Failed prophecies — forgotten or reinterpreted?

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by Neil Godfrey

Just a quick thought. I am still attempting to get a handle on how scholars treat the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 and its counterparts in Matthew and Luke. Most recently I have been reading Theissen’s attempts to link it with the “Caligula crisis” of 40 ce.

I hear often enough that it matters not that the prophecy never “came true” as expected, since religious groups are never put off by their failures but always reinterpret them. They maintain their faith in them, we are told, and set them for another time in the near future.

But that’s not quite true. I know that the Seventh Day Adventists and other groups have a long list of failed prophecies that they have swept under their carpets. They are not reinterpreted. They go out of print and into the black hole of forgotten details that “never happened.”

What is reinterpreted is some classic or canonical prophecy that is an established pillar of their texts or prophetic visions. So today religious groups continue to reinterpret Mark 13 and Revelation in the light of whatever is happening today. But when they get too daring and say something that is proved false, that prophetic interpretation is dropped. The European Common Market was to emerge in 1972 or 1975 as the great Beast power at one point. That is forgotten, but Revelation and Daniel still hold centre stage for these prophecy buffs.

But in the case of Mark 13, this was a new text. If it was created in 40 ce as Theissen and others argue, then why on earth was it not as quietly dropped from view as a prophecy that 1972 or 1975 was to mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation II? It did not have the canonical status to have any staying power.

No doubt there is much I don’t understand about this. But I do not understand the argument usually offered. Why was it kept in the church if it indeed was a predicting an imminent threat to the Temple in Jerusalem in either 40 or 70 ce?

I have other suspicions about the prophecy, but I also want to know if there really is something I’m missing with the standard rationalization.

I just don't get it!
Image by larryosan via Flickr
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8 thoughts on “Failed prophecies — forgotten or reinterpreted?”

  1. Well the S of Man did not arrive floating down on a cloud to bring judgement during the lifetime of anyone in that generation. Prediction is always difficult, especially of the future.
    The things the prediction did get right strongly suggests that it was written down after the Bar-Kochba revolt, and when there had been time for the writings of Josephus and the epistles of Paul to get well known to the writer.
    The many false Christs (Theudas, the Egyptian, etc?) could be from Josephus, while the later mention of false Christs and prophets would include Bar-Kochiba.
    Beaten in synagogues, standing before Kings and governers, is too similar to Paul’s career not to be from the epistles – and is used also to fill out details of Jesus trial.
    The really bad advise on public speaking (one is only congratulated on speaking from the heart after a properly prepared speach in my experience) suggests that Mark is not talking about a present challenge.
    The abomination of desolation must surely be a real statue of an actual God placed where it should not be, not threats it might happen or soldier’s standards.
    It’s almost over a generation later than its setting already when it is written down.
    Hence the story of the wandering Jew, and the suggestion that if we don’t want the world to end we keep just one little nation ignorant of the good news – for first the gospel must be preached to all nations.I suppose the prediction is kept because no-one wrote anything better to replace it.

  2. But that’s not quite true. I know that the Seventh Day Adventists and other groups have a long list of failed prophecies that they have swept under their carpets. They are not reinterpreted. They go out of print and into the black hole of forgotten details that “never happened.”

    These are good counter-examples. But are there modern examples of prophecies that haven’t been swept under the carpets and kept around. I’m told that there are – but I know of no solid examples. Just new interpretation of Revelation or of Daniel.

    I’ve always assumed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an example of this – but I admit ignorance to a lot of Witness doctrine. My understanding of Witness history is that they believed that the end of the world would come sometime early in the 20th century, and then when it didn’t happen they declared that their prophecy DID happen and Jesus did return and defeat Satan, but only in the “spirit” world. Armageddon was still coming for the material world but it was now sometime in the future (I think it was supposed to be in the 70s), but the prophecy didn’t fail. If that’s right that might be an example of a sect keeping a recent prophecy, even if they had to substantially mangle it to do it.

    1. “they declared that their prophecy DID happen and Jesus did return and defeat Satan, but only in the “spirit” world.”

      Which is exactly what Preterists belive about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.

  3. On further thought I would not be completely sure that the persecutions mentioned in the little Apocalypse are based on Paul’s epistles – though the do seem to be the basis of some of Lukes narrative in Acts.
    Paul’s boasting of persecution is in Corinthians :
    In toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure.
    And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.
    Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. Are they ministers of Christ? (I am talking like an insane person.) I am still more, 18 with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death.
    Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one.
    Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep;
    on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; …etc

  4. Seventh-day Adventists did indeed reinterpret the failure of Christ to reappear on schedule. Ma White taught that he entered the heavenly sanctuary (or some such thing) on the auspicious date in question, and started going through the book of life – like a pedantic accountant – all unhelpfully out of view of the disappointed reception committee here below. Someone with a SDA background can probably correct my infelicities, but in broad brush strokes I think that’s it.

  5. I believe it’s also the case that after the “Great Disappointment” of 1844 (it was a recalculation after the failure of 1843) most of the Millerites abandoned the hope, but those that became the Seventh Day Adventists were originally drawn from “a remnant” of that original movement.

    So this is a case of many abandoning the prophecy after its failure, and others reinterpreting it. But the original prophecy was itself an interpretation of canonical biblical texts. Mark’s prophecy had no such canonical status if it was a creation of 40 ce and was meant to predict the imminent outcome of the events of that year, or ditto if it was connected similarly with the year 70 ce — or even 130s.

    2 Samuel says that in David’s day God came down on a cherub and was seen in the clouds and air, and the foundations of the world were uncovered, and he drew David himself out of ‘many waters’. We read all that as metaphor. But it sounds a lot like the language of this prophecy of Mark 13, Matt.24 and Luke 21 — which we read for most part literally.

    Why do we read one as metaphor and the other as having a literal meaning? If Mark 13 is metaphorical or literary, then maybe we have an explanation for how it was originally established in what became a canonical text.

  6. I suppose you know there are people who still argue the “this generation” prediction has not failed (and I don’t mean the wandering Jew excuse). They find ways to make “this generation” refer to a later generation, as though it said “that generation”.

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