Matthew Chapter 24:29-39

We left off with the eagles of Rome gathered ’round the fallen Jerusalem. I still wonder how this got changed to “vultures”. Actually, that’s not true at all. The reasoning is pretty clear, about as subtle as a slap in the face. This is why the whole field of Biblical scholarship seems a bit dodgy at times. Harsh, over-generalized comment, no doubt, but that is the appearance it has at times. Anyway, we’re coming to the close of Mark’s apocalypse. This section and another should do it.

29 Εὐθέως δὲ μετὰ τὴν θλῖψιν τῶν ἡμερῶν ἐκείνων, ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται, καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς, καὶ οἱ ἀστέρες πεσοῦνται ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν σαλευθήσονται.

“Immediately after the pressures of those days, the sun will become darkened, and the moon will not give its lustre (also, lit = moonlight) and the stars will fall from the sky ( = heaven, singular) and the powers of the heavens will be roiled.

Whole bunch of stuff in a single sentence. First, the word for the “light” that the moon will not give can specifically mean “moonlight”, or even the light of torches. At base, however, it’s “lustre” rather than “light”, the base of which is “phos/photos”. Second this could be rendered “the stars will fall from heaven”, with the lower-case “h”. In Greek and Latin, the same word (different in each language) can mean either “sky” or “heaven”. In English, of course, no one would say, “Our Father, who art in the Sky”, even though that is a perfectly acceptable translation of the Greek. It’s just that “sky” is wholly secular, “heaven” is ambiguous but leaning secular, and “Heaven” is wholly religious. This is probably a good time to note that Mark talked about the kingdom of God; Matthew, however, talks about the kingdom of the heavens, and the latter is (almost) always plural. [Aside: Matthew does use kingdom of God, at least once; perhaps one of those cases of editorial fatigue?]

I have no plausible explanation for why Matthew uses “heavens”. I have never seen one offered–but that may be entirely my fault; I may just need to get out more. The theory is that he was too devout a Jew to use “God”; to this day many orthodox Jews will not write the word in full. But, as mentioned, there are one or two occasions where he does use kingdom of God. Of course, those could easily have been introduced by a later copyist who was accustomed to that formulation. As for why Matthew uses it in the plural rather than the singular is an entirely different question. In Classical Greek usage, the plural was used largely in a philosophical sense for the universe, or the non-terrestrial domain. IOW, the heavens. So, there is one of those reasons that I’ve never seen, and it’s a pretty good one. A quick and completely non-thorough check of Strong’s Words indicates that upwards of 80% of the plural “heavens” are in Matthew, and virtually all are “kingdom of __”. When Matthew uses the singular form, it’s for quotidian stuff, like “birds of the air”.

Now, let’s think about what this for a moment in terms of how this relates to my thesis of Matthew-as-pagan. On one hand, we have the Jewish reluctance to use “God”; OTOH, we have the use of heavens as found in Greek philosophy. Once again, with a quick glance through Strong and we see that Matthew is pretty consistent in his non-use of God as well as accounting for most of the uses of heavens in the plural. The thing is, Mark and Paul don’t shy away from “God”; some form of the word occurs about a dozen times in the 5 chapters of 1 Thessalonians. And Paul was more zealous than most of his generation. As such, I don’t know how much weight we can put on the first one. And besides, this is something a convert to Judaism could pick up, and behaviour he could easily emulate. Knowing the Greek philosophical usage of the heavens is not something you just pick up. Or, maybe it is.

Something else that stands out, however, is the last bit: the powers of the heavens will be roiled. What are these “powers?” We are so accustomed to the idea that Hell is underground, that we forget (or never realised) that in Antiquity this was not necessarily true. The air was full of all sorts of semi-divine powers that Christians would later call demons; however, I want to avoid that term because it’s anachronistic to the period we’re discussing. I’ve also come across those who claim that this is a reference to astrology, that the powers of the sky are the planets, moon, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment, but I don’t think it’s necessary to take it that far. 

But the truly astonishing aspect of this verse is the very first word. For the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its lustre immediately after the events that preceded. If this is a “prediction” based on a past event, then surely Matthew knows that the sun did not become darkened, etc. immediately after the fall of Jerusalem. Not immediately, not ten years, nor twenty…So why is this word in here? It more or less sets the text up as wrong. (And, incidentally, it certainly undercuts my reading of this as a retrospective of the fall of Jerusalem.) Honestly, there is no truly satisfying answer to that question. However, it is very significant to note that this “immediately” does not occur in Mark’s version of this apocalypse. So the word could be an interpolation, like the change to Kingdom of God in Mt 12:28. BBut that’s not really a satisfying explanation, is it? Perhaps not, but it does get me off the hook as far as this being a description of what happened; if Mark didn’t use the term immediately, then this could still be a remembrance. That the term slipped in can be attributed to the intent to create narrative drama–hold on a second.

One question that, I think, is rarely asked about this passage, or this chapter in general, is how those hearing or reading it would have perceived it. Were they all aware of the destruction of Jerusalem? In Mark’s case, it’s very likely. But what about 15 years later, in a place outside of Judea or Galilee? How would they have taken this? Would they have understood it as a reflection backwards, or would they have taken it as a true prophecy? If the latter, then immediately makes sense. In a way, my asking this question is a bit ironic; the prophecy-as-memory has again become a prophecy of the future. I don’t have an answer for this, or not a convincing one, anyway. I do have a gut feeling that those hearing the story may not have seen the reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, or seen the reference as oblique at best. Otherwise, I’m not sure this can be made to make sense. It’s bad scholarship to write off every inconvenient word as an interpolation; it happened, and it happened a lot. At the bottom of nearly every page of my hard-copy Greek NT is a section of notes providing alternate readings for given words; sometimes they take up about a third of the page, sometimes there are only two or three suggested changes. 

A lot of questions remain unresolved.

29 Statim autem post tribulationem dierum illorum, sol obscurabitur, et luna non dabit lumen suum, et stellae cadent de caelo, et virtutes caelorum commovebuntur.

30 καὶ τότε φανήσεται τὸ σημεῖον τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶ τότε κόψονται πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς καὶ ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐπὶ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ μετὰ δυνάμεως καὶ δόξης πολλῆς:

31 καὶ ἀποστελεῖ τοὺς ἀγγέλους αὐτοῦ μετὰ σάλπιγγος μεγάλης, καὶ ἐπισυνάξουσιν τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς αὐτοῦ ἐκ τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων ἀπ’ ἄκρων οὐρανῶν ἕως[τῶν] ἄκρων αὐτῶν.

“And then will appear the sign of the son of man in the sky, and then all the tribes of the world will smite their breasts (i.e., mourn) and they will see the son of man coming upon the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (31) And he will send out his angels with large trumpets, and they will collect those having been chosen (elect) from the four winds to the highest heavens until the highest of themselves. 

The last part of this, << ἀπ’ ἄκρων οὐρανῶν ἕως[τῶν] ἄκρων αὐτῶν >>, does not entirely make sense, at least not in its literal sense. However, it’s a reference to Deuteronomy 30:4; in the LXX it literally reads “from the highest of the sky to the highest of the sky”. In both places, it gets translated as “from one end of heaven to the other (end of heaven)”. I suppose. There’s no real harm here; it’s meant to imply thoroughness, so it can work well enough. This is probably more a comment on my low level of comprehension of Greek. Or, it’s a consensus translation. Either way it works. It’s poetic license. As I’m reading a widening circle of Classical Greek, I’m realizing that the NT is not all that special in its consensus translations. Aristotle is much worse, but what Aristotle is trying to describe is much more complex.

More important is the description of the coming son of man. Or Son of Man. I prefer the former because there is no real indication that the title referred to anyone in particular. Nor is there any real evidence that this is a title. It probably is, but we do not know that, and that bears keeping in mind. (If there is evidence for this, please let me know. The only thing worse than ignorance is willful ignorance. Well, there are, of course, a lot of things worse, but take that statement in this context.) With time, it has become Obvious to Everyone that it refers to Jesus. This is certainly not a given. It too, comes from Daniel, where, in a dream, Daniel sees “…one like a son of man coming with the clouds…” (Daniel 7:13) All it really means is an anthropomorphic figure; however, this passage is the obvious precursor, or antecedent, or inspiration for Matthew’s passage here, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4. In Daniel, he is an end-times figure; whether he is the Anointed is a subject of much debate. Given that the similarity of wording (in translation, at least; cannot vouch for how this reads in Hebrew), it seems fairly safe to conclude that this iteration of the passage (and in Mark) was meant to evoke the symbolism of Daniel. Now, how that would play for non-Jews is an interesting question. Let’s recall that Paul used the imagery in 1 Thessalonians, who, he tells us explicitly, were former pagans. As such, we cannot assume that they would have understood the reference to Daniel. If they were God-fearers, pagans who were practicing Judaism–to some extent, at least–at the local synagogue, then they may have been aware of Daniel. We don’t know; so it’s a question of whether they were more likely than not to be God-fearers, and if so, were they aware of Daniel? Given the contingency of the latter condition on the former, there is probably less than an even chance that they were aware of the passage in Daniel. One could suppose that Paul used this image specifically because he knew they had heard it, and that would be a very reasonable suggestion. So, if it’s something less than 50/50, it’s probably not much less, in whichever direction.

Now what about Mark? Was his congregation composed mostly of former Jews? or former pagans? Standard NT scholarship would say they were former Jews, and I would say there is a decent chance that this is correct. So they would have gotten–some of them anyway, and to some degree–the reference, and understood that the figure was the coming of the end times. But was it the Anointed? We don’t know, with real certainty, that the one like a human in Daniel was intended to represent the Anointed.

The situation has evolved here in Matthew. Matthew’s audience has been told that Jesus is the Christ from the beginning of the gospel. And, contrary to what I had thought, Matthew has Jesus use the phrase “son of man” quite frequently. I was under the mistaken impression that Matthew didn’t do this, that he almost always used “son of God” whereas Matthew used “son of man”. Sort of like the way Matthew prefers “kingdom of the heavens” over “kingdom of God”. So I started to count up the number of times that Matthew used “son of man”; I quit once I hit a dozen, with twenty or so references remaining. The upshot is that Matthew is not at all averse to using son of man. But, he is just as cagey as Mark in leaving the actual identity of the son of man unexplained. However, while there is no explicit confirmation that the expression refers to Jesus, I would suggest that the cumulative weight of all of them taken together provide a fairly solid confirmation that Jesus is meant. Indeed, when you come down to it, that is why we identify the son of man with Jesus. That being the case, it seems a reasonable conclusion that Matthew’s audience would have understood this passage to refer to the return of Jesus. After all, this had been part of (proto-)Christian belief since Paul. 

30 Et tunc parebit signum Filii hominis in caelo, et tunc plangent omnes tribus terrae et videbunt Filium hominis venientem in nubibus caeli cum virtute et gloria multa;

31 et mittet angelos suos cum tuba magna, et congregabunt electos eius a quattuor ventis, a summis caelorum usque ad terminos eorum.

32 Ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν: ὅταν ἤδη ὁ κλάδος αὐτῆς γένηται ἁπαλὸς καὶ τὰ φύλλα ἐκφύῃ, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος:

33 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε πάντα ταῦτα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἐπὶ θύραις.

34 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη ἕως ἂν πάντα ταῦτα γένηται.

35 ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσεται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρέλθωσιν.

“From the fig learn the comparison. When the shoot of it becomes tender, and the the leaves have grown, you know that summer is nigh. (33) Also in this way you, when you see these things, you know that the door is nigh. (34) Amen I say to you, that this generation will not pass away until all these things become. (35) The sky and the earth will pass away, but the words of mine will not pass away.

Just a quick note on the Greek. The word that I’ve rendered as “comparison” is “parabolay” (spelling it phonetically). This is the root of both “parabola” and “parable”. The former has a technical meaning in math, but it’s based on the root of the word meaning “comparison” or “juxtaposition”. I note that in some translations–the KJV–this is rendered as “lesson”, but more modern translations leave it as “parable”.  The word we’re most likely looking for is “analogy”. In English that can sort of encompass both senses of the word as translated.

The problem here of course is that Jesus is saying that these times of horror will indicate the coming of the end. Now, when Mark wrote these words, it was a problem. For Matthew writing 1-2 decades later, it should be even more of a problem. This is especially a problem if these words are an after-the-fact prophecy. If it was known that they referred to the destruction of Jerusalem, and this event has receded into the past, then it truly becomes a problem. Unless one defines “generation” in a special way; for example, “this generation” refers to the people born at the current time. So, for Mark, this would mean the people born 70-75 CE. Ergo, when Matthew repeated the words, the generation was now in full adulthood. It had not “passed away”. That, however, strikes me a bit too clever, and it does not really capture the meaning of what is usually meant by “this generation”. Usually, that refers to those who are adults at the time of writing.

But let’s think about this for a moment. I’ve skimmed through a number of commentaries at What I’m about to suggest is perhaps not entirely novel, but I did not see this exact suggestion made; I will assume that my ignorance is exactly that: my ignorance. This may be very well known, but it’s new to me. What is Jesus saying? He’s saying that the generation alive, those who were adults at the time of the horrible occurrences he describes will not pass away before the son of man comes. That is, the clock did not start ticking until the destruction of Jerusalem. As such, for Mark to write these words when the ruins of Jerusalem were (figuratively, at least) still smoldering was not in the least a problem. The people who had seen the times predicted were still very much in their prime. And even when Matthew wrote, 15-20 years later, those who had been in the prime age of their adult years were still only 40-50 years old. Not young, by ancient standards, but they had not lived out their three-score years and ten. And even when Luke repeated them a generation (give or take) later than Matthew, there would still easily have been people alive when Jerusalem was destroyed.

This is important because it means that these words are not an embarrassment to the earliest assemblies of Jesus. Far from it. At some point, however, they did become problematic, which is why the whole idea of the Parousia and even the kingdom sort of fade into the deep background in John’s gospel. By the end of, say, the first quarter of the Second Century, they had become problematic. But their problems need not concern us here. 

I do believe this may be an important point to make. And I am not sure that I have seen it made elsewhere. In fact, I know I have not seen it made elsewhere. However, that does not mean it’s never been made.

What about the last line? Off-hand, it seems to be connected to the whole after-the-fact situation. The horrors described had come to pass; Jerusalem had been destroyed. And Jesus’ words were still around, even if the earth and sky had not–yet–passed away. This is a level of assurance, I think. Letting the audience know that, despite it all, the word of Jesus was eternal.

32 Ab arbore autem fici discite parabolam: cum iam ramus eius tener fuerit, et folia nata, scitis quia prope est aestas.

33 Ita et vos, cum videritis haec omnia, scitote quia prope est in ianuis.

34 Amen dico vobis: Non praeteribit haec generatio, donec omnia haec fiant.

35 Caelum et terra transibunt, verba vero mea non praeteribunt.

36 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος.

37 ὥσπερ γὰρ αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ Νῶε, οὕτως ἔσται ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

38 ὡς γὰρ ἦσαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις [ἐκείναις] ταῖς πρὸ τοῦ κατακλυσμοῦ τρώγοντες καὶ πίνοντες, γαμοῦντες καὶ γαμίζοντες, ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας εἰσῆλθεν Νῶε εἰς τὴν κιβωτόν,

39 καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν ἕως ἦλθεν ὁ κατακλυσμὸς καὶ ἦρεν ἅπαντας, οὕτως ἔσται [καὶ] ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦἀνθρώπου.

“Regarding those days and hours, no one knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the son, but only the father alone. (37) For in this way in the days of Noah, thus will be the arrival of the son of man. (38) For as it was in [those] days, those before the cataclysm {they were} eating and drinking, marrying and being married, until the day came {when} Noah {went into} the chest (= ark). (39) And no one knew until the cataclysm came, and took everyone, in this way will be the arrival of the son of man.

On one hand, Jesus is telling them to watch for the signs that the seasons are turning; OTOH, he’s saying here that no one knows when this will happen. So I guess he’s covered either way.

Also, “cataclysm” is a pure transliteration, but substituting the Latin “C” for the Greek kappa. The Vulgate renders it << ante diluvium >>, literally “before the flood”.

Finally, we discussed this when reading Mark, but it bears repeating. When he says that no one knows except the father, not the angels, nor even the son, Jesus is very clearly telling us that he and the father are not one, John’s later protestation to the contrary. There are a number of fairly inept attempts to soft-pedal this, to deny that the words don’t mean what they say, or they only mean what they say in some very special, super-secret sort of way. My apologies. They mean what they mean. 

Interestingly, the commentator Ellicott agrees with this. He says that the plain meaning is how this should be taken. However, he leaves it at that. He does not go into the implications of this statement. Then the commentator Benson has some more interesting bits to add. He says that the bit about the the son not knowing is omitted in some mss of Mark, and that it’s inserted in some mss traditions of Matthew. Now isn’t that interesting. The omission he credits to later churchmen who wished to remove ammunition from the Arians, who claimed just such a graduated progression of/to the deity. Even more, St Ambrose and other fathers claimed that this line had been inserted by the Arians. I doubt that. There is enough equivocation in Mark that we don’t need to write something off as an interpolation. It is possible, of course; it’s also possible that I doubt this because I want it to be authentic, because it supports one/some of my theories. Contra, I would point to the baptism, and argue that the son not knowing is fully of a piece with the Adoptionist implications of that scene. Was that added by the Adoptionists? Just to clear this up, Benson concludes there is sufficient evidence for the words in Mark that they need to be taken as authentic.

Addendum: One thing I would like to make very clear is the meaning of “Parousia”. This means “coming”, or “arrival”. It is used to described Paul’s coming to the Philippians, so it’s another of these terms, like baptism, that are very neutral in Greek, but have taken on special significance in Christian usage. The thing it does not mean is “return”. As such, the son of man is coming; he is not returning. The implication of this would be that he is not present, nor has ever been present.

This is significant, I think. It requires additional thought, and perhaps a post dedicated to the idea.

36 De die autem illa et hora nemo scit, neque angeli caelorum neque Filius, nisi Pater solus.

37 Sicut enim dies Noe, ita erit adventus Filii hominis.

38 Sicut enim erant in diebus ante diluvium comedentes et bibentes, nubentes et nuptum tradentes, usque ad eum diem, quo introivit in arcam Noe,

39 et non cognoverunt, donec venit diluvium et tulit omnes, ita erit et adventus Filii hominis.



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 August 1, 2016, in Chapter 24, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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