I started Ben Witherington III’s Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.
Witherington’s argument is that Jesus and Paul did not believe that “the world would definitely end in the first century A.D.” (page 10), contra Albert Schweitzer. Witherington says that Paul and Jesus thought that the world could come to an end soon, as the ultimate fulfillment of the eschatological process that Jesus set into motion, and so Christians should be ready. But Witherington does not think that they believed that the world absolutely had to come to an end in the first century C.E. Even in Paul’s later letters, Witherington notes, Paul’s faith is not undermined by the delay of Christ’s second coming.
Witherington advances arguments about Paul that are worth reading, but I will not go into them in this post. I’m more interested in Witherington’s arguments about Jesus, since (unlike Paul) Jesus in the synoptic Gospels appears to set a timetable for his return. I’ll talk some about Witherington’s arguments regarding three biblical passages: Mark 9:1; Matthew 10:23; and Mark 13:30. Scriptural references will be from the King James Version.
1. Mark 9:1 states: “And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”
I wrote a post in March about John Meier’s view regarding this passage—-that it was late and did not come from the historical Jesus. I’ll quote my summary of Meier’s argument:
“While Meier thinks that the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus’ Transfiguration as a partial fulfillment of that prophecy, he does not believe that it is a total fulfillment, for the prophecy itself appears to concern a longer time than six days (the time between the prophecy and the Transfiguration, according to Mark 9:2). After all, the prophecy says that a few people within the group standing there will see the Kingdom coming in power before they die, which implies that most of the group will die before that happens. That in itself shows that the origin of the passage is later than the time of Jesus, according to Meier. Jesus expected for the Kingdom to come sooner than that, and so did Paul, who expected for more Christians to be alive when Christ returned (I Thessalonians 4:15; I Corinthians 15:51). For Meier, Mark 9:1 originated as early Christians sought to encourage themselves that the Son of Man would come soon, even though most first generation Christians had already died.”
Witherington does not mention Meier, but he disagrees with that sort of argument (which has probably been advanced by others). Witherington says that Mark 9:1 is not focusing on those who will die before the kingdom of God comes with power, but rather on the fact that some will see that event. Therefore, Witherington argues, “an allusion by Jesus to some sort of event during his earthly ministry cannot be ruled out” (page 38). Witherington concludes on page 39:
“In its original form this saying likely refers to an event that manifests the power of the Dominion of God, probably an event that Jesus thought would happen during his earthly ministry, or very shortly thereafter. If so, then in its original context this saying could refer to any number of miracles and perhaps an exorcism (see Lk 11:20; Mt 12:28). If the transfiguration was a historical occurrence, an oblique reference to it is not impossible.”
I agree with Witherington that the Kingdom of God was present in some sense in Jesus’ ministry. But it seems to me that Mark 9:1 relates to the Second Coming of Christ, for the preceding verse, Mark 8:38, seems to refer to eschatological judgment that will take place when the Son of Man comes in glory with angels, which is future: “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Granted, Mark 9:1 was probably editorially applied to the Transfiguration, for Mark 9:2 says that the Transfiguration occurred after six days. The sense may be that Peter, James, and John did not taste death before they saw a foreshadowing of the Son of Man coming in power—-how the Son of Man would look in his power and glory. But did the saying in Mark 9:1 originally concern the Transfiguration? Mark 9:1 says that a few will see the coming of the Kingdom in power, not something that foreshadows that.
2. Matthew 10:23 states: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”
Unlike John Meier, Witherington believes that this saying goes back to the historical Jesus, for he does not think that the early church would make up a saying that highlights missionary activity within Israel, when (at that point) its mission was global in scope. Witherington says that the coming of the Son of Man is not necessarily the Second Coming of Christ in this passage, for there are times when the Son of Man “comes” that have nothing to do with Christ’s Second Coming. For example, Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34 (which Witherington considers “a likely authentic Q saying”) says that “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking”, which relates to Jesus’ ministry, not his Second Coming. Witherington states on page 41:
“…it is possible that this verse simply means that the disciples shall not have completed the missionary work in Israel that the earthly Jesus sent them out to do before he rejoins them. If so, it is understandable why in the 80s the First Evangelist did not hesitate to include this saying.”
But suppose that the passage relates to the Second Coming of Christ? Even then, Witherington does not think that Matthew 10:23 is saying that the Second Coming is necessarily imminent. According to Witherington, it could be telling the disciples that they have enough towns for their missionary activity that would last them until Christ returns. Or it could be saying that the Second Coming was possibly imminent, without saying that it was necessarily so.
I can understand the view that Matthew 10:23 relates to the disciples’ preaching to Israelite towns during the earthly ministry of Jesus, for Matthew 10 is about Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to do just that. But, within Matthew 10, Jesus does appear to talk about things beyond that particular context—-for he mentions their appearance before Gentile rulers and their martyrdom. Those things did not occur to the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I think that there was included in Matthew 10 a broader perspective on Christian mission, and that Matthew 10:23 is portraying Jesus as encouraging early Christian missionaries in Israel that the Son of Man would come during their missionary activity. Moreover, why should we assume that Christian missionary activity in Israel stopped when Christian missions went global? Perhaps it continued.
(UPDATE: I should note that Witherington in this book is aware of layers and recontextualization of sayings within the Gospels, so I don’t want to imply that he is not.)
3. Mark 13:30 states: “Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.”
Witherington argues that “all these things” does not include the coming of the Son of Man, but refers primarily to “the destruction of the Holy Place and its attendant circumstances” (page 44), which are described in association with tribulations. While Witherington acknowledges that language about tribulation occurs in early Jewish literature in reference to the end times, he also notes that such language occurs to describe past events, such as Sinai. Therefore, Witherington does not think that the language about tribulation in Mark 13 was necessarily about the end of the world, but could concern the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Witherington highlights Mark 13:32, which says that the Son does not know the day or the hour. Witherington believes that goes back to the historical Jesus because he does not think that the early Christians would make up a saying about the Son not knowing the time of his own return. My impression (and I’m open to correction) is that Witherington holds that Mark 13:32 contradicts the idea that Jesus was setting a timetable for his return in Mark 13:30 (“this generation”), and so he concludes that Mark 13:30 relates to the destruction of the Temple, not Christ’s second coming.
But I have issues with that. First, the Second Coming appears to be mentioned before Mark 13:30, so why should we assume that it was not one of “these things” that would occur before “this generation” passes away? Second, Mark 13:30-32 says the following:
“(30) Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done. (31) Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. (32) But of that day and [that] hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”
Vv 30-32 appear to relate to the Second Coming of Christ. But I’m open to an alternative interpretation. Maybe Witherington could say that Jesus is affirming that his words were confirmed by the destruction of Jerusalem, and Jesus is contrasting his eternal and tried words with heaven and earth passing away. And when will heaven and earth pass away? V 32 affirms that only the Father knows!
A final point: Witherington appears to wonder why Gospel authors in the late first-century would include sayings by Jesus that teach the imminent end of the world, since they were well aware that the world had not come to an end by the time they were writing. Witherington’s argument is that those sayings do not teach the imminent end of the world. But could the Gospel authors have had reason to include those sayings, even if they were teaching that? Perhaps the Gospel authors reinterpreted them contrary to their original meaning, as when Mark applied the saying in Mark 9:1 to the Transfiguration.