A reader has requested that we have a look at a critique of preterist interpretations of the Olivet Discourse: Biblical scholar Stanley Toussaint wrote such a critique for the journal Bibliotheca Sacra in their October-December 2004 issue. We will, of course, analyze Toussaint's material in light of our own take on the Discourse, linked below. Toussaint's primary target, however, is Gary Demar's analysis of the Discourse, with which I am not entirely in agreement.
After some introductory material, we get to a place where Toussaint addresses a view that is not quite my own: He says that preterists "believe that Christ rejected the nation Israel when He said, 'Your house is being left to you desolate" (Matthew 23:38). I do not understand Matthew 23:38 to mean such a thing. I do take it to mean that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed; in turn, since a deity's temples were regarded as an indication that a deity was "occupying" the land and blessing the people, this would be taken to mean that God had ended His covenant with the Jewish people. I do not see this as the same as "rejection" because the same people were free to join a new covenant, and had been warned in Deuteronomy to look out for a prophet like Moses and to follow him. To that extent, Israel had been told, "Look for Covenant 2.0," it had not been "rejected."
Toussaint also discusses a differentiation made by Gentry, according to Matt. 24:36, which refers to "that day" and which Gentry supposes to point to a change in time from verse 34 and a reference to "this generation." Toussaint then cites Demar's disagreement with that point. Although I cannot make a precise match, I believe I am closer to Demar's view as Toussaint describes it, especially in seeing Matthew 25:31-46 as rightly referring to a continuing event, one which continues to this day.
To this point, Toussaint has only reported views without disputing them. He begins formally disputing views with an analysis of Matthew 23:39:
For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'
I did not analyze this passage in my own evaluation of the Discourse. Toussaint objects that while verse 38 is sometimes analyzed by preterists, he has not found verse 39 so analyzed. For my part, I would say that verse 39 contains no distinctives to support any particular view. Toussaint, under a dispensational paradigm, naturally reads verse 39 in terms of Israel greeting a Messiah returning to a future Jerusalem after all of the associated "left behind" eschatological accoutrements. For the preterist, the Jerusalem in question is to be identified with the one depicted in Revelation 21:2. Both sides see this as fulfilled in what might be called a Second Advent; they simply differ as to when this will occur in the broader eschatological scheme.
A point of contention may be, as Toussaint points out, that the "you" in verse 39 refers to Israel. But my response is that "Israel" is properly defined as those who are faithful to YHWH's covenant. That would include all "physical" Jews who segue themselves into the new covenant. So the "you" as a reference to Israel is quite intelligible: At the time Jesus spoke, the only persons faithful to YHWH's covenant were those who lived in Judaea and were members of what was still the effectual Deuteronomic covenant. Thus I reckon that my own analysis evades any problems claimed by Toussaint concerning Matthew 23:39.
My own analysis of this verse was as follows:
For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
With this verse we return to the use of the key word parousia (coming). The comparison to lightning works under any scenario; it is a symbolic way of saying that the parousia will be quick and unexpected. Lightning also signified the presence of the Lord (Ex. 20:18, Deut. 33:2, etc.).
But now is the time to talk a bit further about this word parousia. As we have noted, this word is used in the Synoptics only by Matthew. Where Matthew uses parousia, Mark and Luke use a different Greek word, erchomai. Matthew does use this word in other contexts, including one which refers to Christ's "return" (Matthew 24:48).
What is the difference in nuance here? Erchomai is used over 600 times in the NT, and has a broader connotation of arrival or movement (Matt. 2:2 …where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him). It lacks the "advent" aspect of parousia, and can mean either "coming" or "going" [Wr. JVG, 361-i.e., John 8:59, "Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by,"; "going through" is dierchomai]
The point here: The words themselves say nothing about the means or process of "arrival" or of the direction, the destination, or whether from the sky or however-only parousia hints that it involves an accession of power; however, the nature of the "coming" is to be determined by further context, which we will get to shortly.
Toussaint selects illustrative quotes from DeMar and Gentry, some of which are in accord with my own, particularly the point about God's presence. However, unlike Gentry, as extensively quoted by Toussaint, I specifically connect the "coming" in this passage to Jesus' arrival at the throne of the Son of Man in heaven (per Daniel 7). So to what extent, if any, do Toussaint's criticisms apply to my views?
Unfortunately, Toussaint instead proceeds to a rather disjointed discourse not on Matthew 24, but on Zechariah 14! He presumes that the disciples held to a dispensational understanding of Zechariah 14, which he then supposes Jesus took for granted, and supposes as well that the disciples would "logically remember Zechariah 14" when Jesus spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem. Whether this would indeed be the case is one of the very points at issue!
Toussaint's further criticisms presume the division I alluded to earlier at verse 36, but to which, I have no allegiance. One point on which I must deal with Toussaint is how he defines parousia: He says that in the NT, the word is "always used of an actual presence." But this evades an important point: As I noted in my analysis of the Discourse, there are only a couple of instances of parousia in the NT that are not eschatological, and the NT does not have a linguistic wall around it!
But what, then, of Jesus answering regarding his "coming?" The word Matthew uses is parousia, and Matthew alone among the Gospels uses this word. The word means presence or arrival. Here is how it is used in an "everyday" sense:
2 Cor. 10:10 For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
1 Cor. 16:17 I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied.
Some observations on this word:
- Prior to the NT and into the second century, the word was used "for the arrival of a ruler, king or emperor." It is used for example of a special visit by Nero to Corinth, when coins were cast in honor of his visit.
- However, the term was also used in Hellenistic contexts to refer to a theophany, or a manifestation of deity. In the Greek form of several Jewish apocryphal works (Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Testament of Judah, Testament of Levi) it is "used to refer to the final coming of God." Josephus uses the term to refer to OT theophanies (Ant. 3.80, 202-3; 9:55).
In our examination of the Pauline use of this word, we will be tying together some issues and Paul's own use of parousia to refer to the time of the resurrection. For now, it should be remembered that parousia has several shades of meaning (including an "everyday" meaning whose "everyday" use by Paul suggests that it is not a technical term referring to one event), and is also clearly a word choice of Matthew. I believe that these word choices were made independently and may have caused the confusion referred to by Paul in the Thessalonian church.
But we will reserve that commentary for the other article, and will return to the word parousia in Matthew 24:27 and following, where it is next used, and discuss in that context what it means and how Jesus' "coming" could have occurred in 70 AD. It is enough for now to observe that the disciples are asking about Jesus' parousia in terms of expecting Jesus to take the throne of David as the Messiah.
Because Toussaint limits the usage of parousia, his analysis can only conform to a dispensational exegesis! In the end, however, he gets back to the "lightning" verse, and we can accept fully his contention that it means the parousia would be obvious to all. Yes, it would be! Because the destruction of Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy, it was a sign obvious to all that he had the authority of the Son of Man to be on his throne in heaven.
This verse refers to Jesus travelling on a cloud as the Son of Man in heaven, which I connect to the scene in Daniel 7. Dispensational commentators see Jesus travelling to earth from heaven; I see him travelling within heaven, to the throne of the Son of Man. Relatedly, I interpret Matthew 26:64, where Jesus says the Sanhedrin will "see" this happen, in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem as verification of Jesus' prophecies.
Toussaint quotes Demar and Gentry with positions not dissimilar to this. He replies that the passage alludes to Zechariah 12-13, which disproves a preterist reading because Zech. 13:1 predicts a "purification of the nation." But this reading of Zech. 13 begs the dispensational question. A preterist reads Zech. 13's prediction of a "fountain" for the Jews in light of the offering of the new covenant-and sees this further fulfilled by a remnant of Jews converting to that new covenant. In the meantime, God did indeed "destroy all nations that come against Jerusalem" i.e.,Rome is no more with us.
Toussaint further states that the Hebrew of Daniel 7 "does not suggest direction," and with that I have no issue; of course the same limitation strikes a dispensational interpreter as well. Toussaint further quotes Keil as saying that "there is no expression of intimation whatever that the judgment (scene of Daniel 7) is held in heaven." But this is a desperate stretch. Are we to believe, conveniently for dispensationalists, that Daniel 7 matches a scene in heaven in Revelation where there are clouds, a throne, and peoples of all nations and languages? Keil further argues that he thinks it would have been made more clear in the text that a "heaven to earth" trip was in mind, but since I view this trip as "inside heaven" Keil's argument has no relevance.
This verse concerns the "abomination of desolation," which I connect with various abominations committed in the Temple by the Zealots. Toussaint notes this as one of four options by preterists for this abomination, though I would consider it inclusive of his second option, Idumeans invited into Jerusalem by the Zealots, who killed Jewish priests. Toussaint does not deal with any of these possibilities, however, and he instead diverts by saying that because Jesus connected the abomination to Daniel's prophecy, we ought to connect the abomination to the works of Antiochus Epiphanes! However, in my own study of Daniel (link below), I explained a connection of the relevant passage (9:24-27) to first century events.
Matthew 24:21 This reference to a great tribulation, I reference with events of 70 AD. Toussaint acknowledges parallel OT language, but believes he can rebut a preterist reading by pointing to v. 22, which says that unless those days had been cut short, no one would have been saved. The judgment, he says, is on all "flesh," which he says is "a technical term referring to all humanity," and therefore, this must mean a worldwide tribulation.
Toussaint, however, begs the question much too quickly here. He notes 10 references to "all flesh" which he says means "all humanity." But the first two are from the Olivet Discourse in Matthew and Mark, and their interpretation is precisely what is at issue. Luke 3:6 refers to "all flesh" seeing the salvation of God, but unless Toussaint is a universalist, or believes that there have not been humans alive at any time other than when Jesus was incarnated, this can hardly mean every human being in the world! Here, "flesh" does not mean a human population, but human weakness. The same is true of other passages Toussaint cites (John 17:2; Acts 2:17; Rom. 3:20, etc.).
In Matthew 24:22, Jesus says "no flesh" would be saved, except for intervention. DeMar believes that the context of the passage limits the "flesh" in question to persons around Judaea at the time of war. Given that this context is indeed strongly defined by people in Judaea, both before and after v. 22, Toussaint's insertion of a concept of universal humanity into the text, combined with his incorrect reading of the term in other places to mean "all humanity," must be regarded as a failure.
Toussaint says that preterists "avoid" this verse. Perhaps some do, but I have not. Toussaint quotes those who think that believers in 70 AD could not possibly hold their heads up because their redemption was at hand. But as I have noted:
I have been asked how the destruction of Jerusalem, considering that it resulted in increased tensions between the Jews and Christians (who were then expelled from the synagogue and lost any claim to the Romans that they fell under the protected umbrella of Judaism) would have been understood by Christians as their "redemption." The answer lies in the difference of ancient personality. Such tensions upon individuals would have been placed, in the ancient mindset, secondarily to that which was better for the group and its efforts as a whole. Believe it or not, they would have taken the expulsion and persecution, not happily of course, but would have considered the redemptive sign worth the price. For more on this matter of ancient psychology, see Malina and Neyrey's, Portraits of Paul.
It is therefore false that this verse must refer to an event after Jerusalem's fall.
Toussaint next tackles preterist arguments against dispensational views, starting with the understanding of Jesus' predictions of events fulfilled in "this generation," that is, within 40 years, or the lifetimes of those present. After mentioning alleged problems for preterists with such passages (answered here by our discussion of parousia above), Toussaint first rejects the reading of "this generation" to mean "this race," then mentions and discards a view that "'this generation' refers to the future generation of Jews who will be alive when the Lord returns." He then offers a fourth option, that of a double fulfillment, but this merely begs the question and assumes the very dispensational exegesis that needs to be proved, and so Toussaint freely acknowledges other problems with this view.
The view Toussaint regards as "best" is to take the verb rendered "takes place" (Matt. 24:34: "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled (take place))" as "an ingressive aorist," such that it "emphasizes the beginning of the action with the meaning 'begin to take place.'" But this too merely begs the dispensational question, and contrives a huge, unmentioned gap of time in the Olivet Discourse. There is little reason to think that the verb is an ingressive aorist, other than that it supports the dispensational reading!
Toussaint next addresses the matter of the destruction of the Temple, which preterists see as fulfilled in 70 AD. Toussaint does not deny such a fulfillment, but opts for a question-begging double-fulfillment scenario. He makes a claim new to me, that Haggai the OT prophet "followed what may be called a principle of continuity" within which the Temple "could be razed to the ground and rebuilt and still be considered the same temple." Supposedly, a "near demonstrative" in the Hebrew of Haggai 2:3, which refers to "the latter glory of this house" establishes that the new temple to come would be regarded as "the continuation of Solomon's Temple." By this logic, Toussaint believes, it can be argued that the prophecy can also refer to a future temple. But, even if this is true, it remains a begging of the dispensational question. It also neglects the point that what would then be predicted is two destructions of the same (continued) temple, not one. The "near demonstrative" does not resolve the problem; it merely affirms that one exists.
Daniel 9 Hiatus
Preterists frequently remark on how dispensationalists insert a gap in Daniel's 70 weeks, splitting the last week from the prior 69. In my article on Daniel linked below, I noted the study of Hasel which shows that there can be no split. Since Toussaint does not address Hasel's arguments, and the sources he cites all pre-date Hasel's study (a couple of them by 30 years!), I grant Hasel benefit of the doubt on a subject outside my purview.
Toussaint then discusses an argument concerning references to "you" as a second-person plural. I do not think this argument advantages either side. I also do not think either side is advantaged by passages in which Jesus says some standing with him will see his glory. With that, we complete our examination of Toussaint's arguments.