The eighth scroll and the five possibilities
It was a bright, early spring day as the Trappist alighted from the tram and made his solitary way the short walk up the hill to Sir Toby’s. The daffodils along the river banks in central Prague had been resplendent, and the city made ample recompense for the weary journey across central Europe on a variety of trains from a Balkan lecture tour which, by any reckoning, had been less than successful.
In his pack, however, was an item which made the return to the hostel an object of more than usual anticipation. It was a scroll, the eighth of its kind, held for safekeeping since his previous escapades in the city by a small antiquarian book dealer, which the Trappist had just collected and now intended to examine at his leisure. It was the same scroll which the elderly sage had left behind following his abrupt departure from the Christmas convocation. Perhaps now the truth about the five possibilities would become clear.
In his small room overlooking the art-nouveau adorned facades of buildings which graced the street, he carefully placed the scroll on the table, slowly unrolled it, and eagerly scanned its contents.
“Matthew 24, the Olivet discourse – a double perspective, and the truth about the Coming of the Son of Man,” it read.
“In days to come,” the scroll continued, “controversy over the contents of the so-called spinal cord of biblical prophecy will increase. At this time, two horns will appear on the head of prophetic interpretation. One will insist that the contents of the prophecy relate to events as yet in the distant future. Another will insist that the contents are entirely past. At this time, another horn will arise, smaller than the others, yet making great claims for itself. This horn will root out the other two, and present a different way of understanding biblical prophecy. It will devise an interpretation on the basis of a narrative, claiming that this narrative can be seen in the writings of Daniel, the 13th verse of the 7th chapter in particular. The narrative of the Coming of the Son of Man.”
“To which events do the contents of Matthew 24 then refer? Jesus answers the questions of his disciples in response to his prediction of the fall of the temple. The first question concerned the timing of this event. All of the signs he predicts which would lead up to this event had a 1st century fulfilment. False Christs, wars and rumours of wars, international turmoil, famines and earthquakes – all occurred within a generation of the prophecy being uttered. Persecution and death were promised to the followers of the Messiah, false prophets who would deceive many, and the loss of love of most (of the messianic community). All these things were happening within the period of the New Testament writings themselves, and are commented on within the writings. At the same time, the gospel of the kingdom was preached to the entire known habitable world – a phenomenon more than once mentioned by the foremost herald of that gospel, Paul. The defiling of the temple by the Romans in AD 70 and the offering of blasphemous sacrifices repeated the blasphemy of Antiochius IV Epiphanes, Daniel’s ‘abomination of desolation’. The deliverance of the community of the Messiah from the city shortly before its siege by their departure from it, and their regathering at Pella, is recorded in history. The apocalyptic description of meteorological phenomena in the prophecy was both an occurrence in history recorded by Josephus in his ‘Jewish Wars’ and literary hyperbole which echoed Isaiah’s description of the fall of Babylon. All these events had their fulfilment in the years leading up to the fall of the temple – an event which in their as yet unenlightened eyes, the disciples would have understood to be the complete meaning of the Coming of the Son of Man and the end of the age.”
“In Matthew 24, Jesus describes events which were fulfilled within the lifetime of that generation, and led to the catastrophic outcome of the course on which national Israel had set herself. But the prophecy did not exhaust itself with the catastrophe which befell national Israel. Isaiah twice uses the same language as Matthew to describe calamitous metereological disturbances. The first highlighted the fall of Babylon. The second attaches itself to those prophetic words which have a more distant judgement on the enemies of God’s people in view – a ‘day of vengeance’, which looks beyond days of vengeance in history to a final day of reckoning – the Day of the Lord, of which all preceding ‘days of the Lord’ are merely an anticipation. Following the example of this latter usage by Isaiah, Matthew employs the same apocalyptic language to describe further events which are as yet unfulfilled: the sign of the Son of Man in the sky, the mourning of all nations, the visible appearance of the Son of Man, the gathering of the elect by the angels from the four winds (a figure denoting the ends of the earth, as in ‘the four points of the compass’). Various details of these events echo references elswhere in the OT and NT writings, and reinforce their natural interpretation as a future ‘coming’ of Jesus, the Son of Man in as yet unfulfilled prophetic language. Such a ‘coming’ might be simultaneously towards God and the earth, or a completion of the first (occurring at the ascension) with the latter (his ascension was primarily for and on behalf of the earth).”
“Matthew’s prophecy concludes - ‘this generation’, the generation Jesus was addressing at the time of speaking, would see the fulfilment of these events, insofar as they had a 1st century fulfilment. But here emerges a double perspective. For just as the weary traveller fixes his eyes on the near peak, thinking it to be the summit where he can rest from his arduous ascent, so on approaching that peak, another appears behind it – more distant, yet higher than the one on which he had fixed his eyes. The first peak had obscured the second, deceiving the traveller into thinking that the object of his journey was in sight. But the more distant peak proved to be the true object of his journey. So with Matthew, ‘the end of the age’ was not to be identified with the fall of the temple. This age, ‘this evil age’ of Jewish apocalyptic writing, had yet longer to run, to a more distant time and conclusion. The Coming of the Son of Man would bear comparison with the catastrophe of AD 70, but was not fulfilled or completed by it. Jesus answered the questions of the disciples with a plain and a hidden figure. To more distant ages, the terms are reversed: what became plain to the disciples in their lifetime has become hidden to later ages. What is now plain to later ages, the future Coming of the Son of Man, was hidden at that time to the disciples.”
“But not hidden without subsequent enlightenment. By the time of the fulfilment of the 1st century events, the disciples and apostles seem to have known that these were not the complete fulfilment of the prophecy, and that a greater fulfilment was to come. How can this be deduced? From the silence which attended the 1st century fulfilment. Nowhere is it commented upon as the great fulfilment of the Son of Man’s coming. Nowhere is salvation described as completed by the escape of the Messianic people from the doomed city, or that this deliverance was the pattern of any other deliverance and salvation. By AD 70, the greater peak had already come into view, as eloquently expressed in other portions of the sacred writings. The fall of the temple had ceased to have eschatological significance: eclipsed as it was by the greater events already accomplished in the history of Jesus - ho eschatos.”
“A double perspective, with a greater fulfilment to come, a Coming of the Son of Man which would be the final fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy, but in continuity with momentous events which had already occurred - not in the fall of Jerusalem, but in the death, resurrection, ascension and outpoured Spirit of the Messiah. This was the victory which was to be proclaimed as the triumph of the kingdom of life throughout the world, and remains so to be proclaimed today.”
The Trappist paused at this point in the scroll, rolled it up carefully, placed it in his pack, and left the room. After appropriate courtesies at the bar over a Dacicky and conversation, he put the pack on his back and made his way unseen out of the hostel. A proclamation had yet to be made, and he pondered how and where this should be, and whither his journey would now take him.