Sunday, August 14, 2016

Understood Better as the Consummation of the Age

Continuing in this series, St Jerome, a priest and Doctor of the Church, offers some extremely helpful comments about Matthew 24 and the trajectory of the Jewish wars which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. As I see it, his comments are helpful for two reasons. First, his comments illustrate how many Church fathers saw the plain, historical sense of the text before them, and it's fulfillment within the first century. Even when they insist on how the literal, historical sense is "understood better" as a future, mystical sense, they clearly understood that it could be understood as being fulfilled in first century events which we have lots of historical evidence to support. Second, Jerome's comments offer a glimpse of how the literal, historical fulfillment of prophecies within Scripture can be allegorized (or typologized) to draw the Church of all ages into the narrative of God's story. Some theologians today see allegory or typology as a problem, but I see that as the way in which the apostles themselves drew the Christian Church into the narrative of God's story about Israel, God's "son." 

The common dilemma that occurs when utilizing typology to fulfill New Testament prophecies is mistaking the literal, first century historical sense for a literal, future historical "end-of-the-world" sense awaiting fulfillment thousands of years afterward. I contend, rather, that the appropriate way to apply Scriptural "signs" and prophecies to any future generation of the Christian Church (a generation future to the literal, first century generation to which Jesus and his apostles addressed) is to begin with it's foundational fulfillment, in first century events which are evident to those who have studied the Scriptures in light of the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Commenting on the end of Mathew 23 and portions of chapter 24, St. Jerome offers some fascinating insights. He writes:

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who have been sent to you, how often have I wanted to gather your sons as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." By Jerusalem he does not mean the stones and buildings of the city, but its inhabitants. He laments for it with the feeling of a father, just as also in another passage we read that when he saw it, he wept. Now his words: "How often have I wanted to gather your sons," testify to the fact that all the prophets in the past had been sent by him. 

"And having left the Temple, Jesus went away. And his disciples came to him to show him the building of the Temple. But he answered and said to them: Do you see all these things? Amen I say to you: Not a stone shall be left here upon a stone which will not be destroyed."  The meaning of the historical narrative is manifest. As the Lord was leaving the Temple, all the buildings of the Torah and the construction of the commandments were destroyed in such a way that nothing could be fulfilled by the Jews. Once the head was removed, all the members fight among themselves. 

Now as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying: Tell us, when will these things be and what will the sign of your coming and of the consummation of the world?" ...They were longing to know mysteries and revelation about the future. And they ask three questions: At what time is Jerusalem to be destroyed, when is Christ going to come, and when is the consummation of the world1 going to happen? 

For many will come in my name, saying: I am the Christ, and they will seduce many." One of these is Simon the Samaritan, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles. He claimed to be the great power of God. Among other things, he left the following written statements in his books: "I am the Word of God, I am the Beautiful, I am the Paraclete, I am the Omnipotent, I am God's All." But John the apostle says in his epistle: "You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, but now there are many antichrists."2 ...It is not surprising that we see some seduced by them, since the Lord said: "And they will seduce many." 

"Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place, let the reader understand." Whenever we are summoned to understanding, what has been said is shown to be mystical. Now, we read it in Daniel in this way: "And for half a week my sacrifice and libations will be removed, and in the Temple there will be an abomination of desolations until the consummation of the time, and the consummation will be given over the devastation." The apostle also speaks of this, that the man of iniquity and the adversary is to be lifted up against everything that is called God or that is worshiped. He will dare to stand in the Temple of God and show that he himself is God, that his coming in accordance with the working of Satan destroys them, and that it reduces those who received him to a devastation, void of God. Now this can be interpreted either literally of the Antichrist, or of the image of Caesar that Pilate placed in the Temple,3 or of the equestrian statue of Hadrian, which stands to the present day in the very location of the holy of holies.

"Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take anything from his house, and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his tunic. And woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days." ...This can also be explained in the following manner. During the persecution of the Antichrist or of the Roman captivity, pregnant women and nursing mothers, being weighed down by the burden in their womb or of their children, will be unable to escape [Judea] very easily. 

"Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath." If we want to take this of the captivity of Jerusalem when it was captured by Titus and Vespasian, the meaning is that they should pray that their flight will not be in winter or on a sabbath. For in the former season, the harshness of the cold hinders from traveling in the wastelands and hiding in the mountains and deserts. On the sabbath either it is a transgression of the Torah if they wanted to escape, or there would be imminent death if they remain. 

"Then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it."  At the time of the Judaic captivity, many leaders rose up who claimed to be the Christ. This occurred to such an extent that when the Romans were conducting their siege, there were three factions within Jerusalem. But it is understood better of the consummation of the world.

"For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will give great signs and prodigies, so that even the elect, if it were possible, would be led into error. Behold, I have told you ahead of time."  As I said earlier, the passage ought to be explained in a threefold way, either concerning the time of the Roman siege, or concerning the consummation of the world, or concerning the battle of the heretics and antichrists of that sort against the Church,5 who fight against Christ under the pretext of false knowledge.6

1.  Notice carefully that Jerome alters the Greek text to mean the consummation of "the world" (τὸν κόσμον) instead of what it actually says, the consummation of "the age" (τοῦ αἰῶνος). Jerome mistakenly interprets "age" as "world," by assuming that Jesus was referring to the future historical "end-of-the-world" sense instead of it's (admittedly) more natural first century historical sense
2.  1 John 2:18
3. This is an important interpretation showing first century fulfillment, because it was a common view among the Church Fathers. That also shows how common some sense of first century fulfillment was among the Church Fathers.
4. No, actually, it is better understood of the consummation of the "age," which occurred at the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the Roman "siege" just mentioned by Jerome.
5. Notice again how Jerome interprets prophecy in a three-fold manner. There is a first century fulfillment, an "end-of-the-world" fulfillment, and a fulfillment which occurs throughout Church history. I think this is a valid pastoral hermeneutic, but I do not agree with Jerome that the foundational, historical fulfillment of Jesus' words occurred in the first century alone. All other historical fulfillments are types of the actual historical events which were fulfilled in the first century Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem.
6. Translation by Thomas P. Scheck. St. Jerome: Commentary on Matthew (Washington, DC; Catholic University of America Press; 2008), pp. 268-274 

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