Jesus, interpreted: my new book is out!

I am ecstatic to announce the publication of my new book Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels. It is available now on  This one was a work of love, and I am grateful to the many people– especially my family and the staff at CUA Press–for making it happen.


In this sequel volume to his Dark Passages of the Bible (CUA Press, 2013), author Matthew Ramage turns his attention from the Old to the New Testament, now tackling truth claims bearing directly on the heart of the Christian faith cast into doubt by contemporary New Testament scholarship: Did God become man in Jesus, or did the first Christians make Jesus into God? Was Jesus’ resurrection a historical event, or rather a myth fabricated by the early Church? Will Jesus indeed return to earth on the last day, or was this merely the naïve expectation of ancient believers that reasonable people today ought to abandon?

51lyjb8gal-_sx331_bo1204203200_In addition to examining the exegetical merits of rival answers to these questions, Ramage considers also the philosophical first principles of the exegetes who set out to answer them. This, according to Joseph Ratzinger, is the debate behind the debate in exegesis: whose presuppositions best position us for an accurate understanding of the nature of things in general and of the person of Jesus in particular?

Insisting upon the exegetical vision of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as a privileged avenue by which to address the thorniest issues in contemporary biblical exegesis, Ramage puts the emeritus pontiff’s hermeneutic of faith into dialogue with contemporary exponents of the historical-critical school. Carrying forth the “critique of the critique” called for by Joseph Ratzinger, Ramage offers the emeritus pontiff’s exegesis of the gospels as a plausible and attractive alternative to the mainstream agnostic approach exemplified in the work of Bart Ehrman.

As in the case of Benedict’s Jesus trilogy upon which he draws extensively, Ramage’s quest in this book is not merely academic but also existential in nature. Benedict’s scholarship represents the fruit of his personal quest for the face of Christ, a quest which involves the commitment to engage, critique, and learn from the most serious challenges posed by modern biblical criticism while arming the foundations of the Christian faith.


This book, building on his previous work, secures Matthew Ramage’s place among the most important theologians of our day.  Through his balanced and brilliant readings of Ehrman and Ratzinger/Benedict, Ramage boldly addresses precisely the exegetical questions that are causing many laypeople, influenced by Ehrman and others, to lose their faith in Christ. Ramage’s solutions, rooted in Benedict’s but ably supplementing them, deserve the widest attention.  I simply cannot praise this book highly enough.

– Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary Dr. Perry Jr. Chair ofTheology, Mundelein Seminary

Two of the best-selling authors on Jesus that are alive today are the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.  In this thought-provoking new study, Matthew Ramage puts these two seemingly diametrically opposed figures–Ehrman and Benedict–into extensive conversation with one another.  The result is an in-depth exploration that should be required reading for any scholar interested in the historical Jesus and the truth of the Gospels.

– Brant Pitre, Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans

“A timely and important book. For those tapped into religious discourse in popular culture today, Bart Ehrman is a household name, and his work has caused much confusion. Catholics very much need an approach to Scripture that is both faithful to the magisterium of the Church and at the same time honest about the difficulties found in the Bible. Ramage’s work does a great service.”

– Issac Morales, OP, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC

The Reception of St. Paul in the Works of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

I have recently published an article entitled “The Reception of St. Paul in the Works of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI” in the journal Letter and Spirit edited by Scott Hahn. My piece explores how Pope Benedict has instantiated his exegetical project specifically in reference to the Pauline corpus.

In his homily for the opening of the Pauline Year in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI offered a powerful summary of how the theology of St. Paul ought to be received in the Church today.  Commenting on 1 Tim 2:7, the emeritus pontiff explained:


“A teacher of the Gentiles”—these words open to the future, to all peoples and all generations. For us Paul is not a figure of the past whom we remember with veneration. He is also our teacher, an Apostle and herald of Jesus Christ for us too. Thus we are not gathered to reflect on past history, irrevocably behind us. Paul wants to speak to us—today. That is why I chose to establish this special “Pauline Year”: in order to listen to him and learn today from him, as our teacher…Thus, we are gathered here to question ourselves on the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Let us not ask ourselves only: who was Paul? Let us ask ourselves above all: who is Paul? What does he say to me?

I think that this short text cited above captures well the broad strokes Benedict XVI’s approach to Scripture in general and to the letters of St. Paul in particular. Especially germane in this regard are the emeritus pontiff’s Pauline Year homilies and catecheses, but the synthesis attempted in my article draws also on other works that, taken cumulatively, give a vivid sense of what Benedict considers vital in St. Paul for the life of the Church.

In this link to Letter and Spirit, Vol. 11 on Amazon you can find my full article along with a number of other excellent pieces dedicated to the theme “Our Beloved Brother Paul — Reception History of Paul in Catholic Tradition.”   Enjoy!

Benedict XVI’s Hermeneutic of Reform: Towards a Rapprochement of the Magisterium and Modern Biblical Criticism

Even a cursory overview of Benedict XVI’s exegetical approach reveals dramatic contrasts with magisterial teaching of previous epochs.  With appropriate reservations and criticisms, Benedict strongly advocates the use of modern scholarly methods to help Christians better discern the face of Christ revealed in Scripture.  In adopting many of these modern findings, however, it almost seems as if Benedict has forgotten or neglected principles enforced by the magisterium no less than a century earlier.

Though one may argue that the Church’s stance on modern biblical scholarship only indirectly bears upon faith and morals, the issue remains timely today insofar as a divide persists in the Church concerning the extent to which it is appropriate to incorporate the tools and findings of modern exegesis in Catholic theology.  Aside from Benedict’s own comments on his project, it is difficult still today to find an adequate account of how exegesis under his pontificate is reconcilable with many of the venerable traditions which preceded it and, in particular, with a magisterial approach which generally viewed modern scholarship with skepticism.

The lack of such an account is what prompted me to author an article in Nova et Vetera which addresses this very topic.  In the piece I endeavor to face head-on patent discrepancies in the Church’s approach to the Bible over the past century and, so doing, offer the principles needed for a robust apologia of Catholicism in its relationship with modern biblical scholarship. You can download and read the article here!

Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia

Look up the following texts and ask yourself whether they ring true:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Corinthians 7:29 and 15:51-52
Mark 13:26-33

Today I am excited to share an article of mine that will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Josephinum Journal of Theology.  It is on the fascinating but very thorny topic addressed in these biblical texts: the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s second coming would occur within the first Christian generation.  I thought about this topic for years and never found a really compelling answer to until I read what Benedict XVI had to say on it.  Thus the point of my article is to tease out Benedict’s thought and draw it all together in one accessible piece. The article abstract can be found below:

In the effort to advance a more biblically sound theology within the Church, this paper shows how the theological principles and exegetical practice of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI provide an outstanding example of how to implement the above mandate of Dei Verbum as highlighted in the International Theological Commission’s recent work. The paper applies Ratzinger’s thought to concrete biblical texts involving the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s parousia would occur within the apostolic period.  The question that arises from a reading of these texts is quite simple: Why has Christ not come back yet like he seemed to say he would?  By searching out the intention of Scripture’s sacred authors in relation to the expectation of an imminent parousia, Ratzinger offers a compelling apology for the existence of thorny biblical texts and dogmatic formulas within the Catholic tradition.

If you wish to read the entire article, you can download it here.

Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth & the Problem of the Parousia (conclusion)

In this post we’ll continue and conclude our discussion of the parousia with a few more words on the second volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. As we saw last time, the Holy Father described Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse as “perhaps the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.” On this subject we explored Benedict’s distinction between the “images” Jesus employed and the “realities” that comprise the “essential content” or “nucleus” of his teaching on the end times. Benedict argued that the intention of the Evangelists did not lie in describing the physical but rather the theological demise of the Temple. As to whether the sacred authors of Scripture thought the Second Coming would occur in their day, in some places he indicates that this was the case. Ultimately, however, he left the question open and deemed it a non-essential issue.

Today I would like to turn our attention to Benedict’s ensuing discussion which adds nuance to the foregoing argument. Immediately after elucidating what he considers to be the “nucleus” of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, he adds that “the nucleus of Jesus’ eschatological message includes the proclamation of an age of the nations.” This age is the time of the Church, which the Bible portrays as the intervening period following the time of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage and preceding his return in glory.

For Benedict this point is relevant because it reveals that there is not merely one voice in the New Testament when it comes to the time of Jesus’ return. The Bible is like a stained-glass window with many different pieces that only make sense when looked at as a whole. It is therefore not as if the entire Church lay in a state of confusion and error in thinking the parousia was imminent. The pope writes, “It seems obvious to me that several of Jesus’ parables speak of this time of the Church; from the perspective of a purely imminent eschatology, they would make no sense.” He goes on to state, “From the content, it is clear that all three Synoptic Gospels recognize a time of the Gentiles: the end of the world can come only when the Gospel has been brought to all peoples.”

To be sure, the Holy Father reminds us that certain passages explicitly state that “this generation will not pass away” before the end (Matt 24:34). Other texts, however, affirm what he said above–namely that the parousia will not occur “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24) and that “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10; cf. Matt 24:14). To this he further adds, “Paul, too, recognizes an age of the Gentiles, which is the present and which must be fulfilled if God’s plan is to attain its goal.” In this way, one can see that drawing a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus’ use of eschatological imagery and his thought concerning the chronological end of the world would constitute a “superficial reading” of the Gospels.

Granted that the Gospels witness to a time of the Gentiles that must precede the parousia, we remain faced with a stumbling block–the perception that certain early Christians thought the Gospel had in fact already reached all the nations. As we read from Benedict’s Eschatology in a previous post, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls “this generation.”

How are we to square such an observation with our discussion up to this point? The reality is that certain biblical authors may have assumed that the Gospel had reached unto the ends of the earth and that Jesus was about to return in glory in their day. We cannot prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt, but neither can we disprove it simply by saying that they could not have thought this way since it would be tantamount to admitting the presence of an error in Scripture. Pope Benedict’s approach is much more refined–and thereby challenging–than this. Rather than coming down on one side or another on this question, he shows that the very issue is peripheral and could go either way:

The fact that the early Church was unable to assess the chronological duration of these kairoi (“times”) of the Gentiles and that it was generally assumed they would be fairly short is ultimately a secondary consideration. The essential point is that these times were both asserted and foretold and that, above all else and prior to any calculation of their duration, they had to be understood and were understood by the disciples in terms of a mission.

The bottom line is that the Bible does not formally assert the precise time of the Second Coming. Although we find indications of what individual apostles thought concerning the matter, Benedict understands that for them this was “ultimately a secondary consideration.” Whether they thought the world was going to end within a day or a year or a decade, he tells us that the “essential point” they were asserting concerned the need for spiritual preparation, for mission, and for endurance in the face of persecution. It turns out that these are realities that must govern Christians’ lives regardless of the epoch in which they live and how much time remains in their earthly pilgrimage. They are the core message, the true key, to understanding the Bible’s parousia passages. I am sure we could add to this, but this is as much as Benedict says here.

And thus our ongoing discussion of the parousia draws to a close. What we have seen in the preceding posts is Benedict XVI offering a serious, thoughtful answer to the observation that the early Church apparently got it wrong in expecting the Second Coming to occur in the first century. Benedict follows many of his modern counterparts in acknowledging evidence to this effect, but he also is careful to note that it was not a universally-held belief among the authors of Scripture. Careful to safeguard the integrity of Scripture, he furthermore shows that the core messages affirmed therein remain intact regardless of whether or not the apostles had an accurate idea of when the parousia would take place. Not every word in Scripture is asserted or taught for its own sake, and it in no way violates the doctrine of biblical inerrancy if biblical authors at times hold less than exact ideas about issues that are of secondary importance and not being asserted as such.

The above understanding of biblical inerrancy may catch some Christians off guard, but that is because many are accustomed to reading Scripture as if every last sentence was dictated by God and making an infallible claim. To be sure, it is easy to swing too far in one direction and fail to bear in mind the inspiration, inerrancy, and divine authorship of the Bible. However, Pope Benedict’s treatment of the parousia reveals that we can only do justice to thorny Scripture texts if we also give due respect to the real claims made by their human authors. The brilliance of this balanced approach may not immediately click with everyone who is new to reading Benedict and these posts, but one of the main goals I aim to achieve in my writing is to continue presenting Benedict’s exegetical method anew in accordance with the myriad ways he has instantiated it over the years. You’ll thus be hearing a lot from me on other topics that deal with similar questions using similar methods.

Next time you hear from me, however, it will probably be a very different kind of post as I’ll be reporting from Greece and Turkey on a pilgrimage-class I am leading for Benedictine College.

What Excellent Exegesis Looks Like: Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth & the Parousia

If you want see what excellent Catholic exegesis looks like, there is no better place to look than the two (and soon to be three) volumes of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Today we’re going to treat the problem of the parousia by following Benedict’s lead in his chapter entitled “Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse.” The discourse he has in mind covers roughly the same biblical passages discussed in my previous two posts on Benedict XVI’s Eschatology. If this is your first time reading this series on the parousia, I also recommend reading the first post to fully appreciate the problem at hand: namely, that it seems the early Church erroneously expected the Second Coming would take place in the first century (which we living two millennia later can safely say did not occur).

To give you an insight into Benedict’s mind on this matter, it is significant that he begins his discussion with these words: “This discourse, found in all three Synoptic Gospels with certain variations, could perhaps be described as the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.” This fear-inspiring claim should remain with us and keep us humble as we continue our work of exegeting Benedict’s exegesis.

One of the pope’s first paragraphs on the subject reveals striking similarities with his treatments of the Parousia we have already explored:

While this vision of things to come is expressed largely through images drawn from tradition, intended to point us towards realities that defy description, the difficulty of the content is compounded by all the problems arising from the text’s redaction history: the very fact that Jesus’ words here are intended as continuations of tradition rather than literal descriptions of things to come meant that the redactors of the material could take these continuations a stage further, in the light of their particular situations and their audience’s capacity to understand, while taking care to remain true to the essential content of Jesus’ message.

Here we find key terms and expressions that recur throughout Benedict’s writings and so offer a key to solving our problem. Whereas in Eschatology he distinguished “schema” or literary presentation from “reality,” in this text he distinguishes “images” from “realities.” The images or literary presentation, he observes, is bound up with the Gospels’ “redaction history”–a term used in historical-critical exegesis to denote the process by which the biblical books were gradually compiled, edited, and adapted until reaching their canonical form.

Like many historical-critical scholars, Benedict does not assume that the Gospels contain a word-for-word transcript of Jesus’ discourses at every point. Rather, Jesus’ words here represent “continuations of tradition…tradition that preceded Jesus and tradition which developed after his return to the Father. Thus he says that “the redactors of the material could take these continuations a stage further, in the light of their particular situations and their audience’s capacity to understand.”

How, then, do we know what the truth of the matter is? Do we really know what Jesus said concerning his Second Coming? What Benedict states–tersely but profoundly–is that the Evangelists took care “to remain true to the essential content of Jesus’ message.” Here again as we have seen elsewhere in his corpus, Benedict searches out the intention of a particular biblical passage in order to ascertain its essential content. He is clear that not every single word in Scripture is being asserted or taught for its own sake, and so difficult passages must be understood within the whole of each individual author’s work and in light of the entirety of Scripture.

As for the question of whether one particular statement can be verified as a direct quote from Jesus, Benedict is open to various answers, but he reminds his audience that this is really a peripheral issue. To draw a Theistic distinction, since we know the essence or substance of Jesus’ message, the extent to which we can verify its many features as issuing from Jesus’ own human mouth is an accidental matter. Hence he states, “The extent to which particular details of the eschatological discourse are attributable to Jesus himself we need not consider here. That he foretold the demise of the temple–its theological demise, that is, from the standpoint of salvation history–is beyond doubt.”

What is Benedict getting at with this talk of the Temple’s “theological demise”? Why not just speak of the physical demise it underwent at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70? I would be interested to have some discussion on this, but it seems to me that Benedict speaks in this way so as to leave open the question of whether or not Jesus foretold the destructive events in question.

[If you’re not familiar with the debate that lies behind this, let me just pause briefly to explain. Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus prophesied the end of the Temple. They believe that the Gospel authors sought to convey Jesus’ message by putting words into his mouth after the events had unfolded in history, and for this reason they would not say the words in question here represent true prophecies. Now, one of the criticisms that Benedict has leveled at certain scholars is their presupposition that miracles and prophecy cannot occur (on this see his Erasmus Lecture and his Introduction to Vol. 1 of Jesus, for example). Nevertheless, Benedict does not throw the baby out with the bath water. Not all scholars think this way, and in any case their scholarly conclusions may be correct even if their presuppositions sometimes are not. All truth, no matter what its source, is of the Holy Spirit.]

The Holy Father thus argues, “[T]he nucleus of Jesus’ prophecy is concerned not with the outward events of war and destruction, but with the demise of the Temple in salvation-historical terms, as it becomes a “˜deserted house.’ It ceases to be the locus of God’s presence and the locus of atonement for Israel, indeed, for the world.” This talk of a textual nucleus is another way of referring to its essential content or core. As far as I can tell, Benedict is indicating that the issue of whether Jesus prophesied the physical demise of the temple is an accidental issue. Maybe he did, but maybe he did not. Either way, the Gospel message remains the same. This is not stated out of indifference or lack of careful attention to the biblical text, but is rather Benedict’s way of drawing a distinction that makes sense out of what would otherwise be a contradiction.

In this we see that Benedict humbly welcomes the questions and observations of modern scholars which at first glance appear incompatible with the Christian tradition. His genius, however, does not lie in this charitable attitude alone. It consists in the fact that he entertains the best of modern thought while at the same time remaining true to the constant tradition of the Church, endeavoring a synthesis between the two at points where most people on both sides of the exegetical isle would say such harmony is impossible.


Benedict XVI’s Eschatology & the Problem of the Parousia (continued)

Picking up where we left off at the end of my previous post on the problem of the parousia, we now turn to what Benedict describes as “the text which lies at the heart of the problem–Jesus’ eschatological discourse describing the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13 along with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21.

Benedict begins by pointing out that Matt 24 is the only of these texts to depict the coming of the Son of Man in sudden fashion: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (24:27). In fact, Matthew is the only gospel to employ the term parousia.

He then turns his attention to a trio of texts–Matt 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, and Luke 21:25–each of which uniquely connects the fall of Jerusalem and the parousia temporally. Benedict tells us, “So far as our problem is concerned, it is extremely important to note how these two aspects–the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia–are temporally related.” After pointing out that what Luke portrays “is not the end of the world but the start of a new stage in salvation history,” he turns his attention to Mark, the more challenging of the texts given the problem we have posed. “By contrast, Mark appears to present a direct temporal link between the fall of the city and the consummation of the world.” Benedict proceeds to explain that the issue is actually more complex than this, but he wraps up his discussion by acknowledging, “Nevertheless, the impression persists that the trials and tribulations entailed in the destruction of Jerusalem are connected in time with the events of the end of the world.” As a token of this, he adds later in the book, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls ‘this generation.’”

As Benedict is always so good at doing, he moves to summarize and tell us what we ought to take home from his discussion: “What ought we to think of these internal divergences within the Synoptic tradition and the issue which they concern?…In the first place, the single Gospel is heard only in the quartet of the four evangelists (for John belongs there too!). The word of Jesus persists only as something heard and received by the Church.” We find Benedict stating here what he has said in many other places, which is but a echoing of Dei Verbum and the Catechism: the inerrancy of biblical texts is not to be found looking at them in isolation, but rather within the unity of the entire Word of God contained in Scripture and Tradition and lived by the Church. Hence, if Mark’s text seems to present problems, we need to look at what the other Evangelists say on the topic and evaluate Mark’s central purpose in light of that knowledge.

When it comes to the timing of the parousia and whether the early Church erred with an expectation that Christ would return in the apostolic era, Benedict argues, “The decisive point is surely that the New Testament writings leave open the nature of the difference between literary schema and reality in this connection: “Schema and reality are differently related by different authors, but none of them makes the bold claim to an identity between the two.  Since what interests them is not the question of exact chronological succession or a possible causality of development but the inner unity of the whole, they are able to present their material in schematic blocs, united by schematic connections.  It can only be laid out in some way that the governing affirmations of their message suggest.”

By distinguishing “schema” from “reality,” Benedict moves us away from a rigid literalism that would, in the name of reading the Bible “at face value,” miss its primary message conveyed through the literary artistry of the various sacred authors. “What interests them,” Benedict observes, is not the issue of what precise moment the Second Coming will take place. Rather, “the governing affirmations of their message” suggest something different, something we have seen in Paul’s writings on the parousia in previous posts. In dealing with the Second Coming, the biblical authors subordinate the question of timing to the question of how Christians ought to behave regardless of when Christ returns. For all we know, some biblical authors may really have thought Christ would return in their day, as many texts seem to indicate. But what Benedict helps us to see is that they are not asserting or teaching this issue of timing any more than the author of Genesis was trying to teach the timeframe of the world’s creation. Jesus may return today, or he may return millennia upon millennia from now, but Christians of all ages have to be awake and prepared no matter what. For, even if Christ doesn’t return to earth in our lifetimes, this fact remains: we each will be meeting him within a number of minutes to a number of decades, and the precise moment of this meeting will likely occur most unexpectedly.



Benedict XVI’s Eschatology & the Problem of the Parousia

After examining Pope Benedict’s thought on the parousia in his catechesis on St. Paul, today we’ll look at the problem of an imminent Second Coming as treated in Benedict’s work Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, published before he became pope. This work is pivotal because its central purpose is to treat the “Last Things” or End Times (Greek eschaton).

It is revealing–and perhaps startling–to read the very first sentence of the book’s section entitled “The Expectation of an Imminent End.” Benedict plainly states, “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the New Testament does contain unmistakable traces of an expectation that the world will end soon. Where do these traces come from? Do they go back to Jesus?” In this way he sets up the problem we began discussing in my first post on problematic biblical texts that apparently got it wrong with regard to their expectations concerning the time of Christ’s Second Coming.

In the ensuing discussion, Benedict flexes his historical-critical muscles as he explores hypotheses that attempt to date the various New Testament texts that deal with the topic of the parousia. The standard maxim, he relates, is “the greater the stress on expectation of an imminent end, the older a text must be.” As evidence for this, he observes that Matthew and Luke, composed (according to the view of Benedict and most modern scholars) later than Mark, speak of a “delay of the arrival” of the Bridegroom whereas Mark does not. Benedict tells us, “In such texts the waiting Church retrojects its own experience of the “˜delay’ of the parousia into the earlier sayings of Jesus.”

Next Benedict turns his attention to 2 Peter, a later text than the foregoing. He observes, “In this epistle, one sees even more clearly how a later period reached a compromise between imminence and remoteness, and explained the parosuia’s delay in theological fashion.” 2 Pet 3:4 confronts the argument of those would scoff and ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” To this Peter responds, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:8-10). Peter emphasizes that we cannot know the precise day or hour, and so Christians are to “be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14).

At this point, however, Benedict critiques and tweaks the preceding argument. “In themselves the examples given are doubtless cogent evidence for the thesis [that the older the biblical text, the greater the stress on an imminent end to the world]. Nevertheless, it is open to question whether one can infer from this anything like a general chronological principle whereby Christian origins are marked by an eschatology of radical imminence which would then be gradually toned down until one finally arrives at John, where, for Bultmann at least, temporal eschatology has been wholly eliminated in favor of its existential counterpart.”

If you read enough of Benedict’s writings on the topic of historical-critical scholarship (especially as exemplified in his work Jesus of Nazareth), you’ll frequently see that he at once gives great respect to its findings and at the same time soberly acknowledges its limitations–in this case our inability to claim we have offered a strict chronology of biblical texts dealing with the parousia. Not without a touch of irony does Benedict thus state, “Naturally, [the person who believes that later texts are more accurate with regard to the timing of the parousia] has to claim that John understood Jesus better than Jesus understood himself.”

Adducing evidence contrary to the idea the later means less imminent when it comes to the early Church’s expectations of the parousia, Benedict writes that one commentator “has shown that the gospel Matthew, composed contemporaneously with Luke’s (or perhaps even later) contains an undiminished imminent eschatology which may even be described as heightened in comparison with Mark.” How is this to be explained? “In some circumstances, an extreme form of temporal expectation might well be the product of a re-Judaizing process. The Judaism of Jesus’ day had an overwhelming expectation of the imminent end. Such an expectation cannot be regarded, then, as something peculiarly characteristic of Jesus. The schema of linear development simply does not correspond to the facts.”

What Benedict achieves here both helps our cause and simultaneously makes it more difficult. On the one hand, he makes it pretty clear that the New Testament does contain an “imminent eschatology” at various points and does not merely appear to do so. On the other hand, he hasn’t yet offered an explanation for how such an admission does not violate the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In other words, if we can’t respond to problematic texts by saying, “You’re reading it wrong–the apostles didn’t really think that the world was about to end,” then how are we supposed to respond to this challenge? Benedict’s thought also introduces a new problem: that not only the early Church, but Jesus himself, apparently expected the consummation of the world to be at hand in his day.

And thus we must keep marching towards a resolution to our problem as we continue our exploration of Benedict’s work Eschatology next time before turning to his discussion of the topic in volume 2 of his more recent Jesus of Nazareth.


Benedict XVI, Paul, and the Parousia

Today we continue our series on the problem of the parousia as we turn to a sure guide in matters of biblical interpretation: our Holy Father Pope Benedict. In the following posts, we will be exploring how he deals with the problem of the early Church apparently erring in the expectation that Christ would return in glory during the apostles’ lifetimes. If you have not read my first post which sets up the problem at hand in light of the biblical evidence, I recommended perusing it first before reading on.

In his book of Catecheses on St. Paul, Pope Benedict takes up the text of 1 Thess 4:13-18 discussed in my previous post: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

The Holy Father begins by observing that this text–the first of Paul’s letters and what some have deemed the earliest New Testament document–was likely written around 52 A.D. He indicates that the context and purpose of the letter was to aid the Thessalonian church being “beset by doubts and problems.” This purpose will play an important role in our discussion in a moment.

If you read Pope Benedict enough, you will not be surprised at some of his ensuing observations which may afflict the comforted Catholic. He describes this text as replete “with symbolic imagery, which, however, conveys a simple and profound message.” Benedict does not view 1 Thess 4 as a literal depiction of the Second Coming but rather as conveying theological truth through symbolic imagery. The “essential message,” he says, is that “our future is to be with the Lord.” What we can learn from this is that, regardless of whether or not Paul thought the end was imminent, this was not the claim or assertion of Paul’s text.

Moreover, the sense of the text is not changed even if Paul literally thought that the Second Coming would be ushered in with an angel blowing a trumpet (actually, who can verify this won’t be the case?). In the marvelous chapter of his book Miracles entitled “Horrid Red Things,” C.S. Lewis has a great treatment of the type of imagery that often disturbs the modern Christian. He says, “Even if it can be shown, then, that the early Christians accepted their imagery literally, this would not mean that we are justified in relegating their doctrines as a whole to the lumber-room.” The early Christian belief concerning the parousia and other doctrines like it “would survive substantially unchanged” even after “the falsity of the earlier images had been recognized.”

Like Benedict, Lewis affirms that images of how or when the parousia will take place are not the purpose of the biblical teaching concerning it. They are not errant because they are not asserted or taught for their own sakes in the first place. As Benedict and Lewis show time and again in their writings, Christians should not be afraid to admit the presence of symbolic imagery or myth in the Bible. Ask Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton, and they will tell you that myth does not equal falsehood. Now, in a way, this makes the Christian apologist’s task more difficult, as one now has to search out the essential message of biblical texts and show forth the enduring core meaning of it as distinct from accidental features that are not de fide. This requires more patience and skill than simply saying it is all literally true and needs no qualification. On the other hand, following the approach of Benedict and Lewis is liberating because Christians can be confident that there is a core message God wants to convey to us in the Bible and that this remains unchanged even if we grant the presence of certain difficulties in the text.

Getting back to Benedict’s catechesis, he next turns his attention to 2 Thess 2:1-4, which reads: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”

Paul here warns his church lest they be deceived in thinking an imminent Second Coming can be determined based on human calculations. He reminds his audience that “man of lawlessness” must come first, and that he plainly has not. The pope for his part tells us that “the intention” of this text “is primarily practical.” How so? Paul wrote this because he needed to correct Thessalonians who were rationalizing their neglect of worldly duties with the claim that the end was approaching soon anyway: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thess 3:11).

Teasing out Paul’s thought, Benedict teaches that the expectation of Jesus’ parousia does not dispense Christians of any epoch from working in the world but rather increases our responsibility to work in and for the world while not being of the world. This is but one of several examples in this catechesis of how Benedict characteristically follows his careful and critical exegesis with a spiritual exhortation for Christians to apply God’s word to our lives (see here for a brief overview of Benedict’s exegetical method). He concludes by teaching that, while Christians today might not pray for the end to come soon in the same way St. John did (Rev 16:22), we can truly pray for the Lord to put the injustices of the world to an end. We can also work for the world to be “fundamentally changed” into a “civilization of love.”

That said, Benedict’s catechesis does not completely resolve the problem of the early expectation of the parousia, but it does help us to see that teaching the precise moment of the Second Coming was not Paul’s real point in the theologically thorny text of 1 Thessalonians. To get a better grasp of the way Benedict approaches this, we will need to examine more of his writings in the next few posts.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 3 of 3)

In today’s post I’m going to treat briefly the third question of the PBC in its document on the parousia. Then I’ll offer an extended treatment of how one might explain this document’s apparent discrepancy with the view of respected exegetes today who are open to the possibility that the early Church expected the Second Coming of Christ to occur in the first century. This is a critical issue because here we have an important biblical teaching which on the surface appears to be wrong. That said, here’s the last question:

Question 3: “Whether, after considering [the phrase “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” of 1 Thess 4:15] we may reject as far-fetched and unfounded the explanation traditional in Catholic schools–which explains the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 4:15-17 without in any way implying the affirmation of a Parousia so imminent that the apostle added himself and his readers to those of the faithful who would survive to meet Christ.”

Response 3: “Negative.”

This question makes a helpful contribution to our discussion of the early Church’s seeming expectation of a first-century parousia, for it explicitly addresses a biblical text that has been a stumbling block for exegetes. 1 Thess 4 numbers among the texts I provided in my first post on the problem of the parousia, which I recommended reading first before reading on if you have not done so already.

If I am reading it correctly, here the PBC document is not demanding that Catholic exegetes reject the possibility that Paul thought the parousia would occur in his lifetime. Rather, the question is phrased so as to teach that the traditional explanation (i.e. the view that Paul did not expect the Second Coming in his day) is not to be rejected as far-fetched and unfounded. There is quite a difference between these two, and I think the PBC was exercising due prudence in avoiding a blanket condemnation of the view that Paul expected Christ to return in his lifetime.

So much for my brief commentary on the three questions of this PBC document. By way of transition to a fuller answer to the problem at hand, I now wish to turn our attention to the place this PBC document and others like it occupy today in the Church. The reality is that a great number of Catholic exegetes today have come to different conclusions from those of the PBC in its early-20th century documents. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the practice of Catholic exegetes today often displays little regard for Pius X’s 1907 motu proprio stating that all Catholics “are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission.”

In addition to being visible in the documents of the PBC published over the last half-century, the Church’s new perspective is abundantly clear also in the way Joseph Ratzinger has long spoken of and practiced exegesis, continuing to do so even now as Pope Benedict XVI.

Indeed, in his press release of the CDF Instruction Concerning the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, this theologian spoke of the PBC’s past decrees as “anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century.” He had in mind here statements made on the topics of historical narratives (1905), the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906), the authorship and historicity of the Gospel of John (1907), the character and authorship of the Book of Isaiah (1908), the historicity of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), the authorship and time of composition of the Psalms (1910), Matthew (1911) Mark and Luke (1912), the Synoptic question (1912), Acts (1913), the Pastoral Epistles (1913), Hebrews (1914), and, among others, the parousia discussed here. The question taken up in these decrees deals with the extent to which Catholics could have recourse to the modern historical-critical approach for insight into the Scriptures, and the response given by the PBC was, in general, “very little.”

But if Catholics today do not consistently heed the pronouncements of the PBC concerning the appropriateness of modern exegesis, this begs the question: what was the main point of these decrees, and does their substance remain valid today? In the same document just mentioned, Benedict observes that, “as warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate,” since they “performed the great service of saving [the Church] from foundering in the bourgeois-liberal world.” For example, from our privileged vantage point a century later, we can see that the principal goal of the PBC’s decree on Matthew did not actually consist in its assertions concerning when and by whom the Gospel was composed. Rather, the substance of what the Magisterium intended to convey at the time and which remains true today is the need to safeguard the authority of the Scriptures, the historicity of Jesus, and the Church’s divine foundation in the wake of deconstructive intellectual currents which would undermine the faith.

Be that as it may, immediately following the words of Benedict cited above, he soberly acknowledges, “Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, [the early 20th-century PBC decrees] were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” Here we find Benedict implicitly distinguishing the substance of the PBC’s teaching from its accidental features which were “superseded” over time, a reality observable in the way Benedict himself elsewhere speaks of the relationship of exegesis and the Magisterium.

Addressing the PBC as its president on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Benedict wrote that this delicate issue was “one of the problems of my own autobiography.” While vigorously defending faith’s role in exegesis, he admits:

It remains correct that by making the judgments that we have mentioned, the Magisterium overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty and that, as a result, the Magisterium’s credibility was injured and the freedom needed for exegetical research and interrogation was unduly narrowed.

It is striking to witness in this passage the humility and boldness of a Church official who recognizes that a frank appraisal of the limits of the Magisterium’s authority is a necessary step towards arriving at a deeper understanding of its nature and relationship to exegesis.

Also revelatory of Benedict’s stance towards modern exegesis is the evocative portrait this document, entitled Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church, paints of his intellectual predecessors, who yearned, “like Moses on Mount Nebo, to gaze upon the Promised Land of an exegesis liberated from every shackle of magisterial surveillance.” He tells the story of Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, whose flowering academic career was dealt a sharp blow by the Magisterium. The latter decreed that the commentary into which Maier had been pouring all his energy had to be “altogether expunged from the education of the clergy” since it defended the so-called two-source theory, which Benedict countenances by telling us that today it is “almost universally accepted” as an account of the Synoptic problem. In light of this situation, he therefore sympathetically states, “It is perfectly understandable that, in the days when the decisions of the then Pontifical Biblical Commission prevented them from a clean application of the historical-critical method, Catholic theologians should cast envious glances at their Protestant colleagues.”

How, then, are we to explain the about-face in the Church’s attitude toward the modern historical-critical method today? Benedict offers a vivid comparison to make his case:

The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated. Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.

In this passage, Benedict sheds insight into the reason certain features of the PBC decrees in question stood in need of correction: those who crafted the statements were under the (false) assumption that the trustworthiness of Scripture–and thereby the faith itself–would be undermined if the Church entertained findings of historical-criticism that contradicted ancient traditions concerning such matters as the authorship and dating of biblical books. Over time the Church came to see that this premise was incorrect, but Benedict regrets that in the meantime the research of many scholars like Friedrich Maier was halted in its tracks and “much real wheat was lost along with the chaff.” He incisively indicates that this problem was symptomatic of an “anti-Modernistic neurosis which had again and again crippled the Church since the turn of the century,” an attitude which led to “an almost neurotic denial of all that was new.”

Despite his frank criticisms of certain aspects of past magisterial pronouncements, Benedict’s approach is worlds apart from an attitude that would conclude from such observations that the Magisterium has erred in an essential matter and thereby abdicated its authority to teach Christians today. For, while he does not shy away from facing the most alarming challenges to the Magisterium’s teaching authority, he writes in work Theological Highlights of Vatican II, “Yet, neither do we lightly condemn the past, even if we see it as a necessary part of a process of knowing.”

To be sure certain accidental elements of magisterial teaching have been superseded over the centuries, but we saw above that Benedict offers a framework within which to ascertain the substance of the decrees which was and remains sound doctrine today despite the ostensible change in the Church’s attitude towards “modernism.” At their core, these early statements of the PBC were warning cries against an indiscriminate application of the historical-critical method which would undermine the authority of Scripture. They are necessary to counter what he describes in his essay Biblical Interpretation in Conflict as the Kantian “ready-made philosophy” that would use historical criticism to draw false and destructive conclusions from the premise that God cannot intervene in history and reveal himself to man. Benedict tells us that such a being “is not the God of the Bible,” and proceeds to offer some examples of teachings which, in contrast with the subjects treated by the PBC, could never be altered as the result of historical-critical findings: the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

Concerning this last point, Benedict tells us that Jesus’ bodily resurrection “is the meaning of the empty tomb,” as if to preempt any objectors who would claim that the essence of the empty tomb lay in a spiritual experience of the apostles and not a direct encounter with the Son of God in his glorified flesh. In short, Benedict emphasizes that the Christian faith requires us to profess “that Jesus–in all that is essential–was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be.”

Wrapping up this post, I want to say a word about why I spent so much time on the PBC when our main discussion is supposed to be the parousia.

First, the PBC’s statements on the topic are one of the few (if not only) documents to address the particular problem at hand.

Second, it is a big problem if the magisterium today seems to contradict the magisterium of yesterday, so I believe that a compelling answer needed to be offered.

Finally, as we will see in blog posts beginning next week, Pope Benedict makes statements which seem to contradict the teaching of the PBC discussed in the last few posts. I therefore want to provide a justification for the development of doctrine that has taken place within the Catholic Church on this subject.

With that said, thanks for reading. I welcome comments and suggestions. For a fuller treatment of today’s topic, you can download my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.



The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 2 of 3)

In the last post we treated the first of three points in the PBC’s teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Today we turn to the second part of the document. I have abbreviated the question due to the fact that its grammatical structure is somewhat convoluted.

Question 2: “Whether it is fitting to affirm that the apostle Paul certainly declared in his writings nothing that is not in perfect harmony with that ignorance of the time of the Parousia, which Christ himself proclaimed to obtain among human beings.”

Response 2: “Affirmative.”

This one has a double negative that makes it grammatically challenging, but take that out and you find that the PBC teaches it is “fitting” to affirm that what Paul taught concerning the parousia was “in perfect harmony” with what Jesus said on the topic–namely that we know neither the day nor the hour when he will come again. The underlying reference here is to Mk 13:32.

The choice of the word “fitting” (Latin oporteat) here is perhaps significant. I would want to verify this with a classicist, but the word may be translated variously as “necessary,” “proper,” or “becoming” in addition to other renderings. Did the PBC deliberately avoid using a strong word like necesse (“necessary,” “essential”) in favor of a softer word so as to avoid requiring Catholics to affirm that Paul’s teaching on the time of the parousia is perfectly consonant with that of Jesus? I don’t know, but I would welcome input as it could potentially help exculpate this document if one were to conclude that Paul did in fact think that the end of time was near in his day. To my mind, however, when one takes into account the overall tenor of the PBC documents in this period, one good argument against this is that it seems unlikely the PBC would have been open to the possibility of a discrepancy between the thought of Paul and Jesus, respectively.

In summary, in this question we find the PBC teaching that Paul and Jesus both affirmed the impossibility of knowing when the time of the Second Coming will be. Good, but does this sufficiently deal with the problematic texts raised in the my first post on the parousia? And does it still leave room for the possibility that Paul thought Christ would return in his lifetime even if Paul himself did not know the precise hour?

As we will see in a later post, this PBC document served primarily a practical purpose. It was not concerned with providing sophisticated arguments but rather with giving concise, concrete guidance to Catholic exegetes in the early 20th century. For our purposes, that means we still need to give an argument that confronts the problem of the early Church apparently erring in its expectations concerning the Second Coming.

Before making this argument, however, we need to examine the PBC’s third and final question concerning the parousia. This is the topic I will address next time.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 1 of 3)

This post is the second in a series which deals with Scripture apparently erring in its expectation that the Second Coming of Christ would take place in the first century. As a first step toward resolving the problem of an imminent parousia of Jesus, we actually need to throw in another wrench. Today’s post is the first of a short series concerning a 1915 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, an office that served as an organ of the Magisterium in that epoch. This document can be found in Italian and Latin on the Vatican site and in English in the book entitled The Scripture Documents. Like the other documents of the PBC at the time, this document is in Q & A format, with the answers being the magisterium’s teaching on the matter in question. Today we’ll treat the first of the document’s three questions.

Question 1: “Whether it is permissible for a Catholic exegete, in solving difficulties that occur in the Letters of St. Paul and the other apostles, where the so-called ‘Parousia’ or Second Coming of our Lord Jesus is mentioned, to assert that the apostles, although they teach no error under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless do express their own human views, into which error or deception can enter.”

Response 1: “Negative.”

This answer combats the notion that Scripture contains certain statements which issue from the pen of human authors who are liable to err when they are not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, what is condemned here is the attempt to preserve biblical inerrancy by saying that problematic biblical passages merely constitute the expression of a human point of view and are not as such inspired. From this perspective rejected by the PBC, only parts of the Bible are inspired.

In line with the PBC, Vatican II would later reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching that “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (Dei Verbum 11).

In the same section of Dei Verbum just cited, the council goes on to teach that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 11). To give a hint of the argument which I will be making, one of the keys to addressing the riddle of the imminent parousia lies precisely in the correct understanding and application of this text. A few blog posts from now, we will take a look at how Pope Benedict XVI endeavors to ascertain the “fundamental message” and “essential points” being made in texts which appear to contradict the facts of history.

The reason why this PBC document constitutes another wrench for us is that it is not immediately apparent how Benedict’s approach is reconcilable with that of the PBC we’re dealing with here. We’ll get to that in due time, but for next time we’ll continue with this PBC document and examine its second question. If you’re interested in how Benedict approaches the early documents of the PBC, I recommend downloading my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.


Beginning with the End: The Problem of the Parousia

After a few weeks of getting this website together, I am now setting out on the enterprise of blogging. As I point out in the site’s About page, the blog will cover a wide range of subjects, focusing in particular on issues concerning the Bible, Catholic dogma and culture, world religions, and warranted religious belief. Of all the subjects I could treat, I have decided in good Thomistic fashion to begin with the end in mind and treat of eschatology, the study of the “last things.”

The particular subject I want to reflect on is the early Church’s expectation of Christ’s imminent return (parousia in the Greek of the New Testament). It’s a thorny issue that one may find more comfortable to avoid addressing, but one the aims of my intellectual apostolate is to grapple with hard questions like these and help present them in a way that respects their seriousness while also offering a serious response.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll be reflecting on a series of sources, mostly from Pope Benedict XVI, on an existential crisis the early Christians had to face with regard to Christ’s return: Why hasn’t Christ come back yet like he seemed to say he would? By way of exploring this question, I wish also to show its relevance for our lives today and its implications for the way we ought to go about biblical exegesis as Catholics.

Aside from this brief introduction, today I want to do just two things. First, I want to refer you to my brief interview on Pope Benedict XVI for Benedictine College’s Gregorian Institute so you can get a handle on the approach to biblical interpretation I follow. In broad strokes, it consists in the attempt to follow the principles and example of Pope Benedict XVI, who according to many is the Catholic Church’s most erudite biblical scholar pope in centuries.

Second, I want to offer a few texts that concisely set up the problem of the early Church’s expectation of an imminent Second Coming, that is to say their belief that Christ would come back and usher in the Kingdom during the Apostles’ lifetimes. After setting up the problem, in future posts we will be able to offer responses.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

  • What is the apparent discrepancy between the words in bold and the facts of history?

Mark 13 with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”

  • The entire chapter of Mk 13 should be read, but verses 29-30 cited here are the seemingly problematic words I want to highlight.

1 Cor 7:29

“I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.”

  • Again, the entire chapter 1 Cor 7 should be read to get a feel for the context. Paul is giving practical instructions to guide the Corinthian community as they live in distress and apparently await Christ’s soon return.

Jn 21:21-23

“When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “˜If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

  • This text is perhaps easier to explain than some, but it gives an additional angle into the general mindset of the disciples with regard to Christ’s return.

That’s enough to set up the problem and give you something to meditate on. We could adduce a number of other texts that would bring the problem into further relief. Feel free to add any of the relevant biblical texts you find particularly tricky on this topic.