Criticism of ‘Revision of Prophecies’, and My Response

Introduction

In a brief exchange on Twitter on the topic of Jesus possibly being a ‘failed’ apocalyptic prophet, I provided a link to one of my articles that serves as a sort of introduction to the topic, Revision of Prophecies.

In the article, I begin with a brief review of some apocalyptic prophecies from the last two hundred years that have, definitively, ‘failed’: predictions were made by a person or group, people rallied around those predictions, and then fulfillment did not come. I also described how, in every case, devout believers refused to accept the failure of those predictions.

Instead, their zeal led them to reject reality and invent explanations after-the-fact, reinterpreting the prophecies’ failure in their favor. The two most common methods of doing this were (a) delaying the prophecy to a future time, ‘revealing’ that a word had been misinterpreted or that math had been miscalculated, or (b) insisting the prophecy really was fulfilled at the predicted time, but it was fulfilled in a ‘spiritual’ dimension that, conveniently, cannot be falsified.

With modern examples demonstrating this phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in apocalyptic religious movements, I moved through three examples from the Second Temple period. The first was the Book of Daniel, which reinterpreted a failed prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah using the first of the two methods, ‘delaying’ the prophecy by expanding its length. The second was 4 Ezra, and the third was Jesus in the synoptic gospels, each of which seeks to reinterpret Daniel as being about events in their own era.

At the end, the article highlights how Christianity has ever since sought ways to reinterpret Jesus’ own prophecies, since the details restrict the time and manner of fulfillment of his predictions to the first century CE. The conclusion is that Christianity faces cognitive dissonance of four layers: Christians reinterpreting Jesus’ prophecy, which reinterprets Daniel’s prophecy, which reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy.


Criticism of My Article

Twitter user SnowLover1337 read my article after I shared it, and responded with some careful criticism. I’ve copied his criticisms here, then will respond below.

The background context is important for me to soak in, but I don’t think that any source we have confirms that Jesus got his predictions literally wrong.

Mark 13:30’s "all these things" answers Mark 13:4’s "all these things," which is only referring to the temple destruction.

Here are some issues with your article

  1. Jesus’ references to “these things” (29), “all things” (23), and “all these things” (30) clearly refer back to the disciples’ question regarding the destruction of the temple, referred to in verse 4 as ”these things” and “all these things”. By the use of both terms (“these things” and “all things”) together, 13:4 and 13:30 form an inclusio. It is therefore clear within the context of the discourse that 13:30 refers to the disciples’ question and thus to the destruction of the temple.
  2. This fits with the fig tree parable in 13:28–29. The “these things” of verse 29 again refer back to the disciples’ original question in 13:4 and thus to the destruction of the temple. A point that confirms this is that they can know from the signs given by Jesus previously in the discourse that the event is about to take place (13:29). But the only signs Jesus has mentioned in the discourse are those preceding the destruction of the temple in 5–23 (summed up as “all things” in verse 23, another reference to the “all these things” of the apostles’ question in verse 4!). The events of 13:24–29 cannot be these signs, because they describe the cosmic event of the second coming itself, not portents indicating its proximate nearness. The fig tree parable therefore must refer to the signs described in 13:5–23 and the event must be the destruction of the temple.
  3. Another element that points to how the fig tree parable refers to the destruction of the temple is the way Jesus’ words “when you see …” in 13:29 echo his words “when you see …” in 13:14, which refers to the destruction of the temple. (This point is not conclusive by itself, but is important in coherence with the other points made here.)
  4. Finally, verse 19 is crucial, for here Jesus foretells that the temple’s destruction will be accompanied by a great “affliction, such as has not occurred within the created order before that time, and never shall again.” This obviously indicates that the temple’s destruction within a generation is not the consummation of history, or even proximate to it. For Jesus’ saying clearly assumes the continuation of history, and the occurrence of lesser tribulations in the course of that history. It is clear therefore that the event which Jesus foretells as occurring within a generation is the destruction of the temple (after which, according to Jesus, history will go on) not the second coming, which brings the consummation of history.

Addendum: Mark 9:1. With regards to Mark 9:1, within the literary context of Mark 9:1, the evangelist clearly understands Jesus’ pronouncement as referring to the Transfiguration event, which follows in Mark 9:2–9. William L. Lane in his commentary on Mark (Eerdmans, 1974) sets out the case well why Mark 9:1 looks ahead to 9:2–9. I would only add that the syntax demands this reading, for Mark’s use of kai rather than de as the transition between 9:1 and 9:2 is hard to explain any other way. These two conjunctions are very different for an ancient Greek speaker, the former indicating an addition in agreement with what precedes, and the latter indicating something new in relation to what precedes. The use of kai signals, as does the overall shape of the narrative (see Lane), that 9:2–10 is the continuation and fulfillment of Jesus’ saying in 9:1. This follows no matter how awkward the mention of some of the apostle’s not tasting death is (but see Lane).


My Response

The background context is important for me to soak in, but I don’t think that any source we have confirms that Jesus got his predictions literally wrong.

Mark 13:30’s "all these things" answers Mark 13:4’s "all these things," which is only referring to the temple destruction.

Here are some issues with your article

In reading the criticisms below, I think they are worth considering. However, they have very little to do with my article directly. These criticisms are primarily an exegesis of Mark 13. My article was not specifically about that chapter, instead laying out patterns of cognitive dissonance found in apocalyptic religious movements, of which Mark 13 is just one example. While the article does offer an opinion that Jesus’ predictions made in Mark 13 are a ‘failed’ prophecy, and the criticisms below set out to defend Jesus’ predictions as a genuine prophecy instead, none of these criticisms address the main point which was made in the article: Christians today who set out to defend Jesus’ prophecy as authentic are adding themselves on top of three layers of cognitive dissonance. The article was not singularly about the Olivet Discourse. We could come up with an absolutely brilliant interpretation of Mark 13 that ‘makes sense’ within whatever theogical framework we happen to subscribe to, but this would not matter if Mark 13 is itself a product of cognitive dissonance by trying to rescue two earlier layers of failed prophecies (Daniel, with Jeremiah behind that). The authenticity of Mark 13 as a divinely-inspired prophecy would be called into question by default, since it relies on earlier prophecies which had themselves failed. Any interpretation we arrive at that ‘makes sense’ of Mark 13 as an authentic prophecy can then only come from our own creative thinking. That interpretation would not be what the text says, it would be what we need the text to say in order to preserve its prophetic authenticity within our theological system.

With that said, I do still want to look into the points that were made about Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse.

1. Jesus’ references to “these things” (29), “all things” (23), and “all these things” (30) clearly refer back to the disciples’ question regarding the destruction of the temple, referred to in verse 4 as ”these things” and “all these things”. By the use of both terms (“these things” and “all things”) together, 13:4 and 13:30 form an inclusio. It is therefore clear within the context of the discourse that 13:30 refers to the disciples’ question and thus to the destruction of the temple.

I agree with this so far. Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse is clearly presented as a prediction about the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 70 CE.

2. This fits with the fig tree parable in 13:28–29. The “these things” of verse 29 again refer back to the disciples’ original question in 13:4 and thus to the destruction of the temple. A point that confirms this is that they can know from the signs given by Jesus previously in the discourse that the event is about to take place (13:29). But the only signs Jesus has mentioned in the discourse are those preceding the destruction of the temple in 5–23 (summed up as “all things” in verse 23, another reference to the “all these things” of the apostles’ question in verse 4!). The events of 13:24–29 cannot be these signs, because they describe the cosmic event of the second coming itself, not portents indicating its proximate nearness. The fig tree parable therefore must refer to the signs described in 13:5–23 and the event must be the destruction of the temple.

I do not agree with the inclusio interpretation, for reasons I will explain below.

3. Another element that points to how the fig tree parable refers to the destruction of the temple is the way Jesus’ words “when you see …” in 13:29 echo his words “when you see …” in 13:14, which refers to the destruction of the temple. (This point is not conclusive by itself, but is important in coherence with the other points made here.)

Here is where I disagree: Mark 13.14 does not refer to the destruction of the temple, but to the ‘desolating sacrilege’ (or ‘abomination of desolation’). This is also where the Olivet Discourse begins directly suffering cognitive dissonance, reinterpreting the Book of Daniel, a book written in the middle of the Maccabean Revolt about the revolt. Daniel contains ex eventu prophecy about the ‘desolating sacrilege’, the desecration of Jerusalem’s temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. First Maccabees, written within a generation of Daniel, describes this act by the same term, ‘desolating sacrilege’, and describes that soon afterward the Maccabee family and their comrades fled into the hillsides of Judah, leaving behind everything they owned. When Jesus speaks of a ‘desolating sacrilege’ and implores Judeans to flee to the hillsides and leave behind their belongings, he’s deliberately invoking memory of the Maccabean Revolt. The ‘desolating sacrilege’ that Antiochus committed was not destroying the temple, but profaning it. On this precedent, we can’t interpret Mark 13.14 as referring to the temple’s destruction yet, just its desecration.

4. Finally, verse 19 is crucial, for here Jesus foretells that the temple’s destruction will be accompanied by a great “affliction, such as has not occurred within the created order before that time, and never shall again.” This obviously indicates that the temple’s destruction within a generation is not the consummation of history, or even proximate to it. For Jesus’ saying clearly assumes the continuation of history, and the occurrence of lesser tribulations in the course of that history. It is clear therefore that the event which Jesus foretells as occurring within a generation is the destruction of the temple (after which, according to Jesus, history will go on) not the second coming, which brings the consummation of history.

Jesus’ phrasing in Mark 13.19 is another case of cognitive dissonance. The Book of Daniel was written in the middle of the Maccabean Revolt and saw that war as ‘the time of the end’. The author of Daniel saw the war as a time of immense persecution for faithful, Torah-observant Judeans, and Dan 12.1 describes it as ‘a time of anguish, such as never occurred since nations came into existence’, a case of inaccurate hyperbole. (The destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE was definitely worse, in terms of quantifying suffering and the loss of national identity.) The author expected the war to be punctuated by God raising the dead and punishing Israel’s enemies. Jesus, like most of his contemporaries, needed to reinterpret Daniel to no longer be about the Maccabean Revolt, because in that context the prophecy failed. He disconnects Daniel’s ‘desolating sacrilege’ from what Antiochus did, and likewise reapplies the hyperbolic language of Dan 12.1 in describing the Judean-Roman War of 66–70 CE.

The summary of the defense is this: ‘these things’ were to happen in the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries, but ‘these things’ only refers to Mark 13.5–23, and not the actual second coming of Mark 13.24–27, so Jesus was not saying the second coming would happen in the lifetime of his contemporaries. Thus, Jesus’ prophecy has not failed, because his prediction of the second coming in his contemporaries’ lifetime did not fail, because he did not predict it would happen in their lifetime.

This is where the defense of the Olivet Discourse runs into cognitive dissonance itself, by searching for an interpretation of the text that inserts a huge gap of time between 13.5–23 and 12.24–27, when such a gap is neither mentioned nor permitted by the text.

First, the ‘these things’ of the alleged inclusio are not just signs which precede the second coming. They are signs which will precede the destruction of the temple, as 13.4 says: ‘When will this (the temple’s destruction) be, and what will be the sign (13.5–23) that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ This is an additional reason why the ‘desolating sacrilege’ is not the temple’s destruction: it can’t be a sign of itself. This pushes the temple’s destruction to a point after Mark 13.23 (presumably, the author of Mark intended it be identified in 13.24, since 13.5–23 never actually describe the temple’s destruction, only signs which were to precede that event).

Second, insisting that Mark 13.24–27 could ostensibly happen any amount of time after 13.5–23 (two thousand years later, for example) requires an extremely blatant error. The repeating phrase ‘these things’ found in 13.4, 23, 29, and 30 is not meant to be an inclusio, per se, but is certainly intended to identify the same overall set of events. Mark 13.24–27 declares that the cosmic collapse and second coming will happen ‘in those days, after that suffering’. Which days are ‘those days’ that the cosmic collapse is meant to happen during? The same ‘those days’ repeated in 13.17, 19, and 20. Which ‘suffering’ is it that the cosmic collapse happens after? The same ‘suffering’ in 13.19. So when we arrive at the second coming of 13.29, who is the antecedent of ‘they’? The same people who had just endured ‘the suffering’ of ‘those days’ all the way from Mark 13.14 through to 13.25. Perhaps specifically ‘the elect’ mentioned twice (13.20, 22).

Third, using the inclusio interpretation to forcibly separate Mark 13.24–27 from 13.5–23 by thousands of years utterly misrepresents the message which is subsequently made in 13.28–30. A fig tree blooming does not simply mean that summer will happen, but that it will happen soon. Appealing to a fig tree’s blooming as a sign ‘summer is near’ would be a worthless sign if that summer did not happen for another few thousand years, rather than just weeks or days later. Jesus employs an illustration of a specifically small amount of time passing. He uses language expressing temporal proximity: ‘near’; ‘this generation’.

The whole of 13.4–30 is so interconnected verbally and thematically that there is no natural way to temporally separate 13.24–27 from the rest. The result is a prophecy which emphatically states the second coming was supposed to happen ‘in those days’, the same ‘those days’ as the Judean-Roman War, and would be witnessed by ‘they’ who lived through ‘those days’. There is no justifiable interpretation which separates the ‘second coming’ of (13.24–27) from the ‘signs’ which were to precede it (13.5–23) by any substantial amount of time that it could no longer be considered something ‘they’ — ‘this generation’, which experienced ‘that suffering’ of ‘those days’ — would live to see.

This process of reinterpreting a prophecy that failed to be fulfilled within the time limit it explicitly identifies (‘this generation’, ‘those days’, ‘near, at the very gates’) is exactly the sort of cognitive dissonance in apocalyptic religious movements for which my original article provided examples.

Addendum: Mark 9:1. With regards to Mark 9:1, within the literary context of Mark 9:1, the evangelist clearly understands Jesus’ pronouncement as referring to the Transfiguration event, which follows in Mark 9:2–9. William L. Lane in his commentary on Mark (Eerdmans, 1974) sets out the case well why Mark 9:1 looks ahead to 9:2–9. I would only add that the syntax demands this reading, for Mark’s use of kai rather than de as the transition between 9:1 and 9:2 is hard to explain any other way. These two conjunctions are very different for an ancient Greek speaker, the former indicating an addition in agreement with what precedes, and the latter indicating something new in relation to what precedes. The use of kai signals, as does the overall shape of the narrative (see Lane), that 9:2–10 is the continuation and fulfillment of Jesus’ saying in 9:1. This follows no matter how awkward the mention of some of the apostle’s not tasting death is (but see Lane).

I’ve written on the transfiguration here, including the prophecy which precedes it. While the transfiguration (9.2–8) is meant to be understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction about the son of man arriving in the lifetime of those currently standing in front of him (8.38–9.1), this is an interpretation the reader is led to by Mark’s design. The two units originated in separate sources — one an apocalyptic prophecy about the eschaton, the other an event revealing Jesus’ identity as the eschatological messiah (and possibly a resurrection story in its original context) — but Mark has purposely reinterpreted both of them by placing them in sequence.

However, accepting that the two units now exist together, I want to highlight something. Mark 8.38–9.1 uses unequivocal language that temporally restricts when the prophecy must be fulfilled: within the lifetime of people alive at that moment. The transfiguration happening six days later, of course, is well within the time frame of when they are still alive, but to read the transfiguration as being the fulfillment of this prophecy fundamentally violates the actual point the prophecy makes: God’s kingdom will manifest, and the son of man will arrive amid a crowd of angels, when just some people are still alive. Not most of them still alive. Not all of them still alive. The prophecy is about an event on the edge of that generation’s lifetime, when most people have died, but ‘some’ yet lived long enough to see fulfillment. It is fundamentally not about an event that would happen less than a week later (especially since the transfiguration featured no angelic crowd, nor manifested God’s kingdom).

This is another case of cognitive dissonance overriding how the natural language of a biblical text is read to avoid theologically uncomfortable results. When Mark 8.38–9.1 talks about just ‘some’ living long enough to witness the climactic eschatological event, the necessarily implied decades are stripped away and details completely ignored to force its fulfillment in a different event of the immediate future. In contrast, when Mark 13.24–30 repeatedly insists the second coming will take place in ‘those days’ of the Judean-Roman War, that the second coming would be ‘near, at the very gates’ following the signs which were to precede it, a gap of indeterminate time is inserted between two verses. In both cases, whether shrinking time in one prophecy, or expanding time in the other, the goal is to avoid the conclusion both texts point to: Jesus predicted the eschaton would take place in the first century, and this prediction failed to come to pass.

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