was successfully added to your cart.

Note of the Day – October 16 (Revelation 10:1-7)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Revelation 10:1-7

As in the earlier Seal-vision cycle, there is here an interlude between the sixth and seventh Trumpet-visions—the seventh trumpet does not sound until 11:15. As a literary and dramatic device, this serves to build suspense, but it also turns the attention of the audience away from the Judgment and back toward the worship of God (and Christ) in Heaven. Also, in the book of Revelation, the number seven symbolizes the holiness and perfection of God, even as the number six (coming just short of seven) reflects the limitation and imperfection of the created order, and of humankind in particular. Thus, from a thematic point of view, a clear demarcation between the first six visions and the seventh is entirely appropriate. However, technically, based on 11:14, it would seem that the author of the book regarded this interlude (10:1-11:14) as part of the sixth vision.

Rev 10:1-2a

The core of this particular vision (vv. 1-7) features the presence of a “strong Messenger”—i.e. an especially powerful heavenly being, with distinctive attributes. His visual appearance is described in vv. 1-2a:

  • “stepping down [vb. katabai/nw] out of the heaven”—perhaps indicating a shift in visionary locale, i.e. a descent to appear before the seer (John) on earth (as in 1:12-20); more likely, the spatial reference is part of the vision itself, as is the reference to earth in v. 2b.
  • “having been cast about [i.e. clothed/robed] by a cloud”
  • a brilliant halo (i@ri$, i.e. rainbow) upon his head (cf. 4:3)
  • his face is “(bright) as the sun”
  • his feet are as “pillars of fire”

These characteristics echo both the language of theophany (the manifestation of God [YHWH]) and christophany (the appearance of the exalted Jesus), which includes the traditional imagery surrounding the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14). The clouds and related meteorological phenomena are part of the traditional storm-theophany—i.e. manifestation/description of the sky/storm as deity, or personified as deity. For ancient Israelites, El-Yahweh shared many of these storm associations, which were visible when he became manifest to humankind, according to the Old Testament narrative and traditions (most famously in the Sinai theophany, Exod 19:9, 16; 24:15-26ff). Especially important, from an eschatological standpoint, is the cloud-imagery related to the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7, who was identified with the exalted Jesus in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (Mk 13:26-27; 14:62 par; Rev 1:7; cf. also Acts 7:55-56). The same cloud-imagery is specifically associated with the future return of Jesus (i.e. the Son of Man) in Acts 1:9-11 and 1 Thess 4:17.

Certain similarities with the vision of the exalted Jesus in 1:12ff have raised the possibility that the Messenger here in chapter 10 also represents an appearance of Christ. This, however, seems unlikely; the parallels are too general, and simply reflect the fact that descriptions of the exalted Jesus follow closely the traditional depiction of divine/heavenly beings.

Verse 2 establishes an important parallel with the vision-scene in chapter 5—the Messenger holds a scroll in his hand, just as the “One seated on the throne” holds the sealed scroll in his right hand (5:1). There is some question whether this is the same scroll (lit. paper roll, bibli/on, here bibliari/dion) from chapters 5ff. Almost certainly, it should be understood this way, based on the description of it here as “having been opened up” (vb. a)noi/gw, used 11 times in chaps. 5-6, beginning with 5:2). Moreover, it would present a visionary structure exactly parallel to that indicated at the very start of the book (1:1), referring to the revelation contained in the book as coming:

  • from God [YHWH]—par the scroll in his right hand (5:1)
    • given to Jesus—par the Lamb taking and opening the scroll (5:6-6:1)
      • and then sent through his Messengers—i.e., the figure holding the opened scroll here in chap. 10
        • to his servants (e.g. the seer John)—the scene in chap. 10
Rev 10:2b-4

These verses describe the action of the great Messenger:

“And he set his foot (on) the giving (side) [i.e. his right foot] (down) upon the sea, and his well-named [i.e. left] (foot) upon the earth, and he cried (out) with a great voice, just as a lion (does when it) bellows. And when he cried (out), the seven thunders spoke (with) their (own) voices.” (v. 3)

Here again, we see evidence of the ancient storm-theophany. In the Semitic idiom, thunder is literally the voice (loq) of God, and this imagery is utilized in the great throne-vision (4:5; 6:1). The roaring of the storm is paralleled with the roar of the lion—a powerful animal figure used to represent both God (Amos 3:8; Hos 11:10) and his anointed representative (i.e. Messiah/Christ); on the latter, cf. Rev 5:5, and the underlying tradition from Gen 49:9 (see also Mic 5:8). The lion’s roar is especially associated with the divine Judgment in the Old Testament (Hos 5:14; 13:7-8; Jer 2:15; 4:7, etc; Zech 11:3).

The significance of these “thunders” is indicated in verse 4:

“And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, and (then) I heard a voice out of the heaven saying (to me), ‘You must seal the (thing)s which the seven thunders spoke, and you shall not write them’.”

The description of these voices as “thunder”, along with the number seven, shows that they are closely connected to the voice of God Himself. However, the reflexive pronoun (e(autw=n) in verse 3, indicates that they are not precisely identical with God’s voice—i.e. they speak with their (own) voices. Nevertheless, they accurately reflect God’s voice, much as the “seven spirits” before the throne represent God’s very eyes (5:6, cf. Zech 4:10). According to the ancient religious consciousness and mode of expression, the personification of divine attributes was extremely common; whether, or the extent to which, the “seven spirits” and “seven thunders” are to be understood as independent beings in their own right, is extremely hard to determine. These passages should not be used to establish a precise Theology (properly speaking) for the New Testament.

The proximity of the thunders to God’s own voice is confirmed by the command to seal the things they spoke—here, as in chaps. 5-6, the seal (sfragi/$) implies that something is kept hidden and undisclosed (i.e. the contents of the scroll are not to be read). This suggests something of the numinous and awesome (divine) character of these voices. Whether the seer understood what the thunders spoke is beside the point, though it may be that there is a similarity with what Paul relates in 2 Cor 12:4. The underlying idea and imagery finds an interesting, though faint, parallel in the ancient Canaanite “Baal Epic”, in which the storm deity (personification of the storm) Baal Haddu addresses his sister Anat (through a messenger), part of a refrain that runs through the text:

“For a message I have, and will tell you,
A word and I will recount to you,
The word of tree and the whisper of stone,
The converse of Heaven with Earth,
Of Deeps with Stars,
I understand the lightning which the Heavens do not know,
The word people do not know,
And earth’s masses do not understand.”
(translation, with some modification, by Mark S. Smith in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press [1997])

Rev 10:5-7

The action of the Messenger continues in verses 5-7, as he stands astride the surface of the earth—one foot on the sea, the other on the land. The symbolic majesty of the scene is enhanced as the Messenger proceeds to swear an oath, marked by the raising of his right hand to heaven (v. 5b). The ancient practice of swearing by oath is quite foreign to us today, though modern society retains a faint vestige of it in courts of law and certain other official settings. The ancient (religious/magical) sense and significance of the practice is indicated by the verb o)mnu/w, which, in its fundamental sense and earliest usage, refers to making (or holding) something firm through contact with a sacred object. In the setting of public affairs, including the delivering of message, giving testimony, etc, it can mean confirming the truth of what a person says. That is the basic meaning here. By raising his hand to heaven, the Messenger is affirming the truth of what he says through symbolic/ritual contact with Heaven itself (cf. Matt 23:22). Moreover, he utters his message through the name/authority of God Himself (“…in/by the [One] living into the Ages of the Ages [i.e. forever]”). The oath is presented in the manner of an ancient religious/theological formula, one which may be traced all the way back to the Abraham narratives in Genesis (cf. Gen 19:18-20), presenting God [YHWH-El] as the one true Deity and Creator.

The message itself, preceded by such solemn grandeur, follows in vv. 6b-7:

“there will not yet be (any more) time [xro/no$]; but (rather), in the days of the voice of the seventh Messenger, when he shall be about to sound the trumpet, even (then it is that) the secret of God is completed [e)tele/sqh], (even) as He gave the good message (of it) to His slaves the Foretellers.”

These verses, and those which follow here (vv. 8-11), are vital for a proper understanding of the structure of the visionary narrative in the book, as well as the time-frame that is involved. For this reason, I feel that it is worth devoting a separate note to a careful study of them—this will be done in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – October 15 (Revelation 9:13-21)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Revelation 9:13-21

The sixth Trumpet-vision is similar in meaning and imagery to the fifth vision (9:1-12, discussed in the previous note). Both involve armies of (demonic) beings, with hybrid human/animal features, which come out from the depths of the earth to inflict suffering upon humankind. Before proceeding, it is worth outlining again the parallel thematic structure between the Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles:

  • First Four Visions:
    • Seals—the four horses/riders symbolizing warfare and its effects on humankind
    • Trumpets—celestial/natural phenomena which bring about destructive effects on the world and humankind
  • Visions Five and Six:
    • Seals—celestial/natural phenomena which has terrifying/destructive effects on the world and humankind (6), together with the identity of believers and a voice sounding from the altar (5)
    • Trumpets—warfare on humankind from demonic military forces (horses/riders), along with the themes of the identity of believers (5) and a voice coming from the altar (6)

As noted previously, the twin themes of warfare and celestial/natural phenomena are also brought together in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mk 13:7-8, 24-25 par; also vv. 14ff [Lk 21:20-24]); interestingly, the Discourse also includes reference to the identity and persecution/suffering of believers (Mk 13:5-6, 9-13, 21-22 par), as well as the motif of the Temple/Altar location (Mk 13:14 par).

Rev 9:13-15

The solemn character and grandeur of this vision in marked by the voice from the heavenly altar which responds initially to the trumpet-blast:

“…and I heard a (single) voice (from) out of the [four] horns of the golden place for (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] th(at is) in the sight of God, saying to the sixth Messenger: ‘Loose the four Messengers, the (one)s having been bound upon the great river Euphrates!’ And the four Messengers were loosed, the (one)s having been made ready—unto the hour and day and month and year—(so) that they should kill off the third of men (on earth).”

In the earlier (fifth) seal-vision, the significance of the altar—the place for (ritual) slaughter (qusiasth/rion)—was related to believers who had been put to death during the time of persecution (6:9-11). Though the death of these believers may be seen as a kind of sacrifice, it is clear that in the book of Revelation the heavenly altar is an altar of incense, not animal sacrifice, and that the incense is connected symbolically to the prayers of believers (5:8; 6:10; 8:3; cf. also Luke 1:9-11; Acts 3:1; 10:4). The (four) horns of the altar are mentioned in relation to four Messengers who are to be released.

The specific location of the great Euphrates river is curious and requires comment, as it is apt to trip up commentators today. Like many of the specific symbols in the book of Revelation, it involves a matrix of ideas and associations. Here I would identify these as three-fold:

  • It reflects the place of origin for the conquering armies/powers coming from the east (and north) in Israelite history—i.e. of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.
  • It marks the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire. Recall that the conquering horse/rider of the first seal-vision (6:2), carrying a bow, may have alluded the potential violence of non-Roman forces invading the empire. In the first century A.D., the Parthians were the major power along the Euphrates border.
  • In a sense, it also marks the outer region of the inhabited world (in the east), as known by people at the time in Syria/Palestine and further west. According to the Genesis creation narrative, the Euphrates is one of the four original, primeval rivers (Gen 2:10-12).

Crossing the Euphrates thus symbolizes the invasion of hostile and destructive forces into the known (civilized) world. The fact that the four Messengers (i.e. Angels) have been bound (dedeme/nou$) probably indicates that they are evil/fallen beings (20:2; cf. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6); if so, then they presumably lead the demonic armies which are unleashed, just like the “Messenger of the bottomless (pit)” in verse 11. They are given power to kill off a third of humankind, keeping with the common “one-third” motif of the Trumpet-visions. Verse 15 makes clear that this judgment/punishment corresponds with God’s plan and purpose, down to the precise day and hour.

Revelation 9:16-19

The description of the army which is unleashed across the Euphrates generally matches the grotesque, hybrid character of the locust-army in the fifth vision (cf. the previous note). This is presumably intended to reflect their demonic character—the ferocious, destructive appearance of spirits, etc, which represent (and/or cause) pestilence, disease, and death. Like the locust-army, it is primarily a cavalry force (i.e. horses/riders, as in the first four seal-visions, cf. above), wearing armor (qw/rac, chest-guard), with fierce animal attributes (spec. that of the lion), including a stinging tail. Several of the unique details are worth noting:

  • they are specifically identified as a body/force of armed soldiers (stra/teuma), riding horses (v. 16)
  • their number is indicated by the expression dismuria/de$ muria/dwn (“two multitudes of multitudes”), which, by arithmetic calculation would be 10,000 x 10,000 (= 200 million), but here simply means an immeasurably large number (cf. 5:11)
  • they are essentially fire-breathing creatures, and the colors of their armor match what comes forth out of their mouths (v. 17)—fire (red), dark blue (smoke), and yellow-green (sulphur)
  • the destructive fire from their mouth is also matched by the mouth/bite of their tail; the locusts had a stinging point (ke/ntron) at the end of the tail, while these creatures have a “head”, like a snake’s head (with a mouth) at the end of their tail (v. 19), making them doubly deadly.

Fire-breathing creatures are common in ancient myth, but here the description more closely resembles the chimera (xi/maira) of Greek legend (Homer Iliad 6.181-2; Hesiod Theogony 319ff; Virgil Aeneid 6.288; Ovid Tristia 4.7.13, etc; Koester, p. 467). It serves as a powerful climax to the six trumpet-visions, which emphasized the motif of judgment by fire (from heaven)—the fire cast down onto the earth now takes the form of burning plagues. The imagery here in this regard is three-fold: (1) fire (pu=r), (2) smoke (kapno/$), and (3) burning sulphur (qei=on). This last word is similar (and may be related) to the words for deity (qei=o$, neut. qei=on; qeo/$), and could conceivably indicate a bit of wordplay—the failure of human beings to recognize the true God (qeo/$/qei=o$) leads to judgment by burning sulphur (qei=on); on this, cf. below. Judgment by fire and burning sulphur was part of the Sodom/Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24-28) which became a stock element of eschatological and apocalyptic judgment-imagery.

Rev 9:20-21 and interpretation of the 5th/6th visions

The six trumpet-visions, describing God’s end-time Judgment on the world, close with the narration in verses 20-21:

“And the (one)s remaining of the men (still alive), the (one)s who were not killed off in these (plague)s that struck (them), even (then they) did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of the works of their hands, (so) that they would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the daimons and the images (of) gold and silver and copper and stone and wood, which are not able to see nor to hear nor to walk about.” (v. 20)

This seems to imply that the limited scope (one-third) of the initial Judgment is meant to give humankind, even at that late time, the opportunity to repent. The flip side is that this painful “testing” (vb. basani/zw, verse 5) actually serves to demonstrate the wicked character of humankind (the non-believers)—even in the face of the anger of God clearly at work, people continued to follow their pagan/idolatrous ways. This is expressed entirely in traditional Old Testament language, from the Prophets, and sharpened in the light of Jewish and early Christian monotheism. All other deities, apart from the one true God (YHWH), must be false and/or evil—that is to say, either (a) non-existent, or (b) evil/malevolent beings. Both lines of thought can be found in the Old Testament, with the former dominating in the Prophetic writings—i.e. the ‘gods’ are simply lifeless images (Isa 44:9-20; Psalm 115:4-7, etc). By the time of the New Testament, Jews and early Christians tended to adopt the latter position (i.e. they are real spirits/beings [daimons], but evil/hostile to God and humankind); note, however, Paul’s careful treatment of the subject in 1 Corinthians 8-10. An important point in the letters of Revelation 2-3 involved the same issue addressed by Paul—believers taking part in food which had been offered to pagan deities (2:6[?]; 3:14-15, 20). The letters of Revelation contrast sharply with Paul’s approach, condemning the practice in no uncertain terms, without any qualification.

At the same time, this traditional religious polemic is joined with the ethical dimension of pagan religion and society, typically viewed by Jews and early Christians as thoroughly immoral (cf. Romans 1:18-32 for a similar description of the behavior which is the target of God’s impending Judgment). Here it is summarized by four terms:

  • fo/noi—acts of killing/slaying (i.e. murder)
  • fa/rmakon (pl.)—literally a medical potion or drug, which, according to the ancient mindset, would generally be thought to have magical properties; in this (religious) context, it can connote both (1) a harmful poison, and (2) the practice of magic/sorcery (cf. the related noun farmakei/a)
  • pornei/a—literally prostitution (sexual intercourse for payment/hire), but often used to describe sexual misconduct or immorality generally; based on Old Testament language and tradition, Jews and early Christians frequently used the word figuratively for religious unfaithfulness (cf. earlier at 2:21).
  • kle/mma (pl.)—literally “things (that are) stolen”, i.e. stealing, theft.

Thus Judgment comes upon humankind for this wickedness, expressed in both religious (v. 20) and ethical (v. 21) terms. How are we to understand the nature of this Judgment in the trumpet-visions? If we isolate out, for a moment, a layer of distinctly Biblical imagery (from the Exodus Plague Narratives, etc), the first four visions present extreme versions of the sort of natural and ecological disasters with which we are becoming increasingly familiar today—burning of grass and trees (as in the recent wildfires on the U.S. west coast), contamination of the oceans, lakes, and rivers, etc. The darkening of the sun and moon, etc., whether by a natural eclipse or other meteorological phenomena (including smoke/pollution), also is not uncommon. That God would make use of these natural means and forces in a special way at the end time, is fully in keeping with the witness of both Scripture and common religious tradition.

The fifth and sixth visions are a bit more difficult to interpret. On the whole, the armies of attacking creatures seem to represent the disease and destruction which comes about by demonic forces. If the judgment in the first four visions comes from above, that of the fifth and sixth visions comes from in/under the earth itself—based on the traditional idea that evil/fallen beings (Angels) have been bound in the depths under the earth (Gk. ta/rtaro$). Naturally, much, if not most, of this is quite foreign to our cosmology today. In the modern intellectual idiom, we might translate this to say that the forces bound up within the earth/nature itself work to bring about the suffering/destruction of humankind. In ancient thought, the forces and powers of nature are personified as living beings. At the same time, within Scripture, there is a long tradition of dualistic conflict between divine/heavenly forces—of good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. The visions in the book of Revelation are fully rooted in this line of tradition. It is worth noting that the natural phenomena of the first four visions primarily affect the natural world (the earth itself), while the last two target human beings. There is an obvious parallel between human wickedness, which involves the worship of false/evil deities, and the supernatural/demonic attacks which come about in response—in a sense, it is an entirely fitting and appropriate punishment.

Note of the Day – October 14 (Revelation 9:1-12)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Revelation 9:1-12

The fifth and sixth Trumpet-visions should be considered together, just as the first four visions form a single group (cf. the previous note); however, due to the extensive detail in which each is presented in the text, it is necessary to treat them in separate daily notes.

Rev 9:1

The fifth vision, in its initial imagery, is similar to the third (8:10-11) in which a fiery star (a)sth/r) falls from heaven to earth. Most likely there is a play on the imagery in the two visions. In the third vision, we are presumably dealing with a natural celestial phenomenon (such as a meteor), despite the extraordinary effects it produces (poisoning a third of all rivers and springs). Here in the fifth vision, by contrast, the star is personified:

“…I saw a star having fallen out of heaven into/onto the earth, and the key of the pit th(at is) without depth [i.e. bottomless] was given to him” (v. 1)

The star is thus treated like a celestial/heavenly being (i.e. Angel) with power/control over the depths of the earth. In Near Eastern and Old Testament tradition, the stars were typically seen as divine beings, or Angels (Judg 5:20; Job 38:7, etc), as also in the symbolism used in Rev 1:20, etc. Moreover, in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the various celestial phenomena were controlled (by God) through heavenly Messengers (Angelic beings); this was expressed earlier in Rev 7:1-3.

The image of a falling star, or Angel, could conceivably allude to Satan or a similar demonic being (i.e. ‘fallen angel’), reflected in such passages as Luke 10:18 and Rev 12:7-9 (cf. also the negative connotations in Isa 14:12 and 1 Enoch 86:3; 88:1-3; 90:24-26; Koester, p. 456). However, the idea that this Star/Angel was given the key to the bottomless pit suggests positive divine presence and control (1:18; 3:7; cf. also 20:1-3). At the very least, the motif of falling, with its echo of the third vision, anticipates the destructive and demonic character of what comes out of the depths. The translation of a&busso$ (lit. “without depth”) can be misleading; in ordinary English idiom, “bottomless” (i.e. without a bottom limit to its depth) would be a more accurate rendering. The Greek is preserved as a transliterated loan-word in English (“abyss”). It occurs several more times in the book, as the location from whence demonic beings arise, and as the place where they belong (11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3). In at least one line of ancient Greek cosmology, the space under the earth, corresponding to the atmosphere (hemisphere) above, was bounded by a long and almost limitless gulf below (Homer Iliad 8.14-15f; Hesiod Theogony 119, etc) called by the name of ta/rtaro$ (of uncertain derivation).

Rev 9:2-3

The ominous character of this scene is expressed by a two-fold description of that which emerges from the bottomless pit—(a) immense, dark smoke, and (b) a terrifying swarm of locust:

“And he opened up the pit th(at is) without depth—and smoke [kapno/$] stepped up [i.e. came up] out of the pit, as the smoke of a great burning (oven), and the sun and the air were darkened out of [i.e. from] the smoke of the pit. (v. 2)
And out of the smoke there came out locusts [a)kri/de$] into/onto the earth; and authority [e)cousi/a] was given to them, (even) as the stinging (creature)s [skorpi/oi] of the earth hold authority.” (v. 3)

The image of smoke (kapno/$) continues the fire-imagery of the visions, as well as the motif of darkening (the sun, etc) common to ancient Judgment imagery and as expressed in the prior fourth vision (8:12). This fiery smoke also evokes the idea of warfare, as do the locusts which emerge in vv. 3ff. There are actually several aspects to the symbolism of a swarm of locust:

  • Destruction—as of the crops which are consumed/destroyed by locust, a potential disaster always in the mind of ancient farmers
  • Military attack—the swarm of locust symbolizing an army on the move
  • Pestilence—locusts themselves represent a terrible plague on humankind, and they can be used as representative of various kinds of plagues (diseases, etc)

All three aspects are relevant (and intended) here, and draw upon traditional imagery in the Old Testament, beginning with the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:4, 12-19; Psalm 105:34)—cf. Deut 28:38; Judg 6:5; 7:12; 1 Kings 8:37; Psalm 78:46; Prov 30:27; Joel 1:4; 2:25; Amos 4:9; 7:1; Nah 3:15-17; Jer 46:23; 51:14, 27. These locusts are distinguished from ordinary locust in that they have been given the power/ability to sting, like other insects/creatures (such as the scorpion, i.e. skorpi/oi).

Rev 9:4-6

These verses give further detail on the stinging power of these locusts. It was declared to them, i.e. by the Angel who released them, that they should not “take away justice” from (vb. a)dike/w, i.e. injure) the trees, grass or other vegetation (“green [plant]s”) of the earth. They would have power only over human beings (“men”), and then only over those who “do not hold the seal of God upon the (space) between the eyes [i.e. forehead]”. This seal (sfragi/$), mentioned previously in 7:2-3ff (cf. also the visions in chaps. 5-6), refers to the distinctive image impressed into clay or wax (or lead) marking an object as belonging to a person. This image (to be described in 14:1) consists of the names of God and the Lamb (i.e. the risen Jesus); however, at this point in the book, this detail has to be inferred, based on the context of chapters 5-6. Those who are sealed are identified as the true people of God—utilizing the traditional image of Israel (the twelve tribes) as God’s people. In the context of the book of Revelation (as in Rom 9-11, etc), this imagery refers to the people of God (Israel) who are believers in Christ (the Lamb). The seal also carries the idea of election—it was God (and the Lamb) who stamped them.

As for those who do not carry this seal, they will be afflicted (but not killed) for a (symbolic) period of “five months” (v. 5). The verb used is basani/zw, a word of uncertain derivation, which specifically (and originally) referred to the testing of metals (gold/silver, coinage, etc). The harsh treatment required by such testing eventually led to the word as signifying torture, etc, as a means of ascertaining the truth. Here the implication is that the torment these people will endure from the locusts reflects, and will demonstrate, their true nature—i.e., as those who do not belong to God. What they suffer will be like the poisonous stings of the scorpion, resulting in agony that will make them long for death as a relief (v. 6). In spite of the military imagery which follows (vv. 7ff), it is clear that this refers to pestilence or disease.

Rev 9:7-11

A detailed description of the stinging locusts follows in these verses. Previously in the book, most of the imagery has been traditional and relatively straightforward; from this point on, it becomes increasingly complex, causing great difficulty for commentators and those eager to understand exactly what is being described. The hybrid depiction of these locusts is striking indeed; note the rather bizarre combination of elements:

  • they have the overall likeness of “horses made ready for war”, immediately indicating a military motif (i.e. war-horses, cavalry)
  • there are objects like golden crowns upon their heads, indicating the power to achieve victory (i.e. in military combat)
  • they have human faces (“like the faces of men”)
  • they also have long flowing hair (“like the hair of women”)
  • their teeth are long and sharp (“like [those] of lions”)
  • they each wear a chest-guard or armor (qw/rac), with the appearance of iron
  • their wings make the sound of “many horse(-drawn) chariots running into battle”
  • they have tails like a scorpion (lit. stinging creature [skorpi/o$]), with a stinging point (ke/ntron) on the tail

This admittedly strange mixture of features makes more sense once we realize that it is an attempt to combine several kinds of imagery, each with its own symbolic significance:

  • Military—armor, horses, and the rush into battle, with the power/ability to conquer
  • Personification—the human attributes indicate something of the purpose and control which these creatures possess
  • Demonic—images with hybrid human & animal features were commonly used in the ancient Near East to represent deities (and their attributes); from the standpoint of Jewish and early Christian monotheism, all such (pagan) deities tended to be regarded as demonic, or as symbolizing the demonic. In particular, there is likely a reflection here of the religious-royal iconography associated with the conquering Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires.
  • The Scorpion—special emphasis is given to the (poisonous) stinging tail of creatures such as the scorpion
Rev 9:11

“They hold upon [i.e. over] them as king the Messenger of the (pit) without depth [a&busso$]—the name for him in Hebrew is Abaddôn, and in Greek (this) name holds as ‘Destroyer’ [Apollu/wn].”

This army of locust has as its ruler (basileu/$) a being called “the Messenger of the (pit) without depth” (i.e. Angel of the bottomless [pit]). It is not entirely clear if this is the same being as the Star/Angel which opened up the bottomless pit, or whether it reflects a different being (i.e. one who rules over the pit below); probably the latter is intended. The Hebrew name indicated here—/oDb^a&, transliterated as Abaddw/n in Greek and Abaddon in English—is derived from the verb db^a* (“perish, ruin, destroy”), and originally referred to the grave/underworld as a place of death and decay; in this regard, it was roughly synonymous with Heb. loav= (Sheol). The word is used in this general/neutral sense in the Old Testament (Psalm 88:11; Prov 15:11; Job 26:6; 28:22, etc). Only in later Jewish tradition, did it come to take on a more negative and hostile/evil connotation, as in the Qumran texts (1QH XI.19ff; 4Q491 8-10; 11Q11 4.10). The Greek name Apollu/wn, is a relatively faithful translation, at least in terms of capturing the later (negative/hostile) sense of the word; it is related to the verb a)po/llumi (lit. “cause/suffer loss from”, i.e. “ruin, destroy”, similar in meaning to Heb. db^a*) and the noun a)pw/leia (“loss, ruin, destruction”). Simply put, the name signifies the power which brings about suffering and death; personified as a divine (or semi-divine) being, it would naturally be identified with Satan and the fallen angels (and/or unclean spirits) in Jewish and Christian tradition.

Rev 9:12

The concluding words of this vision echo those earlier in 8:13:

“One woe has come along—see! two (more) woes (are) yet (to) come after these (thing)s!”

An interpretation of the vision as a whole will be offered in summary after the sixth vision (9:13-21) has been discussed in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – October 11 (Revelation 8:6-13)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Revelation 8:6-13

For an introduction to the Trumpet-visions and their relation to the earlier Seal-visions, etc, see the previous daily note (on 8:1-5). Verses 6-13 cover the first four Trumpet-visions, all of which involve natural disasters as the result of celestial phenomena. The language and imagery used to describe these is drawn primarily from Old Testament tradition, but also would have been recognizable to people in the Greco-Roman world at large, since these sorts of celestial phenomena were widely seen as portents of disaster and divine anger/judgment which were to come upon humankind. For the background of the trumpet-motif as a herald of end-time Judgment, cf. the previous note.

Suspense is created in verse 6, adding to the sense of anticipation and foreboding: “And the seven Messengers, the (one)s holding the seven trumpets, made themselves ready (so) that they should sound the trumpet”. The idea of trumpets sounding (in the sky) announcing or forewarning of disaster to come is widespread, and not only in Old Testament tradition (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.784ff; Lucan Pharsalia 1.578). The first three trumpets (vv. 7-11) each announce judgment in the form of fire from heaven, which echoes both the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 9:23-24) and the Sodom & Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24ff) in Old Testament tradition. Both were natural figure-types for the end-time Judgment; on the use of Sodom/Gomorrah in this regard, cf. Luke 17:29; also Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7.

The first two trumpet-visions follow a common pattern, describing fire which was “thrown [e)blh/qh] (down) into [ei)$]” the earth/sea. This reflects the Messenger holding the golden bowl at the altar of incense, who throws fire down to the earth (vv. 4-5); however, ultimately the passive should be understood here as the divine passive, i.e. God as the implied actor. The third trumpet-vision differs slightly, in that the fire (a burning star) falls (e&pesen) out of heaven to land upon the earth. Here is a comparison of the details in the three visions:

  • First Trumpet (v. 7):
    • “hail and fire having been mixed in blood”—an obvious echo of the plague in Exod 9:13-26 (also Ps 78:48ff; 105:32), repeated as judgment imagery in Isa 30:30; Ezek 38:22; Wis 16:22-23. The added element of blood may be intended to continue the theme of warfare and violence (and its effects) from the earlier seal-visions. Blood raining from heaven is known as a visionary portent of war (cf. Lucan, Pharsalia 1.578; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.5.14; Sibylline Oracles 5:377-9, etc). A more immediate Old Testament allusion may be found in Joel 2:30.
    • thrown down into/onto the earth
    • a third of the earth’s surface (i.e. the dry land)—trees and green grass—is burnt down
  • Second Trumpet (vv. 8-9):
    • “(something) as/like a great mountain burning with fire”—i.e. a great fiery mass; there are similar eschatological/apocalyptic references in 1 Enoch 18:13; 21:3; and Sibylline Oracles 5:158-9.
    • thrown down into/onto the sea
    • a third of the sea becomes blood—a clear echo of Exod 7:16-23 and the plagues on Egypt; whether this means that the water came to be the color of blood, etc, or was miraculously transformed into actual blood, hardly matters (probably the latter was meant). As with the fire which struck the land (burning trees and grass), there are similarly two effects from the fire which strikes the sea:
      —a third of the creatures in the sea die, and
      —a third of the boats come to ruin, perhaps literally rotting or decaying
  • Third Trumpet (vv. 10-11):
    • “a great star burning as a brilliant (light) [i.e. lamp/torch]”—falling stars (i.e. comets, meteors) naturally served as omens and portents of death and disaster in the ancient world (cf. Manilius Astronomica 1.874-6, etc). If taken literally, here it is the image of a great (fiery) meteor landing on the earth.
    • falls out of heaven—it is conceivable that this shift in wording foreshadows the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions; or, perhaps, it is intended to convey a natural phenomenon, as opposed to the supernatural fire of the 1st/2nd trumpet-vision.
      It falls out of heaven and land upon the rivers and springs of earth; exactly how this comes about from a single star/meteor is unclear, nor is the scientific detail important.
    • a third of the waters are turned into a&yinqo$, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, which refers to a small plant (‘wormwood’) which yielded a bitter taste (cf. Prov 5:4; Jer 9:15; 23:5)—i.e. a third of all rivers and springs, with their water used for washing, drinking and cooking, etc, became poisoned and made bitter, resulting in the death of “many” people. Here there may be likely an allusion to the judgment upon the people following the Golden Calf incident, where they were forced to drink the contaminated water (Exod 32:20; cf. 15:23).

As in the third trumpet-vision, the fourth (v. 12) also involves natural celestial phenomena—namely the sun, moon, and stars together:

“…and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were (each) struck, (so) that a third of them (each) would be darkened, and the day would not shine a third of its (light), and the night likewise.”

This, too, reflects the Plagues of Egypt—the plague of darkness on the land (Exod 10:21-23)—but the idea of the darkening of sun and moon came to be a common Judgment motif in the Old Testament (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7), one which Jesus would make use of in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:24-25 par). Unusual darkness, as during an eclipse, etc, was naturally seen as a dangerous omen or portent in the ancient world (Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.538-43, etc).

Verse 13 marks a division between the first four visions and the next two; from a literary standpoint, it also serves to heighten the dramatic suspense, pointing toward what is about to come. It is treated as a distinct vision:

“And I saw and heard one air-borne (being) winging [i.e. flying] in the middle of the heaven, saying with a great voice: ‘Woe, woe, (and) woe (again which is to come) to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, out of the remaining voices of the trumpets of the three Messengers the (one)s about to sound the trumpet!”

I have translated a)eto/$ literally as a creature/being in the air, which usually refers to a bird (spec. an eagle); some manuscripts instead read a&ggelo$ (“Messenger”, i.e. Angel), which seems more likely to be a ‘correction’ of a)eto/$ than the other way around. Birds served as omens or portents of disaster, etc, in the ancient world, and the eagle would have represented the nobility (and reliability) of a divine messenger (cf. Homer Iliad 8.242, Odyssey 2.146, etc). The messenger, whether an eagle or heavenly being, here is announcing the judgment still to come in the remaining trumpet-visions.

A common detail through the first four visions is the motif of a third—the celestial phenomena, and the related disasters, are repeatedly (and consistently) said to affect a third of the world. The precise significance of this remains uncertain. Possibly it is meant to indicate one stage or portion of the final Judgment, which will be completed in the seven Bowl-visions of chapter 16, etc. It also may reflect traditional imagery, or a literary/prophetic device, such as we see in Ezek 5:2ff; Zech 13:8-9. More likely is the idea that the limited application of the Judgment (to a third of the earth and humankind, cf. also 9:15ff) is intended as an expression of God’s mercy, to give the survivors the opportunity to repent before the Judgment is completed; this is certainly implied in 9:20-21, as a concluding notice to the first six trumpet-visions, and should be taken seriously.

 

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The most extensive eschatological teaching by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is found in the so-called “Eschatological Discourse” in Mark 13 (par Matthew 24 & Luke 21:5-36). Within the Synoptic framework, it is presented as a sermon or discourse by Jesus; however, many scholars feel that this arrangement is literary (and traditional) rather than historical. That is to say, it represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which may have originally been uttered on separate occasions. This view would seem to be confirmed by the evidence from Matthew and Luke, where eschatological sayings recorded in other locations (in Luke) are incorporated as part of the “discourse” (in Matthew). It is useful, however, to begin with the Gospel of Mark, as representing the core Synoptic Tradition. The distinctive features and elements of the Matthean and Lukan versions will be examined in Parts 2 and 3 of this study, respectively.

Mark 13

An outline of the Markan version of the Eschatological Discourse gives some indication, I think, of how different sayings or traditions might have been combined. This is not to say that Jesus might not have given a longer discourse, dealing with eschatological matters, which resembles the Synoptic Discourse; but the thematic arrangement of the sayings and parables of Jesus is, on the whole, better viewed as a result of the early collection and transmission of the material. On this basis alone, however, there is no (objective) reason to doubt the authenticity of any of the sayings. Here is an outline of the Markan Discourse:

  • Vv. 1-2—Narrative introduction, including:
    • Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (v. 2)
  • Vv. 3-4—Introduction to the Discourse: Question by the disciples
  • Vv. 5-8—”Birth Pains”: Things which will occur before the end
    —Appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (v. 6)
    —Wars among the nations (vv. 7-8a)
    —Natural disasters and famine (v. 8b)
  • Vv. 9-13—Persecution of the Disciples which will occur before the end, reflecting missionary work among both Jews and Gentiles
  • Vv. 14-23—Sayings regarding the affliction which will come upon Judea
    —Saying concerning the “abomination of desolation” (v. 14)
    —Warning of the coming suffering (vv. 15-20)
    —Repeated reference to the appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (vv. 21-22)
    —Concluding exhortation (v. 23)
  • Vv. 24-27—The appearance of the Son of Man
  • Vv. 28-31—Sayings on the time when the end will come
    —Illustration of the fig-tree (vv. 28-29)
    —Two sayings with the verb pare/rxomai (vv. 30-31)
  • Vv. 32-37—Concluding Parable (and Sayings)
Mark 13:1-2

The narrative introduction provides the general setting for the discourse, in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple:

“And (at) his traveling out of the Sacred Place, one of his learners [i.e. disciples] says to him, ‘Teacher, (do you) see what sort of stones and what sort of buildings (these are)?'”

This expression of amazement reflects the grandeur of the Herodian Temple in Jesus’ day, which is described extensively by Josephus (Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227). The size and beauty of the building, and its great stones, would have been impressive indeed; Jesus, however, declares:

“(Are) you look(ing) at these great buildings? (Yet) there shall not be here (even one) stone left upon (another) stone which shall not be loosed down!” (v. 2)

This must be regarded as a prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which, of course, came to pass in 70 A.D. as a result of the Jewish revolt and Roman siege of Jerusalem. It is important as a general time-frame for the Eschatological Discourse. The Lukan version gives much greater emphasis to the Roman attack on the city.

For more on the eschatological aspects of the Temple—especially the Temple action and saying(s) by Jesus—cf. the supplemental article on this subject.

Mark 13:3-4

With these verses, the Discourse begins, though the introduction clearly continues from where the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2 leaves off—with its connection to the Temple (note the similar structure):

“And (at) his sitting (down near) unto the Mount of the Olive-trees, down opposite to the Sacred Place [i.e. Temple], on their own [i.e. privately]…they asked him…” (v. 3)

The introductory statement, as in verse 1, culminates with a question by the disciples—here the ones who ask are identified as Peter, James, John and Andrew. Their question must be understood, in context, in relation to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. It is actually a two-fold question which serves the (literary) purpose of joining Jesus’ Temple saying with the eschatological instruction which follows:

  • “when will these (thing)s be?”
  • “what (shall be) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?”

In Matthew’s version, the disciples’ second question is more precisely eschatological, framed in more obvious Christian terms: “what is the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion (all) together of th(is) Age?”. In Mark, however, the question is more general and ambiguous—to what “things” exactly are the disciples referring? Is it simply to the destruction of the Temple, or does it imply other eschatological teaching by Jesus? The literary context of the Discourse requires the latter, and points to the very teaching which follows in vv. 5ff.

Mark 13:5-8

Jesus’ initial response deals more with the disciples’ second question (“what shall be the sign…?”) rather than the first (“when…?”). He offers three such “signs”, which are summarily described as “the beginning of the (birth) pains” (v. 8); these are:

1. Persons claiming to be Jesus and/or speak in his name, causing many to go astray (vv. 5-6). Here is how this is stated in Mark’s version:

And Yeshua began to say to them, “You must look (carefully so that) someone should not lead you astray—(for) many will come upon my name saying that ‘I am (he)’, and will lead many astray.”

There is some confusion in the Gospel tradition here as to whether Jesus is speaking of people claiming to be him (i.e. Jesus) and speak for him, or whether they are claiming to be the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ). Early Christians would have treated these essentially as identical situations, but it is not so clear how this might have been framed by (the historical) Jesus to his followers. This will be discussed further when we examine the Matthean and Lukan versions, and when we come to verses 21-22 below.

2. A period of warfare among the nations (vv. 7-8a). Syntactically, the second and third signs should be discussed together; however, thematically, it is useful to keep them distinct:

“And when you should hear of wars and the hearings [i.e. rumors] of wars, you must not be frightened (by these things)—they need to come to be, but the completion (of them) is not yet (here). For nation will rise upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom…”

This would seem to refer to a period of relatively widespread warfare, involving a number of different nations and kingdoms. The book of Revelation describes something similar in the visions of the first four seals (i.e. the four horses and riders) in 6:2-8—they represent an intense period of war which has a devastating effect upon society. For those eager to place these verses in a more precise time-frame, it is virtually impossible to do so, as there have been many periods of widespread warfare from the first century A.D. down to the present time in the 21st century. Also, it may be claimed that Jesus is here referring to a mindset and outlook, reflecting human wickedness and violence, and its effects, as much as to any specific events.

3. Natural disaster and famine (v. 8b). This continues from the description of the period of warfare:

“…(and) there will be shakings [i.e. earthquakes] down in (many) places, (and) there will (also) be (time)s of hunger [i.e. famine]…

In the seal visions of Revelation, famine and food-shortage also follows the period of warfare among the nations (6:5-6, 8b), as well as “shakings” of the earth (vv. 12-13ff). Interestingly, there is no real indication that the book of Revelation is consciously following the Eschatological Discourse, even though both passages express the same basic message and traditional sequence. Jesus describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered. Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; John 16:21; Gal 4:19. Several other passages in the New Testament use the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, in an eschatological sense or context:

  • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31, which will be touched on briefly in the study on the Lukan version of the Eschatological discourse.
  • Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
  • The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.

In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.

Mark 13:9-13

Surely to be included among the “signs” of things which must occur before the end is the prediction of persecution and suffering of Jesus’ disciples, implying a period of missionary work which would extend outside the confines of Judea into the Gentile world. This idea was fundamental to New Testament eschatology at the time the Gospels were written (c. 60-80 A.D.), and especially so in the Gospel of Luke. It is less pronounced and developed in Mark, but it is still present (v. 10), as part of the Synoptic tradition. Verses 9-10 outline the missionary work and reflects the experience (narrated in the book of Acts) of a number of the disciples who were arrested and interrogated by government officials:

  • 9a: Among Jews (in Judea and beyond)—given over to the ruling bodies (“sitting together”, sune/drion, i.e. sanhedrin) & beaten in the places of gathering (“being brought together”, sunagwgh/, i.e. synagogue)
  • 9b: Into the wider world, which presumably include the Gentile kingdoms—made to stand before governors and kings, as a witness to them on behalf of Jesus

The period of early Christian mission is stated succinctly in verse 10:

“And first it is necessary to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”

It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this, as though it required an extensive worldwide mission (in the modern sense) before the end would come. Matthew’s version (24:14) does suggest something of the kind, but we must be cautious about reading that wording into Mark’s account. The use of the adverb prw=ton (“first”) here in Mark, I believe, is intended primarily to make clear what might seem obvious—before the disciples will experience these things, they must first begin to proclaim the Gospel (“good message”). It establishes the need for the early Christian mission, without any real indication of the time-period involved.

The persecution which Jesus’ disciples will experience is further summarized in three distinct sayings:

  • A promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples, giving them the ability to speak and offer a defense (v. 11)
  • Following Jesus will lead to violent splits within families (v. 12)
  • A declaration of the hatred believers will face from people, along with an exhortation to endure and remain faithful (v. 13)

This last saying involves an eschatological promise of salvation—i.e. the heavenly reward of (eternal) Life:

“But the one remaining under unto the completion, this (one) will be saved.”

We are accustomed to viewing this as a promise to all believers, and, indeed this is appropriate; however, if we consider it strictly in terms of the historical situation (i.e. the disciples whom Jesus was actually addressing at the time), it would tend to support the expectation that the end was to come within the lifetime of the first disciples.

It is interesting to note that the seal-visions in Revelation also include a reference to the persecution of believers (cf. the fifth seal, 6:9-11) in a roughly similar sequence.

Mark 13:14-23

Another intense period of suffering and distress is described in vv. 14-23, with certain similarities to what has gone before in the Discourse. This raises the question as to whether the three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23—are meant to describe sequential events or are different ways of describing the same general period (i.e. of events to occur before the end). Verses 9-13, referring to the persecution of believers, presumably is not meant to be taken as a period of time separate from the suffering in vv. 5-8 and 14-23. If these various sayings were originally uttered in different settings, this can no longer be reconstructed; we must work from the arrangement in the Discourse as it has come down to us. I suspect that vv. 5-13 are meant to be taken together as referring to the same ‘stage’, if you will; the exact relationship to vv. 14-23 is less certain. From a literary standpoint, the wording in verse 14 is transitional, creating a point of contrast with the promise of salvation in v. 13 (“But when you see…”). The exact setting or scenario described in this section is rather vague and allusive, at least in the Markan version of the Discourse. Several points can be determined with certainty:

  • It involves an allusion to Daniel 9:27 (v. 14)
  • It refers to something which will be localized in Judea
  • It involves suffering and trauma which will upset much, or all, of society (vv. 14b-19)
  • It will be an especially intense, though brief, period of suffering (v. 20)
  • In the midst of it, there will be false Messiahs and false prophets (vv. 21-22)

In Luke’s version (to be discussed), this is all presented in terms of a military invasion of Jerusalem. However, it is poor method simply to read this into Mark’s version, which otherwise makes no clear reference to such an invasion (apart, possibly, from the allusion to Dan 9:27). Even so, it must be said that nearly all of vv. 14-22 could well fit the setting of the war of 66-70 A.D. and the ultimate siege and destruction of Jerusalem, according to the historical accounts narrated by Josephus. This will be discussed in the concluding part of our study.

In my view, all of verses 5-22 describe a single, intense (and relatively brief?) period of suffering and distress which precedes the coming of the end. It is the same period, with three different points of focus:

  • The effect on the world (nations) and people in general (vv. 5-8)
  • The effect on the disciples (believers) (vv. 9-13)
  • The effect on Judea (and Jerusalem) (vv. 14-22)

Jesus’ concluding words in verse 23 are often overlooked, but they are important in the way that they clearly summarize and mark off the events preceding the end from the end itself: “And (now) you must look (closely): (for) I have spoke all (thing)s to you before(hand)”. The disciples now have all they need to recognize the signs that the end is about to come.

Mark 13:24-27

The description of the end itself begins in verse 24, as indicated clearly by the opening words:

“But in those days after that (time of) distress [qli=yi$]…”

The period covered by vv. 5-22 is called qli=yi$ (“crushing [force], pressure, [dis]tress”), the same word used, in a very similar sense, in Revelation 1:9 and 7:14. In translation, the word has taken on a life of its own in modern eschatology as “the Great Tribulation” (from the phrase in Rev 7:14). It is important, however, to stay rooted to the Greek text, and remain focused, for the moment, on the Eschatological Discourse here in Mark. Nothing more is said about this “distress”, only what comes after it—namely, the appearance of the Son of Man. This appearance is accompanied by an upheaval of the natural order of things in the universe, drawing upon the ancient/traditional language of theophany—i.e. the manifestation of God within creation. Nature itself can not withstand the appearance of God, falling and submitting before him; moreover, the forces of nature and the heavens are obedient to God and work as servants on His behalf. This sort of imagery is expressed numerous times in the Old Testament, especially in Prophets, where it begins to take on an eschatological coloring. The description in vv. 24-26 by Jesus is taken from passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7. The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man. That moment is described here as follows:

“Then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming in/on (the) clouds with much power and splendor.” (v. 27)

This is largely drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, but apparently with a difference in orientation—instead of the Son of Man coming toward God (v. 13), he comes to earth as God’s representative to judge humankind and deliver the faithful ones among God’s people (more closely related to v. 14). It is the latter aspect of deliverance which is emphasized by Jesus in verse 28:

“And then he will send forth the Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) [his] (chosen one)s gathered out, (from) out of the four winds, from the (farthest) point of earth unto the (farthest) point of heaven.”

This is salvation in the proper New Testament sense—deliverance from sin and wickedness at the end-time and being saved from the final Judgment. Only in the later strands of the New Testament do we see a definite shift from final (eschatological) salvation to the experience of believers in the present (i.e. ‘realized’ eschatology).

For more on the influence of Daniel in the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the supplemental study on 7:13-14 and 9:27.

Mark 13:28-31

Here we encounter two of the more controversial pieces in the Eschatological Discourse: (a) the illustration of the fig tree (vv. 28-29) and (b) the saying on “this generation” in v. 30.

On the surface the parable/illustration of the fig tree is simple and straightforward, being similar in style to the mustard seed/tree parable (Mk 4:30-32 par). It also resembles the illustration on interpreting the ‘signs of the time’ in Luke 12:54-56 / Matt 16:1-3. As in a number of Jesus’ parables, it uses an easily understandable observation from farming and the natural world to describe some aspect of the Kingdom. Though not specifically indicated here as a Kingdom-parable, it may fairly be characterized as relating to the end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God. The comparison is clear enough:

  • When the branch is soft and puts out leaves, you can tell that summer is near (v. 28)
  • When the disciples see “these things [tau=ta]” coming to pass, they will know that “it is near” (v. 29)

In context, “these (thing)s” can only refer to the signs Jesus has spoken of in vv. 5-22—the things which are to take place before the end comes. Similarly, the generic statement “it is near…”, refers to the coming of the end—specifically, the coming of the Son of Man which ushers in the final Judgment. The exact phrase used is “it is near upon the gates”, which could be an allusion to the gates of the city (Jerusalem), though it need not be taken that concretely.

It has become popular in some circles to identify the fig tree as a particular symbol of Israel (the people or nation/state). This, however, is misplaced. The fig tree and vine together serve as symbols of blessing and fruitfulness, but in a general, proverbial sense; it can, of course, be applied to Israel as God’s people, but only in Hosea 9:10 is there anything like a direct connection (fig tree = Israel). The blossoming fig branch here refers not to Israel, but to the coming of the end and the appearance of the Son of Man.

In verses 30-31 we have two seemingly unrelated sayings; they are connected by common use of the verb pare/rxomai (“come/go along[side]”). This is an example of what commentators call “catchword-bonding”, and serves as evidence in support of the view that the Discourse is a collection of sayings, etc, which may originally have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Early Christians brought this material together, arranging it by theme (eschatology) or on the basis of common words and phrases. This would have begun to occur at the level of oral tradition, helping the earliest believers to remember and transmit the teachings of Jesus, and continued as the first collections were written down. It is possible that Jesus did utter both sayings together, and that the wordplay is his own, but given the many examples of “catchword-bonding” in the Gospel tradition, the critical view seems more likely. Here are the two sayings taken together:

  • “Amen, I relate to you that this (period of) coming to be [genea/] shall (certainly) not go along [pare/lqh|] until the (time at) which all these (thing)s shall come to be.” (v. 30)
  • “The heaven and the earth will go along [pareleu/sontai], but my words [lo/goi] will not (ever) go along [pareleu/sontai].” (v. 31)

The first saying uses the verb in connection with the noun genea/, which fundamentally refers to something coming to be (born) [vb. gi/nomai], often in the sense of (1) a group of people from a common line of birth, or (2) an age or period when people were born (and lived). In both cases, the English word “generation” (itself related to the Greek) is typically used to translate. Here, for the first time in the Discourse, Jesus addresses the initial question posed by the disciples in verse 4: “When will these (thing)s be?” As the saying in verse 30 makes clear, “these things” will take place before “this generation” goes away. A more precise interpretation of the time indicated here is difficult and has proven controversial, for a variety of reasons (and cf. verse 32 as a word of caution). It will be discussed in more detail in the article on “imminent eschatology” in the sayings of Jesus.

The second saying (v. 31), in context, serves to reinforce the reliability of Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the end. His words will last longer than heaven and earth themselves (i.e. the created order), remaining after the physical universe has disappeared. There may be an allusion to Scriptures such as Isa 40:8; 51:6; Psalm 119:89; cf. also Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:18.

Mark 13:32-37

The Discourse concludes with a short block of material that centers around a parable by Jesus, utilizing the familiar setting of the master who goes away and the servants who work in his absence. Jesus used this story framework repeatedly, including a number of other parables (discussed earlier in Parts 2 and 3 of the study on the Parables) which have an eschatological orientation. The parable itself occurs in verses 34-36; we may outline this section as follows:

  • Saying on the day and hour when the end will come (v. 32)
  • Exhortation for the disciples to watch and stay alert (v. 33)
  • Parable of the Returning Master (vv. 34-36)
  • Second Exhortation to stay alert (v. 37)

On the whole, the section continues Jesus’ answer of the disciples’ question “When will these things be?” Beyond the basic declaration that they will occur before “this generation” goes away, Jesus makes clear in verse 32 that the disciples cannot know the time with any more precision: “About that day or th(at) hour, no one has seen [i.e. no one knows]”. Commentators and students can be tripped up by reading too much theological (and Christological) significance in the the second half of the saying, which states that neither the (heavenly) Messengers nor the Son (of Man) know the time, but only God the Father. It makes for interesting speculation, but all Jesus is really saying is that the disciples cannot know the exact time—it is one of the “secrets of the Kingdom” (4:11) which has not been revealed to them. Indeed, the overriding message of this section, driven home by the parable and the double-exhortation to stay awake, is that “these things” could occur at any time:

“(So) then you must keep awake—for you have not seen [i.e. do not know] when the lord of the house comes…” (v. 35a)

The figure of the returning master, can be interpreted at several levels, based on one’s view of the development of the Gospel tradition:

  • A general reference to God’s appearance to bring the end-time Judgment
  • This divine visitation as taking place through the Son of Man as God’s appointed/anointed representative
  • The return of Jesus, who is identified as the Son of Man

By the time the Gospels were written, among early Christians the latter would certainly have been in view. For more on the background of the expression and title “Son of Man”, and the identification of Jesus with this heavenly/Messianic figure, cf. Part 10 of the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Supplemental Study: New Testament Eschatology and the Book of Daniel

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Supplemental Study | No Comments

Supplemental Study:
New Testament Eschatology and the Book of Daniel

Apart from the book of Isaiah (esp. Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66), no Old Testament writing influenced Jewish and early Christian eschatology more than the book of Daniel. The exact nature of this influence depends on how one dates the book and its composition. According to the standard critical view, the book, in the form we have it, was written around the year 165 B.C., though it may contain earlier traditions. This allows for the possibility that eschatological/apocalyptic themes in the book, which are also found in, for example, the Book of Enoch and a number of the Qumran texts (written earlier or around the same time), are not directly dependent on Daniel, but on a set of common traditions. By contrast, the traditional-conservative view holds that essentially the book is an authentic composition from Daniel’s own time (6th cent. B.C.). This would greatly increase the likelihood that similarities in the Qumran texts, etc, are inspired/influenced primarily, if not entirely, by the book of Daniel.

In this brief study, supplemental to the current series Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament, I will be examining several specific areas, as they relate to the use of Daniel in the New Testament:

  1. The use of Daniel in the Qumran texts
  2. The “Seventy Weeks” oracle in Dan 9:24-27
  3. The “Son of Man” vision in Dan 7:13-14ff
  4. The influence of the concluding visions in chapters 10-12

1. The use of Daniel in the Qumran texts

The book of Daniel features prominently in the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls), in several ways: (a) manuscripts of the book, (b) apocalyptic works influenced by Daniel, and (c) imagery and beliefs drawn from Daniel. The way the Qumran Community interpreted and applied the visions of the book is quite instructive for how the earliest Christians would have understood them as well.

a. Copies of Daniel at Qumran

There are eight manuscript copies of the book of Daniel among the Qumran texts, making it one of the most frequently copied Scriptures (after the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and Psalms). All of the manuscripts are quite fragmentary, but together they cover nearly the entire book. The relatively large number of copies is an indication of the importance and popularity of the book in the Qumran community.

b. The Pseudo-Danielic Writings

There are four texts which are sometimes referred to by the label “Pseudo-Daniel”, due to the presence of Daniel as a central character, or based on similarities to the Old Testament book. Like Dan 2:4b-7:28, these texts were all written in Aramaic.

The first text is represented, it seems, by two manuscripts (4Q243-244). Based on a reconstruction of the surviving fragments, a likely outline of the text can be established. Daniel is standing before Belshazzar (cf. Dan 5), and, like Stephen in his Acts 7 speech, delivers a history of God’s people which turns into a ‘prophecy’ of events which will occur in the Hellenistic period (as in Dan 10-11), and which, in turn, leads into a description of the end-time—after a period of great oppression, God’s people will be delivered and the holy kingdom established (cf. Dan 12:1ff). A second text, apparently with a similar structure and orientation, is preserved in a couple of small fragments (4Q245). Also surviving in a few fragments is the “Prayer of Nabonidus” (4Q242), which records an episode similar to that experienced by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4, only here the central figure is king Nabû-na’id (Nabonidus, 556-539 B.C.). Many critical scholars, based on historical parallels with the Babylonian “Nabonidus Chronicle”, believe that the more authentic tradition may indeed have involved Nabonidus, who was replaced by Nebuchadnezzar in the Biblical account.

Especially significant is the fourth text, the famous 4Q246, surviving in a large fragment with two columns. It also has many parallels and similarities to the book of Daniel, in which a king’s troubling vision is interpreted by a prophet/seer (unnamed in the text as we have it). The seer announces events to come—a period of great distress, involving warfare among the kings/nations of the Near East (col. 1, lines 4-6), culminating in the rise of a great ruler who will bring an end to the wars (lines 7-9). A time of war and upheaval is mentioned again in column 2, lines 2-3, followed by the rise of the “people of God” (line 4). This has led some scholars to posit that the great ruler is actually a kind of ‘Antichrist’ figure who brings a false peace. The language used to describe him, however, makes this most unlikely. He is best viewed as a Messianic figure (of the Davidic-ruler type); and there are surprising parallels with the announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 1:32-33, 35. It is said of this person that:

  • “he will be great” (col. 1, line 7; Lk 1:32)
  • “he will be hailed as Son of God” (col. 2, line 1; Lk 1:35)
  • “he will be called Son of the Highest” (col. 2, line 1; Lk 1:32)
  • there is also reference to an “everlasting kingdom” (col. 2, lines 5, 9; Lk 1:33)

The rise of this figure is parallel to the rise of the “people of God”, similar to the pattern and structure we see in Daniel 7. Overall in the text, we see possible allusions to Dan 3:33; 4:31; 7:14, 27, and other portions of the book as well.

All of these texts provide evidence for the extent to which the book of Daniel (and/or its underlying traditions) helped to shaped the eschatological and apocalyptic worldview of the Qumran Community.

c. Other signs of influence at Qumran

There are numerous references or allusions to the book of Daniel in the Qumran texts; I point out here the most prominent of these.

i. The expression <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^ (“after the days”, “following the days”, “[in] the following days”) is a common Semitic (and Old Testament) idiom; however, its distinctive eschatological connotation (“end of the days”, end time, etc) is probably due primarily to its occurrence in Daniel 2:28 and 10:14 (cf. also 8:19, 23; 12:8). It appears a number of times in the Qumran texts, such as: the Florilegium (4Q174, cf. below), the Damascus Document (CD 4:4; 6:11), the so-called ‘Messianic Rule’ (1QSa 1:1), the ‘Halakhic Letter’ (4QMMT C [4Q398] 13-16), and the Commentaries (pesharim) on Isaiah (4QpIsaa fr. 5-6, line 10) and Habakkuk 1QpHab 2:5-6).

ii. The so-called Florilegium (4Q174), in its surviving portion, consists of a series of Scripture verses which are given an eschatological (and Messianic) interpretation, viewed as referring to end-time events which were about to occur in the time of the Qumran Community. At the end of our surviving fragment, Daniel 12:10 is cited as an eschatological prophecy. We do not have the entire explanation/commentary on this verse, but it contains an allusion to Dan 11:32, and almost certainly would have been understood as applying to the Community as embodying the faithful ones of Israel at the end-time.

iii. The Commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (§7) treats Hab 2:3, a verse which some commentators believe was utilized in the book of Daniel (8:17; 10:14; 11:27, 35; 12:12). While Daniel is not specifically cited here in the pesher, the astute readers of Scripture in the Qumran community would certainly have seen the connection. The theme in these verses is that there may be a ‘delay’ in the fulfillment of the prophecies. This allows for an exhortation to faithfulness, but also for the possibility that the ancient predictions of the coming end are about to be fulfilled in the Community’s own time.

iv. The Qumran texts record perhaps the earliest known attempt to make a precise calculation of when the end will occur, based on the “Seventy Weeks” oracle in Daniel 9 (cf. below), along with other time indicators given in the book. Naturally, the Community, like most groups with a strong eschatological orientation, believed that theirs was the time in which these things would come to pass. In the Damascus Document, a precise application of the “Seventy Weeks” oracle is made, in relation to the Community’s own history. CD 20:14 mentions the “forty years” which are to pass—i.e. from a particular point in their own recent history—which, according to their method of calculation, would complete the period of 490 (70 x 7) years prophesied in the book of Daniel.

2. The “Seventy Weeks” oracle in Dan 9:24-27

I have already presented a detailed examination of the background of this passage, as well as an exegetical analysis and interpretation, in an earlier study (part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed One”), and I will not repeat that here. Instead, I wish to focus specifically on the use of the passage in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, along with a brief consideration of its influence on 2 Thessalonians 2 and the early Christians “Antichrist” tradition.

At the beginning of vv. 14-23 in the Markan version of the Eschatological Discourse, Jesus states:

“And when you should see the ‘stinking thing of desolation’ [to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/ew$] having stood where it is necessary (that it) not (be) [i.e. where it ought not to be]…then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (v. 14)

Matthew’s version here (24:15-16) is virtually identical, even including the same editorial aside (marked by the ellipsis above): “the (one) reading must put/keep (this) in mind”. The only difference is that in Matthew the allusion is made specific (“the [thing] uttered through Daniyyel the Foreteller”), and the phrase “where it is necessary (that it) not (be)” is explicitly identified with the Temple sanctuary: “…in the Holy Place”. Thus, in Matthew’s version, Jesus is describing a direct fulfillment of the thing prophesied in Dan 9:27—presumably meaning that some sort of idol/image is to be set up in the Temple, or that the holy place will be desecrated in a similar way. Luke’s version of this is radically different.

If we keep, for the moment, with the version in Mark/Matthew, we must ask what Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) has in mind here. The editorial aside suggests that there is an accepted understanding or interpretation of this allusion, which the writer, at whatever point the aside was included (in Mark or an earlier source), would have assumed was known by his audience. Possibly Luke is clarifying this very interpretation, but there is no way of being certain on this point. The tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2 (cf. below), suggests that this is not the case; rather, a more literal kind of fulfillment of Dan 9:27 is in mind. The critical view, that the original passage refers to the actions of the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) c. 171-167 B.C., whether or not recognized by Jesus and his contemporaries, most likely serves as the pattern or model for what would take place in the great time of distress. As I mentioned in the earlier study on Dan 9:24-27, there are two possibilities which fit this pattern, and the historical context of the Eschatological Discourse (and the 1st century time frame of the Gospel tradition, c. 30-80 A.D.), reasonably well:

  • The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had similarly set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple.
  • The transformation of Jerusalem into a (pagan) Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) in the reign of Hadrian, following the suppression of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in 132-135 A.D.

If we wish to keep to the 1st century and the lifetime of the first disciples (Mark 13:30 par, etc) as a time frame, the first option is by far the closest fit, likely occurring less than 10 years after the end of Jesus’ ministry. Luke’s version (cf. Part 3 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse) more obviously relates to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., including the destruction and despoiling of the Temple. That interpretation also would generally fit within the lifetime of the disciples.

Many Christians today, under the realization that events described in the Discourse were not all fulfilled in the 1st century, naturally assume that much of it—including the allusion to Dan 9:27—still awaits fulfillment at a future time (and/or our own time). While this is an obvious solution to the problem, it tends to negate the significance of the passage for the first disciples and Jesus’ original audience. A solution which attempts to respect both sides of the equation—complete/accurate fulfillment without ignoring the original historical setting—usually involves a two-layer interpretation: partial fulfillment in the disciples’ own time (1st century) and complete fulfillment at a time yet to come.

The same difficulty arises when we turn to Paul’s own “eschatological discourse” in 2 Thessalonians 2 (to be discussed in an upcoming study in this series). In verses 3-4, Paul seems to be drawing upon the same Dan 9:27 tradition, as interpreted by early Christians—perhaps even referring to the exact Gospel tradition in Mark 13:14ff par. However, here it is not an image/statue of the ruler, but the ruler himself who “sits in the shrine of God”, indicating that he is God. If 2 Thessalonians is genuinely Pauline (as the text claims), then it was likely written around 50 A.D., or perhaps a bit earlier. The actions and policies of the emperor Gaius, c. 40 (cf. above) would have still been fresh in the minds of many Jewish and Christians; Paul may be envisioning and describing a similar sort of action, only on a more extreme scale of wickedness. Obviously there is a problem here in considering Paul’s discourse as authentic prophecy, since, by all accounts, nothing of the sort took place in the Jerusalem Temple while it stood. This has led commentators to adopt various solutions, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One option is to assume that the Temple setting should be understood figuratively, in terms of a wicked ruler desecrating the holy things of God (in a more general sense); this allows the prophecy still to apply to a future end-time ruler. A more literal interpretation would require that the Temple be rebuilt at a future time (a dubious proposition itself); yet, there is nothing at all in the text to indicate that Paul is speaking of any other Temple than the one standing in his day.

The Gospel tradition surrounding the reference to Dan 9:27 certainly played a role in the development of the early Christian “Antichrist” tradition, though it is not possible to trace this in detail. Roughly speaking, Paul’s account in 2 Thessalonians 2 appears to stand halfway between the saying in Mark 13:14 par and the Beast-vision(s) in the book of Revelation (esp. chapter 13). Revelation 13:11-18 describes a great world-ruler, along the lines of the Roman Empire/Emperor, who controls all of society and requires that all people worship him. This figure is typically referred to as “Antichrist”, though the word itself is never used in the book of Revelation, occurring only in the Letters of John (1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7), where it refers both to a spirit of false belief and to false believers who act/speak according to this spirit. Many commentators assume that 1 Jn 2:18 also refers to an early form of the “Antichrist” tradition similar to the “man of sin/lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2, but I am by no means convinced of this. It does, however, reflect the common worldview that, as the end-time approaches, wicked leaders and rulers, false Christs and false prophets, etc, would arise and exercise baleful power/influence over people at large. There is every reason to think that much of this expectation goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, such as is preserved in the Eschatological Discourse.

3. The “Son of Man” vision in Dan 7:13-14ff

I have also examined this particular passage in considerable detail as part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and will here limit the discussion to its influence on the New Testament and early Christian tradition. Three areas will be dealt with: (a) the sayings of Jesus in Mark 13:26-27; 14:62, etc; (b) the references in Revelation 1:7, 13; 14:14; and (c) its relation to the early Christian expectation of Jesus’ future return.

a. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 par

I discussed the background of the title “Son of Man”, and its use to designate a Messianic figure-type, in Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. This eschatological use of the title comes primarily, if not exclusively, from Daniel 7:13-14. Taken together with the references to Michael (10:13ff; 12:1ff), who is identified with the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7 by many commentators, we have the portrait of a divine/heavenly figure who functions as God’s appointed representative to deliver His people, bring about the Judgment, and establish the Kingdom of God at the end-time. This, indeed, is the very sort of picture we see in Jesus’ eschatological sayings involving the “Son of Man”. Nowhere is this stated to precisely as in the Eschatological discourse, where the appearance of the Son of Man is described (in the Markan version) as follows:

“And then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming in/on (the) clouds with great power and splendor. And then he will set forth the Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) the (chosen one)s gathered out, (from) out of the four winds, from (the farthest) point of earth unto (the farthest) point of heaven.” (13:26-27)

This clearly draws upon the image in Dan 7:13, where the “one like a son of man” is seen coming “with the clouds of heaven”. In Daniel, the heavenly/divine figure comes toward God (the ‘Ancient of Days’); but, according to the basic eschatological framework (based on Dan 12:1ff, etc), this has shifted to an appearance on earth at the end-time. The Son of Man comes to deliver the elect/chosen ones among God’s people, and to usher in the Judgment. There is some thought among (critical) commentators that Jesus here, and in other Son of Man sayings, is referring to a separate divine/heavenly figure and not to himself. While Mk 13:26 par, in its original context, could conceivably be interpreted this way, the subsequent saying in 14:62 par, during Jesus’ interrogation before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), cannot. The Synoptic tradition, despite some variation among the Gospels, is quite clear on this point. The Council (High Priest, in Mark/Matthew) asks Jesus specifically about his identity and self-understanding: “Are you the Anointed (One), the Son of the Blessed (One)?” (v. 61). This is the context for the Son of Man saying which follows:

“I am; and you will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man sitting out of the giving (hand) [i.e. at the right hand] of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (v. 62)

The phrase “with the clouds of heaven” is a more direct quote from Dan 7:13 than in Mk 13:26. It is joined with an allusion, almost certainly, to Psalm 110:1, reflecting (and introducing) the idea, which would become so prominent in the earliest Christian tradition, of Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand (in Heaven) following the resurrection. Since it is stated that the people in the Council will see the Son of Man coming, this is usually understood in terms of the Son of Man’s end-time appearance on earth. However, in light of the actual context of Dan 7:13-14, and traditional references such as in Acts 7:55-56, some commentators would interpret this differently. For example, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, in their commentary on Matthew in the Anchor Bible series, argued strongly that all these references to the Son of Man’s coming in glory originally referred to the exaltation of Jesus—his coming to God the Father in Heaven (as in Dan 7:13f); only secondarily did early Christians apply this in terms of Jesus’ future return. I do not agree with this interpretation, especially as it relates to the eschatological description in Mk 13:26-27, since it would ignore the rather clear tradition of the end-time deliverer’s appearance (from Dan 12:1ff), so central to much Jewish eschatology of the period.

b. Revelation 1:7, 13; 14:14

The book of Revelation cites or alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 several times as well. The first is the poetic utterance at the close of the introduction, which combines Zech 12:10 along with Dan 7:13:

“See, he comes with the clouds—and every eye will look on him, even the same (one)s who stabbed out (into) him, and all the offshoots [i.e. tribes/races] of the earth will beat (themselves) over him. Yes, amen.” (1:7)

Interestingly, the same two Scriptures are also brought together in Matthew’s version (24:30) of the Son of Man saying in Mk 13:26 (above). There can be no doubt that here Dan 7:13 refers to a visible appearance to the people on earth at the end-time. All of the book of Revelation emphasizes the status/position of the exalted Jesus—this traditional usage of Dan 7:13 brings out the motif, otherwise associated with the Son of Man figure in the Gospel tradition, of Jesus’ return in divine glory.

Verse 13 is part of the introductory vision (of the exalted Jesus), and it is an even more precise quotation from Dan 7:13. Strictly speaking, it is not the title “Son of Man”, as used by Jesus in the Gospel tradition; rather, the description goes back to the actual wording of the original Daniel vision:

“…and, in the middle of the lamp(stand)s, (one) like a son of man, sunk in [i.e. clothed with] (a garment down) to the feet, and having been girded about…with a golden girdle.” (v. 13)

This identifies the exalted Jesus precisely with the heavenly “Son of Man” figure in Dan 7. Much the same occurs in the visionary description of 14:14:

“And I saw [i.e. looked], and see!—a white cloud, and upon the cloud was sitting (one) like a son of man, holding upon his head a golden crown/wreath and in his hand a sharp tool (for) plucking [i.e. sickle].”

This brings together three distinct eschatological elements:

  • The exalted Jesus as the Son of Man figure in Daniel
  • His visible appearance in/on the clouds, and
  • The coming of the Son of Man figure to bring about the end-time Judgment

These last two references in the book of Revelation are, apart from Stephen’s vision in Acts 7:55-56 (which echoes Mk 14:62 par), the only occurrences of the title/expression “Son of Man” in the New Testament outside of the Gospels.

c. Jesus’ Return in early Christian Tradition

The extent to which Daniel 7:13-14 influenced early Christian eschatology, this appears to have taken place almost entirely through the Gospel tradition. I note several relevant examples:

  • The imagery of the Ascension narrative in Acts (1:9), where it is stated that Jesus was visibly “taken up” into a cloud, and it is announced to the disciples (v. 11) that Jesus will return just as he was taken up—i.e. in/on the clouds.
  • In Paul’s (only) description of Jesus’ future return, 1 Thess 4:17, believers will be snatched up into the clouds, where we/they will meet Jesus—i.e. his presence/appearance is in/on the clouds. This seems to reflect the basic tradition in Mk 13:26-27 par.
  • The frequent theme in early Christian preaching, of Jesus’ exaltation to Heaven, implies that he comes toward the Father, where he receives a position in glory at God’s right hand (Mk 12:36 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Phil 2:9; Heb 1:3, etc). Again, it is fair to say that this basic belief reflects the combination of Dan 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 expressed in Mk 14:62 par. It is from that position in Heaven, in glory, that Jesus will come to judge the world (Acts 17:31, etc).

4. The Influence of the Visions in Daniel 10-12

From the standpoint of the structure of the book of Daniel, chapters 7-12 should be taken together, as a collection of oracles and visions of events to come—covering the Hellenistic period (to at least the time c. 165-4 B.C.), and culminating in the eschatological period (time of the end), however this is to be defined (and interpretations differ widely). Since we have already discussed chapter 7 and 9, it is worth focusing here on the visions in chapters 10-11, and, especially, the concluding scene in chapter 12. These three chapters played a significant role in shaping Jewish and early Christian eschatology. There are several factors to be noted:

  • The presence of the heavenly being Michael as protector/deliverer of the faithful (10:13, 21; 12:1)
  • The period of warfare and persecution, detailed particularly in chaps. 10-11; there is a heavenly component to this warfare as well which suited eschatological and apocalyptic thinking.
  • The rise of wicked rulers and powers, who are described symbolically as animals/beasts (also in chapters 7-8); the descriptions in chaps. 10-11 build more readily upon the famous passage in 9:24-27.
  • The expression of a distinct eschatological/apocalyptic world view—history progressing, growing in violence and wickedness, to culminate in a sudden and intense period of suffering and distress before the appearance of the end.

In addition, there are a number of specific details in chapter 12, in particular, which are of tremendous importance:

  • The appearance of the heavenly savior-figure (Michael) at the end time (v. 1)
  • The reference to a period of great distress which will engulf all the nations (v. 1)
  • Association with the time of the resurrection, with the implied Judgment (v. 2)
  • The separation of the righteous and the wicked (v. 2-3, 10ff)
  • The heavenly/eternal reward of the righteous, following the Judgment (v. 3)
  • The events/time of the end as a secret or mystery hidden away (sealed) (v. 4, 9)
  • Daniel’s question of “when / how long?” (v. 6), with the visionary/heavenly answer (vv. 7ff)
  • A period of intense persecution of God’s people (vv. 7ff)
  • The time-indicators and connection back to 9:24-27 (vv. 7, 11-12)

We saw above (Section 1) the way in which Dan 12:1ff influenced the eschatology (and Messianism) of the Qumran texts. Similarly, a careful reading of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13 par), especially in verses 14-27, shows that Jesus is drawing significantly upon Daniel 12. The statement in verse 19 is virtually a quotation from Dan 12:1:

“For (in) those days (there) will be distress of which there has not come to be such as this, from the beginning of the formation (of the world) which God formed until the (time) now, and (there certainly) would not come to be (so again)!”

The entire period of distress described in vv. 14-22, and beginning with the allusion to Dan 9:27 (cf. also 12:11), seems to have chapter 12 in mind. Moreover, the time of warfare mentioned in vv. 7-8 could easily refer to Dan 10-11. Given the similarity (and traditional association) between Michael and the heavenly “Son of Man” figure, Jesus’ description of the Son of Man’s sudden appearance (vv. 26-27) to deliver the elect fits well with the reference to Michael in Dan 12:1. Also, the time of persecution (of the disciples), with the climactic exhortation to endure until the end is reflected at several points in Dan 12.

Other (eschatological) sayings and teachings of Jesus may allude to these chapters as well. Cf. for example, Matt 10:22 (Dan 12:12-13); 13:43 (Dan 12:3); 25:46, also John 5:29 (Dan 12:2); Luke 10:21b (Dan 12:1). Their influence may be reflected variously at other points in the New Testament, such as in Paul’s description of the “man of sin/lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3ff (cf. Dan 11:36, etc), or in the numerous exhortation to be faithful and endure until the end (James 1:12, etc).

The book of Revelation is, of course, heavily influenced by the book of Daniel, and also these chapters in particular. These are being discussed throughout the current series of daily notes on Revelation, but we may highlight some of the more important themes and motifs here:

  • The important position of Michael, who engages in heavenly warfare with the wicked powers (as in Daniel 10, cf. above)—Rev 12:7-9ff
  • The sealing of the visionary book, only to be opened at the time of the end (Dan 12:4, 9; also 8:26; 9:24)—Rev 5-6; 8:1ff; also 10:4; 22:10
  • The period of “great distress”, and of the faithful believers who come through this time and receive heavenly/eternal reward (Dan 12:1ff)—Rev 1:9; 7:14 (cf. chap 6 and subsequent visions in the book)
  • The specific idiom “time, times, and half a time” (i.e. 3½ years) in Dan 12:7, 14 (cf. also 9:27 where the same period of time is indicated)—Rev 12:14
  • The Beast-visions in Revelation 13 (also subsequent chapters) are largely inspired by the book of Daniel—the famous visions in chapters 4 and 7, but also in the kings and powers at war in chapters 10-11 (cf. 11:36, etc)

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The eschatological and “Kingdom” parables in Matthew and Luke are being examined according to five themes:

  1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
  2. Vineyard Parables
  3. Banquet/Feast Parables
  4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
  5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

The first three of these were treated in Part 2; here we will study the remaining two.

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

Following the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24), Matthew records three additional eschatological parables:

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

Both of the parables in Matt 25:1-30 are Kingdom parables, as is specified in verse 1: “the kingdom of the heavens will be considered (to be) like…”. As in several of the parables we have already examined (Parts 1 and 2 of this study), the setting involves a man who has gone away and is expected to come (back). In the Bridesmaids-parable, this motif has been simplified to that of the bridegroom in a marriage/wedding-ceremony who is coming to fetch the bride and take her to his house. A rather different wedding scenario appears in Luke 12:35-38 (cf. below). There is some question whether, in the original context of the parable(s), the man/bridegroom represented Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). The setting here in Matt 25, following the Eschatological Discourse in chap. 24, naturally would have led early Christians to associate it with Jesus’ return. However, more properly the image refers to God’s end-time appearance for Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones among his people; this appearance was understood in terms of his heavenly/divine representative—Messenger of the Lord and/or Son of Man—identified with Jesus in the Gospel Tradition.

There is again a distinction between two groups, juxtaposed against one another, as in the parable of the Weeds and the Net (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The two groups are together in one body (community or collection of people), but reflect very different characteristics. In the Bridesmaids-parable, there are ten virgins (maidens)—five of whom are described as mindful/thoughtful (fro/nimo$), while the other five are “dull” (mwro/$). They are together in one place, attending the bride, a detail which has to be inferred from the context (the variant reading in v. 1 indicates that copyists may have misunderstood the setting of the parable). The bride, who belongs to the bridegroom (having been betrothed to him, by a binding agreement [covenant]), is similar in many respects to the field in the Weeds-parable which belongs to the Sower (the Son of Man). The bride/bridegroom imagery, based on ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) tradition, more specifically suggests the religious relationship between God and his people Israel. In addition to the general milieu of ancient love poetry and marital imagery, which may be interpreted in this light (cf. Song of Songs 4:8-5:1), it is found, e.g., in Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5. The theme of love between husband and wife, in terms of marital faithfulness and loyalty, was used in the Prophets as a way of expressing Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, violating the binding (marriage) agreement, or covenant. We see this most famously in Hosea 1-3, but also in a number of other places, such as Joel 1:8 and Jer 2:2. On the wedding feast (verse 10), cf. Rev 19:7-9 and the discussion on the Feast/Banquet parables in Part 2.

Typically the servants/workers as characters in Jesus’ parables are meant as instructive examples for his disciples—the disciple of Jesus will see himself (or herself) in the position of the faithful servant. The parable functions as an exhortation (and a warning) for the disciple to behave in the manner of the positive character, rather than the negative. The “lamps” carried by the maidens is a figurative expression of the disciple’s behavior and faithful devotion, as stated more generally in Matt 5:14-16, etc. The brief Lamp-parable in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 4:21-22) has an eschatological orientation, which is echoed here as well. There is a sense in which the light from the lamps is defined as the message of the Kingdom which has been given to the disciples.

Apart from the fundamental setting of the coming/return of the man (bridegroom), the eschatological aspect is emphasized by other details in the parable, such as the use of the noun u(pa/nthsi$/a)pa/nthsi$ (vv. 1, 6). The related verbs u(panta/w and a)panta/w are virtually synonymous—both have the basic meaning of going away to come opposite (i.e. to meet, come face-to-face) with another person. Paul uses a)pa/nthsi$ specifically to refer to believers meeting Jesus in the air at his return (1 Thess 4:17). However, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the primary idea was that the people must be prepared to meet their God—i.e. the end-time Judgment. This eschatological judgment motif—involving the separation of the righteous and wicked, as of the true and false disciple (cf. the chap. 13 parables)—is vividly expressed by the climactic scene of the parable (vv. 11-12), which has similarities to the sayings/parables of Jesus in 7:21-23 and Luke 13:25-27.

The suddenness of the bridegroom’s appearance is emphasized in vv. 6, 10, in which he comes “in the middle of the night” when many, like the dull/foolish bridesmaids, might naturally be asleep. This reflects the imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment, held by early Christians (and other Jews of the time), though tempered, perhaps, by the motif of a ‘delay’ in v. 5: “But (while) the bridegroom (was) taking (his) time…”. This could provide support for the idea of a significant period of time (some years, at least) which could pass before the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). For more on the “delay of the Parousia”, see section 5 below.

There are certain parallels between the Bridesmaids-parable and the brief parable in Luke 12:35-38; despite differences in detail, the general outline and message are much the same: the servants (disciples) are to keep their lamps lit and remain watchful for their master’s return.

Matthew 25:14-30: Parable of the Talents (par Lk 19:11-27)

The Matthean Parable of the Talents is quite similar to the Lukan Parable of the Minas (19:11-27); many scholars consider them to be part of a shared tradition (“Q” material), though the significant differences make this less than certain. There are several ways of understanding the relationship between the two:

  • They reflect two different, but similar, parables of Jesus
  • It is the same parable, preserved in two different lines of tradition
  • It is the same parable (“Q”), modified by one or both of the Gospel writers

In favor of the latter is the fact a common core parable can be obtained by a simple removal or modification of several elements unique to each version:

  • Matthew:
    • Addition of the concluding line (v. 30), which is especially common as a refrain in the Matthean sayings/parables
  • Luke:
    • The narrative introduction in v. 11
    • The reference to the man as of noble origins, and the reason for his departure (“to receive a kingdom of himself”), v. 12
    • The verses/details related to this Lukan kingship motif—vv. 14-15a, 25, 27

Apart from these separable components, the differences between the two versions of the parable are minor—most notably, the difference in the amount of money involved (talents vs. minas). Curiously, Luke’s version specifies ten servants, though the parable itself, like Matthew’s version, only deals with three. Perhaps the reference to ten servants is meant to give the impression that the faithless servant (1 of 10), like Judas Iscariot (1 of 12), is relatively rare among the disciples of Jesus.

If we examine the parable in Matthew, we see that it is included together with the previous Bridesmaids-parable as another parable of the Kingdom (vv. 1, 14); Luke’s version makes this explicit (cf. below). We have the familiar motif of servants/workers and the landowner or household master who goes away. The money entrusted to the three servants resembles the lamps held by the bridesmaids—both symbolize the disciple’s faithful service to God and Jesus. Instead of two groups, there are three distinct characters, yet still reflecting two kinds of characteristics—those who deal faithfully with the money for their master, and those who do not (through fear and inaction). The end-time Judgment is expressed through several details in the parable:

  • The return of the master who settles the accounts (v. 19)
  • The reward given to the two faithful servants (vv. 20-23)—note the traditional reference to “entering” the divine/heavenly life (i.e. entering the Kingdom)
  • The judgment against the wicked/unfaithful servant (vv. 26ff)
  • The separation of the wicked—thrown into the “outer darkness” (v. 30)

As noted above, the Lukan version contains a kingship narrative line running through the parable:

  • The narrative introduction (v. 11), establishing the reason for Jesus’ uttering the parable (cf. Section 5 below)
  • The man is described as “well-born”—he goes away specifically “to receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12)
  • The parable is interrupted, it would seem, by the notice in v. 14, introducing the theme of the rebellious citizens who do not want the man to rule over them as king
  • When the man returns, he is said to have “received the kingdom”, i.e. authority to rule (v. 15a)
  • Again, at the end of the parable, we find another reference to the people who did not wish the man to rule—now they are characterized as “enemies” (v. 27).

It must be admitted that verses 14 and 27 seem out of place in the parable, which otherwise generally matches the version in Matthew. It has been suggested that two separate parables are blended together in Luke’s version: (1) a parable similar to Matt 25:14-30, and (2) a parable involving a king and his subjects. The two strands fit uneasily, making two very different statements: (1) exhortation to faithful discipleship, and (2) Jesus’ role/position as Messiah. Interestingly, the Lukan version, like Matthew’s, ends with a harsh declaration of Judgment (v. 27), though the two differ considerably in form and emphasis.

Both versions also include a motif suggesting a ‘delay’ in the coming of the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). Luke expresses this by way of the introduction in v. 11, and also with the detail that the man travels into a “far-off place” (v. 12). For Matthew, a similar idea is indicated in the parable when it is stated that master returns “after much time” (25:19). This will be discussed in Section 5 below.

Matthew 25:31-46: Parable of the Sheep and Goats

The last of the three parables in Matthew 25 has much the character of a vision-scene with symbolic/figurative elements, rather than a parable properly speaking. Indeed, it is not a Kingdom-parable, but a description of the Kingdom of God in heaven. It is, in fact, a scene of the great Judgment, set in the heavenly court. The eschatological key phrase is found in the opening words:

“And when the Son of Man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him…” (v. 31a)

This virtually restates the Synoptic saying in Mark 8:38 par, referring to the appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time Judgment, viewed as imminent. The corresponding saying in Matthew at this point highlights the theme of the Judgment:

“For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give forth to each (person) according to his deed(s)” (16:27)

For more on this end-time appearance of the Son of Man—a tradition deriving primarily from Daniel 7:13-14ff—cf. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 pars, and the recent study on the eschatological Sayings of Jesus. The opening verse of the parable emphasizes the exalted status and position of Jesus (at God’s right hand), as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. The depiction of the Judgment scene is altogether traditional, at least in its basic framework:

  • The judgment of the Nations (v. 32)—traditionally, the Messiah would play a prominent role in this process; in 1 Enoch, as in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, the Danielic Son of Man figure was identified as God’s Anointed One (Messiah), the two figure-types being blended together.
  • The separation of the righteous from the wicked (vv. 32ff)—this is stated generally (“he will mark them off from [each] other”), which could give the misleading impression that nations are being separated from another. Rather, it is the people (humankind) generally who are being separated.
  • The separation is expressed through the symbolic designation of “sheep” and “goats”; this simply reflects shepherding imagery, like the fishing imagery in the Net-parable (13:47-49), and one should not read too much into the sheep and goat as distinctive symbols.
  • The basis for the separation (righteous vs. wicked) is ethical (rather than theological), though with a uniquely Christian emphasis (cf. below).
  • The final Judgment (reward/punishment) likewise is stated in traditional language:
    “and these [i.e. the wicked] will go away into punishment of the Ages [i.e. eternal punishment], but the just/righteous (one)s into (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 46)

What is especially distinctive, and most memorable, about the parable is the basis for the judgment/separation, which is set forth in considerable detail (unlike the parables of the Weeds and Net, where is left unstated). It is described entirely in terms of how one has responded to people who are in need (of food, clothing, comfort, care/treatment of sickness, etc)—i.e. to the poor and unfortunate in society. This has caused some consternation for Christians accustomed to viewing salvation strictly, or primarily, in terms of faith in Jesus, i.e. acceptance of him as Messiah and Son of God. However, the emphasis in the parable here is not much different from that in the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the Beatitudes [5:3-12] and the Antitheses [5:21-47]), where traditional religious and ethical standards have been given a new, deeper interpretation. The true and faithful disciple of Jesus will follow this new ethic, and the declaration by Jesus in 5:20 is very much of a kind with the parable of the Sheep and Goats:

“For I relate to you that if your justice/righteousness does not go over (and above, even) more than (that) of the writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, you (certainly) will not go into the kingdom of the heavens!”

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

A final topic which must be addressed, related to the parables in Matthew and Luke, involves several key references which suggest a period of time which is to pass before the coming of final Judgment and the return of Jesus. This would seem to contrast with the language of imminence which otherwise is found in most/many of Jesus’ sayings (cf. the earlier study of the Sayings). The specific (and difficult, from our viewpoint) aspect of imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings/teaching will be discussed in more detail in the next study (on the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”), as well as a separate study devoted to the topic. However, it is worth mentioning here these important references in the parables to what is typically called “the delay of the Parousia”—i.e. a recognition among early Christians, after several decades, that the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) might not occur for some time. In this regard, the relative dating of the Gospels could be significant. Mark is usually recognized as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, dated perhaps c. 60 A.D., with Luke somewhat later (after 70 A.D.), and Matthew, perhaps, later still (c. 80 A.D.). Apart from the statement in 13:7b (to be discussed), there is little in Mark to suggest anything other than an imminent expectation of the end—i.e. within the lifetime of the disciples. If the conventional dating of Luke and Matthew is correct, they would have been written at a time when a number of the disciples—i.e. the first generation of believers—were beginning to die off. It must be admitted that this issue is not specifically addressed in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, usually thought to be the latest of the four (c. 90-95 A.D.?)—cf. the tradition (and the way it is presented) in Jn 21:20-23. It is natural that the later, more developed Gospel tradition would reflect the concern of this “delay”, and seek to explain it, at least in a rudimentary way.

Even so, it must be stated that evidence of this sort is rather slight in Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel writer felt it necessary to alter, to any real extent, the various Synoptic sayings and traditions which indicate an imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment. For example, they all leave the statement by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par in place without any real modification or explanation. Similarly, references indicating a significant ‘delay’ are relatively rare, and should not be overstated. We saw above, details in two of the parables which are worthy of note:

  • It is said of the Bridegroom that he was “taking (his) time” (xroni/zonto$), which led some of the maidens carelessly to fall asleep (25:5)
  • In the Parable of the Talents, it is only “after much time” (meta\ polu\n xro/non) that the master returns (25:19)

Both details, it would seem, reflect the same basic idea, though the latter more clearly indicates a significant period of time. If these parables properly refer to the return of Jesus, then it could, perhaps, express the idea (or at least allow for the possibility) that Jesus might not return within the lifetime of the first disciples.

The Gospel of Luke contains more details of this sort, which, indeed, is more fitting for the context the combined work of Luke-Acts, with its emphasis on a period of mission work among the Gentiles that must take place before the end comes (Acts 1:6-8, etc). The parables also express this in various ways; there are two which need to be examined here: (a) the Parable of the Judge and the Widow, and (b) the Parable of the Minas.

Luke 18:1-8: The Parable of the Judge and the Widow

The purpose of this parable is expressed by the Gospel writer in the opening words (narrative introduction, v. 1): the necessity of the disciples “always to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] and not to act out of a bad (heart) [i.e. be weak, cowardly]”. In other words, Jesus exhorts his followers to be persistent in prayer, even in the face of difficult and trying circumstances, where it may seem as though God does not hear them. This is certainly the primary message of the parable (vv. 2-6); however, if we read between the lines, the chronological dimension of the parable could be taken to suggest a delay in the end-time deliverance of God’s people (i.e. the Judgment), which early believers (along with many devout Jews) were fervently expecting. The woman in the parable “would come toward him [i.e. the judge]” (v. 3), i.e. would come repeatedly; and the judge was apparently not willing to hear her complaint “upon [i.e. for] (some) time” (v. 4). The explanation of the parable by Jesus in verse 7, and its application to the disciples (believers), suggests more is involved here than simply the question of unanswered prayer:

“And would God (then) not (all the more) make out justice for his (chosen one)s (which he) gathered out, the (one)s crying to him day and night, and is his impulse (to answer) long upon them [i.e. is he long in answering them]?”

There seems to be an echo here of the eschatological (and Messianic) hope expressed, for example, in 2:25, 38. Moreover the persecution which Jesus’ disciples will face, also implied here in the parable, is often presented in an eschatological context (21:12-19 par, etc). Luke is fully aware that at least thirty years would pass, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, without the end coming, and that, during this time, the early Christians (especially missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas) would face persecution. This parable may have been included by the Gospel writer, in part, with just this context in mind. The eschatological orientation of the parable would seem to be confirmed by the concluding declaration by Jesus in verse 8b, which may have circulated originally as a separate saying: “All the more, the Son of Man (at) his coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”. Disciples are to continue following Jesus faithfully, trusting in God, for the period (however brief or long) that lasts until the Son of Man comes. Verse 8a suggests that this period of time will not be all that long, preserving the basic sense of imminence—”I relate to you that he [i.e. God] will make out justice for them in (all) speed!”. On the language of imminence here—i.e. the expression e)n ta/xei, “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”—cf. the separate study in this series on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Luke 19:11-27: The Parable of the Minas

The parable itself was discussed above, in connection with the Matthean Parable of the Talents. Here, it is necessary to focus on two elements of the Lukan version: (a) the narrative introduction in verse 11, and (b) the description of the man who goes away in verse 12. First consider the setting indicated in the narrative introduction, which also serves as a transition from the Zaccheus narrative in vv. 1-10:

“And (at) their hearing these (thing)s, (Yeshua,) putting (this also) toward (them), said (it as) an (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable], through [i.e. because of] his being near to Yerushalaim, and their considering that the kingdom of God was about to shine forth [i.e. appear] paraxrh=ma.”

The syntax is somewhat complex, but what the author is describing is clear enough. Jesus was aware that many people (among his disciples and other followers) were thinking/expecting that the Kingdom of God would suddenly appear and be realized (on earth) once they arrived in Jerusalem. The adverb paraxrh=ma is difficult to translate literally; fundamentally, it refers to something which comes along (para/) just as it is needed (xrh=ma)—i.e. just at the right time. Sometimes it carries the sense of “at that very moment”, “immediately”. The “triumphal entry” narrative in the Gospel tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par) indicates that many people envisioned Jesus as the Messiah (Davidic-ruler type) who would establish the Kingdom in Jerusalem—presumably an earthly (Messianic) Kingdom, according to popular tradition. The questions posed to him in Lk 17:20 and Acts 1:6 reflect a similar eschatological expectation. In response to those questions, Jesus redirects his audience, pointing them toward a different (and deeper) understanding. Much the same is done here, through the parable which follows in vv. 12ff. The Kingdom of God will not be established immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This brings us to the beginning of the parable, which differs from the Matthean version in the description of the man who goes away. Here is how it is stated in the Parable of the Talents:

“…a man going away from his own people…” (25:14)

This simple phrase likely reflects the core parable (cf. above); however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas, it is expanded considerably:

“A certain well-born man traveled into a far(-off) area to receive a kingdom for himself and (then) turn back [i.e. return].” (19:12)

I noted above that there is some ambiguity in these parables whether the figure of the master/landowner who goes away properly refers to Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). Probably in their original context it is God who is in view, though early Christians certainly would have come to interpret such eschatological parables in terms of Jesus’ return at the end-time. The Matthean Parable of the Talents could be understood either way; however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas there is no question at all—the man who goes away has to be identified with Jesus. This is abundantly clear from the details in verse 12:

  • a well-born man (but not yet a King)
  • travels into a far-away land
  • to receive a kingdom for himself
  • and then returns back to his own land

This action in the story refers to a local ruler (prince, etc) who travels to the land/court of a powerful sovereign (king) to be granted the title and status of king (i.e., vassal of the greater sovereign). When he returns to his own land he now rules as king under the authority of the sovereign who granted him that title. From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, this process described in verse 12 can only refer to the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Having being raised to the right hand of God the Father, when Jesus returns, it will be as a divine King ruling with God’s own authority.

There is nothing in the parable which indicates exactly the time that the man (Jesus) is away; the designation of “far-off land” is best understood in terms of location (i.e. with God in Heaven). The Matthean parable does state that it is only “after much time” that the man returns. If we are faithful to the Lukan parable itself, all that we can say is that the Kingdom of God will not be established until some time after Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure to the Father. In the context of the wider narrative of Luke-Acts, this allows at least for a period of missionary work among the nations (Gentiles), as indicated in Acts 1:6-8ff; however, beyond this, there is no indication of the amount of time that is involved. This will be discussed further when we study the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

Part 1 of this study examined the parables in the core Synoptic (triple) tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. We looked primarily at the Kingdom-parables in chapter 4, along with the parable of the Wicked Tenants in 12:1-12. Now we turn to the parables found in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark); some of these parables are unique to each Gospel, while others occur in both (i.e. material commonly designated “Q”). These eschatological and “Kingdom” parables will be examined according to five themes:

  1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
  2. Vineyard Parables
  3. Banquet/Feast Parables
  4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
  5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic Tradition in Mark 4

Matthew 13 clearly draws upon the same tradition as Mark 4—a sequence of Kingdom-parables, according to an established (thematic) arrangement. However, Matthew includes several parables and sayings not found in Mark (nor the corresponding version in Luke [8:4-18])—these are:

  • The dual-saying in vv. 16-17 (“Q”, cf. Luke 10:23-24)
  • The Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30, 36-43)
  • The Parable of the Leaven (v. 33)
  • The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl (vv. 44-46)
  • The Parable of the Net (vv. 47-50)
  • The concluding saying in vv. 51-52

The additional parables all illustrate the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of Heaven“, in Matthew)—vv. 24, 33, 44, 45, 47, and also v. 52. They also serve to enhance the eschatological orientation of the sequence of Kingdom-parables; in particular, the Parables of the Weeds and Net have a clear reference to the end-time Judgment.

The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43)

The “Parable of the Weeds” is similar in theme and scope to the Synoptic Parable of the Sower (13:3-9 par); both parables include an explanation of the parable by Jesus given to his close disciples (vv. 18-23 par, 36-43; cf. verse 11ff). Many critical commentators express doubt that the explanations come from Jesus himself, but rather reflect early Christian interpretation. It is hard to find clear objective evidence for such a distinction, and the explanations are generally consistent with the language and style of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic tradition. The question, for our study, is especially significant in the case of the Parable of the Weeds, since the explanation of that parable, if coming from Jesus, would reflect his own eschatological understanding.

Unlike the parable of the Sower, the Weeds-parable is marked specifically as a Kingdom parable: “The kingdom of the heavens is (consider)ed to be like a man scattering fine seed in his field” (v. 24). However, in the explanation to the parable of the Sower, Jesus does indicate that it, too, relates to the Kingdom, identifying the seed as “the word/account [lo/go$] of the kingdom”. The context of that parable suggests that the sower is Jesus (proclaiming the message of the Kingdom); while the explanation of the Weeds-parable identifies him as “the Son of Man” (v. 37). This expression, or title, is used frequently by Jesus, often as a self-designation. The eschatological usage, drawn primarily from Daniel 7:13-14, features prominently in the Weeds-parable, and will be discussed in more detail in the study on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Interestingly, while the seed in the Sower-parable is identified as the message or “word” of the Kingdom, in the Weeds-parable it is the “sons” (ui(oi/, i.e. children) of the Kingdom (v. 38). The reference to “sons”, in terms of the Semitic idiom which Jesus would have understood, has two principal aspects:

  • In the literal sense of (royal/aristocratic) sons who will inherit their father’s estate, and
  • Indicating those (as a group) who belong to the Kingdom—i.e. members of the Kingdom. The Hebrew /B@ (“son”) is often used in the sense of someone who belongs to a particular group or category, possessing certain attributes or characteristics, etc.

By contrast, the “weeds” (ziza/nia) are identified as “the sons of the evil (one)”. It is possible to translate this expression as “the sons of evil”, but the context suggests a person (or personification)—”the evil one” (i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’); Jesus’ usage elsewhere would seem to confirm this (cp. in the Lord’s Prayer, 6:13). This sort of stark dualism is less common in the Synoptic sayings of Jesus than in the Johannine discourses, where it features prominently (Jn 3:19-20; 5:29; 8:39-47). First John presents a contrast very close to that of the parable here (3:8-10, “the children of God and the children of the devil”, v. 10). A similar dualistic contrast (“sons of light” and “sons of darkness”) is found in the Qumran texts. The ziza/nion, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, would typically be translated as “weed”, but seems to refer primarily to a type of grass or stalk which resembles the grain itself, but yields no produce.

The “field” (a)gro/$) in the parable is said to be the sower’s own field (“his field”, v. 24), while in the explanation it is identified as o( ko/smo$ (“the world-order”, v. 38a), i.e. creation, the created order. This emphasizes the cosmic aspect of the parable, and also indicates that the Son of Man, as God’s heavenly/divine representative, has authority and control over the world. Here ko/smo$ is used in a neutral sense—i.e. the world and all the people in it—much as in the parable of the Sower, where there are different types of soil, representing different responses of people to the message of the Kingdom. A different sort of illustration, but along similar lines, is presented in this parable: the Son of Man sows the good seed, while the enemy (e)xqro/$, the ‘devil’, dia/bolo$) sowed in the weeds (the false seed) secretly, at night. The explanation suggests two levels at which this may be interpreted:

  • True and false disciples of Jesus, both part of the same group of people identifying themselves as his followers. This certainly would have been the immediate understanding of the parable by early Christians.
  • The “weeds” as intrusive attempts to stifle the spread and growth of the Kingdom—this would include both people (false believers, persecutors), and other sorts of obstacles, temptations to sin, etc (v. 41)

The crux of the parable is its eschatological orientation—the harvest motif (vv. 28-30) used in parable, with the explanation in verses 39ff. The climactic statement of the parable would have immediately evoked the idea of the end-time judgment, as seen from the words of the Baptist in 3:12 par, echoed here:

“Release [i.e. allow] both to grow together until the reaping [o( qerismo/$], and in the time of the reaping I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the weeds and bind them into bundles toward the burning down (of) them, but bring together the grain into my building where (the grain is) put away!'” (v. 30)

In the explanation, there is no doubt left as to what Jesus means:

“The reaping [i.e. harvest] is the completion (all)together of th(is) Age, and the reapers are the (heavenly) Messengers” (v. 39b)

He is referring to the end of the current Age, and the idea, expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition, of the role of the Angels (assisting the Son of Man) in the end-time Judgment (Mk 8:38; 13:27 par; Matt 16:27; 25:31, etc). Verses 40-41f drive this home emphatically:

“…so it will be in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Son of Man will set forth his Messengers, and they will gather together out of his kingdom all the (thing)s tripping (people) up, and the (one)s doing (things) without law, and he will cast them into the burning chamber [i.e. furnace] of fire…”

The kingdom of the Son of Man (“his kingdom”, par “his field”) involves: (a) the proclamation of the message of the Kingdom in the world, and (b) those who belong to the Kingdom and respond to this message (i.e. the true disciples of Jesus). All that does not belong to the Kingdom, or which hinders its proclamation and establishment on earth, will be burned up at the end-time Judgment. The divine/heavenly dimension of the end-time Kingdom is made clear in the concluding words of the parable (v. 43, cf. Daniel 12:3):

“Then the just/righteous (one)s will give out (rays of) light as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-50)

The parable of the Fish-Net is much shorter and simpler, but has essentially the same theme as the parable of the Weeds. Instead of seed cast into a field, it uses the image of a fishing-net cast into the sea (v. 47). Fundamentally, it is the end-time Judgment which is in view here; first in the parable—

“…and when it was filled, they stepped it up upon the shore, and, sitting (down), they gathered together the fine (fish) into containers, but the rotten (one)s they threw away” (v. 48)

and then in the explanation (v. 49):

“So it will in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Messengers will come out and will mark off the evil (one)s out of the midst of the just/righteous (one)s.”

The dualistic contrast here is simpler, drawing upon the traditional religious-ethical distinction of good/bad, righteous/wicked. Jesus’ statement in John 5:29 reflects the same traditional language:

“…and they will (all) travel out [i.e. from the dead]—the (ones hav)ing done good into a standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of life, but the (ones hav)ing acted foul(ly) into a standing-up of judgment.”

2. Vineyard Parables

Jesus appears to have regularly used the image of workers in a vineyard in his teaching. Many in his audience likely would have identified themselves with the servants, laborers, and tenants of these parables. The illustrations seem to play especially upon the idea of the absentee landowner—a man who travels away or lives elsewhere while the land itself is worked by hired laborers and tenant farmers. This proved useful for instruction on the theme of responsible discipleship—working faithfully while God is ‘away’ (in Heaven). The same storyline and setting could easily be applied—both in the authentic tradition, and in early Christian interpretation—to the idea of Jesus as the master who goes away (i.e., his death, resurrection, and departure to the Father). In several of the parables with an eschatological emphasis, this latter setting seems to be in view.

We have already looked at the (Synoptic) parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12; par Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). It remains to examine two other parables found in the Gospel of Matthew, both of which occur in the general context of (end-time) reward and judgment—cf. 19:13-30; 20:20-28; 21:33ff.

Matthew 20:1-16: Payment of Laborers in the Vineyard

This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:

“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man (who is) master of a house(hold), who went out before (daytime) [i.e. in the early morning] to arrange (for) workers in his vineyard (to work) for wages…” (v. 1)

The eschatological aspect of this parable has to be inferred from the fundamental idea of the work in the vineyard being done over the course of an entire day (these being day-laborers, with a harvesting context implied). At the end of the day (v. 8), i.e. at the end-time (end of the current Age), the agreed-upon wage (misqo/$) for each worker is paid. There is an obvious parallel here to the idea of heavenly reward for the faithful/righteous ones at the end-time Judgment, being implicit in the parable (vv. 9ff). Early Christians certainly would have understood the workers in the vineyard as faithful disciples of Jesus, who came to be disciples at different points in time. For all such disciples the payment/reward is the same, which is the primary theme of the parable—believers do their work in common, as disciples of Jesus, without expecting any special priority or status based on when or how long one has been a disciple. This is emphasized by the concluding, paradoxical words in verse 16, which may have originated as a separate saying: “So will the first be last, and the last first”. The saying could easily be interpreted a different way, according the reversal-of-fortune motif found in a number of Jesus’ sayings. Here, by contrast, an egalitarian principle is established, one which softens or re-works the traditional eschatological language of the Judgment (cf. above). However, since it is disciples of Jesus (i.e. believers) who are the subject of the parable (not the wicked), this emphasis is more appropriate.

Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons

The contrast between righteous and wicked—true and false disciple—is expressed more clearly in the “Two Sons” parable. Here it is a Father (i.e. God) who asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard (v. 28). As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this word from the Master (vv. 29-30, note the interesting textual variants of wording and order found in the manuscripts). While not designated specifically as a Kingdom-parable, the Kingdom (of God) is clearly in view, when Jesus essentially gives an explanation of the parable to the religious leaders who were questioning his authority (vv. 23-27):

“…Amen, I relate to you that the toll-collectors and the prostitutes lead (the way) before you into the kingdom of God!” (v. 31b)

This is effectively an application of the statement in 20:16 (above), according to the reversal-of-fortune motif: sinners in the present age will enter the Kingdom, while the ‘righteous’ (according to traditional religious and morality) may not. A more precise application would follow the Vineyard-laborer parable—the religious leaders may still enter the Kingdom, but only after the lowly/wretched sinners have done so!

There is not an obvious eschatological aspect to this parable, other than what can be inferred from its basic setting, along with the narrative context—much of Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (chapters 21-25) is eschatological in orientation.

3. Banquet/Feast Parables

There are three such parables to consider, the first two of which may derive from the same line of tradition (the so-called “Q” material). They draw upon the older traditional motif of the heavenly/eschatological banquet, inspired by passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14; cf. 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4, etc (Fitzmyer, p. 1026). It is alluded to at several points in the book of Revelation (3:20; 19:9). At times this banquet/feast is specifically associated with the Messiah (and/or a “Messianic Age”). Jesus applies the idea to himself, and his closest disciples, in Luke 22:16ff, 29-30 par.

a. Matthew 22:1-14 / Luke 14:15-24

Matthew and Luke appear to be dealing with a common parable by Jesus (“Q” material), though the differences are significant enough that one must allow for the possibility of ‘separate’ parables coming from two distinct lines of tradition. However, the basic outline is the same—that of a (wealthy/prominent) man who invites people to a great feast. As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this message, but initially they are all negative—everyone invited declines to attend, offering various reasons to be excused. These reasons all relate to the business of daily life, and would seem to parallel the the third soil-type in the parable of the sower and “the concerns/distractions of the world” (Mark 4:19, Jesus’ explanation). As a result, the man extends his invitation further afield, reaching to the poorer segments of society. This aspect echoes the parable of the Two Sons (cf. above), and the contrast between the repentant sinners/outcasts and the ‘righteous’ who fail to respond to Jesus’ message. In what appears to be the core parable, the invitation goes out to the streets of the city (Matt 22:8 / Lk 14:22); however, in Luke’s version, this is further extended to the crowded narrow lanes (where the poor and disabled are commonly found), and even further out into the roadways and fenced-off lands. This latter detail allows for (Lukan) application in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Both versions treat this as a Kingdom-parable, though in different ways:

  • In Matthew, it is so designated by Jesus (“the kingdom of the heavens is [to be] considered like a man…”, 22:2). Moreover, the man is specifically referred to as a king, and the feast identified as a wedding banquet for his son (further giving the parable a Messianic dimension). The people being invited are thus members of his kingdom.
  • Luke introduces the parable in the narrative context of a feast Jesus is attending (14:15), at which a man declares to him: “Happy the (one) who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is similar to Jesus’ own words to his disciples at the Last Supper, where he speaks of drinking from “the produce of the vine” (i.e. wine) in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14:25 par). These motifs of eating/drinking should not taken too concretely; they are simply idioms referring to partaking in a meal. However, these references are eschatological, and relate to the feast/banquet motif mentioned above. As we see often in the Gospels, Jesus redirects his audience away from a simple traditional understanding (without entirely rejecting it), and points them toward a deeper meaning.

In Luke’s version, the poor and outcast take the place of the ‘righteous’ who refuse to attend, just as Jesus states in the Two Sons parable. Matthew’s version presents this quite differently, according to more traditional imagery associated with the end-time Judgment (cf. the chap. 13 parables above). Instead of the poor and afflicted, the call goes out to all people in the city, and a crowd comes to the feast—good and evil alike (22:10). This is very much akin to the parable of the Net, where good and bad fish are gathered up together in the net, to be separated out at the end-time Judgment. That is very much what the parable describes here in vv. 11-12, though in a most distinctive and memorable way, isolating on a single individual.

The Matthean version is thus more complex than the Lukan, and seems to be describing more distinct stages:

  • The well-to-do members of the kingdom (i.e. religious Israelites/Jews) who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and/or fail to respond to his message
  • The disciples of Jesus who respond to his message, coming from all segments of the city—though not all are true, faithful disciples
  • At the end of the Age, at the time of the great feast, it is then that the true and false disciples will be separated

Finally, it is also worth mentioning a third version of this parable, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying/section 64); some critical commentators consider the Thomas version to be the more primitive, original form of the parable (Fitzmyer, pp. 1050-2).

Luke 13:23-30 (esp. verses 28-30)

There is a brief parable or illustration in the Gospel of Luke which is part of a block of teaching with an eschatological orientation. The section may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative introduction (v. 22)
  • Question by someone (disciple?) in the crowd (v. 23):
    “(is it that) the (one)s being saved (are only) a few?”
  • Illustration of the Narrow Door (v. 24)
  • Illustration of the Master of House standing at the Door (vv. 25-27)
  • Illustration of the Kingdom Feast (vv. 28-29)
  • Concluding saying (v. 30):
    “see, there are the last who will be first, and the first who will be last” (cp. Matt 20:16, above)

The setting in vv. 22-23 introduces the eschatological context of these illustrations. For the association with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cf. on Luke 19:11 below (Part 3); the context of question in verse 23 relates salvation to entering/inheriting the Kingdom at the end-time. In contrast to the belief expressed in Jewish tradition, that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; Fitzmyer, p. 1022), a number of Jesus’ sayings seem to suggest that only a small percentage of the people (i.e. those accepting and following him) will be saved. The two Door parables (compare with Matt 7:13-14, 21-23) seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ (eschatological) message:

  • Entering the kingdom requires struggle (a)gw/n), due to the narrowness (ste/no$) of the door or gate, the result of the many obstacles which surround it (cf. the Parable of the Weeds above). Jesus declared and emphasized on numerous occasions to his disciples (and would-be disciples) that considerable hardship was involved in following him—a lifestyle which demanded an ethic even more stringent than that of the Pharisees (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, etc); and also a faith/trust in God which is rare indeed among people (cf. on Luke 18:8 below [Part 3]).
  • Moreover, the door is open only for a (short) period; at some point (the end-time) the Master of the house/kingdom, will decide to close the door. It will be impossible for anyone to enter at that point, regardless of the claims or petitions they may make (i.e. that they were followers of Jesus, etc).

This leads into the Feast parable of vv. 28-29—entering the Kingdom at the end-time means joining in this great feast, at which all the righteous attend (the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, etc). There are two components to this illustration:

  1. Many Israelites will not join Abraham and Isaac, etc, in the Kingdom, but will be “thrown outside” (v. 28)
  2. Others will come from all the surrounding nations, from all directions (east, west, north, south) and will “lean back (to dine)” in the Kingdom (v. 29)

Given the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, it is not surprising that the Lukan parables and teachings of Jesus emphasis this more inclusive aspect—allowing even for the inclusion of Gentiles (through the early Christian mission) into the Kingdom.

(to be continued in Part 3)

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB] 28A (1985)

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:1ff

By | Biblical Criticism, Saturday Series | No Comments

In recent weeks, we have examined various areas of Biblical Criticism, using the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 as a case for study. We have looked at:

  • Textual Criticism—Analysis of the Hebrew text, including variant readings, attempts to determine the most likely original form of the text, and how it may have been shaped during the course of copying and transmission. For the Hebrew Old Testament, the Scripture manuscripts from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) are especially important, when they differ from the Masoretic Text.
  • Form Criticism—Study of the specific form and genre of the passage, as far as it can be determined. What type of material are we dealing with, what are its characteristics, and how is it distinguished from other portions elsewhere in Scripture or in the same book? Specific issues are involved when dealing with ancient Hebrew poetic or psalm/hymn forms, as in the case of Deut 32.
  • Source Criticism—How did the passage come to be incorporated into the book as a whole? Did the writer(s) make use of an existing document or line of tradition? If so, how might it be distinguished from other material in the book?
  • Historical Criticism—Consideration of the (original) historical setting and background of the book, and how it came to be composed. A separate issue involves analysis of the historical accuracy of the material, whether dealing with specific traditions or literary (and narrative) sections. The latter is not merely a question of whether the Scripture is historically reliable (from a particular standpoint), but of how the content of a passage relates to its composition.

We shall now apply these to an examination of the Song of Moses as it has come down to us, looking at specific selected verses or lines of the poem. This will help us to see just how criticism relates to interpretation—here in the case of a famous and influential piece of ancient Hebrew poetry within an Old Testament Scripture. Broadly speaking, this sort of study may be referred to as literary criticism—analysis of the distinct literary form and structure, i.e. the book and passage of Scripture, as it has come down to us.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to consider the thematic outline of the Song. Such an outline normally would follow the sort of study we are doing, being the result of it; however, in this instance it will help things along to include it here beforehand.

  • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
  • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
    —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
    —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
    —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
    —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
  • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
    –Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
    –Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
    –Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
    –Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
  • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

We start with the first verse (and line) of the Song.

Deuteronomy 32:1

The Song begins with a call (by the poet) to all of creation—”the heavens and the earth”:

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

This first line (bicolon) demonstrates the parallelism, common to much ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, which runs throughout the song. We examined this in the study on Form Criticism. It is not simply a stylistic device; it also allows the poet to emphasize certain themes and ideas, giving two (or more) variations of a basic motif, the second restating or building upon the first. Here the dual-concept of the universe (creation) as consisting of the pair “heaven and earth” serves to establish the parallelism in the line. This sort of opening is actually a traditional literary (and rhetorical) device, seen in other places in the Old Testament—Isa 1:2-3; Jer 2:4ff; also Psalm 50:4; Mic 6:1ff. It draws upon ancient religious and cultural traditions, including certain conventions associated with establishment of binding agreements (covenants) and treaties, etc. In establishing such an agreement between parties, it was customary to call on deities as witnesses, as way of “hallowing” the agreement, and, in a quasi-magical manner, to bring down divine judgment if it should ever be violated by one of the parties. We see a faint vestige of this sort of practice today in our continued use of oaths in official legal proceedings and public ceremonies.

Of course, in the context of early Israelite monotheism, Yahweh was the one called upon in oaths and the like. In the case of the covenant between God (YHWH) and Israel, the typical custom (of calling upon deities as witness) could not be applied in the same way, nor was it entirely appropriate. Nothing of the sort is found in the early covenant traditions (in Gen 15, 17; Exod 24, etc) which we examined in earlier studies. However, it does appear several times in the book of Deuteronomy: 4:26; 30:19, and at 31:28, just prior to the Song. Though “heaven” and “earth” as such were viewed as deities in the ancient Near East, they are not treated this way here. Rather, they represent “all of creation”—i.e. the universe, the created order. The poet, following God’s own word, calls on heaven and earth to hear the words of the Song. According to 31:19, the Song itself serves as witness of the covenant, to which heaven and earth join, according to the traditional motif. This enhances the importance of the Song and its message. Verse 2 extends the idea of creation as witness, hearing the words of the Song, through the natural imagery of rain and dew—i.e., water from heaven, which, drawing upon sky/storm theophany, has God as its source. God’s word—that is, the inspired message of the Song—comes down from heaven to the earth.

Commentators sometimes refer to the call to heaven and earth in verse 1 (and similar passages) as part of a “covenant lawsuit” tradition, whereby one calls upon the (divine) witnesses to deliver a complaint that the binding agreement (treaty or covenant) has been violated. Such violation will result in divine judgment, often understood in military terms—attack upon the party who violated the covenant. While verse 1 almost certainly draws upon such a tradition, it must be said that there is no real sense in the Song of a legal proceeding. It is, however, present more decidedly in Isa 1:2-3ff and Jer 2:4ff, passages which were doubtless influenced by Deut 32; indeed, there are a number of rather clear parallels between Isa 1:2-31 and the Song of Moses. For examples of heaven/earth taking a more active role in the proceedings, see Mic 6:1-2; Jer 4:28; 6:19; 51:38. Natural disasters and other phenomena were typically understood as manifestations of divine judgment.

This last point is significant, and can easily be overlooked in a casual reading of vv. 1-3. By injecting a developed (later) form of monotheism into these early Scriptures, there is also a tendency to exaggerate a separation between the transcendent Creator God (YHWH) and the Creation. In early Israelite thought and expression, God and the Creation (heaven and earth) were much more closely connected than is often realized by Jews and Christians today. While not “gods” in the sense found in ancient Near Eastern religious lore, heaven and earth, along with all of the natural phenomena contained within them, obeyed YHWH and worked/acted on His behalf. As witnesses to the covenant, they also would “act” against the violators of the agreement, as indicated in the passages cited above. We already saw in the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32), how natural features and phenomena were utilized to bring judgment on the people (vv. 20, 35), presented in tandem with attack by military forces (“the sword”, vv. 25-28), and this could be repeated numerous times from similar passages in the Old Testament. Here in the Song, upon violation of the covenant, the earth itself, which was at first fruitful (vv. 13-14), would turn against the people, through the burning fire of God’s anger which consumes the earth’s produce and fertility (v. 20). Along with this, there will famine, plague, disease and attacks by wild beasts (v. 24)—all natural disasters which will strike the people, even as they will also be attacked by the sword of invading military forces (v. 25). This is all very much part of the traditional language of divine judgment in the Old Testament.

It is also especially significant in light of the primary theme which runs through the Song: the contrast between YHWH as Israel’s God, and the foreign deities which the people came to worship, thereby violating the covenant. This will be discussed in our study on subsequent verses in the Song, but it is important to note how the theme is established here in the opening. We have seen how the call to heaven and earth draws upon ancient Near Eastern tradition whereby the gods were called upon as witnesses to a covenant or treaty. Thus there is here an implicit reference to the religious distinction, from the Israelite standpoint, between the one true Creator God (El-YHWH) and all of the other deities recognized by the surrounding nations. In early Israelite monotheism, this distinction was not as sharp as it would later become. The “sons of God” had not yet been reduced to “angels”, and could refer to various sorts of divine and/or heavenly beings. In the context of the traditional language of verse 1, heaven and earth are obedient servants of YHWH, and their natural activities (rainfall, etc) parallel God’s own word being spoken (v. 2). This unifying sense of purpose is emphasized by the declaration which follows in verse 3:

“For the name of YHWH I call out–
Give greatness to our God [Elohim]!”

Note again the parallelism here, where the second half-line builds upon the first. The poet calls out “the name of YHWH”, a way of acknowledging that Yahweh is his God, and that he is serving a prophetic, oracular role in making Him known (His word and will) to the people. In the second half-line, the poet calls upon the people to respond in kind, acknowledging and declaring “the greatness of our God”. The word translated “God” is the plural noun °§lœhîm, which, when applied to the Creator El-Yahweh, is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural, meaning something like “Mightiest (One)”. When used as a true plural, of course, it would refer to other “Mighty Ones”—deities or divine beings, such as those worshiped by the surrounding nations. The Song plays heavily upon this dual meaning and use of the word.

In the next study, we will move ahead to verses 5-6, and then touch again on verses 8ff, to see how the theme of the Creator YHWH as Israel’s God is developed, being central to the very idea of the covenant (and its violation) that is at the heart of the Song. This we will do, God willing, when we meet here again next weekend.

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

The Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

Having studied the sayings of Jesus, it is now time to turn our attention toward the longer illustrations and parables. There are two areas which need to be examined: (1) parables related to the Kingdom of God, and (2) parables with an eschatological aspect or dimension. There is a good deal of overlap, but it is important to keep these two areas distinct. Just because Jesus may refer to the Kingdom in a parable, does not mean the thrust of the parable is eschatological per se. As we have seen, his use of the “Kingdom” expression and image is more complex than that.

According to the basic meaning of the Greek word, a parabolh/ is something “cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. placed alongside—an illustrative story or comparison, used as an aid in teaching. Jesus’ parables, as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, tend to be relatively short stories, sometimes taking the form of example covering just a sentence or two. Again, I will begin with the Synoptic parables, represented by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to those in Matthew and Luke. There are relatively few Markan/Synoptic parables; most notable are those which occur in Mark 4 par.

1. The Kingdom of God (Mark 4:1-34 par)

If we begin with the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there is only one section (chap. 4) which brings together a sequence of parables by Jesus, and these have the Kingdom of God as their primary theme. This is clearly expressed by the formula in verse 30:

“How may we say (what) the kingdom if God is like, or in what (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] should we set it?”

The sequence of parables covers 4:1-34, which may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
  • The Sower (vv. 3-20):
    —The parable (vv. 3-9)
    —Jesus and the disciples (vv. 10-13)
    —Explanation of the parable (vv. 14-20)
  • The Lamp (vv. 21-25)
    —which includes an exhortation and reward-saying (vv. 23-25)
  • The Growing Seed (vv. 26-29)
  • The Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32)
  • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew and Luke have modified or developed this tradition in different ways. In Matthew (chap. 13), the Markan setting is maintained, but the author has included other parables and sayings which enhance the eschatological thrust of the section (cf. below). By contrast, Luke (8:4-18) has a simpler/shorter version of the Synoptic material, and sets it in a different context (cf. 8:1-3, 19-21). The essential theme, in both the Markan and Lukan versions, relates to the success of Jesus’ ministry—i.e. his proclamation of the good news (of the Kingdom) and the response (of his disciples) to this message. Many commentators feel that in the original context of the parable of the Sower—the parable itself, more than the explanation—had an eschatological emphasis. In spite of the initial obstacles, and lack of response, Jesus’ mission would take root, and from the first disciples, the message would quickly spread to a much wider audience, before the end comes. This is certainly suggested by the language in verses 8, 20 (cf. the parallel in v. 32), though it must be admitted that the emphasis in the explanation (vv. 13-20) is rather on the character of the different kinds of soil as representing different responses to the Gospel. The context of Luke’s version brings out the focus on discipleship even more clearly. Even so, an eschatological thrust by Jesus is likely, given the Kingdom-parables which follow in Mk 4:21ff par. We may consider the brief parable of the Lamp in vv. 21-25, which appears to be made up of several sayings which may originally have circulated separately, but certainly fit together here as a unit:

  • Illustration of the Lamp (v. 21)
  • Explanation/application for his disciples (v. 22)
  • Exhortation (v. 23)
  • Paradoxical dual-saying regarding (heavenly) reward (vv. 24-25)

Beyond the obvious reference to heavenly reward, implying an end-time Judgment setting, the eschatological emphasis may also be seen by the ‘explanation’ of the illustration in verse 22:

“For there is not any(thing) hidden, if not (so) that it may be made to shine forth; and (has) not come to be uncovered, so that it may (now) come into (the) shining (light)?”

This idea of the uncovering of secrets implies the end-time Judgment by God (indicated by the divine passive here), when all things will come to light—on similar passages in the New Testament, cf. John 3:19-21; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:11-14. In this context, however, the saying must refer back to verse 11 and the “secret of the Kingdom” (cf. the next section below). It is the secret(s) of the Kingdom of God which are to be revealed at the end-time. They had been kept hidden (by God) previously, so they would not be uncovered until the present time—i.e. the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Luke has another form of this (or a similar) saying in Lk 12:2-3, where the emphasis shifts from an eschatological warning (v. 2) to a directive to the disciples to proclaim the secret, i.e. of the Kingdom (v. 3). In Paul’s writings, and elsewhere in the New Testament, this revealing light is identified precisely as the Gospel message of what God has done in the person of Jesus (Lk 1:79; 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:18ff; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10, etc).

2. The “Secret of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11 par)

Central to the sequence of parables in Mark 4 is the exchange between Jesus and disciples in vv. 10-13, preceding the explanation of the Sower parable (vv. 14ff). I give these verses in a chiastic or bracketed outline form:

  • Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
    —Declaration: The disciples are given the secret of the Kingdom (v. 11)
    —Scripture citation: The secret of the Kingdom is (and has been) kept hidden from others (v. 12)
  • Question of Jesus to the disciples about their understanding the parables (v. 13)

The apparent difficulty of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 has been overplayed in the past, tripping up commentators. Luke (8:10) has effectively removed the main problem by eliminating the second portion of the citation (v. 10). The thrust of the citation is that God has intentionally kept the “secret of the Kingdom” hidden from people until the moment it is to be revealed by Jesus and his followers—and only by them. As indicated by the outline above, this establishes the contrast in Mk 4:11-12, between Jesus’ close followers (who are given the secret), and all other people (from whom it remains hidden). I have discussed this passage in a detailed study on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”). There are contemporary parallels to this expression (“secrets of God”) in the Qumran texts—1QM 3:9; 16:11; 1QS 3:23; 1QpHab 7:8, etc. The Qumran Community believed that they (alone) represented the faithful ones of Israel, who would play a central role in the end-time appearance of God (His Kingdom and Judgment), thought to be imminent. In this, they shared much in common with the earliest Christians, who inherited a significant portion of their eschatology from Jesus himself; on this, cf. the recent articles on the eschatological sayings of Jesus, and also the upcoming study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

3. Seed/Harvest Imagery in the Parables (esp. Mark 4:26-33 par)

A third aspect of the sequence of parables in Mark 4 to note is the repeated use of seed and harvest motifs, brought out even more vividly in Matthew’s version (cf. below). In addition to the parable of the Sower, we have the two Seed-parables in 4:26-33. Of these we notice especially:

  • Both are identified specifically as illustrations of the Kingdom of God (vv. 26, 30)
  • The first (parable of the Growing Seed) has an unquestionable eschatological emphasis (v. 29)

It is this last point which needs to be expounded further, as verse 29 serves as the climax to the parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29). It also continues the image of the Kingdom of God as something hidden—adding this aspect (cf. vv. 11ff, 22, and the discussion above) to the earlier Sower paradigm:

  • “…as a man might cast (down) scattered (seed) upon the earth” (v. 26)
  • “and might sleep and rise, night and day, and the scattered (seed) might sprout and lengthens (even) as he has not seen (it)…” (v. 27)

The seed, earlier identified as the “word of God” and the proclamation of the Kingdom, works in a hidden manner, unseen and unknown to the man sowing who otherwise goes about his daily business. Yet the seed has a special power all its own, intrinsic to its very nature:

“Moving (it)self, the earth bears fruit—first (the) green (sprout), then a standing head (of grain), (and) then full grain in the standing head.” (v. 28)

Though hidden, this growth is both natural and expected; and, at the end of its period of growth, the time for harvest comes:

“But when the fruit gives along (its sign), straightaway (the man) sets forth the (tool for) plucking, (in) that [i.e. because] the (time for) reaping [qerismo/$] has come to stand alongside [pare/sthken].”

Many translations simply read “…the harvest has come”; however, I have translated the verb pari/sthmi according to its fundamental, literal meaning (“stand alongside”), to bring out more clearly the eschatological connotation, an emphasis which is inherent in the very harvest motif being employed. For the traditional use of harvest imagery to convey the idea of the end-time Judgment, in particular, cf. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:15ff; and also Matt 13:30, 39 (below). It was a natural image, as it clearly expresses the end of a distinct period of time—i.e. the agricultural season. The verb pari/sthmi connotes two eschatological concepts:

  • The sense that something is close by, or near to taking place—i.e. the imminence of the end-time Judgment
  • A usage similar to that of pa/reimi (“be [present] alongside”), which is the basis for the noun parousi/a (parousía), a technical term for the end-time appearance of God and/or His chosen representative (i.e. the return of Jesus, in early Christian usage).

4. The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-2 par)

This is the other parable in the core Synoptic tradition which has a distinct eschatological emphasis. Its location in the Gospel reflects two themes implicit in the parable: (1) the impending death of Jesus, and (2) the coming destruction of Judea/Jerusalem. The second of these features prominently in the “Eschatological Discourse” of chapter 13 par, while the first is the subject of the Passion account which follows. However, unlike the similar parable in 13:32-37 (cf. below), only the climax of the “Wicked Tenant” parable here refers to the end-time. In this regard, the image of the landowner who “went away from his people” (v. 1) can be somewhat misleading, when compared, for example, with Luke 19:12ff par. Here the man who ‘goes away’ is not Jesus, but represents God the Father, who gives over control of his land to ‘tenant farmers’. These people mistreat the landowner’s messengers (i.e. the Prophets), and, eventually, decide to kill the man’s son (Jesus) when he comes as a representative. The judgment/punishment for this deed will take place as soon as the landowner (God) returns/appears; the implication is that it will occur very soon after Jesus’ death:

“What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and make the(se) workers of the land suffer (great) loss [i.e. destroy them], and he will give the vineyard to other (worker)s.” (v. 9)

If the landowner initially went “away from his people” (vb. a)podhme/w), when he comes back to his people it will be to punish the wicked ones. The end-time Judgment is clearly in view, but also the more specific idea of judgment on Israel (esp. Judea and Jerusalem) for their treatment of the Prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus (who is also the landowner [God]’s son). As harsh as this sounds, and as uncomfortable as it might make Christians today, it is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching, being found several other places in the Gospel tradition—Matt 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-52; 13:33-35; 19:41-44; cf. also Paul’s words in 1 Thess 2:14-16.

The parable of the Pounds/Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar framework, but appears to deal more directly with the idea of Jesus‘ departure and return. It will be discussed in the next part of this study. Another parable similar in tone and emphasis is found at the conclusion of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:32-37 par), and will be discussed in the study on the Discourse itself. It is worth mentioning here the same issue as in the Wicked Tenant parable, only modified and addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, who function as the servants left in charge of the owner’s estate. They are urged to act responsibly, in a righteous and faithful manner, realizing that the owner might return at any time.

Part 2 of this study will examine the specific parables in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) which have an eschatological aspect or emphasis.