26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
This is one of those passages where Jesus is recorded as saying something and then immediately seems to retract it and say something contrary. There are a number of these in the gospels and I'll comment on a few others in different posts, if I can find the time.
Here, regarding "the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory", he says:
- "this generation will certainly not pass away until these things have happened", and
- "about that day or hour no one knows, not even [...] the Son, but only the Father"
How do we reconcile these two statements? Here's all the possibilities I can see:
- Assuming Jesus actually said both things, he wouldn't have said the former if he really had no idea about when the events would take place. So the only way I can see to reconcile these is to actually take the latter statement at face value - Jesus didn't know the day or hour, but he did know the month, year or decade. He knew the 'Son of Man coming' event was coming soon (within a generation) but just didn't know the precise details. This leaves us with two possibilities, either:
- Jesus incorrectly predicted the 'Son of Man coming' event. It didn't happen. The world has gone on as before for nearly two thousand years since the time Jesus predicted. That is to say, Jesus was wrong and uttered a false prophecy. Or
- Jesus used allegorical language to talk about an event which did happen within a generation. That event can only have been the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. That being the case we should interpret all other '2nd coming' discussion in a like manner and give up all belief in the future return of Christ. The 2nd coming has already happened.
- Assuming the former statement to be original, the latter statement must have been added by the compiler of the book to mitigate the former saying. This would make sense if the compiler was writing at a sufficiently late date that he could see that the former prophecy had failed, that is, the generation had passed away before the time of writing and the 2nd coming had not occurred. The addition of the latter statement was putting words (fictitiously) into the mouth of Jesus to try and salvage his reputation as a prophet.
- Of course, we could rather assume the latter statement to be original to Jesus, but if that was the case then the entire, much longer, preceding passage would have to be the fiction. Why would anyone invent a definite, testable, prophecy and put it side by side with a statement that contradicts it? The only think I can think of is if someone in the days after the destruction of the temple thought that Jesus must have predicted such a cataclysmic event, and so invented the story and put it in the narrative at around the same point Jesus was talking about not how he didn't know the dates of future events.
The one doctrine that doesn't come out of this study unscathed is the 2nd coming as it is commonly understood by contemporary evangelicals. No evangelical reading of the text as inerrant, authoritative or 'God breathed' lets us assume that either one of the statements is fictitious or that Jesus uttered false prophecy. The only way you can take this passage seriously as an evangelical is therefore to realise that the 'Son of Man coming' event Jesus was talking about must have been the destruction of the temple in the 1st Century and that there is therefore no other 2nd coming to look forward to.
I know there are a minority of evangelicals who do view this passage in this way, most notably N.T. Wright, but I have to say that, in my experience, most evangelicals are still looking forward to the 2nd coming, and they've been expecting it to be 'soon' for nearly two millennia so far.
But what if we approach this as a non-evangelical? Viewed from this perspective it seems clear to me that the narrative was compiled at least a generation after the events allegedly took place. The former prophecy (whether original to Jesus or not) has been shown to be false, and somebody (may or may not have been the compiler) has devised a corrective saying to mitigate the effects of the earlier saying being shown to be false.
I find the whole passage to be very hard to unravel. Jesus appears at certain points in the story to be talking clearly about the destruction of the temple, but at other points he is clearly talking about the 2nd coming and the end of all things, the escahton. From our point in history it is clear that the eschaton did not happen with the destruction of the temple. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the 'little apocalypse' was composed by someone (not Jesus) shortly after the destruction of the temple, but still during the period of the Jewish war - the author assumed that the destruction was the beginning of the process and the 2nd coming wasn't far off. However, some time after this, the compiler of the gospel is able to see that the eschaton didn't happen as predicted, and so added the corrective saying to mitigate the failed prophecy.
So what I deduce is that the gospel we call Mark was compiled some decades after 70AD, and not prior to 70AD as most evangelicals (who have an opinion) think.
Of course, if Mark wasn't written until decades after 70AD, and Matthew and Luke (and maybe John) are both dependent on Mark, then we have a real problem in terms of dating the gospels. Another possibility, of course, is that the little apocalypse was inserted into an already existing gospel, dating from an earlier decade, but I haven't heard that theory proposed before.
As to whether there is anything original to Jesus in here, I think if there is, then it is only some vague (and not time limited) prophecy about the coming of the Son of Man, and was nothing (originally) to do with the destruction of the temple. However, it makes just as much sense if none of this goes back to a historical Jesus.