For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Mt. 16:27-28)1There's a similar saying in Mark's "little Apocalypse":
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mark 13:29-30 // Mt. 24:34 // Luke 21:32)The meaning of these two sayings seems perfectly straightforward: the eschaton will arrive within the lifetime of that generation. Is it possible that Jesus erred? — that he made a prediction that was not fulfilled?
It might help if we could reconstruct how the first generation of Christians understood Jesus' prediction. I suggest that we can get a reasonably clear insight into their expectations by considering the following three texts.
• 1Th. 4:13-18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.To properly understand this text, we have to read between the lines a little. It seems that the Thessalonian Christians were worried: some members of the community had died, and the surviving Thessalonians didn't know whether the departed believers could still be saved.
From our perspective, 100 generations later, the Thessalonians' concern is touchingly naïve: even bizarre. Was it really necessary for Paul to explain that departed believers are not lost? — that they will be raised to be with the Lord when he returns?
Such a concern would only arise in a church where Christ's return was expected almost immediately. "This generation" was not supposed to die; the Lord was supposed to return without delay.
And so Paul patiently reassures them: not only will the departed believers be raised, their salvation will precede ours. ("The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them.")
I might note, in passing, that most scholars regard 1 Thessalonians as the earliest of Paul's epistles. (It's possible that Galatians is even earlier.) This passage is evidence of the letter's early date: it seems to have been written during that brief window of time when Christ was expected to return almost immediately.
• 1Co. 7:25-31
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.This is another problem text. (The Bible is simply full of them, in my view — but maybe I'm unjustifiably cynical.) The problem here is Paul's shockingly negative view of marriage. For example, "if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned."
Talk about damning marriage with faint praise! Whatever happened to family values?! This chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the reasons that Paul has acquired a reputation as a misogynist.
The problematic nature of the text is diminished (though it doesn't completely disappear) if we emphasize verse 29 — "This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none."
Paul isn't concerned about propagating Christianity by making lots of babies (which seems to be the Roman Catholic model). He seems to advocate celibacy, or at least a radical shift in conventional priorities so that sex virtually vanishes from view: "From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none."
How can Paul talk this way? It's simple: he does not envision 100 generations of Church history ahead. On the contrary, "the appointed time has grown very short".
Once again, we have an indication that Christ's return was expected almost immediately.
• John 21:20-23
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. … He said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"Here we must exercise our imaginations a little. The years pass; one by one, the apostles die off (mostly through martyrdom). Eventually, only one apostle survives: John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved".
And still the years continue to pass. John is now an exceptionally old man. Death inexorably closes in on him. Gradually the conviction takes shape in his mind: the Lord is not going to return in "this generation" per everyone's expectation.
But John's church hasn't come to that conclusion. Decades after Jesus made his prediction, the saying has been spun a certain way within the Johannine community: Jesus promised to return before John's death.
The days of John's life are so many grains of sand in an eggtimer. Before the last grain of sand falls, Christ will return: he promised! If it doesn't happen that way, John's death could precipitate a crisis of faith.
And so this postscript is added to John's Gospel. (Scholars believe John originally ended at 20:30-31, and chapter 21 was a late addendum.) The misleading rumour must be addressed. "Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [John] was not to die, but, 'If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?'"
Here (sixty years later?) we have travelled a long distance from Jesus' original prediction. But the issue is the same: "there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Did Jesus expect the kingdom of God to arrive within a generation? The evidence suggests that he did. First we have the prima facie meaning of the two sayings quoted in the introduction to this post. Second, we have the clear expectation of the first generation of Christians. Everyone "knew" that Jesus would return almost immediately — certainly before the last surviving apostle died.
I'm going to leave the reader hanging at this point. I want to pose this question as a theological / exegetical problem. Theologically, can we accept that Jesus made an error? If not, how do you exegete the sayings to make them appear true?
I will follow up with part two later this week. I plan to broaden the question to encompass Old Testament prophecies as well. Jesus' saying is not the only instance of a prophecy that seemingly fell to the ground, unfulfilled.
But for now, let me offer one positive conclusion that we can derive from the above data. The Gospels were relatively conservative in their handling of Jesus' sayings.
Yes, some sayings are of doubtful historicity. Yes, each of the Evangelists had his own theological perspective, and they were not above "spinning" Jesus' sayings to make them fit a preferred theological paradigm.
But a careful reading of the Gospels demonstrates a second tendency, moving in the contrary direction: a conservative tendency. Some very difficult sayings were preserved for posterity when the tradition was committed to writing. This tells us: (a) that the tradition became relatively fixed at an early date — presumably while "this generation" was still alive; and (b) that later copyists were unwilling to destroy authentic tradition, even when it gave rise to significant problems.
This survey of the data leads me to a Janus-faced conclusion; one that is fundamental to my understanding of scripture. On the one hand, we shouldn't be so naïve as to deny that real problems are present in the text. On the other hand, we can trust that the tradition preserves authentic information about the historical Jesus. The tradition thus provides an adequate foundation for Christian faith.
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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.