Eschatological woes and Jesus's parousia
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of Matthew’s Gospel, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans in Antioch, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, as it is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
In this passage, which includes part of what is often referred to as the “little apocalypse” (24:4-36), the second coming of Jesus is narrated in graphic detail. The passage is set prior to Jesus’s trial and execution, and begins with him praying on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus's followers ask him about the time and nature of the end of the age. Jesus’s response does not paint a pleasant picture for his faithful followers, whom he claims will witness wars, famine, earthquakes, lawlessness, and all the nations of the earth turning against each other. Indeed, earthly and heavenly chaos is a common apocalyptic convention (see also Revelation 8:2-11:18; 15:1-16:21; Mark 13:24-25). Moreover, the faithful will be tortured and killed in Jesus’s name, while the weak minded will be led astray into the path of sin by false prophets. Those who remain faithful and strong, however, will be saved, and see God’s kingdom proclaimed over the earth.
Jesus is asked two things: 1) when the temple will be destroyed; and 2) when history will end. Their first remark (“tell us when these things will be”) is in reference to the immediately preceding co-text, in which Jesus has informed them that not one stone of the Jerusalem Temple will be left standing – all the buildings will be destroyed (24:1-2), but it is the second inquiry (“the sign of your coming, and of the closing of the age”) which is addressed in detail here. The references to false Christs and false prophets are structured as a chiasm, with the destruction of the temple sandwiched in between:
A – False Christs and prophets (verses 4-14)
B – The destruction of the temple (verses 15-22)
A` - False Christs and prophets (verses 23-28)
This centralises the falling of the temple in the earthly chaos that will ensue as one of the climactic moments in the cosmic upheaval, and understands the presence of false Messiahs and prophets as key signals of the end times. Josephus informs us of various self-proclaimed prophets, including a man who rallied Samaritans on Mount Gerizim where he claimed he would dig up the sacred vessels buried by Moses, and an Egyptian who marched with followers to the Mount of Olives with the intention of trying to overthrow the Romans and become king (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII.85-87; XX.169-172; Jewish War II.261-263). Such figures are likely what the Gospel writer has in mind here. The “desolating sacrilege” of verse 15 may be in reference to the Roman conquest in 70 CE, when the Roman standards were placed in the Jerusalem Temple, and Titus is said to have entered the Holy of Holies (see Josephus, Jewish War VI.316; Genesis Rabbah 10:7) (see Charles Talbert, Matthew, p. 268).
Jesus’s return at the end of this passage (verses 27-31) is presented here as a conflict of sovereignties. Jesus’s return is a parousia (arrival) (verse 27), a term which can be used to understand both God’s power and Roman power, in the case of the latter through the arrival of a governor or military commander (see Josephus, Jewish War II.617; V.410) (see Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 277). Ultimately, the two claims to world dominion are at conflict with each other, and only one can reign supreme. For the Matthean author, this will of course be that of God. This will result in the death of Rome, which some interpreters understood as the corpse of verse 28. A final showdown between God’s people and their enemies is something predicted in Jewish literature such as the Qumran War Scroll (where the sons of light are led into battle by priests) 4 Ezra 12-13, and 2 Baruch 39-40. The Matthean author here adds his own version to this tradition, but this time it is the Messiah leading the faithful against their oppressors (interpreted by many interpreters to be Rome). It is not insignificant that the birds circling Rome’s “corpse” are ἀετοί. Although frequently translated (e.g. in the NRSV) as “vultures,” ἀετός is actually the Greek term for “eagle.” There is a separate Greek term for “vulture” (γύψ) (see Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 278). In addition to representing imperial nations used to fulfil God’s plans (before they are eventually destroyed by him) in the LXX (Assyria in Hosea 8:1; 12-14, Babylon in Deuteronomy 28:49; 30:1-10, Ezekiel 17:3-4, 22-24), eagles were of course also a common symbol of Roman power, and the messengers of Jupiter. The eagle was also the symbol of Zeus, however, and indeed a symbol of kingship more generally, so the connection with Rome should not be pushed too far.
In Matthew 22:7, the Gospel writer alludes to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a punishment given to the complacent Jewish people by God, which he enacts through Rome. Carter argues that by envisioning these symbolic birds circling the decimated Roman Empire, the Gospel writer effectively foresees Rome betrayed by and made victim to its own power. The angels sent ahead of Jesus, who will be riding on the clouds, and announced by a “sign,” which might evoke a military emblem, Carter suggests can be imagined as legions of soldiers, who will encounter the Roman armies under their standards bearing the eagles that will eventually feast on Rome’s flesh (verses 30-31). This all seems rather convoluted, however, not least because until after 70 CE, there were no Roman legions in Judea who had eagles on their standards – they were not entitled to use it. It is therefore a little far-fetched to imagine that the Matthean author intends such imagery for his audience.It is perhaps more likely that an intertextual allusion is being made here with Job 39:27-30, the conclusion of the theophany to Job, where God expresses his overarching control of the cosmos and everything in it, including his lordship over and design of various creatures. The final creature mentioned is the eagle, which is described as sitting in its lofty nest, spying on prey, and feasting with its young on the blood of the slain. The eagle as a predatory bird, therefore, is established in the Hebrew Bible, and possibly a more apparent source of inspiration for the Matthean author.
Jesus is described as the “son of man,” which evokes Daniel 7:14, where it is claimed that following the destruction of all human empires, the son of man will be manifested on God’s behalf, and represent God’s eternal dominion and kingship. This is also reminiscent of Virgil’s Aeneid, I.279, wherein it is argued by Jupiter that Rome will enjoy an empire without end (imperium sine fine). This is reflected in the identification of the city as urbs aeterna (“eternal city”) (see, for example, Ovid, Fasti III.72). For the Matthean author, this claim will be proved false by Jesus’s Parousia. The coming of Jesus is described as something of cosmic significance, and as such is heralded by various natural sings, such as lightning, the eclipsing of the sun, stars falling, and the powers of heaven shaking (verses 27-29 cite Isaiah 13 and 34, which use these descriptions in reference to the downfall of the Babylonian empire). Lightning is also representative of Jupiter’s power and authority, and in particular his sanctioning of Roman rule (see Pliny, Natural Histories II.82, and Suetonius, Domitian XV.2; XVI.1). The passage echoes various popular motifs both of the end times and the eternity of God’s kingdom, from both Jewish and Roman literature, but the degree to which the author intends to evoke specifically anti-Roman sentiment, as opposed to the conflict between God’s kingdom and that of sin more generally, remains debatable. Certainly, the oppression of Roman rule can be understood as part of the suffering that will occur during the end times, but when the arguably far-fetched connections to Rome (such as the symbolism of the eagles) are taken out of the picture, imperial domination is perhaps just one of many atrocities that the author believes to be signalling the return of the son of man.
Keywords in the original language:
- δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν
- υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου
- φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς
- ἅγιος τόπος
Thematic keywords in English: