Why did no-one edit gospel gaffes about the Second Coming?

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by Neil Godfrey

When prophecies of the end fail those who placed their hopes in them commonly attempt to explain and understand differently what they once expected to happen. When Christ failed to return to earth between March 1843 and March 1844, the schedule was re-written as April 1844. When that passed, it was revised again to October that year. After Christ failed to show up the third time, other groups insisted the date was right but they had misunderstood the event it marked: Seventh Day Adventists reinterpreted the event to a heavenly venue, unseen here below; Bahais claimed the advent happened in the form of Bab beginning his public teaching in Iran at that time. But many disappointed Millerites, not least Miller himself, turned their backs on specific event-based steps in a timetable and opted for the more general “Be ready; we don’t know when; he could come any time; we believe it will be in our life-time, but if not . . . .”

The question

Our earliest gospels are clear that Jesus promised an event of cosmic import in which he would “be seen” on earth again within the lifetime of his own generation. Thus in Matthew 24 we read:

Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately . . . And Jesus answered and said to them . . .

Therefore when you see the Abomination of Desolation, spoken by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . . then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be . . . Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect . . .

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled. . . . Therefore you . . . be ready, for the Son of Man is coming in an hour when you do not expect him.

Today popular understandings and many fundamentalist teachings find various ways to “see” subtle nuances in the text to enable them to apply Jesus’ promise to today’s generation. They cannot change the text, so they must find ways to read the text to remove its meaning from its original context and make it relevant to subsequent generations. The problem they face when they do this is that they can only hope to find tentative re-readings and subtleties in the hope of convincing themselves.

But the earliest transmitters of our gospels faced no such quandary. Even if the original authors did write within the life-times of Jesus’ generation, and had fully expected Jesus to swoop down visibly from heaven and bring fiery judgment to the entire world in their own time, those custodians of their narratives who soon followed them and succeeded that generation were living with the proof that such a prophecy had failed. Why is there no evidence that they attempted to re-write or re-interpret the literal import of the prophecy?

It took a long time after the gospels were first written before they achieved a sacred enough status to forbid copyists from re-writing or revising any awkward bits in them. When “Matthew” re-wrote “Mark”, for example, the opening account of John the Baptist was ruffled with a few extra lines to find a way for both John and Jesus to apologize to readers for letting the superior be baptized by the inferior:

Compare Mark 1:9

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

with Matthew 3:12-15

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John . . . to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.

But even within the one gospel we find evidence in the different manuscripts of attempts by various editors to re-write passages that were not congenial to someone’s theology, doctrinal tastes or were thought to be simply inaccurate:

  • Thus in Mark 10:19 some copyists simply dropped the “Do not defraud” command from Jesus’ citation from the Ten Commandments, presumably because it is not one of the Ten. The authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels likewise changed Mark’s original.
  • Not all scribes liked the text of Mark that claimed Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) so some changed it to read that he was thought to be the son of a carpenter. The church father Origen indicates that he did not know the passage familiar to most of us declaring that Jesus was a carpenter.
  • Similar variation in the texts surrounds the problematic circuitous itinerary of Jesus in Mark 7:31.

Most famously, we have among the manuscripts 4 different endings of the Gospel of Mark:

  1. And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus)
  2. And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. (Bobiensis . . . )
  3. Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. And after that, He appeared in a different form to two of them, while they were walking along on their way to the country. And they went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. “And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (Many manuscripts underpinning the Textus Receptus)
  4. And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or: does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now” — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven. (Washingtonianus)

So there is little doubt that the early texts of the gospels were not, well, engraved in stone by the finger of God. Early generations found it permissible to re-touch them here and there for perceived inaccuracies, embarrassments, theological disagreements.

There was a time when there was time to likewise edit the prophecy of Jesus to make it less necessary to tax the interpretive ingenuities of subsequent generations.

Yet throughout the synoptic gospels and their textual variants the prophecy that Jesus is to be seen coming in judgment within the life-time of his original disciples does appear to be engraved in stone. There is no evidence of embarrassment attached to it during its transmission even after the first generation had passed away. (The Gospel of John’s complete omission of it is not evidence of embarrassment over its failure, as discussed below.)

The answer

They answer is, I believe, not novel, but not popular either. Yet the question raised above adds weight to its certainty.

The authors of the synoptics understood that they were adapting metaphors from their Jewish sources to an historical event that did happen within the lifespan of the generation of Jesus. There was no embarrassment over prophetic failure. They were writing in apocalyptic language about an historically apocalyptic event — the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. That is, the end of the old Jewish kingdom that had once been God’s, leaving the followers of Christ free to feel they had been vindicated as the new kingdom of God.

The apocalyptic signs Jesus’ disciples are told to expect are the same as used by earlier prophets to describe the historical fall of Babylon to invading armies:

The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. . . . For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine . . . . And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, . . . will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. (Isa. 13:1, 10, 19)

The author was writing from a time when Babylon was lying in ruins and describing in typical Jewish apocalyptic metaphors the fall and end of that great city-state and kingdom.

The same author describes the fall of other nations before imperial invasion in similar apocalyptic metaphors:

And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as a leaf falls from the vine . . . (Isa. 34:3-4)

Another author uses the same metaphors to announce a historical judgment on Egypt:

Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him . . . When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens and make its stars dark: I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. . . . (Ezek. 32:2, 7)

Joel describes an earlier military conquest of Israel in the same language:

The heavens tremble, the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness. (Joel 2:10).

This is the Day of the Lord, when God is said to stand in Jerusalem itself:

For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars will diminish their brightness. The Lord will also roar from Zion and utter his voice from Jerusalem . . . (Joel 3:14-15).

The image is metaphorical. The author does not visualize God literally standing on earth, or his voice being literally heard.

The author of Isaiah 52 also spoke of a generation, his own, seeing God at the time of the restoration of Israel (God’s “Servant” nation) under the Persians:

The Lord has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations (Isa. 52:10)

The appearance of God is apocalyptic, not literal, imagery.

David likewise wrote that he saw God descend to earth to rescue him out of threatening waters. No-one takes his poetry literally:

Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of heaven moved and shook . . . He bowed the heavens also and came down with darkness under his feet. He rode upon a cherub, and flew; and he was seen upon the wings of wind. . . . He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. . . . (2 Samuel 22: 8, 10-11, 17).

The prophecy put into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel authors described the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. This was the end of a world for most Jews at that time. A traumatic life-changing experience can result in an individual feeling as if his entire known world has vanished, as if he no longer has ground to walk on, or the sky above that he had known all his life to cover him. That, at least, is how I know I felt some years ago when passing through such a trauma. Apocalyptic language seemed to be the most apt way to describe the experience. It was real, if not literal, enough, to me. No doubt seeing ones world, one’s nation, proud capital city, the monumental centre and foundation of one’s faith, all crumble and be destroyed in blood by invading armies, brings apocalyptic imagery and interpretations most readily to mind.

Jesus was seen returning in judgment upon the city that had crucified him and persecuted his followers. He was seen coming down to that city in the Roman armies just as surely as God had been seen coming down in historical acts of vengeance by earlier prophets, including David.

The Gospel of John’s omission of the prophecy

It is significant, furthermore, to note that among early Christians, when the canonical gospels were still being written, it is clear that this prophecy of the cosmic second coming of Christ represented an alternative eschatological belief.

If we accept the arguments of those scholars that the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Mark, then we find that this author chose to deliberately omits the prophecy altogether. If he did not know the synoptics, then he knew many of the “traditions” that found their way into the synoptics, yet not this end-time prophecy of Jesus. Either way, there can be little doubt that he would have found such a prophecy pointless because he disagreed with its fundamental doctrinal assumptions. Rather than judgment coming upon the world and the gathering of the saints all happening in a future cosmic event, these things befell the world from the moment Jesus was crucified:

Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself. (John 12:31-32)

Whether or not this author knew Mark, he holds to a theology that renders Mark’s prophecy of end times redundant. It is not a bed-rock of Christian faith like the crucifixion is, however that be interpreted, but an optional extra. You are free to wear it if it fits. If the authors of the synoptic gospels saw the replacement of the earthly Jerusalem by the spiritual kingdom of God as fulfilled in 70 c.e., John saw its complete fulfilment 40 years earlier.

The irony

It is ironical that many Christians who read Jesus’ prophecy of his “second coming” literally also stress the importance of understanding Jewish as opposed to Greek or gentile thought when interpreting the Bible, yet fail to do so themselves in this instance.