Lack of Evidence that the Delay in the Second Coming was a Problem for the Early Church

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by Neil Godfrey

The delay-motif in Luke . . . could hardly have originated as a solution inspired by embarrassment or disappointment about Jesus’ continued absence, since it appears before there was time to get embarrassed.  (Ellis, Eschatology, 18)

Has that question been discussed more widely somewhere? My impression is that it is taken for granted that the early church was somehow generally disappointed and confused when Jesus did not return as expected before the generation of the apostles died out. So they began to rewrite history to remove the source of that embarrassment. One example:

Let me stress that Luke continues to think that the end of the age is going to come in his own lifetime. But he does not seem to think that it was supposed to come in the lifetime of Jesus’ companions. Why not? Evidently because he was writing after they had died, and he knew that in fact the end had not come. To deal with the “delay of the end,” he made the appropriate changes in Jesus’ predictions.

This is evident as well near the end of the Gospel. At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus boldly states to the high priest, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). That is, the end would come and the high priest would see it. Luke, writing many years later, after the high priest was long dead and buried, changes the saying: “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). No longer does Jesus predict that the high priest himself will be alive when the end comes.

Here, then, is a later source that appears to have modified the earlier apocalyptic sayings of Jesus. (Ehrman, Jesus, 130f)

Some scholars date the Gospel of Mark to just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. But I don’t see how that chronology resolves the question. If Mark were composed during the War but just prior to its end then we have the problem of explaining why that gospel ever circulated to the extent that it became the foundation text of the subsequent gospels. At least, the problem arises on the basis of the generally accepted interpretation of what Mark meant by his images of the Second Coming. And besides, Caiaphas was still long dead when the Jewish War started.

I have some difficulty with that explanation. It seems to assume that a an embarrassment over the delay is the only possible explanation for Luke’s change. The high priest Mark’s Jesus addresses was long dead, some thirty years before the destruction of the Temple and long before Mark even wrote the gospel. The author of even that earliest gospel (the Gospel of Mark) presumably knew at the time he wrote that trial scene (after 70 CE) that Jesus had failed to come in the way we understand his Second Coming is meant to happen. The question to be asked is not why “Luke” changed “Mark’s” words of Jesus but why “Mark” wrote them at all and what he meant by them.

Similarly with the end of the Gospel of John where the author scotches an apparent rumour that Peter was to live until the return of Jesus. Again, we must ask when that gospel was written. Most scholars, I believe, would say it was written long after the death of Peter when such a rumour would long have ceased to need an explanation. The question to be asked is why it was written at all by one who professed to be an eyewitness to the death of Jesus.

But E.E. Ellis points to some well-known but often overlooked facts that belie the “embarrassment over the delay of the parousia” mindset that was supposed to have overcome the church.

Now I am not denying that in the epistles and gospels we find reasons expressed for a delay until the coming of Christ. What I am less certain about is that these explanations were an attempt to resolve an embarrassment or general disillusionment and confusion over the failure of those expectations to materialize when expected.

Notice Peder Borgen’s more secure explanation for Luke’s changes to Mark:

He holds Luke to be the first to separate the fall of Jerusalem from the eschaton. It is correct that Lk conceives of a span of time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the eschaton. But it must be noted that it is not the delay of the Parousia which created this thinking in terms of epochs but that Lk has only developed and applied an eschatological time scheme, Jewish epoch formulas, already available to Paul in his interpretation of the Gentile mission. (Borgen, 1969, 174)

Borgen is, of course, referring to Romans 11:25 ff:

25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

“The deliverer will come from Zion;
    he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27 And this is my covenant with them
    when I take away their sins.”

Returning to Ellis:

But where is the evidence that the nonoccurrence of the parousia was a crucial problem that had to be “resolved”? The delay motif in Luke certainly does not have that function. (Ellis, Eschatology, 17 f)

Ellis draws attention to the following passage that informs us that “the delay was not a ‘time’ problem but an occasion for unfaithfulness”:

39 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” . . . . 45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. (Luke 12:39-40, 45)

Other passages warn against “an overeager or false anticipation of the parousia” but that false teaching appears to be an aberration rather than a general condition afflicting the whole of the church:

20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. (Luke 17:20-23)

11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. . . . .

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. (Luke 19:11-12, 15)

There are other passages: Luke 21:8, Acts 1:6-8, Matt 24:26 and Luke 17:23.

Ellis again,

The rationale for the delay-motif in Luke, therefore, must be sought elsewhere. First, it should be noted that it is only an emphasis within a twin motif of “imminence and delay” that Luke finds in his tradition. Probably this emphasis both serves Luke’s own theological concerns and provides a response to a church problem. The problem is not the delay of the parousia, however, but a false apocalyptic expectation that has misapplied the teachings of Jesus and threatens to pervert the church’s mission. (Ellis, Eschatology, 18 f)

It may be presumed, I think, that the problem in some quarter of apocalyptic fervour being addressed in the gospels was not a historical problem that had led to “a great disappointment” and all-round embarrassment, but an issue alive and relevant at the time the evangelists (and Paul) were writing. That is, after (as well as before) 70 CE.

It makes sense to me. The sayings of Jesus were composed by the evangelists after 70 CE. There is no evidence of any red-faced confusion in “the church” over the delay.

Borgen, P., 1969. “From Paul to Luke.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 31, 168–182.
Ehrman, B.D., 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press.
Ellis, E.E., 1972. Eschatology in Luke. Philadelphia, Fortress Press.

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19 thoughts on “Lack of Evidence that the Delay in the Second Coming was a Problem for the Early Church”

  1. The whole “embarrassment” train of thought is nonsense. So much of biblical scholarship makes use of these ideas about “embarrassment” and none of it has any merit. All of these discussions about “embarrassment” stem from a lack of understanding of the perspectives and agendas of the Gospel writers. They come from misinterpretation of the Gospels.

    GMark is the perfect example. How many scholars have written that GMark “must be true” because it provides a negative portrayal of the disciples, which presumably the author knew was embarrassing, but because he was so concerned with the truth, he recorded these sordid details anyway, despite knowing that they put the church in a negative light.

    That’s all utter nonsense of course. The author of GMark was writing a story with the intention of portraying the “disciples” poorly, that was his objective. The story is, among other things, propaganda against the Jerusalem leadership.

    But the fact that so many scholars haven’t been able to see beyond the perspective of the 4th century church is just absurd. They view everything through the lens of what the 4th century church would have wanted the documents to be. So the way they approach everything is, “Would the 4th century church have considered this embarrassing? If so, then obviously the earliest Christians would have as well, because they would have had the same perspective as the 4th century church, because the 4th century church properly understood Christian origins.”

    They can’t get around this issue because in order to do so you have to acknowledge that not only did the 4th century Christians actually not understand the Gospels or Christian origins, but not even 2nd century Christians did. This is the real killer for Christian scholarship: having to acknowledge that the people who actually founded the religion had no idea what they were talking about and completely misunderstood all of the documents and ideas they were receiving and interpreting.

    What we ultimately are left with is an understanding that there was some early Jesus worshiping movement that started prior to the War, but the ideas and perspectives of that group of people was totally lost and not maintained within any community of people beyond the War. No one now knows, or ever did know, what those people were talking about. The later Gospels are themselves out of context reinterpretations of pre-War documents and each other, and the 2nd century founders of Christianity didn’t have any context for those documents either and entirely misinterpreted them and failed to grasp even the most basic aspects of who, what, when, why or how those documents were written.

    The whole religion is founded on a confused misinterpretation of a bunch of out of context writings.

  2. Again, another made up interpretation of scripture that gains life without careful inspection, like the “incredible growth” of the early church … that didn’t happen. Christianity was saved from obscurity by the Romans and Roman state power.

  3. How many apocalypse have you lived through? At my age it’s been at least a dozen. Have believers been embarrassed that they were wrong about each of them? Yes. Has it changed their beliefs? No, they just make excuses and keep believing.

    The criterion of embarrassment is a red herring.

  4. 2 Peter 3 shows there was, indeed, a big problem with that delay. “Scoffers” were complaining “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”

    They are told it is the sign of divine patience, and reminded that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

    1. “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire; and the Earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

      yeah just like a sneaky thief, no one would notice any of that.

      1. Yes, and from Montanists to Adventists some speculator has usually pupped up with a prediction that it would happen in the year ____.
        See the excellent compilation of this history by Chris Nelson, titled “A Brief History of the
        E.g., apparently prompted by the idea of the divine thousand year day, “around the year 1000. For example, legend has it that a “panic terror” gripped Europe in the years and months before this date.” And “After Jesus failed to return in 1000, some mystics pushed the date of the End to the thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion. The writings of the Burgundian monk Radulfus Glaber described a rash of millennial paranoia during the period from 1000-1033.”
        (REF: http://abhota.info/end1.htm)

    2. The scoffers are not the church but the outsiders mocking the church, yes? The scoffers are prophesied to come in the end days, so if you see people scoffing then you know it is the end time — but the “church” the letter of 2 Peter was addressing are reminded that they have no fear of embarrassment over the delay. They understand time from God’s perspective. There is no embarrassment upon the church, here.

  5. Oh my,,, my!!

    How interesting this entry is and its implications….

    So much has focused on the death,and burial , and resurrection of Jesus…. and yet nothing in the Corinthian text -I cor. 15. has anything directly from the gospels or tradition about an “ascension” and then a return , except in the later part of I Cor,..

    Paul”s “final” text writings may not necessarily be his..but he himself, before Luke and the rest indicated that he and others, whether , dead or alive would all meet Jesus in the air…somewhere..!!!! Soon!! In his own lifetime.. 55Ce. Wow… ! But did Jesus come back already….??? At the destruction of the Temple…May I suggest some of you consider the issues connected with various interpretive approaches to these texts… eg. Consistent Preterism or Historicism… There are many insights to glean , but I can’t stand the religiousity connected with its exponents… just spoil the Egyptians and run!!!

    Paul believer he was to be caught up or snatched away (dead or alive)…like an Enoch or Elijah.. Philip , etc…. in the “clouds” of glory (cf. Mark 9!!! caught up in the cloud)…..and I guess , it “happened” for all the Christians in some weird way who believed it.. We have no historical or scientific and a whole lot more as to confirm such events…..whether physical or meta-physical.

    If those apocalyptic sayings were from the “word of the Lord””(channeling….Paul channeled Jesus words of wisdom and gnosis (by the way) Earle Ellis’ work was helpful in completing my Master’s Thesis on Wisdom in I Cor.)

    Paul was involved in various forms of channeling, (tongues of angels, etc.) In accord with Paul’s original audience for the writing this was about to happen to his readers,,, quickly,, soon. We have no proof it happened as expected.. Perhaps it did and no one could give witness to it as we would expect with such claims…

    Not ONE of those texts was written to us today.. We must never forget this if we are doing historical work on those texts…. the translation and interpretation of those things for us today… are a very different and difficult matter to consider…

    When I took Homiletics way way back I am so thankful I took the course with an incredible and thoughtful NT scholar by the name of Dr. Grant Osborne. …He died recently, so sad, and if you read any of his books you will see a good scholar struggling with all these issues himself , even though he was a “fundigelical” in my view…

    Paul was still highly conscious , in trance states about a return in his own lifetime… and we cannot totally disregard Lukan and Pauline connections at the theological and polemical levels…

    Just an addition here… check out J.A Mattill re his work in Luke-Acts and many aspects of Biblical thought…I think he is a free-thought scholar who has not been given more attention…

    I will make more observations sometime later after digesting this blog entry… Lots to ponder here…

    Thanks Neil,

    You sure stir up the shit we need to deal with, but would like to avoid….! :):)

    I support you in your efforts…

    1. Does Paul really mean to say that he and those he is addressing in 1 Thess. 4:17 will not die before Jesus comes? Can it not be read as a general statement to mean that those of us who remain alive will not be changed into a spirit body before those who have died? The dead, he is saying, have the “advantage” of being resurrected first. This passage strikes me as a lonely verse to hang a soon-to-be-return hope on. It leaves open the thought that that return might not be for another however many decades. The focus of Paul is on living the life “in Christ” now, yes? No sense of an immediate timetable to watch and if doesn’t happen then we’ll all have egg on our faces.

  6. HEMEIS HOI ZONTES – we, the living
    That shows an expectation in his lifetime, as I see it.
    I also found this in the comment “The fact that Paul uses the first person plural (we) (see discussion of use of “we” in v15) strongly suggests that he fully expected to meet the Lord in the air. In other words the great apostle anticipated the imminent return of His Lord.” (https://www.preceptaustin.org/1thessalonians_417-18)

    1. Maybe. I’m not so sure for reasons already set out, however. Anyway, Paul also set out an explanation for the time gap and delay till the parousia and there is no evidence he or his churches were “disillusioned” by any delay.

  7. What is this “the Church”? This looks to me like an argument amongst the umpteen varieties of “Christian”. Koine might be worn down in comparison to Attic, but it is still a more complicated language than English. I’d like input from neutral parties with a decade
    or more of working with it on a daily basis.

    What these texts (those preserved by Orthodoxy) all seem to betray an unworkable in the medium or long term social model, an ur-communism only anywhere near practical in a short term environment: such as that of an End Times cult.

    And “This world is passing away” is a sentiment of both Paul and First John; do you really think any of these people entertained the idea Christ would be coming sometime, be it short or long, AFTER the end when they almost certainly saw “The End” coming PDQ? Not a viewpoint I can get my head around I’m afraid: I can’t see it is as more than a forced reading of the English, and I venture probably the Koine also.

    1. Agreed with your point. That’s why I put church in quotation marks, partly imagining each author writing to “a church” they knew but also, etc …..

  8. There’s evidence of absence in the Gospels (excluding Acts) of certain modifiers to the “coming” of Jesus. There are no words like, “return” or “again” or “a second time” or “back” or “soon”. For an allegorical Gospel of Mark to do so would be for it to have Jesus break character as an allegory. Even the Gospel of John follows Mark’s precedent. John’s “I will come again and take you to myself”, is a reference to Jesus’ coming back from death. This plain phrasing of a mere coming seems to me to be vestigial evidence of the original Epistles’ references to a one-and-only coming.

    1. Yes, certainly. There is no question about belief in a future coming of Jesus, and there were many outbreaks of “apocalyptic fervour”, too, and some of that is warned against in the gospels and in the epistles. But other references to the wait-time till the coming of Jesus are explanations for it or promises of it. Through all of that, though, when interpreters say that the gospels were written, in part, to undertake damage control over some sort of general disillusionment or embarrassment over the failure of Jesus to have come sooner, say within the lifetimes of the apostles, or by around 70 CE, they are imagining a scenario for which we have no evidence.

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