Monday, June 26, 2017

Before the Son of Man comes

Lightly edited exchange I recently had with an unbeliever on Facebook:

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Mt 10:23).

Christians, how might you respond to this? It seems to me there are only two reasonable interpretations.

1) Either those being spoken to at that time would see the son of man come before their own individual death


2) The towns in Israel would not have seen christianity spread to them all long before the son of man comes again.
So obviously, both one and two have been fulfilled for well over 1,700 years and probably more like 1,850 years.

Isn't this hard evidence of a failed prophecy?

A few points:

i) There's the question of how the narrator (Matthew) understood the prediction. Even if we date the composition of Matthew fairly early, to the 60s, and the original saying was uttered c.30, would it not be easy to visit every town in Israel in the intervening years, with time to spare? Sure 30+ years is more than enough time to do that. All the towns in Israel could be canvassed in far less time than that. 

On that window, if it's a failed prophecy, that would already be evident long before the narrator wrote his Gospel. But how realistic is it that the narrator recorded what he himself believed to be a failed prophecy by Jesus? 

ii) Many readers automatically assume that any reference to Jesus "coming" most be an end-of-the-world prediction. But what about Jesus appearing to people in dreams and visions? That happened to Paul (Acts 9). That happened to John (Rev 1). That's reported throughout church history. We can discount some of those reports, but we don't need to dismiss all of them out of hand.

Especially in the stated context of persecution, Jesus might appear to suffering, threatened Christians to encourage them. Our conceptual resources are too limited if we assume that "Jesus coming" must invariably refer to a one-time, end-of-the-world event. Jesus can come to individuals in need, at different times and places. There's prima facie evidence that happens. Take modern-day Muslim converts to Christianity who say Jesus appeared to them in dreams. Likewise, Anglican bishop Hugh Montefiore was a Jewish teenager when he had a vision of Jesus, which precipitated his conversion to Christianity.

On point 1: Fairly likely actually. All empirical evidence shows that the most common reaction to failed prophecies being realized is MORE passionate preaching and more conviction. Oddly enough, end of times predictors react in this way very consistently.

i) Bad comparison. If there's a record of a "failed" prophecy, then it's too late to deny it, so reinterpretation is the only pious course of action. But here the question at issue is why record it in the first place? Why preserve it for posterity if it's manifestly wrong?

ii) A common reaction to fail prophecy is disillusionment. Many people drop out of the movement.

2) there is little cross textual reasoning to suspect any other meaning than the second coming.

Now you're moving the goal post. Moreover, the other passages you allude to don't have the same specific benchmark, so it's dubious that you can just extrapolate from this passage to others that lack that benchmark.

Jesus appearing in dreams or visions wouldn't require moving towns.

You seem to be conflating two different issues: disciples evangelizing Palestine, and Jesus "coming". Jesus "coming" isn't a substitute for their task and duty. Rather, that can be an encouragement to beleaguered missionaries.

1) I don't see how that is a meaningful difference. The author of mathew could well have already felt it was failed (recognized this) and yet his conviction grew (or hers). Thus the writing is as stands despite a failed prophecy. That's not just unlikely. It's more likely than not if the prophecy was seen as failed."

What would motivate Matthew to perpetuate a failed prophecy in case it would be quickly forgotten otherwise? Remember, this only occurs in one of the Synoptics. 

Ironically, you're the one with an unfalsifiable theory. You've concocted an ad hoc explanation to save face, not for the prediction, but for your theory that it must be a failed prophecy.

There's no benchmark lacking in the others either. That's simply not so.

Sure there is: "You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel…"

The other passages you allude to don't have that benchmark.

His coming is supposed to solve persecution

Based on what?

but the moving is supposed to buy time until then.

They're not simply or primarily on the move to buy time, but to spread the message throughout Palestine. 

Not the leaders. The leaders usually don't fall out.

Once again, you're moving the goal post. You originally said: "All empirical evidence shows that the most common reaction to failed prophecies being realized is MORE passionate preaching and more conviction. Oddly enough, end of times predictors react in this way very consistently."

Now, however, you've drastically scaled back your original claim, yet you act as if that makes no difference. Once more, you're the one who's resorting to ad hoc explanations to patch up your original allegation. Rather ironic, I'd say.

i) Once more, because you can't prove your point using Mt 10:23, even though that was your showcase example, you change the subject to include passages in Luke and Paul. But that just begs the question in reference to those cases. 

ii) The other passages don't have the same benchmarks, so why assume Mt 10:23 must be referring to the same event as they are?

iii) According to v21, some will be martyred before Jesus "comes", so his coming doesn't save them all, or even most of them, from death at the hands of their persecutors. 

iv) Apropos (iii), why infer that "whoever endures to the end will be saved" refers to salvation in this life rather than salvation from this life? Matthew has a doctrine of the afterlife. Indeed, that's the primary encouragement to Christians. Everyone dies sooner or later. The question is what happens to them after they die: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."


  1. Couldn't this just be referring to Christ rejoining the disciples after this period of time? It seems we want to jump to a theologically-loaded "Coming" rather than just understanding it as "coming" with a lower-case c.

    1. That's indeed one of the proposed interpretations.

  2. This skeptic's interpretation of Matthew 10:23 is highly inconsistent with the rest of Matthew, the remainder of the New Testament, and the other earliest Christian and non-Christian sources. The earliest opponents of Christianity show no knowledge of a false prediction that Jesus would return within a generation. They criticize the slowness of the fulfillment of the prediction of the second coming, not a failure of fulfillment. Modern critics who claim that there was a failed prediction aren't just suggesting that the early Christians were wrong. They're also suggesting that the early opponents of Christianity were wrong.

  3. I think that the "coming" means coming in his kingdom, which he did when he returned to the father in Acts 1.

  4. I have responded to to this text here:

  5. Other possible solutions are that Christ is referring tot he Transfiguration, or His vindication from God the Father at His resurrection, or the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. partial or full preterism).

    The natural interpretation of the phrase "all the towns of Israel" would be that Christ is referring only to the towns WITHIN the borders of Israel. However, I don't see why Christ could not have also included Jews in the Diaspora. Ethnic groups often group together in pockets (e.g. self-imposed/created "ghettos") in foreign lands for mutual support and to maintain their unique identity. That could help explain how a 40 years interval between the time Christ spoke those words and the destruction of Jerusalem could not be enough time. In fact, I wonder if it's the case that every Jewish community in the world today has had the Gospel faithfully proclaimed to them yet. Because of Christian atrocities in the past (e.g. the Inquisition, some of the Crusades etc.) many Christians are hesitant to share the Gospel with Jews. And so many Jews still haven't had the Gospel explained to them. Their understanding is very cursory. I'm reminded of how Dr. Michael Brown often jokes that Jews sometimes think Jesus is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ, and that's how Jesus got His last name/surname.

  6. It seems to me this could refer to a simple coming, or to Matthew 17. The disciples see the son of man in power. Anyway, the skeptics interpretation makes little sense unless you split the Son of Man and Jesus into two different personages, which I think the majority of exegetes would reject.