 34 to signify, in his view, a prediction by Jesus of the forthcoming destruction of the Roman army in Palestine, and with it the fall of Rome. There is no mention of Rome or a pagan power here, nor when Peter quotes the Joel passage in his Pentecost address. 

The coming of the Son of Man

You say: “Stark takes “Son of Man” to be a “true messianic warrior”, and argue that “the Son of Man is never a militant figure.”

Where then does Stark get the idea that the Son of Man will come as a warrior? I think it must be from Matthew 24:30-31: “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call”. 

Stark has not denied that the messiah will suffer, which comes earlier in the narrative. On the other hand, there is precedent for a belief in a warrior messiah figure, eg Psalm 2:6-11; Psalm 110; Isaiah 63:1-6.

You say

“Daniel’s figure in human form is not, in fact, a warrior but a victim: he represents the faithful people of the saints of the Most High, against whom Antiochus Epiphanes made war (Dan. 7:25-27). It is the Ancient of Days who destroys the fourth beast of Greek imperial power; then the one like a son of man only receives dominion, glory, and a kingdom.”

It’s not quite so clear from the Daniel passages that he is purely a symbolic, representative figure, or even that it is the Ancient of Days who destroys the fourth beast, but this issue isn’t addressed by Stark. For him, “when the true messianic warrior (the “Son of Man”; see Daniel 7:13-14) arrives, his identity will be unmistakable. “For as the lightning …” etc”

I don’t think your criticism of the three points from Stark is convincing.

1. Stark points out that Jesus was not the only person to predict the destruction of the temple. A similar prophecy was made by Jesus Ben Hananiah (chapter 8 footnote 26). If Jesus was vindicated by the fulfilment of this prediction, why not Ben Hananiah also?

2. The argument being rejected is that the coming of the Son of Man was “seen” in the evidence of the destruction of the temple. If the Matthew/Mark predictions are being understood as a sequence of events, the “coming of the Son of Man” follows after “the distress of those days” — Matthew 24:29, and “following that distress” – Mark 13:24, ie after the destruction of the temple, not as part of it.

3. Whether Matthew 24:30 is “tribes of the land” or “tribes of the earth” is moot. Certainly in Matthew 24, the statement is almost immediately followed by the prediction of the gathering of the elect “from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other”, which cannot be anything other than worldwide. It’s arguable that the context is the same in both cases. The difference between Matthew and Zechariah is that in the latter, the tribes mourn over “him they have pierced” – not the fall of Jerusalem.

Is this a metaphor I see before me?

You say

So I will make the point bluntly that there is no difficulty with the assumption that that the Old Testament prophets used such language metaphorically.

The point is redundant. Stark actually says:

“Whether the darkening of the heavenly lights is intended literally or symbolically is irrelevant. In either case, the least that is meant is that YHWH is about to heap destruction on a foreign power.”

You say

There’s no reason why Jesus should have taken the coming of one like a son of man with the clouds of heaven any more literally than Daniel did

A good reason to take the coming of the Son of Man more literally is that Daniel’s vision led some to think that it was or would be a literal occurrence. So far, the evidence produced to suggest that it wasn’t, and isn’t, is less than convincing.

You say

Finally, and curiously, Stark does not mention the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46

Yes that is curious, because it also reinforces his argument. The language contains echoes of the Matthew 16:24-28, Mark 8:34 – 9:1, Luke 9:23-27 passages, in particular “When the son of man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him” – Matthew 25:1, and the judgment for deeds/actions, not words/beliefs.

The passages just cited do not have a narrower judgement of the nations simply because the total criteria for judgment are narrower. They reinforce Stark’s argument – that a final judgment was expected by Jesus imminently, and the issue of the treatment of his envoys would be a much more immediate issue for judgment, if not the entirety of the judgment.

Your final paragraph about “condemned texts” is an important part of Stark’s argument against belief in biblical inerrancy. It does not apply of course to the texts under discussion here from Chapter 8 in the book. But I do agree with the sentiments you express!

Thanks for taking the time to make the review and critique, which I found helpful.

Thanks, Peter. I’m not sure I can respond to every point, but here we go…

The Son of Man will come before some of those standing here taste death

But your observation doesn’t broaden the scope of the judgment very much. There is still nothing to suggest a final judgment of all humanity. At this point Jesus only says that the Son of Man will be ashamed of those in “this adulterous and sinful generation” of Israel who are ashamed of him. Those who have taken up their cross to follow him will gain some reward presumably. We can add to this the assessment of the work of the servants put in charge or of the ten girls with their lamps, but again nothing suggests that he is thinking beyond Israel. And then there is the limited judgment of the nations on the basis of how they responded to the presence of his disciples in their midst, which we will get back to.

The darkening of the heavens

The narrative in the “oracle concerning Babylon” is that YHWH will bring a foreign army—the Medes—to destroy the whole “land” (Hebrew ʾeretz, Greek oikoumenē). The “world” that is punished in Isaiah 13:11 is the world governed from Babylon—again oikoumenē or “empire” in the LXX. Therefore, Babylon will be like Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. I made the point in the post that the judgment was against the city and the land. In any case, the city itself is clearly the epicentre of judgment symbolised by the darkening of the heavens.

The fact that the whole land around the city is included is beside the point. This is still a very different idea to the defeat of a foreign army that has come to fight against Jerusalem.

I agree that Joel 2:30-3:3 is difficult to read, but it looks to me as though Jesus and the early church were interested only in the sequence in 2:30-32: wonders in the heavens portending the coming day of the Lord and the salvation of those in Jerusalem who called on the name of the Lord (cf. Acts 2:14-41).

The coming of the Son of man

It’s not clear where Stark gets the warrior Son of Man from, but he cites Daniel 7:13-14. Some scholars identify the “one like a son of man” with the warrior angels who appear later in the book.

On your three points…

1. Jesus ben Hananiah was vindicated but he didn’t identify himself with Daniel’s son of man figure. He made no self-centred predictions about the future.

2. How is this a problem? The darkening of the heavens points to an eschatological event of immense proportions, central to which is the destruction of Jerusalem. As a consequence the tribes of the land would see a transfer of power analogous to what Daniel saw.

3. Again, I don’t see the problem. The fall of Jerusalem prompts regret for having crucified Jesus?

Is this a metaphor I see before me?

The point is not redundant. I resolve Stark’s ambivalence.

I don’t know what you are referring to: “A good reason to take the coming of the Son of Man more literally is that Daniel’s vision led some to think that it was or would be a literal occurrence.”

The judgment of the sheep and goats simply assigns the nations to two categories—some will be included in the future rule of Christ over the nations, others will be excluded, on the very narrow basis of whether they took the trouble to tend to the needs of Jesus’ disciples. How this can be mistaken for a final judgment is beyond me.

A brief response to your reply, for which again thanks.

The Son of Man will come before some of those standing here taste death

I take your point that “observation doesn’t broaden the scope of the judgment very much.” However, Jesus is talking to Jews within Israel, so it seems natural that he should speak about their future in particular. The overriding point is that he expected an imminent fulfilment of his words, associated with the ”the son of man coming in his kingdom”. Stark argues that Jesus was wrong in predicting this event to occur in the time-frame given. If he was not wrong, then the temple destruction becomes the main visible focus of the fulfilment, as argued by Wright and in a slightly different way by yourself. It’s difficult to see how this can be a direct fulfilment of Jesus’s words here.

The darkening of the heavens

I think Stark is using the darkening of the heavens in other OT prophecies to show that the language accompanied the downfall of great powers, which were traditionally Israel’s enemies, and certainly represented enmity in their worship of false gods. In the same way, the darkening of the heavens in the Isaiah passages, Isaiah 13:10 in particular, shows the coming defeat of the great power, he argues, in the Matthew 24 prediction — in this case Rome. Further allusions (Mattathias and his brothers fleeing to the mountains to regroup) suggest this will take place in Israel.

But don’t worry — I’m not buying this! It goes far beyond anything said in Matthew 24 — or Acts 2:17-21.

The coming of the Son of man

There certainly was a tradition of a warrior messiah in the Intertestamental Writings, and an interpretation of Daniel’s son of man in this way. It’s probably with this tradition in the background that Stark assumes the idea of a warrior messiah, but he doesn’t pursue the sources.

Point 1. 

Doesn’t the existence of another prophet predicting the destruction of the temple diminish the uniqueness of Jesus’s prophecy on which the fulfilment of the “coming of the son of man” is said to rest? The temple destruction is the only visible evidence provided for “coming of the son of man” fulfilment, according to the arguments, and as far as I can see.

Point 2.

In the Matthew/Mark predictions, there is a sequence of events. Stark argues that the destruction of the temple takes place before “the coming of the son of man”. This is central to his criticism of Wright. The time-break is taken from “Immediately after” — Matthew 24:29, and “in those days, following that distress” — Mark 13:14.  

Point 3.

I was just pointing out that the difference in the object of “mourning” in the Zechariah and Matthew prophecies suggests that they are not connected. and the one doesn’t reinforce the other. 

Is this a metaphor I see before me?

“The point is not redundant. I resolve Stark’s ambivalence.” - Could you explain how you have done this?

“I don’t know what you are referring to: “A good reason to take the coming of the Son of Man more literally is that Daniel’s vision led some to think that it was or would be a literal occurrence.” ” — This refers again to the belief of some in the Intertestamental Writings in a warrior messiah in the Daniel 7:13-14 prophecy.

Judgment of sheep and goats — again, the scenario for fulfilment you describe does not fit historical events, unless you mean 300 years later. The criteria for reward/punishment are those if Jesus had been expecting an imminent “coming of the son of man”/final judgment. Both are conflated in the parable/prophecy. So there is an alternative to the argument for a prediction whose only visible sign was the destruction of the temple — which is problematic. The alternative also means that Jesus got the timing wrong. His apocalyptic mindset, which he shared with his contemporaries (or at least may of them), limited his field of vision. This is how I understand Stark.

Just want to say how very encouraging it is to see both Andrew and Peter debate in such intelligent, robust, mature and highly  respectful way…thank you both 

The trouble with these debates is that they can be difficult to bring to a close (and they can get a bit stressful!), but, encouraged by the kind words of Donald and davo, I’ll push this one a bit further. I did install a like button once, but it didn’t get much use. So people will just have do it the old fashioned way and say in words what they like and dislike.

If he was not wrong, then the temple destruction becomes the main visible focus of the fulfilment, as argued by Wright and in a slightly different way by yourself. It’s difficult to see how this can be a direct fulfilment of Jesus’s words here.

Well, the destruction of the temple (and when it would occur) clearly is the main focus of the whole address in Mark 13:5-36. Jesus says nothing about events outside of that field of vision.

Whether his point is precisely that he will be vindicated by the catastrophic turn of events is perhaps another matter. In Daniel 7:9-14 God acts to judge the empires and to destroy that empire which persecuted the righteous or “wise” in Israel; then the persecuted righteous are presented to him and are given kingdom, etc. The emphasis is on their subsequent rule over the nations of the former Greek empire, but the implication is that this is the reward for their faithfulness. In other words, they are vindicated.

Jesus uses the symbolism of the Son of Man figure coming in clouds in a different way. Arguably, when he says that the leadership of Israel will “see” this visionary event, he is evoking the larger scenario of Daniel 7-12, which includes the apostasy of those in Israel who are seduced by the pagan opponent (Dan. 11:32-35). So the crisis will be resolved in such a way that it will be obvious that the “righteous” or “wise” were all along the true Israel.

But he develops the vision in another direction, presumably because it was a matter of great concern to him whether his disciples would endure to the end and so be saved (Mk. 13:13). So the Son of Man who comes with the clouds is not here given kingdom, etc. (though this is certainly entailed elsewhere), but sends out his angels to gather the envoys he has sent out to the ends of the earth to proclaim the coming kingdom. I would take this to be (like the sheep and goats judgment in Matthew 25) an aspect of the coming intervention of YHWH to judge and restore Israel, but it’s not the whole story.

This seems to me to account quite naturally for the sequence of events. Stark’s insistence that the Son of Man is seen after the destruction of the temple seems to me rather pedantic, but I think he misses the point in any case.

Doesn’t the existence of another prophet predicting the destruction of the temple diminish the uniqueness of Jesus’s prophecy on which the fulfilment of the “coming of the son of man” is said to rest?

I’m not sure where the problem is here. Jesus son of Ananus prophesies against Jerusalem: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!” (Jos. War 6:301). He is treated as a madman, and in the end he is killed by a stone from one of the siege engines.

So he was tragically vindicated by events. But the difference between the two Jesuses is explained by the parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus son of Ananus was in effect one of many prophets sent to Israel to warn of the coming catastrophe. But as a last resort God also sent his Son—the one who would inherit, who would eventually get possession of the people of God. Jesus son of Ananus didn’t make that claim about himself.

I was just pointing out that the difference in the object of “mourning” in the Zechariah and Matthew prophecies suggests that they are not connected. and the one doesn’t reinforce the other.

I see. But Matthew doesn’t specify the object of the mourning of the tribes of the land, and in context it seems quite likely that he means that they will regret having “pierced” the Son of Man. Perhaps even by “the sign of the Son of Man,” which will appear in the heavens, Matthew means the cross on which Jesus was pierced. In any case, Matthew presumably alludes to the Zechariah passage for a reason; and he gives no indication that he expects his readers to understand the scope of the saying differently.

Agreed with your opening words. 

I’m only trying to understand and present Stark’s point of view, which I think is worth considering as an alternative explanation to the Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 passages.

His presentation does depend on the break between the temple desecration and what follows, which includes the coming of the son of man verses. In Matthew this is “Immediately after the distress of those days” — v.29, and in Mark “But in those days, after that tribulation” — v.24. There is a time sequence here. The immediate tribulation of the Roman sack of Jerusalem has finished. What is now described follows afterwards — according to the prophecy.

There then follows the darkening of the heavens verses (signalling the impending defeat of a great power — Rome in Stark’s argument), and the coming of the son of man verses. Then the “gathering” verses, which it’s difficult not to see in a final judgment framework, and conversely difficult in any sense to see as simply metaphorical, with only the destruction of the temple being visibly in view.

I don’t think Stark is being pedantic, as you say, by arguing for a time sequence and a break between the temple desecration/sack of Jerusalem and the darkening of the heavens/coming of the son of man. I’d say that it is a straightforward way of reading things. The uncomfortable consequence is that Jesus got that part of the prophecy  wrong. 

The time sequence in Luke doesn’t so strongly suggest this break between events, which in Stark’s argument should come between Luke 21:24 and 25. On the other hand, “the times of the gentiles are fulfilled” Luke 21:24) is understood by Stark as the immediate “trampling” of Jerusalem at at that time, with an expected imminent defeat of the Roman armies shortly afterwards in Palestine.

Douglas Wilkinson | Fri, 09/10/2021 - 04:54 | Permalink

I’d ike to have seen you integrate Isa. 65 and 66 into your argument.  There, the conditions of the New Heaven and New Earth include a New Jerusalem where God’s people are a bona fide blessing to the earth, and people don’t die until they’ve lived a long life.  In 66, where this new system is again described,  we see that after the sign where God gathers all nations together and judges them, the survivors go to the utmost parts of the earth to evangelize unbelievers and tell them about the great sign and God himself.  That section wraps up with a threat against the apostate members of the Israelites that Jesus quotes when warning them about the judgment about to come.

These are often unappreciated chapters.