Climbing the Mount of Olives Part II.1: The Aion in Matthew

Climbing the Mount of Olives II: Matthew 24

After forty years, I’m finally here. If you don’t know how we got here, welcome. You might want to get caught up with this outline of Matthew. And then you’ll probably want to visit the Temple here in Matthew 23 before you descend to the East and then start to ascend the Mount of Olives with us in this article. If you’re especially curious, you might also want to read the journal that I started earlier this year as I began my preparations for this trip. Then again, I like to skip to the end sometimes, too. Wherever you start from or have started, the goal is to read the next two chapters of Matthew, in their context, as well as we can. Hopefully these preparations can help us on the way.

Even with all of this work and a thesis in hand, what I’m we’re really trying to do is listen to Matthew 24 like a person who has walked into the middle of a conversation that has been running much longer than our lives, because it has. I won’t begin every sentence with all of the caveats that distance and depth and underdetermination always require us, when studying these ancient texts. However, I hope you can imagine me always speaking with a free and joyful tentativeness, eager for informed correction wherever it can be found. While I won’t repeat all of these caveats constantly while climbing this sacred mountain, know that this is my posture. I believe that especially here on this sacred ground we need to move like foxes on ice, like guests just arriving. If we attend closely enough, maybe we can even hear some of what is whispered in the stillness that always rests behind words.

But even with all of the caution and wonder that we might muster, it still helps to articulate a thesis. Whether it stands up to scrutiny or not, it will help us see in a certain way. A thesis helps in both its falling and its standing, because we can see who tries to take it down, and how, and if it stays down after all. So my broad claim is this: Matthew reads in an especially consilient way if one of Matthew’s primary goals is to tell us about the establishment of an egalitarian, non-violent, intergenerational government by Jesus of Nazareth. The Mount Olivet Discourse here in Matthew 24–25 fits naturally and easily into that broader context, if we let it. On this reading, on the Mount of Olives Matthew’s Jesus is telling us how human history works, just as he is about to show us, on the cross, how human history works. And he does this for a number of reasons, but primarily to encourage faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount, which is the faithfulness that builds his non-violent government.

Especially when we read Matthew as a whole within this matrix of meaning, it is also highly illuminating to understand “aion” as “lifetime”. A lot of what we will do involves hearing how much this simple suggestion helps us hear in the text, at point after point after point.

It can be tempting to treat Matthew 24–25 as an isolated island in Matthew, disconnected from the ethics and ideas that permeate the rest of the text. This is why I have explored all of the text around our central text first, to help guard against the conceptual isolation that causes so much desolation. The Mount Olivet Discourse is especially clarified when we read it in light of the teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, understood as his fulfillment of the Covenant on the Mount. This sets the pattern that his faithful disciples will also imitate, even if false disciples loudly call him Lord, Lord, but don’t even try to keep his commands. For all of the pain and desolation of the cross, the Mount of Olives becomes an infinitely more desolate place if we rush to cover up the ‘shameful’ meekness of the cross, which utterly obscures the light it casts on the Mount of Olives and all of the olamic hills.

The particular synthesis I offer here accords at many points with first rate contemporary scholarship, and with traditional Christian practice and confessions of faith. Still, it is distinctive in how consistently it brings together the Covenant on the Mount and inaugurated eschatology, which is the view that Jesus inaugurated his reign in his life, death and resurrection. In part, I think the marginality of this approach involves the fact that it brings together two ecclesial traditions that sit on opposite poles of historical church conflicts: Catholic and peace church anabaptist. This synthesis makes a great deal of sense to me from my location as a Catholic and a pastor in a church movement shaped deeply by Quakerism. But even as dense as I am, I do recognize that my social location is still a bit eccentric today. Some people might even think that I’m impossible, which could relate to the way some people see this reading as impossible. I assure you, I exist, and I (at least) can make sense of who I am. You can look over here, for example, to see how I do that.

As a result of the history of church politics, relatively few prominent scholarly interpreters have had an interest in simultaneously seeing something like the historical church in Matthew 24–25 (that’s too Catholic), while also pairing this with a serious and central insistence on non-violence (that’s too peace-churchy). I think that our history of faithlessness, leading to our long history of schisms, has also divided modes of reading that urgently need to be brought together. The situation has often left us with a covenant-shaped hole in our Gospel, and with a history-shaped hole in our covenantal theologies. This mutual marginalization and hostility helps explain why both popular and academic discussions haven’t centered here as much as they really should, in terms of the merits of the case.

Beyond this, my spiritual formation has centrally involved learning to hold this radical tension in love. I’m the spiritual child of the Catholic Church and the radical reformation. In myself, to make it through the day, I have to hold the revolutionary and the anti-revolutionary. In my heart the “not yet” holds even the oldest and moldiest roots of the ancien régime. From this vantage point, the far smaller divisions among today’s academic theological revolutionaries look pretty small. So more proximately, what I’m doing here also involves synthesizing work from the likes of David Bentley Hart and Dale Allison and N.T. Wright, from a vantage point shaped by my role-models, especially Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Howard Thurman. Scholars like Hart and Wright have so much to contribute, and they are also (unfortunately) very good at forming aggressive identity groups around their author platforms. This causes deep intellectual synthesis to grow unnecessarily difficult as relatively petty squabbles, with all of their fleeting rushes of pleasure and delightful personal digs, displace the rewarding work of discourse. Similarly, my spiritual formation has made me interested in taking up things like Keizer’s synthesis of Ramelli-Konstan in ways that I haven’t seen taken up elsewhere, because I look for the content of the marginal and discursive (Keizer) where it quietly whispers the truth from the sidelines. I’m surprised that I’m the only person I know, among all the theologians and scholars and students of theology I interact with, who is working on this particular synthesis. As far as I know, nobody else is playing this tune. So I guess it must be up to me to show my hand, here where time has become our enemy. I would have preferred to find this project sitting somewhere, written by someone else, ready to go. It would have saved me a lot of time and I could have peacefully gone about my more immediately practical work. But the situation compels me to produce a bit of work so that I can explain myself to those who end up asking.

This is also why I suspect that a sincere, sustained, coherent and ecumenical turn toward faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount has the potential to transform the church throughout the world today. I think that a change like that can and hopefully will change the world for the better in future generations, if enough time remains. Maybe the days of the Catholic pacifists will yet dawn. And when they do I suspect that today’s strange will finally norm, and yesterday’s normal will be seen for the aberration that it always already was.

It is true that from the standpoint of the barbarism that forms the most visible artifacts of history, the past hasn’t belonged to faithful Catholic anabaptists like us very often, at least not over the last 1700 years. But I have heard about a kingdom that works its way invisibly through the dough, like yeast. And I have heard about seeds that yield more fruit in each generation, while poisonous imitators are burnt away. A handfull of seed doesn’t need to be as weighty as an old rotting hulk to have more hope than it.

So I believe a better future can always break in when we repent and turn to God. If Matthew is right about Jesus and I’m right about Matthew, then there is a very bright hope on the other side of all this death. Marginal as my position may be today, I’m strangely consoled by this thought: my marginality is nothing compared to the marginality of Jesus and his followers when the text of Matthew was written, perhaps somewhere in the general vicinity of 70 AD. Some small things grow, and some grand old things play their part by rotting away and feeding the new. Decomposition, after all, is slow combustion.

To start our climb, we will invest a lot of attention in the first three verses of Matthew 24. It contains two terms that are central to the many scholarly debates around this passage: “parousia” or “coming”, and “aion” or “lifetime/age”.

The reading I will offer is encapsulated in a consilient reading of both terms in the context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, and especially in the sequence of Matthew 23–25 as a whole. In this series, we will have a thorough excursus on the use of “aion” in Matthew, and then we will read these verses together in light of that work. Here’s Matthew 24:1–3. We will spend a good long time unpacking it, because it’s all in here somewhere.

As Jesus left the temple and was walking away, His disciples came up to Him to point out its buildings.

“Do you see all these things?” He replied. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

While Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your parousia and of the end of the aion?”

Let’s go.

II.1: Excursus on Aion in Matthew

II.1.A: Appetizers

Shorter Reflections on Several Uses of Aion

We‘ve already explored the historical use of “aion” prior to Matthew, through the work of Heleen Keizer. Now we’re going to pick up where she left off, and spend all the time it takes to explore the word’s meaning here. We might say with some poetic license that everything here has grown from that precious seed of a word: “aion.” To read a word well, it turns out you need to read the whole text well.

A huge amount of consilience is gained within Matthew and in its broader context if we simply take the word in its most common, basic, and enduring sense: as lifetime, rather than the currently more prevalent translation of “age”. Keizer argues that prior to the New Testament, the meaning of “age” is not really attested, at least not in the sense in which we think of a succession of distinct ages today. But she does briefly suggest (without arguing for the view) that the meaning of age arises in the New Testament context in particular. Her analysis encourages us to consider an interesting possibility: that perhaps the meaning of “lifetime” remains substantially present here as well, and that the texts under discussion (or their long reception history) are themselves the source of any shift in meaning that arises. Consider that the sense of “age” does arise easily and naturally from the meaning of lifetime, in the ways in which it is routinely extended by referring to the “lifetime of the cosmos” or to generations (which are sequences of lifetimes). Both “age” and “lifetime” refer to a period of time that will presumably end, even if its precise end is not known, and so any distinction between the two is more subtle than it might seem at first glance. The result is that in advocating for a continued extension of the use of “lifetime” into these texts, my stance is not hostile to the use of “age”. It is just that I think we can do even better, especially because other associations with “lifetime” remain so prevalent throughout the text of Matthew.

With Keizer in mind, it becomes intuitive to hear Jesus talking about the end of the nation of Judah’s lifetime here in Matthew 24:3. The disciples are asking when their country is going to die, when their Temple which houses the Spirit who sustains their national life will be destroyed. And Jesus will answer: soon, within a generation. That is to say, within the lifetimes of some who were there. National life and national death, as the rest of the study has illustrated extensively, are the constant over-arching concern of the Torah, the prophets, and Matthew’s Jesus here in Matthew 23–25. In this context, the disciples are like those talking to Zechariah after the national death of the Babylonian exile: when will the Messiah arrive and restore us as a nation? Or to draw on the imagery of Ezekiel 37: when will God breathe on the dry bones of our dead nation and resurrect us (as a nation)?

But if understanding “aion” as “lifetime” illuminates this verse, is it also helpful throughout the rest of Matthew? Or is this a case of special pleading? It turns out that the meaning of “lifetime” is illuminating in every usage of “aion” in Matthew, substantially increasing the consilience and communicative power of the text. Let’s review them here.

Matthew 6:13: Through the Lifetimes/Generations

The first instance of aion in Matthew is only present in later manuscripts, but is still worth our attention here because of how it resembles, but also diverges from, similar usages attested earlier. It is found in the doxology that concludes the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:13:

For yours are the Kingdom, the power and the glory, through the generations (eis tous aionas).

The translation here is mine, and it contrasts with the more standard translation of this three-word phrase as “forever”. The phrase is more literally rendered as “for the aions,” or maybe even “to the aions.” In our Matthew outline, I draw on Heleen Keizer’s work to argue for the translation above: through the generations. The basic idea is that this phrase can most literally be translated as “for the lifetimes,” and it was a common phrase in Greco-Hebrew writing because of its use in the main Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture, the Septuagint or LXX. The language is frequently and explicitly used to talk about things that endure from olam to olam and from generation to generation. So “through the generations” renders a familiar phrase quite literally and directly, while also sounding familiar in English, in a way that the phrase would have sounded familiar. So I think this translation manages to be substantially more literal while also conveying a sense of the phrase’s familiarity. To translate it as “forever” results in a significant loss of meaning, fidelity, and contextual information. Something that runs “through the generations” also runs “for the lifetimes,” it’s just that the second phrase forces you to think about it because it is unfamiliar. Something that runs through the generations could theoretically go ‘forever’ (or at least indefinitely, which is also a common meaning of ‘forever’ in English), at least as long as generations endure. Still, this subtle shift in focus highlights a this-worldly persistence through time rather than an otherworldly persistence. In this, the translation centers one of the great gains from Keizer’s synthesis of Ramelli: aidios is for talking about what is otherworldly and beyond time (‘eternal’), but aion and aionios talk about time as given with generation/creation.

Matthew 21:19: For (the) life / generation

Next we will jump forward to Matthew 21:19, because here we find a similar but distinct phrase. Remember that Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem (toward his death) on Zechariah’s royal donkey, that animal of agricultural burden but not war. This donkey is like but unlike Iddo’s donkey, which we have covered already. Here we should also consider how it is also like and unlike the donkey that Saul was seeking when Samuel found him, also connected to the beginning of Judah’s kingly line in the rocky soil of Benjamin and Gibeah. Saul never finds the donkey, by the way, but is assured that his father has found it. What’s going on with this donkey?

To be a bit rabbinic about it, we might treat this donkey like the stone that inferentially traveled with Moses through the desert in the nation’s wandering. Recall that Moses first struck a stone as commanded while his people wandered in the desert, and water flowed from it. However, as he approached the land he didn’t listen carefully when God told him to speak to it non-violently instead. So he struck it again, and was therefore not allowed to enter the land. We might follow the Rabbis and infer that this stone rolled along with them through the desert, as the Ark of the Covenant traveled with them.

So what if Saul’s lost donkey and the one that Jesus rode were the same donkey? What if the Father who found Saul’s donkey held it back until Jesus, the truly rightful king, came for it? Whether you laugh or not, you should at least know that I’m after laughs with this memorably playful literalness. But there is a serious point about the spirit of this donkey to consider: what I have said is literally silly, but spiritually it exegetes Matthew well. His Jesus really is completing the kingly work that started with Saul, but properly this time. More on Saul in a bit, but for now we are at the end, not the beginning of those times. Jesus will soon continue to sing Psalm 118 for us, as he communicates his plan to establish the new Temple with the stopping of his heartstone. But like many other Galilean peasants, he first needs to express that he is hungry and frustrated at the lack of food:

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” [Or more literally: May no fruit be generated (genetai) for (the) life (eis ton aiona). And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

It is very widely agreed that here, as elsewhere, Jesus is talking about the Temple. The image of withering and dying leaves will find further play at a pivotal juncture in Matthew 24, so mark it in your mind. We might elaborate on the imagery’s significance like this: by starving the peasants for its beautification, the Temple in Jerusalem is now reversing the work of God in Creation. Instead of turning clay to flesh, it is withering flesh and turning it to stone. And so the spiritual-political system itself is withering and losing legitimacy (faith) as Jesus demonstrates visibly here. A plant that produces showy leaves can mask that it is already a dead end in the tree of life if it doesn’t produce any fruit. The reality is that such a plant has no capacity for intergenerational persistence, because it is not generating any seed, nor is it generating the fruit that is its newly-given telos (end/goal/purpose) in an agricultural context. For it to suddenly wither and die is to show what is already the truth of the matter, from the standpoint of intergenerational persistence. Today we talk about living fossils in a similar way when a species has withered to the last of its kind. Notice how closely generation is connected to our aion phrase, both conceptually and linguistically, by seed and fruit here.

This text also helps us establish the direct connection between the notion that “faith moves mountains” and its proper application to things like temples, which are fundamentally social-spiritual-political structures that grow out of the covenant faithfulness of a people. As the Hebrew Scriptures show, these structures grow in mountains as well as valleys, and God’s presence can easily (if painfully) move from mountain to mountain. When Jesus talks about faith, he isn’t talking about hyping ourselves up so we can’t think critically. Rather, he is interested in committed loyalty to a shared covenant at social scale, faithfully enacted. This produces governance and temples, among other things.

Notice, as well, that Jesus himself doesn’t do violence to people here, even as he prunes and kills this tree by the power of his word. What he performs is a standard prophetic demonstration, miraculously empowered: he is bringing the imminent future demonstratively into the present in order to warn people about what is coming. Like Paul, his war is not against flesh and blood, but against corrupt and corrupting spiritual structures. Of course, when spiritual structures collapse (when the legitimating structures of governments collapse) this often does result in the enormous loss of human life. This is what Jesus mourns so extensively in Matthew 23. But if you flee a collapsing spiritual structure, as he urges his hearers to do, your life can be preserved. However, if you don’t listen to the prophets who warn you about such things and heed them, then you will not know to abandon the mightless ship of state now that it is deprived of its indispensable spiritual support. Governments are built of faith, after all. The point of the withering fig tree is that the nation of Judah as a political entity centered on the Jerusalem Temple will not persist intergenerationally, in spite of Herod’s beautifications of the structure, which are here likened to the pretty leaves of a barren plant. Like whitewash on tombs, the beauty is merely a slipping mask briefly cast across corruption and death.

II.1.B: This Life and the Coming Life

Matthew 12 in light of the moving center of national life, and narratives of intergenerational governance

Before Matthew 24, all of the remaining uses of aion in Matthew are found in close proximity to each other, in Matthew 12–13. In this section, Jesus trains his canvassers to respond to various reactions by embodying the prophetic pattern of witness. They will be persecuted for warning others, which means that others will literally seek their deaths, but they are not to be discouraged nor are they to retaliate. They are to keep planting Kingdom seeds instead, by speaking words of healing and words of warning that can inspire faith in the Covenant on the Mount. In this way Jesus cultivates a focus on generative interactions. Stated in our own how-to idiom, the advice might look something like this: when you’re announcing the arrival of my Kingdom, recognize the variety of responses you’ll get, understand where that leads over the course of a life, and use that information to respond wisely to whoever you encounter.

Here is the immediate context in 12, preceding our uses on 12:31. In 12:9–21, Jesus has just healed a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. Confronted with the charge that he has violated the Mosaic Covenant, the law of the land, Jesus explains his action in terms of the recognized principle of qal vahomer: he points out that the preservation of life is understood as the weightier matter of the Mosaic Covenant by both Jesus and his opponents. See Luke 6 for a parallel which sets this healing in the context of the Covenant on the Plain. Also consider our extensive discussions about right hands being lost, the hand healed by our Iddo, and the Son of the Right Hand. Instead of finding cause for agreement on this common ground, or offering a counter-argument in good faith, the Pharisees instead ignore the bid for discursive engagement. Embarrassed, angry and self-righteous, they prepare to silence him non-discursively by arranging his death. Don’t cast your pearls before swine unless you’ve counted the cost.

Like David when faced by Saul, Jesus walks away instead of retaliating. But he doesn’t stop the work of proclaiming and discursively extending his reign: he immediately carries on with his mission of healing and Kingdom announcement. Matthew connects this pattern of non-retaliative movement-building to Isaiah’s prophecy from 42:1–4. The passage from Isaiah anticipates a gentle servant of God who will not break a “bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick” but who will instead bring justice to all nations (even as far as the islands) by the power of the Spirit. Although Isaiah’s particular reference to the Spirit isn’t made in Matthew’s text, those familiar with the passage might see Her hiddenly connecting this scene with the next one, which is all about Her.

As part of their campaign to get Jesus killed, the Pharisees then slanderously (diabolically) accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul. He tells the Pharisees that sins against him (the Danielic Son of Man) will be forgiven, but sins against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this aion or in the coming aion. The notion of an aion as a limited time, and a rather sharply limited one in this case, is presumed; this accords with the normal usage of the word. The implication of the anointed Messiah’s response is that the Holy Spirit is working and dwelling in him, and that it is not the spirit of Beelzebul. The warning is therefore serious when he says that those who slander the Spirit will have to face some kind of consequence that pertains to both this aion and the coming aion. His statement expresses his own absolute mercy with respect to his own dignity, even as the Slanderer works through people who slander him. However, the dignity of the Holy Spirit is another matter. The Pharisees should be cautious about slandering the Holy Spirit in him, because those consequences (whatever they might be) will have to be borne and cannot be suspended.

A solid translation of aion here is “life” because the temporal implication of “lifetime” remains clear enough, thanks to time markers like the word “coming”. So we could render Jesus here as saying that those who sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this life or in the coming life. The translation is intuitive enough, and it helps us better appreciate the scope of linguistic play here. Insofar as we accept Keizer’s argument that the meaning of “age” doesn’t associate with aion prior to the New Testament, we might also look at passages like this to illustrate how this linguistic development is happening right here before our eyes (if it happens at all). In talking about this life and the coming life, the life of the resurrection is intuitively and directly named. So maybe it isn’t that there is the concept of a coming age that Jesus is referencing, and that resurrection is associated with it, and therefore the coming resurrection life is implicitly referenced by way of the notion of the coming age. Those associations may be correct, but get the story precisely backwards, rendering it needlessly convoluted. What if the age-resurrection connection has, itself, derived from plain and direct resurrection language like this: “the coming life”.

Aside from an immediate gain in simplicity and coherence, this reading also has a lively flexibility that is relevant in context: the coming life can be (and is) applied to three different orders or cosmoi: personal, national, and universal. Notice how fluidly “coming life” speaks (even to us today) of the coming life of the resurrection, which primarily plays at both personal and national scale in Matthew’s background texts and in Matthew itself. The coming life also speaks precisely to that which sits between personal and national scale, linking them together: the intergenerational transmission of offices and governing authority. After all, we can also talk about what happens in our generation and in the coming generation, and this relates intuitively to the idea of one person occupying an office for their lifetime, and then their heir (fleshy and/or spiritual) occupying that office for their lifetime. Through this channel of inherited offices, the language of lifetimes links national life and personal life, especially in the intimate sense of the intergenerational transfer of national offices such as high priest or king. We have seen that national life and its persistence through time is a constant concern of Matthew’s Gospel. One of the core messages of the Gospel is that right now national life is centered on Jerusalem, but in the next iteration of the nation’s life, when it is restored and overcomes the Greek imperial beast, this will no longer be the case. The Holy Spirit is, of course, profoundly and directly connected to Judah’s national life as a political entity in the land: when She is present in the Temple, the very Breath of God fills its earthen form and the nation endures and flourishes, just as the Holy Ruach is the Breath of God that animates all living beings. The Spirit also gives power to the ordering work of the Word that is spoken from “Let there be light” on, also reflected in the capacity of a ruler to give orders that are followed, yielding governance. The language of “life” in Matthew 12 helps us notice and explore these themes, while communicating “lifetime” nicely in context.

This set of connections between national life, the presence of God, and unforgiven sins is embedded in the socio-political context of Jesus. To help us understand the complex of ideas and the narratives in which they were embedded, we will invest a substantial amount of time internalizing the narrative of 1st and 2nd Samuel. We’re going to go deep into that narrative because the context and language are all extremely illuminating here, and can help displace less appropriate priors that are routinely brought into this discussion. Unforgiven sins against the Holy Spirit, the one who dwells in the Tabernacle, lie at the heart of this narrative, and there are many other points of contact between it and Matthew as well. It is the seed of Judahite monarchy, and Matthew’s Jesus is presented as its full development, the consummation of the process that was started there. It therefore provides us a rich framework for understanding what a Prophet-Priest-King-Lawgiver of Judah, like Matthew’s Jesus, would have in view here.

The Narrative Structure of 1–2 Samuel

You can find an excellent summary of 1–2 Samuel by The Bible Project here. If the whole narrative of those texts doesn’t immediately spring to mind for you, I would start with that, because we can’t understand the flesh of the text outside of the narrative as a soulful whole. The account deals with the rise and fall of dynasties, first the priestly family of Eli and then the Benjaminite royal line of Saul. Then the dynasty of David rises in spite of David’s own fall, even as Eli’s priestly line (according to other Biblical evidence) will also resume (with figures like Jeremiah) despite its temporary death in Eli’s lifetime and the brief lifetimes of his wicked sons. Although God’s promises to Eli’s line will persist from generation to generation, he and his sons will die without any recourse to forgiveness because they have polluted the very well of forgiveness itself: the Tabernacle where God’s Spirit dwells. As a result, the narrative opens with the Temple-Ark being displaced from Shiloh by the hands of other nations.

Christian Scripture, taken as a whole, deals with the double-displacement of the First and Second Temple; in an interesting parallel, 1st and 2nd Samuel discuss a double-displacement of the Tabernacle in which the Holy Spirit dwells. The Tabernacle does move around more than this, but the decisive moves for governance are both displacements that are analogous to the Temples’ destructions. First the Ark of the Covenant (Tabernacle) travels from Shiloh to Gibeah in Benjamin (after a sojourn in the land of the Philistines and in Israel). This movement reflects the fact that the prophet-priest Samuel anointed Saul as king, after the fall of Eli and his sons. However, Saul fails to heed and hear what God speaks by the power of the Spirit through God’s prophet-priest Samuel. And so the Spirit who provides messianic anointing leaves Gibeah and travels to Jerusalem in Judah, where the new Davidic royal line is centered. We can see that the Spirt is therefore associated with all of these wars and movements in a dense matrix closely connected to governance. She is the locus of the divine presence in the Ark of the Covenant, the well from which kingly (messianic) anointing springs, and the source of prophetic utterance that is to be heard and heeded. The Ark and governance do not move together in lockstep, but are instead held together only by faithful hearing and faithful heeding that are chosen but not forced. Where those are absent, the social structure falls apart and is reconfigured in another way. Although the Spirit’s presence and faithfulness can be disconnected, they can’t stay out of synch forever: when people don’t listen, the life-giving (and therefore also life-taking) Spirit takes Her life-giving business elsewhere.

In each case when the Ark moves, there are sins against the Holy Spirit which are not forgiven, and this results in death, a displacement of the Tabernacle, a rupture in the intergenerational transmission of authority. In the case of Saul it results in the Sons of the Right Hand being cut off from the throne. The text therefore provides an excellent invitation into the matrix of meaning in which Matthew’s Jesus warns priestly religious leaders about the costs of dishonoring the presence of the Holy Spirit.

As elsewhere in Matthew, the broad implication is clear: the Temple in Judah is going down, and those who cling to it will go down with it. Matthew’s Jesus is constantly telling his hearers the same thing in many registers. They do hear him at many points, for example in Matthew 22 where they know he is prophesying against them, but they have no interest in heeding him. This heedlessness will also be important to consider when we exegete Matthew 13, where many of our “aion” examples are found: Jesus speaks obscurely not because he will always obscure his message, but because he knows exactly what will happen when he doesn’t speak so obscurely. Those who don’t want to hear the truth will come for the messenger with a compelling but unjust case against him, as the prophets have long illustrated. Yes, he is a prophet and will receive a prophet’s unjust chastisement in time.

Reading 1 Samuel 2:12–17 and Matthew 12:32 Together

Beyond 1–2 Samuel’s double-displacement and the Second Temple’s coming displacement, even more particular typological analogies can be drawn between Eli at Shiloh, and the Pharisees at Jerusalem. 1 Samuel 2:12–17 describes how the sons used the threat of violence to coerce people into letting them take the fat of their sacrifices, which were intended for God. We can find a certain logic behind the unforgivable nature of this sort of Temple sin is articulated in 1 Samuel 2:22–36. I’ve bolded key passages and expanded on them for your close attention here.

Now Eli was very old; and he heard everything his sons did to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons! For it is not a good report that I hear. You make the Lord’s people transgress. If one man sins against another, God will judge him. But if a man sins against the Lord, who will intercede for him?” Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them. [Note: Here a sin against the Lord who dwells in the Tabernacle is unforgiven, because God has chosen to execute the sentence rather than suspend it. The well of forgiveness itself has been sinned against, and so they are made unable to repent until the sentence for such a transgression against the Spirit is executed. The sentence is death. It is served, not suspended.]

And the child Samuel grew in stature, and in favor both with the Lord and men.

Then a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Did I not clearly reveal Myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house? Did I not choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon My altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod before Me? And did I not give to the house of your father all the offerings of the children of Israel made by fire? Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?’

Therefore the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before Me forever [ad’olam].’ But now the Lord says: ‘Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming that I will cut off your arm and the arm of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. And you will see an enemy in My dwelling place, despite all the good which God does for Israel. And there shall not be an old man in your house forever [כָּל־ הַיָּמִֽים׃, kal hay-yamin, all the (life)days]. But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age.

Now this shall be a sign to you that will come upon your two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas: in one day they shall die, both of them. Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever [כָּל־ כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים׃, kal hay-yamin, all the (life)days] . And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left in your house will come and bow down to him for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and say, “Please, put me in one of the priestly positions, that I may eat a piece of bread.”

The unforgiven punishment borne by Eli and his sons results in the end of Eli’s generation of leadership. It also ends the coming generation whose abuses he enabled, as the Temple-Ark is displaced. I don’t think that this parallel completely controls or structures the meaning aion for us in Matthew 12, which is why I prefer “life” to “generation” in this case. Still, we can draw a precise parallel between the warning of Jesus and the cost borne by Eli and the coming generation of priests. I think this is quite possibly in view for Matthew’s Jesus, even if it is in the rearview mirror. While this intergenerational notion is more remote from Matthew 12 than resurrection, the text still provides an excellent illustration of unforgiven sin against the Holy Spirit.

We should, I think, be disturbed by the idea that Eli’s descendants will be punished through the generations for their transgressions. Scripture is also disturbed by this. In time, the prophets will repudiate this sort of intergenerational punishment. See Ezekiel 18, for example. In the consummation of the generations that Jesus enacts in Matthew, we can find a response that lifts up the notion of unforgivable sins but also holds it in that later critique: by drawing all into one new generation and into his family, the Son of Man brings an end to those intergenerational curses, too.

Now let’s turn to the flesh of the story and focus on Eli and his sons, hoping that maybe we can perceive the spirit of the matter more clearly. We need to internalize the texture and weight and language of these stories so that they can frame our reading of Matthew 12 like they could have framed its reading in its original context. Like Matthew as a whole, 1–2 Samuel is interested in showing that the Holy Spirit is stronger than kings, even as violent people like Herod or Saul or Eli’s sons have a limited capacity to abusively and violently bind God’s home for a time. But they do this at their own peril. The Holy Spirit’s agents, the prophets, speak truths that bind and govern royalty more powerfully than kings. The point is plain enough throughout 1–2 Samuel: spiritual power holds kingly power, not the reverse, because God holds everyone and everything. That which is bound by truth itself is truly bound to be. The fall of Eli’s priestly line launches the narrative of 1–2 Samuel by reinforcing this spiritual priority. Even when abusive spiritual authorities are judged by the Holy Spirit, this reinforces the prime importance of spiritual authority, which is ultimately just a human expression of divine authority.

Now let’s consider how intergenerational transmission relates to governance in this narrative in more detail. Eli is the last of the judges and a priest in Shiloh, an office that he has inherited. However, because of his son-seeds’ sins of greed, intimately connected to sexual abuse and violent threats, the Tabernacle will be taken by the Philistines. In the loss of the Tabernacle from Shiloh, where his wicked sons stole the fat that was devoted to God, Eli and his sons will also be killed. Their sins are not forgiven for what they did “to all Israel,” and the possibility of forgiveness is closed off for them in the text because God has already opted to execute the sentence, rather than suspend it. Relatedly, Eli and his sons are blinded to the possibility of repentance, perhaps an echo of Pharaoh’s own hardened heart in Exodus. The whole situation suggests that Empire has found its way even into the heart of the Lord’s worship, and this will not be tolerated or treated lightly. Eli and his sons are able to achieve this scale of sin and spiritual blindness precisely because of their location in the center of spiritual-political-social authority, much as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were able to sin against their whole body of believers (and the church throughout the world) by protecting sexual abusers and other violent wolves who pretended to be sheep. Notice that their priestly line is cut off (at least in Eli’s generation and the next) in spite of the fact that God had made a promise to Eli’s father that was to endure ‘ad-‘olam. The background of Eden and the imposition of a particular span on human life should be considered here, and we will look at it in more depth soon. More immediately, the intergenerational transmission of high priestly authority is in view in this curse, as we see at the close of our selection: the seed of Eli may remain priestly, but their priesthood will be of a diminished and secondary sort, subject to the discretion of others. Their authority is shattered enduringly.

As a matter of first importance, notice how helpful our matrix of meaning is for unpacking the scope of the unforgiveness in view in Matthew 12. The text concerns itself with GOVERNANCE, especially the relationship between proper Temple governance and the kingly anointing that flows from it. The text also focuses on EXTENDED FAMILY, specifically houses, and this language relates to inherited dynasties as well as the enduring role of the Temple/Tabernacle as the House of the Lord. Linguistic play on this double meaning of ‘house’ will also be of central importance to the text that establishes David’s enduring kingly house. There, the prophet Nathan will note that David will not house God (build a Temple for God), but that God houses David by establishing the royal house/dynasty intergenerationally. Similarly, here at the start of 1 Samuel, the house of Eli doesn’t control or own or have ultimate rights over God or God’s house, the Ark of the Covenant: rather, their house was an extension of God’s presence, and they are now ejected for their transgressions, much like Adam from the garden. As with Adam, this is also associated with an intergenerational shortening of their days, from 120 years to an even shorter time. The text is also interested in intergenerational persistence in TIME in various ways, including the shortening of each particular life within the chain of intergenerational transmission. It is in this context that our time language, involving life and days and olamic phrases, finds its home. In short: Matthew’s matrix of meaning is also 1–2 Samuel’s matrix of meaning, even if Matthew’s Jesus carries the conversation in astonishing new directions. The presence of these phrases provides an opportunity to further elaborate how our key time language is elucidated by the language here.

Excursus on ‘olam phrases and aion in context

The text also helps us draw out the way in which a rich and subtle Hebrew temporal vocabulary was received and translated into a distinct, although also subtle and rich, Greco-Hebrew vocabulary. Unfortunately, many of our translations have a disastrous habit of clearcutting the vocabulary and replacing it with a monoculture of “forevers.” Let’s take a good deep look at some of the temporal language here. Keizer’s notes on 1 Samuel help illustrate how the Greco-Hebrew synthesis connects the Greek and Hebrew semantic fields, even as they wrangle their way through some differences in the basic words they have to work with. I have Keizer’s footnotes in-line, because they’re important to the discussion.

[10] Exodus 21:6

and he will serve him [i.e., his master] le ‘olam.

(LXX: [douleusei] eis ton aiona — NIV: for life)

The parallel passage in Deut. 15:17 speaks of a “servant of ‘olam”. (Deut. 15:17 [oiketas] eis ton aiona. NIV: servant for life”.) The NIV translation, “for life”, certainly does justice to the import of this law; we infer that ‘olam here is in the practical sense restricted to the life(time) of a man. The “servant of ‘olam” or “‘olamic servant” will serve his master for a time of which the end is unknown but certain: the end of his life.

Footnote: Durham (WBC 3, 1987) 11: “[le’olam] ‘forever’, i.e. as long as the slave lives”, p. 321: “…forgo, presumably forever ( — ), his right of seventh-year release.”

Used thus, ‘olam comes very close to aion in the meaning of “life(time)” we have met with in Chapter II. Another example of this usage is found in 1 Samuel.

Footnote: Compare also 1 Sam.27:12, the Philistine king Achish speaking to himself about David: “he will be my servant of ‘olam” (LXX: doulos eis ton aiona — NIV: servant for ever); also Lev.25:46 NIV “slaves for life” (…le’olam; katocimoi eis ton aiona); see Preuss (1986) 1149: (my translation from German): “olam clearly only as ‘lifetime’ ( — ) not in certain contradiction to other usage”.

In 1 Samuel 1:21 Hannah says that she will bring her little son Samuel to the house of the Lord in order that he will stay here ‘ad-‘olam (LXX: heos aionos — NIV: always), that is: “all the days that he lives shall be given over to the Lord” (1:28).

It is clear from the contexts that ‘olam in these passages has the implication of lifetime, but lifetime is not the meaning of the term. Its meaning now can be described as “time of which the end is not seen”.

Hannah’s olamic dedication of Samuel as a priest is connected to a Nazarite vow that she swears on his behalf here in 1 Samuel 1:9–11 (ESV):

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life (כָּל־יְמֵ֣יחַיָּ֔יו, l-yə·mê ḥay·yāw, literally all the days of his life), and no razor shall touch his head.”

Following Numbers 6, such a vow is typically declared for a particular length of time, and a sacrifice is prescribed for the conclusion of the vow. Insofar as Numbers 6 draws into view for us, we are invited to poignantly consider that Samuel will presumably not participate in that joyful sacrifice unless he can taste it in the coming life, because his whole life has been bloodlessly (and therefore more appropriately) offered to the Lord.

Notice that if someone becomes a servant/slave ‘ad-‘olam or a Nazirite (with high priestly levels of purity with respect to corpses) ‘ad-‘olam, the implication is consistent: both bondage and the Nazarite vow are typically not ‘olamic, but instead involve a definite ending. As noted by Keizer, bondage would normally end after 7 years, being definitive and non-‘olamic. It becomes ‘olamic if this norm is suspended not in the sense that it is endless, but in the sense that a particular limit has been removed.

As with a pregnancy, which generates life itself, much of life (then and now) involves things that happen for a specified period of time, and they can’t be rushed to completion. The time of a pregnancy must be filled up until the child is born, and this notion of appointed times also pertains to things like bondage, Nazarite vows, the coming of festivals which are themselves rooted in agricultural timing, and the turning of day to night. Nonetheless, in some ways people reflect God to a limited degree. That includes some capacity to dictate a limit that must come to fruition in due time: for example, in the case of a contract, covenant, oath or vow, especially if it is then faithfully observed.

(Note as well, in the context of our discussions about corpse impurity from Matthew 23, that the Nazarite vow includes a covenantal refusal to touch any human corpse. The vow would therefore require a level of ritual separation from the possibility of killing people that was comparable to that of a high priest. In this way it prefigures Samuel’s elevation to priestly authority after the fall of Eli and his sons. As with the narratives around Jesus and the Temple, God has prepared a successor to Eli’s sons even before the collapse of their government. A Nazarite who does touch a corpse (including one he has killed himself) must undergo normal ritual purification and also cut off his hair. This would publicly and enduringly indicate that a violation of the vow took place. On the other hand, a Nazarite’s long hair would indicate how long they had presumably kept themselves ritually pure in this way, unless their long hair was mere hypocrisy. The length of the Nazarite’s hair is therefore meant to contain in itself, literally, the temporal lengths of the Nazarite’s separation from killing and other forms of impurity, including wine, such as the sweet-then-bitter wine of Passover.)

We can now appreciate how our indefinite olamic phrase contrasts with, and therefore complements, the definite time language here: “all the days of his life” is an appropriately definite way to articulate something as definite as a Nazirite vow, even if the unknown end-date of a life introduces an abnormal indefiniteness to the term. In an echo of the Timaeus, we move from that which is numbered to that which is limited, but without number. By indicating a whole life, the language explicitly indicates a whole term whose hours and days are not known or numbered by Hannah or any other human; only the Lord could know the hour or the day, although all could know that it was less than 120 years. Here we can understand the way in which ‘olam and “all the days of his life” are opposites in some sense, because that which is ‘olam can also suspend the limited term of a life. However, notice how they also coincide in a momentary synthesis here: Hannah’s suspension of the normal Nazirite term is ‘olamic with respect to that term, but invokes the term that otherwise holds her capacity to commit, the term of life (his aion) itself.

We can see here that olamic indefinitenesss suspends some particular end that would otherwise be known to us. When Hannah dedicates Samuel as a priest ‘ad-‘olam, she is releasing her capacity to designate a limit: she is unbinding something that she has the authority to bind. However, that which forgoes some limit is not therefore utterly limitless. We would imagine Hannah to be supremely presumptuous if we were to imagine her decision to forgo a particular limit as a declaration that her son’s priestly office has therefore transcended all limitations. The point of her olamic priestly dedication in this context is not that her vow has the power to make Samuel also transcend the 120 year limitation on human life that has been set by God! This illustrates an important point about the indefiniteness of olamic language and its role in relation to definite time language: again, it indicates the suspension of at least some limit, but that which is “limitless” or “endless” in this contextualized way is not therefore utterly without end or limit. Rather, because a particular limit has been suspended the duration moves from definite to indefinite, subject only to other limits than the ones that were in view for the olamic declaration. Significantly, Samuel will not olamically displace Eli’s Aaronic priestly line nor is this the establishment of a new high-priestly dynasty; Eli’s descendants will not be utterly cut off through the generations, and his seed will again minister before the Lord.

So does Hannah’s olamic commitment of her son to priesthood mean that death is the only limit on his role as a priest? Has she made it impossible to defrock her son without killing him? This, too, would be presumptuous. Something that goes indefinitely could conceivably go forever or for a whole lifetime, but her suspension of terms also doesn’t imply that the only limit is the end of life. An ‘olamic covenant of this sort is presumably bound by death at its greatest possible extent, and so by extension a lifetime comes into view as the outer limit of this particular suspension of a definite term. But this indefiniteness is also indefinite in terms of other ends that may arise. If someone is an ‘olamic servant and their master dies, or the Temple collapses and there are no more priestly functions to perform there, then the indefinite endpoint could also be reached in other ways. The association between ‘olamic and lifetime covenants is therefore understandable, but the translation doesn’t carry over perfectly. Keizer is right to note that olam and aion come into close contact here, by implication, but that olamic phrases do not therefore come to mean “lifetime” in Hebrew. The concrete phrase “all the days of his life” that is specifically connected to the Nazirite vow is much closer to the standard meaning of “aion” in Greek, while this olamic priestly dedication is less definite.

Without this clarification, the association between the imposition of a limit on the human lifetime and the loss of olamic life in Genesis can seem confusing and contradictory in interesting ways. If olam and aion are mistakenly taken to both mean lifetime, then olamic life is “lifetimeic life.” What is that supposed to mean? This perplexity corresponds precisely to how we might translate another central phrase at the end of Matthew 25: aionic life (aionion zoen). Note that the confusing phrase “lifetimic life” is just what you will get if a Greek writer has gone from the Hebrew concept of olamic life to aionic life, mistakenly thinking olam and aion both mean just the same thing because of their long associations. So was Greek able to hold Hebrew, so that Hebrew could be done away with and simply replaced with an identical Greek vocabulary? No. Empire often behaves as if the accommodations it has demanded of its imperial subjects have yielded identity. However, the communication and communion that produces deep group identity only arises from non-coercive listening, a mutual hearing and heeding that can reconcile while also recognizing difference: the true whole is the one that holds together identity and non-identity in one. So “aion” is not “olam”, even if the one can help us translate the other reasonably well. We need to consider this complex negotiation of concepts, because the Greco-Hebrews of the Eastern Roman Empire in the time of Jesus were not merely Greeks with a bit of Hebrew spice. They were a priestly people dwelling in inter-linguistic mediations that reflected (and still reflect) the difficult balancing act that arises between spirituality that refuses to sacrifice humans, and fallen governments that depend on human sacrifice.

So what is olamic life? We’ve already explored the topic in some detail here, but our current subject provides an opportunity to pick up where we left off and elucidate the logic precisely. In Genesis we see that Adam and Eve would have lived le‘olam (ie, had olamic lives) if their heedlessness hadn’t resulted in their expulsion from the Temple-Garden. That indefiniteness, so similar to the indefinite persistence of empires and nations, gave way to a definite limit on human life as a result of transgression. In much the same way, Eli’s sons come to a rapid and bitter end as a result of transgression at the Temple-Ark. The heedless not-hearing of Adam and Eve drove humanity down (as in days long ago) to the East, much as we have descended from the Temple and begun to climb the Mount of Olives instead. As a result of that original transgression, the definite maximum term of a human life was set at 120 years: human life was, precisely, not permitted to become indefinite. Instead of becoming olamic, the transgressive quest for olamic life results in its opposite: the designation of a specific term that reaches its fulfillment. The days of life are numbered precisely. That is the sense in which life here outside of the garden, bounded by those flaming swords, is not olamic.

Nonetheless, if the office of king or high priest is heritable, then it persists from generation to generation even as one life inevitably ends and the coming generation takes its place. In this way, God’s olamic covenants transcend but also sustain the limit that has been set on a human lifetime: olamic dynasties are not subject to the term set by a single human life, but carry on indefinitely, precisely because they carry on from generation to generation. Such covenants are not necessarily endless. Rather, they transcend the specific 120 year term and therefore become indefinite, hinting at the unfallen potential of humanity. In this sense, such covenants are most precisely olamic. However, this unfallen potential is also not realized in the cases of nations that violate the purity requirements of the Spirit, a violation that centrally includes sacrificing humans. And so we might also consider that in sexually abusing the women around the Temple, they were treating them like they treated the pieces of meat. Eli’s sons were offering those women’s lives on the altar of their desire for domination and control of all the flesh around them. The Holy Spirit nips that sort of thing in the bud. She does not tolerate it for long.

Together, this helps illuminate the underlying intergenerational focus of the Greek and the Hebrew here. It is this area of intergenerational overlap that allows aionic phrases to translate olamic phrases reasonably well. With this in view, we might reconsider another translation of Matthew 12, leaning back into the generational language we have used elsewhere: those who sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this generation or the coming generation. At many levels, then, Jesus could be saying: remember what happened to Eli and his sons when they transgressed against the Lord in the Tabernacle, because this is also what is coming on you.

However, this language might anchor us too tightly in the intergenerational context, and I do think that Matthew sets resurrection squarely in front of us. After all, Jesus exhibits his next lifetime, the post-resurrection lifetime, at the end of Matthew, and he does this both in himself and in the many righteous dead who are reportedly raised. Whatever Jesus is doing, it is decidedly not the intergenerational transmission of the office of Messianic Temple-Priest-Prophet-King! Even his brother James doesn’t take on the mantle of The Christ. So here I think it is best to stick with “life”: Jesus was talking about this life and the coming (resurrection) life. Nonetheless, a peripheral trace of the intergenerational implications that would normally be presumed persists in “life” in a way that it doesn’t persist in “age”. The intergenerational transmission of governing authority is the background against which Jesus puns.

So in Matthew, the intergenerational ideas that animate 1–2 Samuel are still nearby, but they are set squarely in the rearview mirror: we can see this older framework right behind us, even as a new way of talking about aionic and olamic things breaks into our language because of what happens in these strange new gospels. The enduring issue of the final Messianic Generation is precisely this: the Son of God reworks the whole process of intergenerational transmission of his Davidic dynasty through a radically egalitarian shift toward adoption as siblings, through baptismal death and rebirth into the coming life. This baptismal adoption into the resurrected life is spiritually real, but only proleptically anticipates the coming life because Jesus, too, dies. Remember: the student is not greater than the teacher. By dying in the waters of baptism, the followers therefore commit to follow the way of the cross and the Covenant on the Mount even when Empire comes to kill you for fulfilling your prophetic-priestly-kingly vocation. The in-breaking of the coming resurrection life in the person of Jesus is precisely what gives him the authority to move from normal intergenerational dynastic transition, and into the declaration of the final spiritual Generation of His olamic baptismal siblings.

From flesh to soul, from part to whole

We have now delved into one particular piece of the narrative of 1–2 Samuel, and with the detailed insights that we’ve gained we can now notice the way this is taken up throughout the rest of the narrative. We could use our matrix of meaning to help us read all of 1–2 Samuel, but for now we will stop our descent into the endless fractal of Biblical meaning. We will still summarize a few of the key elements of the narrative in terms of the discussion so far.

After the Ark of the Covenant is taken from Shiloh, the Holy Spirit’s presence afflicts and kills many Philistines and so they eventually return the covenant-holder. The breath of life is withdrawn from many of them, even as they try to violently seize and hold the Ark that holds the breath of life itself. People have always been trying to seize God’s reign by force, but their efforts fail in time. The punishments are routinely unforgiven, temporal, historical, and political in their effects. Because of the Spirit’s power to afflict, the Philistine capture of the Tabernacle isn’t resolved by Saul’s armies; Elohim doesn’t need an army for protection, and is quite capable of managing this Himself. As a result the Ark is returned to Israel by the strength of God’s arm, rather than by the hand of Ben-yamin.

After he is anointed, Saul will request that the Tabernacle be moved from Israel to Gibeah, fittingly located in Ben-yamin at the Son of Ben-yamin’s power center. But Saul falls because he doesn’t properly hear (listen and heed) the God who has heard Samuel and who is heard in Samuel. Samuel will then violate his Nazarite vow and kill a man in anger, even as the intergenerational transmission of Saul’s authority is torn to shreds. I treat Saul as an anti-type of Abraham in this sequence (1 Samuel 14–15) in my book According to Folly, and this carries through in the way Saul eventually leads his own son to death. Read in this way, the superficially pro-genocide text reveals a hidden potential as a profound anti-genocide text, in just the same way that God’s command to Abraham becomes a text against child sacrifice. The text really does leave us with the capacity to say this: if only Saul had been like Abraham, God could have done with Saul and genocide what God did with Abraham and child sacrifice, because Abraham kept listening and heeding while Saul didn’t pay attention. This anti-genocidal reading is not necessarily the original intention of the text (whatever that might be, if there is such a thing). However, it is a fitting development that draws on what is, in fact, already there, resting incipient and seedlike within it. Regardless of that particular issue, our present concern is that with Saul’s power cut off, the Son of the Right Hand’s power will also be cut off from the throne of Israel. The Holy Spirit will then move with the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in Judah, by David’s anointed hand.

Before turning to David’s own ‘olamic (and the Son of Man’s triple-‘olamic) covenant, recall that Saul’s Gibeah is not only associated with him. It is also where the Sons of the Right Hand behave like the people of Sodom toward their guest, a Levite, at the end of Judges. The civil war that this provokes nearly leads to the complete destruction of Ben-yamin, but an unsatisfactory solution is found in that kingless age of the judges: the sons of Benjamin can raise their hands in violence to abduct wives at the festival of Shiloh where Eli and his sons keep the Ark. 1 Samuel then starts our narrative right where Judges left off, with Shiloh under the lax guidance of the final judge, Eli. By the hands of the Philistines who God also judged in turn, God kills and judges the priests who were enabling the abuses of the Sons of the Right Hand at Shiloh. They are then replaced by the olamic Nazarite Samuel, the one who was already observing something of priestly purity while the priests were not. Then Samuel eventually anoints Saul as king while simultaneously warning about the wickedness of kings: God has heard and heeded their request for a king even though they will not heed or hear God. (The names of both Samuel and Saul play with the meaning, “God has heard.”) But in time, King Saul’s heedless deafness results in his fall and the fall of his line: Samuel will declare that God has cut off Saul and therefore the Sons of the Right Hand have been cut off from Israel’s throne. Ah. So what has happened here? King Saul has indeed achieved what the end of the book of Judges implies a king should achieve: the Son of the Right Hand should not have been allowed to keep sexually abusing women at Shiloh. And indeed, by the deeds of Ben-yamin’s seed, the royal line of Ben-yamin is cut off. The king’s job was to cut off the violent and sexually predatory arm of Benjamin, and who better to cut the whole damn thing off than a failed Benjamanite king himself? The process occurred, but immanently, by the slow outworking of God’s judgments in history. The right hand has removed itself, so that all of Israel is not thrown into the child-sacrifices in Ben-hinnom. And so the Ark leaves Gibeah and descends into Ben-hinnom, but rises again at the Temple Mount in Judah.

With that we’ve finally had enough of Saul of the line of Benjamin, although we might now think of another Saul of the line of Benjamin. That one will jokingly boast of his glorious heritage in Phillippians 3:5, and would also express the wish that not only the end of something (a hand or foreskin) be cut off, but that his opponents would go all the way and make themselves eunuchs, like Jesus. With Paul’s ironic boasting in view, we should also pause and notice the dire and profoundly multivalent humor of our texts, the deadly irony in play. For all of Saul’s faults and for all of their genuinely catastrophic consequences, recorded and remembered so unsparingly, people still named their children after him! What kind of culture would do that? A name like Saul of the line of Benjamin wouldn’t glorify a child, at least among the wise. Instead it would remind him of human fallibility, human limits, even for the most powerful. It would instill the value of remembering the painful realities of our failures. It also reminds us that God mercifully allows us to carry on and live, even when God breaks our power to dominate others. This loss of dominating power is perhaps also a severe mercy of its own, if seen rightly from a long perspective on the longing for domination, with its psyche-destroying results. At no point in his life was Paul of Tarsus so purely an inheritor of his tradition than when he was boasting, ironically, of being a great Saul of the line of Benjamin.

Now let’s turn to the Davidic line that features so prominently in Matthew. This grim playfulness continues in 1–2 Samuel’s burning critique of David, even as it celebrates him as the king whose Messianic line will endure. If we don’t also hear Matthew’s Jesus as a true heir to this tradition, with its plank-removing practice of unstinting immanent critique, we can’t possibly begin to heed him at all, because we haven’t even started to hear what he is actually saying. Messianic hope permeates the text from the song of Hannah at the start of 1 Samuel, on through the prayer of David in his desolation at the end of 2 Samuel. We won’t go into all of that now. But let’s look at the middle of the account, to see the tensely and densely ironic passage that holds Messianic hope and Messianic repentance together. 2 Samuel provides us with a covenantal promise that deeply animates Matthew: the promise that God will build David a house that will endure ‘ad-‘olam. In line with the constant insistence on the supremacy of the Spirit over violent kings, we see that God does not need David to build a house for God, but God will establish a house for David. 2 Samuel 7:1–17:

Now when the king was settled in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you, and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place and be disturbed no more, and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel, and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever (‘ad-‘olam) before me your throne shall be established forever (‘ad-‘olam).” In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

At first, Nathan didn’t try to hear God and he simply authorized a new temple. The human power dynamics involved should spring into view as we consider this heedless (but quickly remedied) abuse of his prophetic authority. A more permanent structure would make Judah and David’s claim to divine authority far more enduring, insofar as the physical structure itself is literally more intergenerationally enduring. You can cart off an Ark pretty easily, but it is much harder to run off with a giant stone building.

But after Nathan heedlessly authorized this, God corrected Nathan. And although bringing bad news to a king is embarrassing and dangerous, Nathan heeds God’s correction. He relays that the Lord wants David to know that He doesn’t want David to build Him a house. As we see elsewhere, God especially doesn’t want a corpse-touched killer like David to do this. Instead, the Lord houses (holds) others and has no need of a king to house Him. And so the House of the Lord will hold the House of David in a way that the House of David could never hold the House of the Lord. Notice especially the connection between intergenerational transmission and the blessing of the Holy Spirit: both concepts are punningly summed up in the word “house.”

We can also see that the judgment that the Spirit brings in this temple discussion are temporal and historical: “I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.” We should think especially of things like the Philistine conquest of Shiloh and their defeat of Saul at Mt Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). Through this pattern, later Hebrew prophets will understand the Temple’s other displacements. Still, also in line with the consistent pattern of prophetic witness, God’s loving care for this Davidic house will endure olamically by God’s mercy/love, because they will see and seek forgiveness for their sins instead of being blinded by them.

The royal line of Benjamin will not receive the same mercy (hesed: merciful loving-kindness), because Saul does not hear and heed God with respect to sacrifice and its proper Abrahamic meaning (1 Samuel 13–15). I would suggest that the ultimate point represented by Matthew’s Jesus is this: those who don’t walk in mercy don’t walk in mercy. Importantly, Saul’s violations involve offering sacrifices that God does not want, while Abraham’s sacrifice ultimately became a suspension of a sacrifice, a cultural transformation reflected in Hannah’s bloodless dedication of Samuel to the service of the Tabernacle.

The underlying questions surrounding sacrifice are therefore consistent. Are people trying to follow God, or are they trying to use God for their own purposes? Did David just want to curry favor with God by giving him a nice house, as if God was some courtier? Here we see another theme that animates the Hebrew scriptures as a whole: its God does not participate in the traditional divine economy in which people appease gods by giving them things in the way that they would give food or housing or other perquisites to their loyal servants. This God is after covenant faithfulness, rooted in hearing and heeding, and is not to be bought or sold or appeased. This God is in charge of the kings and priests, not the other way around. The upshot is that the sins of the Benjaminites against the Holy Spirit (both at the festival in Shiloh, and in Saul’s refusal to hear and heed the Spirit of God) have separated them from royal power and will not be forgiven. Of course God is not saying that the Benjaminites will suffer genocide: rather, their access to the military power of the executive office of Judah has been cut off, along with their access to the women at the festival of Shiloh, because the Ark of the Covenant left and took the related festivals with it. The one who is entitled to enduringly hold the blade can only be a true child of Abraham: the one who is meant to hold the knife of sacrifice properly abolishes its killing function while drawing out the good of covenant faithfulness from it. And so Judah is separated from Ben-jamin precisely by Saul’s heedlessness, which causes him to fall into patterns of sacrifice that resemble the execrable killing down there in Ben-hinnom.

This transformation of sacrifice that unfolds over the course of our scriptures, starting with the transformation of child sacrifice, nicely brings us back to the start of 1 Samuel. Here we will end our reflections on 1–2 Samuel as we began, with the man in the woman and the woman in the man. Here we have an initiatory act of divinely assisted generation that is deliberately echoed in the beatitudes and woes of Matthew 5 and 23. Hannah’s song is still more directly echoed with Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1. All of this helps illustrate that 1 Samuel was a familiar text, and one that the gospels are in conversation with. We will give Hannah the last word on 1–2 Samuel before we return to our reflections on the use of aion in Matthew. 1 Samuel 2:1–10:

Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies
because I rejoice in your victory.

There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly;
let not arrogance come from your mouth,
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low; he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked will perish in darkness,
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries will be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the power of his anointed.”

With Samuel in our minds and hearts, I think we now have plenty of context to understand what Jesus could presumably be talking about here in Matthew 12. I think the best translation available for “aion” here is “life,” although it is good that “generation” draws into view (especially the rear-view) by extension. This sense and this range of play is needlessly occluded by “age.” The core of what Jesus is talking about is most immediately resurrection life, which is also a restoration of nation and Temple in light of the national resurrection language of Ezekiel 37. As its Messiah-Temple-Prophet-Lawgiver, Jesus sums up and synthesizes, in himself, all of the temporal processes that have gone before: he is the nation and its government’s complete synecdoche, the part that truly stands in for the whole, including in his/its death. See Jordan Daniel Wood for a theological outworking of this synthesis of whole and part in Christology at the scale of the cosmic ecclesial (‘national’) lifetime, something present but indirectly spoken in Matthew.¹⁰

Social synecdoche, especially in the context of a Temple that is a divine microcosm of the whole cosmos, is pre-built for the kind of extension that later theology expounds. In Matthew we see a small seed of cosmic contemplation break open and begin to grow at personal, then adoptive familial, then regional and national scale. It bursts out most fully in the cruciform pattern of Matthew’s narrative, in accounts of falling and rising. Whether those deaths and rebirths play out at personal, national or cosmic scales, or at points in between, in each case the implication is the same: the single prototypical Seed expands exponentially from Jesus through all of the offices of the nation, to national scales and onward from there, whether up or down the chain of being. As the nation’s complete synecdoche, Jesus is its complete representative, the nation’s part who stands in for the reproductively capable whole, even in its immanent critique and imminent death. Both the death and the critique will lead to the coming resurrection life and the emerging synthesis of time and space, in space, and just in time.

II.1.C: Harvesting Life.

A detailed reflection on Matthew 13 as a whole in light of life cycles and harvests.

Four of the nine occurrences of “aion” in Matthew all occur in Matthew 13, and our final occurrence in Matthew 28 involves the same phrase that occurs three times here as well: the end of the aion. Because a plurality of aion’s occurrences are found here, we will pay special attention to this chapter as a whole. In it, Matthew draws the training of his Kingdom herald/canvassers to a climax of sorts, before moving into the more expansive planting of spiritual seeds in Matthew 14–20. This chapter beautifully bridges from a smaller scale of Kingdom-planting work to increasing social scales as Jesus sums up his basic equipping of the disciples. Fittingly, everything here has something to do with the dynamics of planting and reaping: all of the images involve the cycles of life as they relate to agricultural economics.

13:1–23 Biological Parables of Judgment/Discernment and Exponential Growth

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on a path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 If you have ears, hear!”

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen but never understand,
and you will indeed look but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and turn —
and I would heal them.’

16 “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

18 “Hear, then, the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet such a person has no root but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of this age (tou aionos: of the life) and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Notice that in the first instance of aion in the chapter, the meaning of ‘life’ or ‘lifetime’ works intuitively and easily. (Life effectively implies lifetime reasonably well.) It invites us to consider the familiar cares of life, of this life, and of the Christian life.

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds (tares) among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Explanations of Parables

34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world (kosmos, order), and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil (diabolos, slanderer); the harvest is the end of the age (synteleia tou aionos: consummation of the life), and the reapers are angels (angeloi, messengers). 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age (synteleia tou aionos: consummation of the life). 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Parables of Discernment and Exchange

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age (synteleia tou aionos: consummation of the life). The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Demonstration of the Prophetic Pattern

51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own hometown and in their own house.” 58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

The aionic character of the parables

The other three occurrences of ‘aion’ in this chapter are all found in the phrase synteleia tou aionos. Matthew’s final occurrence of this summarizing phrase will also fit in perfectly at the very end of the entire Gospel. A quite literal translation, “consummation of the life” is deeply illuminating. It is inelegant and unfamiliar, but still repays attention. This invitation to careful attention is especially appropriate in this parabolic context. The point of the parables is that we need to stop and draw near to Jesus and his teachings if we hope to understand the words and what lies behind them. As Matthew’s narrative shows us, the disciples will fail to understand the end of the life of Jesus even after they have had these parables explained to them. Plenty of would-be disciples still have this trouble today. The end of life is hard for all of us to face.

Let’s take some time to really anchor ourselves in the literal basis for the parables, the flesh of the stories. We won’t end in a merely fleshy place, but we also won’t leave the flesh of these stories behind. That is to say, the metaphors that we live by are often best grasped when we understand the underlying basis of the metaphor well, so they don’t just become dead stock phrases. Thinking about actual agriculture anchors our understanding in the deep frame that structures everything Jesus says here, which is this: GOVERNANCE IS AGRICULTURE.

The agricultural framing helps us appreciate how these parables are precisely about many things coming together to reach an agricultural telos (τέλος, end/goal) in an economic context. This social and environmental unification of various ends into one is beautifully held in the word synteleia (συντέλεια), which speaks to many things being drawn together in the completion of an end goal, especially a creative act. The synteleia here corresponds to the end of the life of whatever is harvested in the double sense of telos: first, when you harvest a crop you reach the goal set out from when you planted it, and a crop’s life ends when this goal is accomplished.

Generational processes are also drawn into view here. Planting and harvesting is a group process that unites a community around the planting and harvesting of a generation of wheat: we don’t just harvest a bit of wheat, but instead the entire generation is harvested together and processed. The imagery can also suggest a catastrophe at larger scale. To plants in a field, each harvest is the destruction of a generation, both the wheat and the weeds together at once. Seeing a wheat harvest from the perspective of the wheat is pretty horrifying if you stop and ponder it, as is the extinction of your own generation, whether it happens by natural or unnatural means. We can understand this in terms of the end of our personal lives (each generation together within a 120 year span), the end of a nation’s life, or at the farthest possible extent of speculation the end of the universal cosmos. But even on the other side of this death, a share of the seeds are replanted and life begins again. The deep frame therefore provides a context for contemplating the intergenerational processes that unfold as one generation passes into the next.

Regardless of which scale(s) are in view, Jesus uses the details of these agricultural processes to shed very practical light on the socio-political work that he inaugurates. The parables draw on the whole process, culminating in the multiplicative harvest that completes the cycle, setting things up for expansion in the next generation. He mines this agricultural imagery at point after point for insights into his political project, and the parables aren’t limited to making a single point. This form of allegorical parable was common in Second Temple Judah, and this text is an excellent illustration of the flexibility and depth of instruction that an extended analogy could provide, through many points of contact with the situation modeled.¹

So let’s consider the agricultural process as a whole, as a metaphor for governance. We start with the seed, which here (as elsewhere) is analogized to the Word of the Gospel and to the speakers who carry the word within them like seeds carry plants within. And if we follow John, the image especially extends to Jesus as the divine Logos. After a period of time set by a natural cycle that can’t be rushed, grain is harvested and gathered together by the community, weeds and chaff are sorted out and used as fuel, and the good seed is then either eaten or planted. Grain that is planted falls to the ground and dies so that it can yield exponentially more good grains in the future. Grain that is eaten is ground and blasted with fire so that it becomes bread. This turning of seed to bread through the process of death is also centered in Christian practice from early on, through the Eucharistic meal which reflects the Passover at the end of Matthew. Here in chapter 13, the harvest imagery doesn’t center the fact that death is the end of both weeds and good seeds. However, the narrative structure of Matthew means that this point, only peripherally in view here, is in fact centered radically, and in a way that universalizes the point that the good seed dies as well, by the text as a whole. The telos of Matthew’s Gospel involves reminding us that the Good Seed, too, dies. The death of wheat is therefore not a negative judgment on the wheat, however much Rome wants to use its military dominance to shame people.

These parables are therefore precisely as serious as death. But there is still a profound hope here. Because the seed that has been gathered is planted or baked, the consummation of the life in death leads to the preservation and expansion of life. When eaten, the grain contributes to life immediately,. When re-planted, which is implicit by the next bountiful harvest that concludes the parable of the sower, the good seed leads to the preservation of life through generations of plantings. Importantly, even as some of the good seed is eaten and some of the good seed is planted, the type of the seed that is considered good expands its range, but the weeds are not encouraged in the same way.

In this we can see that two central agricultural themes animate all of the parables here: harvesting at the end of life, and exponential growth from one generation to the next, through life cycles. Even the more financial parable of the treasure hidden in the field speaks to exponential economic returns that are rooted in a wise response to what is found in the soil. The pearl is a fish out of water, a product of aquaculture transposed into an agricultural location. In this divergence from the focal parable, the pearl nicely illustrates the shared spiritual insight behind all of the parables: the investment in good seed leads to the multiplication of the seeds, just as a wise financial investment multiplies wealth. The common theme is exponential growth, even though the term ‘exponential growth’ wasn’t available in context. Jesus is telling his disciples that their approach will expand exponentially even through their deaths, and that they should therefore focus on outgrowing their opponents rather than waste their efforts and unfairly target innocents within the church by working to weed them all out. If you just keep training people to hear and heed the Covenant on the Plain, you’ll create honest, reconciling, thriving, generous, joyful, beloved communities, and they will thrive and expand even among the weeds and thorns and stones of the world.

In a context so permeated with incisive, comprehensive, and highly consilient reflections on life cycles, the context eminently justifies setting aside the language of “age” in favor of the language of lifetimes. Why is this so rarely noted? Part of this relates to the understandable, but really quite extreme, conservatism of translators: to suggest that we have missed something genuinely important is to stand in front of billions of people and say that mea culpa that we probably forgot. Maybe part of the problem is also that we take the bait of judgment, imagining that Jesus is speaking to us (the elect, the good seed) to assure us that we are better than them. What if instead of doing that we paused and appreciated the profound challenge that Jesus is issuing to us in this cross-bound Gospel, by inviting us into his Covenant of enemy love. Despite the marginality of my point here in both popular and scholarly writing, we can see that “lifetime” works intuitively, incisively, and consiliently throughout. Whether he is also using the word for lifetime to talk about it, throughout Matthew 13 Jesus is clearly talking about life as a whole, including the whole generative life cycle that holds both life and death in dynamic equilibria through competing exponential processes that go from generation to generation.

If Jesus has something to say about an “age,” it is far more elegant to argue that he is doing this by extension from the meaning of life and especially the coming life. The logic all flows more smoothly if Matthew’s Jesus is not straining to indirectly say something about resurrection life by way of a more remote notion of “age,” which must then be associated with resurrection life, which then ties into all of the life and coming life imagery only indirectly by way of that connection. Essentially, to render the text’s core themes in a consilient way while using the translation of “age” we need a multi-stage argument. My argument is much more elegant. Resurrection life (the coming life) and the end of life are directly centered by the word “aion” precisely because the word means lifetime. It is this direct connection that then allows for a subtle and multivalent assortment of associations in its Greco-Hebrew context. These dense and profound associations then give rise to the more remote notion of “age” because “lifetime” is doing such deep and comprehensive communicative work. The idea of a lifetime allows Jesus to speak compactly, parabolically, and profoundly about life at personal, national, and even universal scales. We can recuperate some of this directness in the language by recognizing how tightly it integrates with a variety of relatively familiar theological claims: Jesus holds all life in him, including our lives, the lives of nations, and the life of the cosmos. He is the divine Logos, the Word-Seed from the Father, born by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But at what scale is the lifetime ending?

Even as Matthew 13 is clearly talking about lifetimes throughout its parables, there’s still something strange about talking about the lifetime in this context. Here we will closely consider the implications of the singular, definite article when discussing the aion. Importantly, the aionic language in Matthew 13 doesn’t name many lifetimes, but is in every case talking about the end of the aion/age/lifetime. Does this mean that Jesus must be talking at the scale of the universal cosmos, of which there is one, rather than the cosmos of a single person’s life or the cosmos of a national life? Sort of definitely. But also no.

Recall again that we are reading Matthew’s Genesis of Jesus, an account of a single person’s life (Jesus) who embodies the culmination of the nation of Israel’s life. Over the course of the narrative, we see again and again how he brings together into himself all four aspects of Judah’s main ‘branches’ of government, as well as the divided Northern and Southern Kingdoms, as well as the generations and associated covenants of Abraham’s unsacrificed children. That is the focus of the Gospel’s narrative throughout, and the central scale is national, with personal and international mediations on either side.

At the outer edges of Matthew, through brief allusions like “Genesis of Jesus” and the (arguably) aidios silence that falls at the end of Matthew 22, something universally cosmic hovers in the text’s peripheral vision. The aidios isn’t excluded, it is alluded. It isn’t centered, it surrounds. So throughout Matthew, it is precisely as the One that Jesus is able to hold the many, including the many who are part of his government at any point in time, and the many who are not. His life holds the seeds and the weeds together, just as he bears our sins on the cross, just as he communes even with Judas at the King’s table. The text doesn’t concern itself with one life over and against the many. Rather, through an intensely articulated social synecdoche, it is all about the one whose life holds the many.

So what scale is Jesus speaking of here, if the (singular) lifetime is ending and good and bad people are being sorted? On its face at least, Matthew’s central scale is personal-to-national, and this general pattern makes exceptionally good sense of the text here as well.

Could these narratives speak to multiple persons within each human being?

Because good people and bad people are being sorted in these parables, on the face it seems that whatever is dying when the life ends must be larger than a single person. Otherwise how can it hold two groups of people: good ones and bad ones? Maybe the life that is coming to its completion be my life, for example, or yours. For example, might the idea here be that the bad person in each of us is sorted from the good person within each of us when we die?

I don’t think this reading is centered by the text, but I do think it is worth serious consideration. We do find this sort of discourse throughout the New Testament. There is a standard device by which just this sort of contradiction (two people in one?) is repeatedly used as a form of moral exhortation. So the suggestion is in no way ridiculous, and we should pause to really understand why. Pauline literature and James provide models for applying this figurative “good/bad” dichotomy that is superficially between persons (or figurative plants) within a single individual (or a figurative plant). This means that we have evidence of this approach both before standard dates for Matthew, and (in the case of James) quite possibly after.²

First, consider how the application of interpersonal language to personal moral correction is present in Pauline literature. Ephesians 4:22–24 provides an especially explicit example:

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self (anthropos, ἄνθρωπος, human being, person), corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self (anthropos, ἄνθρωπος), created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

This motif takes up language about judgment that is, on its face, about judgments between different people. However, it applies it at the scale of a single human being. Importantly, the death-life of baptism marks this transition between new and old in Christian practice, but imperfectly. Paul speaks to the baptized as people who have taken on a new identity, but the passage wouldn’t exist if this meant that they never sin. Rather, their new identity becomes the basis for discipleship, including in the form of moral appeals. The appeal works like this: you have died in baptism and become one with Christ. It doesn’t make sense for you to do things like sleep with prostitutes, because that isn’t who you are now! (1 Cor 6:15). Of course, all of this moral exhortation by way of logical contradiction presumes that the symbolic (spiritual) logical contradiction is actually manifesting in behavior (in the flesh) and can be corrected spiritually, through discursive engagement. In the context of figurative speech, it uses a literal contradiction to address contradictory patterns of thought and behavior. I call the rhetorical strategy “positive identity-based moral correction,” and I go into more depth on the topic here.

James makes similar use of the technique in James 3. There, an agricultural metaphor is deployed toward the same corrective end. In essence James says: it doesn’t make sense for you to be saying so many salty things. Figs don’t yield olives! And yet here you are, a fig tree covered with olives. The rhetorical logic is the same: he is deploying positive identity-based moral correction precisely because the rhetorical impossibility is actually happening, and he intends to replace the negative behavior (salty olive speech) with appropriate behavior (sweet fig speech).

Jesus uses the same device in the Covenant on the Mount (Matthew 7:16) and the Covenant on the Plain (Luke 6:44), although the precise application isn’t made explicit. In the context of the covenant we also have moral instruction that is meant to be heeded. So its brief inclusion there could easily be an example of the same rhetorical strategy, briefly glossed. Jesus also uses the same kind of construct in a somewhat distinct way just around the corner, in Matthew 12:33: “either make the tree good and its fruit good, or the tree rotten and its fruit rotten.” There, the point is to call for consistency in how the Pharisees argue with respect to the Holy Spirit’s work in him and in them.³ The implication is that if they are divided against the Holy Spirit who is in them when they practice exorcism, their house is divided and will not stand. In other words, their Temple system will collapse because they are not pure in their relationship to it. This distinct use, which doesn’t aim at behavior correction but at warning, illustrates a deeper commonality among the uses: the approach is repeatedly used to encourage people to resolve contradictions, because contradictions of this sort will eventually resolve in one of two ways. Either people will reconcile the contradiction themselves, or matters will eventually be reconciled against their will. Lies have long legs, but their days are shortened.

To this, we can add that the Gospels all depict the disciples as eminently mixed bags, and in this they draw on the long Hebrew tradition of unsparingly showing the faults of our heroes. So in context it seems reasonable to at least suggest that the “good person” and the “bad person” here could, contextually, be within a single person when their aion ends. Consider how Jesus the King holds faithless Peter and traitorous Judas together in the community of the Last Supper and doesn’t eject either, even to the end of his life. But afterward, Judas brings his own judgment on himself by his own hand without multiplicatively making disciples, much as Benjamin is cut off by the failings of Saul. We might also suggest that the poisonous weed of Judas comes up alongside the seeds, even all the way up to Jerusalem. Then his hidden telos finally becomes clear, and the messenger-angels gather him up and make it known to him what he has truly done: the punishment is awareness, the horror of truly seeing the injustice of what you have done. Meanwhile, Peter lives a while longer before he is cut down. He presumably makes at least 30 or 60 or 100 disciples before others (according to the tradition at least) manage to catch him and kill him. Peter, therefore, sees exponential growth, but the spiritual children of Judas are cut off by his own hand in the wake of the pain of comprehension. This is better, at least, than if he had exponentially multiplied his own disciples. Despite the efforts of some to make a hero of Judas, there is no Throne of Saint Judas to rival the Throne of Peter today.

Someone might suggest that Matthew’s Gospel holds that the baptized are sinless and cannot need such correction, and that there really are people who are all good and other people who are all bad. However, this position is hard to maintain for someone who has even glanced at Matthew’s Gospel with even minimal levels of comprehension. The failures of the disciples after baptism are, of course, constantly and prominently in view. So there is nothing wrong with reading Matthew 13 in a way that applies to a personal scale for any particular person. However, I don’t think that scale is centered here, because the broader context involves canvasser and herald training, and Jesus is substantially advising the disciples on how to think about individuals who are hostile to their work in the context of his GOVERNMENT, WHICH IS AGRICULTURE. In context, Jesus is urging his disciples not to worry about sorting out the good from the bad now, but to carry on with the work, as he has done, leaving God to sort everything when the aion is all summed up. Their job isn’t to figure out who is good and who is bad. The messenger-angels will communicate that, when all is said and done.

National scale is centered in the Messianic person, but this is not in fundamental conflict with other scales

Of the larger scales available to us, which ending lifetime is centered here in Matthew 13? I think the answer that is most consilient with Matthew’s Jesus is national, by way of its priestly king. We have seen this scale take center stage throughout the text. I don’t see any reason to abandon it here, and the narrative arc of Matthew counter-indicates such a reading by the way it moves consistently up social scales from start to finish.

I want to be very clear about what it really means for national scale to be centered. This centering is not to the exclusion of other scales, but is rather a characteristic of how the text mediates between scales. As with the personal scale, which we can understand by extension from the national cosmos, the universal scale can also come into view by extension from it. Matthew certainly doesn’t close off the possibility of universal implications, and the Gospel gestures insistently in this direction at a few key moments. However, even this is naturally mediated through national scale.

This makes enormous sense in context: the relationship between Temple and universe is precisely a relationship between microcosmos and cosmos. The universal divinity, or God, is precisely who is accessed through national life animated by the central Temple. And in the context of all of this agricultural language, we should also remember that harvest festivals centered on the Temple mark the basic rhythm of national life for Judah. Matthew’s Gospel is on its way to the feast of unleavened bread.

As the complete representative of the nation, and especially as the human Temple, the lifetime of Jesus is the central locus of this cosmos-microcosmos relationship for Matthew. Jesus in his person as king-priest-prophet-lawgiver from both Bethlehem of Judah and Galilee of Israel, holds everything from personal scale to sub-national scale (institutionally and geographically) to national scale together in his very person. Matthew’s narrative starts with an already synecdochically national account of the Messiah and his Exodus. It then moves into his geographic and institutional subnational ‘conquests’ through the proclamation and demonstration of the Covenant on the Mount and the non-violent good news. On the way to the great national confrontation with the Temple system in Judah, Jesus will gesture towards Canaan, and will also indicate that the national aion provides the model for aionic reproduction internationally. (I’ll argue that this is precisely what is in view in our crucial passage in Matthew 25 when we get there). This all sets the stage for the closing lines of Matthew 28 when he sends his disciples out to all the nations, to baptize them into the royal family of the Messiah and train them to do everything he commanded. The Gospel therefore culminates precisely in the intergenerational establishment of the Messianic anti-Empire through Messianic imitation.

The personal-national life of Jesus is therefore complete in its basic life cycle, and is able to yield fruit for the next generation of kingdom planters. Only from there, and through this inaugurated eschatological process in history, does Matthew then hint peripherally at further mediations from international to universal scale. The drama of movement through scales is able to hold the core geographical narrative structure that Matthew’s Gospel uses as a whole, as R.T. France argues.⁴ Read in this way, we can see that the Gospel is not merely universal but is also universalizing; it doesn’t merely make a universal claim, but envisions a universalizing process for the realization of that claim within Society, which means within any society and each society in the fullness of time.

Excursus on synteleia (συντέλεια)

Having moved all the way up through the scales of being to its outermost spiritual reaches, this is a good opportunity to turn from the highest scale of narrative abstraction and back to the lowest scales of meaning: a single word and its parts. The word “synteleia” soulfully unites everything that is given to it from the broader spiritual context, drawing it together in itself. It is nicely equipped to soulfully unite spiritual reading (concerned with the highest abstractions) and fleshy reading (concerned with the smallest details of the text) because the word indicates a synthesis that brings a many-parted plan to completion in a single goal. Synteleia reveals the soul, because it is the coming together of a whole.

With this in view, we can see how the Synteleia of the Life of Jesus (writ large) successfully pulls all of the threads in Matthew together, in light of its own particular focus on the nation’s soul. The narrative of his Life can therefore hold all of the ends of all the other lives as well. Jesus is the seed of Abraham and of David who yields a rich harvest of Davidic children of Abraham wherever he has makes disciples in fertile hearts. This is how we are given a narrative that can lead up through the systems as violence is Messianically withdrawn, being overcome by the cruciform pattern modeled by Jesus. And we can see through the texts’ universalizing mode that this unfolds in history through the disciples who imitate and train people in his way by their example, as he did. It precisely by centering at the national (or internationalizing) scale that we can grasp the many strands that are gathered together in the phrase synteleia tou Aionos for Matthew. This synteleia has a necessary temporal component, but its sense is not exhausted in temporality or in a single moment; rather, it is about the kind of Moment that can hold all the moments of history. We might also sum up the scope of the universal-particular relationship in this way: the same Spirit-Breath who animates the Temple and all true temples, and who animates each image-bearer of God, is the very One who brings Jesus to Genesis in Mary’s womb.

To highlight this aspect of synteleia’s meaning, which involves gathering a unified whole from many places, we will consider two uses of the term in the Antiquities of Josephus. The text is roughly contemporaneous with Matthew, as far as we can tell, and shares similar concerns. Our first text involves an eminently practical synteleia that has fascinating resonances with Matthew. The second involves Josephus boasting about an intellectual feat of synteleia, and helps illustrate that the term soulfully draws together matters of flesh and spirit.

First, here is a large excerpt to provide ample context for Herod’s defining act of synteleia. I’ve bolded the occurrence in Antiquities 15(389):

HOW HEROD REBUILT THE TEMPLE, AND RAISED IT HIGHER, AND MADE IT MORE MAGNIFICENT THAN IT WAS BEFORE; AND ALSO CONCERNING THAT TOWER WHICH HE CALLED ANTONIA

1. (380) And now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign, and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work, that is, to build of himself the temple of God, and make it larger in compass, and to raise it to a most magnificent altitude, as esteeming it to be the most glorious of all his actions, as it really was, to bring it to perfection, and that this would be sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him; (381) but as he knew the multitude were not ready nor willing to assist him in so vast a design, he thought to prepare them first by making a speech to them, and then set about the work itself; so he called them together, and spake thus to them: — (382) “I think I need not speak to you, my countrymen, about such other works as I have done since I came to the kingdom, although I may say they have been performed in such a manner as to bring more security to you than glory to myself; (383) for I have neither been negligent in the most difficult times about what tended to ease your necessities, nor have the buildings I have made been so proper to preserve me as yourselves from injuries; and I imagine that, with God’s assistance, I have advanced the nation of the Jews to a degree of happiness which they never had before; (384) and for the particular edifices belonging to your own country, and to your own cities, as also to those cities that we have lately acquired, which we have erected and greatly adorned, and thereby augmented the dignity of your nation, it seems to me a needless task to enumerate them to you, since you well know them yourselves; but as to that undertaking which I have a mind to set about at present, and which will be a work of the greatest piety and excellence that can possibly be undertaken by us, I will now declare it to you. (385) Our fathers, indeed, when they were returned from Babylon, built this temple to God Almighty, yet does it want sixty cubits of its largeness in altitude; for so much did that first temple which Solomon built exceed this temple: (386) nor let anyone condemn our fathers for their negligence or want of piety herein, for it was not their fault that the temple was no higher; for they were Cyrus, and Darius the son of Hystaspes, who determined the measures for its rebuilding; and it hath been by reason of the subjection of those fathers of ours to them and to their posterity, and after them to the Macedonians, that they had not the opportunity to follow the original model of this pious edifice, nor could raise it to its ancient altitude; (387) but since I am now, by God’s will, your governor, and I have had peace a long time, and have gained great riches and large revenues, and, what is the principal thing of all, I am at amity with and well regarded by the Romans, who, if I may so say, are the rulers of the whole world, I will do my endeavor to correct that imperfection, which hath arisen from the necessity of our affairs, and the slavery we have been under formerly, and to make a thankful return, after the most pious manner to God, for what blessings I have received from him, by giving me this kingdom, and that by rendering his temple as complete as I am able.”

2. (388) And this was the speech which Herod made to them: but still this speech affrighted many of the people, as being unexpected by them, and because it seemed incredible, it did not encourage them, but put a damp upon them, for they were afraid that he would pull down the whole edifice, and not be able to bring his intentions to perfection for its rebuilding; and this danger appeared to them to be very great, and the vastness of the undertaking to be such as could hardly be accomplished. (389) But while they were in this disposition, the king encouraged them, and told them he would not pull down their temple till all things were gotten ready for building it up entirely again (τῶν εἰς συντέλειαν παρεσκευασμένων). And as he promised them this beforehand, so he did not break his word with them, (390) but got ready a thousand wagons, that were to bring stones for the building, and chose out ten thousand of the most skillful workmen, and bought a thousand sacerdotal garments for as many of the priests, and had some of them taught the arts of stone cutters, and others of carpenters, and then began to build; but this not till everything was well prepared for the work.

3. (391) So Herod took away the old foundations, and laid others, and erected the temple upon them, being in length a hundred cubits, and in height twenty additional cubits, which [twenty], upon the sinking of their foundations, fell down: and this part it was that we resolved to raise again in the days of Nero. (392) Now the temple was built of stones that were white and strong, and each of their length was twenty-five cubits, their height was eight, and their breadth about twelve; (393) and the whole structure, as also the structure of the royal cloister, was on each side much lower, but the middle was much higher, till they were visible to those that dwelt in the country for a great many furlongs, but chiefly to such as lived over against them and those that approached to them.⁵

Here, Herod promises that Judah will already hold all of the things that need to come together to reach his desired goal of rebuilding the Temple, before he risks tearing it down. The ends had to all be gathered up and ready to go before he (temporarily) destroyed the Temple, in order to raise it up again. The specific elements highlighted are wagons, stones, craftspeople, priestly garments, and training, emphasizing the multiplicity of things that have to come together, socially, to reach the complex goal.

We can see the Greek concept of telos at work here in one of its most stereotypical and practical expressions: the telos is the goal of a skilled sculptor, held in the mind from the start, carried through in a complex process, and finally realized in the end. This “end” is therefore the intention that is present throughout an intentional process, already from its start. It speaks to the attainment of an already envisioned goal at the temporal close of the process, the moment of perfection. The trustworthy builder must have foresight and wherewithal, as well as the effective faithfulness of many people in order to move from an end in their mind, through all of the many processes involved, and to the final end that is sought.

All of this is practical and involves an uncommon degree of common sense, but it isn’t particularly contradictory or even paradoxical unless you like swathing it all in mystical garb. But why not do a bit of that, so we can see how it looks? For example, we could say that there is a mysterious already-but-yet-not-yet character to the Herodian project. He needed to already have everything ready to start the work before the people would allow it to begin. The not-yet could not break into reality until it was all already there. And so the end had to be there at the beginning, and before the end-in-the-beginning there could be no beginning at all. This sounds rather elaborately mysterious. But it is also basically true, and more easily stated like this: it helps to start with the end in mind. Or in this case, Herod had to start with the end in both mind and hand. We might also say that everything was brought together according to plan.

There is a rather profound analogy that might be drawn between Herod’s Temple rebuilding as depicted here, impressive for a brief time, and the similar project of Jesus, so unimpressive that it was almost historically invisible. At least until it wasn’t, several generations later. What was the key to the success of the project of Matthew’s Messiah? His Messiah brought together the spiritual authority of Judah and Israel, and organized training that would yield exponential growth in human hearts from one generation to the next. Like the agriculture that is the model of this Messiah’s government, it even takes on its own death and integrates this, too, into its long range goals. Herod, on the other hand, was extremely good at stacking rocks.

Which leads us to another synteleia that has also proven much more enduring than Herod’s. It was the history of Josephus that we are using now. Here, Josephus makes sure we know that he was justifiably proud of the many strands that he inter-culturally synthesized into a single coherent end product. Notice how he uses synteleia here in Antiquities 20:262:

(261) I have attempted to enumerate those high priests that we have had during the interval of two thousand years; I have also carried down the succession of our kings, and related their actions, and political administration, without [considerable] errors, as also the power of our monarchs; and all according to what is written in our sacred books; for this it was that I promised to do in the beginning of this history. (262) And I am so bold as to say, now I have so completely perfected (συντέλειαν) the work I proposed to myself to do that no other person, whether he were a Jew or a foreigner, had he ever so great an inclination to it, could so accurately deliver these accounts to the Greeks as is done in these books. (263) For those of my own nation freely acknowledge that I far exceed them in the learning belonging to the Jews. I have also taken a great deal of pains to obtain the learning of the Greeks, and understand the elements of the Greek language, although I have so long accustomed myself to speak our own tongue, that I cannot pronounce Greek with sufficient exactness.⁶

The point is that Josephus has also managed to pull together something of great complexity into unity from many parts and has now brought them to their appropriate end. Herod built up a Temple in this way. Josephus built up an enduring history of the Temple’s fall and rise and fall.

And Jesus built an enduring non-violent government, based on insights expressed here and rooted in the deep frame that GOVERNMENT IS AGRICULTURE. This deep frame helps Jesus simply and powerfully articulate how a Kingdom could persist even as its leader and its Temple were destroyed by enemies. Just keep planting. Of course, not everyone is receptive, and the most extreme forms of non-receptivity mean that some people are going to try to kill you. But where it does work, you have intergenerational exponential growth that more than makes up for the losses as one seed dies, but leaves many more behind. And your enemies will destroy themselves in time: whether they are Roman collaborators like Herod and the Pharisees, or Roman soldiers bearing down on Herod’s Temple, the house of the violent is divided against itself and will not stand. Just as Babylon disciplined Israel but was then disciplined in turn, the Pharisees discipline Jesus and are disciplined in turn. But by breaking that cycle of punishment and counter-punishment, Kingdom planters are liberated for the more effective work of intergenerational planting, which is slower at first, but vastly more efficient on its time scale.

The agricultural model of government is first demonstrated at the personal-national scale of the Messiah, and the national-international scale of the movement then grows from his imitators. We all die. But the good seed will just keep spreading as the angelic messengers sift good from bad and true from false at the end of each aion (at whatever scale). You just have to keep planting these Word-seeds that take people up into the life of the Messiah, letting them grow wherever they can grow, as each new crop comes together in its own appointed end, held in the end of the life of the Messiah.

Before moving on, we should also note that the synthetic creative act of Jesus differs from that of Herod and Josephus in a crucial way: his creation is more fundamentally and encompassingly political. Of course, Herod and Josephus both have political considerations in view in their own creative work. But the Kingdom of Jesus is fundamentally a creative political act that synthesizes both support and opposition, the heart of Politics, and uses both to achieve its goals. Opposition is not merely overcome (although yes, it is), but is also held in the system of governance that Jesus establishes. Even the poisonous weeds, the Judases of the world, ultimately serve his ends. They are fuel for his fire. In this way, his Kingdom holds all opposition, even deadly opposition, and makes it a part of itself rather than being overcome by it. Evil is defeated without doing evil, but by doing good. This is the synteleia of the lifetime of Jesus. At least that’s what Matthew’s Gospel has to say if we read it as a whole, and not as a bundle of random prooftexts for something else.

Hiddenness, crime and the fire this time

We are now in a good position to make sense of some disturbing aspects of the language here. The ideas here are genuinely powerful, which is why they are easily and frequently abused. Here we will explore the exclusive hiddenness that is mentioned repeatedly in the chapter and alluded to constantly in each of the parables. We will also consider the fiery destruction that brings weeping and gnashing of teeth. Both, we will scrutinize in the light of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole.

With respect to both the hiddenness and the fire, it is important to notice that focus is strictly aionic and not aidios. The repetition of aion reinforces this. The text’s concern is Historical and Aionic, meaning it is concerned with what characterizes human history and lifetimes in general. Just as Color holds all the colors, this Aion holds all the aions and this History holds all the histories. But just as Color doesn’t compete with the colors, the Aion doesn’t compete with all the other aions it holds.

Now the fire, and the suffering it brings as the weeds are thrown into it, as they would have been in real life, to be used as fuel. People often look at the gnashing of teeth and weeping as the results of torture, and the text is reading those who see it like that for us. It is warning us about them. A much more nuanced picture emerges if we allow Matthew to illuminate what this language might be about.

The word for “weeping” (klauthmos, κλαυθμς) is repeated throughout the Gospel. It occurs first in Matthew 2:18 and is associated with Herod’s slaughter of the innocent, the first born children. This maps Egypt and Pharaoh onto the Kingdom of Judah even as it evokes the powerful image of Rachel weeping and mourning for the lost children of Israel. Blessed are you who mourn and repent, for you will be comforted.

Next, we find weeping in Matthew Mt 8:10–12 in the place it will occur throughout the rest of the Gospel, in close association with this gnashing of teeth. Strangely and somewhat cryptically, it is the sons of the kingdom who will find themselves in the outer darkness. In every other case throughout Matthew, the kingdom is the kingdom of Jesus. And indeed, the Son of the Kingdom is thrown into outer darkness and there is, indeed, weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s precisely what Matthew’s Gospel is about:

Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs (sons) of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” then occurs twice in chapter 13 here, and then is picked up repeatedly as we approach the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 22:13 in a parable that the scribes and Pharisees rightly saw as a warning to them. And then it recurs in 24:51 in association with hypocrites and in Matthew 25:30 at the pinnacle of our climb. There, it is once again associated with the outer darkness where you will also find the sons of the kingdom, and weeping, and gnashing of teeth.

Among all of this, we see the Son of the Kingdom demonstrate appropriate weeping and mourning in Matthew 23, as he laments the coming catastrophe that will be his tragic prophetic vindication. And we see it again in Matthew 26 as Jesus prepares for his own solidaristic death in the outer darkness of Gethsemane. There we see him faithfully choose to join in the suffering of his people proleptically, even though he would much rather escape the coming disaster. As Prophet-King, he will go down like the ship of state, in solidarity with the ship of state, as a warning to it.

So at the end of the Aion (personal-national) there is indeed weeping. What brings this suffering? Just as the house of Judah was constantly being betrayed by its quisling elite, the seed of Judah is betrayed at his own table by the poisonous seed of Judas. The weed will indeed be cut down in the same movement that takes the wheat at the end of the Messiah’s aion: Judas is the fleshy reaper for both Jesus and himself, even as the messenger-angels are the spiritual reapers who gather the meaning of it all, for us all. What they tell us is this: when we can see the whole, when the hidden things are all laid bare with the stripped and beaten Messiah on the cross, the most appropriate response for everyone is to weep and repent. Judas, described as one who repents, may well have wept with remorse before felling himself. In Judas we should (in the original literary context) see Rachel weeping through her last child who still has a right arm of violent power to raise, Judah. And yet through it all Jesus shines like the sun, revelatory, brilliant as the start of a new yom. He has overcome by his faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount. He has completed the work he set out to do from the start and pulled it all together in the end, and has received the prophet’s reward.

Still, not everyone weeps and mournfully repents even here. Unlike Judas, there are always people who remain defiantly angry and self-righteous. Even when the trains bound for death have all left their stations, and all of the criminality of a regime has been ground beneath the gears of time, there are always some who remain proudly defiant through the end. Although the gnashing of teeth can indicate suffering, it is frequently associated with animalistic rage that nicely reflects this sort of defiance. A hungry lion gnashes its teeth, like a Danielic beast baring its fangs.⁷ If you’d like to hear a teeth gnasher sing, you can listen to this old neo-Confederate song of defiance, I’m a Good ‘Ol Rebel. These sorts of gnashers are always wishing “they’d killed 3 million Yankees instead of what they got,” because the Yankees stole what Pharaoh’d fairly caught. Criminal, I know.

Read in this way, the language of weeping and gnashing of teeth fits the narrative of Matthew as a whole. With these subtle notes and nuances, it speaks beautifully to the possibility of repentance, costly as it may be. And it speaks powerfully to the pathetic, defiant and self-righteous stubbornness of those whose power has been broken, but who choose resentment and fantasy over adjustment to a less vicious order. As the Messiah is the synecdoche of the Kingdom of Heaven, an angry mob gnashing its teeth is the synecdoche of an imperial beast whose power is broken. We also see this gnashing in the ugliness of the “very fine” neo-Confederates in Charlottesville, incited by corrupt religious leaders, choosing to wallow in violence and hatred and fear from one generation to the next. Some people really are far happier to die than to repent. And today many of them imagine, delusionally, that they are the children of Abraham and that they know Jesus, even as they themselves prepare to sacrifice the children of God, anticipating their Day of the Rope as the Day of the Lord yet again.

So we should note that the comfort that Jesus offers is not that everyone will repent before death. Nor do I think Jesus is proposing his own Day of the Rope: Jesus doesn’t kill Judas, but instead the grain and the weeds are left to do what they will. And unlike the Edomite quisling’s unruly mobs, divided against their imperial backer, Judas/Judah doesn’t go down gnashing his teeth in rage, but goes down repenting like those who will be comforted. We must be able to appreciate how finely nuanced this language becomes, and how profoundly it is mapped onto Matthew’s narrative of a crucified Messiah of all of Israel, including Judah in the end.

For all of his solidaristic suffering, Jesus does answer power with power, even if it answers violent power with non-violent power. The idea is this: beastly Empire repeatedly destroys itself in the fullness of time, like Judas and like Saul. Soon the last tribe (Judah, the one who sheltered Benjamin from the start) will lose its right hand of violent power. But if Jesus is right, then those who keep planting Kingdom seeds will outgrow them, while the violent strut and stunt and wither and then burn away.

We’ve covered the fire enough for now, but will turn back to this discussion when we encounter weeping and gnashing of teeth twice on our climb. Now let’s address our second potentially troubling theme, also easily abused: concealment. Like eschatological punishment, concealment is another central concern of New Testament literature in general. Here the logic is glossed with a reference to Isaiah in verses 34–35:

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation.”

The importance of hiddenness and how it would have worked in its rhetorical and social context is worth understanding. Consider Craig Keener’s note on the topic:

By articulating his principles only in parables, Jesus offers riddles whose answer can be fathomed only by those who understand the riddles in the context of his own ministry (e.g., events like the Pharisees’ rejection — 12:24–45; some other riddles were comprehensible only in the context of knowledge of the speaker, e.g., Phaedrus 3.1.7) or who patiently press into his inner circle to wait for the interpretation (13:12; cf. Iren. Haer. 2.27.3). Undoubtedly members of the general public who wished could attend Jesus’ private lectures to his disciples, though most would have dispersed after Jesus’ public teaching; both situations were normal in Greco-Roman antiquity (Liefeld 1967: 206).

Disciples regularly asked their rabbis questions (e.g., t. Sanh. 7:10; b. Qidd. 31a; Num. Rab. 11:4; Safrai 1974/76a: 966), and sometimes sought a private interpretation after a purposely vague or hostile public statement (e.g., Pesiq. Rab Kah. 4:7; Gen. Rab. 8:9; Num. Rab. 9:48; 19:8; Pesiq. R. 21:2/3; Daube 1973: 141–50; cf. Aul. Gel. 19.1.11–21; for the form of a homily responding to a question, see Aune 1987: 53). Further, whereas parables usually illustrated, even rabbis sometimes used them for secret speech (Stern 1991: 202). Some rabbinic traditions may also link ability to understand with membership in the community of Israel (cf. Stern 1991: 202–4, who cites ARN 15.3 A).

Jesus wasn’t throwing these pearls before swine just yet. But he will do this in time, as shown in Matthew 22, when he is ready to be trampled underfoot like a seed plowed under. Everything that was concealed was only temporarily concealed, and would have presumably already been accessible to those who opted to come and hear and heed him further. But even for the rest, all will be revealed soon enough. This revelation of the goal is precisely what apocalypse involves. As is often noted, the term apocalypse means unveiling, revealing, revelation.

Apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah is a consistently political literature. When studying it, we should always ground ourselves in political illustrations, like Herod’s destruction and rebuilding, contrasted with the destruction that Jesus suffers and the rebuilding he accomplishes. In both cases, the rebuilding is precisely the end and goal and revelation. The concealment that Jesus talks about, in this teleological context, isn’t a concealment held back only for an inner circle of elites. Rather, it is the concealment that is necessarily part of teleological creativity, and the concealment of the marginal: the marginal in knowledge, who are ready to learn, and the marginal in social status and power, who are ready for change. As usual, creative acts of liberation are treated as crimes and so concealment is part of the deal. While guilty by association, the hiding that Jesus calls for is nonetheless the seraphic and prophetic kind: clever like a serpent, yes, but also innocent as a dove.

So Jesus fulfills the hiddenness that Isaiah prophecies. But not for the sake of the leader’s power or the followers’ egos. Instead, it is for the sake of surviving long enough to complete his seed planting work before the powers and principalities murder him. At the same time, this necessity is also truly a virtue. He moves from hiddenness to revelation because teleological genesising, intentional creativity, always involves an unfolding in time. Wherever there is something of substance to be learned or created (in the proper creative sense), there is definitionally a movement from concealment to revelation. So the movement from concealment to revelation is a threefold necessity: it is simultaneously a political necessity, a pedagogical necessity and a logical necessity, following the logic of teleological creation outlined in the discussion of synteleia.

Only after noting this threefold necessity can I add a practicality to our considerations as well. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. There also isn’t much point in wasting your breath on people who aren’t here for discourse, but who are instead merely engaged in a power struggle, just looking for a chance to attack. The point holds for mere rhetorical attack, but also relates to the physical attacks and genocidal fury that routinely follows from epistemic capture systems, like those fostered by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. In this, the practical proverbial wisdom about pigs and pearls is validated by a psychological reality. When peoples’ threat responses are highly activated, they quickly and naturally form authoritarian (rather than discursive) collectives centered around combative group identity ‘defense’.

We can therefore understand the aggressive and deadly defensiveness of the Edomite Herod and his religious collaborators, rooted in physical and psychological insecurities. The basic group psychology of divided houses has plenty of parallels today. Had this Jesus from Nowhereland accomplished what Herod had by restoring the Temple to its former glory? Does he even know who we are? What a basket case. A dangerous one. To preserve the Temple, he must be gotten rid of. And indeed, this is just what happens in the concluding chapters of Matthew. The charge leveled against Jesus is, precisely, that he threatened the Temple. Unlike Herod, he didn’t bring the required rocks to the table. Well, none except for the tiny and feeble human heart, which we all know has very limited load-bearing capacity.

In the dim light of this fire, with the shadows creeping in from the hidden edges beyond, we should also notice the foreshadowing at the end of the chapter that binds chapter 13 with the Mount of Olives in more than the phrase “weeping and gnashing”. In his own hometown Jesus faces rejection much as he, the Messiah, will face rejection in his own House of Judah.

In all of this, he simply carries forward the known prophetic pattern, always so consistent yet always somehow still surprising. Why does it remain so surprising even though it is expected? If you’ve been in an environment full of people claiming (ridiculously) to have a prophetic witness of this sort, it helps cultivate sympathy for their blindness. Plenty of critics are unhinged, self-righteous, clueless, and wrong. There’s never a shortage of false prophets, and it can be genuinely difficult to find the needle of warranted critique in the haystacks of nonsense. Even today, those who call for the way of Jesus in the church often face the very same kind of entrenched, self-righteous and confident resistance from people claiming to be prophets. Often, they draw handsome salaries and crowds, and everyone around them in their in-group speaks well of them because they’re only interested in the splints in others’ eyes. False prophets are always prevalent, and they introduce a lot of noise to jam the signal. You have to slow down and discern what is real and true to see what is good, and what is rotten fruit. In this way, authentic prophetic witness can be hidden in plain sight, the signal lost in the noise as the seed of truth is overrun by the thorns of wealth, or dies in the shallowness of the path most taken.

So given the narrative arc of Matthew, we can see that nothing is concealed that will not be revealed in the short space of the Gospel. But even being revealed, even made as explicit as possible, it remains concealed to those who have an unswerving prior commitment to another personal-national order. In Matthew’s context that is primarily the Herodian order, or wait no, is it the traditional religious order that had such an uneasy alliance with Herod? Which locus of social power was it that opposed Jesus and John…the kingly or the priestly? Yes. It was both, in spite of the enmity between the groups temporarily brought together by Herod’s Temple project. To reflect how divided the home of Jesus was, we have to divide our tongues if we want to talk about it.

Few things represent this division, which even ran through Herod’s own heart, more than the death of John the Baptist. Fittingly, his death is precisely the concern of the next chapter. That narrative sets the authentic faith of Judah (as Matthew understands it) against the showy appearance of Herod. In that context we can see what Matthew 12-13 is saying with its aionic language about sins against the Spirit and a divided house, and its meditation on enduring government as agricultural rather than military. In Matthew 21–23 the pearls will be decisively cast before the swine, the secrets all laid bare. And then Judah’s usurpers will have their day. However, because of the brief period of hidden work that unfolds between 13 and 22 the yeast is already invisibly working its way through the dough of the nation, and from there to all the nations.

We can now see that there is proverbial practical insight in the theme of hiddenness, as well as enduringly valuable psychological insight, and profound philosophical insight into the nature of Creation. Still, I think there is also one last diamond here, the roughest of them all, and it gleams the most brightly of them all when polished. I think that there is a hope buried just a bit deeper in the theme of hiddenness as well.

Just as we might discern surprising anti-genocidal readings hidden in Saul once we see him as an anti-type of Abraham, we might also discern a surprising hope in the blindness of the killers of Jesus. In Matthew’s context, could the blindness also be a strange mercy of its own? Yes, there are textual grounds for a deep hope on the other side of history’s severities. This hope isn’t explored explicitly in Matthew, but it sleeps just beneath the surface of the text, waiting for a bit of water to induce its growth. It sits between the lines that are always being invoked by this literature, and it is communicated deeply through the electricity that crackles when we compare and contrast our references. It is based on this: those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures would be familiar with the notion that atonement is explicitly available for those who sin unwittingly.⁹ See Leviticus 5:17–19 and Numbers 15:25–31, for example. This background assumption works its way explicitly into Luke’s passion narrative in the received texts, even if this level of explicitness only arrives late in the manuscript tradition. There Jesus says what I think Matthew is already implying: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.

What if this blindness is also a kind of gift when it befalls people whose hearts are hard? The blindness is not initiated by God, but is God’s response to repeated callousness. This movement from human reactivity to divine concealment is explicitly present in the Exodus narrative of Pharoah’s blindness (Exodus 7–11), if you come close to the text and attend to it with a bit of care. If we listen to the text carefully, close reading reveals that God is only said to harden Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh has twice hardened his own. The blindness and hardening that God induces is forewarned, and we should also be forewarned. Yes, we should know that this is how people in power tend to behave. But temporally in the narrative, God’s movement is a response to a hardening and blindness that Pharaoh has first chosen repeatedly. The capacity for wise and enduring action through repentance is therefore restricted by the blindness that falls on Pharaoh, and this has its parallel in the blindness of Eli’s sons at Shiloh. Isn’t that just how it always is with Empire?

But in the same stroke of blinded hubris that leads to their self-destruction, the pathway is also opened for future forgiveness because they do not know what they are doing. The Holy Spirit’s brilliance is hidden precisely so that a capacity for forgiveness on the basis of Torah can be maintained. Knowing that people are blinded can empower us to imitate Jesus in sincerely praying in this way: God forgive them, they’re totally clueless. It can also move us from fear to pity: don’t they know that they’re tearing down their own house on their heads? So rescue those you can and don’t claim to pass ultimate judgment on them. But don’t be surprised if those ridden by Empire and the Slanderer curse you and gnash their teeth at you, even as they tear down everything that their cruelty and criminality has built. Even as it collapses on their heads, some of them will just keep gnashing and lashing out at you, and anyone else they can reach, until their turn on the stage of history draws to its bitter end.

An excursus on olamic hiddenness: Up through the systems again

In light of the centrality of hiddenness to these parables, this is also a good opportunity for us to place olamic language and hiddenness in a broader conceptual and linguistic matrix alongside synteleia. Recall that olamic language is frequently translated by aionic language, and so if we want to understand “Aion” in the context of synteleia in its Greco-Hebrew and Greco-Aramaic context we need to pay attention to where aionic and olamic concepts have been drawn together. Under our feet, we need to feel the common (and therefore contested) ground of first century Judah. When we do that, we can also understand another aspect of why hiddenness and ends are routinely connected in the New Testament, wherever our key phrase, “synteleia tou aionos” is found. The connection isn’t just a matter of associations between concepts but is more deeply a matter of how our key terms “synteleia” and “aion” are already held together in olamic hiddenness. Let me explain:

One way to understand this connection is through the deep frame: CREATION IS ART. The frame draws on our earlier discussion of synteleia as a teleological concept, and here we will build on that association more broadly and deeply, in the linguistic context of Greco-Hebrew first century Judah. This frame provides a crucial element in the matrix of meaning that forms the strong, supple and invisible lattice on which Matthew 13, Matthew 24–25 and Matthew 28 grow. Unpacking it will help us understand what Matthew is saying about the mystery that is revealed in Jesus over the course of the Gospel, and its relationship to apocalyptic literature more broadly. If we understand the conceptual bridge that unites Greek and Hebrew and Matthew 13 and Matthew 28, we will be able to locate ourselves in the midst of it all but just a bit to the side, just like the Mount of Olives.

First, we should consider whether CREATION IS ART is a deep frame (a deeply structuring metaphor) at all. Maybe it isn’t a metaphor but a tautology. After all, an artistic creation simply is art. That’s not much of a metaphor. Isn’t this deep frame more like saying “a circle is round,” than it is like GOVERNMENT IS AGRICULTURE, which is more clearly metaphorical? Yes and no. CREATION IS ART is an interesting frame precisely because it sits on the edge between metaphor and tautology, in the way that marks the core of so much Greek thought. This is also how teleology comes to deeply mark the Greco-Hebrew synthesis. We can see how this frame, then, draws together two things that are hardly a hairs breadth apart, but the connection is illuminating, nonetheless. The close conceptual mapping that is involved here is what we might call “scientific” or darn-near scientific, and this style runs parallel to the highly realistic attainments of Greek sculpture. Like a “perfectly realistic” statue, this is a metaphor that hardly seems like a metaphor at all. The model of creation, understood as an intentional work of art, itself involves an extremely tight set of conceptual linkages, and is therefore a very stable, precise, and generally extendable conceptual structure.

Because we are drawing together our Hebrew and Greek cultural backgrounds here, idolatry (and therefore reification) naturally takes center stage in our considerations. Note that the risk of reification is increased, rather than decreased, by such a close metaphor. That is to say, the risk of mistaking the model, which is art, for the thing modeled, which is creation, is increased by this precision. In just the same way, the risk of mistaking a sculpture for a living being is increased if that sculpture is hyper-realistic, like Greek sculpture notably was, like Greek idols notably were. Despite the reification “cost”, the gains of this more extensive 1:1 mapping are also substantial: when we understand Creation (writ large) as Art (writ large), we understand it in a way that has a very large number of close conceptual touch-points, which means that the model (if not the reality itself) is nonetheless truly excellent. So with this deep frame that will illuminate our Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, we stand at the origins of science and our troubles with it, even if you don’t think this deep frame also successfully brings us to the origin of the universe itself.

Our nearly tautological metaphor raises the question that tightly drawn models raise most insistently: what is actually being modeled here? The model is very precise, but what are we trying to describe, exactly? In other words, which creation is art? The underlying philosophical idea is that this applies to Creation, presumably all the way up to the universal Creation in which we are all embedded, and also applies to all of the other creations by extension from that. At least it extends to the universal Creation if the likely story of the Timaeus is true, or if the speaker-Creator of Genesis 1 is The God. So the example of building a sculpture is fleshy, image-bound, but it speaks to the general form of all creative activity. We can also use the same framework to understand the invisible spoken word, and then we are reminded of the great story of Creation told by Elohim, the Speaker who orders the world through covenants starting with the division of light and dark, of day and night. Both storytelling and sculpture begin as an invisible and hidden idea in the mind of the creator. And both end with a perceptible creation, the end reflecting the beginning, the audible order heard, and heeded, manifesting the plan that preceded it. Precisely because intentional and artistic creations start invisible and emerge into visibility, their hidden origins necessarily begin as mystery, but end in revelation.

In the context of Jewish covenantal thinking, as in Matthew, this especially relates to themes of spoken covenant promises and prophetic warnings, as well as their manifest fulfillment when their predictions or terms are perceptibly carried out. The uniting notion is the idea of a creative plan, carried to completion. CREATION IS ART. And indeed, the Hebrew prophetic tradition is always already covenantally bounded, although their God is a covenanting God who can make many distinct covenants. The general pattern, nonetheless, consistently involves prophets expressing covenants or affirming that covenantal terms will be fulfilled after all, with explanations of how this is occurring. Consistently the message is that God’s plan is being carried out in ways that are now perceptible to those who want to know, even though they were once invisible, just as the difference between wheat and a poisonous darnel is invisible until the fruit emerges. The invisible becomes visible as the telos, or goal, or end, is being reached, and this is just the way of things. Which plan is being carried out in the life of Jesus? That depends entirely on which of the covenants we’re discussing: Abrahamic? Davidic? Mosaic? Each has their own terms, conditions, and promises, and whenever those are being carried out in a comprehensible way the mystery of a covenant is being revealed. When all of the covenants are drawn together, then the deep plan behind Covenant itself is made known. Matthew’s Jesus is the revealer of what it means to fulfill all of the covenants in one fell swoop: he draws together their various ends in his life, and so he makes the plan that was hidden in them all visible at last.

CREATION IS ART in a Greco-Hebrew context therefore connects covenants to the teleological nature of God’s creative activity: it limns the structure of covenantal history as precisely and carefully as a Greek sculptor limned the human form. Although words or the Word they are verbal and invisible even in the moment of revelation, over and against the visible graven images of the nations, this creative covenanting work is every bit as artful. It is just that the words must find their visible manifestation through the faithful activity of image-bearers, meaning human beings, and cannot become unhidden in sculptures in the same way. The invisible word, heard and heeded, is the Word made visible. Consider everything that Herod brought together in building his Temple, as David once sought to build a house of God to secure his own legitimacy. Perhaps Herod needed a Nathan to tell him this wasn’t how it goes, but then again he heard John but didn’t heed him. This is not to say that Herod didn’t bear the image of God like anyone else, or that he lacked skill within the domain of action he chose, within his own creative covenanting activity as an image-bearer of God. But not all image-bearers faithfully reflect God, and those who don’t build on sand.

Notice that in our section from Josephus, Herod predicts or promises what he will do and then he carries it out, showing his faithfulness (to himself and to the people, but not to God). What was required? To start, a plan was necessarily seeded invisibly in his mind. But then people had to be persuaded to participate, contracts had to be written up and enforced, money and other inducements had to be moved to the right people at the right times, and then workers and craftspeople had to faithfully and skillfully carry out the plan as it was revealed to them so that they could, in turn, bring it into existence. Even with a monumental visible structure like that, the invisible structure of covenant, commitment and faithful fulfillment is the deeper force on which the Temple rests. We said before that the human heart cannot hold up a very large rock. But to say that is to speak in a comically fleshy way. The truth is that it was precisely the human heart and invisible networks of covenant faithfulness that elevated Herod’s Temple after all. But this deeper and more powerful structure vanishes quickly from view and from memory. When all was said and done, anyone could go to the Temple and see the revelation. Yes: Herod had intended what he claimed (and wasn’t secretly just destroying the Temple) and had faithfully carried it out. The act of creation was complete, the mystery fulfilled in revelation, the potential resolved as act. The telos, the intended end, that was there from the start had gathered up all of the many elements required. So the many became one and the telos (or better, synteleia) was made manifest. And that is precisely when the risk of reification, of idolatry, of elevating the flesh over the Spirit and the stone over the human heart, sets in.

I am simply describing what is necessarily involved in making a big building or sculpture, but I’m also laying out the bones of a great deal of Greek philosophy. No wonder the philosophers instructed rulers. Much of this philosophy is genuinely useful for helping image-bearers understand the general form of what is involved in the creative act of intentional governance. Aside from its broad cultural relevance and contextual importance, we should especially expect successful movement builders and authors to understand this sort of thing. It is just the sort of thing that creative people who write things like Matthew, and who found things like the church, had to understand and practice.

The discussion above illustrates that the process of moving from mystery to revelation isn’t a particular characteristic of some plan, but the general character of all plans, all art, all creation. The nature of an act of creation is, precisely, that it moves from hiddenness in the mind and into visibility as the work comes together. And this visibility is itself blinding even as it reveals: it might make us believe absurdities, like the notion that a rock is stronger than the human heart that ultimately shapes it.

And now we can appreciate the significance of olamic language, buried behind the aionic language in the hearts and minds of the Greco-Hebrew author of Matthew. There is considerable conceptual and linguistic play between olamic language and the language of hiddenness, and in a thoroughly multi-lingual context like the one that gives rise to the New Testament perhaps this play between the two languages (their comparisons and contrasts) is especially representative of wisdom.

Conceptually the association between olamic phrases and hiddenness is already apparent on the surface, following Keizer’s reading and our extensive excursus on olam above. That which is indefinitely long logically involves a hidden end. What is hidden when we speak of a period of time without a definite end, an olamic time? The telos or synteleia, the ultimate end (or goal) of that period, which means that the origin is also hidden. Why is the beginning hidden if the end is hidden? Because the creative plan of an artist, the origin at the start of a work of art, is hidden until the work of art is completed. The olamic suspension of a known end introduces the mystery of an end (and therefore beginning) whose moment is not known because it has not yet come, even if it is certain to come eventually.

Similarly, we can’t know the end of a cycle or other process until we have seen the whole cycle play out at least once. Or much better, we should probably watch a cycle (such as a plant’s life cycle) unfold from mysterious seed to revelatory fruit at least twice, so that we can start to understand what is essential to the cycle as opposed to what is accidental. By these sorts of parallelism we can engage in the kind of comparison and contrast that teaches wisdom, and it is precisely this mode that characterizes Hebrew writing as well as the Greco-Hebrew synthesis in the New Testament (as well as Philo, for example.)

No further etymological analysis is needed to establish this conceptual resonance between hiddenness and indefiniteness. Beyond this, though, there is also a linguistic reality: the ‘lm root of olam quite plausibly relates directly to hiddenness, etymologically. Although the relationship is merely plausible and nothing to build on, its plausibility points clearly to the enduring linguistic similarity that underlies the speculation. The upshot is that we can play with time and hiddenness in Hebrew or Aramaic in ways that we can’t in English or Greek, and as we know, wordplay is a central feature of this literature. We might discern this underlying network of linguistic and conceptual affinities in texts like Colossians 1 and Ephesians 3 and Romans 11. I provide the relevant excerpts here, and invite you to ponder them in light of the CREATION IS ART frame and the linguistic and conceptual play outlined above.

An element of central importance throughout these texts is this: the mystery that is in now (suddenly!) in view in Matthew and in Pauline literature is precisely of the now-revealed sort. Repeatedly in Paul’s writing, he emphasizes that he is revealing mysteries and that he does not want anyone to be ignorant of them. Christians who do not already understand these mysteries as the sort of thing that was already revealed through the life of Jesus have therefore fallen back behind our scriptures in our spiritual and intellectual development, regardless of where we stand in time. Notice how all of this connects up in Pauline writing, as well, with our matrix of meaning around TIME, EXTENDED FAMILY and GOVERNANCE. The Hebraisms of the language, especially connecting ancient mysteries with lifetimes and generations, accord deeply with the poetic logic rooted in the deep frame that CREATION IS ART. Here, I think we can discern Paul working to translate a complete network of Hebrew and Aramaic linguistic associations that address teleology into Greek, drawing on standard translations between aion and olam that went back to the Septuagint.

Col 1:24–2:5:

24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout (apo, ἀπo, from) the ages (aionon, αἰώνων, (of) lifetimes) and from (apo, ἀπo, from) the generations (geneon, γενεῶν, generations) ( τo μυστήριον τo ἀποκεκρυμμένον ἀπo τῶν αἰώνων καi ἀπo τῶν γενεῶν — νῦνε δ ἐφανερώθη τοῖς ἁγίοις αὐτοῦ)¹¹ but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

2 For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. 2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Eph 3:7–13

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden (apokrypto, ἀποκεκρυμμένου) for (apo, ἀπo, from) ages (aionon, αἰώνων, (of) lifetimes) in God who created (ktisanti, κτίσαντι, created, including in relation to governance) all things; (καi φωτίσαι [πάντας] τίς ἡ οἰκονομία τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ ἀποκεκρυμμένου ἀπo τῶν αἰώνων ἐν τῷ θεῷ τῷ τa πάντα κτίσαντι) 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 13 I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

I extensively discuss another example of Paul’s emphasis on revealed mystery in Romans 11 here. There, Paul says that he does not want to leave his audience ignorant of the mystery of God’s ultimate grace, that in the end all of Israel will be saved. If the mystery remains hidden, Paul is concerned that his listeners and readers will become conceited. How would they become conceited? One way has been prominently demonstrated in the history of Christian theology. You won’t find anyone who is so perfectly conceited as the person who thinks that God will send them to heaven, but will send those outside their clique to endless torture, and that this is the great mystery that they know. This is literally the most conceited a person can conceivably be, because it is an infinite conceitedness in terms of rewards, punishment and special personal knowledge. Paul warns against the conceitedness of “the saved” explicitly here. What protects against it? The gracious mystery revealed, not the conceited and cruel one, concealed.

Matthew’s Jesus, here in the Olivet Discourse, also speaks of things that are revealed publicly in his own Life. The time for this sort of fundamental concealment, the concealment of lifetimes and generations, draws to a close with the ingathering end of his own Life. At the core of Christianity’s deep publicness, especially about once-hidden things, is the understanding that there is no secret inner teaching that is preserved for a special few. Rather, we endeavor by every means possible to understand and to help everyone understand the meaning that we see revealed in the life of Jesus: especially in his covenantal teaching, his faithful death, and the Father’s faithfulness to him, all revealed in his resurrection. By this, the stone that was rejected becomes the Temple’s cornerstone, as his disciples who follow his example continue to build living stone on spiritual stone through the generations. The mystery that we are obliged to reveal is precisely this: just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. This is the revelation that purges malice and enables us to live by the new law of love, even love of enemies.

With that, we’ll turn to the final “aion” in Matthew, the encouraging word at the end of Matthew 28.

II.1.D: The End of the End of Life.

On all of the days until the end of the aion, in Matthew 28.

The conclusion to Matthew’s Gospel includes the final occurrence of the word “aion” in the text, and it is in fact the final word in the entire text. This passage sums up and draws together all of Matthew’s many strands into its proper synteleia. To examine this last use of “aion” we’ll focus on the prophetic imagery that is woven especially into Matthew 27:33–28:20, understanding apocalyptic as a genre that is held within the broader tradition of Hebrew prophetic literature:

33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (all the days to the end of the lifetime, pasas tas hemeras, heos synteleias tou aionos, πάσας τας ἡμέρας ἕως συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος).”

The end of the world?

This passage is especially important to me. I’ve built my life around it, and the congregation where I get to serve meets in a building that is literally built around it. The Great Commission that we find here, including the emphasis on training people to follow the teachings of Jesus, such as the Covenant on the Mount, is the center and the end goal of my life. Fittingly, the concluding passage of Matthew is physically centered at the front end of our building, as it is centered in the heart of our community, as it is centered in my life.

The window quotes Matthew 28:20, and so it reminds us about the assurance of Jesus that he will be with us to “the end of the world.” This brings us to an interesting translation of “aion” that we haven’t considered in this study yet. By reflecting on it we will draw out some other deep associations in the matrix of meaning that structures apocalyptic literature and dig into the negotiations and compromises of translation.

“World” is an interesting translation “aion,” even if “age” is an improvement. Arguably, “world” still has a few benefits over “age” that we might consider. One interesting feature of “world” is that its adjective form, “worldly,” is a normal word in English. It would be interesting to use “worldly” at the end of Matthew 25 to translate the worldly (aionic) judgment and worldly (aionic) life. Like all of our options, this has some issues. But at least “worldly” it is an English word, unlike “ageic” and “lifetimeic.” The translation of “world” is also illuminating, because we naturally talk about the end of worlds at all kinds of scales. We can talk about the end of someone’s world when an affair is discovered, or the end of the pre-WWII world of royal pomp and circumstance in the dust and ashes and rubble that the old world left behind. We can also easily talk about the end of our planet as we know it. Still, even at this extreme, the end of the world regularly evokes a disaster with some kind of surviving remnant. It draws to mind a catastrophe of vast proportions, but not necessarily one that literally obliterates the entire planet. So in normal speech, the word “world” scales pretty effortlessly across space and time, communicates figuratively even in its more literal uses. Those both make “world” a helpful analogue for “aion.” However, the word “world” also tends to center the sphere of our Earth as the basic meaning, and “worldly” has its own positive and negative connotations that introduce problems.

On its own, these issues might not necessarily defeat this translation. As is often the case, the real defeater is the presence of a better alternative. Another word deserves the world much more than “aion.” That word is also an imperfect translation, but it is much better for the job: it is “cosmos,” not “aion.” When Matthew was written, the word “aion” probably wouldn’t have directly evoked the sphere we live on, even though people knew that the world was round. It’s just that “aion” isn’t the word for discussing that. The word for that was “cosmos,” and its associations are much closer to “world” than “aion” on many fronts. Its basic meaning of “order” and especially “visible order” could be used to speak of the perceptibly round Earth (one cosmos) as distinct from the spheres of the stars (a contrasting cosmos). Of course, it could also be used to astutely suggest that the cosmos of the stars doesn’t necessarily compete with the cosmos of the world: in some sense, the cosmos of the world is held within the cosmos of the stars, a sphere among spheres. It could also speak of orders at other scales, much like we talk about “spheres of influence” today. So especially in a Greco-Hebrew context it could also distinguish the corrupt and “worldly” sphere of influence where the idolatrous nations temporarily reigned, in contrast to the sphere of God’s government.¹² (To be clear, cosmos doesn’t mean sphere. However, the sphere was regularly understood as a pinnacle of visible order.) This connection with the sphere of idolatry plays a role in our own negative associations with the word “worldly,” which conditioned the meaning based on the various negative associations with “cosmos.”

It is arguably through the Platonic connection in the Timaeus between “aion” and “cosmos” that the translation of “world” for “aion” ends up with some value. We can describe all of the time that transpires for the visible Creation with the phrase: “the lifetime (aion) of the order (cosmos) marked out by the spinning stars.” Crucially, even as this association between an aion and a cosmos offers a bit of warrant for the translation of “aion” as “world,” it also beautifully illustrates the limits of the translation. If someone goes back to this literature with a translation of “world” for both “aion” and “cosmos” in hand, they will quickly find themselves rendering the language as confusing gobbledygook. In the Timaeus, Plato is decidedly not stumbling through a confused discussion about “the world (aion) of the world (cosmos) marked out by the rotating stars,” any more than the text just keeps saying “eternity” every time Plato carefully distinguishes the aidios from the aion from the aionios.

So in straining to communicate “aion” and “cosmos” and their conceptual relationships in this matrix of meaning, it is at an improvement to talk about “the age of the order marked out by the rotating stars.” The gains from “age” are twofold. First, “age” shifts us into a temporal rather than spatial frame of reference, which is closer to the meaning of “lifetime.” It also frees up “world” to map regularly onto the word “cosmos,” enabling us to distinguish “aion” from “cosmos” instead of conflating them.

However, gaining the world has cost “cosmos” something of its soul, too, even if the term holds “world” far better than “aion” does. “Cosmos” and “world” both share a basic spatial aspect, rooted in the association of “cosmos” with appearance, especially decorative appearances. Our word “cosmetology” still bears witness to this conceptual connection today; make-up is decoration carefully arranged on your face. (Perhaps you even have a beautifully round face!) When these concepts are drawn together, we can see how an “order” or “cosmos” is an apparent and whole structure that is publicly visible and accessible. To call the universe a cosmos is to emphasize that aspect of the universe that overlaps with decorations and make-up: a cosmos is carefully arranged, apparent, and generally perceivable, especially through vision. Of course, make-up can also be alluring and can conceal even as it reveals. That dynamic of concealment and display is very nicely evoked by the word “cosmos.”

The ending of a cosmos is also, therefore, precisely a revelation. Like wiping off make-up, when a cosmos is destroyed something hidden behind that ordered and superficial appearance is now shown to be the deeper reality. And this all carries through profoundly in our talk of ending worlds today. Didn’t WWII reveal a lot as it destroyed the old Europe in an unthinkable and unforgettable orgy of sin and death? With this set of connections in hand, we can fruitfully recall our discussions of Enoch and the ancient critique of Babylon and its Watchers. Consider the association of weapons, make-up, and the cosmoses of ancient city-states with matters of appearance. All were taught by the fallen ones who fell on mortal women and begat all of the monstrous Gilgameshes and so these ancient city-states, these worlds of deception, arose from their minds and became visible. In the context of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greco-Hebrew apocalyptic literature, the unmasking of worldly power involves the recognition of the fleeting nature of governments built on violence, slander and deception. To reveal the general form of these systems of slander and abuse, as Jesus does by teaching and then faithfully fulfilling the Covenant on the Mount, is to inaugurate their end by revelatory unmasking. This is precisely what is revealed in his act of dying on a Roman cross, overcoming it through his resurrection, and then commissioning disciples to all of the nations. An unfolding revelation through the nations is therefore unleashed: the prototype, plan, blue print, or form has been made plain so that it can be followed in the process of filling the rest of Life with this Temple.

It is precisely through this association with appearance that apocalyptic literature, which does so much to structure Matthew, most consiliently relates to the end of the cosmos. Apocalyptic literature addresses things hidden behind this political-spiritual-social realm of mere appearance and seeks to unveil what has been obscured in plain sight and by plain sight itself. If a cosmos is an apparent order, revelation is necessarily related to its end because revelation is precisely the movement beyond appearance. When we read “world” for cosmos in the rest of Matthew 24–25, we shouldn’t think of the globe so much as we think of a government, or a sexually abusive religious leader’s whole world ending when the truth comes out. But because of the general and universal claims of Jesus, the end of Judah’s government is paradigmatic: it isn’t that some random cosmos ends when Judah falls, but that the prototypical Cosmos ends in this very specific and cruciform way. It is in that precise sense that Jesus models the general form of the revelatory collapse of unjust cosmoses.

The other area of deep overlap between “aion” and “cosmos” rests in the fact that both words are very concerned with wholes: a cosmos is a visible and spatial whole, while an aion is a whole lifetime. Whatever someone might argue an aion is, it is indisputable that Matthew’s Gospel constantly associates the term with the end. Precisely because they both speak to wholes, aion and cosmos coincide in that both speak of some whole which is generally contrasted with some other whole: it is the finitude of both aion and cosmos that defines both, and it is their finitude that lets Matthew concern itself with this aion and the next aion. This is also why, when pressed to its farthest possible extent in the aion of the universe, we stand at the gates of the aidios.

And so we might speak of the next cosmos in order to speak of another (merely apparent?) arrangement of world affairs. In the same way we might speak of the next life after this one, precisely because the concept of a whole lends itself to distinguishing between instances of the general category. Of course, the coming life that is manifest in the resurrection of the God-man Jesus has a special and an endless character, but this isn’t because aions generally have this character. Rather, it is because he is the ultimately mediator, the God-human whose particular aion is an endless one. His Aion is therefore The Aion, and takes up whoever he will take up into this special, endless Aion. Who will be taken up into it? As in Adam all die, so in him will all be made alive. But this is precisely the exception that proves the rule. The point is maximally paradoxical because it is characterized by the very deepest of conceptual tensions, but it is not contradictory, in the context of the Aion that always already holds all the other aions. If either aion or cosmos referred to something without limit, in general, the language would lack the special paradoxical force that it finds in Matthew’s Gospel. Some people might not have a taste for this sort of paradox, and that’s understandable. They should understand, though, a book about the life of the crucified and risen non-violent Messiah just can’t be their cup of tea. Good to know.

When we put it all together we can see how both “aion” and “cosmos” are used throughout Matthew to address one of the text’s central concerns: it is constantly interested in things that end, in the sense that they are being drawn together in a perceptible, generative, living, creative act.

Can someone come back if they never leave?

A fascinating feature of Matthew’s Gospel is that it lacks any explicit indication that Jesus ever leaves, in a way that would necessitate a Second Coming at all. On the contrary, it ends with an affirmation that Jesus will remain for all of the days, even to the end of the Aion. We might tell a guest, “Feel free to come back any time!” if they aren’t figuring out that it is time to leave. Maybe after Matthew the church had a similar problem with this abiding Jesus, and came up with the Second Coming in an effort to get him to leave? I kid.

One is, of course, welcome to a doctrine of a Second Coming. I personally affirm the traditional creeds on this, for whatever that’s worth to you. Nonetheless, I think that even those of us who joyfully affirm the creeds need to find some way to hold our creedal affirmation together with what Matthew is actually saying, unless we want Scripture and Creed to be at war with each other. Insofar as the goal is an affirmation of everything considered broadly orthodox in Christianity, we have to able to say that the one who will return is also the very one who remains. So if Matthew’s Jesus is somehow up there in the sky waiting to return, he is also already always very near, right here. The most traditional approach resolves this sort of fleshy contradiction through a spiritual reading that properly grasps the true spiritual content of both claims, understanding these spiritual realities to be more enduring and true and powerful and real than the fleeting flesh that it holds in being and in life. I’ll suggest such a reading shortly.

But first, let’s suppose someone considers that sort of thing to be pious nonsense, clearly deserving no place in an effort to historically reconstruct plausible readings of Matthew in its original historical context. The assumption here is that Matthew wouldn’t go in for such things. I think that’s a highly questionable view, bordering on absurd at this point, but let’s grant it for the sake of discussion. This approach would then force us to choose between seeing either (1) a Second Coming in Matthew, with this parousia’s prooftext not far off in Matthew 24:30, or (2) an Enduring Nearness, quite explicitly laid out here in Matthew 28:20. Insofar as we are forced to choose between these two, then I think that Enduring Nearness must be the place where the text hangs its hat. After all, the dilemma sets a highly contested eschatological/apocalyptic passage (Matthew 24:1–30) against the reasonably clear, final statement of the Gospel. This situation nicely forces Second Coming traditionalists and these “no nonsense logical-historical realists” into the same interestingly marginal position: they find themselves to be co-belligerents of convenience, divided against themselves, set against a relatively uncontentious and straightforward reading of the close of Matthew. There’s something silly about this exercise in rhetorical identity conflict analysis, but I think it is still illuminating precisely because it is silly. The simple fact of the matter is that this Gospel, on its face, doesn’t close with a departure that would necessitate The Second Coming. It ends with this assurance of The Enduring Nearness. But it seems like some kind of stretch to turn this into a strict dichotomy, even as a matter of reading Matthew as a whole in its context.

So what if we don’t have to choose between these two after all? We don’t, by the way. But even within the world of both/ands, there are still choices to be made. There are more choices in fact, not less. Let’s consider one of those choices here: will we go with the “both/and” of incoherence, or the “both/and” of coherence?

The “both/and” of incoherence has been sought too eagerly in some discussions about these texts. It runs like this: a very serious man nods sagely, reminds you that he has no biases at all. “Yes,” he says, “unfortunately we just have to face facts. Matthew thinks Jesus is coming back and also never leaves. The author is just blithely incoherent and doesn’t notice or care, as with so much of this religious nonsense. We shouldn’t try to force coherence on the text where this is plainly just silly apologetics. So you put on your big boy pants one leg at a time and take both your ‘here’ and your ‘there’, along with the medicine of the text’s clumsy incoherence.” This sort of “both/and” shouldn’t be dismissed completely. Certainly, clumsy and unwitting contradiction can be a feature of some texts.

However, this approach suffers from a major problem in the case of Matthew, and a broader methodological issue in any case.

First, as Dale Allison demonstrates extensively in his magisterial Matthew commentary, Matthew’s author is a deep thinker and an intellectual. We know from close study of the text that we’re dealing with a careful and highly coherent writer in many ways. True, Matthew is also a conservator of traditions, and this can open the way for the preservation of contradictory traditions. However, it can hardly be doubted that he is a highly structured and thoughtful writer who is using parallelism with a kind of peak sophistication. Allison’s Matthew is also working at many points to resolve social contradictions between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the early church community, and is one of the last great bearers of a profound Jewish-Gentile Christian synthesis. Here is someone who understands dialectic, disagreement and synthesis. He is the scion of a rich Greco-Hebrew intellectual tradition that is unfortunately cut off shortly after, and arguably by, Jerusalem’s fall.¹³ With all of that in view, we should be particularly cautious about declaring this particular text to be so lazily incoherent. Before dismissing Matthew as sloppy, we should first plead for Matthew’s thoughtful spiritual coherence, and there is nothing special about this pleading: Matthew has done a lot to suggest that he has thought more than most of us, not less than us, about this text and its many layers of meaning.

But beyond this, I think that even a mediocre writer deserves more consideration than this, for our sake as much as theirs. This is the second problem with casually embracing the charge of incoherence as a mark of intellectual skill and integrity. Methodologically, with respect to any text in general, the act of reading is a search for consilience, an effort to understand how the text can hang together and connect up as a whole. If we reach casually and eagerly for the “incoherence” button and claim that this shows our “honesty” and “intellectual integrity,” we can easily make a virtue of just lazily not reading. It is in fact incredibly ironic when an excessive reaching for “incoherence” is passed off as seriousness, while serious reading is mischaracterized as reaching. The reaching and the reading have been reversed. This doesn’t mean that a text can never be incoherent. But as with any puzzle, we should have a general disposition toward the possibility that it can be solved even when we face frustrations, because those puzzles that can be solved are solved by those who persist in the work of solving them. This is why it is epistemically virtuous to err on the side of possible coherence, when reading a text, and why smart readers are also usually generous readers. Additionally, it isn’t hard to prematurely declare a puzzle to be unsolvable as we toss it down in frustration. But that doesn’t demonstrate that it is, in fact, unsolvable. If someone wishes to demonstrate an irresolvable contradiction, they need to show that coherent readings decisively fail. This is far from clear when it comes to our problem of the never-leaving and yet returning Messiah.

So hopefully we’re all now willing to consider the possibility of a deep spiritual synthesis that takes up the fleshy “contradiction” (also known as a distinction) and moves on toward a deeper coherence. What happens if we give the text a chance to sprout? (And no, that doesn’t mean we are reaching to shove it into a food processor.)

I hope that the broad outline of my suggestion is predictable by now, because the point of this study is to illustrate the consistent usefulness of its core insights. What if the abiding and returning presence of Jesus is already beautifully held together in the phrase “the synteleia of the Lifetime” itself? Let’s suppose that the Aion in view is the Lifetime of Jesus the King of Israel and Judah, the King of the Israel who holds Judah in himself even when it falls, just as Jacob holds all his children, as Abraham holds all his children, as God holds all his children together in the end.

How does this proposal illuminate our paradox here? In a basic sense, the Aion of Jesus involves both the upward movement that happens when he is here with us, and the downward movement of his arrival. This dual movement also corresponds to breathing in and out. We breathe in the air above and so it arrives in us and brings us our lives. Then we breathe out what is near and within us, in words and in the action of life. Recall the centrality of the Spirit and of breath to this narrative. Jesus has just breathed out his last on the cross, and has then breathed in the coming life of the Spirit already in his resurrection. Here at the end of Matthew, the end of this aion has already come and gone for Jesus, and now he has been fully taken up in His Aion: the life of lives, the Aion of aions, the general form that gives shape to all lives, the Lifetime that holds all biological life in time.

It is precisely from his vantage point in the Aion that Jesus is able to comfort every breathing and breathless thing in solidarity with it, in enduring nearness. This is because his Aion now visibly and demonstrably holds both the breathlessness of each death and the very Breath of Life together within it, as a greater whole. He is, after all, both crucified and risen. This is not to romanticize death, to justify abuse or killing, or to treat evil as good. Nonetheless, if this really is the shape of reality then it does assure us that even the greatest evil cannot overcome the good that holds everything in being.

If the Aion here is the Lifetime of Jesus, then the rest of Matthew has already explained how he can be with us all the days. Especially in apocalyptic literature, the concept of a day has special resonances that we will investigate further soon. Here, just recall that “day” is routinely extended beyond the notion of a solar day, to other periods of time. What characterizes the yom at the start of Genesis is precisely the movement between light and dark, perception and concealment, and this maps deeply onto life and death. So we can also say that the Day is the general form of such transitions, including all the various types of day: the Day holds all the days, including all the solar days and all the days that are weeks or years or generations. So in beholding the Aion of Jesus we also behold the Day as the general form of movements between death and life, from dark to light, from low to high. Recall that light fundamentally comes from the sky, where the sun and moon contain and limit and make visible the general form of light, and that this is also the eminently practical (and logically necessary) basis of shared calendars.

Precisely because we are dealing with the general form of Aion in the Aion of the Messiah, his life is near on the Day and for all the days because he is the Logos of Life. This means that he is the meaningful and intelligible general form that creates and sustains all of the forms, especially including each intelligible life. However, this Lifetime and Day and Logos also have a very specific kind of distance: it is the distance of a plan seeking its complete fulfillment. It is the distance of the work of art that is still on its way from mind into complete visibility because we have only been shown the blueprint. The Aion here, as the Aion of Jesus, is the transcendent Lifetime that prototypically contains and holds every lifetime, and so it can’t be held or contained within any single life: it is conceptually above and beyond each life precisely because of its formal intimacy with each one. And in this beyondness, it has the capacity to still be coming even as it is near. This simultaneous up-down/dark-light movement is precisely what characterizes the relationship between the Aion, which is aion-ish, and its innumerable copies, which are also aion-ish, because the word aion-ish names those properties that they share by nature and not by accident.

Now that was all very classically philosophical. Could Matthew really have had this sort of thing in view, in concluding the Gospel in this way? Yes. Philo of Alexandria already attests to the depth of the Greco-Hebrew synthesis even before the time of Jesus. And this sort of thinking leaves deep marks in the tradition from its early layers on, including in the letters of Paul that seem to resemble Philo so closely at so many points. Read in this way, Matthew presents us with his richly narrated, grounded, Hebraic articulation of this kind of Hellenic framework. As is the case throughout this literature of parallelism, it is all written quite clearly there in white and black, just between the lines. Let those who have ears hear, and let those who have eyes see. And what if they have missed all of this, hidden as it is in the plain sight of the risen Messiah? Then the task is to let the reader understand by explanation, and even more to let them understand through lives that are faithful to the Messiah’s teachings because they are inspired by confidence in his victory.

On this reading, Matthew is playing with standard apocalyptic language and standard apocalyptic themes, including the End of Time writ as large as possible and the Day of the Lord, also at its fullest and most universal possible extent. However, this is held conceptually and literarily in the broader narrative of the Day of the Lord Jesus, which is resurrection day, which is the end of the old life and the start of the Coming Life. The register in which it is interpreted is distinctly philosophical in the way it views ultimacy, universality, and the greatest of extents. The result is a very high Christology already in Matthew. Of course, in the standard manner of Biblical Studies argumentation this is ridiculous, and no one could ever take it seriously for a moment. At least that’s what you say if you’re in a camp that is committed to there being no high Christology in Matthew. And by the same token, this is of course what must already be there in its fullness in Matthew, as the species of both bread and wine are full servings of the incarnate and true presence of Jesus. At least that’s what you say if you want a high Christology. Again I kid, and again I kid with serious intent. I will instead simply note that as scholarship has moved into a deeper appreciation of the Greco-Hebrew synthesis already present before Jesus was even born, it has also become a marker of historical awareness to be willing to see these sorts of philosophical insights at work in the text, even in its invisible origin in some author’s mind. We now know that this sort of reading is not out of place, but very plausibly in place in First Century Judah. This glimmering cultural synthesis really was there, in all of its intellectual invincibility and in all of its jasmine fragility, before it was so brutally crushed between the rocks of rebellion and genocide.

All the Days (of the Lord)

Just before the end of Matthew we find another phrase that repays close attention: “All the days.” It sits over there, just on the other side of the consummation of the aion, as we work our way back up through the teleological ending of Matthew. We will spend some time thoroughly unpacking this phrase, which is easy to miss because it is often reduced to “always” in English for the sake of familiarity. But the Greek contains a hyperlink, a Stichwort, that invites us to pause, breathe, and think much more deeply. This isn’t just “always”. It is πάσας τας ἡμέρας, pasas tas hemeras, all the days.

To put this in context we need to begin at the beginning, because we should consider everything that Matthew is summing up here, in this grandest of syntheses at the end of his Gospel. If we hope to reconstruct the way this potentially weighty word was used, especially in this ultra-weighty context, we will need ancient philosophy as it is embedded in ancient history and in ancient Urhistories like Genesis 1.

So here is Genesis 1:1–5, which provides us with the first occurrence of “day” in the Hebrew Scriptures:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (yom, יוֹם).

Let’s think hard about this first yom. Here I’ll draw on a standard academic reference about the word: The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. The full entry, an essay in its own right, is contained in the footnote below. A lot of what I have to say here will synthesize that work in light of Matthew.¹⁴

The First Day is evoked indirectly at the beginning of Matthew’s Genesis of Jesus, because the Gospel’s first two title words (Book of Genesis) directly echo the Septuagint’s title for Genesis. In a similarly oblique but beautiful way, the occurrence of “days” here also invites us to contemplate Genesis. The complex ingathering of the “synteleology” (synteleia) named here, like Matthew’s chiastic literary structure, requires us to unite beginnings and ends. True, Matthew’s genealogy quickly dashes to the international Abrahamic scale and on to the national Davidic scale, becoming more international again after the first breaking of Jerusalem on the Day of the Lord (YHWH). What is the Day of the Lord? For starters, it is how Isaiah referred to the first fall of Judah’s Jerusalem. Still, the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel has drawn our view even further back and deeper up than that fearsome day, especially at a number of important points. So by the time “the days” are invoked at the very end of the Book of the Genesis of Jesus, our minds really should be drawn back to that first yom by way of this internationalizing mission. In fact if you’re reading this, then your mind is, precisely and historically, being drawn back to that first yom by way of the 2000 year sojourn that Jesus launched from Israel.

Pretty soon our readings will become more speculative and more plausible as historical readings of Matthew’s Gospel. But first we’ll start with what is, or at least should be, perfectly uncontroversial. Matthew’s Gospel simply doesn’t close with a singular “Day of the Lord,” and it doesn’t have a typical white throne judgment scene in it. The close of Matthew 25 is, I will argue, an apocalyptic scene of national judgment, which is why it doesn’t follow a general resurrection. And the close of Matthew has a resurrection of the dead that echoes Daniel 12, but then instead of the judgment scene we would expect we get the commissioning of the disciples. Matthew is extensively remixing the apocalyptic genre in ways that cohere profoundly with the Gospel’s distinct vision, one which transforms everything it touches based on the crucified and risen non-violent Messiah. We’ll explore both The Day of the Lord and scenes of judgment in more depth later in this project, when we get to the top of the Mount of Olives. Here, we will try to understand “day” as it relates to this literature, so that we can then grow into “the Day of the Lord.” Walk first. Run later.

In strolling carefully by the close of Matthew, we notice how it ends with the Lord assuring his presence through all the days of the Lifetime, from his resurrection on to the consummation of the Life, presumably the creative consummation of all Life. The grammatical singular that summarizes everything isn’t the Day, but the Lifetime that holds all the days and all the Life in Time. This small detail fits perfectly with the surrounding text as well, and it will also align deeply with our reading of “aionios” at the end of Matthew 25.

Now let’s breathe deeply and appreciate the delicate beauty of this plurality of days, growing in a place that might seem unlikely at first, like a tulip in chilly mountains. Matthew draws extensively on apocalyptic literature that often talks about the Day in the singular, as we see in the conclusion of Zechariah, for example. It would be very nice for exegetes who prioritize genre if Matthew closed more like Daniel or Zechariah. Clearly, Matthew is conversant with these texts and references to them litter it. But instead of delivering the expected conclusion given the genre, the Gospel concludes by pointedly leaving us with all the days, not the last day.

On its own, this detail might not do all that much. But it also reflects what we’ve established in the previous reflection, which means we can set these reflections side-by-side, mirror in mirror: Matthew’s conclusion places unmistakable emphasis on the Enduring Presence, rather than a departure that then necessitates a Second Coming on some future Day of the Lord. Luke’s Gospel contrasts with Matthew at this point, maybe because Luke is offering explicit images and language to show what Matthew implied more profoundly and artfully: a distance paired with an unshakeable nearness. Matthew even has a resurrection of the righteous dead which would naturally be followed by the return and judgment, or at least an assurance to this effect. But it is followed by this talk about his enduring presence through all the days instead. The whole of Matthew is therefore represented in this part: the plurality of days emphasizes continuing historical action at personal-national-international scale, drawing the reader into the movement of time that constitutes history. This fits perfectly with the fact that instead of a final white throne judgment there is a middle-of-history judgment scene in Matthew 25. That scene draws directly on the imagery and logic of Daniel 7 and 8, which also show middle-of-history judgments. Recall again (because so many uninformed appeals to ‘apocalyptic’ try to overwrite this crucial point) that Daniel 7 has a judgment on the fourth beast even as it also says that the other beasts are allowed to persist for a time. Not all throne judgments are ultimate, and the one that Matthew structures its narrative around is explicitly not ultimate. Apocalyptic is altogether far more flexible as a genre than many commentators imagine, and it is in no way whatsoever bound to historical finality in its expressions. The genre of apocalyptic isn’t so “apocalyptic” after all.

The absence of what commentators erroneously expect is so stark that many simply note the abscence but then read their expectation over what is actually present. For example, in his Matthew commentary Dale Allison notes his surprise at the absence of the features of a final judgment scene in Matthew, but then carries on without stopping to notice the blossoms that he’s just blown by. Matthew 25–28 subverts expectations so much that its strangeness becomes invisible, because our attention has been diverted elsewhere. The problem is selective attention, and it can even hide a gorilla in plain sight. Matthew has hidden its real apocalypse (revelation) in plain sight for generations: the Doctrine of the Enduring Nearness.

So far we’ve covered topics that are controversial, but which I don’t think should be seen as particularly speculative. As with the attention tests with a gorilla, it should be the case that once this is pointed out almost any honest commentator will say, “Aha!” Yes, Daniel 7 is a middle-of-history judgment. Yes, Matthew does close with an emphasis on the Enduring Nearness. These obvious points can help shake us up and open the door to a deeper exploration of the conceptual world of this language, as we search for more consilient readings that might draw distance and nearness together into a more coherent whole. First, though, I’d like to carefully situate this more speculative mode of reading in our study.

As the reading becomes more speculative, it will also become more plausible as a historical reading of Matthew, because there is good reason to see Matthew as a brilliant exemplar of the speculative Greco-Hebrew world that gave birth to it. So the methodological paradox (but not contradiction) here is that our exercise will become more speculative even as it also becomes more capable of comprehending the text of Matthew as the form of literature that it is. Whether my particular readings convince any particular reading, I think we can establish that the most plausible readings of Matthew will necessarily be speculative, in a double sense. First, they will engage ancient metaphysical and scientific speculation more deeply. And second, the reconstruction must be offered more humbly because it involves making more speculative reconstructive moves. The farther you need to reach, the gentler your grasp becomes. But this reaching is truly necessary whenever a reader is given something as ambitious as ancient scripture, especially something as ambitious as this dizzyingly synthetic and hyper-intertextual work of ancient scripture. The details of our particular speculations will surely be questionable, but we also have good reason to think that they must be the right sort of thing. Why exactly? Because this is the kind of reading ancient scripture anticipated and required in its context; it is precisely because it inspired and required this sort of deep reading that it could be recognized as scripture in the first place, in its place in Second Temple Judah. Still, our speculation must be disciplined, in the sense that it is rooted in good information about the historical context, so that it can be soulful and not only spiritual. We are reconstructing readings that would have been available to Matthew and Matthew’s readers, not just riffing freely. This sort of text really does require a mode of reading that can rest in the middle of the deepest tensions: it must somehow manage to be humble, disciplined, daring and always tantalizing. I don’t know if I can achieve something like that, but I do know that this is the task that the text presents us.

With those caveats out of the way, we will rush in where the guardian angels of certain historians fear to tread. Having counted the cost of our folly, we will dash right through the ditch that some had hoped would separate theology irrevocably from history. But there’s no other choice. For a text like this, theology is the only possible path to history. How do we expect to get behind the text, to its historical substrate, if we can’t even get through the text, to its content in its historical context? If we ever reach some kind of historical ground, that will be because something beyond us has fulfilled my wild hope, as if Lessing’s ditch is an irrigation canal after all. Even if we can’t cross the ditch, maybe we can head straight up and through, and then maybe we will find life-giving water in the theological crux of the historical problem itself. Let’s go.

So first, turn all the way back to the start of the First Genesis. God creates the first yom, or day, by verbally separating dark from light. This occurs even before dark and light are instantiated in the heavenly bodies like the sun. So we must invisibly envision some highly general spiritual reality, a division without forms, which means that this separation between light and dark cannot perceivably manifest to creatures like us. After all what is light, to us, without some being like the sun to hold it? This division evokes a formless light, a light that is not yet ensouled by its limitation in Sun and Moon and Star. So it is presumably not visible to us, even though the light must have some potential to manifest in that embodied way. This is a light rooted in the deep and hidden wells that are always already pouring forth Creation as it exists to us. We might analogize this to our own processes of conceptual clarification: when you know light from dark, some invisible enlightenment happens in your mind, even though the conceptual division is not manifest outside. Or more anachronistically, we might also consider a light model in the engine for a video game: it defines how light works, but players don’t experience it unless you also define an environment and its light sources. The division that creates the first yom is like that. That analogy may go too far for you. If so, at the very least we can say this: this first yom can’t be the sort of day that will be constituted by the movement of the sun around the Earth. (And yes, for them, the sun moved around the Earth.) That will only become possible three darklit yoms later, after the son is filled with light. So Genesis spends three days in the tomb, where plants are the most animate souls to be found. There is not “yet” any sun to cast and contain the light and there is not “yet” time as we know it intuitively.

And then three days later, according to Genesis, the sun and moon and stars are born. When I talk about these celestial beings as living souls, the sort of thing that can be born, I’m saying something that would have been taken literally by plenty of people in Matthew’s audience. The sun appears to move under his own power, and so it is blindingly obvious that he is an animate or living being like us, not an inanimate and rocklike thing. Based on this (to us invalid) inference, we and the sun are both in fact clearly living souls, and it isn’t just by analogy to flesh (the momentary stuff) and soul (the whole that brings together flesh and spirit) and spirit (the enduring and hyper-real stuff) that we perceive the sun as having a soul. To internalize this worldview, speculative as it was already known to be then, we should try to let ourselves be convinced that the sun really is a living soul which instantiates the spiritual form of light, given by a special kind of divine fire, in its spherical body. Yes, imagine that the sun is not only alive, but vastly more alive than you! We can also join in these ancient speculations by considering how it must be that beyond its bodily manifestation of light, there had to be some deeper and more general principle of light, a spiritual light that is shared in common with all of the gleaming wonders of the universal cosmos. Because this spiritual Light, The Light, precedes the forms of the sun and stars, the original Light also exceeds them. It was there before they came, and it will therefore still be there, as the potential that first gave rise to them, long “after” they are gone. In this, at least, is our modern perspective really so different?

It is worth taking a little time to appreciate what is shared here, in terms of basic intuitions and logic, even with all of the differences. So let’s be more fully modern again, because I guess we have to, today. The merely analogical approach to the sun as a soul remains helpful, because then we don’t have to get into fights about whether the sun is alive just because it moves so animatedly. We can set all that aside and still point out that the relationship between matter, form and spirit that can describe the sun as a thing can also describe us as beings. We, at least, are breathing and experiencing meat (soul), not merely disembodied experience or universal truths (spirit), and not merely meat (flesh).

Still, even as an analogy, we need to note another point where this comparison between us and that ancient sun breaks down. In the original context we might debate whether the sun has flesh at all, and it would have been broadly considered more astute to say that the sun was an example of something with form, but blessedly free of the constraints of frail flesh. Instead, the sun was an example of a spiritual body that united Light (differentiated on the First Day) with the perfectly spherical form of the indivisible sun. It was real, but not fleshy. Why not fleshy? Because if the sun were made of flesh it would decay and fall apart and therefore be momentary, like our own flesh. But anyone can see that we decay while the sun continues in its courses from generation to generation, undecaying, undivided. In this ancient understanding, the sun brings together light and its sphereical form together (‘soul’), and is not merely the invisible and general distinction between light and dark (spirit), and is not merely plasma without these more general features (superlunar matter, the celestial equivalent of ‘flesh’).

Ancient physics didn’t know about the eventual death of the sun, although some speculated in that direction. The notion that everything would ultimately be consumed in fire was familiar, and should also be understood in its relationship to light: the sun was thought to be made of a refined and celestial kind of fire, and so an end in divine fire could also be the final embrace of everything in that light. Still, those who imagined the death of the sun, whether in darkness or in a light that surpassed the sun’s boundaries and so dissolved it, did this in the teeth of the available evidence. What was known then was far more supportive of the sun’s endlessness than its mortality. True, from the standpoint of apocalyptic literature some ancient people could imagine the sun’s death, but this required a kind of spiritual insight and an audaciousness of vision that went far beyond the available evidence.

The upshot of all of this is that the sun, which provides us with the most typical sort of yom in the vast majority of uses, is not what fundamentally defines a yom for those steeped in Genesis 1. Rather, there is a profound and primary exegetical basis for seeking other yoms as well, ones that could be independent of our sun and our days and the calendars built from it. What is truly essential to a day is not the sun, but the division of light and dark, and so Genesis 1 invites and even requires us to dream of other kinds of days that could persist even if this sun were darkened and lost forever. We’ve reviewed this here because we will need this framework to help us understand the ‘days’ of apocalyptic literature, as well as their extensive engagement with stars/angels as living beings. It will also give us a lens for meditating on the astronomical references in Matthew 24, relating to the death or fall of the heavenly bodies, which were so central to time-keeping. The Day in its most general form, and not just as the more particularly universal Day of the Lord or the general Solar Day, will be indispensable to us throughout our climb up the Mount of Olives.

So what is this more general, extra-solar yom, the Yom that holds all of the yoms, and which is therefore yomic, as the yoms are all also yomic? (Recall that the adjective describes both the form and its copies.) The word’s primary meaning refers to the bright time, as it does in English. But it also has a very basic extension, as in English, so that day holds both the light and the dark under the auspices of the light. The darkness of the day is not seen as a thing itself, and the darkness is silently, but loudly, not called good in Genesis 1. It is nonetheless included and held and nursed in the day, the shadow one with the light, united by the relationship of subtraction. The 24 hour day is therefore an Aufhebung of the night in the maternal mode. (See our essay on Greek time language for more detail on maternal Aufhebung.)

From the Matthew Outline, we should also recall that Matthew’s genealogy could be playing with the standard calendrical and apocalyptic theme of 7 weeks, a period of 7 times 7 yoms. Whether it is fully engaged in that or not, it nonetheless uses periods of 2 weeks of generations (14 generations) to structure the genealogy. The significance of 7 for marking time would be impossible to miss for an ancient scribe whose work was so centrally calendrical. So a highly consilient reading of Matthew it using generations as the precise and poetically beautiful yoms that make up the genealogy’s weeks, as we move from the darkness before birth and into the darkness at the end of our lives. This fits with the general pattern of apocalyptic literature, which is very interested in periods of seven weeks, and the evil period of 3 1/2 weeks that means you’re clumsily sitting right in the middle of it all, much as Daniel’s throne judgment on the fourth beast leaves us in the middle of history. The significance of 7 was therefore rooted in the rhythms of national life. Seven weeks of typical solar yoms mark the time between Passover (and so Easter) and Pentecost. Seven weeks of yearly yoms (a solar-lunar unit for Second Temple Judah) marks out the time from one Jubilee to the next. So it is natural that in apocalyptic literature, this longing for liberation at larger social and temporal scales also looks to other periods of 7 times 7 yoms, moving from the microcosm of the day to the year to the broader cosmos of history.

Matthew’s 6 weeks of generations, in this context, could naturally raise expectations of a final consummation of the aions in a great final Aion at the end of the 7th week of generations, 7 generations after Jesus, the Jubilee and Pentecost of Generations. However, we should also note that Matthew’s Gospel remains, perhaps wisely, inexplicit about this. His Jesus is explicit about the Temple’s fall within one generation, and Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is vindicated even through that. However, the rest is left open.

So instead of telling us that there will be 7 weeks of generations, Matthew’s Gospel invites us into a more flexible and generative mode of thinking about time at larger scales in terms of weeks of generations. So we might go in multiple directions, playing with this highly flexible and generative concept of a generational yom. Fascinatingly, but merely fascinatingly, the end of the 7th week of generations fell right around the time of the Synod of Arles. So we can continue to tell our story in Matthean terms: the second week of Jesus ends with the end of violent persecution by the Empire, and the start of official imperial co-optation of Christian faith. By parallelism to the timing of the first fall of Judah and exile in Babylon, we might also see in Constantine the start of a second exile.

Is this what Matthew had in view? At this point, we have clearly gone beyond reconstruction and have carried on in a way inspired by Matthew, but not held or beheld by him. Still, even this has its place in apocalyptic thinking. Daniel knew that there were things that he didn’t know. Matthew’s subtly implicit mode also suggests a similar sort of knowing he didn’t know, rather than a strict schema.

So we could generate other speculation as well, and perhaps more usefully we can generate a way of telling the history of the ekklesia in Matthew’s mode. This way of telling history can provide a sense of coherence and meaning, and also serves as a mnemonic aid. Let’s illustrate one way of doing this here. Matthew centers 6 weeks of generations before Jesus, divided into three groups of two weeks: the two weeks of Father Abraham, the two weeks of King David, and the two weeks of political exile, both in and out of the land, because imperial domination of Judah has continued right up to Matthew’s day. And then Jesus is born, perhaps marking the beginning of the end of exile, and so perhaps another two weeks of these biological generations (even as they are all siblings held in the Generation of the Messiah). Matthew’s startling twist, startling but entirely consonant with the apocalyptic pattern, is that the end of the first exile doesn’t mean independence in the land, because it must end with a Day of the Lord that is also The Day of the Lord, a day of catastrophic judgment on Judah that is even more devastating than the Babylonian one. What Matthew’s tradition drives him to desperately hold together is this: he must somehow locate Judah’s inheritance of the world even in the shattering and scattering of its most decisive defeat. And so he finds the Day in this crucified Jesus of the House of Bread, this Jesus who sprouts from Nazareth.

Where do we go from here? To be Matthean about it, we could lay out the whole story up to today like this. I’ll mark the years exactly based on the idea that a generation is 40 years, although Matthew was happy to work this out in a very rough way. You’ll find that my years don’t line up perfectly, but the point is to quickly communicate the flow of time in a coherent way that expresses a particular understanding of history and the lessons we should take from it:

Abraham

7 and 7 generations

David

7 and 7 generations

Babylonian Exile

7 and 7 generations

Jesus (Year 0): The Jubilee of Generations from Abraham falls in the middle of this period, with the rise of Constantine, but the full period lets us see its first fruits in Justinian

7 and 7 generations

The Roman Exile (~560): Justinian’s condemnation of Origen is followed by 18 months of darkness, the Plague of Justinian, and the intensification of the persecuting society

7 and 7 generations

The Great Schism (~1120): David’s heirs, already divided over Constantine’s baptism since the start of the imperial age, divide the Empire at last

7 and 7 generations

The Reformation and Global Missions (~1680): the Abrahamic promise is renewed and betrayed in the bloodbath of global colonialism

7 and 7 generations

Machine Intelligence is Genesised (~1960)

This is the way of thinking that Matthew has bequeathed to us, even if it contains more than he could have dreamed of. He nonetheless was wise enough to provide us with a powerful framework for communicating a vision of history without overly schematizing how it must be used.

So in this dizzying swirl of days and weeks, let’s transition from days to weeks to apocalyptic “weeks” and on to The Day of the Lord. As we pass from the days to the Day in our analysis, I’d encourage you to pause and quietly note this little piece of Dale Allison’s Matthew commentary before we continue on:

Christian tradition gives symbolic meaning to the first day of the week: it is the day of a new creation. Whether Matthew’s first readers thought in these terms is unknown. But the notion that a new (eschatological) era will commence after a period of seven world days or weeks of years was known in Judaism: Dan 9:24–7; 1 En. 93:1–10; 91:12–17; 4 Ezra 7:31; T. Levi 16:1ff.; 2 En. 33:1–2; b. Sanh. 97a. For the eighth day in early second century Christianity see Barn. 15:8–9; Justin, Dial. 41:4.

This brings us to days of gods in general. The idea that gods have days preceded Torah and was so prevalent across ancient cultures that it still deeply marks our language. For example, we can say that Putin truly cast the die in Ukraine on the second day of the week, Tuesday 2/22/22. In English day is named for the god Tyr, the god of war and single combat. In Romance languages the day is named for Mars, the analogous god of war in Latin. So we can say that the Rubicon of the post-Cold War world was symbolically crossed on Tyr’s day. Intentional or not, it is fitting that Putin’s wish for a 1 on 1 fight with Ukraine burst into undeniably clear view on that day, as my journal from that time reflects. And of course, Tyr’s day is followed by Woden’s Day (Wednesday) which is followed by Thor’s Day (Thursday) and then Freya’s Day (Friday). And so on.

Needless to say, Jesus and Matthew didn’t name their weekdays after pagan deities. They counted them: first day, second day, and so on. Still, they lived in a world of gods’ days. The Egyptian calendar, closely linked to taboo structures and astrological predictions, was also marked by regular days of the gods. Unlike our weekdays, these Egyptian days of the gods bridged the gap between the 12 months of 30 days and the need for 365 days in the year. Each of five chief gods had their own day, recurring annually. In a way that resonates with Torah, possibly suggesting a shared history of some sort, these days were fearsome and dangerous. Not good days for work. They were therefore broadly sabbatical, sabbath-ish, in a certain sense. So what was (and is) a god’s day? They were, and are, ways of marking numerical time, closely connected to the essential intellectual and scientific and social task of calendar keeping, and therefore also closely connected to the celestial beings that we know as the stars and sun and moon. And for the Egyptians, as for the ancient Israelites, they were not good days for human work.

The Day of YHWH (the Lord) bears some resemblance to these days in at least one sense: even in the singular, it was in essence repeatable. We talk about Christmas in the singular as well. We can’t wait for Christmas! It routinely means next Christmas. In a similar way, Isaiah could speak of The Day of YHWH without him or others after him expecting the idea to be exhausted in a single occurrence. The singular focused attention on the coming one. However, this similarity only goes so far. YHWH’s day isn’t fixed by any celestial being, and so unlike Odin’s day, YHWH’s isn’t bound by the strict numerical sequence of weeks or the distant, circling, regular dance of the celestial beings. If the Day of YHWH corresponded to a celestial phenomenon it would have to be a strange one, such as a falling star. Like the days of the Egyptian gods, YHWH’s day mingled fear and celebration, and it disrupted the normal cycle of the weeks. However, the similarity also only goes so far. The Day of YHWH is disruptive, but is far less predictable than even these numerically predictable disruptions. The day was not known by mortals, even if it came at an appointed time. Its appointment was known by YHWH alone: this is olamic time, time that exceeds the limits of human perception. Its light isn’t like the light of the sun that marks the solar days. Instead it’s light comes from beyond the stars. It is the light that is held in the stars only because it deigns to be held in them for a limited time-constituting-time. Its Light is the Light that holds the sun and moon and stars and all the other sources of light as well.

What does The Day of YHWH look like? It looks like the fall of Israel, or the fall of Saul’s Gibeah, both connected as examples of the same thing in Hosea 9:9. At least this is something close to its most original form. Arguably, we might say that the fall of Shiloh is the first iconic Day of the Lord in Israelite history. So when does The Day of YHWH fall on the calendar? When YHWH deems that the bitter cup of abuse and injustice and faithlessness has filled to overflowing, when the Temple has been so thoroughly profaned by killing and cruelty that the masquerade must finally stop. A smaller Day of the Lord came to the Southern Baptists, for example, when the leaders’ systematic defense of sexual abusers, and all of their lies about it, finally came to light. The prophetic witness announces both a bitter ending and the hope of a new beginning: may our temples crumble, so that the people might have a chance to discover faith in God. A much larger Day of the Lord came when the Catholic Church encountered the same. May our temples crumble, so that the people might discover faith in God. That’s how The Day of YHWH works. Even in its non-violent forms, it is a fearful thing. And a hopeful thing. It is the day when the lies are finally uncovered, a day of revelation, a day of destruction, a day of limping hope. It doesn’t fit on your schedule. It cracks your schedule wide open.

It is in light of all of this that we might also venture to say that Matthew’s Gospel does tell us about a truly unique Day of YHWH. Not because there can be only one instance of The Day, but because there is, in fact, one instance of The Day the rises to true singularity. We might say that there is one Day of the Days of YHWH, its most paradigmatic and perfect and revelatory form. That day, of course, is Easter. Or is it? More precisely it is what we commemorate on Easter but could never begin to hope to hold in Easter. Easter is not the Day of YHWH, but it is our reminder of the death to self (at all scales) that is always involved in reaching all those days when they fearfully arrive at last.

Finally, in light of this, we can understand the scope of what Matthew’s Jesus is saying here with this phrase “all the days”. He is saying that because his has been The Day of the Days of YHWH he will be with us All the Days, even (and especially) all of the great and terrible Days of the Lord. Yes, he was with limping Jacob even to the end of that terrible generational yom, the day when the last tribe’s right hand was decisively and horrifyingly cut off. He was there on the yom of Judah’s fall. There in that wicked yet generative generation, he was and is Judah’s life-giving king.

Pulling the prophetic patterns together in time

Now let’s take another look at our excerpt from Matthew 28 in light of our reflections on the language of time and life, and in the context of the prophetic-apocalyptic literature at its core.

Here again is our passage, which is often said to sum up Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. Matthew 27:33–28:20, with a focus on the apocalyptic-prophetic language and imagery.

33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (all the days to the end of the lifetime, pasas tas hemeras, heos synteleias tou aionos, πάσας τας ἡμέρας ἕως συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος).”

Where Mark’s Gospel nods to apocalyptic literature with its angelic man, Matthew gives us an account of a fully apocalyptic angel straight from Daniel’s visions. Matthew 24–28 could have been written with Daniel 7–12 rolled out alongside the working scroll on one side, with Isaiah 24 on the other, and related texts from Ezekiel and Zechariah and the Psalms and Hosea all echoing in the background. This body of literature deeply anchors resurrection imagery as a language of national restoration from exile and oppression. Here, I’ll draw on N.T. Wright’s analysis of the prophetic-apocalyptic terrain, working as it does at various social scales simultaneously. A generous excerpt is available below.¹⁵ A complete review of these layers of tradition as they relate to the close of Matthew would be a study in its own right. Here I’ll just draw on Isaiah 24 in some depth so that we can notice its many, many points of contact and implicit conversation with the close of Matthew. I won’t explicitly draw out every parallel but will instead draw our attention to some of the basic elements that are quite directly referenced and transformed on the cross.

To help us get started, notice the dried-up river of wine that launches our selection from Matthew and our selection from Isaiah. Back in Matthew 27:34 Jesus tasted gall-mixed wine on the cross, but refused to drink it. What is the significance of the wine refused but tasted? It highlights, with grave irony, that he is drinking the bitter cup of solidarity with human suffering to the full. Our minds should be drawn to our Passover song, the soundtrack continuing here: the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. And we should recall the promise Jesus made at the fourth cup of Passover, that he wouldn’t drink the fruit of the vine again until that day (Sunday?) when he would drink it with the disciples, new in the Kingdom. So he is faithful in keeping his promise to abstain. But why promise to abstain in the first place? The gall-filled wine that was offered could have dulled his pain even as it may also have been a sign of mockery.¹⁶ Both possible implications of the bitter wine, as mockery and as narcotic, unite in the notion that the crucifier has achieved complete victory over the crucified, winning their absolute submission. If Jesus fully drank the bitter but numbing wine that was offered, the word spoken by his body would have been this: the capacity of the Empire to inflict pain was too great to bear, and so he submitted in the end and accepted the bitter dregs it offered him at last. So his fulfillment of this promise makes an immediate point: he has not submitted. It also helps situate his elevation to his throne as something that follows his death on the cross. But in tasting the wine, Jesus joins all of us in our own experiences of mockery. As the embodiment of the nation, his experience personally speaks to all of our experiences of mockery by systems of slander and abuse at every scale, from bullying family members and peers, to the media apparatuses that pour out constant contempt and encourage coups, and on up to the cruelty of empires. This refusal then adds another layer of meaning to his new communion Passover. He rejects the narcotic of Empire, its parting gift of dumb numbness, but he fully joins with anyone who is made to drink up all of the pain it can inflict. Instead of drinking from the whore of Babylon’s cup, and instead of eating and drinking and being merry while the world burns, he fully imbibes the bitter cup of solidarity. In this he is the truly regal king, the royal representative fulfilling his aion, and in this he is the only king who could truly identify with oppressed and limping Israel (including falling Judah in the end).

It isn’t clear if Matthew had the church’s early Sunday communion tradition in view, but the narrative would fit with this practice perfectly consiliently, and with the utmost profundity. In that lived context the implications of Matthew’s closing narrative are clear enough: Jesus joins us in taking wine on the eighth day each Sunday when we celebrate his death and resurrection, as we remember how he came into his kingdom.

In light of this movement of covenant faithfulness, a movement from death into life, we should notice how Isaiah 24:7–23 also begins by communicating the fall of the city through the image of wine undrunk. Those who laughed, as Jesus warned, will mourn. What the cross reveals is that he is fully and utterly there with them in the mourning that then turns to the coming day’s praise:

The wine dries up,

the vine languishes,

all the merry-hearted sigh.

8 The mirth of the timbrels is stilled,

the noise of the jubilant has ceased,

the mirth of the lyre is stilled.

9 No longer do they drink wine with singing;

strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.

10 The city of chaos is broken down,

every house is shut up so that no one can enter.

11 There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;

all joy has reached its eventide;

the gladness of the earth is banished.

12 Desolation is left in the city,

the gates are battered into ruins.

13 For thus it shall be on the earth

and among the nations,

as when an olive tree is beaten,

as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is ended.

14 They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;

they shout from the west over the majesty of the LORD.

15 Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD;

in the coastlands of the sea glorify the name of the LORD, the God of Israel.

16 From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,

of glory to the Righteous One.

But I say, I pine away,

I pine away. Woe is me!

For the treacherous deal treacherously,

the treacherous deal very treacherously.

17 Terror, and the pit, and the snare

are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!

18 Whoever flees at the sound of the terror

shall fall into the pit;

and whoever climbs out of the pit

shall be caught in the snare.

For the windows of heaven are opened,

and the foundations of the earth tremble.

19 The earth is utterly broken,

the earth is torn asunder,

the earth is violently shaken.

20 The earth staggers like a drunkard,

it sways like a hut;

its transgression lies heavy upon it,

and it falls, and will not rise again.

21 On that day the LORD will punish

the host of heaven in heaven,

and on earth the kings of the earth.

22 They will be gathered together

like prisoners in a pit;

they will be shut up in a prison,

and after many days they will be punished.

23 Then the moon will be abashed,

and the sun ashamed;

for the LORD of hosts will reign

on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,

and before his elders he will manifest his glory.

Matthew’s close is deeply immersed in an effort to piece together the puzzle presented by Isaiah here. For Matthew the pieces all come together around the crucified Messiah. Jesus is, by synecdochic identity, the falling city of Judah where wine is no longer being drunk. The imagery is intensely personal and intensely national. The individual death humanizes, embodies, dramatizes and enables us to feel the bodily death of the city and nation. Jesus literally and spiritually gives Isaiah’s prophecy soul. And from the larger scale down, the coming death of the nation and city in recorded history enduringly marks the loss of the human Temple-King-Prophet-Lawgiver for all to see. Today no one on Earth can miss the broader historical points that are made by the text. Judah, the last tribe standing by violence, did fall by violence. And so His lifetime holds Israel’s lifetime, including its revival. His Aion holds the nation’s aion, the entire regenerative cycle of life seen as a whole. And so Matthew glosses, interprets and transforms the grape harvest in Isaiah 24, gleaning new meanings from the unspeakably rich tradition that was left to Matthew on the eve of Judah’s death. In Isaiah’s harvest imagery, our minds are also drawn back to all of the harvest imagery from Matthew 13. Given the centrality of the harvest to the narrative of Matthew, this wine harvest can’t help but remind us of the seeds that are planted or ground as well.

What comes after the harvest here in Isaiah? A shout of joy across the known world, one that can only be an anguished sort of joy in this context. The text of Isaiah moves more deeply into this international scale through astrological imagery, just as Matthew does. In a nice illustration of the deep connections between governance, divine beings, and the celestial lights, here Isaiah closely associates angels with the kings who embody their authority. We might recall our previous discussions on Amy Richter and consider the work of Walter Wink and Michael Heiser here as well: the stars are angels, and the fallen angels are the gods of the nations, and the gods of the nations are especially embodied in their kings. By their light the scribes mark out the calendars that move the nations through the years. To speak of astronomy was therefore to speak of governance in the most fundamental sense. The celestial lights’ lifetimes were the lifetimes of nations, and their confusion was the confusion of the nations.

As it draws to a close, Matthew drinks deeply from these themes and these images as it builds its structure on the prophetic narrative structure. However, it does not do it in a rigid and stonily imitative way. Let’s run through some of the core images quickly, but more exhaustively than Matthew with his hyper-dense symbolic-prophetic style. Consider how Isaiah’s earthquake splits the earth, causing it to sway and go down for good, a dying drunk. This is already a richly unsettling confluence of images. But this isn’t enough for Matthew. There are two earthquakes at the close here, and we should recall that repetition creates patterns of parallelism that allow for comparison, contrast, and training in wisdom. The earthquake accompanying the death of Jesus raises the righteous dead, elaborating the theme from Daniel 12:2 by drawing it together with Isaiah in the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross. And the second earthquake comes with the rise of Jesus, leaving the Roman soldiers looking like they are dead-drunk. Anyone who thinks that Matthew’s Gospel is friendly to the Roman Empire because of its depiction of Pilate should take good note of what is happening here: the Messiah has defeated the Empire’s power over death itself, leaving it functionally dead for those who follow in the way of Christ. This sort of play is also present in the wordplay around those already as-good-as-dead soldiers, as Allison describes nicely.¹⁷ This, then, illuminates and transforms the deathly pit imagery from Isaiah as well, imagery that might also remind us of the destroyed topheths of child sacrifice down in Ben-hinnom. (Parents sending their children off to war are always engaged in a kind of child sacrifice.) So we can also notice that the wicked rulers of the nations are allowed to persist for a time in their pit, a temporary stay of death’s execution that echoes Daniel 7. This resonates with Wright’s reflections on the quasi-life of exile that precedes national resurrection. (Purgatory is living under the Roman boot.) In light of the cross we see that the apocalyptic beasts, such as Rome, are wallowing weakly in the now-defeated power of death, but death’s power is dead because of the cross. It has no power over those who walk in the way of Jesus, those who would rather drink the dregs of true solidarity than numb themselves with imperial gall. And so the old means of timekeeping are surmounted and encapsulated in a new order, held in the new year 0 by the Sunday people, the people of the eighth day. All of the world mourns the death of the King of Judah, and in this and for this they praise him. And so on.

This sort of integrative transformation is what Matthew is accomplishing, with a density that requires even more unpacking than this. But this is enough to illustrate the point. How can we describe what Matthew is doing with theme after theme and image after image, and with the general narrative structure of prophetic-apocalyptic literature? Matthew isn’t just citing this material, and he isn’t just mechanically walking through it. He also isn’t using it in quite the same way that his non-Jesus-following contemporaries use it. Instead, he is showing how Jesus drew the prophetic tradition up and together in himself. He is showing how God achieved the maternal Aufhebung of the prophetic tradition through the new heart-covenant centered on Jesus, the one that Jeremiah anticipated. God achieved this at the personal scale by virtue of the Messiah’s covenant faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount. In himself, then, the Messiah represents the two sides required for covenant faithfulness: both the human and the divine parties to the covenant have proven themselves faithful, as Jesus becomes the new spiritual and soulful Temple set on the rock of this faith. Matthew’s Gospel is most apocalyptic in that it reveals how Jesus accomplished this Aufhebung through his teaching, an education in both word and deed, pushing through the implicit olamic limit by his death and resurrection.

Or in a word, Matthew is showing how God pulls this all together in the life of Jesus, in His Aion.

We can’t appreciate the extensive appeals to fulfilled prophecy in Matthew unless we understand that Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus rework the socio-political-spiritual language of Hebrew prophetic literature (including apocalyptic) by weaving it together in the aion of the crucified Messiah.

This distinctive pattern of meaning-making and remaking, this mode of reading and re-reading, has deep roots in the Hebrew tradition. We can see this in Wright’s analysis of re-readings of Hosea (see footnote 15), and in the symbolic “conquest” of Babylon that happens when their stories are re-written in a critical rather than glorifying way in Genesis. This apocalyptic hermeneutic is embedded in the deep structure of Matthew’s Gospel because it is also there in the deep structure of the Hebrew Scriptures. This mode of thinking, which is therefore both a mode of reading and a mode of writing, is a basic presupposition behind Matthew’s composition. This text couldn’t have come to exist except in a literary culture like that of Second Temple Judah. If we miss this transformative hermeneutic as it is applied to this Messiah, we have not begun to read the text at the most basic level required to comprehend it in its historical context. To hear this text at all, we must hear it simultaneously transforming and fulfilling everything in the figure of the uncompromisingly enemy loving, solidaristic, reconciling Messiah: crucified, but now risen, faithful to his covenant and victorious through that very faith.

So what comes next for Matthew? What happens after Sunday? Is this just a day of ecstatic mountaintop experiences, followed by a crash back to reality once the week truly starts? No, because the ultimate Peak holds the ultimate Valley as well, and so the Day of Jesus holds every hill and vale, as Day holds Dark and Light under the auspices of Light. So let’s talk about these hills.

In the wake of the fall (and rise) of the Jesus-Temple, the disciples leave Judah as they have been instructed. They head for a specific but nameless hill (oros, ὄρος) in Galilee where Jesus has directed them. Unlike Shiloh or Gibeah or Zion, the specific location’s name is left in silence. This fits the general theme of Matthew’s close in important ways. Matthew’s Jesus isn’t trying to establish yet another rival stone-flesh Temple in Israel, like the Samaritan one at Mount Gerizim. Instead, Matthew’s Jesus emphasizes the general spiritual form of faithful mountain moving. In precisely this way Matthew moves from the one Temple (Jesus) to the many temples he holds in himself, wherever there is Life, wherever his covenant faithfulness is manifest.

This departure from Judah to an Israeli hill following the desecration of the Jesus-Temple also beautifully echoes the advice from Matthew 24, where Jesus warns that when the disciples see the abominating desolation of the Temple, they should flee to the hills and get out of Judah as quickly as they can.

So wait. Is Matthew 24’s warning actually fulfilled in Matthew 28? In the truest sense, yes, but this doesn’t exhaust it. Instead, for precisely this reason it is inexhaustible for as long as humans live and die. This departure from Judah in Matthew 28 anticipates the later departure around 70 AD, and as we move forward in history we can move back in Matthew, chiastically, to 24:16. There, Jesus did warn his disciples to flee from Judea and into the hills (ore, ὄρη) when they saw another temple desecration coming, a desecration like his death and like the desecration of Antiochus Epiphanes. The old tradition that the disciples fled to Pella as a result of this warning is plausible and is still defended by prominent scholars. Keener even suggests that it is the majority view.¹⁸ Assertions of “majority views” in Biblical scholarship should be carefully scrutinized and taken with a grain of salt. Still, wherever a prominent scholar identifying a “majority view” remains the coin of the realm, note that top scholars can mint this claim when it comes to the Pella tradition.

So how, exactly, am I suggesting the transition to the Messianic Age works? Am I arguing that the Messianic Age is inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than the destruction of the Temple, or is it with the destruction of the Temple that it was inaugurated? Here, I follow Dale Allison in rejecting narrow and overly precise schemas,¹⁹ but I part ways with his suggestion that this is contradictory. Rather, we simply need to understand how scale in space and time and concept works, emergently and interpenetratingly, in a Greco-Hebrew environment. We can do that by noticing how Matthew aionically fleshes out the general form of The Scheme, the one by which God catches Empire on the hook of the Messiah (to borrow a classic image from patristics).

So even as it accords with Matthew’s understanding of the truth conveyed through the Aion of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD doesn’t exhaust the pattern, and it is not the initiatory act of the Kingdom of Jesus. Jesus is not riding the Roman soldiers like an angel as they come to secure vengeance for Judah’s killing of Jesus. That is a fine way of thinking about scale and the spirit-flesh relationship in context, with the flesh and souls of the Roman soldiers coordinated by a greater spiritual being. (Even today we all realize that there must be some more general structure, some invisible and breathlike communicative structure, that is coordinating large armies, right?) But that’s not Matthew’s Jesus, whose victory over violence must always include the cruciform conquest of violence itself. Recall that through the earthquakes of his fall and rise, the Romans are already as good as dead. They either stand with him baptismally through conversion and become his non-violent disciples (like those who saw the earthquake of his death) or they stagger around dazed dead-drunk (like those who saw his rise). No, Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t ride Rome. Rather, he is there in dying Judah and there in every falling soldier and civilian on every side, and he is especially there in the innocent victims on every side whose blood cries out for an end to Empire itself. In this way, and in this way alone, the fall of Jerusalem represents a national Day of the Lord Jesus, and in just this way the prophetic tradition is truly summed up in Jesus, for all nations as long as violent nations live. Because of the scale of the loss in 70 AD, with all of Herod’s lifeless stones thrown down, this first national fulfillment is the first fulfillment of the Covenant on the Mount that everyone in history can witness through historical study. For this reason, historically oriented Christian apologists shouldn’t strain to prove the resurrection, which is beyond the reach of historians, but should instead strain to understand what can be seen by all when we simply read Matthew in its historical context, because that is within the purview of historical study.

So when we think of apocalyptic and the close of Matthew, we should know that after we finish our climb up the Mount of Olives we will descend and then be drawn to notice all of the nameless hills. We’ll remember the one here in Matthew 28 and all of them in Matthew 24. Maybe we’ll look around and see the nearest hill to each of us, outside our window or down the street or through the woods. When that day comes, you might want to take a short walk to the nearest hill and ponder the narrative pattern that Matthew 24–28 provides us, centered on all the olamic hills beyond Matthew’s capacity to name or perceive. And you might remember that your aion, too will end. Your body, your congregation, your nation, your world order, these will pass away. The temples will be desecrated and burned by scandal, by quick fire or the slow fire of decay. The destruction may even come by waves of water, baptismal or not, climactic or climatic. The Son will come in his power, and when this all unfolds you should leave the fallen order and head into the hills, whether you can make them or not.

Insofar as the aion of Judah reflects this pattern it is because it reflects the prototypical personal-national pattern already summed up and revealed in The Aion of Jesus.

When we move into this analysis in more depth, I’ll build on Dale Allison’s approach, which doesn’t find the sorts of neat divisions in the text of Matthew 24:1–3 that R.T. France, Joel B. Green and other commentators see.²⁰ But we will use the ancient language of social and cosmic scale to help resolve the tensions and apparent contradictions. In this way the analysis of the “aion” and the “aionic” will let us put flesh on Allison’s appropriately multivalent approach: it precisely helps us ensoul his spiritual reading by comprehending it in terms of lifetimes at all scales. Ensouled in this way, the Aion can also enduringly hold flesh in its ever-changing forms.

My final note about the conclusion to Matthew is that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to baptize everyone they can, so that they don’t get tortured forever in the afterlife. Instead, he tells them to baptize them into a new life in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, right alongside it, they are to train the baptized to keep all of his commands. I’ve written a more theological reflection on this passage and on the Trinitarian formula here.

While the commands of Jesus in Matthew are not restricted to the Covenant on the Mount, this covenant has a particular gravity, a weight of glory, in the context of Matthew as a whole. This teaching is fundamental: those who build on it build their living temples (their disciples) on a foundation of rock. Those who don’t build on sand. Those who build on it will build things that are unlike Second Temple Judah: they will last. Those who don’t build on it will build things like Second Temple Judah: they will collapse. And the bigger they are, the harder they fall to our five smooth stones.

This perspective nicely draws together the prophetic and covenantal aspects of Torah in light of the new covenant. This much is just fairly straightforward exegesis of Matthew. It remains a simple and direct reading, even if the relationship between the Covenant on the Mount and the prophetic witness of Jesus are often missed in these discussions. Often, the discussion turns toward debates about the finer details of eschatology and endings without getting clearer on what, exactly, the goal of Jesus is. In essence, Jesus’ disciples are to be something like Moses to all the people and peoples: they are to set before all the peoples the choice between the way of life and the way of death, urging them to choose the way of life.

When we get to the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, we will find that on our reading (which I think is by far the most consilient reading) the end of the Olivet Discourse elaborates and underscores this very point. No, Matthew 24–28 doesn’t stumble drunkenly into “eschatology” and then retreat from “eschatology” here in the end. Rather, the book is consistently prophetic and apocalyptic throughout, and the Hebrew prophetic tradition is always concerned with covenant faithfulness, especially the distinct goals pursued by the faithful and the faithless. The real difference between Matthew’s 5 smooth stones and the 5 books of Torah is that there is a new covenant on the field, one which doesn’t annul the old ones but which holds them all. It is the Covenant on the Mount.

II.1.E The Synteleia of “Aion”

Summing up the summing up of life

The end of Deuteronomy, chapters 26–34, is also the close of the Torah. There, we find the covenantal promises and dire warnings proclaimed by Moses. We might summarize the discourse this way: choose life and you will live in the land and be set high above all the nations of the Earth. Choose death, and you will be crushed, tortured, enslaved, slaughtered and brutalized by the nations. But you will choose death and reap the whirlwind.

After these promises, which have functionally become dire warnings of national death in the post-Babylonian text we have, Moses pronounces blessings on each of the tribes. Many of the blessings had practical socio-political and geographic import before Israel’s right hand was cut off, and so in context even the blessings have become achingly poignant. Like a life that was lived utterly to the full, the very best bears tragic witness from where we restlessly rest, here over East of Eden. So yes, the subnational groupings, the tribes that together make up the nation of limping Israel, are blessed in the end. If you are reading your eyes should sting, torn with ambiguous tears. In the course of the Hebrew Scriptures their right hands will be lopped off one by one, their horns broken by the greater horns of various empires. At last only Judah, partially restored by the strong hand of Cyrus, remains. And then in 70 AD, even Judah will lose his right hand at last.

What is left? Rabbinic Judaism finds a way to go on in the tradition that arises around Jamnia, and the ekklesia of Paul and Matthew carries on as well. Both had their links to Pharisaism and both knew how to survive at the social margins. So when Judah’s political center no longer held, the survivors’ rivals at the center of power also fell. As in a forest, this opened up the niche and so the niche was filled by those who remained, with what remained, in the time that remains. Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are therefore examples of national (?) life continuing after national death.

This traumatic, horrifying, and perhaps hopeful process forces both traditions into an especially acute and complex negotiation between categories that are, in some sense, invented because of these catastrophes: nationality, religious faith, law, ethics. Because of this historical process, the concepts of ethos and ethnos, like religion and governance, are divided like day and night. As much as anything, Judaism and Christianity’s fraught negotiations of national life after national death give us these conceptual divisions in the first place, as they (the peoples and the concepts) have been torn open.

After Constantine, Christianity comes to live a kind of national life after its national life after death, and through the founding of the modern of state of Israel Rabbinic Judaism does the same. But are either of these the real resurrection, or are each of them more of a loss, a false resurrection? What is it to gain the world, or a piece of it, and lose your soul? And so these negotiations continue, despite our attempts to conceptually distinguish things like ethos and ethnos. Conceptually disambiguated in these stubborn Mosaic tears, the situation is still ambiguous after all these years. Faith then becomes a pun for the ages, especially our own. Is the faith of Abraham the covenant faithfulness that builds governments, or is it the private opinion that is excluded from government, at least in the Weberian sense of government as a legitimated monopoly on violence? Yes, faith holds both. But in our context faith is mostly the first, which is why some faiths can hold space for private opinion and probing discourse: only fundamentally non-violent and non-coercive faiths can fully enable the development of personal agency and image-bearing, which in time is substituted for a privatization of faith, which can then be warped into the notion that religious faith must be banished from the public sphere. To this, we need to reply by clarifying again that “faith” as “private opinion” cannot hold the line for a liberal and pluralistic society, and instead we need to remember that the second sense of faith must be held in the first like night is held in day. Liberality in thought can’t be established by banning faith from the public sphere, but can only be preserved on the basis of deep and public faithfulness to non-coercive covenants.

So it makes good apocalyptic sense, in terms of ancient and modern reading, to close our reflections on the end of life by setting Matthew’s grand summation next to Torah’s. In the end, each reaches its end by summing up a life. This will let us give both of them their due honor.

Here is the death of Moses in Dt 34:1–12, from Robert Alter’s beautiful translation. I’ve also included some of Alter’s illuminating footnotes, selected for relevance to our discussion, along with their original verse note numbers.

And Moses went up¹ from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which faces Jericho. And the Lord let him see all the land, from the Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the Hinder Sea, and the Negeb, and the plain of the Valley of Jericho, town of the palm trees, as far as Zoar.

And the Lord said to him, “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘To your seed I will give it.’⁴ I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And Moses, the Lord’s servant, died there in the land of Moab by the word of the Lord.⁵ And he was buried in the glen in the land of Moab opposite Beth-Peor, and no man has known his burial place to this day. And Moses was one hundred and twenty years old⁷ when he died. His eye had not grown bleary and his sap had not fled. And the Israelites keened for Moses in the steppes of Moab thirty days, and the days of keening in mourning for Moses came to an end.

And Joshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him, and the Israelites heeded him and did as the Lord had charged Moses. But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, with all the signs and the portents sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land and with all the strong hand and with all the great fear that Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.¹²

[1] And Moses went up. He of course has to go up to reach the mountaintop from where he will see the grand panorama of the land which he will not enter. The action of ascent, however, also signals the trajectory of Moses’ life: he is born in the Nile Valley, first encounters God in the burning bush on a mountain, returns from his mission in Egypt to that same mountain to receive the call there, and now dies on the mountaintop.

[4] the land that I swore to Abraham. This final mention of the promise to the forefathers links the end of Deuteronomy with the beginning of the Patriarchal narrative in Genesis.

[5] by the word of the Lord. The literal sense of this idiom, repeatedly used elsewhere in the Torah, is “by the mouth of the Lord,” i.e., by divine decree. But the use of “mouth” encouraged the Midrash to imagine here a “death by a kiss” (mitat neshiqah), the ultimate favor granted to the righteous leader.

[7] one hundred and twenty years old. This is, of course, the typological number for the extreme limit of a human life (see Genesis 6:3, which first sets this limit), based on the Mesopotamian sexegesimal numerical system. Several eminent rabbinic sages are given biographies that divide their lives into three large periods of forty (another formulaic number), and some commentators have suggested that such a division may also be implied in the life of Moses: forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian until his return to Egypt, forty years as leader of Israel in the wilderness.

[12] with all the signs … to all his servants and to all his land, and with all the strong hand … before the eyes of all Israel. It is fitting that the Book of Deuteronomy concludes with one last instance of the grand sweeping sentences that are characteristic of its style, here running from the beginning of verse 10 to the end of verse 12. The final flourish flaunts the anaphora of “all” to convey the comprehensiveness of Moses’s epic undertaking: he executed all the signs that God had directed him to do, made all their spectacular effects manifest to all Pharoah’s servants in all the land of Egypt before the eyes of all Israel. It is beautifully apt that the last words of the book should be le’eyney kol-yisrae’el, “before the eyes of all Israel,” for these words pick up the strong rhetoric of witnessing that has informed the book. The claims of the book on the sense of history and the religious loyalty of its audience are founded on Israel’s having witnessed God’s great portents in the formative experience of national liberation. The envisaged result of that experience is a unified nation sharing the legacy of its supreme prophet “all Israel”, the concluding words of the book.

The end of the Torah and the end of Matthew have plenty of similarities, often remarked. Each account ends with the end of its protagonist’s life. Both relay life stories that can be told in terms of mountains and valleys: their beginnings in the fertile Nile or the House of Bread, their mountain covenants, their encounters with God’s presence on mountains, their deaths in nameless graves that can’t be visited, and so on. Moses rests in that nameless valley. The followers of Jesus meet him on that nameless hill, and in time they come to enter into his rest, which is to say his reign, each eighth day. May we all rest together in the vale of Abraham, for those of us given a time to rest before the beasts all fall at last.

The life of Moses was utterly full to the explicit, post-olamic limit set by Eden. 120 years. The life of Jesus is cut enormously short, but crashes through that limit and so carries the narrative into the coming life. Both lives end in exhortations to covenant faithfulness as they engage the covenantally-related theme of witness, because recalling the great deeds of God is the paradigmatic encouragement to continued faithfulness. Even in hardship. Especially in hardship. This then leads both into their own “alls”: the “all” of Matthew’s Jesus is like the “all” of Moses, but more encompassing in terms of the lives (at various scales, but especially national) that they are said to hold. We might dare to conceptually proceed back up through the systems here, but we can’t forget that these concepts are impossibly far from the work itself. In holding all the lives the Aion mediates time to us from the aidios, through Himself, and into our many aionic aions. We could go on. The comparison and contrast that emerges between the texts is the real text, the invisible and extensive text that gives rise to both Jewish and Christian commentary traditions in time. This is how this sort of literature is meant to function.

For our purposes today, we only need to gesture toward these olamic hills and fields and valleys of meaning. At the end of the day, for all of our purposeful wandering, this is really just an analysis and reflection on “aion”. At least that’s all it will have been, when all is said and done. The text gave me a seed, and so I’ve shown you some of the fields it will hold in time. But now I’d just like to give “lifetime” back to you in its simplicity, as much as that can be done. So the thing to say is this: the parallel between Jesus and Moses that matters the most here is the simplest and most general one. Both accounts are the accounts of lifetimes. They’re biographical in character, and so they both end with the end of their subjects’ lives. Both ends are nuanced and tragic and joyful summations that bring together the many complex elements of their central teachers’ lives. As Josephus ends his Antiquities by boasting (understandably) about the great synteleia he has accomplished in his work, Torah and Matthew each draw to their close with the synteleia of an aion. Because we are dealing with exemplary teachers, their aions are the work that is ultimately centered.

So what have we learned about “aion” and its use in this Genesis of Jesus, which ends perfectly with “the synteleia of the aion”? Here, I’ll take the opportunity to step out of the more confident and less caveated mode that I’ve sometimes adopted here in order to state my own conclusion precisely and minimally.

We have learned that if we read “aion” as “lifetime” in Matthew, it finds many meaningful points of contact with the surrounding text every time. In a word, the meaning of “lifetime” makes our readings far more consilient.

Still, the depth of this consilience isn’t immediately apparent to every English speaker. The key enabling insight here is that after Plato, “aion” is stretched to the scale of the universal living cosmos, because it also describes its lifetime. And having been stretched to that scale, it is able to hold the smaller lifetimes of the sun and stars and moon, and the closely related angels and nations, and through them it can hold our lives and the lives of all the plants and animals, too. This also opens up deep considerations of intergenerational processes, especially in the common associations that develop between aion and olamic phrases by virtue of the LXX. So with a bit of practice and permission we can grasp this and use the language intuitively in English, as I’ve shown here. However, as a matter of historical reconstruction we should still wonder: do we have permission to use this language this way in the context of the Gospels, if we are trying to get at plausible original readings? The historical reconstruction here has shown that we do have that permission. Yes, Matthew may well have used the language in the same life-giving, life-filled and ultimately life-affirming way that we have come to adopt “aion” into English here.

Does this then mean that “lifetime” is the proper translation and meaning of “aion” in Matthew? Have I slain the wicked translation of “age” at last, and must the lamestream translation tradition bow before my epic victory in the battle for the word? No. I’m not after revolution. I’m more interested in the subtle turnings, fast or slow, that truly bring things around right. I’m here to continue the tradition of that maternal Aufhebung that Keizer accomplishes with respect to Ramelli. This is my loving, and admittedly amateur, imitation of the work of the professionals. That is to say, the revolution that interests me is the kind that happens when a mother picks up a crying child, tips them over gently, and the child nurses.

And so everyone is welcome to their age, whether they’re a child or an adult lifting a child, or are sailing off to the West. After all, your age is held in your lifetime, and Age is therefore also held in Lifetime, not crushed beneath its weight. And yes, I understand that I’m punning with the ages here, with “age” as a person’s age and “age” as an indefinitely long period of time. This larger “age” is often what people hear when the word is used in the New Testament, and it is often understood within some kind of succession of ages, each age presumably longer than a life, not shorter. In this sense, “age” is the opposite of “age” and I’m using or abusing this fact to spin your head around. This brings its various tears: those of pain, those of laughter, those in the Earth and in the Temple’s curtain. After all, the Word itself is torn. Furious and serious, funny and strange, reconciled and not, the punning is very much the point.

Or to explore the previous paragraph in a way that is more clear and minimal and staid: translation is hard. English lacks its correspondences with Greek, which lacks its correspondences with Hebrew. To get to this level of reflection on the text will always require the slow and careful turning of words and sentences and networks of phrases in our minds. It has to be an exercise in both comparison and contrast between parallels that are connected, but differentiated. Because of this necessity, the elements of wise relationships between people and peoples can also be learned by reflecting on the relationships between words and languages: difference should be loved and respected, and this doesn’t prevent connection, but is in fact what makes connection possible. Without differentiation, connection is replaced with an oppressive and false identity which cannot be connection. The texts of the New Testament are themselves linguistically fascinating, in part, because they arise in a context of profound cultural mediation and translation, and so at their most basic level they always already invite us to think about the fundamental and irresolvable difficulties of translation itself. These are generative and beautiful difficulties. They are the difficulties of all language, and of life.

So the real point isn’t about replacing “age” in the English translation of the New Testament, or not. Instead, the point is to appreciate this as part of that word’s own history in English, which is part of the Word’s own history with English. This history necessarily reflects the fragility and contingency that makes it perceivable to contingent and fragile creatures like us. It is the fragility of the vulnerable, which is visible when someone cries, and which is visible when life is torn from each creature that dies. Translation must always hold together the assurance of an embrace with the freedom to fail: it must always hold together connection and division, and so it must always attend to the play and flexibility in language on both sides of the divide. So we should notice that in English, “age” can indicate something that is presumably held in a lifetime and which must therefore be smaller than it, even as it can also indicate something that is presumably greater than a generation in total length. It is only this ambiguity that makes it a suitable partner for “aion” and “olam”, which are each redeemed by their own ambiguity as well.

So in general, I think there are real and profound advantages to the translation of “lifetime” in many places in Matthew, and I’m happy to go to bat for my perspective based on this careful analysis of consilience in context and cotext. At the same time, these problems really are deeply underdetermined, and the line between “age” and “lifetime” is rather fine. So I also respect those who might want to argue for other translations.

In a sense, puns and translations are opposites, and so they are bound deeply to each other. A pun works with the multiple meanings of a single word, usually within a single language, while translation involves saying a Hail Mary and hoping that two words from two different matrices of meaning will converge, by some miracle, on a single meaning. So to understand a pun you need to hear both things to know the third that is born from them, and to understand a translation you need to do this, too. This is the underlying unity that makes their ‘oppositeness’ possible in the first place. So ultimately the reflection on the two-ness of translation is itself necessary to translation. So two-ness, the parallelism that structures the Scriptures at every scale, belongs to the tradition of scriptural commentary as much as reflection on language at any other scale. Everything is readable because everything is doubled at the level of the morpheme and word and sentence and paragraph and pericope and narrative and book and book of books and genre and body of literature and even Literature and Art and Creation, with its Light and Dark. This reflection on individual words is itself an irreducible aspect of the hermeneutical spiral that is always unveiling and veiling as we turn in its dance, and this is how it must be if the Word can also be fully God. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

With that, I’ve set my five little pebbles, rough and uneven, alongside the ten smooth stones. We can only hope that some tiny, antlike Goliath will fall by them.

And now my infinitesimal Aufhebung of a single seedlike word is finished.

But as with Matthew this ending falls in the middle of the work, even if it will be with us in the end of the ends, too.

Or in the silent and immortal words of the Black Eyed Peas:

Welcome, this is the beginning
For every ending is mega starter
When they bring the dark we bring the light
Lets go

On to other words and other days.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 382–383.

[2] The dating of James is highly uncertain, but it lacks much early attestation. Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle of James, ed. G. I. Davies and C. M. Tuckett, International Critical Commentary (New York; London; New Delhi; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), 31–32.)

[3] Willoughby C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew, International Critical Commentary, 137.

[4] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament, 5.

[5] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 423–424.

[6] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 541.

[7] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 184.

βρυγμός, οῦ, ὁ (Eupolis [V B.C.] 347; Hippocr., περὶ διαίτης 6 p. 634 [3, 84]) gnashing of teeth striking together (Galen, Glossar. Hippocr. XIX p. 90 K. βρυγμός· ὁ ἀπὸ τ. ὀδόντων συγκρουομένων ψόφος; s. also Erotian [I A.D.], Vocum Hippocraticarum Coll. ed. ENachmanson 1918 p. 28, 9; 29, 4; Anecd. Gr. 30, 28; Hesych.; Suda. — Pr 19:12; Sir 51:3), ὁ β. τῶν ὀδόντων chattering or gnashing of the teeth Mt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk 13:28 (always w. κλαυθμός). — Chattering of teeth because of cold: Sallust. 19 p. 34, 22 souls are being punished in τόποι ψυχροί. Cp. Plut., Mor. 567c; ApcPl 42. — Grinding of teeth because of pain: Quint. Smyrn. 11, 206. — DELG s.v. βρύκω. M-M. TW.

βρύχω impf. ἔβρυχον; fut. 3 sg. βρύξει; 1 aor. 3 sg. ἔβρυξεν LXX to grind one’s teeth, gnash, a sign of violent rage (Theodor. Prodr. 5, 49 H.) τοὺς ὀδόντας ἐπʼ αὐτόν they gnashed their teeth against him Ac 7:54 (cp. Lex. Vind. p. 34, 5 βρύχει τ. ὀδόντας ἄνθρωπος, βρυχᾶται δὲ λέων=humans gnash their teeth, lions roar; Job 16:9; Ps 34:16; 36:12; SibOr 2, 203; Hippocr., 8 p. 16 [Mul. 1, 2], Epid. 5, 86 and other medical wr. [Hobart 208] of chattering of the teeth in chills and fevers). The expression may also be intended as metaph. become enraged (so NRSV with others, unless the translators are thinking in terms of functional equivalence). — Frisk.

[8] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 379.

[9] For further discussion see Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 820.

[10] Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2022),16.

Actually, though, many of Maximus’s statements about our final union with God verge far nearer to Origenist than Thomist views. And yet if Maximus holds that our eschatological identity with God is also God’s kenotic and personal identity with us, how can he avoid the Origenist error of finally obliterating created hypostases? I attempt a retort to this question first and then conclude that Maximus’s cosmology follows Pauline ecclesiology; for Maximus Christ’s Body is (potentially) both church and world. Here “analogy” assumes altogether jarring senses different from those one often encounters in much modern theology. Here it implies a God-world symmetry grounded in their hypostatic identity (as with Christ’s natures).

[11] Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014)

[12] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 561–563.

κόσμος, ου, ὁ (Hom.+)

① that which serves to beautify through decoration, adornment, adorning (Hom.+; Diod S 20, 4, 5 τῶν γυναικῶν τὸν κόσμον; OGI 531, 13; SIG 850, 10; IMaronIsis 41; PEleph 1, 4; PSI 240, 12 γυναικεῖον κόσμον; LXX; TestJud 12:1; JosAs 2:6 al.; Philo, Migr. Abr. 97 γυναικῶν κ.; Jos., Ant. 1, 250; 15, 5; Just., A II, 11, 4f) of women’s attire, etc. ὁ ἔξωθεν … κόσμος external adorning 1 Pt 3:3 (Vi. Hom. 4 of the inward adornment of a woman, beside σωφροσύνη; Crates, Ep. 9; Pythag., Ep. 11, 1; Plut., Mor. 141e; on the topic of external adornment cp. SIG 736, 15–26).

② condition of orderliness, orderly arrangement, order (Hom. et al.; s. HDiller, Die vorphilosophische Gebrauch von κ. und κοσμεῖν: BSnell Festschr., ’56, 47–60) μετὰ κόσμου in order Dg 12:9 (text uncertain; s. μετακόσμιος).

③ the sum total of everything here and now, the world, the (orderly) universe, in philosophical usage (so, acc. to Plut., Mor. 886b, as early as Pythagoras; certainly Heraclitus, Fgm. 66; Pla., Gorg. 508a, Phdr. 246c; Chrysipp., Fgm. 527 v. Arnim κόσμος σύστημα ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς καὶ τῶν ἐν τούτοις περιεχομένων φύσεων. Likew. Posidonius in Diog. L. 7, 138; Ps.-Aristot., De Mundo 2 p. 391b, 9ff; 2 and 4 Macc; Wsd; EpArist 254; Philo, Aet. M. 4; Jos., Ant. 1, 21; Test12Patr; SibOr 7, 123; AssMos Fgm. b Denis [=Tromp p. 272]; Just., A I, 20, 2 al.; Ath. 19, 2 al.; Orig., C. Cels. 4, 68, 14; Did., Gen. 36, 7; 137, 13.—The other philosoph. usage, in which κ. denotes the heaven in contrast to the earth, is prob. without mng. for our lit. [unless perh. Phil 2:15 κ.=‘sky’?]). ἡ ἀέναος τοῦ κ. σύστασις the everlasting constitution of the universe 1 Cl 60:1 (cp. OGI 56, 48 εἰς τὸν ἀέναον κ.). Sustained by four elements Hv 3, 13, 3. πρὸ τοῦ τὸν κ. εἶναι before the world existed J 17:5. ἀπὸ καταβολῆς [κόσμου] from the beginning of the world Mt 13:35; 25:34; Lk 11:50; Hb 4:3; 9:26; Rv 13:8; 17:8. Also ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς κ. Mt 24:21 or ἀπὸ κτίσεως κ. Ro 1:20.—B 5:5 ἀπὸ καταβ. κ. evidently means at the foundation of the world (s. Windisch, Hdb. ad loc.). πρὸ καταβολῆς κ. before the foundation of the world J 17:24; Eph 1:4; 1 Pt 1:20 (on the uses w. καταβολή s. that word, 1). οὐδὲν εἴδωλον ἐν κ. no idol has any real existence in the universe (Twentieth Century NT) 1 Cor 8:4. Of the creation in its entirety 3:22. ὁ κόσμος ὅλος = πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις (Sallust. 21 p. 36, 13; TestSol 5:7; TestJob 33:4) Hs 9, 2, 1; 9, 14, 5. φωστῆρες ἐν κόσμῳ stars in the universe Phil 2:15 (s. above). Esp. of the universe as created by God (Epict 4, 7, 6 ὁ θεὸς πάντα πεποίηκεν, τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ καὶ αὐτὸν τὸν κόσμον ὅλον; Wsd 9:9; 2 Macc 7:23 ὁ τοῦ κ. κτίστης; 4 Macc 5:25; Just., A I, 59, 1 al.; Ath. 8, 2 al.) ὁ ποιήσας τὸν κ. who has made the world Ac 17:24. ὁ κτίστης τοῦ σύμπαντος κ. 1 Cl 19:2; ὁ κτίσας τὸν κ. Hv 1, 3, 4; cp. m 12, 4, 2. ὁ τοῦ παντὸς κ. κυριεύων B 21:5. οὐδʼ εἶναι τὸν κόσμον θεοῦ ἀλλὰ ἀγγέλων AcPlCor 1:15. Christ is called παντὸς τοῦ κ. κύριος 5:5; and the κ. owes its origin to his agency J 1:10b. The world was created for the sake of the church Hv 2, 4, 1.—The universe, as the greatest space conceivable, is not able to contain someth. (Philo, Ebr. 32) J 21:25.

④ the sum total of all beings above the level of the animals, the world, as θέατρον ἐγενήθημεν (i.e. οἱ ἀπόστολοι) τῷ κόσμῳ καὶ ἀγγέλοις καὶ ἀνθρώποις 1 Cor 4:9. Here the world is divided into angels and humans (cp. the Stoic definition of the κόσμος in Stob., Ecl. I p. 184, 8 τὸ ἐκ θεῶν καὶ ἀνθρώπων σύστημα; likew. Epict 1, 9, 4.—Acc. to Ocellus Luc. 37, end, the κ. consists of the sphere of the divine beyond the moon and the sphere of the earthly on this side of the moon).

⑤ planet earth as a place of inhabitation, the world (SIG 814, 31 [67 A.D.] Nero, ὁ τοῦ παντὸς κόσμου κύριος; the meaning of the birthday of Augustus for the world OGI 458, 40 [=IPriene 105]; 2 Macc 3:12; Jos., Ant. 9, 241; 10, 205; Orig., C. Cels. 4, 68)

ⓐ gener. Mk 16:15. τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κ. Mt 4:8; ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κ. 26:13. Cp. 13:38 (cp. Hs 5, 5, 2); Mk 14:9; Hs 9, 25, 2. τὸ φῶς τοῦ κ. τούτου the light of this world (the sun) J 11:9. In rhetorical exaggeration ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καταγγέλλεται ἐν ὅλῳ τ. κόσμῳ Ro 1:8 (cp. the Egypt. grave ins APF 5, 1913, 169 no. 24, 8 ὧν ἡ σωφροσύνη κατὰ τὸν κ. λελάληται). Abraham as κληρονόμος κόσμου heir of the world 4:13.—Cp. 1 Cor 14:10; Col 1:6. ἡ ἐν τῷ κ. ἀδελφότης the brotherhood in the (whole) world 1 Pt 5:9. ἐγένετο ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ κ. τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν our Lord has assumed the sovereignty of the world Rv 11:15. τὰ ἔθνη τοῦ κ. (not LXX, but prob. rabbinic אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם=humankind apart fr. Israel; Billerb. II 191; Dalman, Worte 144f) the unconverted in the world Lk 12:30. In this line of development, κόσμος alone serves to designate the polytheistic unconverted world Ro 11:12, 15.—Other worlds (lands) beyond the ocean 1 Cl 20:8.—Many of these pass. bear the connotation of

ⓑ the world as the habitation of humanity (as SibOr 1, 160). So also Hs 9, 17, 1f. εἰσέρχεσθαι εἰς τὸν κ. of entrance into the world by being born 1 Cl 38:3. ἐκ τοῦ κ. ἐξελθεῖν leave this present world (Philo, Leg. All. 3, 5 ἔξω τ. κόσμου φεύγειν; s. ἐξέρχομαι 5; cp. Hippol., Ref. 5, 16, 7) 1 Cor 5:10b; 2 Cl 8:3. γεννηθῆναι εἰς τὸν κ. be born into the world J 16:21. ἕως ἐσμὲν ἐν τούτῳ τῷ κ. 2 Cl 8:2. οὐδὲν εἰσφέρειν εἰς τὸν κ. (Philo, Spec. Leg. 1, 294 τὸν μηδὲν εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσενηνοχότα) 1 Ti 6:7 (Pol 4:1). πολλοὶ πλάνοι ἐξῆλθον εἰς τὸν κ. 2J 7.—ἐν τῷ κόσμω τούτῳ J 12:25 (κ. need not here be understood as an entity hostile to God, but the transition to the nuance in 7b, below, is signalled by the term that follows: ζωὴν αἰώνιον). ἵνα εἰς κόσμον προέλθῃ AcPlCor 2:6.

ⓒ earth, world in contrast to heaven (Dio Chrys. 19 [36], 59; Iren., 1, 4, 2 [Harv. I 35, 5]; Orig., C. Cels. 8, 15, 24) ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ 2 Cl 19:3.—Esp. when mention is made of the preexistent Christ, who came fr. another world into the κόσμος. So, above all, in John (Bultmann, index I κόσμος) ἔρχεσθαι εἰς τὸν κ. (τοῦτον) J 6:14; 9:39; 11:27; 16:28a; 18:37; specif. also come into the world as light 12:46; cp. 1:9; 3:19. Sending of Jesus into the world 3:17a; 10:36; 17:18; 1J 4:9. His εἶναι ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ J 1:10a; 9:5a; 17:12 v.l. Leaving the world and returning to the Father 13:1a; 16:28b. Cp. 14:19; 17:11a. His kingship is not ἐκ τοῦ κ. τούτου of this world i.e. not derived from the world or conditioned by its terms and evaluations 18:36ab.—Also Χρ. Ἰησοῦς ἦλθεν εἰς τ. κόσμον 1 Ti 1:15; cp. ἐπιστεύθη ἐν κόσμῳ (opp. ἀνελήμφθη ἐν δόξῃ) 3:16.—εἰσερχόμενος εἰς τὸν κ. Hb 10:5.

ⓓ the world outside in contrast to one’s home PtK 3 p. 15, 13; 19.

⑥ humanity in general, the world (TestAbr B 8 p. 113, 11 [Stone p. 74]; ApcEsdr 3:6 p. 27, 14; SibOr 1, 189; Just., A I, 39, 3 al.)

ⓐ gener. οὐαὶ τῷ κ. ἀπὸ τῶν σκανδάλων woe to humankind because of the things that cause people to sin Mt 18:7; τὸ φῶς τοῦ κ. the light for humanity 5:14; cp. J 8:12; 9:5. ὁ σωτὴρ τοῦ κ. 4:42; 1J 4:14 (this designation is found in inscriptions, esp. oft. of Hadrian [WWeber, Untersuchungen z. Geschichte des Kaisers Hadrianus 1907, 225; 226; 229]).—J 1:29; 3:17b; 17:6.—κρίνειν τὸν κ. (SibOr 4, 184; TestAbr A 13 p. 92, 11 [Stone p. 32]; ApcMos 37) of God, Christ J 12:47a; Ro 3:6; B 4:12; cp. Ro 3:19. Of believers 1 Cor 6:2ab (cp. Sallust. 21 p. 36, 13 the souls of the virtuous, together w. the gods, will rule the whole κόσμος). Of Noah διʼ ἧς (sc. πίστεως) κατέκρινεν τὸν κ. Hb 11:7. ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κ. εἰσῆλθεν Ro 5:12; likew. θάνατος εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν κ. 1 Cl 3:4 (Wsd 2:24; 14:14). Cp. Ro 5:13; 1 Cor 1:27f. περικαθάρματα τοῦ κ. the refuse of humanity 4:13. Of persons before conversion ἄθεοι ἐν τῷ κ. Eph 2:12.—2 Cor 1:12; 5:19; Js 2:5; 1J 2:2; 4:1, 3. ἀρχαῖος κόσμος the people of the ancient world 2 Pt 2:5a; cp. vs. 5b; 3:6. Of pers. of exceptional merit: ὧν οὐκ ἦν ἄξιος ὁ κ. of whom the world was not worthy Hb 11:38.—ὅλος ὁ κ. all the world, everybody Ac 2:47 D; 1 Cl 5:7; cp. ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κ. 59:2; εἰς ὅλον τὸν κ. Hs 8, 3, 2. Likew. ὁ κόσμος (cp. Philo, De Prov. in Eus., PE 8, 14, 58) ὁ κ. ὀπίσω αὐτοῦ ἀπῆλθεν J 12:19. ταῦτα λαλῶ εἰς τὸν κ. 8:26; ἐν τῷ κ. 17:13; ἐγὼ παρρησίᾳ λελάληκα τῷ κ. 18:20; cp. 7:4; 14:22. ἵνα γνῷ ὁ κ. 14:31; cp. 17:23; ἵνα ὁ κ. πιστεύῃ 17:21.

ⓑ of all humanity, but especially of believers, as the object of God’s love J 3:16, 17c; 6:33, 51; 12:47b.

⑦ the system of human existence in its many aspects, the world

ⓐ as scene of earthly joys, possessions, cares, sufferings (cp. 4 Macc 8:23) τὸν κ. ὅλον κερδῆσαι gain the whole world Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36; Lk 9:25; 2 Cl 6:2 (cp. Procop. Soph., Ep. 137 the whole οἰκουμένη is an unimportant possession compared to ἀρετή). τὰ τερπνὰ τοῦ κ. the delightful things in the world IRo 6:1. οἱ χρώμενοι τὸν κ. ὡς μὴ καταχρώμενοι those who use the world as though they had no use of it or those who deal with the world as having made no deals with it 1 Cor 7:31a. ἔχειν τὸν βίον τοῦ κ. possess worldly goods 1J 3:17. τὰ τοῦ κόσμου the affairs of the world 1 Cor 7:33f; cp. 1J 2:15f. The latter pass. forms an easy transition to the large number of exprs. (esp. in Paul and John) in which

ⓑ the world, and everything that belongs to it, appears as that which is hostile to God, i.e. lost in sin, wholly at odds w. anything divine, ruined and depraved (Herm. Wr. 6, 4 [the κόσμος is τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς κακίας]; 13, 1 [ἡ τοῦ κ. ἀπάτη], in Stob. p. 428, 24 Sc.; En 48:7; TestIss 4:6; AscIs 3:25; Hdb., exc. on J 1:10; Bultmann ad loc.—cp. Sotades Maronita [III B.C.] 11 Diehl: the κόσμος is unjust and hostile to great men) IMg 5:2; IRo 2:2. ὁ κόσμος οὗτος this world (in contrast to the heavenly realm) J 8:23; 12:25, 31a; 13:1; 16:11; 18:36; 1J 4:17; 1 Cor 3:19; 5:10a; 7:31b; Hv 4, 3, 2ff; D 10:6; 2 Cl 5:1, 5; (opp. ὁ ἅγιος αἰών) B 10:11. ‘This world’ is ruled by the ἄρχων τοῦ κ. τούτου the prince of this world, the devil J 12:31b; 16:11; without τούτου 14:30. Cp. ὁ κ. ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται the whole world lies in the power of the evil one 1J 5:19; cp. 4:4; also ὁ αἰὼν τοῦ κ. τούτου Eph 2:2 (s. αἰών 4).—Christians must have nothing to do with this world of sin and separation fr. God: instead of desiring it IRo 7:1, one is to ἄσπιλον ἑαυτὸν τηρεῖν ἀπὸ τοῦ κ. keep oneself untainted by the world Js 1:27. ἀποφεύγειν τὰ μιάσματα τοῦ κ. 2 Pt 2:20; cp. 1:4 (s. ἀποφεύγω 1).—Pol 5:3. ἡ φιλία τοῦ κ. ἔχθρα τ. θεοῦ ἐστιν Js 4:4a; cp. vs. 4b. When such an attitude is taken Christians are naturally hated by the world IRo 3:3; J 15:18, 19ad; 17:14a; 1J 3:13, as their Lord was hated J 7:7; 15:18; cp. 1:10c; 14:17; 16:20.—Also in Paul: God and world in opposition τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ κ. and τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἐκ θεοῦ the spirit of the world and the spirit that comes fr. God 1 Cor 2:12; σοφία τοῦ κ. and σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ 1:20f. ἡ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη and ἡ τοῦ κ. λύπη godly grief and worldly grief 2 Cor 7:10. The world is condemned by God 1 Cor 11:32; yet also the object of the divine plan of salvation 2 Cor 5:19; cp. 1 Cl 7:4; 9:4. A Christian is dead as far as this world is concerned: διʼ οὗ (i.e. Ἰ. Χρ.) ἐμοὶ κ. ἐσταύρωται κἀγὼ κόσμῳ through Christ the world has been crucified for me, and I have been (crucified) to the world Gal 6:14; cp. the question τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κ. δογματίζεσθε; Col 2:20b. For στοιχεῖα τοῦ κ. Gal 4:3; Col 2:8, 20a s. στοιχεῖον.—The use of κ. in this sense is even further developed in John. The κ. stands in opposition to God 1J 2:15f and hence is incapable of knowing God J 17:25; cp. 1J 4:5, and excluded fr. Christ’s intercession J 17:9; its views refuted by the Paraclete 16:8. Neither Christ himself 17:14c, 16b; 14:27, nor his own 15:19b; 17:14b, 16a; 1J 3:1 belong in any way to the ‘world’. Rather Christ has chosen them ‘out of the world’ J 15:19c, even though for the present they must still live ‘in the world’ 17:11b; cp. 13:1b; 17:15, 18b. All the trouble that they must undergo because of this, 16:33a, means nothing compared w. the victorious conviction that Christ (and the believers w. him) has overcome ‘the world’ vs. 33b; 1J 5:4f, and that it is doomed to pass away 2:17 (TestJob 33:4; Kephal. I 154, 21: the κόσμος τῆς σαρκός will pass away).

⑧ collective aspect of an entity, totality, sum total (SIG 850, 10 τὸν κόσμον τῶν ἔργων (but s. 1 above); Pr 17:6a) ὁ κ. τῆς ἀδικίας ἡ γλῶσσα καθίσταται the tongue becomes (or proves to be) the sum total of iniquity Js 3:6 (so, approx., Meinertz; FHauck.—MDibelius, Windisch and ASchlatter find mng. 7b here, whereas ACarr, Exp. 7th ser., 8, 1909, 318ff thinks of mng. 1). Χρ. τὸν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ παντὸς κόσμου τῶν σῳζομένων σωτηρίας παθόντα Christ, who suffered or died (s. πάσχω 3aα) for the salvation of the sum total of those who are saved MPol 17:2.—FBytomski, D. genet. Entwicklung des Begriffes κόσμος in d. Hl. Schrift: Jahrb. für Philos. und spekul. Theol. 25, 1911, 180–201; 389–413 (only the OT); CSchneider, Pls u. d. Welt: Αγγελος IV ’32, 11–47; EvSchrenck, Der Kosmos-Begriff bei Joh.: Mitteilungen u. Nachrichten f. d. evang. Kirche in Russland 51, 1895, 1–29; RLöwe, Kosmos u. Aion ’35; RBultmann, D. Verständnis v. Welt u. Mensch im NT u. im Griechentum: ThBl 19, ’40, 1–14; GBornkamm, Christus u. die Welt in der urchr. Botschaft: ZTK 47, ’50, 212–26; ALesky, Kosmos ’63; RVölkl, Christ u. Welt nach dem NT ’61; GJohnston, οἰκουμένη and κ. in the NT: NTS 10, ’64, 352–60; NCassem, ibid. 19, ’72/73, 81–91; RBratcher, BT 31, ’80, 430–34.—B. 13; 440. DELG. M-M. EDNT. TW.

[13] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 692-727.

[14] W. von Soden, Jan Bergman, and M. Sæbø, “יוֹם,” ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 7–32.

Yom

Contents: I. Ancient Near East: 1. Akkadian; 2. Egyptian. II. 1. Etymology and Occurrences; 2. Forms and Distribution; 3. Phrases; 4. Related Words and Expressions. III. General Usage: 1. Literal Usage; 2. Extended Usage. IV. Theological Usage: 1. Creation; 2. Cult; 3. History. V. Qumran. VI. LXX.

I. Ancient Near East

1. Akkadian. a. The common Semitic noun yaum, which does not derive from any verbal root, appears in Akkadian as ūmu(m), in Old Akkadian as yūmum. The plural is usually ūmū, rarely the feminine form ūmātu(m). Derivatives include ūmtum/ūndu, “specific day”; ūma(m), “today”; ūmakkal, “(for) one day”; ūmiš, “like the bright day”; ūmišam(ma), and (only Neo-Bab.) ūmussu, “daily”; ūmšu(m), “to this day.” In the sense of “storm,” a meaning not deriving from Proto-Semitic and found only in literary texts, ūmu is a loan translation from Sumerian, where u(d) means both “day” and “storm.” As a term for a mythical lion, ūmu occurs only in lexical lists. A purely poetical synonym is immu(m); urru(m) refers primarily to the dawning day (urra[m], “in the morning, tomorrow”).

b. Not even the lexica can provide a full listing of the tens of thousands of occurrences. A few illustrations must suffice here. As in other Semitic and Indo-European languages, “day” is understood both in contrast to “night” and as a term including both daytime and nighttime, each divided into six double hours (bī/ēru, lit., “interstice”), the length of which depends on the season. As elsewhere, the primary divisions of the day are morning, midday, and evening. “Day” is used in contrast to “night” in the astronomical omen texts and in the astronomical texts of the late period generally; elsewhere this usage is primarily found in literary texts, especially poetry. It is noteworthy that the hymns to Šamaš, the sun-god, who gives light to the darkness, speak only rarely of the bright daytime. In one great hymn, for example, Šamaš is called “illuminator of the day” in one passage but “shortener of the (winter) day” in another. As a result of the intense heat of the summer day, the Babylonians preferred nighttime for many activities, especially marches. Sometimes other gods, for instance Nabû, are called “bright day.” The darkening of the day by storm and rain is ascribed to the storm-god. The even more intense darkness brought about by eclipses of the sun was thought a serious disaster; such eclipses, along with eclipses of the moon, were among the major themes of astrology. Curses occasionally include the wish that someone’s days be darkened.

c. The day in contrast to the night is also involved in the determination of auspicious and inauspicious days, which played a very important role in Babylonia and Assyria. The hemerologies themselves indicate for every day of the month and year what should be undertaken and what should not. Not even cultic acts are recommended for every single day. Generally unfavorable days include the phases of the moon (seventh, fifteenth [šapattu], twenty-second, and twenty-ninth), as well as the nineteenth day, which counted as the forty-ninth day of the preceding month. The omen calendars state the good or evil consequences of specific acts on particular days. Constellations and other ominous occurrences are not equally favorable or unfavorable on all days.

d. Much more often the “day” is a unit of time, e.g., in all kinds of documents. In the cult there were sacrifices and ceremonies to be performed every day, as well as those prescribed only for certain days. We often find ūmu in the sense of “festival,” albeit usually preceding the name of the festival, e.g., ūm akῑti, “New Year’s day”; ūm eššēši, “month festival”; ūm issini, “feast day”; ūm kispi, “day of sacrifice for the dead”; ūm tēlilti, “day of purification”; ūm rimki, “day of ablutions”; etc. But we also find such expressions as “day of the god,” “day of worshipping the god,” and “day of serving the goddess,” as well as “day of wrath,” “day of fate,” etc.

e. Even more frequently than the pl. šanātu(m), “years,” the pl. “days” serves as a term for “time,” in the first instance a lifetime, which the gods can lengthen or shorten. A Neo-Assyrian school tablet containing the terms for the fourth through the ninth decades of life (obviously calculating backward from the end) calls the fifth decade ūmē kurûti, “short days,” and the seventh ūmē arkūti, “long days.” For those who did not look for life after death, long days were a major hope, even though the subsequent stages of šῑbūtu, “old age,” and littūtu, “great old age,” were unattainable for most. “Distant days” (ūmū rūqūtu) or ūm(ū) ṣiātim/ṣâti, “days of distant time,” may lie in the past or future, ūmū ullûtu or later ūmē pāni only in the past. The future is denoted, for example, by such expressions as ūmū dārûtu(m) and warkiāt/arkât ūmῑ and adverbial expressions like aḫriātiš, dāriš, or labāriš ūmῑ, “for later time.” Only rarely do we find in references to an evil fate the expression ina lā ūmῑ-šu, “in his ‘not’ days,” “at a bad time.”

f. Finally, ūmu is used (early in the pl. only, later in the sg.) in the sense of “weather”; cf., e.g., ūmū dannū, “the weather is bad”; kῑ ūmū iṭṭῑbū, “as soon as the weather has improved.”

Von Soden

2. Egyptian. a. Of the Egyptian words for “day,” hrw16 is the most important noun. In dates we find from the Middle Kingdom on the special word św. The word dny.t (ḏny.t) denotes the day of the first and third quarter of the moon, while ʿrḳy means the last day of the month or of the year (in the phrase ʿrḳy rnp.t). In the later period, special names developed for most of the days of the month. For “every day” the expression rʿ nb (lit., “every sun”) is used more often than hrw nb. “Day by day” is hrw ḥr hrw. “Today” is hrw pn or in Late Egyptian p3 hrw. For the formula “by day and night,” we find m hrwm grḥ or grḥ my hrw. The dawn is called ḥḏ-t3, “the brightening of the land” — cf. the verb ḥḏ-t3, “dawn” — and the beginning of the day is wp-hrw.

b. The noun hrw, which derives etymologically from hrw, “be content, calm, happy,” has as its determinative sign a sun. It refers to the day as brightness, the period when the sun shines. But hrw can also stand for “day and night.” The day begins in the morning at or after dawn. Night (grḥ, connected with grh, “cease,” and gr, “be silent”) stands for the other period, between one sun and the next or between yesterday and the morrow. In the calendar the night goes with the preceding day, but in the cult it introduces the coming festival. The date changes at sunrise, and hours are counted from the beginning of the day. Day and night each have twelve hours, which accordingly vary in length with the seasons. A month comprises thirty days. The year with its twelve months totals 360 days, to which are added five intercalary days, “those (days) outside (time).”

c. The observation of time and the determination of each day’s character began early in Egypt. The horoskopoi (“time observers”) of the temples are famous. Hemerologies became popular. From the Middle Kingdom on, we find entries for each day of the month; from the New Kingdom, for each day of the year. The categories are “good” and “bad,” often subdivided more precisely into the three possibilities of “dubious,” “bad,” and “adverse.” Each day usually has three entries, which probably stand for morning, midday, and evening. The nature of the days is often given a mythical explanation, and specific advice (concerning such matters as sacrifice, food, travel, and sexual intercourse) is appended. “On these bad days do not work on grain and clothing; do not begin anything,” we read with reference to the intercalary days, which were of special importance as the birthdays of the five deities Osiris, Seth, Horus, Isis, and Nephthys. Special protective books were composed for guidance during them. Besides the simple names reflecting the birth of the deities (e.g., “Birth of Osiris”), strange terms appear in the New Kingdom (“Nile perch in its pond,” “Child in its nest,” etc.). We are assured: “Whoever knows the names of the intercalary days will neither hunger nor thirst. He will not fall victim to the annual plague. Sachmet has no power over him.” The hemerology of the Egyptians exercised great influence in the ancient world, as the mention of the dies Aegyptica in the calendars of late antiquity attests.

d. Fundamental for the Egyptians was the rhythm of day and night, called the “two times” (tr.wy). The polar formula “day and night” can express totality by merism. The statement “You have power by day, you cause trembling in the night” attests the total sovereignty of the god. The notion of the sun and moon as the two eyes of the god of heaven (e.g., Khenti-Irti) bears witness to a god who moves into day through night in an eternal cycle. The daily renewal of life, based on a conception repeated every night and a rebirth that takes place each day, is the primary theme of the Egyptian hymns to the sun. “Praise to you, arising day by day, bringing yourself forth every morning” — this is the basic tone of the important Egyptian morning worship in the temple. Therefore the god can be addressed: “O lord of the day, who creates the night,” but also: “O lord of the darkness, who creates the light.” More commonly, however, we find a polarity in which light and life appear as positive counterparts to darkness and death. A typical saying of the dead reads: “It is my dread to go forth in the night; I will go forth in the day. I am begotten in the night, but born during the day.” The expression pr.t m hrw, “going forth by day,” is familiar as the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; it expresses the highest yearning of the dead. “The day at its coming forth” appears also as a royal title.

e. The phrase hrw nfr, “good, perfect day,” is very common, and may be translated “festival.” From the Old Kingdom on, it even appears as a personal name,32 possibly because the person in question was born on a festival. The phrase refers to the appropriate time to celebrate festivities and to drink. A hymn to Isis begins thus: “Beautiful day! Heaven and earth rejoice, since Isis gave birth in Chemmis.…” A wonderful description of the “beautiful day,” i.e., well-ordered time, appears in a hymn recited by Thoth during the battle between Horus and Seth.

O beautiful day, when Horus is lord of this land!

O beautiful day on this day, which is divided into its minutes!

O beautiful day in this night, which is divided into its hours!

O beautiful day in this month, which is divided into its fifteen-day periods!

O beautiful day in this year, which is divided into its months!

O beautiful day in this age, which is divided into its years!

O beautiful day of this eternity.…

A love song contains the following variation:

O beautiful day in this night!

Tomorrow we shall say anew, how fresh is the morning!

It is more beautiful than yesterday!

Because it is so beautiful, let us celebrate a very beautiful day!

f. The festival calendars of both the various temples and court of the king include a series of festivals. Several of them have names based on hrw, e.g., “day of the great going forth of Osiris,” “day of the purification of the nonad,” “day of setting up the djed pillar,” “day of the hazard festival.” The great celebrations lasted several days. Under Ramses III, the famous festival of Opet ran for twenty-seven days! In addition, there were various commemorative days in the family sphere: “birthday,” “this day of landing (= death),” “the day of judgment,” etc.

The Egyptians do not speak of a “day of God.” Instead they can speak of “the time of the God” (e.g., Seth) as the culmination of his power. Both persons or gods and natural phenomena have their times, but these are expressed by different words (ʒ.t for persons, tr for natural phenomena).

Bergman

II. The Hebrew noun yôm, “day,” which belongs primarily to everyday language, is very common. It has a wide range of usage, which will here attract most of our attention.40

1. Etymology and Occurrences. The etymology of the word, which is found throughout the Semitic languages, is unexplained. Akk. ūmu, “day,” also has the meaning “storm”; but the extent to which this may cast light on the etymology remains unclear.43 Etymological analysis is even more difficult because the root from which the word is derived is obscure.

Some scholars such as Nöldeke have assumed a biliteral root ym; the majority, however, favor a triliteral ywm. In this case, the pl. yāmîm (*yam-), which diverges from the sg. *yaum, is usually explained as assimilation to the similar word šānîm, “years.” In the individual Semitic languages, however, we find a complex alternation of ym and ywm in the singular, as well as an o vowel in the plural alongside the basic form *yam-; this raises the question of whether this complex situation is not better explained by structural and phonological considerations, but the evidence has not been examined from this perspective. (Sperber47 sees here only a reflection of two different Hebrew dialects.) In this case, however, it would be reasonable to assume that the weak /w/ of a basic form *yaum(u) was elided or contracted. This form was then realized differently in the various languages, in both singular and plural.

From this point of view we need not be surprised at the common pl. yāmîm or other plural forms (yāmîn, Dnl. 12:13; yemôṯ, Dt. 32:7; Ps. 90:15, in each case par. the unusual pl. šenôṯ, “years”), or treat them as “divergent” in comparison to the singular. Because of the linguistic variety on this point, the forms can be understood as different realizations of the single root *yaum(u), whether the variation is between dialects or individual languages.

2. Forms and Distribution. The word group that derives most probably from *yaum(u) does not contain any verbs, but is represented almost exclusively by the subst. yôm, “day.” With 2,304 Hebrew occurrences and 16 Aramaic, it is the fifth most frequent noun in the OT;50 yôm is thus also by far the most common expression of time (in comparison to ʿôlām, “long time,” “eternity,” with 440 Hebrew and 20 Aramaic occurrences, and ʿēṯ, “time,” with 296 occurrences). The only other derivative is the adverbial yômām, “by day,” with 51 occurrences including Nu. 10:34.

Jenni has included in his statistics the disputed passage Isa. 54:9, but without good reason. It is noteworthy that the singular is always written plene except possibly in Jer. 17:11, where the qere form ymyw is usually read. There are weighty arguments against the proposed emendation of ywm in Job 3:8 to ym, “sea,” and the opposite change of ym, “sea,” to ywm in Zec. 10:11. The defectively written plural in Nu. 6:5 is unique.

The singular (1,452 occurrences in Hebrew, 5 in Aramaic) appears in all the books of the OT; it is especially common in the historical books, followed by the prophetic books (above all Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Zephaniah and Zechariah) and the Psalms. The plural (847 occurrences in Hebrew, 11 in Aramaic) appears in all the books except Obadiah, Haggai, and the Song of Songs. The dual yômayim/yômāyim (or yōmayim/yōmāyim) appears only 5 times: Ex. 16:29; 21:21; Nu. 9:22; 11:19; Hos. 6:2. There is also a strange plural form with the ending (yāmîmâ) found 5 times: Ex. 13:10; Jgs. 11:40; 21:19; 1 S. 1:3; 2:19. It always follows miyyāmîm, with which it constitutes a fixed adverbial formula meaning “year by year.”

3. Phrases. This formal survey has contributed little to the meaning of yôm/yāmîm/yômām. The semantic content of the words can be seen more directly and more clearly in their various combinations with other words and their extended semantic field, since yôm and yāmîm, and to an extent also yômām, are seldom syntactically independent. They are usually associated closely with another word or word element, more frequently than as subject (182 times) or as object (81 times). The compound expressions are multiform and can express various shades of meaning.

a. The repetition of the indefinite sg. yôm yôm, “daily,” expresses distribution (e.g., Gen. 39:10; possibly also in Ugaritic65). The repeated words can also (esp. in later documents) be linked (yôm wāyôm, Est. 3:4) or expanded by the addition of a preposition (yôm beyôm, Neh. 8:18; expanded in turn to leʿeṯ-yôm beyôm, 1 Ch. 12:23[22]; cf. deḇar-/biḏbar-/liḏbar-yôm beyômô, “as each day requires,” e.g., Ex. 5:13/2 Ch. 8:13/8:14; also leyôm beyôm, 2 Ch. 24:11; cf. keyôm beyôm, “as on every day,” 1 S. 18:10). Similar in meaning is kol-yôm, “every day” (Ps. 140:3[2]), expanded to beḵol-yôm (e.g., Ps. 7:12[11]).

b. As the preceding section has already shown, the word is used frequently with prepositions, as is also true of other words connected with time. The prepositional phrases, some of which appear to be formulaic, usually function adverbially to convey temporal meaning; precise differentiation is often difficult.69 Of 2,304 occurrences of yôm/yāmîm in the Hebrew OT, 1057 (45.9%) involve a preposition (esp. with the singular). The most common is be (as is also true for ʿēṯ), which appears 728 times (68.9%), 590 times with the singular and 138 with the plural. We find ʿaḏ 121 times (7 times weʿaḏ, each time following min to indicate a period of time), le 71 times, ke 76 times (in this context not a comparative particle in the strict sense), and min 66 times. By contrast, yômām is used with a preposition only once: with be in Neh. 9:19.

c. The meaning “day” is more or less weakened when a prepositional phrase with yôm (or occasionally yemê) is itself linked with a verb. The most important usage of this type is beyôm with an infinitive (almost 70 times) as a general indication of time or a temporal conjunction meaning “when,” although the basic meaning “day” need not be totally absent (cf. the important passage Gen. 2:4b following the seven-day schema of creation). Other prepositions than be are also found (ʿaḏ, ke, le, min), as are other forms of the verb (perfect and imperfect). In Lev. 14:57, with the meaning “when” in a noun clause, yôm has lost all trace of the meaning “day.”

d. In addition, important common formulas expressing time are composed of prepositional phrases with yôm (rarely yāmîm) and a demonstrative pronoun. These formulas also have a variety of adverbial meanings.

The formula ʿaḏ-hayyôm hazzeh, “to this day,” “until now,” appears 84 times. It also appears in an abbreviated form (ʿaḏ-hayyôm, “until now,” Gen. 19:38) and an emphatically expanded form (ʿaḏ- ʿeṣem hayyôm hazzeh, “until this very day,” Lev. 23:14; Josh. 10:27; Ezk. 2:3; cf. the corresponding formula beʿeṣem hayyôm hazzeh, which appears 13 times and often in a shorter form). In this formula, the definite sg. hayyôm, which is very frequent (some 350 occurrences) with a variety of meanings, constitutes the semantic focus. The formula ʿaḏ-hayyôm hazzeh thus emphasizes the present status of the narrator (or redactor) or of what is narrated, but also — through the prep. ʿaḏ — the continued existence of a situation into this present. When the prep. min, “from,” also appears, it increases the sense that an important span of time is involved (e.g., Ex. 10:6; Jgs. 19:30; 1 S. 12:2). This formula serves to express the importance of some historical datum for the present, or else to confirm it with the aid of the present (e.g., Dt. 6:24; 10:15; 29:27[28]; 1 K. 3:6; 8:24; elsewhere primarily in Deuteronomy, Deuteronomistic literature, and the Chronicler’s history).

When the formula establishes a connection with an event in the distant past, it sometimes serves to explain a name or a present phenomenon (as in Gen. 26:33; Josh. 7:26; Jgs. 18:12; 2 Ch. 20:26). Under such circumstances, scholars are not agreed as to how to treat the etiological question. Disagreeing with Alt and — with some modification — Noth,81 Childs concludes that this formula “seldom has an etiological function of justifying an existing phenomenon, but in the great majority of cases is a formula of personal testimony added to, and confirming, a received tradition.”83

Another formula, even more important theologically, is bayyôm hahûʾ, “on that day,” which occurs much more frequently than the one just discussed (208 times according to Mandelkern). Of these occurrences, 69 (33%) are in the Deuteronomistic history and 109 (52.4%) in the prophets. Of the latter, 45 are in Isaiah and 17 in Zec. 12–14. The only occurrence in the Psalms is Ps. 146:4. The formula can sometimes be shortened to bayyôm (Jgs. 13:10) or expanded by the addition of prepositional and adverbial elements. In the first instance it denotes a specific point in time, a “day” that can be emphasized (“on the same day”) or reduced to a mere “then.” This affects primarily the use of the formula as an adverb of time in texts referring to the past, in which it can refer to a specific “day” in the past (e.g., Gen. 15:18 [J88]; Ex. 14:30; Josh 9:27), the simultaneity of two events (e.g., Gen. 26:32; Dt. 21:23), or even some future “day” (e.g., Dt. 31:17f.). In future-oriented (primarily prophetic) texts, the formula often gives the impression that the “day” can refer not just to some short period but equally well to a lengthy period of indefinite duration (e.g., Isa. 2:20; 3:18; 4:2; 7:18; Jer. 4:9; Am. 8:3, 9; Zec. 14:6f.), which is otherwise generally expressed by the pl. yāmîm, “days.” Here the formula approaches such similar formulas as bayyāmîm hāhēm(), “in those days” (e.g., Jer. 3:16; 5:18; Zec. 8:6) or bāʿēṯ hahîʾ, “in that time” (e.g., Isa. 20:2; Jer. 3:17; 4:11). Here it also comes close to the special prophetic expression yôm YHWH, “day of Yahweh.” In the prophetic texts, bayyôm hahûʾ appears to be used especially in later strata of tradition and largely for redactional purposes: sometimes to link, sometimes to interpolate passages,95 sometimes to construct a framework (esp. in Zec. 12f.). Without losing its nature as a temporal adverb, the formula thus takes on functions that lend it the character of an “eschatological term”; in later prophetic traditions it became a characteristic of eschatological style.97

Contrary to Gressmann, who attempted to demonstrate that “the expression ‘on that day’ is presupposed as an [eschatological] terminus technicus even before Amos,” Munch seeks to show that the eschatological interpretation is totally unnecessary because the formula can be understood in all contexts as a temporal adverb. Although his view has found general acceptance, a certain one-sidedness in his analysis and his insistence on posing the question as an either/or have been criticized.100 What had been a sharp controversy over this question seems now to have been replaced by a more judicious and nuanced functional description.

e. Semantically important are the genitive phrases defining yôm/yāmîm, which are many and various. In construct phrases the noun appears most frequently as nomen regens (yôm/yemê) but also not uncommonly as nomen rectum (yôm, hayyôm/yāmîm, hayyāmîm) qualified by other nouns or phrases. It can also further define other nouns or circumstances.

As nomen regens, yôm usually refers to a specific day, the nature of which is defined by the following nomen rectum. Either yôm or yemê can be defined more precisely in calendrical terms (e.g., yôm-haḥōḏeš, “day of the new moon,” “first day of the month” [Ex. 40:2]; yôm hakkeseʾ, “day of the full moon” [Prov. 7:20]; [šešeṯ] yemê hamma ʿaśeh, “[six] workdays” [Ezk. 46:1]), a usage especially typical of the cultic sphere (e.g., yôm haššabbāṯ, “day of rest,” “Sabbath” [Ex. 20:8, 11]; yôm môʿēḏ, “festival day,” par. yôm ḥag̱ YHWH, “day of the festival of Yahweh” [Hos. 9:5]; also further defined, e.g., yôm terûʿâ, “day of blowing the trumpets” [Nu. 29:1]; yôm ṣôm, “day of fasting” [Isa. 58:3]).

The nomen rectum can also define the nature of the day meteorologically (e.g., yôm haggešem, “day of rain” [Ezk. 1:28]; yôm haššeleg̱, “day with snow” [2 S. 23:20]; yôm qāḏîm, “day with an east wind” [Isa. 27:8]), with reference to human activities (e.g., yôm qāṣîr, “harvest day” [Prov. 25:13]; yôm milḥāmâ, “day of battle” [Hos. 10:14]; yemê śāḵîr, “days of a hireling” [Job 7:1], “time of service” [Lev. 25:50]; yemêʾēḇel, “days/time of mourning” [Gen. 27:41]) or important events of the past (e.g., yôm ṣēʾṯeḵâ, “the day of your departure [from Egypt]” [Dt. 16:3]; yôm-hammaggēp̱â, “day of the plague” [Nu. 25:18]) or the future (e.g., Isa. 22:5; Jer. 46:10; Zeph. 1:15f.; and other passages referring to the day of Yahweh). Historical events are also involved when the nomen rectum is a proper name, whether geographical (yôm miḏyān, “day of Midian” [Isa. 9:3[4]; cf. Jgs. 7:9ff.]; yôm yerûšāla[y]im, “day of Jerusalem” [Ps. 137:7; cf. Lam. 2:16, 21; 4:18, 21f.; also yôm yizreʿʾel, “day of Jezreel” [Hos. 2:2(1:11)]; yôm massâ, “day of Massah” [Ps. 95:8]) or personal (yemê dāwiḏ, “days of David” [2 S. 21:1, with reference to David’s reign]), or divine (above all in the prophetical expression yôm YHWH, “day of Yahweh,” with reference to God’s future intervention in history).

In more general terms, the noun can also be connected with something negative (for either the community as a whole or an individual, e.g., yôm ʾêḏ, “day of calamity” [Dt. 32:35; Prov. 27:10]; yôm ṣārâ, “day of distress” [Gen. 35:3; Ob. 12]; yôm rāʿâ, “day of trouble” [Ps. 27:5]) or something positive (yôm ṭôḇâ, “day of prosperity” [Eccl. 7:14, in contrast to “day of adversity”]). With respect to a particular individual, it can be used in the sense of “birth” (e.g., yôm hulleḏeṯ [Gen. 40:20; cf. also Hos. 2:5(3); Eccl. 7:1] or just yômô, “his day,” i.e., the day of his birth [Job 3:1]) or “death” (yôm hammāweṯ [Eccl. 7:1]; yôm môṯô, “day of his death” [Jer. 52:34] or just yômô, “his day,” i.e., the day of his death [1 S. 26:10]). The plural construct (yemê), usually linked with ḥayyîm, “life,” can denote the life span of an individual.

As nomen regens, yôm (more than 20 times) or yemê (3 times: Lev. 13:46; Nu. 6:5; 9:18; otherwise absolute [12 times]) can also be qualified by a subordinate clause with ʾašer (3 times with še-). The qualification is usually historical, the subordinate clause naming the event that marks the particular day (e.g., the exodus [Dt. 9:7], the occupation [Dt. 27:2], or the laying of the cornerstone of the temple [Hag. 2:18]; with reference to God, the day of creation [Dt. 4:32] or the coming day of intervention [Mal. 3:17, 21(4:3)]). The reference can also be personal, as when Jeremiah curses the day of his birth (Jer. 20:14; cf. Job 3:3). In some passages, even the sg. yôm goes beyond “day” and means something like “time”; this meaning is clear in the passages with the plural. Nevertheless, the phrase yemê/(hay)yāmîm ʾašer always represents no more than the conj. “as long as” (cf. Lev. 13:46).

As nomen rectum, yôm can be used to qualify other words, e.g., in the phrase genuḇtî yôm, “stolen by day” (Gen. 31:39; cf. also the strange form berîṯî hayyôm, “my covenant with the day” [Jer. 33:20]). It can also qualify other words having to do with time, e.g., beʿereḇ yôm, “in the eve of the day” (Prov. 7:9). The temporal qualification can become spatial when travel and distance are involved, as in dereḵ yôm, “a day’s journey” (Nu. 11:31; 1 K. 19:4). The singular can also sometimes be used in the extended sense of a human lifetime, e.g., Job 30:25, where qešēh-yôm, “one whose day is hard,” stands in parallel to ʾeḇyôn, “poor.” But an extended period of time is more usually expressed by the pl. (hay)yāmîm (cf. also such idioms as ʿûl yāmîm, “an infant a few days old” [Isa. 65:20]; (le)ʾōreḵ yāmîm, “length of days,” “as long as I live” [Ps. 21:5(4); 23:6; mērôḇ yāmîm, “after many days” [Isa. 24:22]), especially with respect to human life. The formulaic expression beʾ aḥarîṯ hayyāmîm is generally used in the sense “time to come” (e.g., Gen. 49:1), then the “future” and the “end of time” (e.g., Isa. 2:2/Mic. 4:1; Hos. 3:5; Ezk. 38:16; Dnl. [2:28;] 10:14).

The construct phrase can sometimes be broken down and represented by the prep. le, even when yôm is nomen regens (yôm leYHWH [Ezk. 30:3; cf. Isa. 2:12; 34:8; in Zec. 14:1 in the context of the verb bôʾ often used in connection with yôm or yāmîm).

f. Closer to the genitive qualification is the relatively rare qualification by an attributive adjective, as in such formulas as (ke)yôm tāmîm, “(about) a whole day” (Josh. 10:13, as a measure of time, “the bright portion of the day”), or yôm ṭôḇ, “a good [happy] day” (1 S. 25:8; also Est. 8:17; 9:19, 22), as descriptive of a festival (cf. mōʿaḏîm ṭôḇîm, “cheerful feasts” [Zec. 8:19]). There are also negative expressions like yôm ʾānûš, “day of disaster” (Jer. 17:16; cf. v. 17), yôm rāʿ, “evil day” (Am. 6:3), and yôm mar, “bitter day” (Am. 8:10), in the sense of a day of disaster for the people. The connection with the yôm YHWH is clear; it is also called “bitter” or gāḏôl, “great,” or described predicatively as being qārôḇ, “near” (Zeph. 1:7, 14; cf. Ezk. 7:7).

g. As one might expect, a word like yôm or yāmîm appears relatively often with numbers, especially to indicate a date. Events may be dated (e.g., Ex. 16:1), as may prophetic revelations (e.g., Hag. 1:1). Above all, however, in cultic and legal contexts we find references to the “seventh day” of the week and other times of festival (e.g., Gen. 2:2; Nu. 28f.; Josh. 5:10; 1 K. 12:32f.). In these cases, the word yôm can sometimes be omitted (e.g., Hag. 2:1, 10 and in the statements in Ezekiel concerning revelations). In 1 S. 27:1, yôm-ʾeḥāḏ means simply “one [indefinite] day”; elsewhere (be)yôm ʾeḥāḏ is an adverbial phrase indicating a particular day or simultaneity (cf., e.g., Gen. 27:45; Lev. 22:28; 1 K. 20:29; Isa. 9:13[14]; Zec. 14:7 is unique). In 5 passages, yō/yômayim is used for “two days.”

4. Related Words and Expressions. a. Strictly speaking, the opposite of yôm is → לילה/ליל layil/laylâ, “night” (233 occurrences). The two words, however, often constitute an hendiadys denoting a 24-hour “day” (yôm wālaylâ, “day and night,” or adverbially “by day and night” [e.g., Gen. 8:22; Isa. 28:19; also with yômām instead of yôm, e.g., Ex. 13:21] or in the opposite order with the same meaning laylâ wāyôm [e.g., 1 K. 8:29]), which can also be expressed by yôm alone (e.g., when counting days, as in šelōšeṯ yāmîm, “three days” [Est. 4:16], or in the distributive phrase yôm yôm, “day by day,” “daily”). It is therefore appropriate to call “night” the “correlate of day.”

b. In addition, yôm also appears with a series of other words relating to time, often to complete the sense. It can be used, for example, with the terms designating the nearest days to the present: ʾeṯmôl, “yesterday” (yôm ʾeṯmôl [Ps. 90:4]), and māḥār, “tomorrow” (yôm māḥār [e.g., Prov. 27:1]; cf. hayyôm ûmāḥār, “today and tomorrow” [Ex. 19:10]; bayyôm hāʾaḥēr, “next day” [2 K. 6:29]), or with words referring to distant times, as in the expressions yemê qeḏem, “days of old” (e.g., Isa. 23:7; Mic. 7:20 [cf. yāmîm miqqeḏem (Ps. 77:6[5]), and yāmîm qaḏmônîm, “former days” (Ezk. 38:17), and yemê ʿôlām, “days of the past” (e.g., Am. 9:11; Mic. 5:1(2) [cf. yemôṯ ʿôlām (Dt. 32:7)]), which relate to the past (cf. the general expression yāmîm riʾšōnîm, “former days” [e.g., Dt. 4:32]). Other expressions refer to the future (e.g., leʾōreḵ yāmîm and beʾaḥarîṯ hayyāmîm) or its conclusion (e.g., leqēṣ hayyāmîn, “at the end of days” [Dnl. 12:13]; cf. ʿēṯ-qēṣ, “time of the end” [e.g., Dnl. 8:17]).

c. We also find yôm associated (often pleonastically) with terms for divisions of time such as šāḇûaʿ, “week” (e.g., šelōšâ šāḇuʿîm yāmîm, “for three weeks” [Dnl. 10:2f.]), ḥōḏeš, “month” (e.g., ḥōḏeš yāmîm, “for a month” [e.g., Gen. 29:14]; cf. yeraḥ yāmîm [e.g., Dt. 21:13]), and šānâ, “year” (e.g., yemê šānâ, “days of the year” [Job 3:6]; šenāṯayim yāmîm, “two full years” [e.g., Gen. 41:1]).

The parts of the day themselves are expressed by related words like → בקר bōqer, “morning” (214 occurrences), ṣohorayim, “midday” (23 occurrences), and ʿereḇ, “evening” (134 occurrences), not sharply differentiated. The phrase bên hāʿarbayim, “between the evenings” (Ex. 12:6, plus 10 other occurrences in Exodus and Numbers), probably means “at dusk.” Sometimes yôm can be replaced by words of this sort (cf. the circumlocution ʿereḇ bōqer, “evening morning,” for “day” [Dnl. 8:14]) or be linked with one of them (e.g., beʿereḇ yôm, “in the evening of the day,” benešep̱, “at dusk” [Prov. 7:9]). More frequently, however, yôm is connected with other more descriptive words (e.g., beyôm ʾôr, “bright day,” “broad daylight” [Am. 8:9]; ḥōm hayyôm, “the heat of the day” [e.g., Gen. 18:1]; ʿaḏ-neḵôn hayyôm, “until full day” [Prov. 4:18]; min-hāʾôr ʿaḏ-maḥaṣîṯ hayyôm, “from light to the half of the day,” i.e., “from morning to midday” [Neh. 8:3]; reḇiʿîṯ hayyôm, “quarter of the day” [Neh. 9:3]).

d. Finally, we must mention certain passages where the pl. yāmîm takes the place of šānâ, the usual word for “year” (876 occurrences). Thus tequp̱ôṯ hayyāmîm (1 S. 1:20) alternates with teqûp̱aṯ haššānâ (Ex. 34:22; 2 Ch. 24:23) to designate the “turning of (the days of) the year” (cf. also miqqēṣ yāmîm layyāmim, “at the end of each year” [2 S. 14:26]). Annual repetition is probably also meant by the phrase zeḇaḥ hayyāmîm, “yearly sacrifice” (e.g., 1 S. 1:21). More general in sense are the expressions miyyāmîm yāmîmâ137 and layyāmîm, “annually” (Jgs. 17:10; cf. also 1 S. 27:7; 29:3).

III. General Usage. This survey of the forms of yôm/yāmîm together with its phrases and semantic field has brought to light its wide range of usage. The formal and syntactic manifestations of the singular and plural have been seen to be analogous, so that it is not necessary to treat the singular and plural separately. There is nevertheness a significant difference: yôm always designates some fixed point in time, while yāmîm often expresses temporal duration by indicating periods of time of various sorts. The plural can also sometimes mean “time” in general, as Kimchi already observed; cf. also kol-hayyāmîm, “for all time, forever” (e.g., Dt. 4:40), in 1 S. 2:32 negated with lōʾ, to mean “never.” The plural can thus move in the direction of a general (and abstract) notion of time, although it is usually held that such a notion does not appear to be present in the OT.142 However this may be, the word yôm is central to the Hebrew understanding of time. Not only is it the fundamental word for division of time according to the fixed natural alternation of day and night, on which are based all other units of time (as well as the calendar), but it also exhibits a wealth of extended and metaphorical meanings, as we have to some extent already seen above. These two usages will provide the general outline for our further semasiological discussion,144 which will be followed in turn by a discussion of the various theological aspects based on both major divisions. It is important in this regard not to make to sharp a distinction between “secular” and “religious” usage.

The word yôm and its narrower semantic field appear (for no great reason) to have taken second place in scholarship to other important words related to times such as → עולם ʿôlām, “eternity,” and → עת ʿēṯ. A substantial portion of the yôm material has been analyzed by DeVries, but there is still no detailed monograph discussing all the material against the background of the other words having to do with time. There are widely divergent opinions about the Hebrew notion of time in general.

1. Literal Usage. The fixed natural basis of yôm is “light.” “Day” in the narrow sense refers to the daylight period in contrast to “night.”151 The relationship of “day” to “night” is essentially that of “light” to “darkness,” although night is not totally without light. The sun,153 which is superior in strength to the moon and the stars, gives the day not only light but heat; the middle of the day (cf. Neh. 8:3), when the day is “full” (cf. Prov. 4:18), is also the “hot time” (Gen. 18:1; Neh. 7:3). Jgs. 19:4–16, 20, 25–27 is instructive with respect to the periods making up the day.

The day as “daylight” is the temporal center to which the other major words of time relate in two sequences. The first starts with the beginning of the day in the “morning” (bōqer), marked by sunrise and the (morning) light preceding it (cf. Neh. 8:3) and the “dawn” (šaḥar). It moves backward to “last night” or “yesterday evening” (ʾemeš [e.g., Gen. 19:34]), then to “yesterday” (ʾeṯmôl [e.g., 1 S. 4:7]; temôl [e.g., 2 S. 15:20]) and “day before yesterday” (šilšôm, “three days ago” [e.g., Ex. 5:8]), and finally to the far-off past, the days that lie “before” (qeḏem). The other starts with the end of the day in the evening (ʿereḇ), with “dusk” (nešep̱ [e.g., 2 K. 7:5]). It moves forward to “tonight” (hallaylâ [e.g., Gen. 19:5], as correlate to hayyôm, “today”) and “night” (laylâ [e.g., Ex. 13:21]), then to “tomorrow” (māḥār [e.g., Ex. 8:25(29)]) and “day after tomorrow” ([hayyôm] haššelîšîṯ, “the third day” [e.g., 1 S. 20:12]), and finally to the distant future, the days that lie “after” (ʾaḥar; cf. ʾaḥarîṯ, “that which comes after,” “future”). It is noteworthy that only the days immediately before and after the present “day” have special names, while even the next but one are merely enumerated, as is true in general. Neither the days of the month nor the days of the week have special names, but only numbers; the exception is the Sabbath (šabbāṯ [e.g., Isa. 1:13] or yôm haššabbāṯ [e.g., Ex. 20:8]). This merely underlines the fundamental importance of the “day” even for longer units of time.

When longer units are involved, however, we are not dealing with the day as “daylight” but with the calendar day of twenty-four hours, for which Hebrew (unlike Aramaic and Syriac) does not have a special word. This “full day” includes “night” as a temporal complement; the “night” belongs to the preceding day (cf., e.g., Gen. 19:33f.; 1 S. 19:11, and such phrases as yôm wālaylâ and hallaylâ, “tonight”). From its outset at creation (Gen. 1:3–5), yôm as “full day” had the same beginning as yôm in the narrower sense, namely morning, and the “minor temporal sequence” remains the same: ʾeṯmôl, ʾemeš, bōqer-(hay)yôm-ʿereḇ, (hal)laylâ māḥār.

The evidence on this point, however, is rendered ambiguous by the cultic regulations governing observance of the Sabbath and other festivals. Lev. 23:32 stipulates that the Day of Atonement shall be a day of absolute rest (šabbāṯ šabbāṯôn) on the tenth day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:27); it is noteworthy that v. 32 expressly sets this observance on the “ninth day of the month, beginning at evening,” that it may last “from evening to evening.” Thus we find a kind of competition between a calendrical enumeration of days beginning in the morning and a cultic determination of the festival (Sabbath) that begins on the evening of the preceding day. But the cult also reckoned days as beginning with the morning (cf. the sacrificial regulations in Lev. 7:15; 22:30; the mitigation proposed by Stroes is not valid). In the cultic realm, however, the vespertine beginning of the day gradually increased in importance, although certain irregularities show that a long process was involved: compare Lev. 23:5f. with Ex. 12:8, 18; also Nu. 33:3 and Neh. 13:19f. with reference to the Sabbath. Starting from the cultic sphere, this manner of defining days gradually extended throughout Jewish life until it became normative. For a long time, however, there were nonconformists, as Talmon has shown.

There is yet another factor, however, that complicates the evidence respecting the “day” as a “full day” in its temporal calendrical function in the context of larger units of time. The “full day” is determined not only by daylight and the light of the sun, but also by the moon (yārēaḥ, ḥōḏeš). This is not especially apparent in the case of the “week” (šāḇûaʿ), whose seven-day period is hard to reconcile with the lunar cycle of about 29½ days, or with the 50-day period comprising seven weeks plus a holiday, which has left traces in the calculation of the Feast of Weeks and the Jubilee Year (cf. Lev. 23:15f. [compare with Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Dt. 16:9]; Lev. 25:8–13) and has influenced later apocalyptic writings like Jubilees and 1 (Ethiopic) Enoch as well as the Qumran documents. The moon instead exhibits its calendrical significance primarily in the “month” (yeraḥ, → ירח yārēaḥ, “moon”; → חדשׁ ḥōḏeš [chōdhesh], “new moon,” “first day of the lunar month,” “month”), above all in the cultic sphere (including not only the “new moon” but also the “full moon”). The moon also enters into the computation of the “year” (šānâ, also yāmîm). This latter is based on much more complex observations than the simple alternation between day and night: there is a conflict between the solar year (of 365 days and some “hours” [Aram. šāʿâ, “short interval of time,” e.g., Dnl. 3:6; not in the Hebrew OT]) and the lunar year (of some 354 days [plus additional intervals spread out over an extended period to reconcile the discrepancy with the solar year]). In the OT, these different ways of calculating the year are combined in a “luni-solar” year.177 One can also observe influences from Israel’s neighbors, especially Mesopotamia and Egypt; but this would raise the larger question of the calendar in the ancient Near East.179

Besides general questions having to do with the calendar, in the modern period the question touched on above of whether the day begins with morning or evening has been the subject of lively discussion. The so-called “morning theory” was revived by Dillmann and has been supported most vigorously by Cassuto.181 It has been developed, with various modifications and historical nuances, by many scholars. Zeitlin and Stroes, on the other hand, have attempted to defend the traditional “evening theory” to the widest extent possible. The question deserves further traditio-historical analysis.

2. Extended Usage. The chronological and calendrical usage of yôm/yāmîm is naturally central. But the word has also been used in many extended senses, in which it may take on a special meaning or lend its meaning to characterize other objects.

If we start from the observation that yôm refers in the first instance to “daylight,” the meaning “full day” (twenty-four hours) is itself an extended temporal sense. More important, however, are the cases in which the focus of the meaning is not on the “day” as such, but on a “time” or situation characterized in a particular way. This holds true primarily for the pl. yāmîm, which not rarely has the meaning “time,” often in combination with some additional attribute (e.g., kîmê ʿôlām, “as in the days of old” [Am. 9:11]; yemêʾēḇel, “days/time of mourning” [Gen. 27:41]). It is also true, however, for the sg. yôm (e.g., yôm qāṣîr, “day/time of harvest” [Prov. 25:13]; yôm ṣārāṯî, “day/situation of my distress” [Gen. 35:3]). Something similar is probably involved in the more or less stereotyped adverbial use of both yôm and yāmîm/yemê in the sense of “when.” In addition, (hay)yāmîm/yemê with reference to an historical period or epoch can be linked with the name of a king (e.g., bîmê dāwiḏ, “in the days/reign of David” [2 S. 21:1]; cf. also Jgs. 8:28; 1 K. 16:34); it also appears relatively often in the titles of books (sēp̱er diḇrê hayyāmîm, “chronicles”; cf. 1 K. 14:19; Neh. 12:23; 1 Ch. 27:24; Est. 6:1). Similarly, yôm can refer to an historic event defined more closely by the context (e.g., yôm yerûšāla[y]im, “the day/catastrophe of Jerusalem” [Ps. 137:7]; cf. Ob. 12–14; with reference to Babylon: kî bāʾ yômeḵā ʿēṯpeqaḏtîḵā, “for your day has come, the time when I will punish you” [Jer. 50:31]).

Especially noteworthy is the use of hayyôm, “today,” alone or in compound phrases to refer not to a single day but to the present time of the speaker in contrast to a past situation or past events (e.g., lannāḇî hayyôm yiqqārēʾ lep̱ānîm hārōʾeh, “he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer” [1 S. 9:9]) or, more commonly, to convey actuality. This latter usage is especially common in Deuteronomistic exhortation (e.g., Dt. 11:1–9, 13, 26, 32; 28:1; total renewal is emphasized in 27:9); the crucial importance of “today,” the present, for the future is revealed (cf. Josh. 24:15).

In the personal realm, yôm can also be a time of special importance for an individual. The single word yômô, “his day,” can refer not only to the day of someone’s birth or death, but also to the day/time that marks the end and judgment of the wicked (Ps. 37:13; Job 18:20; cf. also belōʾ-yômô, “prematurely” [Job 15:32]). The pl. yāmîm frequently refers to the days of someone’s life and can thus be a term meaning “lifetime” or occasionally “advanced age” (Job 32:7).

Furthest removed from the temporal sense is the use of yôm/yāmîm in a spatial sense, to indicate distance in the form of a journey.

As a general rule, it is often difficult to make precise distinctions among the extended uses of the word.

IV. Theological Usage. We have seen that the word yôm/yāmîm is the fundamental term for time, with a wide and varied range of uses. The transition from what might be called “secular” usage (in temporal and extended senses) to explicitly religious or theological usage is also fluid and therefore difficult to define precisely. The information cited in the preceding discussion has often contained a “theological” element. It is theologically significant, for instance, that the days do not have names but are simply counted, for this deprives them of any independent significance. In the OT, “days” — or the opposites “day” and “night” — are not expressions of divine powers; instead of being deified, they are made entirely subject to Yahweh, the God of Israel. “Days” — and “time,” to the extent that “time” can be spoken of in the OT — belong to God; this finds various forms of theological expression.

1. Creation. God is lord of days and time because he is the creator of light and darkness, day and night and seasons (cf. Ps. 74:16f.; Isa. 45:7; also Ps. 139:11f.; Jer. 33:20). We have here a universal creative causality on the part of God comprehending both day and night that does not find corresponding expression in Gen. 1, a passage of central importance for the theology of creation. In the latter, there seems instead to be a certain polarity of light and darkness, in which light is the first thing created by God. Like the rest of his creation, it is viewed with approval and called “good” (ṭôḇ [Gen. 1:3–4a]), while the same is not said of darkness.198 There is then a “separation” (hiḇdîl) between light and darkness (v. 4b), and above all a “calling” of the light “day” and the darkness “night,” which can be seen as further acts in the process of creation. This incorporates darkness/night at least functionally into God’s creation, but the “day” as “daylight” when the sun gives its light maintains its precedence.

The other important theological point of Gen. 1:3–5 is the constant alternation of day and night as a fundamental element of creation. It is confirmed after the Deluge (Gen. 8:22; cf. Jer. 33:20), and will not come to an end until the eschaton, in the glorious final revelation of Yahweh (Zec. 14:7). Thus “time takes precedence over space in P’s presentation of creation; creation does not begin with the division of space, but with the division of night and day as the basis of time.” This also makes it possible to present the seven-day schema of the first account of creation and to link it with history.203

The division between day and night is also the subject of important statements in Gen. 1:14–18 (see also Ps. 136:7–9), this time in connection with meʾōrōṯ, “lights” (Gen. 1:14–16), or “light” and “darkness” (v. 18). The tension between this section and vv. 3–5 has been variously judged. It is noteworthy in any case that there is no longer any trace of the light/day versus darkness/night polarity; there also seems to be a neutral balance between sun and moon. Their temporal functionality is emphasized, not just with respect to “days and years” but also with respect to “seasons/festivals” (môʿaḏîm), so that we find here an element of cultic theology. The same is true at the end of the account (2:2f.), which deals with the seventh day, on which God “rested” (šaḇaṯ).

Ultimately the “lights” and stars in Gen. 1:14–18 are presented only as instruments for measuring time; they are robbed of their traditional power to affect human destiny. As parts of God’s creation, they are servants rather than masters of time.

God’s sovereignty over time as Creator extends from the cosmic level to the “days” of each individual, as we see above all in texts that have been influenced by Wisdom Literature (e.g., Ps. 39:5–7[4–6]; 90:9f., 12, 14; 102:4, 12, 24f.[3, 11, 23f.]; Job 7:6; 8:9; 10:20; 17:1, 11; also Ps. 31:16[15]: beyāḏeḵāʿittōṯāy, “My times [future] are in thy hand.”

2. Cult. God’s sovereignty over the time of each individual finds expression in the theology of the cult, an important element of which is the division and arrangement of days and seasons.

Special days belong to God and are therefore “holy” (qāḏôš; cf. Neh. 8:9; also yemê habbeʿālîm, “(feast) days of the Baals” [Hos. 2:15(13)]); they are therefore governed by certain regulations or rituals. In addition to days set apart by special circumstances (e.g., yemê niddâ, “days of [menstrual] uncleanness” [Lev. 12:2]) or events in the life of the family (e.g., Gen. 21:8) or the community (e.g., Isa. 58:3; Zec. 7:1ff.), there were regularly recurring festivals throughout the year with various cultic observances.209

First there is the most frequent festival, the Sabbath; as the day of rest concluding a seven-day week, it defines the smallest cultic temporal unit. This festival is merely described in Ex. 23:12; 34:21; in the Decalog (Ex. 20:8–11 and Dt. 5:12–15) and elsewhere it is mentioned by name (yôm haššabbāṯ). It became much more important with the passage of time.211

Alongside the Sabbath, Am. 8:5; Hos. 2:13(11); Isa. 1:13 speak of the “(day of the) new moon” (ḥōḏeš; see also Nu. 10:10; 1 S. 20:5, 18f., 26f.). This bespeaks a cultic rhythm regulated by the moon,213 which was considered “lord of the calendar” in Mespotamia and is mentioned before the sun in Ps. 104:19 in its function “for the festivals” (lemôʿaḏîm). The moon had a cultic significance that cannot be overlooked, as is attested by the ritual in the latest cultic calendar (Nu. 28f.) for the “day of the new moon” (Nu. 28:11–15) (cf. Lev. 23:24; Nu. 29:1; and such late texts as Neh. 10:34[33] and 2 Ch. 2:3[4]).

The cultic calendars (Ex. 23:14–17; 34:18–23; Lev. 23; Nu. 28f.; Dt. 16:1–17; cf. Ezk. 45:18–25) regulate primarily the three great pilgrimage festivals. It is noteworthy that the earlier calendars (Ex. 23, 34) are entirely agrarian, while the later (that of H in Lev. 23 and that of P in Nu. 28f., as well as Ezk. 45) reveal a calendrical interest in certain fixed days. The day of the new moon on the first day of the first month and half a year later on the first day of the seventh month was especially important, but so was the fifteenth day of the same months. This may indicate that the “day of the full moon” (yôm hakkēseʾ, e.g., Ps. 81:4[3]; Prov. 7:20) was also of great cultic importance.

Thus in the calculation of “days” (and more generally of time) we find not only an observable tension between the sun (or daylight) and the moon (or evening/night), but also a certain element of competition between them in the theologies of creation and the cult.

3. History. God is lord of time, not only because he created the constant alternation between day and night, thus laying the foundation for the course of history, but because he also intervenes mightily in the course of history. In the context of the theology of history, the most important expression of his activity is the genitive phrase yôm YHWH, “day of Yahweh.” It occurs 16 times, all in the prophets (from the southern kingdom): Isa. 13:6, 9; Ezk. 13:5; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11; 3:4(2:31); 4:14(3:14); Am. 5:18(twice), 20; Ob. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14(twice); Mal. 3:23(4:5). In 3 passages the genitive is replaced by le: Isa. 2:12; Ezk. 30:3; and (expanded by the addition of bāʾ, “comes”) Zec. 14:1. In 8 passages there is an additional qualification: yôm ʿeḇraṯ YHWH (Ezk. 7:19; Zeph. 1:18) and yôm-ʾap̱ YHWH (Zeph. 2:2, 3; Lam. 2:22), “the day of the wrath of Yahweh”; yôm nāqām leYHWH (Isa. 34:8), “the day of vengeance of Yahweh” (cf. Jer. 46:10); yôm zeḇaḥ YHWH (Zeph. 1:8), “the day of sacrifice of Yahweh”; also yôm mehûmâ … laʾdōnāy (Isa. 22:5), “a day of confusion … for the Lord Yahweh.” Apart from Lam. 2:22, which is retrospective, these citations also are all from the prophets. Oddly enough, the expression does not occur in Daniel.

Modern scholars have interpreted these observations very differently. Early on, the primary question concerned the (pre-prophetic) origin of the “notion” or “idea” of a special “day of Yahweh.” Gressmann hypothesized a very ancient complex of eschatological ideas involving salvation and deliverance, rooted in nature mythology, which underwent further development in the OT. In opposition to this theory, Mowinckel explained the eschatology of the prophets and their talk of the “day of Yahweh” on the basis of the Israelite cult, especially the enthronement festival of Yahweh; many have followed his lead. More critically, Černý and Herrmann217 have suggested Israel’s traditions of (theological) history as a better interpretative background, as have Couturier and most recently Preuss and van Leeuwen. Von Rad, on the other hand, has proposed interpreting the particular phraseology of the “day of Yahweh” primarily on the basis of traditions associated with the ancient holy war. He has been followed more or less by Müller and Schunck, while Lutz has modified von Rad’s theory substantially. Jeremias has studied the relationship of the day of Yahweh to ideas associated with theophany. In contrast to the earlier approach,220 scholars today generally attempt to understand the “day of Yahweh” within the terms of the OT itself. Scholars (still) often inquire into the origin of the expression; but, despite many theories, they know almost nothing about what (if anything) it was before Amos, but only what it developed into among the prophets. And the picture is puzzlingly varied.

a. As we saw above, yôm as nomen regens can take on an historical aspect in the context of an attributive nomen rectum: one might speak, for example, of “the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire” (Dt. 4:15) or “the day when you came out of the land of Egypt” (Dt. 16:3; to be “remembered” [zāḵar] cultically; cf. the frequent use of actualizing hayyôm in Deuteronomy). In this way special times were indicated that had important (transforming) significance for the life of the people; what was important, however, was not the actual point in time, but the event recorded. “The concept ‘day’ describes the eventful historical character of a mighty happening and its effects. This is also true when the nomen rectum is a toponym (“day of Midian” [Isa. 9:3(4)]; “day of Jezreel” [Hos. 2:2(1:11)]; “days of Gibeah” [Hos. 9:9; 10:9]).

When YHWH is the nomen rectum associated with yôm he has a time to act, a time to intervene in “history”; what will take place then, he alone determines. The relative chronology is necessarily not uniquely defined (e.g., future), being defined in each instance by usage and context; but the future is most common. The most important element, however, is God’s act.

b. The earliest passage is Am. 5:18–20, which states metaphorically that Yahweh has appointed a “day” when he will intervene, from which no one can escape. This “day” will bring the opposite of what the people hope for from Yahweh, namely disaster (“darkness”) rather than deliverance (“light”). Amos’ speech is a judgment discourse linked with history (v. 27); it constitutes an integral part of his general message of judgment, in which he proved in many ways to be breaking new ground (cf., e.g., what he says about the qēṣ, “end,” of Israel in 8:2).

In like fashion, the form and phraseology of Isaiah’s discourse concerning the “day of Yahweh” in Isa. 2:(6–11), 12–17(18–22) is part of his proclamation of judgment for the people in the present day. The same is true in 22:5, where the mention of the “day” is followed at once by “a concrete description with reference to his historical moment.”

The “day of Yahweh” of which Amos and Isaiah speak, each in his own historical setting, thus refers to the immediate future of the people, which will be radically altered.

c. In the prophets that follow Amos and Isaiah, mention of the “day of Yahweh” appears to have become a prophetic theologoumenon of a very different kind. Highly informative in this regard are both Zeph. 1:7–2:3 and Ezk. 7:2–4, 5–27, the latter being a literary composite. In Zeph. 1:7.f, 14–16; 2:2f., a series of attributes (some synonymous) describing the “day,” referring in part to changes in the natural realm, in part to God’s wrath and human fear, and in part to the “nearness” (qārôḇ) of the “day,” gives the impression of more or less stereotyped phraseology. In Ezk. 7:2–4, 5ff., similarly, terms like haqqēṣ, “the end,” rā ͑â, “disaster,” and hayyôm, “the day,” which appear elsewhere in various contexts, are juxtaposed in baroque abundance. The “day of Yahweh” is still a coming day of God’s judgment upon Israel, albeit upon other nations as well; but it is no longer just an “application” of the prophets’ message: it has in large measure become an independent didactic theme.

In a sense the exile marked a turning point. Now — in Lam. 1:12; 2:1, 21f., for example — people look back upon the “day of the wrath of Yahweh.” With the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, the “day” has already come and the prediction has been fulfilled (cf. also Ob. 15; Ps. 137:7). But the “history” of the “day of Yahweh” has not thereby come to an end.

In postexilic prophecy, the formation of the didactic tradition continues. The “day of Yahweh” gradually becomes the nucleus around which crystallizes a complex eschatological drama, as we see above all in Joel 1–4(1–3) and Zec. 12–14. The “day of Yahweh” can bring both disaster and deliverance; it can come to both Israel and the “nations.” The final stage is the apocalypticism of Daniel, where yôm YHWH is replaced by qēṣ, “end,” and other fixed terminology.

d. Although with the passage of time the eventful nature of the “day of Yahweh” came increasingly to be emphasized, along with other attributes, its temporal nature still was preserved. This is shown by the various words for time that cluster about the “day of Yahweh”: bayyôm hahûʾ, “on that day”; bayyāmîm hahēm, “in those days”; bāʿēṯhahîʾ, “in that time”; hinnēh yāmîm bāʾîm, “behold, days are coming”; beʾaḥarîṯ hayyāmîm, “at the end of the days.” Most of these formulas, which have undergone some development and take on eschatological character only in the later texts, not only define an eventful point in time, but refer to actual “days” or “time,” the “time of the end.”

e. Within the context of prophetic eschatology, which is largely a question of definition among the preexilic prophets, too much importance should not be attached to the yôm YHWH; nevertheless, the expression makes an essential contribution to the theocentric emphasis of the prophetic (eschatological) message: it is God who holds the initiative in doing mighty acts, it is God who holds dominion over time, over the “history” of the people of Israel and of the nations.

V. Qumran. Usage in the Qumran documents, including eschatological usage, agrees essentially with that of the OT.235 We can observe, however, a greater interest in calendrical questions.

VI. LXX. In the LXX, yôm is almost always rendered by hēméra, which emphasizes the chronological character of the word. Most of the other words used to translate yôm appear only once; exceptions include bíos (12 times) and kairós (3 times).

[15] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 108–128.

Awakening the Sleepers

(i) Introduction

Nobody doubts that the Old Testament speaks of the resurrection of the dead, but nobody can agree on what it means, where the idea came from, or how it relates to the other things the scriptures say about the dead. But since the Jewish world of Jesus’ and Paul’s day looked back to these texts as the principal sources for their widespread belief in resurrection, we must take care at least to examine the relevant texts and know how they work. Is resurrection here an innovation, bursting upon an unready Israelite world? In which case, where did it come from? Or is it, rather, the climax of the ancient Jewish hope?

It is important once more to be clear on the key topic before we go any further. The texts we shall consider, however we understand their detailed nuances, are not speaking about a new construal of life after death, but about something that will happen after whatever ‘life after death’ may involve. Resurrection is not just another way of talking about Sheol, or about what happens, as in Psalm 73, ‘afterwards’, that is, after the event of bodily death. It speaks of something that will happen, if it does, after that again. Resurrection means bodily life after ‘life after death’, or, if you prefer, bodily life after the state of ‘death’. That is why it is very misleading—and foreign to all the relevant texts—to speak, as does one recent writer, of ‘resurrection to heaven’. Resurrection is what did not happen to Enoch or Elijah. According to the texts, it is what will happen to people who are at present dead, not what has already happened to them. If this point is grasped, a good deal becomes clear; if forgotten, confusion is bound to follow.

The text which became central for much later Jewish thought on this subject is Daniel 12:2–3. Though it is almost certainly the latest of the relevant passages, there are three good reasons for starting with it. First, it is the clearest: virtually all scholars agree that it does indeed speak of bodily resurrection, and mean this in a concrete sense. Second, it draws on several of the other, probably older, relevant texts, showing us one way in which they were being read in the second century BC. Third, conversely, it seems to have acted as a lens through which the earlier material was seen by subsequent writers. To read Daniel 12 is thus to stand on the bridge between the Bible and the Judaism of Jesus’ day, looking both backwards and forwards, and watching the passage of ideas that went to and fro between them.

(ii) Daniel 12: The Sleepers Wake, the Wise Shine

We begin with the central passage, Daniel 12:2–3:

2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.

There is little doubt that this refers to concrete, bodily resurrection. The metaphor of ‘sleep’ for death was, as we have seen, already widespread; sleeping in the dust of the earth (literally, ‘the earth of dust’ or ‘the land of dust’) was a clear biblical way of referring to the dead.108 It was therefore natural to continue the metaphor by using ‘awake’ to denote bodily resurrection—not a different sort of sleep, but its abolition. This is not, of itself, an ‘otherworldly’ idea, but a very much ‘this-worldly’ one.

Those who awake are ‘many’, but not, it appears, all. The passage is not attempting to offer a global theory of the ultimate destination of the whole human race, but simply to affirm that, in a renewed bodily life, God will give everlasting life to some and everlasting contempt to others. In the context (see below) there can be little doubt who these persons are: they are the righteous who have suffered martyrdom on the one hand, and their torturers and murderers on the other. The rest—the great majority of humans, and indeed of Israelites—are simply not mentioned.

Verse 3 offers two parallel similes to describe the final state of the resurrected righteous (or, just conceivably, of a sub-set of them). They are denoted as ‘the wise’, hammaskilim, and as ‘those who turn many to righteousness’, or perhaps ‘those who justify many’, an allusion to Isaiah 53:11 (see below). They will, says the verse, ‘shine like the brightness of the sky’, and ‘like the stars for ever and ever’. This has led some to suggest that their final state is actually to become stars, in some kind of ‘astral immortality’. Such a reading has become accepted quite widely, and influential on other readings of Jewish and early Christian texts. There are, however, serious problems with this interpretation, and the matter is sufficiently important to warrant a brief excursus.

To begin with the present text itself. It is not clear how metaphorical the passage intends to be: a short poetic statement, echoing an earlier scriptural passage, and itself located within a climactic vision of the future, can scarcely be treated as a precise or exact description. The two clauses are similes: the passage predicts that the righteous will be like stars, not that they will turn into stars, nor even that they will be located among them. Moreover, if the second clause were to mean that the maskilim would become actual stars, the parallelism with the first clause (‘shine like the brightness of the sky’) would force the meaning there that ‘the wise’ would become the sky itself, which is clearly out of the question. Two other strong considerations must be borne in mind as well: first, that there is no hint whatever of the kind of supporting or surrounding cosmology which we find in Plato, Cicero or other expressions of the classic ‘astral immortality’; second, that the sequence of thought in verses 2 and 3 presents a two-stage future, quite unlike what we find in the Timaeus, Scipio’s dream, or in the various epitaphs where ‘astral immortality’ found popular expression. In all of those, the point was that the soul departed immediately upon death, to rejoin its proper place among the stars. Here, by contrast, ‘the wise’ are at present dead, ‘asleep’, and will ‘wake up’ at some point still in the future. That is when they will ‘shine like the sky, and like the stars’. The structure of the belief, the surrounding cosmology, and the actual exegesis all prevent us from linking Daniel 12:3 with the line of thought from Plato (and perhaps elsewhere) to Cicero and beyond.

Nor do the Jewish parallels regularly adduced serve to strengthen the case. There are some similar passages, of course, as one might expect in such a variegated phenomenon as the wide world of Judaism within its hellenistic environment. Perhaps the most striking is 4 Maccabees 17:5, where the martyred mother is addressed in glowing and certainly ‘astral’ terms:

The moon in heaven, with the stars, does not stand so august as you, who, after lighting the way of your star-like seven sons to piety, stand in honour before God and are firmly set in heaven with them.

Certainly any reader in the hellenistic world would know what to make of that. We should not be so sanguine, though, about some of the other references that are sometimes put forward on this point.115 There are three or four passages which seem at least to borrow the idea (though still transplanting it into a Jewish cosmology): the Testament of Moses offers a good example, as does 2 Baruch. There are even, it seems, a couple of possible examples at Qumran. The best-known source of possible parallels for an ‘astral’ interpretation is 1 Enoch; but even there caution is advisable with most of the references that are often cited. The doctrine of resurrection itself tells against it, since it envisages a two-stage future (first being dead, then, later, being raised), not a single step into a shining immortality. The only passage that seems either to suggest that the righteous become stars, or to move towards a world more like that of the Timaeus, are 1 Enoch 58:3 (‘the righteous shall be in the light of the sun, and the elect in the light of eternal life which has no end, and the days of the life of the holy ones cannot be numbered’—set in a chapter which is all about the coming world that will be full of light) and 108:11–14 (immediately before the close of the book):

So now I shall summon their spirits if they are born of light, and change those who are born in darkness … I shall bring them out into the bright light, those who have loved my holy name, and seat them each one by one upon the throne of his honour; and they shall be resplendent for ages that cannot be numbered … the righteous ones shall be resplendent.

Here, as in Plato or Cicero, the spirits come from light and go back to light. Granted the composite nature of 1 Enoch, however, it is impossible to cite the book as a whole as a representative of the ‘astral’ view; indeed, granted that there were several previous opportunities to say this kind of thing, and that these were not taken, we might suggest that at the very least the multiple authors, and the eventual redactor, were not eager to press such a point. Thus, though several texts play with the idea of ‘light’ in general, and many refer directly to Daniel, it is hard to make a case that ‘astral immortality’ had taken root in ancient Judaism as it clearly had in ancient paganism.

We return from this important digression to the meaning of Daniel 12 itself. The similes in verse 3 indicate, not so much that the righteous and the wise will be shining and twinkling like stars, but that in the resurrection they will be leaders and rulers in God’s new creation. The imagery, set in the biblical context which is surely the primary world from which to understand the author’s meaning, suggests a royal connotation: it is kings who are spoken of as stars or celestial beings. God-given kings and rulers are to provide light to the world as the stars in the firmament were made, according to Genesis 1, to give light to the earth. This appears to be, in line with other ideas in Daniel, a kind of democratization of earlier royal traditions: it belongs with the idea that ‘the saints of the Most High’ will receive the kingdom (7:18, 22, 27). By looking at the stars, commentators have missed the real point: the righteous, the wise, will not so much be transformed into beings of light, as set in authority over the world. Daniel 12:3 adds to 12:2, then, the sense that the resurrection is not simply a resuscitation in which the dead will return to life much as they knew it before. They will be raised to a state of glory in the world for which the best parallel or comparison is the status of stars, moon and sun within the created order.

Where does this remarkable passage belong historically? Does that help us to explain why it comes out with this remarkable idea at this late stage in the growth of biblical tradition? The immediate context of the passage is martyrdom: the martyrdom which occurred during the crisis of the 160s (see 1 and 2 Maccabees), and, in particular, the martyrdom of faithful Israelites under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. Daniel 11:31 speaks of Antiochus’ desecration of the Jerusalem Temple, and his setting up of the ‘abomination of desolation’ mentioned already in 9:27. Verses 32–5 of chapter 11 describe what happens next, as some Judaeans compromise with the pagan invader and others stand firm and suffer for it, some of them being killed. Verses 36–45 then describes the final boasting and sudden fall of Antiochus, the earlier verses (36–9) staying close to what we know as actual events, and the later ones (40–45) diverging—at the point, we assume, where the writer’s own time is to be located. But what matters is that at the time of Antiochus’ fall, a time of unprecedented anguish for Israel (12:1), the angelic prince Michael will arise to fight on their behalf and deliver them. This is the context for the prediction of resurrection. The remainder of the passage and indeed of the book (12:4–13) contains final revelations (if they can be called that; they have, notoriously, seemed to tease as much as to reveal) about the timing of the forthcoming events, and a last promise to Daniel himself (v. 13) that, after his own ‘rest’, he will join the maskilim and rise (the word ta‘amod here means ‘stand up’) for his reward at the end of the days. The ‘resurrection’ envisaged here is not a state upon which the righteous enter immediately upon death, but is a further event, following an intermediate period.

The prediction of resurrection is not an isolated piece of speculation about the ultimate fate of humans, or even Judaeans, in general, but a specific promise addressed to a specific situation. Israel’s god will reverse the actions of the wicked pagans, and raise the martyrs, and the teachers who kept Israel on course, to a glorious life. Simultaneously, he will raise their persecutors to a new existence: instead of remaining in the decent obscurity of Sheol or ‘the dust’, they will face perpetual public obloquy. The whole scene, in fact, carries with it elements of the lawcourt, in which YHWH as the righteous judge puts wrongs to right, punishing the wicked and vindicating the righteous. Michael, the angel or ‘prince’ who is Israel’s specific protector, will be YHWH’s agent in bringing this judgment to pass.

Once we grasp this larger picture we can see that it, in turn, belongs closely with the still larger vision of the book of Daniel as a whole. Again and again the book tells of pagan rulers attacking YHWH’s people, trying to make them conform to new pagan ways, boasting arrogantly against the true god and his people, and of the faithful and wise Israelites holding on, retaining their loyalty and integrity, and being vindicated in the end as their god acts dramatically to rescue them and condemn or overthrow their oppressors. In particular, 11:31–5 and 12:1–3, the key passages here, are anticipated frequently in the earlier parts of the book, and, together with chapters 10–12 as a whole, are clearly intended to draw out fuller significance from what has been said before. This encourages us to see the prediction of resurrection as the final and most explicit promise in a much longer line, which begins with the setting up of the divine kingdom over against all pagan kingdoms (2:35, 44–5), and continues through the exaltation and vindication of the son of man (representing the people of the saints of the most high (7:13–14, 18, 27)), including frequent narratives of deliverance from death (hinted at in 1:10; explicit in 2:13; plotted throughout chapters 3 and 6). Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9, questioning the meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a seventy-year exile, receives the answer that the exile will in fact last seventy times seven years, i.e. 490 years, coming to its climax in the setting up of the abomination of desolation, the cutting off of an anointed prince, and final judgment on the oppressor (9:2, 24–7). Chapters 10–12 then spell all this out in more detail. This is how Israel’s long exile will reach its climax, how the arrogant pagans will be judged, how the righteous will be delivered.

Chapters 10–12, then, and particularly the passage at the end of chapter 11 and the start of chapter 12, provide a different lens through which to view the same events as those spoken of in 2:31–45 and 7:2–27. The stone cut from the mountain that smashed the multi-metalled statue and became a mountain in turn; the ‘one like a son of man’ who is exalted over the beasts; the suffering maskilim being raised to shine like the stars, while their persecutors receive everlasting contempt; these are essentially the same. Any second-Temple Jew who pondered the book would find in 12:2–3 not a new and outlandish idea, unanticipated and unforeseen, but the crown of all that had gone before.

This would be all the more so for a reader whose ears were open to the biblical overtones of the text. Appropriately, considering the exilic theme of the whole book (the fictive setting is of course Babylon, and the historical setting is that of the ‘continuing exile’ of 9:24, under various pagan rulers climaxing in the Syria of Antiochus), the most obvious biblical precursors are those which themselves speak of exile and restoration. We note, for instance, the echo of Jeremiah 30:7 in 12:2: the time of unprecedented anguish is that spoken of by the earlier prophet, not long after he had repeated his promise about a seventy-year exile which Daniel has now reinterpreted. And the warning of anguish to come is part of a larger prophecy of return, rebuilding, peace and security. The pagan yoke will be broken, and the Israelite monarchy restored.129

(iii) The Servant and the Dust-Dwellers: Isaiah

The main source for Daniel’s ideas and images in 12:2–3 is undoubtedly Isaiah. Before looking at the most obvious passage, we note first the close links with Isaiah 52–3. The maskilim seem to be a plural version of the ‘servant’, who in 52:13 ‘deals prudently’ (yaskil). They are those ‘who justify many’, as does the servant in 53:11. The ‘shining’ of the righteous in Daniel 12:3 may possibly echo the ‘light’ which, in some early versions, features in Isaiah 53:11. And of course the entire theme—those who remain faithful to YHWH despite torture and death, and who are then vindicated—fits exactly the scenario with which Isaiah 40–55 reaches its great climax. If the servant-figure in Isaiah was in the first place a personification of the nation, or of the righteous few within it, what we have here is not exactly a democratization of the servant-concept, as is sometimes said, but a repluralization. The suffering maskilim are now the bearers of the promise of exile and restoration; Isaiah’s vision is coming true in them. This coheres, of course, with the theme of the book of Daniel as a whole.

But does Isaiah 53 itself speak of the servant dying and rising again? There is no explicit mention of resurrection itself, and only an oblique statement of what will happen to the servant after his death (53:11). But it is clear that the servant (a) dies and is buried (53:7–9), and (b) emerges in triumph, however densely expressed (53:10–12). What matters most for our purposes, however, is that Daniel provides evidence that some people were already reading Isaiah this way; and so, it was argued some time ago, does the form of the Isaiah text as we have it in Qumran.135 The result of all this for the meaning of the central passage should not be missed. Though Daniel 12:2–3 speaks clearly of bodily resurrection for individuals, this is not something other than God’s long-promised act of vindication for the exiled nation. The either/or that has tended to drive a wedge between different interpretations of key passages (either ‘individual resurrection’ or ‘national restoration’) must be exposed as fallacious. In Daniel 12, the resurrection of God’s people (at least in the persons of the martyrs, seen as representing the nation) is the form that national restoration takes. This is the real end of the deepest exile of all.

Behind Daniel 12, though, stands also the most obvious ‘resurrection’ passage in Isaiah. Isaiah 24–7 offers a scene not just of national crisis but of cosmic judgment, through which God’s people will be rescued and the dead will be raised. Few doubt that this passage was strongly present to the writer of Daniel 12:2–3:

Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.

O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!

For your dew is a radiant dew,

and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

The context is a vivid prayer of loyalty to YHWH in the midst of fierce and continuing persecution by pagans. Other lords have ruled over Israel, ‘but we acknowledge your name alone’. Pagans, and those who follow their ways, have no future beyond death to look forward to:

The dead do not live, shades do not rise—

because you have punished and destroyed them,

and wiped out all memory of them.

But those who seek YHWH in distress find themselves in pangs like a woman giving birth; and when birth comes it turns out to be the new birth of the dead themselves (26:16–19). The original Hebrew refers literally to bodily resurrection, and this is certainly how the verse is taken in the LXX and at Qumran.140 It is still possible, of course, that here resurrection is, as we shall see in Ezekiel, a metaphor for national restoration; but the wider passage, in which God’s renewal of the whole cosmos is in hand, opens the way for us to propose that the reference to resurrection is intended to denote actual concrete events.

All is based upon the sovereign justice of YHWH himself, who will bring to light the wickedness done on earth (26:20–21). His power alone can do this: in the previous chapter, preparing the way for the climax in chapter 26, we find this statement of both national and personal restoration:

On this mountain YHWH of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.

Then the sovereign one, YHWH, will wipe away the tears from all faces,

and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for YHWH has spoken …

For the hand of YHWH will rest on this mountain.

This image of the eschatological banquet draws together the divine promise to the individual, to Israel, and to creation itself. We should not separate out these levels neither in our own reading of Isaiah, nor in our assessment of how the book would have been read in the second-Temple period.

(iv) On the Third Day: Hosea

Behind these remarkable passages in Isaiah, offering arguably the earliest Old Testament references to bodily life the other side of death, we find two passages in Hosea, firmly located chronologically in the eighth century BC. John Day has argued impressively that Isaiah 26:19 is dependent on Hosea 13:14:

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?

Shall I redeem them from Death?

O Death, where are [or: I will be] your plagues?

O Sheol, where is [or: I will be] your destruction?

Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

The original Hebrew text is almost certainly denying that YHWH will redeem Israel from Sheol and Death. However, the LXX and other ancient versions, and also the New Testament, take the passage in a positive sense, and there is no reason why the author of Isaiah 26:19 should not have read it thus as well. The evidence that he did so is cumulative but overwhelming: no fewer than eight features of text and context can be paralleled.147 Behind Hosea 13, in turn, there stands the (equally ambiguous) Hosea 6:

Come, let us return to YHWH;

for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;

he has struck down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.

From a later perspective, this appears as it stands as a prayer of faith in the life-giving, restorative power of YHWH. However, in its original context it almost certainly was intended as a description of a prayer that the prophet regarded as inadequate. It indicated a failure to repent at a deep level, a simplistic hope that maybe YHWH could be bought off. Once again, though, it is entirely possible that later readers, including later biblical writers, would have taken it in a more positive sense. When read in this sense, the passage has a claim to be the earliest explicit statement that YHWH will give his people a new bodily life the other side of death. It appears to have influenced Daniel 12, perhaps via Isaiah. We shall have more to say in a moment on the origin of Hosea’s ideas, or those of the people whose prayer he was reporting.

(v) Dry Bones and God’s Breath: Ezekiel

There is one remaining major text, whose relation with those just discussed is problematic, but whose importance for subsequent thought can hardly be denied. Ezekiel 37 is perhaps the most famous of all ‘resurrection’ passages in the Old Testament; it is the most obviously allegorical or metaphorical; it does not appear to have influenced, or to have been influenced by, either Isaiah or Daniel; yet the parallels of overall thought are remarkable.

Once again, of course, the context is the exile. For the Temple-centred Ezekiel, one of Israel’s main problems was impurity; cleansing from that impurity formed a key part of his promise of restoration (36:16–32). This is set among sustained oracles about the restoration of the land itself, with its people, its buildings, its agriculture, its flocks and its herds (36:1–15, 33–8). The overall aim of the prophecy at this stage of the book was to point to a renewal of Israel’s national life in which the Davidic monarchy would be restored, the nation would be reconstituted, and (ultimately) a new Temple would be built. But uncleanness remained at the heart of the problem.

Of all the unclean objects an observant Jew might encounter, unburied corpses or bones would come near the top of the list. That is the state, metaphorically, to which Israel has been reduced. God, declares Ezekiel, will deal with this in an act of new creation:

The hand of YHWH came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of YHWH and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O sovereign YHWH, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: “O dry bones, hear the word of YHWH. Thus says the sovereign YHWH to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am YHWH.” ’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: “Thus says the sovereign YHWH: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” ’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the sovereign YHWH: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am YHWH, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, YHWH, have spoken and will act, says YHWH.” ’

Both the content of the vision and the immediate conclusion that the prophet draws from it mark out this passage as an intentional and sustained metaphor. Ezekiel is no more envisaging actual bodily resurrection than he envisaged, when writing chapter 34, that Israel consisted of sheep rather than people. This is further confirmed by the surface contradiction between the vision itself and the application. In the vision (verses 1–10) the bones are lying unburied on the surface of the ground, as in a battlefield rather than a graveyard; but in the application (verses 11–14) God promises to open Israel’s graves and bring up the dead. There should not, then, be any question but that the original purpose was to provide a highly charged and vivid metaphor of the way in which unclean Israel would be cleansed, exiled Israel restored to the land, and scattered Israel regathered, by a powerful and covenant-renewing act of new creation. It is possible that the roots of the image are found in the promises of return from exile in Deuteronomy, where covenant renewal is a matter of new, god-given life in place of death, but this may simply be a distant echo. The echoes of Genesis 1–2 are not far from the surface, particularly in the promise of the breath/spirit—YHWH’s own breath/spirit, it turns out—which will make them once again a living people. This is not a mere resuscitation, like the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha. The fleshless bones can only be brought to life by a new and unprecedented act of the creator god.156

The undoubted allegorical character of this passage did not stop it being seen, from at least the early rabbinic period, as a prediction of literal resurrection. Evidence for this is found in textual marginalia from early manuscripts, and in the remarkable paintings found at Dura-Europos. But it is only in such subsequent use that we can detect anything like a confluence between Ezekiel 37 and the stream of thought that runs (mostly underground) from Hosea, through Isaiah, to Daniel. None of those other texts mentions, let alone highlights, the main focus of Ezekiel’s vision, namely bones; and Ezekiel lacks the regular language of sleepers waking, of dwellers in the dust, or of the resurrected shining with a new glory. What all these texts refer to in one way or another, though, was the common hope of Israel: that YHWH would restore her fortunes at last, liberate her from pagan dominion, and resettle her in justice and peace, even if it took a great act of new creation to accomplish it. This is where the solid hope of the earlier period (hope for nation, family and land) joins up with the emerging belief in the creator’s faithfulness even beyond the grave. This coming together of (what seem to us) different strands of thought demands closer investigation.

(vi) Resurrection and the Hope of Israel

What place, within the wider context of Israel’s faith and life, can we give to these varied expressions of a hope for new life beyond ‘life after death’? Where did the idea come from, and how does it relate to the other types of hope (and the explicit statements of a lack of hope for post-mortem life) in the rest of the Old Testament? Here there are two related points to be made, the first about the relation of this hope to the mainstream Old Testament expectation, and the second to do with origin and derivation.

It would be easy, and wrong, to see the hope for resurrection as a new and extraneous element, something which has come into ancient Israelite thinking by a backdoor or roundabout route. Each of the passages we have studied is set in the context of the continuing affirmation of the Jewish hope for restoration, for liberation from exile, persecution and suffering. Sometimes, as in the case of Ezekiel, this metaphorical character is clear throughout the passage. Sometimes, as in Daniel, actual bodily resurrection is likewise clearly intended. Elsewhere, as in the Isaiah passages, there is room for genuine uncertainty as to where the balance lies. But however concrete the reference in any of the passages, there is no doubt that even in such cases the overarching context is that of the hope of the nation for national restoration and resettlement in the land. In other words, this is not a move away from the hope which characterized all of ancient Israel, but a reaffirmation of it. It is a reaffirmation, indeed, in a way which the hope simply for a blessed but non-bodily personal life after death (as perhaps witnessed by Psalm 73 and one or two other passages) would not be. This resurrection hope is not like that of ancient Egypt, where life after death was thought of as a continuation of normal life by other means. Such an idea would have been seen by ancient Israel as a denial of the hope for nation, family and land to thrive and flourish.

What we have, in fact, in these passages can best be seen in these terms: hope for bodily resurrection is what sometimes happens when the hope of ancient Israel meets a new challenge, which might include the threat of judgment, as in Hosea and Isaiah 24–7, and, more specifically, the fact of exile, as (in different ways) in Ezekiel 37 and Isaiah 53. Daniel 12 is best seen, in line with chapter 9, as reflecting an awareness of extended and continuing exile, focused now in suffering and martyrdom. Of course, exile and indeed martyrdom does not necessarily have this effect, otherwise we would find resurrection ideas in (for instance) Jeremiah and 1 Maccabees as well as in Ezekiel, Daniel and 2 Maccabees. But where a strong sense of exile as divine punishment for rebellion, disloyalty and idolatry was present (one wonders whether the story in Genesis 3, of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden, was read in this period as a paradigm of Israel’s expulsion from the promised land, but direct evidence for this connection is lacking), then it was but a short step for that expulsion to be seen as ‘death’, life in exile to be seen as the strange half-life lived after that death, and return from exile to be seen as life beyond that again, newly embodied life, i.e. resurrection. That seems to be precisely the route taken by both Ezekiel and Daniel, the latter drawing on Isaiah and perhaps Hosea. Thus, though the promise of resurrection contradicts head on the view so frequently stated in the material we surveyed earlier in which all hope beyond the grave was ruled out, it forms an equally strong reaffirmation of the hope which ancient Israel did indeed hold: hope for renewal of national life, in the land, life as the gift of YHWH the creator god.

This latter point, indeed, needs to be highlighted. Echoes of the Genesis creation narratives lurk in the shadows of these passages: it is from the dust that YHWH creates humans, breathing into them his own breath, and when he takes it away again they return to dust once more. The fresh gift of his breath will then bring the dust to life.163 The promise of resurrection is thus firmly linked to creation itself, which was the basis of the normal ancient Israelite celebration of life in the present, bodily life in YHWH’s good land. This robust affirmation of the goodness of life in YHWH’s world and land is what is called into question when Israel sins and faces punishment in the form of national catastrophe. We should not be surprised, then, when at that point it is to the language of creation itself that the prophets turn for help. Just as in Genesis 3 death is linked to expulsion from the garden, so in the fullest biblical statements of hope we discover a creative fluidity between the restoration of Israel to the land and the new bodily creation of human beings after the state of death.

This movement of thought is what we see in earlier writings such as Hosea. Under pressure, and in trouble, the nation begins to use the language of a new life after ‘life after death’, and this turns into the celebratory outburst of Isaiah 26. We might suggest that the likely turning-point in the sequence—the moment when somebody really begins to think in terms of human beings themselves actually dying and actually being given a newly embodied life at some point thereafter—is to be found in Isaiah’s servant passages. That is where, supremely, the hope for the nation and land becomes focused on an individual, or at least what looks like an individual; even if this is a literary code for the nation as a whole, or for a group within the nations, there are signs in the text itself, as well as in subsequent interpretation, that at least some of the ‘servant’ passages in Isaiah may have an individual, representing the nation, in mind. That is where, we might also suggest, the belief that Israel’s god will restore the nation after exile breaks through into the belief—albeit not yet expressed very clearly—that he will restore the nation’s representative after death. The earlier national hope thus transmutes, but perfectly comprehensibly, into the hope that Israel’s god will do for a human being what Israel always hoped he would do for the nation as a whole. From there we can perceive a more obvious straight line to Daniel 12, where the nation’s representative has become plural. The experience of suffering, persecution and martyrdom had, so the writer believed, brought the exile to a new and appalling climax. The suffering righteous ones had found themselves enacting, corporately, the role of Isaiah’s servant.

Two preliminary conclusions follow from this, which we can set out in terms of the relations between the three positions presented in this chapter: (a) the dead are ‘asleep with the ancestors’; (b) the dead may be ‘received’ by YHWH into some continuing life; and (c) some at least of the dead can hope for resurrection after any such ‘life after death’.

First, (c) is not so much a development out of (b), as is sometimes suggested; it is, rather, a radical development from within (a) itself. The resurrection hope does not deny, as (b) seems at least to deny, that at death people go to Sheol, to the dust, to the grave. Nor does it affirm, as (b) seems at least to affirm, that a non-bodily post-mortem existence, in the presence and love of YHWH, is the final good for which one might hope. It does not deny that the dead are now ‘asleep’. It simply affirms—against, admittedly, the clear denials in several statements of (a)—that YHWH will do something new for them after that. The same theological and devotional belief that seems to have generated (b) can be seen also under (c)—the belief, that is, not that humans are innately immortal, but that YHWH’s love and creative power are so strong that even death cannot break them. However, (c) (resurrection in the future) is a quite different sort of thing from (b) (happy disembodied life after death), and is closer in all sorts of ways, in theology and in practical effect, to (a) itself (in which the only future hope is that of the nation, not the individual).

Second, the meanings of ‘bodily resurrection for dead humans’ and ‘national restoration for exiled/suffering Israel’ are so closely intertwined that it does not matter that we cannot always tell which is meant, or even if a distinction is possible, in relation to particular passages; that is part of the point. The intertwining adds to the robustness of the emerging belief. The idea of resurrection was not an odd ‘apocalyptic’ invention, intruding into an otherwise easy progression towards a spiritual (in the sense of ‘non-bodily’) hope.

If this account of the origin of resurrection belief in ancient Israel is anywhere near the mark, it outflanks the two other accounts that have often been given. Each is, in any case, subject to damaging criticism in its own right.

The first account, which remains popular in some quarters despite being regularly refuted, attempts to trace the emergence of Israelite belief in resurrection to ancient Zoroastrianism, pointing out that the belief seems to have emerged in Israel around the time, or shortly thereafter, that Israel was exiled in the parts of the world—Babylon, then Persia—where Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian empire. This proposal has been debated for well over a century, hampered not least by our radical uncertainty (because of the lateness of the primary sources) as to what ancient Zoroastrianism actually consisted of. John Day has pointed out that since Daniel, the main biblical exponent of the doctrine, is clearly echoing not only Isaiah but also Hosea, this takes the stream of thought back behind any likely influence from Persia; and that, when Ezekiel speaks of the dead being raised from their graves, this cannot be related to Zoroastrianism, since the Persians exposed, rather than buried, their dead.169 We may add that the thrust of resurrection, emerging around the time of the exile and being re-emphasized in the second century BC, was upon Israel’s status as the unique chosen people of the one creator god. To express this by borrowing a key idea from the very people who were causing the problem—like a prisoner of war trying to escape by putting on the hated uniform of the oppressing forces!—does no justice to the much subtler process of reflection, devotion and vision that seems to have taken place. Indeed, the very understatedness of the idea in Isaiah 53 strongly implies otherwise. The only way the Zoroastrian hypothesis could make any sense would be for resurrection to be seen as an odd, extraneous addition to Israelite faith—as it is, for instance, when a now discredited idea of ‘apocalyptic’ prevails, in which that mood or movement is seen as dualistic in the same sense that, according to most analysts, Zoroastrianism was. But the emerging Israelite belief in resurrection was not dualistic. It was a development, albeit a startling one, whose roots lay deep within ancient Israel itself. It grew directly from the emphasis on the goodness of creation, on YHWH as the god who both kills and makes alive, and on the future of nation and land.

What then of the alternative hypothesis, espoused by Day and others: that the first hints of resurrection (in Hosea, particularly) were derived by a process of imitation from the dying and rising deity (Baal) of Canaanite mythology? This proposal, which resurfaces from time to time in the guise of similar speculations about the origin of Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, has some initial plausibility in relation to Hosea, since the cults he opposed certainly included religions of this type. Hosea 6:1–2 (‘he has torn, that he may heal … after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him’) can indeed be read as the kind of prayer the prophet might ascribe to Baal-worshippers who are now invoking YHWH (insincerely), and who are themselves borrowing the language of new life after death from their surrounding culture. That would explain why he seems to reject such a prayer as useless. According to Day, Hosea is ironically suggesting (as in 13:1) that Israel deserves to die for worshipping Baal, in which case repentance would mean resurrection. But even if he is correct, it is hard to see this as more than one starting-point from which subsequent traditions, under different circumstances, made their own way forwards, through the fleeting references in Hosea, through the varied passages in Isaiah, and finally to Daniel.174

In particular, the hypothesis of Canaanite origins hardly explains either Daniel 12, or the two Isaiah passages which it employs, or Ezekiel 37. In addition, there is no reason to think that the dying and rising of Canaanite gods was a concept ever applied to Canaanites themselves, either nationally or individually. Furthermore, it was axiomatic to Yahwism that YHWH was not like those deities, specifically in that he did not die and rise. He was not a vegetation god, part of a fertility-cult; he was sovereign over creation, not a part of it. This, indeed, may help to explain why Jewish thinkers came to a belief in resurrection only very late, when the main opponent to traditional belief was not a local vegetation-cult, but the power of Babylon and, later, Syria.176 We may make a similar point to the earlier one about the unlikeliness of Zoroastrian borrowings: if Israel’s exile had come about through compromise with the pagan gods and their nature-religions, it is hardly likely that the prophets who predicted that the exile would be undone, and the covenant renewed, would borrow a central image from those religions to develop their theme. The safest conclusion we can draw is that the belief in resurrection we find in Daniel 12:2–3 is the surprising but comprehensible result of the bringing together of two other beliefs: (a) Israel’s ancient belief that her god, YHWH, was the creator god, and that human life reflecting his image meant bodily life in this world, not disembodied post-mortem existence; and (b) the new belief that Israel’s exile was to be seen as the punishment for sin, and the belief that exile reached a kind of climax in the fate of the martyrs. YHWH’s answer to his people’s exile would be, metaphorically, life from the dead (Isaiah 26, Ezekiel 37); YHWH’s answer to his people’s martyrdom would be, literally, life from the dead (Daniel 12). This was a bold step indeed, but it was the last step in a comprehensible line of thought going back to the earliest roots of Israelite belief.

5. Conclusion

The constant factor, throughout the types of belief we have surveyed, is Israel’s god himself. The vision of YHWH’s creation and covenant; his promises and his faithfulness to them; his purposes for Israel, not least his gift of the land; his power over all opposing forces, including finally death itself; his love for the world, for his human creatures, for Israel in particular, and especially for those who served him and followed in his way; his justice, because of which evil would eventually be condemned and righteousness upheld—this vision of the creator and covenant god underlies the ancient belief in the national and territorial hope, the emerging belief that the relationship with YHWH would be unbreakable even by death, and the eventual belief that YHWH would raise the dead. The biblical language of resurrection (‘standing up’, ‘awakening’ etc.), when it emerges, is simple and direct; the belief, though infrequent, is clear. It involves, not a reconstrual of life after death, but the reversal of death itself. It is not about discovering that Sheol is not such a bad place after all. It is not a way of saying that the dust will learn to be happy as dust. The language of awakening is not a new, exciting way of talking about sleep. It is a way of saying that a time will come when sleepers will sleep no more. Creation itself, celebrated throughout the Hebrew scriptures, will be reaffirmed, remade.

The national element in this hope is never abandoned. The promise remains. But out of that promise there has grown something new, which, once grown, will not (as we shall see) wither away: the belief in resurrection, not just as an image for the restoration of nation and land but as a literal prediction of one element in that restoration; not simply metaphor, but also metonymy. It is that double function that we shall now explore as we trace the meaning of ‘resurrection’, within the broader context of continuing thought about life after death, through the turbulent world of second-Temple Judaism.

[16] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 677–678.

Jesus deliberately endured the full physical pain of the cross. The passion tradition not only employs Simon carrying Jesus’ cross to underline the horrendous failure of disciples to share Jesus’ cross, but it juxtaposes this failure with Jesus’ willingness to suffer. The wine mixed with gall (27:34) may have been intended to dull his pain (cf. Prov 31:4–7). Mark’s “myrrh” (Mk 15:23) had many uses, among them narcotic properties that may induce sleep (scholars cite Dioscorides Pedanius Materia Medica 1.44.3); it is reported that Jerusalem’s respected women provided (financially or in person) a narcotic to men being executed to diminish their pain (b. Sanh. 43a; Jeremias 1971: 225; Lane 1974a: 564; Blinzler 1959 252–53 and n. 27).210 Whether or not Matthew’s implied audience would find such a narcotic implied in his “gall,” they would expect the wine itself to serve a pain-killing function (Prov 31:6–7). Once he tasted the wine and its additive, Jesus may have refused it, in part because of his vow in 26:29 (Moule 1965: 126; cf. 27:48; Num 6:4); but Jesus apparently refused it also because he had come to share humanity’s pain, and had to experience it in full.

[17] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 666.

ἀπὸ δὲ τοῦ φόβου αὐτοῦ ἐσείσθησαν οἱ τηροῦντες καὶ ἐγενήθησαν ὡς νεκροί. Compare 14:26; 27:54 (those guarding [οἱτηροῦντες] the crucified Jesus see an earthquake and become afraid); also MT Dan 10:7 (an angelophany causes trembling, ḥǎrādâ). The first few words are a variation of the old formula, ‘fear and trembling’ (as in Gen 9:2; 1 Cor 2:3; etc.; the expression connotes terror, not reverence). σείω replaces τρόμος in order to create a wordplay (σεισμός/ἐσείσθησαν). In Mk 16:5 it is the women who are amazed. For ὡς νεκροί as a way of underlining fear see also Rev 1:17 and T. Job 30:2. The response of the Roman guards to the angel has many parallels, for fear is what people feel in the presence of an other-worldly being.

[18] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 579.

The command to flee to the mountains (24:16) makes good sense and is probably authentic. Most scholars today accept Eusebius’s report (H.E. 3.5.3) that the Christians did indeed flee to Pella. That Pella is not in the Judean mountains (Moule 1965: 106) but in foothills and reached from the Jordan valley thus makes doubtful any suggestion that Jesus’ saying was merely conformed to the events of 66–70 (Meier 1980: 283; Gundry 1982: 482). Nevertheless, Palestine’s central mountain range provided a natural place to flee (e.g., 1 Sam 23:14; Ezek 7:15–16; Jos. War 2.504; cf. Ps-Philo 6:11, 18; 27:11), as mountainous areas with caves often did (Diod. Sic. 34/35.2.22; Dion. Hal. 7.10.3; Appian C.W. 4.17.130; Arrian Alex. 4.24.2). Although the exhortation is too general to be sure, the language might even allude to the familiar 1 Maccabees 2:28 (cf. Dodd 1968: 82).

[19] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 706–707.

This should warn us against finding clear systematic structures — although scholars have not failed to make the attempt. In this connexion Conzelmann’s work on Luke has proved seminal: it has much influenced the study of Matthew. Strecker discovers certain historical, geographic, and chronological interests in Matthew and a three-stage scheme of salvation-history. There is the time of preparation, that is, the history of Israel prior to Jesus. Then there is the time of Jesus in which the appeal is exclusively to Israel. Finally there is the time of the church, which lasts to the end of the world. Strecker emphasizes and finds in Matthew a process of ‘historicizing’ the Jesus tradition: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection belong to the past and constitute the turning-point between Israel and the church. Rolf Walker offers another scheme. For him salvation-history in Matthew runs from Abraham to the consummation of the age; but its course reveals certain marked stages: (i) from Abraham to the birth of Jesus the Messiah; (ii) the messianic age which goes through (a) the time of the proclamation of the Gospel to Israel only, a time which extends to AD 70, and (b) the new and final period of history, that of the mission to the Gentiles. Then again there is Kingsbury’s bipartite scheme. For him there are two stages in salvation-history — (i) the time of Israel preparatory to and prophetic of the coming of the Messiah and (ii) the time of Jesus, which is not separated from the present time of the church but is continuous with it. John Meier has proposed yet one more scheme. On his reading the turning-point in history is not the life of Jesus as a whole, as Kingsbury holds, but the death and resurrection. The old age symbolized by the temple comes to an end with the end of Jesus: the new age then begins and Gentiles respond to Jesus. Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection the mission was restricted to Israel; afterwards it is universal. Up to the death and resurrection the law of Moses was in force; but with the passing away of the old world (5:17–20) the new law of Jesus is operative.

The sort of schematizations which Strecker, Walker, Kingsbury, Meier, and others detect in Matthew are antecedently improbable if we take seriously the unsystematic way of thinking prevalent among rabbis. Where Matthew did write schematically he made this clear, as in 1:1–18.

One thing, nevertheless, all these scholars have justifiably insisted upon — the cruciality of Jesus, the centrality of his rôle in history. In this they have rightly understood Matthew. No interpretation which does not recognize the messianic-eschatological character of Jesus and the movement which he inaugurated can do justice to our Gospel.

But this fundamental fact has consequences which those scholars who have propounded schematizations have not sufficiently taken into account. Messianism is endemically revolutionary, as Gershom Scholem has established. If Sabbatai Zvi, for whom we have abundant documentation, is any Messiah to go by, the appearance of a person thought by many to be the Messiah inevitably provokes complex, confusing, and often highly contradictory reactions and events in which customary boundaries are crossed, ignored, and transcended. The messianic is a mix of explosive freedom in turn calling forth restraint. This is why the messianic situation, social and political, has to be taken with the utmost seriousness in interpreting Matthew. What is characteristic of all the schematizations proposed is that they too easily cut the Gordian knots of Matthew’s contradictions: they do not sufficiently recognize the complexity of the historical situation which Matthew faced. Contradiction is endemic to any messianic situation. The newness of messianism does not make for logical rigidity or consistency. Strecker and Walker refer to a time when the mission to the Jews had ceased for Matthew. Yet it is clear that, despite all opposition and failure, for Matthew the Jewish mission was still open. This is why the Jewish crowds still sometimes appear in a neutral or even positive light.

Although Matthew used the term ‘ecclesia’, his book gives no special name for those who, along with himself, were followers of Jesus.. In any case it is hardly likely that he thought of such a period as ‘the time of the church’. He was himself a Jew. How could the time of Israel be for him past? Matthew did to be sure recognize that the situation differed before and after Easter. He did not, however, explicitly reconcile 10:5 with 28:18–20. Perhaps exclusive attention to the accumulation of the implicit and explicit theological meanings of the text obfuscates the contradictory social realities behind Matthew. To take seriously, for example, that Matthew’s community was a deviant Jewish community compels the questioning of much in the schematic interpretations and the resolutions of the contradictions of the Gospel.

[20] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 3, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 328–331.

One approach holds that much or most of Matthew 24 is fulfilled prophecy. According to France, Matthew, pp. 333–6, vv. 3–35 have to do with the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred within Jesus’ ‘generation’, vv. 36ff. with the parousia whose date is unknown. Brown (v) argues similarly, although for him v. 32 is the point at which eschatology proper appears. Already Theophylact, ad loc., offered a like analysis, but he found the transition in v. 23. John Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae, ad loc., even contended that the entire chapter concerns AD 70.

We are unpersuaded. The eschatological reference of vv. 6–13, 21–2, and 27–31 is scarcely to be doubted in view of (i) the many Jewish, Christian, and Matthean parallels (cited below), (ii) the dependence upon the eschatological prophecies of Daniel, and (iii) the absence of clear indications to the contrary.12 Further, the addition of ‘nor on a Sabbath’ (v. 20) strikes us as odd if after the fact (see below).

A second opinion, which holds that chapter 24 is purely eschatological, is favoured by (i) the thoroughly eschatological nature of the language, (ii) the linguistic unity of the discourse,14 which argues against referring different sections to different events, and (iii) the ‘immediately’ of v. 29; for if Matthew wrote much after AD 70, he could not have thought the parousia would follow immediately upon the destruction of the temple, which in turn makes it unlikely that vv. 15ff. depict that destruction.

The chief objection to this approach — that if the discourse is purely eschatological, there is no direct answer to the question about the temple — falls to two observations: (i) the event was past and so the answer was known to all; (ii) Matthew elsewhere leaves narrative ends dangling (see e.g. 1, p. 107).

We add a third point. The commentators assume that, if Matthew wrote after AD 70, the prophecy of the temple’s destruction would inevitably have been seen as fulfilled. But v. 15 implies that the temple will yet play a rôle in history. Did Matthew, like other ancient Jews and (probably) the author of Barn. 16:3–4, expect the temple to be rebuilt (and then destroyed again) before the end? It is also possible that he took Jesus’ prophecy literally and knew that the temple had not been entirely reduced to rubble (‘at least the southern portion of the Temple enclosure was spared’17). Before AD 135 Jews had access to the remains of the temple and, although cult activity had probably ceased, the site no doubt continued to attract pilgrims and devotion. That it was not obliterated and forgotten is demonstrated by Hadrian’s erection of ‘a temple of Jupiter on the site of the Temple of God’ (Dio Cassius 69:12:1–2) — an act of humiliation otherwise pointless. A future desolation was thus thinkable.

A third option urges that our text refers to both the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia and holds them in close chronological sequence. So Plummer, p. xxxii, suggesting a date for Matthew between AD 70 and 75. Favouring this is the local nature of vv. 15ff. (‘those in Judaea’) and the ‘immediately’ of v. 29. V. 34 — ‘all these things’ will come upon ‘this generation’ — can also be regarded as supportive. But most recent commentators have rightly preferred a later date for our Gospel; see 1, pp. 127–38.

A fourth approach also thinks of both AD 70 and the end of the world. Unlike the third, however, it finds not a chronological sequence — first the destruction of the temple, then (soon) the end — but a single prophecy with two fulfilments. Already Ephrem the Syrian reported: ‘It is said that he [Jesus] was speaking of the punishment in Jerusalem and at the same time referring to the end of this world’ (Comm. Diat. 18:14). According to Meier, Matthew, p. 283, vv. 14–22 refer simultaneously to AD 70 and the future. We are reminded of the Antiochean school’s notion of theoria, according to which the OT can prophesy two things at once. That some such idea was not foreign to our text’s age is clear from Jewish apocalypses such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, which use past events (e.g. Jerusalem’s first destruction) as transparent ciphers for contemporary events (e.g. Jerusalem’s second destruction).

Our own view holds that vv. 4ff. are a depiction of the entire post-Easter period, interpreted in terms of the messianic woes. This means that the discourse, which freely mixes experience with topoi, concerns the past, the present, and the future. What has happened will continue to happen and only get worse: ‘the mystery of lawlessness is already at work’ (2 Thess 2:7). Whether the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is directly referred to in vv 15ff. or is instead indirectly included in the tribulations of vv. 15ff. we are uncertain. But if the former, AD 70 does not exhaust the significance of vv. 5ff., which plainly envisage eschatological events to come. So the answer to the disciples, two-part question in v. 3 is this: the temple will be destroyed during the tribulation of the latter days, which runs from the first advent to the second; and after that tribulation the end — whose date cannot be known — will come.

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.