The pivot of history

At the purely geopolitical level, war in Israel is a highly significant and concerning matter. But if biblical prophecy is more than the fairy-tales the New Atheists loved to claim, without investigation, before their own demise as a movement, then war in Israel may be of cosmic significance. I have no intention here of going down the rabbit hole of placing the current situation of Israel in 2023 into the prophetic matrix of the Bible. Instead I want to take a look at the wider question of whether there is a basis for taking that matrix seriously, rather than airily dismissing it like the Gnus’ talk of “your imaginary friend,” or perhaps for the average Christian, simply shrugging it off as a dubious esoteric interest.

We’ve had two hundred years of the “critical scholarly consensus” arguing that belief in Jesus as God, and in his literal resurrection from the dead, must have developed gradually like all such legendary accretions to heroic figures. Those who haven’t studied it will be surprised at how many near-universal assumptions about Christianity arise from that very Victorian assumption.

For example originally it was assumed the the four Gospels must have been composed a century or more after the death of Jesus (if he existed) in order to encompass the miraculous. Manuscript and other discoveries pushed that dating back to the current “consensus” of 70-100AD, which is itself implausibly short for the development of such a web of wonder-working whilst hostile witnesses were still alive. I’m old enough to remember events accurately sixty or seventy years ago.

But most of us don’t realise that even these dates are largely derived from the Synoptic Gospels’ prophecy, from Jesus’s mouth, of the destruction of Jerusalem in 69-70AD. Since (it was argued) Jesus could not actually foretell the future, the Gospels’ composition must post-date Jerusalem’s fall. Only more recently has it been noticed that the Gospel accounts reflect Old Testament parallels such as Daniel, rather than the military reality that emerged under Vespasian, making their composition after the event the historical problem, rather than their foretelling of the future.

Be that as it may, the critical process has left the widespread impression than the four gospels are “known” to be unreliable sources, so the idea of a slowly evolving promotion of Jesus from some minor religious and/or political figure to the Divine Saviour of Christianity remains in the public consciousness. That means it’s recycled in everything from school RI lessons to TV documentaries. Within the last decade or two, it received new life from The Da Vinci Code and the “non-fiction” books that inspired it, arguing with absolutely no historical foundation that Christianity as we know it only appeared at the time of Constantine in the fourth century, when all the “real” evidence was supposedly suppressed.

That, however, is nonsense on stilts. For in recent years critical scholarship – that is, the heirs of those who first sold us the “legendary accretions” – has been forced to a radically new understanding of the actual history of Christianity. This is well explained by people like Dr Habermas on YouTube, but if you’ve missed it you really need to know it. The logical process is something like this:

  • No serious scholar denies that Paul, a violent opponent of the new movement, was converted around three years after Jesus’s death (so either 33AD or 36AD, depending on the date preferred for the crucifixion).
  • No serious scholar disputes the authenticity of a central body of Paul’s letters, dating from 48-50AD (for 1 Thessalonians) to no later than the early 60s, when Paul was executed in Rome, a maximum of thirty years.
  • Ignoring the high Christology of Paul’s own letters (which could be put down to the fanaticism of the convert, I suppose), there are passages in them which are, on contextual, stylistic and linguistic grounds, indisputably quotations from early Christian wrings that Paul himself regarded as authoritative, but didn’t write himself. These are broadly speaking, “credal,” in the form of hymns (eg Ephesians 5:14, Philippians 2:6-11), or credal historical statements (eg 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), or simply statements of belief (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
  • In order to cite them as authorities, believing his own authority as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles, Paul must have regarded these “creeds” as originating with sources at least as reliable, that is the original apostles we know he consulted in Jerusalem not too long after his conversion, within a few years of the events. In the case of 1 Cornthians 15, he overtly states his dependance on a creed he received himself when he was converted.
  • These quoted credal statements all testify to three central truths of the new faith – that is the Divinity, the atoning Death, and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We may infer, then, that by the time Paul “checked out his faith” in Jerusalem, these credal statements had been composed, and were in use, by the original apostles and their church(es) in the very city where the contested events took place, and where the most concerted opposition from religious authorities with vested interests on all sides of the theological spectrum existed. That must have been within two or three years of the death of Jesus, and some scholars suggest they would have been composed within a few months: that certainly makes sense for the 1 Corinthians passage, as the first question inquirers would ask was “Who saw the risen Jesus, then?”

Consider this – the precursor event of Paul’s conversion, to which he was an eye-witness, was the stoning of Stephen for insisting on the Divinity, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Peter only escaped a similar fate by the skin of his teeth and, according to Acts, a miraculous intervention. The apostle James was executed for the same beliefs in Jerusalem a few years later (a fact confirmed by the historian Josephus). And, as people like Habermas also point out, it was to this radical faith, and not to some vaguely construed new Messianic sect of Judaism, that both the zealous Pharisee Paul, and James the sceptical brother of Jesus, turned (James, future leader of the Jerusalem, being a witness to the risen Christ, like Paul, according to the 1 Corinthians 15 statement).

At this point, one must admit that the Jerusalem Christians could have been stark staring mad, witnesses to a man who only “swooned” from crucifixion and a spear-thrust to the heart, fooled by a secret twin brother or any of the other rightly discredited hypotheses invented to explain the experience of the disciples. But whatever they experienced left them, immediately, with a faith we can now define as indistinguishable from historical Christianity. If it is seen to validate the resurrection of Jesus, then it is hard to deny that it also validates his life and teaching, that is to say it validates the Gospel accounts, and validates Jesus’s dependence on the Hebrew Scriptures and their prophetic tradition, including sayings about final battles involving Jerusalem. The Resurrection, if true, changes everything.

We can add more on that score. N. T. Wright has correctly pointed out that Jesus’s prophecies about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, made on the eve of his passion, were intended to provide a future vindication of his ministry to “that generation.” This was like a re-run of the ministries of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, also vindicated by an earlier fall of Jerusalem through Nebuchadnezzar. The Christian tradition testifies to this, recording how the Jerusalem church recalled his oracles, and in the light of a contemporary prophetic word, fled to the city of Pella and escaped the destruction.

But astonishingly, despite its crucial importance for Christian apologetics, there is not a single clear reference in the New Testament to the Roman razing of the city. The most reasonable explanation of this fact is that, contrary to the old critical scholarship, the New Testament was complete and in wide circulation by the time the city fell, giving no opportunity to point to it (except, arguably, in apocalyptic passages in the Revelation of John, which might post-date it, but equally might have been written as the events were unfolding in Judaea, predicting their fulfillment as a vindication of Jesus as Lord of history). That means historical Christianity was fully-formed within thirty five years.

Hmm – Lord of history. An ambitious claim, but one that follows quite naturally if the Resurrection is true, as it now appears certain was believed by the very first Christians from the outset, in the light of their own experience. And to me, that makes snorting at the possible prophetic significance of a war in Israel – especially after 3½ years of widely perceived international deception – less than rational.

I was at this gig 51 years ago. I remember it well.
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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The pivot of history

  1. Peter Hickman says:


    Your analysis of the likely dating of the New Testament writings makes sense to me.

    I don’t take an apocalyptic view of current events in Israel. Every time there is a resurgence of trouble the ‘end times’ prophets re-emerge. It was ever thus. I was in Israel in 1973 but, fortunately, came home in the July, before the Yom Kippur War broke out. My son-in-law’s brother, Philip, is currently trapped in Galilee.

    As to the timing of the apocalypse (‘revealing’), Paul and the other apostles firmly believed that they belonged to the generation that would see the return of Jesus.
    Here’s a selection of evidential texts:
    • ‘Encourage one another all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Heb 10.25)
    • ‘The end of all things is near’ (1 Pet 4.7)
    • ‘The Lord is at hand’ (Phil 4.5)
    • ‘On [us] the fulfillment of the ages has come’ (1 Cor 10.11)
    • ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed’ (1 Cor 15.51)
    • ‘According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep … we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them …’ (1 Thess 4.15-17)
    • ‘The Lord’s coming is near … the Judge is standing at the door’ (James 5.8-9)
    • ‘We know that it is the last hour’ (1 John 2.18)
    • ‘The day is at hand’ (Rom 13.12)
    Why did they believe this so firmly? Because Jesus had told them what to expect.

    Christian readers will be familiar with Jesus’ prophecies about ‘the last days’, found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. He prophesied that, following a series of signs, including the destruction of Jerusalem, he himself would come ‘on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’. Jesus then said that ‘this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’ (Matthew 24:34). If we change the obvious meaning of Jesus’ words, we have to explain why the apostles understood his meaning as they did.
    Paul said, ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’. If he had lived a generation later, he might, with some justification, have said, ‘if Christ has not returned, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’. Unless, as C.S. Lewis suggested, Jesus was simply wrong.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    If Jesus was simply wrong about his return within a generation, we have a spiritual conundrum. For the One who rises from the dead and ascends to the right hand of God, thus proving his deity, and his power to redeem mankind, simultaneously fails the test of the true prophet in Deuteronomy 18:22: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not fear him.”

    God would be saying, “Believe in Jesus alone because of the Resurrection – but follow the High Priest in rejecting him as a false prophet on biblical grounds.”

    Jesus is not a false prophet (false prophets are not glorified by resurrection and ascension by God – and they don’t accurately foretell the destruction of Jerusalem), so however we interpret his disciples’ understanding, the prediction he made stands, telling us he was not teaching about his imminent return.

    But as N.T. Wright points out (fully aware of the writings of Schweitzer that opened up that particular can of worms) Jesus is quoting Daniel 8, which is not about the coming of the “Son of Man” to earth at all, but his coming to the throne of God (as the representative of faithful Israel) as a sign of vindication. In other words, though Jesus did prophesy his return – repeatedly – this prophecy is about the public vindication of his enthronement by God, through the accurate fulfillment of his last prophecy on the fall of Jerusalem.

    In the context of the fact that if Jesus were a false prophet, your paraphrase of Paul would be an entirely valid reason to abandon Christianity ever since, it is noteworthy that no early Christian source tries to explain away Jesus’s non-return in the first generation. They clearly saw no problem, despite Schweitzer and his followers.

    And therefore, as I argue in the OP, whatever Scripture (both OT and NT) may say about the world situation leading up to the promised return of Christ as Judge, needs to be taken seriously.

  3. Robert Byers says:

    I see this as another trivial fight in those areas relative to numbers. the wars in the past were greater and not so much then.
    i understand the only thing Jesus said about Jerusalem falling was its was the fau;t of jewish pride. Not a part of gods bigger plan. anyways the Arabs see the Jews like the ukrainians see the russians. As invadors. the jews see the area as belonging to them based on past boundaries. like the rissians in a slice of Ukraine. Israel got uppity about the russian invasion and well you reap what you sow maybe in this case. its all murder or almost on all sides save some right to self protection by the Isreali’s from being hurt.
    I still see the deliberate agenda to start and fan war in syria with the desire for regime change as the important moral evil done by all involved. bringing death for no good reasons. War is about killimg people and really important to God and so justifications matter. When is war moral has come up in Christian scholarship.

  4. Peter Hickman says:


    If Jesus was quoting Daniel 7:13-14 in Matthew 24:30 (both of which refer to a/the Son of Man ‘coming’) we should take care to understand the context, how he was using the text, what he meant by it and what his hearers understood by it.

    The context is the whole of Matthew 24 which begins by describing the ‘great distress … never to be equalled again’ – the judgment of God resulting in the desolation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, the persecution and murder of believers, natural cataclysms, etc. These were all events occurring on the earth.

    Jesus said that his coming would be as visible as lightening is visible (v 27), that ‘immediately after the distress of those days’ (v 29) and ‘at that time … all the nations of the earth … will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky’ (v30). He concluded with, ‘so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’ (v44).
    Jesus employed Daniel’s prophecy not primarily to refer to his receipt of authority, glory and power in heaven but to describe his visible coming to earth. Indeed, Daniel 7 itself is all about events happening on earth.

    Having prophesied these events, Jesus then said, ‘This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’ (v 34). It is incontrovertible that Jesus intended his hearers to understand that the events he had described, including his ‘coming’, would occur during the lifetime of at least some of his hearers.

    How did Jesus’ hearers understand him? The epistles were mostly written before the fall of Jerusalem and are littered with numerous time references to Jesus’ return (see my previous post). He was expected imminently (‘near’, ‘at hand’, ‘shortly’, ‘quickly’, ‘approaching’, ‘the last hour’). The entire New Testament testifies to this. Thus, it is disingenuous to claim that when Jesus referred to his ‘coming’, on multiple occasions, he meant anything other than his (imminent) return to earth. This is what his followers understood him to mean. Indeed, Paul expected to be alive when Jesus returned (1Thess 4.15).

    C.S. Lewis described Matthew 24.34 as ‘the most embarrassing verse in the Bible’ because he believed that Jesus, having said that he would return within a generation, did not do so. It is understandably too radical a step for most theologians to suggest that Jesus was wrong; and so only two options remain:
    1. to accept that the apostles were correct in their understanding of what Jesus said – and to seek evidence that Jesus did indeed return within a generation, or
    2. to conclude that the apostles misunderstood the plain meaning of Jesus’ prophecies (because ‘we know’ that Jesus didn’t return within a generation) and to find an alternative interpretation of his words.
    Many have chosen the second option, which is the best example of eisegesis that I know of.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “To accept that the apostles were correct in their understanding of what Jesus said – and to seek evidence that Jesus did indeed return within a generation.”

    If indeed wht you clain was their understanding. In order to give due weight to Paul’s 50AD warning that Christ had not returned, one has also to find evidence that his coming was seen from East to West, and that it overthrew the lawless one deceived all who do not believe the gospel by its splendour.

    It seems to me that to do that one has to deny the understanding of 2,000 years of Christians, numbering many millions, across the world, who all expect the return of Jesus to bring in the New Creation. That would be a major failure of the Holy Spirit’s witness to lead his Church into all truth. Pretty well the only people who would have got it right are the JWs.

  6. Peter Hickman says:

    It’s a conundrum.
    The main difficulty for the futurists is accommodating the Scriptures. The main difficulty for the preterists is the paucity of corroborative evidence (albeit they draw some comfort from the likes of Josephus).

    I don’t think that long-held majority opinions (argumentum ad populum) should carry much weight. We know what Martin Luther would have said about that. Nor do I find the argument compelling that if the preterists are correct then the Holy Spirit has failed (because the Church should be convinced of the truth of preterism, and it isn’t).
    The Church has debated doctrinal differences, some of major importance, for centuries, and after almost two millennia we still have a Church divided into multiple denominations.

    When Jesus said of the Spirit that, “he will guide you into all truth” (ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ) he was talking to his disciples. Commentators are divided (how ironic!) on whether his words were intended for all of his followers, or only for the apostles.
    If I can be forgiven for my own bit of eisegesis, may I suggest that the latter is more likely correct since the Holy Spirit has clearly not, so far anyway, guided the Church into all truth.

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