Thursday, May 19, 2022

Nobody Knows The Day Or Hour

A couple of years ago, I had a discussion on Facebook with a non-Christian who was raising the popular objection that early Christianity had falsely predicted the timing of Jesus' second coming. You can click on the link just provided to read the discussion in its entirety while it's available. But I want to post my end of the discussion here for those who don't have access to Facebook and in case it wouldn't be available on Facebook in the future for whatever reason.

A popular objection to Christianity is that Jesus and the early Christians falsely predicted the timing of Jesus' second coming. Supposedly, they predicted that the second coming would occur within Jesus' generation, which is often taken to be around the time of 70 A.D. or earlier.

A lot can be said in response (, but one of the best responses is seldom offered. The earliest opponents of Christianity seemed to know nothing of such a false prediction. There's no indication that they raised an objection to such a false prophecy, as they surely would have, and we have many documents in which that kind of objection could have been present if it existed (the apologies of men like Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Tertullian; Origen's response to Celsus; etc.). In fact, we have some first-century documents that address objections to Christian eschatology, and those documents refer to an objection to slowness of fulfillment rather than failure of fulfillment (2 Peter 3:9) and how Christians are just repeating the same eschatological predictions that have existed for many years (First Clement, 23). But if Jesus and the early Christians, including leaders as prominent as Paul, had been proven to be false prophets in such a significant way, why would the opponents of Christianity not only say nothing about that, but even corroborate the fact that Christians of the late first century were saying the same thing they'd said previously?

This is one of many examples of how modern skeptics not only disagree with ancient Christians, but also disagree with ancient skeptics of Christianity. For more examples, see….

- You refer to how Christians "maybe" avoided addressing the false prediction of Jesus' second coming because of embarrassment. We should be focused on the best explanation of the evidence, not scenarios that are merely possible.

- My original post addressed the claim that Jesus and the early Christians falsely predicted the timing of the second coming, and I mentioned the view that they placed the second coming around 70 A.D. or earlier. You can bring up other views, like the one involving a generation lasting 120 years, but the evidence I cited is relevant to what I was addressing in my post.

- None of the early Christian sources in question appeal to a 120-year timeframe, nor is there any indication I'm aware of that their critics had such a timeframe in mind. Nobody seems to be counting down the years until some 120-year limit runs out. To the contrary, as I've argued in my material linked in my original post, the claims and counterclaims being made by the early Christians and their opponents are reminiscent of what we see with ancient Jewish eschatology, which didn't involve any sort of generational time limit, whether 120 years or some other generational timespan.

- If you're going to extend the period in question to 120 years, then it becomes harder to explain why such a lengthy timeframe of teaching such a significant false prophecy left so little trace in the historical record.

- I referred to opponents of Christianity, and some of their writings are extant (Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Lucian, the Talmud, etc.). Lucian refers to Peregrinus as a charlatan among Christians, including referring to him as a false prophet, and Lucian discusses Jesus, but he says nothing about his being a false prophet in the sense we're discussing in this thread.

- Some of the non-Christian material we have is preserved in Christian sources. And it's common practice for scholars to accept some of what Christians tell us about non-Christians (e.g., Robert Wilken, The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984]; John Cook, The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002]). Similarly, it's common practice to accept what one Christian source says about another Christian source he's critical of (e.g., accepting some or all of what Eusebius reports about the writings of Papias, even though Eusebius was so critical of Papias). And it's common to accept what non-Christians report about Christians (Josephus, Pliny the Younger, etc.).

- You say, "Jesus's words don't say that the second coming would happen in a specific number of years, but within a general timeframe." I've argued to the contrary in the material I linked in my original post.

- You write, "Maybe the objection was too embarrassing for Christians to even address." That would have given their critics additional reason to raise the issue and preserve the objection over time, which makes it more difficult to explain the absence of the objection as more time passed. Especially from the second half of the second century onward, we have more and more relevant documents and more extensive descriptions of what various sources believed and quotations from those sources. Furthermore, you would have to argue that a Christian willingness to suppress the material in question was as widespread as your hypothesis would need it to be. We don't begin with a default assumption that so many sources were of that character. Ambrose, Origen's patron, asked him to respond to Celsus on every point (Against Celsus, Preface, 3), something Origen thought unnecessary, but said he would do anyway (Preface, 3; 2:20; 2:46; 4:6; 8:76). He doesn't respond to everything in Celsus' treatise. There are places where he refers to passing by something Celsus wrote because it's too repetitious, for example. But given how much Ambrose wanted Origen to respond to and how much he said he would interact with, even where he'd prefer not to, it's unlikely that he would have ignored as significant an objection as the one we're discussing in this thread. Where Origen does interact with Celsus' material, he sometimes acknowledges that Celsus' objections are significant, doesn't have much of a response to what Celsus argued, etc. (e.g., 2:63) Anybody who thinks individuals like Ambrose and Origen were avoiding discussing material as significant as the objection we're addressing in this thread needs to argue for that conclusion rather than just saying that it "maybe" happened, as you have.

- The evidence we have pertaining to ancient Christianity isn't limited to material the ancient Christians expected to be made public. Rather, much of what we have consists of private letters, documents and archeological artifacts that were rediscovered after having been lost for centuries, etc. Christians wouldn't have been trying to avoid discussing matters as significant as what we're addressing in this thread in all of those contexts.

- Your appeal to the e-Catena doesn't prove much. There are a lot of relevant sources it doesn't address. And embarrassment over a false prophecy isn't the only explanation for why a passage wouldn't be discussed, much less is it the best explanation. People often don't address a Biblical passage for reasons other than embarrassment, such as because they're undecided about the meaning of the passage or because they think the meaning is obvious enough to not warrant discussion. Concerning Mark 13:32, Irenaeus wrote, "ye presumptuously maintain that ye are acquainted with the unspeakable mysteries of God; while even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment, when He plainly declares, 'But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father only.'" (Against Heresies, 2:28:6) Irenaeus thought the inability to set a date was "plain" from Mark 13:32, but he doesn't address verse 30. That would be consistent with his not knowing what to make of verse 30 or his thinking the meaning of verse 30 was obvious and therefore didn't need to be addressed. Was he embarrassed by the verse? Perhaps, but I doubt it. His not discussing verse 30 doesn't give us sufficient reason to conclude that he was embarrassed by it.

- For reasons I discuss in my material linked in my original post, I think the earliest Christians viewed passages like Mark 13:30 as applying to something other than the second coming. Once the generation Jesus referred to had passed, what Jesus said would become less relevant, and there was no false prophecy to be concerned about. The verse wouldn't have had much significance, then. Some people in the earliest decades and centuries of church history may have interpreted the verse the way some modern skeptics do or may have considered that interpretation as one possibility among others, but I see no reason to think that interpretation was universal or even a majority view. To the contrary, for reasons I've explained, it seems to have been a small minority view at most….

- You refer to how "terribly scant" the historical record is, but we have many hundreds of pages of Christians commenting on the arguments of non-Christians and non-Christians commenting on Christianity. If Jesus and other prominent figures in Christianity, like Paul, spent decades falsely predicting the timing of the second coming, and the expectation of that false date even continued into the early second century (under your scenario of a generation of 120 years), we should expect an objection to that false prophecy to appear in the large amount of literature I referred to above. A vast number and variety of other objections appear, many of them multiple times. If a group spends decades falsely predicting the end of the normal course of human history, and that prediction has recently been falsified, it doesn't make sense to suggest that we shouldn't expect anybody to discuss that problem in the literature under consideration here.

- You write, "the longer time went on, the less emphasis and discussion would be given to the prophecy, precisely because its lack of fulfillment was becoming increasingly embarrassing". Again, that sort of scenario would give non-Christians more reason, not less, to bring the subject up. And, as I said before, you need to argue for such a low view of the character of the early Christians rather than just asserting it. When modern Christians are troubled by something in scripture or some other relevant source, some of them try to avoid discussing it, but many do discuss it. We'd expect that kind of variety during other eras of history as well, not the sort of widespread silence we see about the alleged false prophecy of Jesus and the earliest Christians.

- I agree that Lucian wasn't thorough in responding to Christianity or highly informed about the religion. But that doesn't mean his "silence about the prophecy is completely expected". The alleged false prophecy under consideration here is one that would be of major significance in evaluating Christianity, it's something that's easy to understand, and it has some relevance to what Lucian was discussing. The more the supposed false prophecy goes unmentioned in such contexts, the more problematic your hypothesis becomes. A source like Lucian doesn't have to settle the dispute in isolation in order to add some weight to a cumulative case.

- You write, "But their citations of the sources are obviously incomplete, which means that we can't be confident that they didn't address the prophecy." We don't need confidence. Any probability will do. And the more often you appeal to these scenarios in which both the Christians and the non-Christians involved say nothing about a false prediction of the end of history, the more problematic your view becomes.

- You said, "This is fine and to be expected - it's not as if Celsus made every objection to Christianity we know to have been floating around at the time." But a false prophecy of the end of the normal course of history should be high on the list of objections to a religion, higher than many of the objections Celsus does bring up. And he consulted at least one Jewish source, so it's not just a matter of Celsus' own knowledge, experiences, and such….

- I referred to hundreds of pages of literature consisting of relevant comments from Christians, non-Christians, or both. Singling out non-Christians or objecting that there aren't direct or lengthy quotes from non-Christians doesn't address some of the evidence in question. Even when somebody like Justin Martyr paraphrases or describes the arguments of Jewish or pagan opponents or presents his own view as a Christian, that's relevant to what I was addressing. Somebody like Justin, who lived through the closing years of Jesus' 120-year generation and its immediate aftermath under your scenario, wouldn't need to quote any non-Christians, much less would he have to quote them at length, much less would documents from those non-Christians have to be extant today, in order for us to expect the issue to come up in hundreds of pages of material he wrote responding to Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity. If your movement just spent nearly a century claiming that the normal course of history was going to end by a certain date, and it didn't end at that point, an absence of any discussion of that false prophecy in material like Justin's is unlikely.

- You say that "the prophecy would be brought up less and less as it became clearer that it wasn't going to be fulfilled any time soon". Since it was a generational prophecy, its fulfillment would be within a generation even if it happened later rather than sooner within that generation. If you were getting close to the end of the 120-year timeframe under your scenario, the closeness of the time would tend to heighten interest among both believers and unbelievers. That's what we see with a lot of other such prophecies in other historical contexts. If somebody like Harold Camping sets a date, there's heightened attention from his followers, his critics, the media, etc. as the time draws near. And people who hold views like yours typically date Matthew and Luke to the late first century rather than the middle of the century. Those gospels, like Mark, give a lot of attention to eschatology. 2 Peter and First Clement, which we discussed earlier, suggest there was significant ongoing interest on both sides, among both Christians and non-Christians, during whatever timeframe you place those documents in. One of the themes that comes up is how Christians keep repeating what they've been saying for a long time about eschatology, as I discussed earlier. In other words, the Christian view of eschatology in the late first century was the same as it was before.

- You wrote, "By the time that Christianity grew enough to start drawing the attention of serious critics (which was no earlier than 100 - and probably considerably later than that too), the prophecy wouldn't be discussed much at all." Starting around 30 A.D., Christians had critics who were serious enough to crucify their leader and have men like Saul of Tarsus persecute them to the point of imprisonment and death. Most of the Roman world wasn't involved initially, but some Romans were (e.g., Pilate). The early Jewish opposition to Christianity would have been enough to hold Christians accountable for the sort of false prophecy you're attributing to them, but the pagan world would have been involved to some extent as well. We see Jewish communication with pagan sources in Acts, Josephus, etc., and Justin Martyr noted how Jewish arguments against Christianity had been popularized among pagans (Dialogue With Trypho, 17). Celsus got some of his information on Christianity from one or more Jewish sources.

- You wrote, "critics wouldn't have known about it unless they carefully read through the gospels themselves, which most didn't do". The prediction wouldn't have just circulated in the gospels or in the form in which we find it in the gospels. Most people who take a position like yours argue that the false expectation in question is prominent in Paul's letters, for example. Jesus taught orally, and the apostles and other early Christians often did. The Jewish leadership and other critics of Christianity would only need to hear of the prophecy once in order to recognize its significance and keep it in mind. They wouldn't need to carefully read a gospel decades later in order to know about the issue and its significance. Even as far as reading the gospels is concerned, you're right that most critics of Christianity wouldn't have read them (much less read them carefully), but enough did to create a substantial problem for Christianity if such a false prophecy existed. Ancient Jewish tradition attributed to the first century reflects detailed knowledge of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5 (see R. Travers Herford, Christianity In Talmud And Midrash [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003], 146-47), Justin Martyr refers to his Jewish opponents' familiarity with the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10), and Celsus is familiar with them. The Christian concern for reconciling one gospel to another (e.g., as reflected in Papias) and producing gospel harmonies (common from the middle of the second century onward) resulted from the gospels getting a lot of detailed attention of both a friendly and unfriendly nature. Christians distributed the gospels widely from at least the early second century onward, and they frequently encouraged non-Christians to read them (e.g., Eusebius, Church History, 3:37; Aristides, Apology, 2; Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, 3:15). Most non-Christians wouldn't have taken his advice, but Tertullian encourages them to "examine our sacred books, which we do not keep in hiding, and which many accidents put into the hands of those who are not of us" (Apology, 31).

- You write that "When I was a Christian, most fellow Christians I knew were not interested in discussing these problems and often deliberately avoided certain literature". Yes, most Christians are irresponsible about matters like these, as are most non-Christians in their equivalent circumstances. But the work of more responsible people often filters down to some extent. The arguments of a Porphyry or Bart Ehrman can get to people by word of mouth, by descriptions of the general parameters of the arguments, etc. among many people who haven't read books on the subject or studied them in some other deeper way. Something like a prediction of the end of the world, with a specific date or generational timeframe attached to it, is easy to understand and likely to be widely disseminated, especially if the predicted date is relatively close and hasn't arrived yet or recently passed. In the early Christian and non-Christian literature we're discussing, there's not even a brief summary of the accusation of such a false prophecy, much less a response to that accusation in the form of assuring people that the accusation has been refuted by apologists, church leaders, or some other source.

- You write, "There is no reason to expect Lucian to bring up something as specific as the Olivet Discourse prophecy, especially when he sticks to describing Christians in the broadest of strokes." Falsely predicting the end of the normal course of human history would be one of the broadest of broad brush strokes. Sort of like how Harold Camping's false prophecies have such a large role in how people view him. Lucian was only commenting briefly on Christianity, but he was doing so in the context of addressing a man he considered a charlatan and specifically characterized as a false prophet when discussing his relationship to Christianity. He might not mention the supposed false prophecy of Jesus in that context, but that's quite an opportunity for a satirist to pass up. Your view doesn't require corroboration from Lucian, but it is weakened by the lack of corroboration.

- You write, "Often they just rationalize it by spiritualizing the prophecy, pushing the date forward, etc. So even if Celsus thought the prophecy was an objection, it plausibly would not have been high on his list at all to include in his attack since it wasn't that rhetorically effective." Those who were willing to rationalize in the manner you refer to would have been willing to rationalize to the lesser degree required to dismiss many other arguments that Celsus did use. That's why Origen often responds to Celsus by repeating points Christians had been making for decades or longer. And Christians weren't Celsus' only audience. You've said that most Christians are irresponsible in these contexts, that they avoid certain types of skeptical literature, and that most non-Christians wouldn't read documents like the gospels. Celsus' audience probably was primarily non-Christian. If Christianity had so recently been discredited by the sort of false prophecy you're suggesting, it's highly unlikely that a non-Christian writing a book against Christianity for a primarily non-Christian audience wouldn't mention that false prophecy.


  1. If the prediction was clear cut so that there was no room for re-interpretation, then all that Jason said about the analogy with Harold Camping would fully refute this non-Christian objection.

    Maybe I can steelman the skeptical objection. A critic might argue that Jesus' predictions were sufficiently vague that the church's interpretation subtly morphed through time during its first few decades so that by the time of the early 2nd century neither Christians nor critics would know that it was a general prophecy that, while in some sense vague, was definite enough for it to require Christ's return in that first generation. That would explain why the 2nd century critics like Celsus didn't know to press the objection. Because they weren't aware of the objections and most of the Gentile Christian apologists didn't either. For the most part only the earliest Jewish believers (and their small remaining sects) would have remembered and rightly interpreted Jesus' prediction. But being a minority group of professing followers of Jesus of Nazareth, they didn't leave much of a mark on church history or in extant church documents. The ever growing Gentile church overshadowed the Jewish followers of Yeshua long before the end of the 1st century.

    Though, modern scholars know better through the use of New Testament 1. Tradition Criticism, 2. Form Criticism, 3. Source Criticism, 4. Higher Criticism, 5. Redaction Criticism, 6. Literary Criticism and 7. Textual Criticism. Through modern methods of scholarship, we can allegedly know that remnants of this original and correct understanding of Jesus' prediction is preserved in passages like the authentic Jesus tradition of Mark 13:30. But that Mark 13:32 was fabricated to account for the apparent failure or unexpected delay of Christ's return. That 2 Pet. 3:8-9 is another evidence that some were aware that Jesus' prediction failed or was failing. Having been written in the late 1st or [more likely on skeptical grounds] the 2nd century by someone other than Peter but who had Jewish roots and was aware of the original Jewish interpretation of Jesus' prediction and wanted to address it by "vaguerizing" the prediction as verse 8 does.

    I think that most of what Jason wrote deflects the brunt of this common objection even in the steelmanned version I attempted to put forth in a Devil's Advocate way. But for myself, I like to combine/couple Jason's type of responses with the Partial Preterist insight that the "Coming of LORD/Yahweh" and of the "Day of the LORD/Yahweh" in judgment on multiple nations occurred multiple times throughout OT history and therefore we shouldn't be surprised if Yahweh (as Jesus) might come multiple times as well. In the first century at the destruction of Jerusalem as well as a final return at the end of world history. I argued this in my blogpost HERE.

    1. The steelman alternative you've referred to proposes an unlikely amount of forgetfulness and incompetence among both the Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity, doesn't adequately address the Jewish influence on pagan argumentation, suggests an unlikely amount of dishonesty among the early Christians, assumes an unlikely amount of uniformity in how Christian eschatology was expressed and "subtly morphed through time", divides up Mark 13 without justification and against the evidence we have for verse 32 in particular, and proposes a more complicated explanation of 2 Peter 3:8-9 without justification.