In each of the synoptic Gospels, we find Jesus preaching a "little apocalypse" upon his arrival in Jerusalem. After describing in graphic detail wars, weather, and wild things in the sky, Jesus states, "Truly truly I say to you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matt 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). What?! Did Jesus' generation really live to see these things? Did the world end and we missed it? Or was Jesus wrong? This a real Bible brain buster: biblical texts that become puzzling in light of central Christian affirmations. What should we do with this one?
This problem was thrust upon me for the first time in college. I have since then encounter a number of alternative solutions, none of which is entirely satisfying but each of which is helpful in thinking through the implications of interpreting these Jesus-logion. As is my custom, I'll lay out these basic alternatives for the purpose of further discussion.
(1) Jesus was wrong. The first and most straightforward response is to just admit that these words are wrong. Jesus predicted apocalyptic events that he thought would happen during the lifetime of his disciples, but they did not happen. Perhaps he was only wrong about the timing, and these things will still happen later. Perhaps these things will not happen at all. Jesus may still be a teacher or example worth following, but on this matter he dropped the ball. The benefit of this answer is its honest approach to the text (it does not require the kind of exegetical somersaults performed by many other options). The cost of this answer is that it undermines Jesus' credibility, which is not a very satisfying solution to a Bible brain buster, especially given that the "central Christian affirmation" that renders this text puzzling is Jesus' credibility as a prophet.
(2) The Evangelists were wrong. This response is really a variation on the first view, but differs enough in motive and results that it should be treated independently. Instead of impugning Jesus with false prophecy, one blames the apostles for getting the words wrong. Maybe they misheard Jesus. Maybe they misunderstood him. Maybe they assembled the texts in a misleading order. Maybe they let their apocalyptic agenda obscure the simple teachings of Jesus. However construed, this approach protects Jesus by getting behind the apostolic witness to him. The benefit of this option is that one can retain the intellectual integrity of the first option without having to discredit Jesus. The cost of this option is that it is strategically shaky: how does one determine which apostolic words are really from Jesus, given that what we know of Jesus is through the apostles? Surely there are some good historical claims that could be made regarding the difference between Jesus and the nascent Christian community, but one must be careful how far one goes with this strategy, because the temptation will always be to attribute to Jesus what we like and attribute to the early Church what we don't like. Such a distinction between Jesus and the church is true in principle and can be applied tactically in some cases (perhaps this one), but is a dangerous overall hermeneutical strategy.
(3) These words refer to spiritual, not historical, matters. This and the following responses attempt to close the credibility gap by tinkering with the referent these words. The first option is to "spiritualize" these predictions. These words are about the spiritual battle within or above, not on the historical plane. The benefit of this approach is that Jesus and the disciples are respected as credible prophets of God. Furthermore, these words have potential to be spiritually useful to readers in many contexts. The cost of this approach is the same as any spiritualistic interpretive maneuver: one is left wondering how to evaluate competing spiritual readings. Such a response "solves" the puzzle by creating a smoke-screen behind which to hide rather than trying hard to settle the matter.
(4) "This generation" refers to something later. Another way to close the credibility gap is to fix the referent of "this generation." There are a number of ways to do this. The term "this generation" could itself be taken as prophetic, speaking directly to the final generation of earthly time. Or the term "generation" could refer to the human race as a whole, which is a possible (though unlikely) meaning of the original Greek term. Either way, the phrase shifts in referent so that these events are still coming in the future. The benefit of this approach is that the rest of Jesus' words in this apocalyptic discourse can remain literal (wars, storms, etc.) and thus the plain sense of most of the text is affirmed. Also, this strategy of delay is a quite common Christian response with a respectable pedigree and should therefore be taken seriously. The cost of this approach is sacrificing any sensible meaning of this particular phrase. If "this generation" doesn't mean the generation addressed by Jesus and/or the Evangelists, it has no rhetorical force. Why put a time-line on your predictions if it is not really a time-line at all? It would have been better to just say nothing. A good interpretive rule of thumb is to avoid readings that render portions of texts superfluous and irrelevant to their first hearers. Mysterious, maybe; meaningless, never!
(5) "These things" refers to something earlier. Instead of pushing these events into the future by shifting the referent of "this generation," one could place these events in the past by shifting the referent of "these things" to events which did in fact occur during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries. The benefit of this approach is the avoidance of hermeneutical somersaults that explain away the striking seriousness with which these words are spoken. It also establishes Jesus' actual credibility by attributing to him fulfilled prophecy, rather than just protecting his potential credibility by attributing to him not-yet-fulfilled prophecy. The difficulty of this approach is that one must acknowledge the use of apocalyptic metaphor in describing real life events. This is tricky, but not uncontrollably slippery, since Jesus uses traditional apocalyptic language for which their is extant comparative literature.
To what events could these words refer? What happened soon after Jesus spoke these words that could be aptly described in these apocalyptic terms?
(5a) The Jewish War and the Destruction of the Temple (66-72 C.E.). This seems historically plausible. Some of Jesus' words bear uncanny resemblance to specific incidents surrounding the Jewish War (e.g., fleeing to the hills). The destruction of the Temple in Jersusalem was the big event for first century Jews, and Jesus' prediction of it would be a major point of emphasis for nascent Christianity. The benefit of this approach is its ability to sufficiently explain most of Jesus' apocalyptic discourse. The cost of this approach is that it has difficulty stretching to accommodate all of the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, let alone the rest of the New Testament. Once again, good tactic for this text, but not necessarily a good general strategy.
(5b) The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (30 C.E.). An alternative approach identifies these events as the apocalyptic passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A number of apocalyptic events are narrated as part of the passion story (e.g., darkening of the sky, the veil torn in two, seeing dead people walking about, the earth shaking, etc.). The New Testament certainly sees the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the most important apocalyptic event by which all other apocalyptic events should be understood, including the destruction of the Temple. The benefit of this approach is its focus on Jesus, thus carrying with it weighty theological overtones (that'll preach!). It also has a wider explanatory power for New Testament apocalyptic. The cost is that the metaphors of this particular passage may not fit well as descriptions of Jesus' passion. This may be a good interpretative strategy, but might not be tactically application to this case.
Do these cover the basic options? What's missing?
Which option do you lean towards? Why?
Does this typology of approach have a wider application to question of eschatology?