The subject of Biblical prophecy is a complex and fascinating journey through the psychology of belief. Even in this apparently enlightened age, the mystic predictions of the Biblical prophets are re-examined and re-interpreted into a host of puzzling and often mutually exclusive views of the future. Almost daily, we are assailed with dire predictions of turmoil and tribulation for the days to come.
How did we arrive at this point? How did the Bible become such a fruitful source of prophetic speculation? The answer lies in the view of the Bible that some believers hold. For these people, every word recorded in the Scriptures are the very words of God himself. Every prediction contained within its pages, no matter how fantastic or speculative, must come true. However, it is a sad fact that very often the prophecies fail. This is not too surprising, since these prophets were mere humans after all, and predicting the future is not something that humans do well.
What happens when a Biblical prophecy fails? To the true believer, this situation is literally unthinkable. A Biblical prophecy cannot fail, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary. For this reason, the phenomenon of recycled, or reinterpreted prophecies came into being. With the benefit of hindsight, and a little imagination, it is generally always possible to reinterpret a failed prophecy so that it once more becomes relevant. This phenomenon is not limited to modern day Bible interpreters - we find the same situation within the pages of the Bible itself. This article will trace one such prophecy through four different books of the Bible, showing in each case how the author reinterpreted his predecessors to arrive at a new and relevant prophecy for his time, only to be reinterpreted himself, in due time.
Jeremiah and the Restoration
The prophet Jeremiah, the protagonist of the Book that bears his name, lived through the siege and eventual destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar at the start of the fifth century BCE. Jeremiah's book contains many dire warnings of the destruction to be visited upon the Jews. But, in the midst of all this death and desolation, there is also a note of hope. Jeremiah predicts the restoration of the Jews to their homeland after a period of servitude.
Jeremiah 25:11 This whole country will become a desolate
wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon
Jeremiah 29:10,14 This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place...I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."
Many commentators agree that Jeremiah's period of seventy years was probably not meant to be taken literally. It was possibly just a general term, meaning a long time. In a similar manner, the Bible often uses the term "forty years" to refer to a long period. For example, both Saul and David were said to have reigned for forty years, and, of course, the Israelites were supposed to have wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Unfortunately, this was not the way that later interpreters of Jeremiah understood this term.
Daniel's Seventy Weeks
The problem in taking Jeremiah's period of seventy years literally is that it was both too short, and too long. In a strictly technical sense, the period of Exile lasted only about fifty years, depending on how one dates the events. The second siege and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar is reliably dated to about 586 BCE. The Persian King, Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon in a series of campaigns from about 536 to 538 BCE. It was shortly after the conquest of Babylon that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and begin the task of reconstruction. Even if one dates the beginning of the Exile to 597 BCE, when Jerusalem was first besieged by the Babylonian army, we still get only sixty years for the Exile.
In another sense, the Exile never really ended. Although Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, they remained under Persian control for almost two hundred years. At this point, the Persian empire was defeated by the Greeks, and Palestine came under control of the Macedonians. So, in a sense, the Jews never regained their independence, even though they were allowed to return to their native country.
This situation obviously weighed heavily on the unknown author of the book of Daniel. From his vantage point in the late second century BCE, Jeremiah's prophecy must have seemed bitterly ironic. Not only had the Jews already endured two hundred years of Persian rule - they also had to contend with a further 170 years of being alternately under the control of the Ptolemies, and then the Seleucids. Jewish independence and the Messianic Age, the brilliant dream of the ancient prophets, seemed further away than ever. And now, as if matters were not bad enough, the very existence of the Jewish nation was being threatened as never before in her turbulent history.
The Greek Seleucid line had spawned a creature who must have seemed like evil incarnate to the embattled Jews. Antiochus IV, surnamed Epiphanes ("God Manifest") had taken it upon himself to introduce the entire world to Greek culture, by force if necessary. This meant brutal suppression of all rival cultures, Judaism included. No longer were the Jews allowed to bring their sacrifices to the Temple, nor read their beloved Torah, nor circumcise their sons. Antiochus had already demonstrated that these edicts would be enforced with blood.
This was the situation in which the author of Daniel found himself. Surrounded by the very forces of Darkness, Jeremiah's prophecy seemed to taunt him with its all too obvious failure. Being a true believer in the ancient Scriptures, however, our author could not bring himself to admit defeat and abandon Jeremiah. So, in time-honored tradition, he sought for a way to reinterpret Jeremiah for his own time.
Daniel 9:1-2 In the first year of Darius...I, Daniel,
understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord
given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem
would last seventy years.
Daniel 9:24 "Seventy `sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.
Since a literal reading of Jeremiah's prophecy made a mockery of the author's situation, he recasts the seventy years into seventy weeks of years. In other words, Daniel has now extended the reach of Jeremiah's prophecy to 490 years, a time which was to see the consummation of all things, the vindication of the Jews, the destruction of the wicked, and the institution of God's glorious Kingdom on earth. He divides this period into three ages - the forty-nine years of the Exile, a further 432 years during which the city and the temple would be painstakingly rebuilt, and a final seven years when evil would be unleashed upon the world for one last fling. It is very obvious that the author of Daniel expected Antiochus to die at the hands of God himself, an event followed by the promised Messianic Age.
Daniel's little book was to have an impact far greater than its modest contents and unfulfilled promises might indicate. Together with a few other books in the apocalyptic genre, Daniel was to have a deep impact upon an obscure group of Jews known as the Christians.
Mark's Little Apocalypse
By the beginning of the Christian era, it had become all too obvious that Daniel's prophecies had failed. Ironically, the death of Antiochus in 163 BCE was followed by a period of independence for the Jews. Under the leadership of the Maccabees, the Jews managed to break free of the Greek oppressors, and enjoyed almost a century of independent rule. The Greek empire was far too occupied with its own incessant internal squabbles to take notice of Palestine, and had the added burden of facing a new threat - the rise of Rome.
The Jews, too, had their own problems. Although now technically independent, the Jewish monarchy was also plagued by civil strife, intrigue and double-dealing. No-one could mistake this brief respite from foreign oppression for the promised Messianic age of Divine tranquility. And, by 63 BCE, Israel's brief illusion of self-determination was shattered when Pompey annexed Palestine to the rapidly expanding Roman Empire.
It thus became necessary to find a new expression for Daniel, a new interpretation that would allow the beleagured prophet to speak to a whole new generation. And, there was a new villain readily at hand who could take on the role of Daniel's oppressor.
With the rise of Rome, it seemed only natural to see the Ceasars as the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecies. Thus, Rome took pride of place as Daniel's fourth beast (7:7), while the once mighty Greece was relegated to third position. This position was expounded by no less an august interpreter than Josephus, and became the de-facto interpretation of the New Testament itself.
The earliest of the Evangelists wrote the little book that has come down to us as the Gospel of Mark. In this work, we find a number of quotations from the book of Daniel, applied, obviously, to Jesus himself.
Mark 14:61-62 But Jesus remained
silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him,
"Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?"
"I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of
Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the
clouds of heaven."
Mark 13:26 "At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (See Daniel 7:13-14)
But, the centerpiece of Mark's gospel is undoubtedly the so-called "little Apocalypse" of chapter 13. In this section, Jesus expounds on the theme of the Last Days. He makes it very clear that the End of the Age is imminent (13:30) - and the preeminent sign of the end was to be Daniel's "Abomination of Desolation" (Daniel 11:31).
Mark 13:14 "When you see `the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong--let the reader understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
Since Mark's "little Apocalypse" was occasioned by Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2), it appears that this was the sign that Mark considered to be Daniel's Abomination. This, then, allows us to date the book of Mark to sometime shortly after the destruction of the Temple by the Roman general Titus in 70 CE. We may further speculate that Mark, in concert with many of the early Christians, expected the return of Christ about two and a half years after this event, i.e.sometime in 72/73 CE (based on a reading of Daniel 7:25 and 8:14).
Mark's apocalyptic theme found expression in the other gospels as well. But, there was a problem. By the time that the remaining gospels were written, Mark's timeframe for the End of the World was long past.
Matthew's Delayed Parousia
By the time that the gospel of Matthew came to be written, the destruction of the Temple was little more than a painful memory. For the most part, the Jews had now resigned themselves to an eternity of Exile. And so began the long, dark period of the Diaspora, a period that was to last almost two thousand years.
Matthew used Mark as one of his sources. Matthew, too, includes a "little Apocalypse", found in chapters 24 and 25 of the book. Matthew's dependence on Mark is very evident in that Jesus' discourse on the End of the Age in Matthew 24 follows Mark almost to the letter. But, there is a subtle difference. By the time that Matthew wrote his gospel, about the years 80 to 90 CE, it was very clear that Mark's matter-of-fact implications about the imminence of the Parousia were misguided. Thus, Matthew could not simply include Mark's Apocalypse without comment. And comment he did.
Mark closed his discourse with a parable, designed to teach watchfulness. A man leaves his house for an indefinite period, and places his servants in charge. Watch! says Mark, because you do not know exactly when the master will return. Matthew took this simple allegory, and expanded it into a series of parables, each with the same theme - keep watching, even if the Master delays his coming.
Thus, we find that Matthew's servant begins to grow lax as his master's absence continues. We find that the five foolish virgins fell asleep, because the Bridegroom was long in coming. We find that the lazy servant was upbraided by the master, because he had not made good use of the time during his master's extended absence. In all of these stories, the Master is said to be long in returning. Keep watching, Matthew exhorts, no matter how long it might be. It is apparent from this, and other New Testament documents that the Church was beginning to worry about the continued non-return of Jesus (II Peter 3:3-4).
With this simple device, Matthew managed to keep the gist of Mark's apocalypse. However, Matthew still kept Mark's assertion that Jesus' generation would not pass away until the End. And why not? In Matthew's time, a child born when Jesus died would have been only about fifty years old. Jesus' prophecy still seemed safe.
We have seen how each failed prophecy required reinterpretation by the next generation, and how it was the inevitable fate of those reinterpretations themselves to become the source of a whole new slew of prophecies. The process continues unabated to this day. The field of conservative Christian scholarship is awash with amateur commentators, each of whom is convinced that the Bible contains the key to the future, and each of whom will come up with an elaborate and intricate prediction of the future, each convinced that they have stumbled on the truth. The fact that many of these end-time scenarios are mutually exclusive does not seem to deter these latter day Daniels from making ever more predictions.