Matthew Chapter 24:15-28

Welcome back. Time to start getting back into the swing of this. However, a fallow period now and again is not such a bad thing. It helps fertilize the soil and, one hopes, promotes new growth. Plus, reading Josephus and doing some more work with Strong’s Words, compiling key terms and seeing how they are used in similar fashion and differently in different passages and authors have both been very helpful. So thank you for your patience. I’m not the best typist on a good day; with a wrist that’s still a bit stiff, well, not having too many good days. But let’s have at it. We are in the midst of what was Mark Chapter 13, the predictions of the coming apocalypse.

15 Οταν οὖν ἴδητε τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Δανιὴλ τοῦ προφήτου ἑστὸς ἐν τόπῳ ἁγίῳ, ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω,

16 τότε οἱ ἐν τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ φευγέτωσαν εἰς τὰ ὄρη,

17 ὁ ἐπὶ τοῦ δώματος μὴ καταβάτω ἆραι τὰ ἐκ τῆς οἰκίας αὐτοῦ,

18 καὶ ὁ ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ μὴ ἐπιστρεψάτω ὀπίσω ἆραι τὸ ἱμάτιον αὐτοῦ.

“So when you see the abomination of the solitude written in Daniel the prophet, standing in a holy place, let the one recognising (it) understand, (16) then those in Judea will flee towards the mountain, (17) the one upon the house (presumably on the roof?) should not come down to take anything from the house, (18) and the one in the field should not turn back even to take his cloak.  

First, this is almost always translated as “abomination of the desolation.” This is a perfectly fine translation, and I do not want to call it into question. However, groups of words constitute a spectrum of meanings. The word translated as “desolation” is also the root of our word “hermit”. Now this is a close paraphrase of Daniel 9:26-27; it uses the same words for “abomination” and “desolation”. And the Vulgate below uses << abominationem desolationis >>, which I suspect doesn’t need to be translated. So why am I bringing this up? Just to point out that the standard translation of “desolation” is a very conscious choice when bringing it into English. The KJV used this choice of word, for both Daniel and the gospels, and it’s never really been changed. Even the much hipper, more modern versions retain this rather archaic language, even though they jettison “sore afraid”. I suppose it doesn’t matter; desolation is merely solitude taken to the extreme, and I suppose if you’re going to use “abomination”, then extremes are called for.

Since we brought up Daniel, it is worth worth pointing out that the Book of Daniel offers another interesting parallel. The story is set in the time of the Exile, when the Jews–Daniel among them–are still in Babylon. It is the early part of the reign of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and pretty much the entire Near East, so that the Persian Empire eventually extended from Egypt to the Eastern shores of the Aegean Sea and to the edge of Afghanistan. But in the book Daniel offers prophesy about the restoration of the Temple and the coming of the christ. So there is a parallel structure between Daniel and this chapter of the gospels. Daniel is generally considered to have been written late; well after the establishment of the kingdoms of the Diadochoi, so the reign of Cyrus is a setting, just as the French Revolution was a setting for A Tale Of Two Cities. And so, having Jesus prophesy here about events that, for those hearing the words, were already in the past. At least, they were in the past in the real sense that the Jewish War was already over.

As far as that goes. reading Josephus is providing some definite insight into the words here. Especially at the outset of the war, things often happened very quickly, without much warning. Cities were suddenly engulfed by the war, attacked, captured, and burnt to the ground–whether by Romans or Jews–within days. And there was enormous internal strife within cities, with pro- and anti-Roman parties among the Jews, or the Jewish minorities within cities like Damascus were rounded up and massacred. Or the Jews massacred the pro-Roman party of fellow Jews within Jewish cities. So things happened very quickly. As such, taking the time to pick up your cloak, or to come down from the roof to get something from the house could instead of fleeing immediately very well could have meant the difference between life and death for an individual.

15 Cum ergo videritis abominationem desolationis, quae dicta est a Daniele propheta, stantem in loco sancto, qui legit, intellegat:

16 tunc qui in Iudaea sunt, fugiant ad montes;

17 qui in tecto, non descendat tollere aliquid de domo sua;

18 et, qui in agro, non revertatur tollere pallium suum.

19 οὐαὶ δὲ ταῖς ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσαις καὶ ταῖς θηλαζούσαις ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις.

20 προσεύχεσθε δὲ ἵνα μὴ γένηται ἡ φυγὴ ὑμῶν χειμῶνος μηδὲ σαββάτῳ:

21 ἔσται γὰρ τότε θλῖψις μεγάλη οἵα οὐ γέγονεν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς κόσμου ἕως τοῦ νῦν οὐδ’ οὐ μὴ γένηται.

22 καὶ εἰ μὴ ἐκολοβώθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι ἐκεῖναι, οὐ κἂν ἐσώθη πᾶσα σάρξ: διὰ δὲ τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς κολοβωθήσονται αἱ ἡμέραι ἐκεῖναι.

“Woe to those who are pregnant, and those who are nursing in those days. (20) Pray that the flight of you is not in winter nor on the Sabbath. (21) For there will be then great trials such as not have happened since the beginning of the world until now, nor will they be. (22) And if those days were not cut short, nor would any flesh be saved. But because of the elect those days will be cut short.

The word that stands out here is << ἐκλεκτοὺς >>, which comes into the Latin as <<electos >>, which is pretty obviously “elect”. Now, this word has a certain meaning in modern democratic societies, and this meaning tends to obscure the base meaning. We say that a candidate is “elected”, meaning s/he got the most votes and won. What we tend to forget is that what has happened is that we have chosen that particular candidate. And that’s what it means here: some of those alive at the time of tribulation were chosen by God. But what does that mean?

In grad school I spent a semester reading about Predestination. This idea of being chosen by God is central to that. The idea is that, if God chooses us, then we can’t be saved on our own. We are only saved because we are chosen. Hence, “amazing Grace, that saved a wretch like me”. I am a wretch because we are all wretches, but God saves some of us anyway through his Grace, coming from the Latin ‘gratia’, which also has the idea of ‘free’, as in having no cost attached. Hence, ‘gratis’. Is that what it means here?

Hard to say. Skimming some of the commentaries, I found some (one, anyway) attempts to identify the elect with the remnant of the true believers. This would make sense, and it would explain the casual use of the term here. And we have to keep in mind the status of the Jews as the chosen people.  So the identity of the two is not difficult to accept. The idea of Predestination is particularly tied to Romans, which means Paul. And Paul told us in Galatians that God set Paul apart ( the functional equivalent of chosen) while the latter was yet in the womb. So there is the sense that the choosing happened before the deserving, or the effort to deserve. That is the fundamental point of Predestination. Again, is that what it means here?

It could, and perhaps should, but I don’t think it does, with apologies to M Calvin. Even in Romans, Paul comes very close to contradicting himself about being elect. It’s one of those terms that gets tossed out without the full implications being thought through in a theological sense. That task was left to the later Patristic thinkers, who had to make sense of what is something of a jumble of ideas. In particular, the idea of being chosen was sorted out by St Augustine, who used the idea of God choosing us to counter the Pelagian doctrine that we as humans could win salvation on merit. Because of Augustine’s argument, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic. And so the idea of being chosen by God, despite our utter lack of deserving to be chosen–in a word, Predestination–entered into Christian orthodoxy. However, it was downplayed for a millennium or more, because it skirted very close to pagan fatalism, and sort of undercut the idea that Christians needed to live a good life. And really, that message is much more deeply ingrained in the narrative of the NT than the idea of being chosen, merits aside.

There is actually another point that nearly slipped by. This is the idea of <<θλῖψις >>, specifically << θλῖψις μεγάλη >>. Coming to grips with this word is very important. At one end of the spectrum and in Classical terms, it simply means ‘pressure’. It’s not a very common word, and it’s most commonly used in medical context, such as ‘pressure on the stomach”. It can also mean “castration”. But it is only in Christian usage that it comes to mean “oppression”, and it will be frequently translated as “persecution” (although there is another word fitting that translation better. More on that later.) Jesus is very clear to say a great pressure, such as has never been seen since the beginning of the world. This leaves little doubt that he’s not talking about pressure in the stomach.

Paul uses the word in 1 Thessalonians. Unfortunately, that was the first book translated, so I was not paying close enough attention to the individual uses of a given word at that point in my career. Understanding the word is important for understanding, as far as we can, the level of persecution suffered by the early Church. We all know the stories, but there is pretty much no evidence for any sort of persecution, and certainly not systemic persecution, of Christians by Romans. There were periods of it later–or, at least, so I’ve been led to believe. I am not familiar enough with the primary sources for the period after the turn of the Second Century to be able to make any sort of fact-based statement. However, for the First Century, there is pretty much nothing, except that Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the followers of Jesus. And even then, we are not told of anything that really resembles persecution, at least as carried out by the Romans. Our real–and pretty much only–source for persecution of the followers of Jesus comes from Paul. So far, aside from the one highly contentious passage about Jesus and another about his brother James, I have come across no mention of his followers in Josephus. But perhaps more on that later.

19 Vae autem praegnantibus et nutrientibus in illis diebus!

20 Orate autem, ut non fiat fuga vestra hieme vel sabbato:

21 erit enim tunc tribulatio magna, qualis non fuit ab initio mundi usque modo neque fiet.

22 Et nisi breviati fuissent dies illi, non fieret salva omnis caro; sed propter electos breviabuntur dies illi.

23 τότε ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ, Ἰδοὺ ὧδε ὁ Χριστός, ἤ, ωδε,μὴ πιστεύσητε:

24 ἐγερθήσονται γὰρ ψευδόχριστοι καὶ ψευδοπροφῆται, καὶ δώσουσιν σημεῖα μεγάλα καὶ τέρατα ὥστε πλανῆσαι, εἰ δυνατόν, καὶ τοὺς ἐκλεκτούς:

25 ἰδοὺ προείρηκα ὑμῖν.

“Then someone may say, ‘Look, there is the Christ’, but don’t believe him. (24) For false-christs and false prophets will be raised, and they will give great signs and wonders so that they will make err, if they are able, even the elect. (25) Look, I have spoken to you before (i.e., warned)

The point that leaps out from this passage is “there is the Christ”. Why? Matthew has told us, from the very beginning, that Jesus is the Christ. And yet, people in a later time will say, “there is the Christ”. On the one hand, this could be ascribed to the people who were not Jesus’ followers did not believe Jesus was the anointed, so of course they were still looking for him. This is certainly a fair point. But who is looking for the anointed? Pagans? No, Jews. As such, this passage describes the reactions of Jews to these times of tribulations. When did Jews suffer such a great affliction? During the Jewish rebellion. When did people proclaim themselves to be the anointed? Especially during the rebellion. This is what is known as internal evidence: almost all writing contains certain assumptions and relates to certain circumstances that are peculiar to a particular period of time. The internal evidence of this whole chapter points to the period of the rebellion.

23 Tunc si quis vobis dixerit: “Ecce hic Christus” aut: “Hic”, nolite credere.

24 Surgent enim pseudochristi et pseudoprophetae et dabunt signa magna et prodigia, ita ut in errorem inducantur, si fieri potest, etiam electi.

25 Ecce praedixi vobis.

26 ἐὰν οὖν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν, Ἰδοὺ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἐστίν, μὴ ἐξέλθητε: Ἰδοὺ ἐν τοῖς ταμείοις, μὴ πιστεύσητε:

27 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἡ ἀστραπὴ ἐξέρχεται ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν καὶ φαίνεται ἕως δυσμῶν, οὕτως ἔσται ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

28 ὅπου ἐὰν ᾖ τὸ πτῶμα, ἐκεῖ συναχθήσονται οἱ ἀετοί.

“So if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the desert’, don’t go there; (if they say) ‘Look, he is in the storeroom’, do not believe. (27) For even as the lightening comes from the east and appears until setting of the sun (probably = the west), in this way will be the coming of the son of man. (28) Where may be the corpse/ruin, there will be gathered eagles.

The last bit is rather odd. << οἱ ἀετοί >> means ‘the eagles’; but this verse is almost universally translated as “where the corpse is, there the vultures will be gathered”. The Latin is also very clearly “eagles”. This is such an important symbol of Rome, that there is no way the word was ever used to mean vulture.

Hold on: Flash of Insight! Each Roman legion carried a standard that had the figure of an eagle on it. In fact, the standard was referred to as “the eagle”. When Marcus Crassus and his army were annihilated by the Parthians, they lost their eagles, the standards of the three legions that were destroyed; the loss of a legionary eagle (standard) was considered a horrible point of shame. Now, we all know that vultures congregate at a corpse, so the idea translating this as “vultures” makes sense. But I think it’s dead wrong. The evangelist is not saying that vultures will gather; he is specifically saying that it will be eagles, as in the standards of Roman legions.

Well, it turns out I’m not exactly the first to make the connexion with eagles and legions, to infer that this refers to Roman armies. I’m probably not as high as the thousandth, but at least my instincts are clear and accurate. There is a lot of speculation that the corpse, or carcass, was meant to imply Jerusalem. A number of people don’t like this, but I think it’s hard to avoid. The eagles (Roman legions) did indeed gather around the ruins of Jerusalem. Because note that the word translated as “carcass” by most modern editions, at root simply means “fall”. Hence, we have a fallen body, which is a corpse, which, if left unburied, becomes a carcass. But it can also mean a ruin, as in a fallen city. I chose ruin in the initial translation to indicate the range of the word, but it turns out to be a good choice. The eagles did gather around the ruin. And once again, we find the pernicious “consensus” translation, where the meaning is chosen, to some extent, by what the translators want the passage to mean.

In the half-dozen commentaries I skimmed, this reading of the eagles around the ruin (of Jerusalem) is offered as the “other” interpretation, with the understanding this “other” interpretation is decidedly inferior. This is inferior because it pretty much–and very clearly–indicates that this section was written with full knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event. That is, this is not prophecy, but memory.

26 Si ergo dixerint vobis: “Ecce in deserto est”, nolite exire; “Ecce in penetralibus”, nolite credere;

27 sicut enim fulgur exit ab oriente et paret usque in occidentem, ita erit adventus Filii hominis.

28 Ubicumque fuerit corpus, illuc congregabuntur aquilae.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on July 17, 2016, in Chapter 24, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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