Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Now and not yet: Jesus' error, part 2

Thanks to all of you for your insightful comments on the previous post. You have grappled gamely with the problem I raised: Did Jesus make an error when he (evidently) predicted that the eschaton would come within a generation of his ministry?

You offered the following solutions:
  • The Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mark 9:1 // Mt. 16:28 // Luke 9:27) may have referred to the transfiguration. (suggested by James)
  • In context, Mark 13:29-30 (// Mt. 24:34 // Luke 21:32) may have referred to the destruction of Jerusalem. (again, James)
  • Perhaps Jesus meant only that his prophecies about the end times will all be fulfilled within the scope of a lifetime. (suggested by Cliff)
  • The prophecy may have been conditional. (Jamie)
  • Finally, John observed that we must also keep in mind Mark 13:32 ("But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father") and Acts 1:7 ("It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority").1
Jamie's suggestion is intriguing. Would the kingdom have come then and there, if the Jews had accepted the Gospel and embraced Jesus as their Messiah? If so, would the Romans have crucified Jesus anyway, or would the crucifixion never have happened? The latter possibility is almost unthinkable from a Christian perspective.

We'll come back to John's comment below. I think it's an important counterweight to the appearance of watertight certainty that the other sayings possess.

As for your other suggestions, I think they all have merit. Meanwhile, the fact that there are so many attempts at a solution is evidence that interpreters have struggled to understand Jesus' sayings over the years.

In this post, I want to offer three theological concepts which, taken together, at least reduce the magnitude of the problem.

1. Now and not yet:

In my view, Jesus' prediction was fulfilled in part. The New Testament authors generally agree that the kingdom of God was inaugurated with (a) Jesus' resurrection followed by (b) the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Both are eschatological events — both were supposed to happen at the end of history, not part way through history. That's why St. Paul refers to the resurrection (1Co. 15:20) and the indwelling Spirit (Ro. 8:23) as "firstfruits". Again, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as a down payment. We have received a partial fulfillment now, guaranteeing that a perfect fulfillment will follow in due course.

The eschaton has been inaugurated (it is "now") but not consummated (it is "not yet"). This is the first theological concept we must bear in mind. Scholars use this terminology, now and not yet, to capture the paradoxical nature of the church age. John's Gospel provides a classic example of this now/not yet tension at 5:25 —
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
The concept implies that Jesus' prediction was fulfilled, if only in part. It also explains why the first generation of Christians lived in such fervid expectation of Christ's return. First there were Jesus' predictions; then those predictions were followed by unmistakably eschatological events. Surely Jesus' return could not lag far behind!

2. Jesus' self-emptying:

But Jesus did not return immediately, and so the question persists. Did Jesus err, at least in part?

In my view, there's no getting around it:  what happened wasn't exactly what Jesus expected and confidently predicted. Here we must return to the sayings John called to our attention — particularly Mark 13:32.
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
This saying is another problem passage. At least, it's problematic for folks who assume that Jesus possessed all of the divine attributes, including omniscience, even during the period of his incarnation. And yet St. Paul says that Jesus "emptied" himself (Php. 2:7, NRSV) during the period of his ministry.

This self-emptying (Gk. kenosis) is the second theological concept we must bear in mind. Logically, Jesus would have to divest himself of at least some of the divine traits in order to be considered fully human. To be human is, by definition, to be subject to limitations which cannot apply to God.

And so it is with Mark 13:32, where Jesus admits that his knowledge of "that day or that hour" is finite. It seems that Jesus, like Paul, could prophesy only "in part".

Robert Peterson introduces a helpful distinction.2 I have added numbering and italics to his presentation for greater clarity:
To understand the timing of the second coming, we have to deal with all the information God gives us, and that information falls into three categories, three types of passages.
  1. There are imminence passages, which cause people to look for Jesus to come.
  2. There are interval passages, which indicate certain things have to happen before He comes.
  3. And most importantly, there are ignorance passages, which tell us that we do not know, that nobody knows, the day or the hour.
… It seems to me that if we hold these three things together, we will be much better off.

3. Prophetic foreshortening:

Finally, let me observe that the prophecy in Mark 13 is an outstanding example of "prophetic foreshortening". This is the third theological concept that we must bear in mind. It is a commonplace of prophecy that events which are separated by centuries of history are "foreshortened", or telescoped together in the prophet's message.

One classic illustration involves someone looking at a mountain range from a distance. (Please excuse my lack of artistic talent!)

The general significance of the illustration is as follows. From a distance, the mountain peaks appear to be close together. It is only as you arrive at the first peak that you realize the second peak is actually quite distant.

Turning to the specific problem of Mark 13 and parallels —
Point 1 marks the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Point 2 marks 2,000 years (and counting) of Church history. That timespan was evidently hidden from Jesus; at any rate, it doesn't feature in the sayings we have been considering. Point 3 marks the parousia (Second Coming).

In his predictions, Jesus jumbled these events together as if they were all part of the same constellation. And indeed, some of the events may ultimately be fulfilled twice:  for example, an intense persecution of the Church and the coming of false Messiahs. Those predictions may have been fulfilled at point 1 in my diagram. (Josephus spoke of false prophets, who may in fact have been messianic pretenders.) It doesn't mean that there won't be a second fulfillment when history arrives at point 3.

For another example of prophetic foreshortening, consider Joel 2 (= Acts 2):
For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

"'And in the last days it shall be,' God declares,
'that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'"

(Acts 2:15-21)
Here we see the pouring out of the Holy Spirit packaged with the arrival of the eschaton. And indeed, this foreshortening phenomenon is a commonplace of biblical prophecy (particularly with respect to eschatological events).

  1. The several suggestions offered in response to my previous post testify that there is no completely satisfactory solution to the problem I outlined.

  2. Several of the suggestions also testify to a partial fulfillment of Jesus' prophesies. In particular, I would emphasize Jesus' resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to Acts 2, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jesus' disciples is evidence that he had been exalted to the right hand of God, and installed as king (= Christ).

    And yet there is a remainder — various elements of Jesus' expectation which have not yet been fufilled. This unexpected development, a partial fulfillment of prophecy, is articulated in the theological expression, now and not yet.

  3. In my view, the events were not quite as Jesus had anticipated and predicted. But perhaps this is only what we might have expected. St. Paul speaks of Jesus' self-emptying (kenosis), and Jesus confessed that his knowledge of eschatological events was limited.

  4. We should compare Jesus' partially fulfilled prophecies with the general pattern of prediction and fulfillment in the Bible. At that point, we may be surprised to realize that prophetic foreshortening is a commonplace of biblical prophecy (i.e., a clustering together of events that turn out to be separated by centuries of history).

  5. Finally, I wish to reiterate the point that I made in the conclusion of my previous post. That these (and other) "hard" sayings of Jesus were preserved in the Gospels testifies to the Evangelists' unwillingness to destroy authentic tradition. This conservative impulse reassures us that the Gospels are a trustworthy source of information about the historical Jesus.

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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.

2I believe Peterson is crediting David Jones for the three-part categorization of scripture mentioned above.


James F. McGrath said...

It should also be mentioned that Luke-Acts is itself attempting to deal with the problem traditionally referred to as "the delay of the Parousia" - the fact that Jesus did not return as quickly as had been expected.

Just compare Mark 13 with its parallel in Luke. There Luke says that false prophets will say not only "I am he" but "The time is near" - which is precisely what someone reading Mark at face value might have said! Luke also changes the reference to the 'desolating sacrilige' or 'abomination of desolation' to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, so that its desolation is near.

I find it ironic that there are many Christians who claim to value the Bible, and yet do not seem to give any weight to what Luke did with the traditions and texts he inherited. Luke's example suggests that being a Christian is not about repeating words and phrases in a way that ignores the passage of time, new information, and the context in which we find ourselves. Rather, if we follow Luke's example, we will see that in light of the passage of nearly 2,000 years it is appropriate for Christians today to rethink and reinterpret some of the language and claims found in our earliest Christian sources.

Cliff Martin said...


I agree with most of what you said ... except that I would go farther than you did on one point, and state another point in slightly different terms.

1. “Jesus would have to divest himself of at least some of the divine traits in order to be considered fully human.” To be fully human, Jesus would have to divest himself of all divine traits. I think it can be demonstrated that Jesus did not have omniscience, omnipotence, nor omnipresence. But the more important argument is that Jesus teaches that the way in which he lives out his relationship with the father is exactly analogous to how we live out our relationship with him (John 6:57, “because of” in the NIV and NAS is actually dia, “through” or “by means of”). Jesus teaches this same principle in numerous other passages in John. We rob these passages of their impact if we grant Jesus powers of divine insight or divine life. He made it clear that when he performed miracles, it was not his own inherent power, but the power of the Father. My understanding is that he lived perfectly as a human inspired by and filled with the Holy Spirit. He modeled the life of the Spirit-filled believer.

2. The concept of foreshortening (love your artwork, by the way. Hmm. What powerful drawing program was that?) makes the prophet subject to errors of perception, in a way. I don’t disagree with the concept, but I prefer to simply say that the nature of Biblical prophesy is that it often has multiple fulfillments. When Isaiah prophesied about the virgin (read, “young woman”) conceiving and bearing a son, the prophesy was immediately fulfilled with his own wife and his son, and later fulfilled with Mary and Jesus. Whether Isaiah himself understood the double meaning, the multiple fulfillment could be a topic for debate, but it matters little to me. Prophesy speaks accurately, but casts its image upon multiple screens at various times in history. Its complete fulfillment can only be seen when all the events are observed.

Thanks you for the stimulating discussion!

Steve Martin said...

On the fundamental question “Could Jesus have made an Error” I think the answer is “yes”. It’s an inherent part of the incarnation & kenosis as has been already mentioned. I can’t really understand how anyone can say “Jesus knew everything” when clearly even Jesus indicates he doesn’t, and (as Cliff states) he didn’t have other divine “omni” attributes - so why have this one? And with the parable of the mustard seed (it is not the smallest – orchid is smaller), I think this is more than just Jesus “accommodating” to 1st Century NE knowledge – Jesus almost certainly thought it was the smallest. I don’t see this “ability to err” or “inability to know in full” as a problem. In fact, I think it is fundamental to our theology of God becoming fully human – a tension we have lived with for almost 2000 years. For me, “God becoming fully human” is an essential part of my own (again fuzzy) theodicy.

On the question that prompted these posts (ie. Did Jesus err in this case), I’m not sure I have anything else to add to the discussion except to say thanks.

John said...

Thanks again, Stephen, for venturing into difficult territory with balance and insight.

I highlighted your blog recently on mine. I hope traffic picks up for you.


John Hobbins

James Pate said...

Thanks for the post, Stephen. Here are some thoughts:

1. I disagree with the view that Mt 24 and like passages are conditional on Israel's repentance. The chapters' presumption is that Israel would not repent, since Jerusalem is being destroyed. At the same time, I will not rule out that some imminent expectation passages imply conditionality. Acts 3:19-21 says that God will send Christ back if the Jews repent. So Christ perhaps could have returned in the first century.

2. I'd add to your list of passages the "long wait" passages. Apparently, as time went on and Jesus didn't show, the Christians started to notice. In Luke 20:9, the one representing Jesus is gone for a long time. And II Peter 3:8-9 says that a day to God is as 1000 years, and that God is taking his time to give people an opportunity to repent. And the author of II Peter is not just coming up with some excuse off the top of his head. He is going to the Scriptures in his search for answers, since Psalm 90:4 equates a day with 1000 years.

3. I'm slightly fundamentalist when it comes to saying Jesus was wrong, though C.S. Lewis also said that Jesus' imminent eschatology was due to his human limitations. Jesus said that his message was not his own but from his Father. Wouldn't that imply that it had to be right?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• James:
Luke says that false prophets will say not only "I am he" but "The time is near" - which is precisely what someone reading Mark at face value might have said!

Thanks for calling our attention to that point.

For me, the question is whether Luke's explanation of the delay is tenable or untenable. And I think that pointing to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as evidence that Jesus had come into his kingdom is a good, theologically sophisticated position; one which neatly complements Paul's description of the Spirit as "firstfruits" and a down payment.

I agree with your end point, that we should be prepared to reconsider some of the biblical language. There's always a tension here, of course: the biblical texts remain our starting point, and the question becomes how far we can legitimately move beyond the biblical language.

But still, we have to be creative. The events of salvation history are timeless; the metaphors used to interpret the events may not translate so well, 2,000 years later.

• Cliff:
Excellent points!

Like you, I tend to regard Jesus as first and foremost a human being, empowered by the Holy Spirit and living a life of humble dependence upon the Father, and thereby setting an example for us to imitate.

Does foreshortening make the prophet subject to errors of perception? It depends what you mean by that. I'm still assuming that the prophet perceives the events accurately, even if the timing of those events is poorly perceived.

But in fact, prophets do appear to make mistakes. John has a series on this on Ancient Hebrew Poetry — part 1, part 2.

• Steve:
You refer to the notion, sometimes put forward, that Jesus "knew better" but accommodated himself to the ignorance of the people around him. It has always struck me as appallingly patronizing — and also a desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion! I'm glad you also reject it.

• John:
Thanks very much for calling people's attention to my blog. You're quite right, I strenuously resist all attempts at systematization. I think the biblical texts are self-evidently multivocal, and we must let each "voice" speak for itself. There's life in those tensions, in my opinion — and death in the systematizations!

• James:
On your second point — the "long delay" texts would perhaps come under the heading of interval passages. As I read it, the authors were already recalibrating their expectations in the NT books. (The same point James makes, above; also John, in the posts I linked to.)

This is one of the best indications of the date of the books of the NT. In the earliest layer, people still expected the Lord to return promptly. By the time Luke wrote Acts, they were settling in for a wait that had no immediate end in sight. 2 Peter is usually dated late (and Peter's authorship is denied) because it accepts a long delay before Jesus' return. I'm not sure how you'll respond to that idea.

On your third point —
Jesus said that his message was not his own but from his Father. Wouldn't that imply that it had to be right?

I hate to sound like a lawyer (or worse yet, President Clinton), but it depends how you define "right". I think Jesus' prophecy was "right" in the way I describe it to Cliff: accurate as to the events, but a little shaky on the timing.

Also: I would say his prophecy is right, even though it didn't happen exactly the way he presumably pictured it in his own mind. Remember what John says about Caiaphas — sometimes people prophesy without fully comprehending their own message. In a sense, Jesus could be simultaneously mistaken and correct!

Steve Martin said...

Hi Stephen,
Just to clarify what I mean by accomodation. I believe God's revelation to us is always accomodated in some fashion, whether that be the through the incarnation or through the divine scriptures. He uses human authors & their human language to communicate & relate to us. As an infinite God speaking to finite beings I don't think there is any other way for him to communicate to us. This is how I see see much of Gen 1-11 - God's divine accomodation to the ANE science of the day to communicate the message of creation. To use "correct" science would have simply distracted from the core message. In the same way the God-man Jesus could have accomodated the story of the mustard seed to us (ie. what's the point in sidetracking the issue with - you guys only *think* its the smallest) without being patronizing. However, I believe for reasons in the above comment that Jesus probably accepted & believed the "science" of his day.