Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

Having studied each Gospel’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Parts 1, 2, 3), it now remains to summarize the results and consider how best to approach the Discourse in light of the Synoptic Tradition as a whole. Many critical scholars would hold that the Discourse itself—the structure and arrangement of it—is original to the Gospel of Mark. I tend to think, however, that the basic outline of it pre-dates Mark, even if one accepts the premise that it represents a traditional (and literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, rather than a self-contained sermon spoken by Jesus on a single occasion. The critical premise would seem to be confirmed by the way that Matthew’s version includes sayings found in an entirely different location in Luke, as well as certain internal evidence (of catch-word bonding, etc) which we examined. The very fact of such editing and arrangement of material, however, strongly indicates to me that the Discourse, at its core, represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus that was assembled together at an early point. The basic similarity in outline with portions of the book of Revelation (such as the first six seal-visions) also argues for an early and authoritative arrangement.

Let us now consider each of the fundamental components of the Discourse, in turn, much as we did in the first three studies.

1. The Destruction of the Temple

The starting point of the Synoptic Discourse is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The shadow of the Temple hangs over the entire discourse (v. 3 par), and Luke’s version, in particular, makes the destruction of the Temple the central event announced by Jesus in the discourse. This is an authentic prophecy, which was fulfilled in the great war of 66-70 A.D.; as such, it establishes the only certain chronological marker for the eschatological narrative Jesus presents. As an historical setting, it admirably fits much of what is predicted—war and uprising, false Messiahs, a time of great distress for Judea, the desecration of the Temple and a horrible siege of Jerusalem by a foreign (pagan) power. Moreover, it took place within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ first disciples (v. 30 par; cf. also Mk 9:1 par; Matt 10:23).

2. Signs preceding the coming destruction

If we accept the context of vv. 3-4 at face value, then verses 5-8 represent the signs asked for by the disciples. Recall that their question was two-fold:

    • “When will these things be?”
    • “What is the sign when all these things are about to be completed together?”

“These things” (tau=ta) must include, first, the destruction of the Temple, and, second, the other things mentioned by Jesus in his eschatological teaching (such as that which follows in the discourse). Again, if we take the narrative context seriously, the things mentioned by Jesus in vv. 5-8 will take place before the destruction of the Temple. Admittedly, there is some confusion in the Gospel tradition at this point, as we saw when examining the form of the disciples’ question in the different versions. Luke and Mark are very close, differing only slighting in the wording; however, the use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) by Luke instead of suntele/w (“complete [all]together”) softens the eschatological impact, and may serve to separate the destruction of the Temple from other end-time events preceding the coming of the Son of Man. The (second) question in Matthew’s version is quite different, and moves in the opposite direction—giving greater emphasis to the eschatological context:

“what is the sign of your coming alongside [parousi/a] and the completion together of th(is) Age?” (24:3)

The question more bluntly refers to the return of Jesus and the end of the Age; indeed, only Matthew uses the noun parousi/a (also in vv. 27, 37, 39) which came to be a technical term among early Christians for the return of Jesus. Phrased this way, it reflects the early Christian viewpoint, rather than the understanding of the disciples themselves at the point in time indicated by the narrative. The framework in Mark/Luke is unquestionably more original, with the Matthean version likely representing an early Christian gloss.

Let us consider briefly, again, each of the “signs” mentioned by Jesus here:

    • The appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs (and/or persons claiming to be Jesus), who will lead many people astray
    • Wars/battles and various reports/rumors; these include specifically uprisings, one nation or people against another (superior/ruling power)
    • Natural disasters—earthquakes (lit. shakings) and times of hunger (famine); Luke’s version also mentions plague/pestilence and “great & fearful signs from heaven”

Two important statements position these “signs” within a general chronological framework:

    • “the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b par)—i.e. the end of the Age will not come immediately with these signs; a period of some length(?) is still to follow.
    • “these (thing)s (are) the beginning of (birth) pains” (v. 8b par; Luke does not have this)—these signs mark the beginning (or first part) of a period of intense suffering.

Both statements make clear that, while such signs mark the end-time, the end itself will only come after a period of suffering/distress. The length of this period is indicated at the end of the discourse (vv. 28-30 par), but only with some ambiguity, leading to questions of interpretation which remain under debate by commentators today (cf. below).

Central to the “signs” mentioned by Jesus is a period of war and uprising; it is possible that one may view the occurrences of hunger and pestilence as a natural result of this warfare, as seems to be the case in the third and fourth seal-visions in Revelation (6:5-8). Certainly, war, hunger, and plague/disease are found in all times and places, and really cannot be used to determine a specific location or period of history. However, if we keep in mind the context of the destruction of the Temple, it is reasonable to refer this to warfare and uprising within the Roman Empire (in the 1st century A.D.). For people in Judea and Jerusalem (Jesus’ audience), the uprising and war of 66-70 would be most terrible, and a natural extension of Rome’s brutal wars with dozens of nations and races. The Judean context is emphasized in vv. 14-22; here, it is the world and humankind more generally that is in view.

If we seek to relate these signs more precisely to the destruction of the Temple (i.e. the coming war of 66-70), the following details, as reported/recorded by Josephus, are worth noting:

    • Reference to a number of would-be prophets and quasi-Messianic figures in the 1st century, most notably Theudas (c. 45 A.D., Antiquities 20.97-8; Acts 5:36) and the person known as “the Egyptian” (50s A.D., Antiquities 20.169-71; War 2.261-2). Messianic beliefs and expectations appear to have played a significant role in the war of 66-70 (War 2.433-44; 4.503ff; 6.285, 312-3; 7.29, etc), as it did in the later Jewish revolts of 115-117 and 132-135 A.D. Matthew’s version of the Discourse (24:23-28) indicates that these “false prophets” take advantage of the time of war and distress to mislead and influence the populace, much as Josephus describes.
    • Descriptions of miraculous signs and omens indicating the coming destruction of Jerusalem (see esp. War 6.285-9ff). Even if one does not accept the factuality of these reports, they certainly fit the characterization in Lk 21:11 of “fearful things and great signs from heaven”.

There is a particular difficulty in verse 6 which needs to be considered again. Jesus refers to certain deceivers: “Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)'”. This can be taken several ways:

    • False Christians who prophesy/speak falsely in Jesus’ name
    • People claiming to be Jesus himself (having returned?)
    • People claiming to be the Messiah

The first two are difficult to maintain, at the historical level, though they would make sense for early Christians. The last option is much more likely, given the similar references to false Messiahs later on in vv. 21-22 par. For early Christians, of course, a claim to be the Messiah was effectively the same as claiming to stand in place of Jesus himself. Matthew here (24:5) clarifies what was almost certainly the original meaning—that there would be false Messiahs who would lead people astray, as in the examples reported by Josephus.

3. A period of persecution and mission work for the disciples

The next section of the discourse (Mk 13:9-13 par) relates more directly to Jesus’ disciples (and the earliest Christians). It describes a time of persecution and suffering for them which is parallel to the distress coming upon Judea and the nations. It implies a period of mission work, in which the disciples continue Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the Gospel (the “good message” of the Kingdom) throughout Judea and even into the surrounding nations. What Jesus describes here was fulfilled (in virtually every detail) in the period prior to the war of 66-70, as narrated throughout the book of Acts, the same being recorded (less reliably) in other sources of Apostolic tradition (such as the various deutero-canonical “Acts”). Only in regard to the extent of the mission is there any room for question. The general statement in Mk 13:10 is given a rather wider scope in Matthew 24:14, possibly indicating a period extending beyond the lifetime of the first disciples.

4. The period of “great distress” for Judea and Jerusalem

The expression “great distress” (more commonly rendered “great tribulation”) is best known from Rev 7:14, where we have the broader scope of a world-wide period of distress. Ultimately, this terminology is derived from Daniel 12:1, and, while the reference in Mk 13:19 par clearly reflects the same tradition, the “distress” (qli/yi$) mentioned in the Discourse is localized specifically in Judea and Jerusalem (v. 14). It relates primarily, if not entirely, to the people of Jerusalem (and Judea) whom Jesus is addressing (including his disciples). In the Markan version, generally followed by Matthew, the time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is marked by four signs or details:

    • An event/episode, viewed as a fulfillment of Dan 9:27, which marks the onset of the distress (v. 14)
    • The suffering will be intense and will affect virtually the entire population, resulting in many deaths (vv. 14b-20; cf. also Matt 24:28)
    • Claims that the Messiah has come or is present (v. 21)
    • The appearance of miracle-working false prophets and false Messiahs (v. 22, cf. above)

The difficulty of interpretation involves the allusion to Dan 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), with the editorial aside (“the one reading must have it in mind”), suggesting an application to the present/current situation of the Gospel readers (c. 60 A.D.). Matthew’s version (24:15) makes this more clear—i.e. that the “stinking thing of desolation” (to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$) will be standing in the Temple sanctuary (“holy place”). The parallel with the action of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in c. 167 B.C. (the immediate point of reference in Daniel, as presumed by most commentators), could indicate a pagan altar or image that has been set up in the sanctuary (1 Macc 1:54; 2 Macc 6:2). Just as likely is a more general reference to a pagan presence and desecration of the Temple, which could include Roman standards and the like. Paul almost certainly draws on this same basic tradition in 2 Thess 2:4-5 (to be discussed later in this series).

If the allusion to Dan 9:27 (in Mark/Matthew) remains somewhat obscure to us today, the Lukan version is unmistakably clear—it refers to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by a foreign army. If we accept the authenticity and accuracy of this, it means that the “stinking thing of desolation” is fulfilled by the presence of the (pagan) Romans who overrun the city (and the Temple), destroying it. There is no need to look beyond the obvious context of the war in 66-70 for fulfillment. Josephus gives a vivid account of the siege (and subsequent destruction) with the resultant horrors and suffering experienced by the people (War 5.47-97; 6.93, 149-56, 201-11, etc). To anyone caught in the middle of that terror, it would have seemed like the end of the world, and very much a fulfillment of what Jesus describes in Mk 13:14b-20 par. The final “desolation” of the city—its ruins and the captivity of its people/leaders—is also portrayed by Josephus (War 6.271-3, 420; 7.112-5, 118, 138, etc; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.8-13).

Thus, if we use the Lukan version of this section as our guide, we can state that what Jesus predicted was fulfilled (more or less accurately) in the war of 66-70. Some commentators would also interpret the exhortation to flee the city (Lk 21:21 par) in light of the tradition regarding the flight of the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in Perea (Eusebius Church History 3.5.3), but this is questionable at best.

(For more on the background and interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, see the earlier study on that passage [part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”]).

5. The coming of the Son of Man

The final section of prophecy in the Discourse involves the conclusion of the period of distress—the appearance of the Son of Man, marking the end of the current Age and the final Judgment. This is one of the core “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Like that which is set during his interrogation before the Council (Mk 14:62 par), the declaration here in the Discourse (13:26f par) is derived from Daniel 7:13-14. For other Son of Man sayings with a similar eschatological context, cf. Mk 8:38 par; Matt 10:23; 13:37ff; 16:28; 25:31ff; Lk 9:26; 12:8; 17:22ff par; 18:8; 21:36. These were discussed in the prior studies in this series on the eschatological sayings of Jesus.

Three distinct strands make up this section (Mk 13:24-27 par):

    • Vv. 24-25: Old Testament allusions (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Ezek 32:7, etc) using the language of theophany, referring to the “day of YHWH” and the (end-time) Judgment upon humankind
    • V. 26: The image of the Son of Man coming on/with the clouds (Dan 7:13-14)
    • V. 27: The heavenly/angelic deliverance of God’s people (the elect) at the end-time (cf. Dan 12:1ff, etc)

Luke’s version brings out the Judgment context more clearly (21:25-26), including different Scriptural allusions (Ps 65:7; Isa 34:4). The time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is paralleled here with a time of stress (suno/xh) for all the nations (on this point, cf. below). Moreover, at the end of the Lukan discourse there is a definite reference to humankind standing before the Son of Man (i.e. in the heavenly court) at the final Judgment (21:36, cp. Matt 25:31-46).

For believers today, this section represents the interpretive crux of the Discourse. While all (or nearly all) of the previous statements by Jesus (Mk 13:5-23 par) can be seen as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the references to the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27) cannot. This is a major discrepancy which requires some sort of explanation. I outline here three different solutions, or approaches, to the problem:

1. The section dealing with the Son of Man is secondary, or intrusive, to the Discourse in its original/earliest form. This would be by far the simplest solution; indeed, without vv. 24-27 par, virtually the entire Discourse could be understood as having a first century fulfillment, even within the lifetime of the disciples, and the otherwise problematic saying in v. 30 par could be taken in its obvious sense (i.e. “this generation” = those alive when Jesus spoke), with no need for special or forced interpretations. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, sound basis for excising vv. 24-27 from the Discourse. More importantly, even if those sayings by Jesus were originally uttered in a different context, there are plenty of other “Son of Man” sayings which evince an imminent eschatology, and would naturally apply here in the Discourse (as a collection of Jesus’ eschatological teaching) as well.

2. The image of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” properly refers to his coming toward the Father (in Heaven), not an appearance on earth. In other words, from an early Christian standpoint, it refers to Jesus’ exaltation and enthronement at God’s right hand, not to his (future) return to earth. This interpretation of the original meaning of Mk 13:26 par is advocated strongly by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann in their commentary on Matthew (Anchor Bible Vol. ), but it must be regarded as untenable. While faithful to the original context of Daniel 7:13-14, it ignores the wider scope of the book, especially that of chapter 12, which was of enormous influence for the thought and language of the Discourse. A combination of Dan 7:13-14 and 12:1ff yields the precise matrix we find here in the Discourse—the Son of Man, given divine authority to rule and judge, appears to deliver the people of God at the end-time. The very idea of Jesus’ future return makes little sense without the tradition from Dan 12:1ff etc. Jesus would not be able to fulfill this heavenly/Messianic role, until his (future) return in glory, and that is what is essentially being described in Mk 13:26-27 par.

3. A division of two periods (or gap in time) between Mk 13:5-23 and vv. 24-27. In favor of this approach is the arrangement of the Lukan version, which does seem to indicate, however slightly, two distinct (parallel) periods of distress and judgment:

    • The Distress (qli/yi$) coming upon Judea and its people (21:20-24)
    • The Distress (suno/xh) coming upon all the Nations (21:25-26)

If the first period was fulfilled in the first century A.D. (and perhaps some years thereafter, v. 24), the second period likely is understood as occurring after the first (the “time of the nations”) has been completed. The Judgment upon the Nations cannot take place until the time of their dominance/control over Jerusalem comes to an end. On the (reasonable) assumption that the Gospel of Luke was written shortly after 70 A.D., it would seem that the author understands that there is at least a short period after the destruction of the Temple, during which Christians continue their mission work, before the final Judgment (and end of the Age) occurs. Extending such a period to cover more than 1,900 years remains highly problematic—a problem for which there is no easy solution.

Many readers and commentators today would, I think, tend to prefer a different solution, one which might be labeled the “dual-fulfillment” approach. This line of interpretation would be summarized as follows:

    • The primary fulfillment of Mk 13:5-23 par occurred in the 1st century A.D., with the destruction of the Temple, etc.
    • However, this was only a partial fulfillment, which awaits completion at a future time—when many of the events and phenomena predicted by Jesus will, in a sense, be repeated.

In support of such an approach is the way the New Testament handles the very traditions from Daniel 9:24-27 and 12:1ff—i.e., they had an original fulfillment in the time of Antiochus IV (2nd century B.C.), but receive their completion in the time of the Romans (1st century A.D.). Jesus’ own predictions in the Discourse could be treated in a similar way. This still does not explain or account for a gap of 1,900+ years, but it does at least allow for a working interpretive model within which one might grapple with the difficulties.

6. The Time of the End

The popular modern interpretations, attempting to account for a ‘gap’ of 1,900+ years, are complicated considerably by the sayings of Jesus in Mk 13:28-31 par, especially the famous saying in v. 30 (cf. the study on “imminent eschatology” in the Gospels). The obvious and ordinary sense of the expression “this generation”, based on the evidence in the Gospels (and elsewhere in the New Testament), is that Jesus is referring to his audience—i.e. the people alive at the time he is speaking. Any other interpretation seems quite forced, out of the (admittedly real) need to avoid the implication that Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) was in error about the time of the end. As noted above, except for the coming of the Son of Man (and the actual end of the current Age), nearly everything in the Discourse could be understood as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., and within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples. Thus, the responsible commentator today must deal with two basic, and seemingly irreconcilable, facts:

    • Jesus is speaking to his disciples (and Jewish contemporaries) in the 1st century, referring to things that they will see and experience (i.e. in their lifetimes)
    • The end did not come in the 1st century, and we today continue to await the coming of the Son of Man, much as did Jesus’ first disciples

There is no easy answer as to how the faithful student of Scripture may reconcile these points. I offer an initial approach in the article on “imminent eschatology”, and will address the subject again in more detail at the conclusion of this series.

7. The exhortation(s) to remain vigilant

Theological concerns have exaggerated the importance of the saying in Mk 13:32 par; its main purpose is to emphasize that no person can know precisely when the end-time Judgment will occur (or begin). It will come upon people suddenly and unexpectedly, overwhelming them, as in the Old Testament illustrations of Noah and Lot—i.e., the Flood and the fiery judgment on Sodom & Gomorrah (Matt 24:37-39ff; par Lk 17:26-35). Only the faithful and obedient (i.e. sober and vigilant) disciple will survive the coming Judgment. This is framed through the parable format, used frequently by Jesus, of servants who work while their Master is away—those who act irresponsibly or wickedly will be punished when the Master returns (unexpectedly!). This sort of illustration naturally led to an early Christian interpretation in terms of Jesus’ end-time return (already beginning here in Matthew’s version, vv. 37, 39, 42, 44); however, this may not have been the original meaning by Jesus—the Lord/Master (Mk 13:35) who comes is God appearing to bring Judgment (i.e. the “day of YHWH” tradition). We can, I think, trace this development of thought in the Gospel tradition:

    • The coming of God to bring Judgment
    • The coming of God’s appointed representative—the divine/heavenly being who possesses His authority (i.e. the Danielic “Son of Man”)
    • Jesus is identified with this “Son of Man” figure—i.e., it is the exalted Jesus who comes (or returns) at the time of Judgment

The Chronology of the Discourse

Finally, a word must be said about the chronology of the Eschatological Discourse. Chronological systems of eschatology have been (and continue to be) extremely popular among Christians, though most of them are questionable at best in terms of their assumptions and basic approach. It must be admitted, however, that one finds a certain amount of systematization within the Synoptic tradition itself, as it developed. This began, we may assume, with the initial formation of the Discourse, especially if it represents a traditional (literary) arrangement of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus. Beyond this, it is possible to discern chronological aspects to the uniquely Matthean and Lukan developments of the Discourse material. Luke, in particular, provides a more systematic arrangement of this material. On the basis of the principle of “progressive revelation”, one might choose to use Luke’s version as a guide for interpretation in this respect. Let us begin first, however, with the Markan version, which I would outline (chronologically) as follows:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

Everything up to verse 24 was fulfilled by 70 A.D.; the remainder (vv. 24b-28), from the standpoint of the Gospel writer, probably was expected to occur within a relatively short time (a few years or decades?) after c. 70 A.D.

John the Baptist in Josephus’ Antiquities

The general historical accuracy of the Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist, including the background to the narrative in Mark 6:14-29 par, is confirmed by the information in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.116-119—the only other contemporary reference to John outside of the Gospels and book of Acts:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent as prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the citadel I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (LOEB translation)