Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wake me up after the world ends

I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mt 24:34; par. Mk 13:30; Lk 21:32).
i) Neil Nelson has argued that it's an idiomatic, endtime descriptor:

ii) Robert Stein has argued that "these things" and "all these things" in Mk 13:29-30 refer back to their programmatic use in 13:4, which limits 13:30 to the fall of Jerusalem, foretold in 13:2, rather than the Parousia. 
iii) However, the point of this post is not so much to determine what it means but to determine what it can't mean. Liberals scholars view it as a classic failed prophecy. Jesus predicted the end of the world within the lifetime of his contemporaries, but that obviously didn't happen. Inerrantists try to salvage the prophecy with ingenious reinterpretations, but that's special pleading. If you didn't have a prior commitment to inerrancy, you wouldn't resort to these face-saving interpretations. The liberal interpretation is clearly the most straightforward. So goes the argument. 
iv) I'd like to explore the unspoken assumptions of the liberal interpretation. One issue concerns the meaning of a "generation." Arguably, this typically denotes a group of people living at a particular time in history. It's possible that it has a more specialized connotation in Synoptic usage (a la Nelson). But let's consider the generic sense for the sake of argument. That would mean Jesus is referring to his contemporaries. 
v) Now, there's more than one context or audience for the Olivet Discourse. On the one hand, there's the historical setting. Jesus was addressing the disciples. 
But, of course, the Olivet Discourse was recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. So there's the audience for the Synoptic Gospels. The context of the Synoptic Gospels. 
But that requires us to distinguish between "this generation" and the Christian generation reading the Synoptics. By the time the Synoptics were written, Jesus had spoken about "this generation" at least a generation before the younger generation of Christians reading (or hearing) the Synoptics. By the time the Synoptics were written, "this generation" already represents the older generation, whereas the reader represents the next generation. 
On conventional conservative dating, Mark was written in the 50s while Matthew and Luke were written in the 60s. So, chronologically speaking, "this generation" is already that generation. The previous generation–in relation to the younger generation. By that I mean, many of Jesus contemporaries were no longer alive by the time the Synoptics were written. They had already passed away.
Of course, the fact that some members of the older generation have come and gone doesn't mean the "generation" as a whole has come and gone. Some of his contemporaries would still be alive. But that itself raises an interesting question. Does "this generation" mean the last surviving member of that generation? Does it come down to one lone survivor? Would "all these things take place" before he (or she) died? Does it mean "all these things take place" before some of them or most of them pass away? Is it quantitative? If so, what's the fractional terminus ad quem? What's the minimal percentage that must still be alive? 
Perhaps, though, asking that question shows that we are asking the wrong question. 
vi) How did the Synoptic authors understand the prediction? On the face of it, the liberal interpretation generates a dilemma. If Jesus predicted that "this generation" would witness the end of the world, and if it's recorded in Gospels written a generation later, then we're getting down to the wire. If "this generation" is already the former generation, then does that mean the end of the world is just a few years away–from the chronological vantage-point of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? From "now" (their time) until the end of the world–using the older generation as the cut-off. Is that how they understood it? 
But they sure don't act as if the world is coming to an end any time soon. If they thought the world was going to end a few years from "now" (their time), why did they even bother to write their Gospels? After all, this prediction had been handed down apart from their Gospels. So why is there a pressing need to write it down now
Indeed, isn't the point of committing all this Jesus-tradition to writing for the benefit of posterity? If their own generation is on the way out, if their own generation is likely the final generation, then for whom are they writing their Gospels? If, up until this point, Jesus tradition had been preserved and  passed down apart from their Gospels, why write it up at the very time when the prediction is about to overtake them? 
Doesn't the very existence of the Gospels imply long-range planning? A degree of permanence? 
Isn't an obvious reason for writing the Gospels that the living memory of Jesus is dying out? That you need to put this in writing for later generations? The Apostles and others who witnessed the public ministry of Christ are dying or going to die. If you wait too long, it's too long to recover their recollections. Oral history is a very perishable commodity. 
Weren't the Gospel writers, from the very fact that they were Gospel writers, expecting the world to be around for the foreseeable future? To be around for at least several generations to come–necessitating a permanent record of the life and teaching of Christ? Isn't this for the benefit of future generations? Christians who will come on the scene long after they have died?
vii) And not only that, but aren't the Gospels loaded with material that's pretty irrelevant, pretty passé to readers, if–in fact–the world is about to end? If they thought their readers represented the last or next to last generation of the human race, isn't a lot of the material in the Gospels misleading or distracting? Would you build a history museum if you knew an earthquake was going to destroy the museum (indeed, the entire city) five or ten years later? And if, anything, the liberal dating of the Synoptics (80-100) intensifies the conundrum. Surely, by then, the clock struck midnight. Did they miss the end of the world? 
So even if you didn't have a precommitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, it's not special pleading to think the liberal interpretation of Mt 24:34 must be seriously askew. 

No comments:

Post a Comment