The Olivet Discourse: Introduction

Having established the timing of Jesus’ expectation regarding the “coming of the son of man” in the last post, we are now faced with two starkly different options as to how to interpret its content. This leads us, inevitably, to the Olivet Discourse. If we agree on the authenticity of Mark 13 and its parallels, then we can say either (a) that Jesus expected the actual end of history imminently over the horizon, and that he was embarrassingly wrong in that prediction, or (b) that he was using vivid metaphors as a way of investing thoroughly historical events with their full theological significance, and that this prediction was in fact powerfully vindicated in the events which transpired after his death. According to the first view, the “coming of the son of man” refers literally to the return of Jesus from heaven to earth. According to the second view, the “coming of the son of man” is an apocalyptic symbol which speaks of the exaltation of Jesus and his followers over the present ruling regime in Jerusalem, a prediction which was then fulfilled in the events of 66-70AD.

What we cannot say, however, is that Jesus was speaking over his contemporaries’ heads to something still in our future. Of course, that is the most popular view, and it continues to carry quite an appeal throughout the church. But for all its good intention, the futurist reading crumbles under critical scrutiny. This is why we addressed the question of timing separately in the last post. Because the repeated references to “this generation” in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34 place the timing of Jesus’ expectation squarely within the lifetime of his contemporaries, and so even if we did conclude that the “coming of the son of man” referred to the second coming, or that the language of “stars falling from heaven” referred to a literal cosmic collapse, none of that would justify a reinterpretation of Jesus’ references to “this generation”. There may be a wider eschatological significance to the language which Jesus uses, but such a wider significance should not be confused with Jesus’ own intended referent, which is clearly directed to his contemporary Jewish audience.

So which one is it? Was Jesus speaking of the cataclysmic end of the world, only to be proven wrong when history rumbled on, however tumultuously, past the generation of his predicted apocalypse? Or have we perhaps been guilty of misinterpreting the content of his predictions by seeing literal prose where in fact there is a field of rich metaphors? Over the course of the next few posts I will argue for the latter of these two options. In my estimation, both the popular futurist reading and the liberal scholarly one have the same problem at their root: they both fail to understand Jesus’ language in its own historical context, language which was regularly used to refer to events within continuing history. So over the next several posts we will take an in-depth look at the historical context and Old Testament background of the Olivet Discourse and see what light it sheds on Jesus’ meaning.

But one last comment before we begin. Probably the most common reaction to the reading suggested here is that it makes Jesus' language "merely metaphorical". This reaction assumes two things: first, that literal language is "normal" language, and, second, that taking something non-literally dramatically reduces its real-world truth value. We will challenge both of these assumptions throughout this series, but a brief response on the front end might be helpful.

The main problem with this thoroughly modernist reaction is that it confuses the different ways that words refer to things (literal or non-literal) with the reality of the things themselves (physical or spiritual, concrete or abstract). Of course, if  it were true that metaphors had less truth value than literal prose, then we would have to seriously question the integrity of every person who ever wrote a love song, let alone an apocalyptic prophecy. But since song writers throughout history and across cultural boundaries have always relied heavily on non-literal forms of speech to express the deep truth of their referent, and most especially when the subject is of great weight and import, we are probably right to question both the assumption that literal forms of speech are more normative and that they are more truthful.

What matters here is the genre of speech in question. We don't read a love song or a poem the same way we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So the central question before us is whether the apocalyptic language of Jesus' day was more like the love song or more like the textbook. There is no better way to answer this question than to simply listen to Jesus' words on their own terms and in their own cultural context; so that is what we will attempt to do here.