Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Parsing the Olivet Discourse

I'm going to say a bit more about my interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. My interpretation is provisional.

1) One complication is the fact that this discourse is recorded, with variations, in all three Synoptic Gospels. So one question is how to correlate them.

2) Some scholars, based on the assumption of Markan priority, as well as the further assumption that Mark's version is more "authentic" (because it's earlier and less subject to embellishment than Matthew and Luke), take Mark's version as the standard of comparison.

Although I think Markan priority is plausible, I don't think that makes his version more authentic than the other two.

3) Other scholars center their analysis on Matthew's version because that's the most detailed. And I think that's logical, although it's important to qualify that by comparing Matthew with Mark and Luke.

4) There are roughly three basic interpretive approaches one can take to the Olivet Discourse:

i) Interpret the text preteristically throughout.

ii) Interpret the text futuristically throughout.

iii) Interpret the first part preteristically and the second part futuristically. 

All three approaches can appeal to some verses which support their approach. All three approaches must square their interpretation with problem passages that seem to be at odds with their approach. It's difficult to consistently carry through any of the three approaches. 

5) I myself incline to 4(iii). What about difficulties with that approach?

i) One source of ambiguity is due to the fact that we're dealing with a prediction that is, in some measure, modeled on OT exemplars. So the language is, to that extent, allusive and impressionistic rather than precisely descriptive. 

ii) In Biblical typology, an earlier event can foreshadow a later event. But that's a two-way street. Typology assumes similarity between type and antitype. But in that case, just as an earlier event can foreshadow a later event, a later event can backshadow an earlier event. Even if the Olivet discourse is predicting an event in the near future (the First Jewish Revolt) as well as another event in the distant future (the Parousia), it wouldn't be surprising if it sometimes uses similar language for both, inasmuch as type and antitype are, in fact, similar to some degree. Typology involves repetitive historical patterns.

iii) I'm inclined to say the first part of the text emphasizes the First Jewish Revolt while the second part emphasizes the Return of Christ, which has yet to eventuate. 

Let's also consider some specific verses:

6) Who are the Messianic pretenders? In principle, this could refer to two different kinds of claimants:

i) These could be men who claim to be the real Messiah, in contrast to Jesus. That claim would be more likely to mislead some Jews or Jewish-Christians. 

ii) These could be men who claim to be Jesus. They are Jesus come back. That claim would be more likely to mislead some Gentile Christians. 

iii) Preterists identify these claimants with some 1C candidates. One problem with that identification is that Jesus says at least some of the claimants gain a following by performing miracles. So that sets the bar pretty high, even for impostors. 

7) There's some difficulty correlating the "abomination of desolation" with a 1C event. Considered in isolation, the best candidate for that identification would be the Roman desecration of the temple, after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and invaded the city. But in context, that's much too late to serve as advance warning to get out while the getting is good. 

Some preterists correlate the "abomination of desolation" with the Zealot desecration of the temple. That's probably their best bet. But whether that's how the disciples, or the original readers of the Synoptic Gospels, would construe the reference, is a different question.

8) Even if, taken in isolation, it's possible to interpret the "coming Son of Man" imagery in Mt 24 preteristically, doesn't that commit the preterist to interpreting Mt 25 preteristically as well? 

9) There's the question of what "the end" refers to. In context, does that denote fall of Jerusalem or the Parousia?

10) What does the phrase "wars and rumors of wars" refer to? Was there ever a time in human history when you didn't have wars and rumors of war? That makes even less sense on a global, purely futuristic interpretation. 

If, however, this alludes to the ramp up to the First Jewish Revolt, then that makes a lot of sense. When you hear about insurrection in Jerusalem and Judea, now is the time to get out of Dodge, for once the Roman armies occupy the countryside and surround the city, you're trapped. 

11) What about earthquakes? These are so random that they don't seem to be advance warning. Perhaps, though, the point is not the occurrence of these signs in isolation, but an unusual conjunction of independent signs.

12) The imagery of someone on the rooftop having to leave everything behind naturally suggests an elevated vantage-point from which the observer could see the advancing Roman armies. Had he heeded the preliminary signs, that would have given him sufficient lead-time to make his escape with provisions, at a good time of year for travel. But if you wait until you can see the whites of their eyes, than you waited too long. You are likely to be overtaken. Your escape route cut off. Weather may be rotten for travel by foot. You're lack provisions. I think this section is clearly concerned with location conditions in and around Jerusalem. If you wait until the Roman counterattack is imminent, you just ran out of time. 

13) On a global, futurist interpretation, it's hard to see how leaving town would protect you from end-of-the-world events. Surely there's nowhere to run under that scenario. And the time of year would be irrelevant. 

14) I don't see how the futurist interpretation of Mt 24:33 makes sense in light of vv30-31. If, at that point, you are actually witnessing the return of Christ, then the signs have surely outlived their usefulness. For what they signify is now evident to all. 

15) I take the "whole world" (Mt 24:14) to be an idiomatic designation for the Roman Empire. 

16) Some futurists cite Mt 24:29 to prove that we're not dealing with two different events, widely separately in time. There are, however, two problems with that appeal:

i) The Greek adverb (eutheos) is often used as a transitional device to segue from one scene to another. A syntactical convention. It allows for narrative compression. Indefinite intervals. The implied duration must be supplied by context or other clues. 

ii) And it's only used in Matthew's version of the Discourse. 

17) Apropos (16), The disciples ask Jesus about two events. Since one event is actually earlier (indeed, much earlier!) than the other, that's the order in which he answered them. First the fall of Jerusalem-related events, then Parousia-related events. First and second. 

One is earlier, one is later. They seem close together because he's responding to a two-part question. But the fact that they're close together in the sequence of the answer doesn't mean they're close together in the sequence of time. 

18) Some futurists appeal to Mt 24:21. However, I take that to be a warning to get out of Dodge before the Romans besiege Jerusalem, for once Jerusalem is surrounded by Roman armies, and the countryside occupied, there's no exit. 

In other words, a reference to the First Jewish Revolt, expressed in hyperbolic, end-of-the-world jargon, for which there's OT precedent.  

A warning, decades ahead of time, for true believers in Jerusalem, to evacuate when the signs of that particular catastrophe were coming to pass. And that's distinct from the Parousia. 

Some might object that it's artificial to take the first part as referring to the near future (1C events) and the second part as referring to the distant future (the Parousia), but the disciples asked a two-part question, so Jesus is, to some extent, answering them on their own terms. That's how they framed the question. So it's a part 1, part 2 answer. But in reality, these are separate events. 

Of course, if they ask the wrong question, he's free to reformulate the question. But there's nothing to indicate that he recast the question. 


  1. 13) On a global, futurist interpretation, it's hard to see how leaving town would protect you from end-of-the-world events. Surely there's nowhere to run under that scenario. And the time of year would be irrelevant.

    Except that we're told ahead of time the safe places to hide. Matthew 24:16 and Daniel 11:41. So there will be safety in the mountains especially in Edom, Moab, and the most of Ammon.

  2. Safe from whom? Who (or what) are they hiding from? Divine judgment? Persecutors?

  3. From the persecution of the Antichrist. The abomination of desolation is when he reveals who he is and begins more active persecution. Daniel 9:27

    1. i) Where does the Olivet Discourse indicate that fleeing to the mountains will protect refugees from the Antichrist?

      ii) Given, moreover the global, futurist interpretation, what mountains are we talking about? Mountains around Jerusalem?

      iii) Again, in a futurist context, what about aerial reconnaissance to hunt down refugees?

  4. i) They're to flee when they see the abomination. If the Antichrist is the one doing the abominating as in Daniel 9:27 it makes sense they're fleeing from him.
    ii) The mountains around Judea. Matthew 24:16
    iii) I don't need to know exactly why fleeing to the mountains is a good idea if God says that it is. But people in the mountains are certainly harder to track down as seen in Afghanistan. Also it doesn't seem like the Antichrist has time to track down every last person. He's constantly fighting civil wars Daniel 11:44. So it makes sense that he'd start with the people who are easier to find. Maybe he then runs out of time and is needed elsewhere.

    1. i) If you're defending a futurist rather than preterist interpretation of this verse, then you need to explain why Christ's warning and/or Dan 9:27 has reference to a distant future Antichrist rather than the Roman sacking of Jerusalem.

      ii) Assuming that the Antichrist is a world ruler, how would the mountains around Judea protect God's faithful?

      iii) Actually, it's reasonable to ask if what was a good idea in the 1C would still be a good idea in the 21C and counting. Taking refuge in the hill country to wait out the Romans makes sense in a way that a very different timeframe does not.

      Our predator drones have killed lots of Taliban mountain men. So I think your comparison backfires.

    2. i) I think Daniel 9 and Matt 24 refer to the same abomination. The roman sacking doesn't fit the description in Daniel. The ruler makes a seven year covenant with Israel and breaks it half way through. He then puts an end to sacrifice for 3 1/2 years before being destroyed himself.

      ii & iii) The Antichrist performs his abomination and turns on the Christians and Jews. He begins killing as many as possible. Before he has a chance to hunt down those in the mountains he receives word of hostile forces to the east and north and leaves with most of his forces. There are no longer enough troops to find those who fled.

      But again I don't have to know exactly how God will use those mountains. It could be some sort of miraculous protection. Also there's no promise that everyone who flees to the mountains will be saved. But it at least gives you a better chance than staying in the city.

    3. You're not allowing the description in *Matthew* to supply the context. And you're not allowing *Matthew* (or Christ) to interpret Dan 9.

      Rather, you just assume that you know what Dan 9 means, what it refers to, and you use that to sideline the descriptive details in the Olivet Discourse.

    4. How so? What about the fact that you're to flee to the mountains quickly when you see the abomination should change the way I interpret Daniel 9? I see Daniel as giving us certain information about the abomination and Matt 24 providing additional details. I don't see the conflict.

      I'm trying to make a limited point that within a futurist interpretation there are reasonable ways in which fleeing to the mountains makes sense. And regarding Daniel 9 it's standard to see Daniel's 70th week as a seven year period during which the Antichrist is active. Why is that out of bounds for a futurist interpretation? What details am I sidelining? You don't think think a 7 year tribulation can possibly be harmonized with Matt 24?

    5. I've seen you make the point regarding gospel harmonization that a critic has to prove there are no reasonable harmonizations in order to prove a conflict. Isn't that your standard here? I have to show that there's some possible purpose for "leaving town" that is consistent with a futurist interpretation. You have to show that there's no possible scenario in which fleeing to the mountains is beneficial. I'm not trying to prove the entire futurist system. Just make this one point.

    6. Actually, I've made a different point. I think it's unreasonable to demand that we harmonize the gospels.

    7. So you're trying to shoehorn Mt 24 into your interpretation of the 7-year-tribulation in Revelation. One problem with that is that I've seen dispensationalists complain about amils "going outside the text" to support or supply their interpretation.

    8. Jesus is answering a question about the Second Temple. The Herodian Temple. That's the context. That's the frame of reference.