One of the sections of this apocalypse deals with the sudden appearance of ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Dan. 11:31) and an accompanying tribulation in Judaea. In its present form this passage has been linked up rather awkwardly in a general series of events presaging the end of the world, but it may well once have been an independent oracle on the approaching doom of Jerusalem
An Introduction to the New Testament: Revelation and the Place of Apocalyptic in the Teaching of Jesus and the Early Church
By Richard Heard
Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1950. This material prepared for Religion-Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
- 1950: Richard Heard, An Introduction to the New Testament
Chapter 24: The Study of The Revelation
No New Testament book is so difficult for the Christian of today to understand as the Revelation. Its fantastic imagery and lack of clear order are formidable obstacles to the grasp of its meaning. Yet as the only book of Christian prophecy which was accepted into the New Testament it has a special significance for the understanding of certain aspects of early Christian religion. It is only when the student has read the Revelation and comprehended the way in which a Christian prophet could cast his message into such a form that he can assess the influence of such a type of faith on the moulding of Christian tradition.
The apocalyptic passages in the gospels and the epistles raise fundamental questions as to the place which such teaching had in Jesus’ mind. Was the eschatological expectation of Jesus expressed in the crude material forms of contemporary Jewish apocalyptic, or do such passages in the gospels represent the distortion of his original message under the influence of Christian prophecy? How are the contradictions between apocalyptic and spiritual interpretations of the End in Paul and John to be resolved? To answer these questions a right understanding of the Revelation is essential.
Books for Reading
The best short introduction to the Revelation is perhaps E. F. Scott, The Book of Revelation (S.C.M.). Among larger works the recently published work of A. M. Farrer, The Re-birth of Images, makes difficult reading, but contains much that is helpful for the exegesis of the book. Of commentaries for the reader who knows no Greek those by M. Kiddle (Moffatt) and by A. Hanson and R. Preston (S.C.M.) may be mentioned.
For the study of the apocalyptic element in the New Testament as a whole, Burkitt, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Oxford) and the larger work of Charles, Eschatology: Hebrew, Jewish and Christian (Black) are helpful, as are two recent books, H. A. Guy, New Testament Prophecy (Epworth Press) and T. F. Glasson, The Second Advent (Epworth Press).
Chapter 25: The Revelation of John
The author of the book gives his name as John (1:1,4). Tradition from the middle of the second century identified him with the apostle, although there is evidence that this tradition was disputed in the second half of the second century by Christians who found distasteful the teaching of the book on the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth before the final judgement (20:3-6). Criticism of the tradition was renewed in the third century by scholars who were conscious of the contrasts in style which separate this book from the Fourth Gospel, also traditionally attributed to the apostle.
The great majority of modern critics agree that the John who wrote the Revelation cannot also have written the gospel or the epistles. There are a number of curious verbal coincidences, e.g. the frequent occurrence of ‘witness’ and of ‘keeping the commandments’ of Christ or God, but these are probably due to the common Asian provenance of the books. Between the general thought, vocabulary, and style of the gospel and epistles on the one hand and those of the Revelation on the other, there is a wide gulf. In the Revelation God’s love is mentioned once (10:9), his fatherhood not at all, and the material imagery of the Revelation is in sharp contrast to the mysticism of the gospel. Many of the specially characteristic words of the gospel are absent from the Revelation, e.g. truth, or used in a different sense, e.g. light, only with a physical meaning; different Greek words are employed in the two books for ‘the Lamb’. The style of the Revelation is barbarous, and only consistent with a very imperfect knowledge of Greek grammar.
While such a poor knowledge of Greek is perhaps consistent with authorship by the apostle — and we have seen that many scholars refuse to connect the gospel with the apostle John — there is nothing in Revelation to indicate such authorship, and the statement in 21:14 that the twelve foundations of the wall of new Jerusalem had ‘on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ is hardly consistent with it. The writer shows no interest in the earthly life of Christ apart from his birth (12:1 ff.), his Davidic descent (5:5), and his death by crucifixion (1:7, 18, 11:8), but the very nature of his work leaves little place for mention of the earthly life of Christ.
Beyond his name, the fact that he was a prophet (22:6-7), the place of his vision (1:9), and his acquaintance with some of the Asian churches, the Revelation tells us little about its author. His knowledge of the Hebrew Old Testament and of Jewish apocalyptic thought suggests that he was a born Jew, and the Hebraic solecisms of his style that he was not brought up in the Asian dispersion which used the Greek language in its everyday life, but that he may have come there from Palestine. Of the attempts to identify the author more closely only one deserves serious attention. The historian Eusebius (c. A.D. 320) drew attention to the fact that an earlier Christian writer, Papias (c. A.D. 120), had given in his list of authorities two Johns, one the apostle and one ‘John the Elder’, and thought that the latter might have written the Revelation. There is much to be said for this view, though it can never be more than a conjecture. The little we know of him suggests that this John was a well-known figure in Asia, and the one passage in the surviving fragments of Papias’ work which is directly ascribed to a reminiscence of John the Elder puts into the mouth of Jesus a description of the miraculous fruits of the age to come in terms akin to those used in a first century Jewish apocalypse (cf. Chap. 26).
Date and Circumstances of Writing
Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) speaks of the Revelation as seen ‘not long ago, but almost in our generation, at the end of Domitian’s reign (i.e. c. A.D. 95)’. There are grounds for believing that Irenaeus is here quoting from Papias, who himself knew the Revelation, and this date may well be correct. The church in Ephesus has had time to leave its first love (2:4), that in Laodicea to become lukewarm (3:16). Domitian seems to have been the first emperor to take emperor-worship seriously, and persecution of Christians seems to have become widespread, if sporadic, in his reign, although the evidence is scanty. Earlier dates have been suggested, but on insufficient grounds. A date in the last years of Nero’s reign (54-68) is ruled out by the references to the legend of Nero’s return (27:8-11), and the verses (11:1 ff.) which are sometimes claimed as indicating that the temple was still standing seem to draw their significance from Old Testament prophecy (especially Ez. 40) rather than from any contemporary historical situation. A date under Vespasian can be supported by a strict interpretation of 17:10, but such an interpretation is far from binding in an apocalypse.
How the book came to be written is explained in 1:1-3, 9-20. John received a command from Christ (18) when he was ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ to write what he saw in a book and to send it to the seven churches. It is permissible to speak of the occasion of the book as the need to exhort these churches, and to reassure them of the reward soon to come (1:1,3), but the impelling force that led to its writing is the consciousness of the Christian prophet that he has been commanded to proclaim his vision of the future (1:1, 4:1). How far the contents of the book correspond to the actual experiences of the ecstatic vision, and how far the author has sought to expand and interpret his vision, we have no means of learning. What is certain is that the form both of his vision and of his presentation of it show the great influence exerted upon his mind by his study of the Old Testament and Jewish apocalypses; there are continual echoes of Isaiah, Ezekiel, I Enoch, and, above all, of Daniel. The Revelation illustrates in a remarkable fashion the way in which early Christian prophets drew from Jewish literary sources the language and imagery with which they strove to express their own spiritual experiences and the meaning of the new and final revelation in Jesus Christ.
The letters to the seven churches (2-3) tell us a little about the situation of Christianity in Asia when the book was written. There is persecution from without; the imprisonment of some at Smyrna (2: 10-11) and the death of Antipas at Pergamum (2:13) seem to indicate the hostility of the authorities. The antagonism of the Jews is referred to in 2:9, 3:9. Internal troubles also are plaguing the churches, and we hear of false apostles at Ephesus (2:2) and of heresies there and elsewhere. We are not informed of what the Nicolaitans taught (2:6,15), but the teaching of Balaam (2:14-15) and Jezebel (2:20-21) involves fornication and idolatry. The churches are clearly in need of encouragement, and in some cases, of reproof.
The Message of The Book
There is no ‘teaching’ as such in the Revelation, and the word is used only of heresies, e.g. 2:15, 20. Even in the letters to the churches it is not teaching which is given, but commands from the Spirit, and the main purpose of the book as a whole is the revelation of the future. The plan of the book is simple, a prologue (1:1-8), the account of a vision of Christ (1:18) commanding John to write what he sees to the seven churches (1:19-20), special messages to each of the churches (2-3), the heavenly visions which comprise the main part of the book (4:1-22:5), and an epilogue (22:6-21). What makes the understanding of the author’s original meaning hard for the reader is the difficulty of divining a consistent and consecutive course of events from the series of visions narrated in the main body of the book. Thus the great day of God’s wrath upon the people of the earth is described at the end of chapter 6, and is followed immediately by the sealing of the elect and a description of their service before the throne of God; yet the armies of the kings of the earth are destroyed again, after a whole series of intervening disasters, in 19:21; even after the second death of all who were not found written in the book of life (20:15) there are still evildoers to be found outside the holy city (22:15).
Attempts have been made to explain this disorder of thought by supposing that the sheets of the original MS. have been accidentally transposed, that the original book has been clumsily redacted, that earlier literary sources have been incorporated by John into a framework inconsistent with them, or that the series of seals, trumpets, bowls, etc., are to be understood not as following one another but as different ways of presenting the same actions. None of the explanations have commanded general assent, however, although it is clear that John has a wide knowledge of earlier apocalyptic writings, and that some theory of recapitulation is necessary to produce a logical sequence of events in the book; the most probable solution of the confusion of the Revelation lies in the confusion of the writer’s own thought and his lack of concern about strict consistency. His mind was soaked in apocalyptic imagery drawn from various sources and not always mutually consistent, and he wrote, as he believed, under the direct guidance of the Spirit; the combination of these two influences enabled him to write passages of tremendous power and religious significance, but not to achieve a consistent whole.
The reader will find his way more easily through the maze of visions if he bears in mind the general scheme of eschatological expectation that underlies I and II Thessalonians, I Cor.15, and the apocalyptic chapters Mk.13, Lk.21, and Matt.24. The end is conceived of as coming in three stages, a period of catastrophe in the earth and heavens, the coming of Christ to destroy the power of evil, and the entering of the faithful into their reward. This simple pattern has been embroidered and developed by each writer in a number of ways. Paul, for example, writes of ‘the lawless one’, whose revelation is delayed by a restraining force, but whose final appearance will bring on the events of the End (II Thess. 2): the dead in Christ are to be raised at Christ’s coming and to join those who are left alive to be ever with the Lord (I Thess. 4); in I Cor.15:23-28 there appears even to be a reference to a temporary Messianic kingdom until the final conquest of death and Christ’s deliverance of his kingdom to God the Father.
In the Revelation the general scheme is not fundamentally different from that of Paul, but it has been so developed and overlaid with an abundance of apocalyptic detail and the repetition of events that the connecting thread is hard to follow.
For the history of the Church two sections of the book have had a special importance, the judgement on Rome (12-18) and the account in 20 of the Millennium, i.e. the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth (from the Latin mille = 1,000 annus = year).
John’s denunciation of the Roman power and her rulers is cast in symbolic language, but there can be no doubt that he regarded the Roman Empire as the instrument of Satan. Hatred of Rome had grown among the Jews with their subjection to Rome and with the failure of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, but for a Christian of the age of Domitian it was the claim of the emperor to be worshipped that was the supreme offence against God (13:6-8). The interpretation of the great harlot as Rome (17:3,18) and of the seven heads of the scarlet beast on which she sits as Roman emperors (17:3,10) is certain. Unfortunately the interpretation of the book has too often proceeded from attempts to show the relevance of its symbols for each passing age, and the challenge of 13:18 to deduce the name of the beast has been answered with names as different as the Pope and Hitler.(The author was prevented from preaching in a prisoner of war camp in Germany in 1940 because this latter identification had been made in a previous address by a British sergeant-major.)
John’s account of the Millennium owes much, directly or indirectly, to the belief which can be traced in some Jewish apocalypses (cf. Chap. 11) that God’s Messiah will reign on earth for a period of time before the final judgement. The authority of the Revelation was in turn to persuade many Christians to accept ‘Chiliasm’ (Greek chilioi = 1,000), and the revulsion of other Christians against this material conception of religion delayed the recognition of the Revelation as canonical for centuries in the East.
The Value of The Revelation
The preceding paragraphs have inevitably concentrated upon the defects of the book, with its one-sided interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s message to men. The absence of the ideas of God’s fatherhood and love of men, and the comparative subordination of the moral and spiritual side of the Christian gospel to an apocalyptic often at variance with it, are serious failings. And yet, with all its imperfections, the Revelation remains the greatest of Christian prophecies because of its power to fire men’s imaginations in times of persecution and crisis with the majesty of God and the hope of glory to come. Its deficiencies are supplied by other books of the New Testament, and, when it is read and studied in conjunction with them, it more than bears out Paul’s promise (I Cor. 14:3) ‘he that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and comfort, and consolation’.
Chapter 26: The Place of Apocalyptic in The Teaching of Jesus and of The Early Church
A recurring theme in the New Testament is the expectation of the imminent end of the present world age and of an approaching judgement, accompanied at times by a graphic and material depiction of the events that are to herald and accompany the end. The expectation was not fulfilled and many earnest Christians throughout the centuries have echoed the words of the ‘mockers’ in II Pet. 3:4 ‘Where is the promise of his coming ? for, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’
It cannot be contested that the primitive church as a whole, and even the apostles, held firmly to a mistaken view of the nearness of the End. James’ message (5:8) that ‘the coming of the Lord is at hand’ is repeated by Peter (I Pet. 4:17) ‘The time is come for judgement to begin at the house of God’, and Paul tells both the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4:15-17) and the Corinthians (I Cor. 15: 51-52) that some of them will still be alive when the end comes. The teaching of I John (2:18) is that ‘it is the last hour’ and of Revelation (22:10) that ‘the time is at hand’.
The Teaching of Jesus
Even Jesus himself, according to the Synoptic Gospels, had taught during his early ministry of his early return in glory and in judgement. In Mark 8: 38-9:1 we read:
Again, towards the close of the little apocalypse of Mark 13, with its detailed description of the signs of the end, Jesus says (13:30), ‘This generation shall not pass away, until all these things be accomplished’. When the high priest asks him at his trial if he is the Christ, Jesus replies (Mk. 14: 62),
These passages from Mark can be paralleled by others from Matthew e.g. 10:23 ‘Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come’, and from Luke, e.g. 22: 34-36. In the face of such evidence it must either be accepted that Jesus is rightly recorded in the Synoptic Gospels as having taught of his early return in glory and the accompanying judgement and that he was mistaken, or it must be shown that his teaching was from the earliest days misinterpreted and transformed. There are strong reasons for rejecting the former alternative, and accepting the challenge of the latter. A close study of the gospels shows that the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching imply no such early end of the world, but are in fact inconsistent with it, and that the ‘apocalyptic’sayings bear many signs of editorial distortion both on the part of the final gospel authors and of the earlier traditions.
It is clear that the teaching of Jesus was eschatological in the sense that life is to be lived in expectation of the judgement and the coming of the kingdom, and his acceptance of the titles Son of man and Messiah implied a claim that the Kingdom of God had already come or was about to begin. All these terms, Son of man, Messiah, Kingdom of God, had for his hearers a connection with the apocalyptic expectation of the time, based largely on the teaching of a number of current apocalyptic books, such as the Books of Daniel and Enoch, and exemplified in the teaching of John the Baptist that one mightier than he was about to come,
The general tenor of Jesus’ own teaching, however, indicates that he used these symbols, in interpretation of his own mission, in a sense quite different from that given to those of his contemporaries. This is brought out very well in the consistent picture of the teaching of Jesus given by the source Q. While, according to Q, Jesus claimed to be Son of God (Mt. 11:27, Lk.10:22) and to bring the Kingdom proclaimed beforehand by John (Mt. 9:27, Lk. 7:28), the Kingdom, whether thought of as present (e.g. Mt. 13, 31-33, Lk. 8:18-21, Mt. 23:13, Lk. 9:52) or as future (e.g. in the Lord’s Prayer) is primarily spiritual, although in the latter case Jesus seems sometimes to have used material and traditional metaphors, e.g. of a Messianic banquet (Mt. 8:11-12, Lk. 13:28-29). When he speaks of the coming of the Son of man, he emphasises its suddenness (Mt. 24:43-44, Lk. 12:39-40) and universality (Mt. 24:28,39, Lk.17:24,30), but refuses to name a place (Mt. 24:28 Lk. 17:37)or time Mt. 24:44, Lk. 12:40)for it.The general truth of the Q version of Jesus’ teaching is confirmed by a significant number of passages from other strata of the gospels,(E.g. for the spiritual conception of the kingdom Mk. 4:26-29, Mt. 5:3, 13:44-45, Lk. 17:20-21; for the suddenness of the coming of the Son of man Mk. 13:34-35; for the refusal to name a time Mk. 13:32-33.) and although there are many problems that admit of no certain solution, e.g. the difficulty of reconciling passages where the kingdom is spoken of as present with those where it is spoken of as future, there is at least sufficient evidence for reconstructing the main lines of Jesus’ authentic eschatological teaching.
When the passages in the gospels which give to Jesus a materially apocalyptic outlook are compared with these others, their secondary nature becomes apparent. In many cases the processes of alteration and distortion can be traced fairly easily, although in other cases we can only guess at the original context of the words or how they came to be put into Jesus’ mouth. In the passage already quoted from Mark 8: 38-9:1 we have two genuine sayings of Jesus, one of the judgement that will accompany his second coming, one of the coming of the kingdom with power in the lifetime of his hearers. The original meaning of the second of these sayings may have had reference to the coming of the Spirit (cf. the possible original meaning of the saying in Mk. 13:30) or, as some scholars think, to the Transfiguration which follows almost at once in the Marcan narrative; it is only the editorial juxtaposition of the two sayings, falsifying their original contexts, which turns the whole passage into a prophecy of the return of the Son of man within a generation.
‘The Little Apocalypse’ of Mark 13 illustrates the results of such editorial manipulation on a larger scale. There is no reason to doubt that many genuine sayings of Jesus are embedded in this chapter, and that they include a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, prophecies of persecution, of false Christs, and of the suddenness of the return of the Son of man; but the genuine sayings of Jesus have been so transformed and robbed of their original contexts in the process of forming a long and confused series of prophecies of the End, many of whose elements are derived from other sources, that the final result is very different in spirit from the original teaching of Jesus. Lk. 21:34-36, with which Luke closes his parallel apocalyptic discourse, is so reminiscent in its vocabulary of Paul’s epistles as to suggest that here also words have been put into Jesus’ mouth that in fact represent the belief of early Christians. A similar explanation may account for Mt. 10: 23, though in this verse some scholars see a genuine word of Jesus whose original meaning had reference only to a proposed ‘follow up’ by Jesus of his disciples’ mission, and for the present form of Mk. 14:62.
The apocalyptic element in the teaching of Jesus, if such a view of the gospel evidence is accepted, is reduced to small proportions. He spoke of the end of the world and of a final judgement, but refused to name a time for them, and he at times employed in connection with the kingdom that will be at last established, metaphors of the Messianic banquet and of thrones of judgement (Mt. 19:28, Lk. 22:29-30). At the same time he spoke of the kingdom, already present and growing and being entered, in such a spiritual sense as to illuminate the dominant significance which he attached to these terms. He charged with a new spiritual significance the existing conceptions of Messiah and Son of man, of the end of the world, and of God’s Kingdom.
Why The Disciples Misunderstood The Teaching of Jesus
That his apostles, however, should have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching to the extent of expecting his return in their own generation is not surprising. It is clear from Mark’s account of the Confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi that even in recognising Jesus’ Messiahship he misunderstood its true nature. When Jesus spoke of his forthcoming death, and Peter began to rebuke him (Mk. 8:32), it was because Peter, like James and John (Mk.10: 35-37) shared in the common belief that the Messiah would come once, and initiate the New Age which was to see God’s rule fully established. When one misunderstanding — that the Messiah would not die — had been removed, it was replaced by another, that his departure was only for a short while and that the establishment of the kingdom was to be on the lines expected by the apocalyptists. It is significant that Luke represents the apostles even after the resurrection as asking ‘Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel’? (Acts 1:7), and although the interpretation of the Kingdom of God as a present reality is not absent from the New Testament outside the gospels (e.g. Col.1:13), James (2:5) and the author of Hebrews (12:28) use the term only, and Paul (e.g. I Cor. 15:50, Gal. 5:21) mainly of the kingdom that was shortly to appear.
The Development of Apocalyptic Ideas
Two influences especially confirmed the early Christians in their error, their study of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic writings, and the rise of Christian prophecy. The use of scriptural proof texts necessarily involved references to ‘the last days’ (Joel 2:28, cited Acts 2:17) and the nearness of the judgement (Deut. 18:19, cited Acts 3:23), and to cosmic catastrophes connected with the end (Joel 3:30-31, cited Acts 2:19-20). The very confusions and inconsistencies of much of Christian apocalyptic reflect not only the differences between the teaching of Jesus and that of Jewish apocalyptic, but also the wide variations in the apocalyptic conceptions that existed within contemporary Judaism. While Jewish apocalypses are only rarely quoted directly in the New Testament (yet cf. Jude 14-15), the reading and interpretation of them, in the light of Jesus’ Messiahship, exercised a widespread influence in still further adapting Christian teaching on the End to current Jewish conceptions. To such an influence are due the introduction of the figure of Antichrist (I Jn. 2:18 cf. II Thess. 2:3-8), and probably of Daniel’s ‘abomination of desolation’ (Mk. 13:14), the accumulation of signs and portents before the end (Mk. 13, Mt. 24, Lk. 21) and some of the accompaniments of the end itself (e.g. the trump of I Thess. 4:16 and Mt. 24:31). The process of distortion was accelerated by the activity of Christian prophets. The gift of speaking ‘in the Spirit of God’ (I Cor. 12:3) was one which greatly enriched Christian life and was of great service for edification (I Cor. 14:4); at the same time, because of its recognised authority and its freedom of utterance, it was peculiarly fitted to spread in the Church a confusion of ideas about the coming End; the individual prophet, like the seer of the Book of Revelation, sometimes spoke from a mind charged at once with the teaching of Jesus and with confused memories of apocalyptic writings and utterances; his words, in turn, were received as authoritative and passed on.
Two examples will show the working of such influences in the New Testament. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians in A.D. 50, reminds them of the teaching he has given them about the End (I Thess. 5:2, II Thess. 2:5). In his first epistle (I Thess. 4:15-5:3) he refers explicitly to ‘the word of the Lord’ that the coming of the Lord will be in the lifetime of at least some of them, a clear indication that the misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching goes back to those who had themselves heard him. He reminds them that they already know that the day of the Lord will come ‘as a thief in the night’ and that it will be accompanied by sudden destruction on those not expecting it; here his teaching echoes genuine sayings of Jesus. The end itself is pictured in terms drawn from Jewish apocalyptic; the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel (cf. The apocalypse of Moses 22), and with the trump of God (cf. 4 Ezra 6:23); those that are alive and the risen dead are to be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (cf. Dan. 7:13-14), ‘and so shall we ever be with the Lord’.
In his second epistle (II Thess. 2:3-12) and unexpected coming of the end, which show not only the influence of old Jewish apocalyptic ideas, but also the development of new and perhaps specifically Christian ideas under the stress of contemporary events. The conception of the ‘man of sin’, who is to set himself forth as God to sit in the temple of God and finally to be destroyed by the breath of the Lord Jesus, owes much ultimately to Jewish apocalyptic, notably to Dan. 7, 8 and 11, but the Christians have adapted the conception to their own expectations and have developed a whole series of accompanying ideas, e.g. ‘he that restraineth’ (2:7). We can only guess at some of the reasons which led to this particular formulation of an apocalyptic scheme; the attitude of Christians to the policy of individual Roman emperors may well be counted among them, especially if those scholars are right who see in Caligula’s attempt in A.D. 40 to introduce his statue into the Temple an event which gave to Christian as well as other Jews a new and contemporary interpretation of Daniel 11:31.
The Abomination of Desolation
A similar mixture of apocalyptic elements drawn from different sources is to be found in ‘the little Apocalypse’ of Mk. 13. One of the sections of this apocalypse (14-20) deals with the sudden appearance of ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Dan. 11:31) and an accompanying tribulation in Judaea. In its present form this passage has been linked up rather awkwardly in a general series of events presaging the end of the world, but it may well once have been an independent oracle on the approaching doom of Jerusalem like that oracle which, Eusebius (H.E. III 5,3.) tells us, ‘was vouchsafed by way of revelation to approved men’ of the Church at Jerusalem before the Jewish war of A.D. 67, and which commanded them to depart from the city before the war, and to take up residence in Pella, a small town on the other side of the Jordan.
Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple implied that Jerusalem would also be destroyed, but the form of the Marcan oracle suggests that on the basis of this simple prediction was developed, in the light of Old Testament prophecy, and first-century prophetic experience, a much fuller and more ‘apocalyptic’ oracle. This in turn could eventually be put mistakenly but in good faith, into the mouth of Jesus, and its meaning further changed by being made significant for the approach of the end of the world.
The Book of Revelation must be read and understood in the light of two generations of such development, and of the special impetus given to apocalyptic by the actual fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. That the same kinds of influence remained at work is shown by the continued popularity in some Christian circles of the Millenarian view of the Messianic kingdom. Some of the Jewish apocalypses current in the first century A.D. described a temporary reign of the Messiah on earth before the final judgement (4 Ezra 7: 28 ff., 2 Baruch 40:3). It is possible that Paul refers to such a view (in I Cor.15: 23-26), although there is no trace of it in the synoptic apocalypses, and in the Book of Revelation (20:1-10) there is explicit mention of a thousand-year reign of the saints with Christ on earth. A curious passage from Papias (c. A.D. 120) has been preserved in the writings of Irenaeus,(Adversus Haereses 5:33[A.D. 185]) in which it is said that the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, recalled some of his words. John asserted that the Lord had taught about the times to come that the earth would be miraculously fertile, and that amongst other wonders
It is clear from the fantastic nature of this description and from a comparison of this with a similar passage in Baruch 24 that Jesus is here mistakenly credited with teaching derived from Jewish apocalyptic sources. Fortunately the appearance and growing authority of the gospels, although they often seriously misrepresented the teaching of Jesus, prevented the further growth of such accretions.
The Fourth Gospel
Side by side with this interest in the apocalyptic interpretation — and misinterpretation — of Jesus’ teaching there seems to have persisted a truer and more spiritual comprehension of his words. For a time this understanding of the nature of the kingdom was in part accommodated to the apocalyptic conception, and in Paul’s teaching there is an unresolved inconsistency between his apocalyptic view of the coming kingdom and such passages as Romans 14:17.
It is noticeable, however, that in his epistles written after A.D. 55 Paul makes only fleeting allusions to the nearness of the End (e.g. Rom. 13:11-12), and his thought seems to have outgrown his earlier eschatological beliefs.
In the Johannine writings a stage is reached where the apocalyptic conception has largely, but not altogether disappeared and the spiritual aspect of the teaching of Jesus is once more dominant. While in his first epistle (2:18) John speaks of the coming of many antichrists as a sign that it is the last hour, and of the coming of the day of judgement (4:17) and there are vestigial traces in the gospel of Jesus’ prophecies of the destruction of the Temple (2: 19, 4:21) of his heavenly kingdom (13:36, 14:2-3), of his second coming (5:28-29, 21:22), and of the judgement of the last day (6: 39, 12:48), in the gospel at least these sayings are given a new significance. The kingdom is a spiritual one (18:36) and entrance into means the possession of eternal life that comes from belief (6: 47); for a future judgement and resurrection are in effect substituted the judgement that attaches to present disbelief (3:18) and the life that springs from present belief and will continue in spite of physical death (11:25). It is the supreme achievement of the author of the fourth gospel to have pierced through the confused and distorted tradition of the words of Jesus which was available to him to a truer understanding of the essential nature of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed.