But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods — that prophet shall die.” And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?” — if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.
–Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (JPS Tanakh)
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
–Mark 13:1-2 (NASB)
Last Friday, in my commentary on Torah Portion Shoftim, I stated that of the various prophesies of Jesus, we can verify those that described the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, a bit of a challenge came my way, questioning the certainty of my statement. The question was whether or not Jesus was foretelling of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem or a future Jerusalem.
Here’s what I mean.
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven.
“Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
–Mark 13:24-30 (NASB)
If this is Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we have to ask ourselves if the sun and moon went dark, the stars fell out of heaven, and the powers in the heavens were shaken. Of course, this part of his prophesy is generally applied to the return of Jesus in some unknown future except that he says, “I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” A plain reading of the text in English seems to indicate that Jesus was talking about his eventual return after a future destruction of Jerusalem and that he expected all of these events to take place during the lifetime of the (then) current generation.
Guess what? It didn’t happen.
However there are a few things to consider. We tend to read the Bible chronologically front to back, but it’s not always presented that way, even in the same book. I remember sitting in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue many years ago and hearing the Rabbi say that even the events that occurred in the Torah portion for that week (Mishpatim) may not be in chronological order. I don’t remember the details of that discussion, but it certainly got my attention.
Going back to Mark 13, what was the interval of time between the statement Jesus made in verses 1 and 2 and what he was saying in verse 3 and beyond? Remember, in verses 1 and 2, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple. Starting in verse three, he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple. At least minutes and perhaps hours passed, but we don’t really know. We also don’t know in the first two verses, if he was talking about the 70 CE destruction of the Temple or the future destruction. Certainly the context would imply that all of Chapter 13 in Mark was a discussion of the same topic, but it’s not necessarily so. Remember, when this Gospel was written, there were no such things as chapters and verses. For that matter, the exact construction of sentences and insertion of punctuation isn’t absolutely fixed. Chapter 13 could involve more than a single topic, though the ancient and future destructions of Jerusalem are related.
But that doesn’t solve the problem that Jesus seemed to believe his return was going to be in the lifetime of his disciples, which makes it a matter of years or decades at most. How do we solve “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”?
I’m sure someone must have addressed this puzzle throughout the long history of Christianity. It’s an obvious question. I also don’t doubt (sadly) that this chapter may have contributed to the loss of faith in more than a few people.
Without being a theologian or being able to ask one, I did find one thing. The word “generation” in verse 30 can also be translated as “race.” If that’s the case, then the sentence could read, “Truly I say to you, this race will not pass away until all these things take place” (emph. mine).
I’m assuming that “race” is being used as in racial type or addressing an entire people group. If that’s true, then maybe Jesus is saying that the Jewish people will not pass away before his return, which would seem obvious but it takes the idea of an imminent return out of the sentence. He may simply be reassuring his disciples that the Jewish people will not all be exterminated by the Romans (or anyone else) before he comes back.
On the other hand, multiple translations of that word always render it as “generation.”
I dunno. A plain read of the text still presents a problem. Here’s what a couple of Christian commentaries say about this verse:
“This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished.” This is one of those prophecies which admit of a growing fulfillment. If the word “generation” (γανεὰ) be understood (as it may undoubtedly be understood) to mean the sum total of those living at any time on the earth, the prediction would hold true as far as the destruction of Jerusalem was concerned. The destruction of Jerusalem took place within the limits of the generation living in our Lord’s time; and there might be some of those whom he was then addressing who would live to see the event. His prediction amounted, in fact, to this, that the destruction of Jerusalem would take place within forty years of the time when he was speaking. But it may have a wider meaning. It may mean the Jewish people. Their city would be destroyed their power overthrown. They would be “peeled and scattered.” But they would still remain a distinct and separate nation to the end of the world. And there are other prophecies which show that with their national conversion to Christianity will be associated all that is most glorious in the future Church of God.
Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass fill all these things be done—or “fulfilled” (Mt 24:34; Lu 21:32). Whether we take this to mean that the whole would be fulfilled within the limits of the generation then current, or, according to a usual way of speaking, that the generation then existing would not pass away without seeing a begun fulfilment of this prediction, the facts entirely correspond. For either the whole was fulfilled in the destruction accomplished by Titus, as many think; or, if we stretch it out, according to others, till the thorough dispersion of the Jews a little later, under Adrian, every requirement of our Lord’s words seems to be met.
-Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Seems kind of thin. It’s possible that Jesus was talking about all Jews who would ever live when he said “this generation (race)” or that what was to be “accomplished” wasn’t literally all the events leading up to his return, but only the beginning of a long list of signs that signal his eventual return. Yeah, like I said. It seems kind of thin.
A number of other Christian commentaries on the same verse yield similar results. I can’t help but think these Christian Bible commentators are all reading into the text what they need to see in order to justify the fact that Jesus has yet to return. Unless there’s something about the original Greek that strongly suggests Jesus couldn’t have been talking about a literal generation of men, then Houston, I think we have a problem.
To add to the problem, there are other verses where Jesus spoke of “this generation” seeing his return.
“Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
“Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
I can’t imagine that generations of Christian theologians simply missed all this or explained it away using inadequate interpretative methods, but then again, I don’t like to make assumptions. OK, Bible smart people, what is a credible way to refute the rather annoying problem…or does it exist?
The floor is now open.