Case Study: The Eschatological Discourse

One controversial block of material for scholars is the “Eschatological Discourse,” also sometimes referred to as the Olivet Discourse. This block of material appears in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) and involves Jesus predicting both the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man. I will list the Matthean version here for reference:

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”

And Jesus answered them, ‘See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

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. Then 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. And 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. 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. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’”

Below, I’d like to take a look at how three scholars from this series handle this text.

N.T. Wright

The following quotation is from Jesus and Victory of God:

“According to this view, Mark 13 has been badly misunderstood by the importation into it of ideas concerning the ‘second coming’ of Jesus. There has been a long tradition in mainline Christianity of reading it this way, which has found its way into sermons, books, and even into the headings in many Bibles, and thence into the bloodstream of generations of pious folk. There has been a comparatively short tradition within mainline New Testament scholarship, going back particularly to Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, of endorsing this reading, with one significant difference. Pietism supposes that, in Mark 13, Jesus was predicting his own coming at the end of time, a prediction still to be fulfilled; Weiss, Schweitzer, and their successors have thought that Jesus here predicted the imminent end of the world, and that he was proved wrong. I suggest that both traditions, the old pietist one and the more recent scholarly one, are simply mistaken.

But does not the passage speak of the ‘parousia’, the ‘second coming’? Yes, the Greek word parousia does occur, in Matthew’s version (24:3, 27, 37, 39; these are, surprisingly enough in view of its popularity among scholars, its only occurrences in the gospels). But why should we think—except for reasons of ecclesiastical and scholarly tradition—that parousia means ‘the second coming’, and/or the downward travel on a cloud of Jesus and/or the ‘son of man’? Parousia means ‘presence’ as opposed to apousia, ‘absence’; hence it denotes the ‘arrival’ of someone not at the moment present; and it is especially used in relation to the visit ‘of a royal or official personage’. Until evidence for a different meaning is produced, this should be our starting-point.

What, after all, were the disciples waiting for? They had come to Jerusalem expecting Jesus to be enthroned as the rightful king. This would necessarily involve Jesus taking over the authority which the Temple symbolized. They were now confronted with the startling news that this taking over of authority would mean the demolition, literal and metaphorical, of the Temple, whose demise Jesus had in fact constantly predicted, and which he had already symbolically overthrown in his dramatic (but apparently inconsequential) action in the Temple itself. The disciples now ‘heard’ his prophetic announcement of the destruction of the Temple as the announcement, also, of his own vindication; in other words, of his own ‘coming’—not floating around on a cloud, of course, but of his ‘coming’ to Jerusalem as the vindicated, rightful king. What the disciples had naturally wanted to know was, when would Jesus actually be installed as king? He responded, equally unsurprisingly, with a reworking of scriptural passages about great cities being destroyed, and about the vindication of the true people of Israel’s god. All was focused on the central point, that the Temple’s destruction would constitute his own vindication. Once grant this premise, and the nightmare of puzzled textual reconstruction is in principle over.”

Wright accepts the Olivet Discourse as authentic, as he does with virtually all material (conceivably in part because of his commitment to the authority of Scripture), but interprets Jesus’ words poetically. According to Wright, when Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man, he was not referring to “the second coming,” but rather simply to the destruction of Jerusalem. This event, the destruction of Jerusalem, vindicates Jesus and the Church, which is the real meaning of the “coming of the Son of Man.” One natural result of this interpretation is that, on Wright’s view, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus refer to his own literal second coming as traditionally understood.

Marcus Borg

The following quotation is from The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions:

“Thus many Christians in the New Testament period believed that the second coming would be soon. A common scholarly shorthand phrase for this kind of expectation is apocalyptic eschatology: the expectation of imminent dramatic divine intervention in a public and objectively unmistakable way, resulting in a radically new state of affairs, including the vindication of God’s people, whether on a renewed earth or in another world.

Apocalyptic eschatology was relatively strong within Judaism near the time of Jesus. For early Christians, it was associated with the expected imminent return of Jesus. Where did this widespread early Christian belief come from? There are two possibilities. Either the expectation of a second coming goes back to Jesus himself, or it is the product of the early Christian movement after Jesus’ death.

From Jesus himself. Most Christians throughout the centuries have thought that the belief originated with Jesus, simply because texts in the gospels attribute it to Jesus. However, mainline scholars generally do not think Jesus spoke specifically about his own second coming. What could such language have meant to Jesus’ followers while he was still with them, and at a time when, according to the gospels, they had not really comprehended that his life would end in crucifixion and resurrection? Could they make any sense of his speaking of a second coming when they hadn’t understood that his “first coming” would soon come to an end?

But many scholars in this century have thought that the early movement’s expectation of Jesus’ imminent second coming was grounded in things Jesus did say and believe, namely in an apocalyptic eschatology that they trace back to Jesus himself. According to this view, Jesus did not speak of his own second coming, but he did expect a dramatic divine intervention in the near future: God would act soon to establish the messianic kingdom. Two lines of argument are used to support this view. The first is based on two categories of sayings attributed to Jesus: imminent kingdom of God sayings, and coming Son of Man sayings. An example of the former: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” An example of the latter: to his disciples, Jesus said, “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.” Both—the coming of the kingdom and the coming of the “Son of Man”—were to happen soon. The second line of argument points out that John the Baptizer was a prophet of apocalyptic eschatology and that Paul and much of the rest of the New Testament affirm an apocalyptic eschatology. Given that Jesus’ immediate predecessor as well as his immediate successors had an apocalyptic eschatology, it therefore makes sense to think that Jesus did, too.

Together, these two lines of argument lead to the following understanding: Jesus did not speak of his own second coming, but he did expect the imminent coming of the kingdom of God and the Son of Man. After his death, this expectation got transferred to the expectation of his imminent return as king of the kingdom that he had proclaimed. Put most simply: Jesus expected the kingdom of God; the early church expected Jesus. Thus, according to this view, the notion of a second coming of Jesus is based on Jesus’ own apocalyptic eschatology.

From the community. A second way of understanding the origin of belief in a second coming denies that Jesus had an apocalyptic eschatology. A recent development in scholarship, this view is a reversal of what had been a strong majority position for much of this century. For this view, the apocalyptic eschatology of early Christianity and the expectation of the second coming of Jesus emerge within the early Christian community after Easter. This is my own position.

I see more than one factor contributing to the expectation of Jesus’ return. To a considerable extent, it was an inference flowing out of the Easter experience. Within Judaism, resurrection was seen as an “end-time” event. Thus the conviction that Jesus had been resurrected led to the inference that the end time (including the general resurrection) was near. A second factor was the conviction that Jesus was Lord: the one who had been executed by the rulers of this world would soon return as the judge of the world. Yet a third factor was the tumult of Jewish history in the first century, including especially the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70. Within a Jewish framework, events like this could easily lead to a sense that “the end” was at hand. This view also emphasizes that the coming Son of Man sayings are in fact second coming of Jesus sayings. That is, I do not think that Jesus spoke of the imminent coming of the Son of Man and that the community later saw these as referring to Jesus. Rather, I see them as a product of the community, created after Easter to express the conviction that Jesus would soon return as the Son of Man.”

Borg speaks generally here about “coming of the Son of Man” sayings, which includes Mark 13 and parallels. In Borg’s view, Jesus never spoke of the coming of the Son of Man. This language and belief was, rather, a product of the early Church. Borg can still find relevance in this belief for the church today, but it does not inform his picture of the historical Jesus. In regards to the Olivet Discourse specifically, in very blunt terms, Borg simply “cuts it out” from data he treats as historically reliable.

Dale Allison

The following quotation is from Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:

”Consider the issue of eschatology. Many of us have, since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, been persuaded that Jesus was an eschatological prophet with an apocalyptic scenario. Our judgment is consistent with the Synoptics' testimony. They contain numerous statements about punishment and reward, about divine judgment and supernatural vindication. They also contain sayings about the coming Son of man and sayings about the coming kingdom of God. Then there is Mark 13, a lengthy prophecy of the latter days, and Q 17:22-37, which depicts eschatological catastrophe. There are also the prophetic woes cast upon those who reject Jesus' mission as well as the promises of eschatological comfort for the poor and the hungry.

Those of us in Schweitzer's camp do not claim that all of this material goes hack to Jesus. But we do affirm that much of it does, and that much of the remainder is in continuity with Jesus' own outlook. Some, however, deny that Jesus' eschatology involved an imminent, apocalyptic expectation with tribulation, resurrection, and final judgment. What do they do with the materials referred to in the previous paragraph? Although they can interpret some of it in a nonapocalyptic sense, much of it-including sayings and themes attested more than once in the earliest sources-they must deny to Jesus.

But is not the excision of so much a dangerous procedure? One can only amputate so much before the patient is killed. If we really decide that our earliest sources-here I have in mind Q and Mark-are so misleading on this one topic, then maybe they cannot lead us to Jesus at all. Similarly, if it turns out that, in accord with the voting of some of the more skeptical members of the Jesus Seminar, Faustina, or someone like her, or several someones like her, really authored the vast majority of sayings in Q and Mark, then one wonders whether we can ever establish what Jesus, as opposed to his early followers, said. The conclusion would seem to be that the historical Jesus cannot be caught if we are left only to our own historical-critical devices. As in the fairy tale, if the birds have eaten too many of the crumbs, the trail cannot be found. Indeed, one might go so far as to urge that, if the sayings in the earliest Jesus tradition, taken in their entirety, are not roughly congruent with the sorts of things Jesus tended to say, then our task is hopeless.

Even if we were to come to such a conservative conclusion, it must immediately be added that we can never demonstrate that our sources do in fact contain enough authentic material-however much that might be- to make questing a promising activity. There is no way around Faustina (a proposed prophet in the early church speaking ‘the words of Jesus’ which conceivably could make it into the tradition), no way ever to establish beyond hesitation that Jesus and no one else said or did such and such. Doubt will never leave us nor forsake us. This chapter is not, however, a plea to give up the quest in favor of agnosticism about Jesus. Our criticism need not become cynicism, and I am not urging that the ax of skepticism must be laid unto the root of the trees in the Jesus tradition. The point is rather that as historians we do something thing different from mathematicians, who since Thales have eschewed intuition and demanded proofs. Unlike them we cannot formulate proofs for our theorems. We are also unlike scientists, if by that is meant people who fashion experimental trials which allow predictions to he concretely falsified. Certainly we will never be able to program a computer with perfected criteria of authenticity, run the Jesus tradition through it, and learn what Jesus did and did not say. There is no foreseeable victory over uncertainty and no way around subjectivity. ‘Persistently personal judgements have to be made about the nature of the gospel material.’

As historians of the Jesus tradition we are storytellers. We can do no more than aspire to fashion a narrative that is more persuasive than competing narratives, one that satisfies our aesthetic and historical sensibilities because of its apparent ability to clarify more data in a more satisfactory fashion than its rivals. But how is this done? The contention of this chapter is that our first move is not to discover which sayings or even what complexes are authentic. Rather, we should be looking for something akin to what Thomas Kuhn once called a ‘paradigm,’ an explanatory model or matrix by which to order our data. The initial task is to create a context, a primary frame of reference, for the Jesus tradition, a context that may assist us in determining both the authenticity of traditions and their interpretation. Most of us have probably been doing something like this all along anyway, even when we have pretended to get our results by using criteria of authenticity. We do not come to our task with nothing more than the Jesus tradition, a knowledge of first-century history, and our criteria in hand. We also always bring with us a story, formed or half-formed, a story about Jesus, a story made up of expectations and presuppositions that tacitly guide us in our use of criteria. This is one reason we have such a variety of results from various scholars.”

Allison does not contend that Mark 13 necessarily goes back to the historical Jesus. Rather, he claims that it fits within a broad pattern from the gospel tradition, one which portrays Jesus as living and preaching within an apocalyptic scenario. He argues that if the broad patterns of the tradition are too unreliable to give us an accurate picture of Jesus, then no amount of sifting through the material with “criteria of authenticity” will help. Regarding the “coming of the Son of Man” in the Olivet Discourse, Allison rejects Wright’s figurative interpretation, and believes the language reflects a belief in the literal return of Jesus, similar to the expression of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.