Friday, October 12, 2012

Corrective contradictions #1

Mark 13v26-33:
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:
  1. 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.
  2. Assuming only one of the two statements is original to Jesus, there are other ways we can interpret the passage:
    • 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.
  3. Of course there is also the possibility that both statements are not original to Jesus, but then we may simply be sealing with the situation of the compiler working with two distinct (and contradictory) traditions, and trying to reconcile them. Considering this doesn't really help us much in trying to determine the truth.
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.  


James F. McGrath said...

Don't you think you should at least mention the possibility of a connection between Mark 13 and the Caligula crisis?

Ricky Carvel said...

Never heard anyone suggest that before. (Remember I am not and never claimed to be an expert in these matters, I've never studied 1st century history...)

A quick google takes me to an article discussing this connection, but I'm afraid I don't see how the Caligula thing of circa 39AD relates to either the claim that 'not one stone here will be left on another' (which did happen in 70AD) or to the 2nd coming of the Son of Man.

But please explain how you think it figures here, I'm always interested in new explanations...

James F. McGrath said...

The prediction of one stone being left upon another is unlikely to have been invented post-70 since it is inaccurate. There is a big focus in Mark 13 on the temple being desolated as it was in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (a phrase straight out of Daniel is used), and in the 40s the emperor Gaius, aka Caligula, sought to have a status of himself installed in the temple in Jerusalem. Philo of Alexandria writes about the delegation of Jews who sought to dissuade him.

Ricky Carvel said...

But the Caligula thing came to nothing. The temple wasn't destroyed then. OK, so the intended events (which never happened) parallel the Antiochus desecration, but the actual destruction (as apparently prophesied by Jesus) never happened until 70AD or, if you want to be more radical in your dating, until the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century. It was then (and not in AD39 or AD70) that an abomination was installed in the temple (a statue of Hadrian and another of Jupiter).

So we could, using a similar line of thinking, date the little apocalypse sometime just after 136AD. One or two very radical scholars do hold to this theory. And, apparently, the details from the parallel passage in Luke actually fit better with the known events of the 130AD revolt than the 66-70AD one. And there was a messianic claimant in 130AD which there wasn't in 70AD, which would tie up with the "many will come claiming 'I am he'" passage in verse 5.

So there is a case to be made for the VERY late dating of this passage, or at least of the final redaction...

James F. McGrath said...

To accomplish that, you would need to come up with a plausible redating for the rest of early Christian literature - or when appropriate, making sense of the new order, as would be necessary in the case of the Apology of Aristides, for instance. You would also need to provide evidence that, when Jerusalem became Aelia Capitolina, Christians viewed the matter in the way the author of Mark did.

But you seem to be missing what to me seems like an obvious point, namely that religions do not always jettison predictions when they come to nothing - they regularly push them off and relate them to something assumed to be still future. Since that is what Christianity has done with these texts ever since, why is it hard to connect their shaping and/or composition with the Caligula crisis?

Ricky Carvel said...

Not really. I only said (at the end of my reasoning in the previous comment) that it was the 'final' redaction of Mark that came so late. There could have been earlier versions of Mark without this passage.

I realise that many religions get along fine with failed prophecies. The JWs are great examples of this. But the different thing here is the apparent source of the failed prophecy - not some fallible human, but the divine Son of God. Could he get a prophecy wrong?

Obviously I'm running with the idea that the original saying didn't originate with Jesus, or if it did it has passed through the hands of at least two redactors since then, but I'm trying to work out a reasonable sequence of redactions and their timings that makes sense to me. To me it makes sense and seems reasonable that some of these redactions are post 70AD, possibly by at least a decade. Some may be even later, but I'm not as convinced by that.

James F. McGrath said...

Well, I'm certainly not trying to dispute that there has been redaction! :)

But I find it problematic that you suggest that Jesus was viewed as the divine son of God in the Synoptic Gospels. What leads you to that conclusion?

Ricky Carvel said...

True. I overstepped the mark there.

I'm reading current evangelical beliefs into where they never were.

In Mark, Jesus is a very human Son of God, so I guess he can make mistakes...

KWRegan said...

Great post and important point. The person who seems to have first made it most forcefully is considered to be one of the 20th Century's great exemplars of a life devoted to Christ's service, Albert Schweitzer.

My answer is that the aporia is intentional---along lines of Jonah and Nineveh.

Ricky Carvel said...


Do you mean the 'aporia' was intended by Jesus, or by the later compiler of the gospel?

(And I don't understand your reference to Jonah...)


KWRegan said...

Yes, intended. The objective is watchfulness, and several other Gospel stories communicate the same to me. Our previous pastor in my daughter's confirmation class linked this to the Passover story in Exodus, where although that had a date-certain for God's action, we should live with the same degree of preparation.

Jonah is told by God that he will take action against Nineveh, with a date-certain: "forty days". And Jonah is markedly peeved when it doesn't happen.

I have thought about this point related to the Second Coming since my teens, but have always understood it this way. The talk I linked, by the way, comes up with a kind of open theism.

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