More Ambiguities in the Gospel of Mark – and How to Account for Them

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by Neil Godfrey

Following on from the “playful discourse” around the Gospel of Mark’s confusion of identities in the Passion narrative —

Curiosity One:

Mark 1:1 A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. — Good news? Yet the gospel concludes with the women who hear from a young man in the tomb that Jesus has disappeared and gone to Galilee are too frightened to pass on that message to anyone.

and having entered into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting . . . .
And he saith to them, `Be not amazed, ye seek Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified: he did rise — he is not here; . . . .
and go, say to his disciples, and Peter, that he doth go before you to Galilee; . . . .’
And, having come forth quickly, they fled from the sepulchre, and trembling and amazement had seized them, and to no one said they anything, for they were afraid.

(The verses in many Bibles following verse 8 are later additions to the gospel.)

Curiosity Two:

Also in Mark 1 John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize with the holy spirit:

8 I indeed did baptize you with water, but he [Jesus] shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

But Jesus baptizes no-one and there is no further mention of “baptism in the holy spirit”. We do later (Mark 10:39) find Jesus describing his coming death as a baptism and asking his disciples if they also can share in that baptism. Is that a clue to the meaning of Jesus baptizing his followers with the holy spirit?

38 and Jesus said to them, `. . . . are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized with — to be baptized?’
39 And they [James and John] said to him, `We are able;’ and Jesus said to them, `. . . . with the baptism that I am baptized with, ye shall be baptized . . .

Curiosity Three:

Jesus tells his disciples that their generation will be alive to see the “Son of Man coming in clouds”: Mark 13

26 `And then they shall see the Son of Man coming in clouds with much power and glory, . . . .
30 Verily I say to you, that this generation may not pass away till all these things may come to pass

We generally read that as Jesus speaking of his return at the last days. But that generation did pass away and he did not come. So why was this passage preserved by the early church without any attempt to rewrite those words.

A few chapters earlier we read Jesus telling his disciples that some of them would be alive to see God’s kingdom set up on earth. Since what follows is the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, it is natural to assume that Mark 9:1 means that this also refers to the “second coming”:

And he said to them, `Verily I say to you, That there are certain of those standing here, who may not taste of death till they see the reign of God having come in power.’

Solutions to the Riddles

I think Curiosity Three is the easiest to resolve. Despite the common view that Jesus was speaking of his bodily return from heaven, the Scriptures from which the author of this gospel was drawing say something else. Our author made abundant use of the Book of Daniel (see The Little Apocalypse for details). There in chapter 7 we read of gentile kingdoms being compared to wild beasts — a lion with eagle’s wings, a bear, a four-winged leopard and a ten-horned monster — followed by God’s kingdom represented by a “son of man”. The original application of that fifth kingdom was to the Maccabean kingdom that had, through war, been freed from gentile rule.

A Psalm of David (Psalm 18 and repeated in 2 Samuel 22) describes God “coming down” to the earth in clouds not only to rescue David but to set him up as king over gentiles

He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning. . . . 

43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people;
    you have made me the head of nations.
People I did not know now serve me.

I discussed this particular interpretation in more detail in When They Saw the Son of Man Coming in Clouds. Sometimes I learn more and reject what I once believed. In this case the more I have read the more convinced I have become that the Gospel of Mark, the first of the canonical gospels to be written, thought of Jesus as a literary figure, a personification of Israel, of both the physical nation of Israel and the resurrected spiritual or new Israel. Not long ago I discussed in depth a book by Nanine Charbonnel (emeritus professor of philosophy) making that same argument. I have since read Bruno Bauer’s studies which led him to the same conclusion.

That reading of the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark makes sense of some of that gospel’s ambiguities and apparent failures.

Jesus is the “son of man” who is the personification of the people of God or the “church”.

The destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE and the thousands of crucifixions of Judeans as part of that war were the kinds of events that Old Testament passages described in terms of God visiting nations on earth in clouds, with stars falling, all to be followed by the establishment or rescue of his nation.

If this interpretation of the Gospel of Mark is valid, it places (in the author’s mind) the replacement of the old kingdom and its temple cult of Moses with the new spiritual temple of God embodied in Joshua/Jesus.

And Curiosity One?

As for Jesus not being found in Jerusalem but in Galilee, as explained by the young man in the tomb, we know that our author drew upon major themes in the Book of Isaiah (see Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus) so it is reasonable to think that he understood Galilee to represent “the nations”, the gentiles as per chapter 9

. . . . So the latter [time] hath honoured the way of the sea, Beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who are walking in darkness Have seen a great light, Dwellers in a land of death-shade, Light hath shone upon them.

If Mark was inspired by Isaiah’s New Exodus theme we may wonder if the inspiration for his setting of the activity of Jesus around the “sea of Galilee” was this particular passage. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew certainly knew both the Gospel of Mark and that Isaiah prophecy about Galilee (Matthew 4:13ff). The church, the metaphorical body of Jesus, was no longer to be found in Jerusalem but among the gentiles, or more specifically in the land where Judeans and gentiles lived together.

Jesus appears on shore of “sea” of Galilee

Mark’s ambiguities can thus be explained when we view Jesus as a personification of the old and new idealized Israel.

Further, I cannot help but notice that such a reading is more easily found among scholars of literature and hermeneutics than it is among Christian theologians.



Jesus Came (End of Story?)

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by Neil Godfrey

A little detail in the previous post has kept me awake at night (maybe as long as a minute), wondering. It is Matthew 28:18-19

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .

Why hadn’t I noticed before now the link Jeffrey Peterson makes with Daniel 7:14?

He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

The connection brings me back to a question that keeps coming back to me: Is it possible that the apocalyptic prophecy we read Jesus pronouncing in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 was couched in metaphor that only the “spiritually blind” would mistake for literal meaning. The language was taken from the prophets. Isaiah 13 portrays the fall of Babylon in terms of the darkening of the sun, moon and stars. The cosmic images were metaphors. They were “fulfilled” when the city fell to enemy forces. David speaks of God coming down to earth in clouds to rescue him from certain death at the hands of his enemies. I don’t believe the psalmist expected anyone to read of God’s descent to earth literally any more than we are to imagine literal “cords of death” binding the psalmist or to believe that the psalmist was literally in “deep waters”. Psalm 18 . . .

The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

In the trial before the priests Jesus declares that the high priest will see the “second coming” or the coming of Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man. Matthew 26:63-64 . . .

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

I am pretty sure that the priest was dead before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

What were the authors of the gospels of Mark and Matthew thinking? It’s probably worth keeping in mind that not even the author of Daniel thought of his scenario of a heavenly Son of Man coming in clouds before the Ancient of Days was was a literal event. That was a metaphor for the rising up of the Maccabean kingdom on earth.

I think it’s as if they were thinking that the coming of the kingdom of God was ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew 28 seems to assure us of this interpretation when we read there that Jesus announces, in effect, that he is the Son of Man who has from that point on been given the power and authority to lead his appointed apostles in beginning to bring in more converts to his kingdom.

The Pauline epistles likewise speak of Christ victory over the cross representing the victory over the demon-ruled cosmos. The demons in Mark and Matthew knew their days were numbered the moment they saw Jesus appear in Galilee. Some Church Fathers also spoke of Christ “reigning from the cross”.

Paul’s letters — all of the NT letters — speak of a coming of Christ, never of a “second coming”. The first evangelists to weave together a story of the Son of Man out of the verses of the Jewish Scriptures and other literary and imperial allusions likewise spoke of his coming as the critical event. (I have coloured the passage in Psalm 18 that one might relate directly to classic baptism scene of Jesus in Mark and Matthew.) If his arrival in Galilee marked the “nearness” of the time then the empty tomb was the sign that that time had begun. Is there any room at all for a “second coming” in the original tale?

But this interpretation raises as many questions as it seems to resolve. As I said, it sometimes keeps me awake at night . . . for a moment, sometimes.


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: Continue reading “Lack of Evidence that the Delay in the Second Coming was a Problem for the Early Church”


Hurting: Can Wright Be Right This Time?

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by Neil Godfrey

N.T. Wright

Larry Hurtado has roused blogospheric attention with his adverse evaluation of the N.T. Wright’s unconventional interpretation of what the early Church believed about the “second coming” of Jesus.

The Bishop of Durham has broached the idea before but Hurtado’s criticism his directed towards the relatively recent (2013)  Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright contends that Paul’s teaching that God’s Spirit dwelt in the Church as his Temple could only mean one thing among Jews of Second Temple days: God had returned to dwell on earth with his people. God’s Temple was once again filled with the Glory of God. God, YHWH, had returned to his people in Jesus who was vindicated after the resurrection and that same YHWH now shed his glory on earth in the lives of the saints. Christ is the first to be resurrected and the rest of his brethren will be raised at his final appearance from heaven (the parousia). The (extended) day of that resurrection is now, but God’s promise to return to his people and dwell among them was fulfilled when he came in Jesus and continues now that he lives in his earthly temple, the church. This final event is merely seen as the completion of the renewal that has begun with Christ’s resurrection. Thus there is no “second” coming: God has fulfilled his promise to come to live with his people now.

Hurtado will have none of it. Christians (like Hurtado) are still waiting for the second coming just as Paul really taught their original generation. So deep is this belief furrowed into the mind of the conservative scholar that any contrary view must be bereft of all supporting evidence.

My own piece is a critical study of Wright’s claim that the earthly ministry of Jesus was seen from the first as YHWH’s “return to Zion,” . . . . 

I judge his claims faulty, unsupported by the evidence. 

Hurtado maintains that the long promised return of YHWH to Zion will be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus. It was not fulfilled in his first visit.  Continue reading “Hurting: Can Wright Be Right This Time?”


Who sees the Son of Man coming, according to Mark’s gospel?

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by Neil Godfrey

Mark 13:25-26:

and the stars of the heaven shall be falling, and the powers that are in the heavens shall be shaken. And then they shall see the Son of Man coming in clouds with much power and glory

Often noncanonical (and sometimes canonical) Jewish literature of the Second Temple period equates stars of heaven with angels. Powers of heaven are certainly angelic powers.

So is Mark here saying that it is these angels who will see the Son of Man coming etc?

What does the Greek in this case suggest re the ones who see?


When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds

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by Neil Godfrey

Imagine the author of the Gospel of Mark wrote about the coming of the Son of Man in clouds from the same perspective as frequently found amongst the Jewish Wisdom, Prophetic and History writings. (Leave aside for this discussion the perspective of the Deuteronomist, who on other grounds appears to have spawned a separate tradition about the deity anyway — see posts on Margaret Barker’s work for details.)

Last time I posted something here without taking time to check my bookshelves to remind myself what “the professional scholars” had written I got thoroughly roasted. That was a good, if lazy, way to be brought up to speed. Now my excuse is that I am separated by thousands of kilometers from my library, and am likely to remain so for some months yet. But what’s a blog for if not to toss out off the cuff thoughts anyway? Besides, I know the following interpretation is by no means novel. But it is one that I have been a long time refusing to accept — till about now.

What I’m moving towards is the view that Mark’s depiction of the coming of the Son of Man in clouds was intended to be as metaphoric as his description of the stars falling from heaven. Further, when he spoke of everyone “seeing” this advent, he really implied a “spiritual” seeing just as surely as he meant the miracles of Jesus to be interpreted as a restoring of spiritual insight.

Let’s imagine the same author did not call Peter “Satan” because he got his timing wrong over exactly when Jesus would act apocalyptically as in returning with angelic hosts and burning up the old physical world before inaugurating a new cosmic order, but because he was opposed to the very idea root and branch, totally, absolutely. Mark’s Jesus did not tell Peter, “Yes yes, you are right, I will come as a conquering hero, but not just yet — I have to make atonement for sins first, THEN I can do the world-conquering thing, you Satan you!” Continue reading “When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds”


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.