Discussions about the Apocalyptic Discourse have to involve timing. Obviously I have a problem with this, given how slow I am to emerge from my underworld to respond to Sandy Grant’s invitation to discuss Matthew 24. Sorry about that! Even with Sandy’s pre-warning, I have been found sleeping like a disciple in Gethsemane.
I’m glad to see the good old Apocalyptic Discourse (Matthew’s version) on the agenda. Such a tangled web of interpretive traditions so nicely summarized by Sandy’s first article. Perhaps I can follow his lead and have two bites at the cherry. Let this be my preliminary foot on the playing field, toe in the water, finger in the pie …
It is worse with me than Sandy so politely suggested. The way he set up the discussion is that there are three plates to choose from the menu, each with advantages and disadvantages. However, the strong reason I have for reading this last discourse from the mouth of Jesus as an apocalyptic preparation for his forthcoming death and resurrection is that I believe that that is how the Gospels want us to read it! That is, for me, it is not just another interpretative option, it is a matter of exegesis or ‘good reading’. The second coming and fall of Jerusalem views are not ‘options’, but bad readings! (He says, to raise temperatures immediately!)
The trouble is, when bad readings have been around for a long time, they re-set the framework in which everyone reads so that it is no longer a level playing field, no longer smooth water and no longer cherry pie. For example, people have read ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ as if Jesus is coming from heaven to earth (i.e. in the second coming) for so long, it seems impossible for them to grasp that this entails a complete misreading of Daniel 7:13-14. In fact, this requires that the misreading was done by Jesus himself! According to Daniel, the Son of Man comes to the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom. Simplistically put, the direction of travel is all wrong. Daniel speaks of the coming of the Son of Man from earth to heaven, and yet this bad reading in our interpretive tradition reverses it to him coming from heaven to earth, and then blames the bad reading on Jesus (who, quite frankly, should have known better!). Put with a little more nuance, it is a vindication and reception scene (as in Jesus’ exaltation).
Then there is the misreading of the genre, or the type of speech that it is. For a very long time, Christians have been rightly interested in prophecy and fulfilment. But how does this work, and, more importantly, how does ‘apocalyptic’ work? So many bad readings assume a strict ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach in which every single detail of a supposed ‘prediction’ must come true in a ‘strictly literal’ (whatever that might mean) kind of way. This kind of thinking is hinted at in Sandy’s comment (surely drawing on other people’s views, not his own!?!)—that the reading of the discourse as being about Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘struggles to account for the command to flee’. But this supposed ‘struggle’ is only there if you are after ‘one for one’ correspondences—such as an ancient allegoriser might demand from a parable. On this view, you have to find some pregnant women, some nursing mums, and some people on roofs without cloaks, etc. etc. But if consistency is a virtue, it might be worth saying that this is not usually found in the other ‘options’. Tell me, if the ‘many’ of verse 5 arise and don’t speak the actual words “I am he̵, is anyone on any view really going to get that upset? Surely they can come and lead astray by saying some other words, or doing some other magic tricks, or by any number of ways. The point is not the strict literal detail, but the warning is against people who lead astray—just as Deuteronomy 13:1-5 spoke about. It also seems strange to press the detail when the discourse itself generalizes by saying the prayer option might actually enable the things to come during your summer holidays if you prefer it (v. 20). Apocalyptic is not in the detail, but in the grand sweep. The commands to flee portray dramatically the seriousness of the moment being spoken of and the urgency of responding when that moment arises. When you see … get out of there!
Perhaps I have already gone on too long for a blog entry. But one final preliminary: several in the discussion so far have conceded that ‘my’ reading suits Mark better than Matthew. I thank them for this concession, and therefore take it as read. But this raises the question: so what does Matthew do? Does he (assuming he knew Mark) correct Mark in his reading of the discourse, or does he adopt it? Again, the answer is one not of opinion, but of exegesis. It is therefore interesting to notice that after Jesus has risen from the dead, Matthew picks up Son of Man language when Jesus declares that he has been given all authority on heaven and earth (i.e. the Son of Man has already ‘come’, received the kingdom, and entered into his rule). The only thing left is to send out his messengers to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth, which he then does. Oh, and if we wanted to go to Luke, isn’t it interesting that Luke, the only Gospel with a sequel, speaks in Son of Man terms before the resurrection-exaltation, and, in Acts 7, it is clear that the Son of Man has already come to the right hand of God, and when the rest of Acts speaks of the ‘second coming’, it never uses the language of Daniel 7:13? No opinion, just a question of reading what is there.
But I guess my ‘devil’ is probably in the details, so I will leave the discussion to my own ‘part 2’, and crawl back to my underworld for a while.