Friday, August 17, 2012

Flexible Imminence?

I finished Ben Witherington III's Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.  In this post, I'll highlight something that Witherington says on page 263:

"It has often been ignored that in early Jewish literature, in particular some of the apocalyptic material in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Baruch and elsewhere, wrestles with the concept of the 'flexible' imminence of God's day of vindicating justice.  In many ways, the discussion of the so-called delay of the parousia is just a continuation of this early Jewish discussion.  In texts like Apoc. Bar. 85:10 we already see the tension between already and not yet, between eschatological hope and the delay of final vindication.  That other early Jews could continue to maintain a strong faith in the possible imminence of 'the day' coupled with a discussion of its delay and possible reasons for it should warn us against the assumption that when someone like Jesus or Paul used the language of imminence it precluded any idea of flexibility about the timing or an interval before it happened."

Witherington cites Apocalypse of Baruch 85:10, so I'll quote that.  I had a hard time tracking down the passage.  This translation doesn't even go to 85:10.  Richard Bauckham here quotes a translation that renders the passage as follows: "The youth of the world is past, the strength of creation is already exhausted.  The advent of the times is very close, yea, they have passed by.  The pitcher is near to the well, and the ship to the port.  The course of the journey is reaching its destination at the city, and life approaches its end."  According to Bauckham, the Apocalypse of Baruch maintains that the events of 70 C.E. "inflamed the expectation of redemption", but it manifests disappointment at God's delay in redeeming Israel from Gentile oppression.

I'm not sure if I agree with Witherington that the New Testament and early Jewish literature hold that imminence can be flexible.  I'd have a hard time saying, for example, that Jesus and Paul would regard the parousia occurring more than two millennia after the death and resurrection of Christ as imminent (not that Witherington says that they would have).  My impression (which is open to correction) is that early Christians and some early Jews thought that the end was soon, and they had to wrestle with its apparent delay when God's redemption was not happening.  But they still thought that imminent meant soon.  Even that Apocalypse of Baruch passage manifests that sentiment!

When the delay became too long, in my opinion, that was when there emerged parables about the master leaving for a long time (Matthew 25:19; Luke 20:9), and later the statement in II Peter 3:8 that a day in God's sight is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

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