Saturday, October 6, 2007

Jesus' error

Last Sunday, I mentioned that Jesus was apparently mistaken in one of his prophecies. The prophecy is this:
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)1
There'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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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.


Andrew Compton said...


Am curious about how this approach squares with the teachings about a false prophet in Deut 18:20-22. If Jesus was wrong in this prophecy, does he then fall under the category of a prophet who has spoken presumptuously?

I'm not sure how one would consider this a valid interpretive option considering Christianity has generally viewed Christ as one who is worthy of following; something hard to affirm if he is a false prophet (and thus is worthy of death and someone who should not be feared). What happens to Christianity if its central figure is condemned by Deut 18?

Am curious to hear how you'd avoid what seems to be a logical conclusion to the argument.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

Hi, Andrew.

You're a step ahead of me at this point.

The post culminates by raising two questions. The first question is theological: Can we accept that Jesus made an error?

You're arguing, No, we can't accept that Jesus made an error. Therefore, you need to address the second question: How do you exegete the sayings to make them appear true?

You seem to think that I've already given my answer to the first question. I can understand that: after all, the title of the post is "Jesus' error", and the post is written to raise the problem to an acute level.

But actually, I haven't given my answer to the question yet. You'll have to wait for part two to see how I deal with the problem that I've raised here. This post ends as a kind of cliffhanger — like an old Batman episode. I promise not to leave you hanging there for very long.

My goal is never to undermine people's faith. My goal is always to deepen people's understanding of scripture; but a key way to do that is to get people to wrestle with the real problems that the biblical texts present.

I have no problem with the argument you're making: No, we can't accept that Jesus made an error because that would make him a false prophet. But pretend that I'm a Christian university student. Someone has called this problem to my attention, and it is troubling me. I come to you for reassurance: Andrew, help me sort this out!

What would you say to me?

Andrew Compton said...

Thanks, Stephen.

I appreciate the thoughts. I'll also have to do some reflecting regarding your last question about how to give an answer to a university student about this. It is an excellent question, and a pastoral reality!

Something I appreciate about Peter Enns recent book, Inspiration and Incarnation (and something that helps me to war against the fundamentalist within myself!), is his insistence "that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have" (pg. 21).

Honest scholarship does have to deal with some of the difficulties posed by the scripture. Charles Hodge's "Epic" approach to doctrine (to use Vanhoozers term) doesn't seem to really account for the multiformity of the scriptures. Even though I tend to default to the extreme of completely "flattening out" the scriptures, I think that Enns tempers this instinct of mine as well: "An evangelical counterattack, however, is to defend the Bible against accusations of diversity by showing that such diversity is not there, involves only minor issues, or can be resolved in theory at some future time. But this alternative creates tensions of its own, and runs the risk of avoiding the difficult issues all together" (pg. 73).

Perhaps what is key is that once we decide *that* the Bible is God's word, we can then decide *how* it is God's word. Certainly the dictation theory held by many evangelicals today is not a good option and yet trying to find a way to deal with the question without making the Christian faith intellectually irrelevant is not all that easy either.

Well, I'm just thinking out loud now. Thanks for your post. You cause me to think about things that normally don't come across my radar. I appreciate it!

James Pate said...

Your question is a hard one. Here are a few thoughts. You may have heard them before.

1. The preterist approach is mostly based on the problem you raised. You can read this in R.C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus (though I think that he is a partial preterist). According to this view, Matthew 24 was about the destruction of Jerusalem. The signs in the sun and the moon are used in the prophets for all sorts of disasters in history--so they are not necessarily literal. As far as the Son of Man's coming is concerned, that may just mean that the Son of Man will judge, which occurred at the destruction of Jerusalem. Genesis 11:5 and Exodus 3:8 say that God will come down, and these passages refer to God's judgment, not his returning to set up a world kingdom.

2. Jesus' statement that some standing there will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom may refer to the transfiguration, which occurs immediately after the statement. Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27 are followed by "after six days" or "about eight days later." That tells me that the Gospel author is connecting those passages with the transfiguration in some way.

Cliff Martin said...


Good post. Good discussion. I think this is exactly what we need more of: people unafraid to ask the hard questions, and encourage the church to actually engage mental faculties!

The various Jesus sayings you cite may have different solutions. I have always believed as James does re. the Matthew 16 et. al. statement which is always followed up by the Transfiguration, a prefiguring of his later coming with his Father. And, because of those specific chronology notes (which James mentions) I do not consider this interpretation to be far-fetched.

As for the other citation from the Olivet, I could never buy the Pre-millennial budding-fig-tree-Israel-in-the-land-40-year scheme which hopefully died a welcome death in 1988. But there does seem to be a strong connection between the fig tree lesson and Jesus' statement. Maybe he is simply saying that all of his prophecies about the end times will be fulfilled within the scope of a lifetime. He is answering two questions in the discourse, and one is “what will be the signs of your coming.” I lean toward a preterist view, but some of his statements seem to clearly point to the end of the age.

I have never connected the imminent-return teachings in the epistles to these sayings of Jesus, but rather to the over-enthusiasm of these early believers. Or perhaps, on the other hand, it was healthy enthusiasm.

I anxiously await your unraveling of the mystery!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Andrew:
Thanks for the quotes from Peter Enns; both quotes are excellent.

I doubt that the average Christian gives any serious thought to the notion of inspiration. I suppose we have this image of God dictating a message to the Hebrew prophets ("the word of YHWH came to me, saying …"), and we assume it was like that for the NT writers as well. But when you stop to consider the highly polished poetry of the prophets, you realize there's more to the process than simple dictation. And then you reflect on the distinctive, personal vocabulary of each NT writer (e.g. compare Paul's terminology to John's) and you realize dictation doesn't account for that, either.

I think we have to accept that there's both a divine and a human element to scripture. Liberals like me then pounce and say that the human contribution opens the door to errors or at least inconsistencies from one author to the next. But that doesn't necessarily follow; it's a theory, but we have to look closely at the data to see whether or not such inconsistencies exist.

I follow Brueggemann in concluding that scripture is multivocal. And in part that conclusion grows from my conviction that each author should be allowed to speak for himself, without James (for example) being read through a pauline lens. So if your tendency is to flatten scripture, I have the opposite tendency: to see tensions and problems everywhere I look. I can accept without it destroying my faith — though it hasn't always been easy.

• James:
Excellent suggestions. For example, I think you're correctly interpreting the transfiguration narrative: Mark offered it as at least a partial fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy.

This notion of a partial fulfillment — that's what I plan to explore in the next post. If Jesus' prediction was only partially fulfilled, does that still constitute an error? More broadly, how do prophecy and fulfillment actually work in scripture?

In other words, I'm suggesting that we must develop a general theory of prophecy and fulfillment to address the problem I've raised.

• Cliff:
Maybe he is simply saying that all of his prophecies about the end times will be fulfilled within the scope of a lifetime.

I have heard that suggestion before, but I had forgotten it. I don't find it persuasive, but then there isn't any one piece of data that we can point to, to make the problem disappear. (And I know, you're not trying to make the problem disappear; you're quite prepared to wrestle with it.) So perhaps it can be brought in as one piece of the solution, to be fitted together with some other necessary pieces.

Jamie said...

Stephen, I don't know exactly what to make of the text in question, and I'm curious to hear your take on it. The first point that came to my mind, though, is that prophecies in the Bible are often conditional. The most obvious example is Jonah's prophecy concerning the destruction of Nineveh. Was the prophecy fulfilled? No; Nineveh wasn't destroyed. But was Jonah a false prophet? No. The prophecy was conditional. I don't know if that fact really addresses the problem you've raised in John, but it at least provides additional context.

Jamie said...

...problem you've raised in John...


John said...

Thanks, Stephen, for a thoughtful and balanced post.

I'm just discovering your blog and enjoy it very much.

Two other passages that deserve consideration in this context are Mark 13:32 and Acts 1:7.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Jamie and John:
Thanks, both, for your input.

It was an interesting exercise to post an open question, to see how people would respond to it. Taken together, all of the above contributions go a long way toward pointing us to a solution.

James F. McGrath said...

This is a very helpful post, and points out that the presence of such problematic predictions is a plus when it comes to assessing historical value.

I find Marcus Borg refreshingly honest when he acknowledges that his reasoning on this subject (he doesn't think Jesus predicted an imminent apocalyptic end) runs as follows: most of the people Borg has encountered who predict the end as being near do not seem completely sane; Jesus strikes him as sane; therefore, Borg concludes that Jesus was not that sort of figure.

Personally, I find the evidence in the Bible quite compelling, whereas Borg's argument is open to the criticism that what seems sane to a modern American is unlikely to be exactly the same as what would have appeared this way to a first century inhabitant of the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for underlining the positive point I made in the conclusion — in your words, "The presence of such problematic predictions is a plus when it comes to assessing historical value." I wouldn't want that point to be overlooked.

Bob MacDonald said...

I come late to this discussion - and I haven't read the follow on yet. I take Jesus' prediction as a prediction of the crucifixion. I do not take the destruction of Jerusalem or the transfiguration as partial fulfillment. It is the recovery from lies of the place of God's presence with us that is at the heart of the suffering and death of God in Christ on the cross. I don't know if this is ontological or metaphysical or just plain reductionist on my part, but it is here that I see and know through my death in his flesh the Holy Place that we are invited into. It is 'the Son of Man coming...' not a second coming but the presence of God as known proleptically by the targets of God's mercy (hasidim/saints) before and after this event.