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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Did Jesus Predict the Rapture within 40 Years of his Death? Part 1

The Problem of “γενεὰ αὕτη” (“this generation”) and
“πάντα ταῦτα” (“these things”) in Matthew 24

Part 1 – Introduction and Summation of Categories of Possible Solutions

Preliminary Thoughts on Methodology:

I would like to start with a preliminary statement about the exhortation to read the passage in its “plain” or “literal” sense. This exhortation comes not surprisingly from both the literalists and the critics. (I use “literalist” in a technical sense to refer to those who ascribe to the method of hermeneutics known as the “literal method” and not merely to all people who hold a “literal” understanding of the Bible because, in some sense, this would include all readers to some degree; and I use “critic” to refer to those skeptics who, despite a total lack of hermeneutical, historical, linguistic or Biblical/theological training deem themselves experts in the field but often reveal a surprising lack of clarity, understanding or even basic skills to read an interpret ancient texts). This is not surprising because the literalists often demand that a text can have but one meaning and that meaning is found in a prima facie reading of the text. (However, they often violate their own hermeneutic when it suits their theological framework and will often interpret clear passages by ambiguous ones thus violating the hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith – or in plain terms, that the clear and explicit should always interpret the ambiguous and metaphorical.) On the other hand, the critics will often only interact with the literalists and thus assume that their reading of the passage is the only valid one and thus that any Christian who wants to hold to a “literal” reading of the passage (an equivocation of the meaning of “literal” is often glossed over) must understand it as the literalists do or else be in violation of some abhorrent scripture twisting. It is almost humorous that neither perspective sees how much in agreement they actually are even though they think they are diametrically opposed to one another.

However, is a “plain” or “literal” reading of a passage the best? Well the answer is complicated. It seems that it should be yes and no. A “plain” reading is a virtue but what constitutes a plain or literal meaning is much more nuanced than we are aware of at first. The problem should becoming immediately obvious when we consider what the “plain” reading of a text would be for a first century Jew and a 21st century American. They would be drastically different. We must never forget that the Bible was written at a specific time in history, at a specific location, was steeped the normal worldview of the culture, and employed symbols, illustrations, metaphors, grammar, rhetoric, etc. of that time period. A humorous example can be seen if we were to look at the use of “heart” in the Old Testament. If we were to translate “heart” literally from the Hebrew we should actually use a term like “bowels” or “pit of the stomach”. So why do we use heart? Because our English translators have taken the concept meant by the Hebrew (the bowels were seen as the seat of emotion and personhood in the Ancient Jewish world) and translated it into the English parallel (“heart” is the organ we use to represent the seat of emotion and personhood in our western culture). If the translators had simply left it as “bowels” can we imagine what kind of strange interpretations people would have if they had no understanding of the historical and cultural contexts of that idiom?

To make problems even more severe for our text, we can also consider that in writing his Gospel, Matthew was a 1st century Jew, translating the Aramaic sayings of Jesus into Koine Greek in order to present his message to Roman gentiles. In light of this we can see how layers of meaning or contexts begin to build layer upon layer so that a “plain” reading becomes much more work than simply reading it and deciding what makes the best sense to our modern worldviews.

Thus for us to understand the “plain” reading of a passage, it is imperative that we are willing to do the leg work to understand in historical, cultural, political, religious, literary, rhetorical, polemical, grammatical, etc. contexts that may be operating within our given text.

The Problem Stated:

In Matthew 24:34 we find Jesus making the statement “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” If “these things” refers to all of the statements made previously in the chapter, and if those statements refer to what will happen immediately preceding the return of Christ and the end of the world, and if “this generation” means the 40 year generation of those present while Jesus was speaking, then it seems that Jesus made a false prediction.

If Jesus was predicting his return within 40 years of the Olivet Discourse, and now nearly 2000 years have passed, the Jesus would have been clearly mistaken. This is an obvious problem for those that want to say Jesus is a messenger from God, let alone the perfect incarnation of the 2nd person of the God-head.

Categories of Possible Solutions:

There are two categories of solutions to this problem. The first has to do with the interpretation of  “γενεὰ αὕτη” and the second has to do with the interpretation of “πάντα ταῦτα”.

Let us look at the three possible solutions that fall under the first category.

1.      γενε ατη” means something other than a 40 year generation. It is possible that “γενεὰ αὕτη” could mean something other than the generation following Jesus’ sermon. The Greek word γενεὰ is commonly used as a synonym for γενóς (“race,” “stock,” “people”) and thus may refer to the Jewish race, or even to a kind of people (such as sinful humanity). However, this seems to be unlikely since ever Biblical example of this kind of usage of the Greek word γενεὰ always has an adjectival modifier. For example, we can see Matthew 12:39, 16:4 - “γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς” (“an evil and adulterous generation”); or Mark 8:38 – “τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ μοιχαλίδι καὶ ἁμαρτωλῷ,” (“in this adulterous and sinful generation”). In all these examples we can see that “generation” could easily be understand as “people” (i.e. in Matthew 12:39 “An evil and adulterous PEOPLE seeks for a sign…” is quite a legitimate rendering). However in Matthew 24:34 such a rendering would seem strained. While we do have extra-Biblical examples of an unmodified γενεὰ referring to kind of people rather than a generation (such as in Homer or Herodotus), and thus is possible in Matthew 24:34, this seems to strain at credulity considering no other Biblical example can be found.

2.      γενε ατη” means something other than the generation of Jesus’ audience. Another option is that “γενεὰ αὕτη” could refer to a generation, but rather than being the generation of Jesus’ audience, it could be the people he referred to previously who would see the signs of his coming. If the signs do not begin until 5000 CE then Jesus would be referring to that generation. It will be that generation who sees the signs that will not perish prior to Jesus’ second coming. However there seems to be two major problems with this view.

     a.       The first problem is that one would have explain why Jesus would use the near demonstrative “αὕτη” (“this”) rather than a form of the far demonstrative “ἐκεῖνος” (“that”). While grammatically both are technically acceptable (since, if this interpretation is correct Jesus had introduced the subject and thus can legitimately refer to it as “this”), it simply strains at feasibility to read “this” as “that” in a future prediction; especially considering that Jesus had no issues with it previously.
     b.      The second problem is that this interpretation seems to make the statement just utterly inconsequential. What sense would it make to explicitly refer to something that is necessarily implied by something else? If the tribulation would only last 7 years (the view commonly held by those who attempt to use this objection to the problem in order to say that Jesus was referring to the generation of Jews living at the time of the tribulation), then what sense would it make to say that that generation would not perish before the end of the tribulation. It would be like stating that a generation would not pass away before Obama will leave office. Well if Obama can only be in office a maximum of 5 more years, then obviously 40 years will not pass before 5 years will. This interpretation simply makes the statement utterly trivial.

3.      γενε ατη”, when reverse translated into Aramaic, means something other than a 40 year generation. While this interpretation is similar to that of the first it has one major advantage. It states that the problem is only an apparent problem with the Greek text, and not a substantive problem for Jesus as a prediction. In fact, in other translations of the NT the problem is also not readily apparent – such as the Syriac Peshitta which uses the term sharbetā which almost equally can mean generation or race. Thus the problem is only in Matthew’s Greek translation (though “γενεὰ” still may have been his best option) and not in Jesus’ actual prediction. In Aramaic it would be equally likely that Jesus could have meant “this generation” as he would have meant “this race/people”. In fact, I will come back to this as a possible double entendre when we consider that the Olivet Discourse often employs the concepts of double fulfillment and typology.

The second part of this essay will deal with the second, and in my opinion the strongest, solutions to the problem. This is the solution that says the problem is resolved not by looking at what “γενεὰ αὕτη” means, but at what “πάντα ταῦτα” refers to. I will argue that “γενεὰ αὕτη” does in fact refer to the generation of Jesus’ audience (though with some implicit and intentional winks to double fulfillment and typology) but that “πάντα ταῦτα” does not primarily refer to the events surrounding the second coming of Christ at the end of the world, but the judgment of God executed against the Temple at the end of the age of the Old Covenant in 70 CE. These events only typologically point us to the return of Christ and the end of the world.

It will be my contention that this would have been the “plain” reading of the passage as it was understood by both Jesus and his 1st century Jewish audience.

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