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)
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.
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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