Wednesday, June 01, 2011

What makes a failed prophecy fail?

Mt 24:29-34

 29"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
 32"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Opponents of Biblical inerrancy cite this as a stock example of a failed prophecy. Any attempt to defend it is dismissed as special pleading.

Rather than discuss the passage directly, I’d like to approach the issue from a different angle. Here’s a similar apocalyptic passage:

Acts 2:1-3,16-20

 1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
16But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
 17 "'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
   and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams;
18even on my male servants and female servants
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show wonders in the heavens above
   and signs on the earth below,
   blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
   before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

But on the face of it, the recorded events on the day of Pentecost (vv1-3) hardly reflect a point-by-point match with vv19-20.

Some commentators think this refers back to certain events on Good Friday. But there are two or three problems with that explanation:

i) Peter’s usage doesn’t seem to be retrospective. Rather, the linkage is between Joel’s oracle and what happened on Pentecost.

ii) While there are somewhat similar events on Good Friday, there’s still no direct correspondence between that and the wording of Joel.

iii) Moreover, Good Friday isn’t the day of judgment.

Other commentators think this looks forward. And certainly there are subsequent events in the history of Acts that exemplify vv17-18. Likewise, the outpouring of the Spirit is inaugurated on Pentecost. Yet there’s nothing in Acts that “fulfills” vv19-20.

But it won’t do to say this is a case of failed prophecy. For Luke himself juxtaposes a description of what actually happened on Pentecost with Peter’s citation of Joel. So the narrative itself invites the comparison and contrast between these two passages. Hence, it’s not as if the narrator was oblivious to the difference between vv2-3 and vv19-20.

Even if Peter (or Luke) thought the ultimate fulfillment of Joel awaited the day of judgment, that’s a fairly defused fulfillment–where it’s partly fulfilled at Pentecost, partly fulfilled in subsequent events in the history of Acts, and fully realized on the day of judgment.

Another possibility is that Joel is using stock apocalyptic imagery, which was never intended to set up a one-to-one correspondence between the colorful imagery and the specific fulfillment.

Whichever explanation we favor, the larger point is that a modern reader must make allowance for how ancient Jews and Christians understood prophetic fulfillment. We need to hear the text the same way they did. If they didn’t think prophetic diction was ever meant to map onto the future event in strictly descriptive terms, but was, instead, more generic, formulaic, and open-textured, then modern readers need to adapt to the ancient assumptions of an ancient text. No different than when we enter the world of Dante.

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