Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This Generation

On the Answering Muslims blog the question of the meaning of "this generation" as used in the Olivet Discourse as found in the synoptic Gospels came up (see the comment section - here). Some argued that it could mean "this race" or something other than "this generation". Many Christians believe it is necessary to make this move in order to prove that Jesus (or the disciples) did not make a false prediction that He would come in the first century. Ironically, it is just because people have argued that Jesus did not return in judgment in the first century that has led unbelievers who take the phrase "this generation" according to its clear meaning to argue that Jesus and the early Christians were wrong in their expectations. But taking the phrase as it is uniformly translated does not at all create a problem, at least not if one interprets the rest of the passage(s) that bear on the subject according to the way such language is used throughout the Bible, particularly in apocalyptic sections. In other words, the phrase should be translated "this generation", and these things did come to pass exactly as Jesus, interpreted against the backdrop of the Old Testament prophets, predicted that they would.

The following are my reasons for thinking the phrase is properly translated as "this generation". Perhaps in future posts I will go through the entire discourse in Matthew, beginning back in chapter 23, and show how all of these things comport with what happened in the first century. Suffice it to say here, beginning back in Matthew 23 Jesus is clearly indicting His first century hearers, particularly the Jewish leadership, for rejecting Him, and telling them the wrath of God would fall on them. As Jesus exits the Temple area with His disciples, they point out the beauty of the Temple, apparently because He has just said it will be desolated, which provokes Christ to respond that the Temple would be destroyed. At this the disciples ask Jesus when these things will be, and Jesus proceeds to tell them what to look for. He speaks of many things that will happen before the end, including earthquakes, wars, famines, the coming of false Christ's, the abomination of desolation being set up in the temple, Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, etc. After they see all of this happen, they are to flee from Jerusalem, for her destruction is near. Immediately after all of the above happens, the very heavens would be shaken, the sign of the Son of man would appear in the sky, and faithless Jerusalem would be no more. He concludes this part of the discourse by saying, "All these things shall come upon this generation". [This of course is a paraphrase and a rough synopsis.]

When one interprets these things in light of their Biblical context, and when one compares this to what happened in the first century, as we have recorded for us in detail by Josephus, who was an eyewitness, there is every reason to believe that they happened just like Jesus predicted.

There were wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets, and false Messiah's during that time period. (Many of these things are listed several times over in the book of Acts.)

Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of imperial Rome. The armies briefly withdrew only to return a short time later, and during the interim while the Jews were rejoicing thinking their disaster had been averted, the Jewish Christians left the city according to Christ's command.

The Son of Man did coming riding the clouds in judgment, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed just like He predicted. In fact, they were destroyed within a generation - AD. 70.

There is, therefore, no problem on this view with taking the phrase "this generation" literally.

None of this impinges on the truth of the return of Christ at the end of history to resurrect the dead, judge the world, and create a New Heavens and a New Earth. There are several other passages that speak of these events in contexts that are not qualified by time texts or other temporal indicators.

With that said, here are my reasons for taking "generation" and "this generation" to be the correct translation of the words, as did many of the early Christians (Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Theophlacyt, et. al.) and many other able men closer to our own times (John Gill, J. B. Lightfoot, Albert Barnes, John Wesley, C. H. Spurgeon, John A. Broadus, F. F. Bruce, and D.A. Carson, just to list a few).

1. All standard English translations render the Greek word genea in the Olivet Discourse as “generation”, not race (KJV, NKJV, NAS, ESV, etc.). Many other translations are even more explicit.

2. Greek lexicons and reference works on Greek grammar give “generation” as the primary meaning of the word (Thayer, BAGD, et. al). Even those who say the word could sometimes mean “race”, and many do not, list it as a very remote meaning.

3. A number of lexicons even make reference to the relevant passages in the Olivet discourse when giving “generation” as the meaning of the word (e.g. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, rev. ed., 112; Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 1), as do other reference works.

4. No example can be brought forward from anywhere in the New Testament outside of the Olivet discourse – excepted here because that is the verse in question – where genea must be translated as “race”. Furthermore, “race” does not appear to even be a very likely reading of any verse outside of the Olivet discourse.

5. If the disciples wanted to say race, the best word for this, a word that was at their disposal since they use it elsewhere, would have been genos.

6. Every time the word genea is used in Matthew’s Gospel (and the other Synoptics) outside of the Olivet discourse it is not only translated as “generation”, but that is the only possible translation. Translating it as “race” in such places would not fit.

7. Most importantly, the full phrase, “this generation,” which is only used by Jesus in the New Testament, can never mean “that generation”, “this race”, or “that race”. The following is every time the phrase is used (outside of the times it occurs in the Olivet discourse as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels):

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." But wisdom is proved right by her actions. “ Matthew 11:16ff.

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. “ Matthew 12:41-42

“The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him. Sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, "Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." Mark 8:12

“To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.' For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon!' "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” Luke 7:31

“As the crowds were increasing, He began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. Luke 11:29-32

“One of the lawyers said to Him in reply, "Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too." But He said, "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers. "Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. "So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs. "For this reason also the wisdom of God said, 'I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.' "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering." Luke 11:50-51

Note the following salient facts:

a. Often in these verses Jesus is directly addressing His contemporaries making it clear that what he is saying has particular reference to them.

b. To make the word mean race in many of these contexts is to put the Jews of all time under a perpetual curse. It was the generation then living that was guilty of rejecting Jesus and on whom the wrath of God would fall, not a future generation.

It is for such reasons that commentators almost never give an example where “generation” or “this generation” could be translated as “race” or “this race” and make it fit the context; they most often just assert that the word or phrase could mean the latter. On those rare occasions when they do try to give examples, I would maintain that they are not dealing squarely with the facts.

Interestingly enough, even the unprovable (and demonstrably false) assumption that the phrase means “that race” does not refute the view that the passage is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, for people who have thought this to be a possible translation have still recognized the incredible fit of everything in the passage – using the Bible of course to control how they interpret prophetic discourse, rather than ignoring Biblical idioms and imposing on the passage what such words “literally” mean to them – with what happened in the first century. For instance, the relatively well known commentator Adam Clarke, writing in 1810, believed that the phrase “this generation” could mean “this race”, though he gave no argument for this (which is but to be expected). But interestingly enough, Clarke interpreted the passage as a reference to Jerusalem’s destruction.

“This chapter contains a prediction of the utter destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem, and the subversion of the whole political constitution of the Jews; and is one of the most valuable portions of the new covenant Scriptures, with respect to the evidence which it furnishes of the truth of Christianity. Everything which our Lord foretold should come on the temple, city, and people of the Jews, has been fulfilled in the most correct and astonishing manner….” Clarke’s Commentary, 3:225