The Revision of Prophecies

In the 1990s, a Christian named Harold Camping began teaching the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. As the time approached, he used Family Radio, a station he helped create, to promote his predictions. He spent millions of dollars in donations to fund billboards and other advertisements to warn America about the coming judgment. On May 22 he emerged from his home, baffled that nothing had happened.

In the face of his failed predictions, Camping was met with two choices. The responsible and humble choice would be to admit he was a failed prophet, and to apologize to his followers (and perhaps reimburse their donations). Instead, on May 23, Camping took the irresponsible and proud choice. He handwaved May 21 as a ‘spiritual’ judgment, and revealed that the rapture would actually happen on October 21, 2011. When that date came and went, Camping knew he couldn’t fool anyone, even himself, another time. He simply hid away from the world, admitting he was wrong. (He also refused to reimburse his followers for their donations.)

Camping was not unique for this sort of revisionism. Ronald Weinland also predicted the return of Jesus for 2011. He has revised his failed predictions numerous times in the last seven years. Weinland himself is the leader of a splinter from the Worldwide Church of God sect, begun by Herbert Armstrong, who also made several failed predictions about the end of the world.

In the 19th century, the Millerites predicted the second coming for October 1844, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the end-times would conclude in September 1914. The Millerites were met with the Great Disappointment, as many abandoned the group, while others revised the prediction, and yet others insisted the prediction was ‘spiritually’ fulfilled. The Jehovah’s Witnesses revised their predictions, claiming they accurately predicted all along that 1914 was only the beginning of the end-times.

John Hagee and Mark Biltz made failed predictions that major end-times events would begin in 2014 and 2015, never admitting they misled millions of people. The International House of Prayer spiritualized their end-times prophecies that failed in the 90s. Several Christian authors and speakers revised or ignored failed predictions that Jesus would return in 1988.

Cognitive dissonance is incredibly powerful, and revising failed predictions, or revealing after the fact they were fulfilled ‘spiritually’ — invisible, inadubible, and therefore unverifiable except by taking the failed prophet on their word — is a common tactic for religious figures and communities who simply cannot tolerate the concept they were wrong.

Second Temple-Era Apocalypses

Nearly all of the apocalyptic books from the Second Temple-era and the decades soon after used pseudonymity as a literary device (John’s Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas appear to be the only exceptions), and there was a very specific reason for this. The author, living during a time of crisis, would step into character as an ancient patriarch or hero — Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, etc. — in order to reveal secret and supernatural information about the crisis before it concluded. These revelations would often be encoded through symbolism, depicted as dreams or visions given to the hero.

The intention was to assure readers that the outcome of the crisis had been foretold long ago, giving hope for the future. This is contrary to older modes of Israelite prophecy, where the future was not absolute. Instead, prophecy was intended to provoke change, to avert the disasters the people might face.1 The apocalypses differed because the very nature of their predictions required that the future was set in stone, and was able to be divinely unveiled centuries, even millennia ahead of time. But just as the readers began to wonder why these ancient revelations were only being discovered during the very crisis they happened to predict, the author would explain that he was told to hide his revelations, to seal them away. When the crisis had come, the prophecies would be restored to public eye.

However, if the crisis had not really been predicted ahead of time by an ancient hero, there was little reason to trust the actual author living at the time of the crisis would be able to predict its outcome. For people who had devoted their lives to the eschatological vision of these apocalypses, what would happen when the elaborate prophecies failed? Would they accept it and move on, or would they double down?

Revision of Fourth Ezra

Let’s use the apocalypse 4 Ezra, also known as 2 Esdras 3-14, as our initial example.

The author, wearing the historical ‘Ezra’ as his mask, suggests he was writing thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. This is long before the historical Ezra was active; the anonymous author was writing after the second fall of Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70. He picked Ezra because he was a community leader for Israel after Babylon conquered Jerusalem; the author saw himself as a new equivalent in the aftermath of Rome conquering Jerusalem. The number of thirty years may have been taken from Ezek 1.1, and so is probably a rounding up from when the author actually wrote the book, probably AD 90-95.

‘Ezra’ employs a common trope in these apocalypses: the writer describes symbolic visions, but then presents himself as ignorant of their meaning, attributing explanations of the symbolism to an angelic guide (in this case, the angel Uriel).2 The visions overlap to various degrees, but a careful reading of the visions and angelic interpretations reveals a fairly structured eschatology that revolves around one chief event: the arrival of the Messiah to bring down Rome. The author first briefly ‘predicts’ the previous century’s events leading up to his present. Then, he makes several detailed predictions how the eschaton will unfold.

  • The fourth kingdom of Daniel 7 is coming soon to conquer the world. This is the Roman Empire, when the author was writing. (12.11; 14.18).
  • The Roman Empire will have twelve emperors. The second emperor, Augustus, will rule longer than any of the others. (12.13-16)
  • Signs that the end is near: Injustice will increase. The ruling kingdom will become waste. The sun and moon and stars will go dark. There will be an unexpected ruler. Birds will flee. The Dead Sea will produce fish. There will be chaos, rampant fires, wild animal attacks, and menstruating women will give birth to monsters. Fresh water will become salt water. (5.1-13)
  • More signs that the end is near: There will be talking babies, and premature births. Crops and food will fail. Springs will run dry. Allies will war with each other. (6.18-24)
  • More signs that the end is near: There will be earthquakes, national intrigue, and failing leaders. (9.1-8)
  • More signs that the end is near: The people of the earth will become bewildered and disruptive, threatening violence against one another. Wars will be planned. (13.29-31)
  • In the days of the twelfth emperor, Domitian, the Messiah will come and bring an end to the empire. (12.31-34)
  • The people of the world will gather to war against the Messiah, but he will ascend Mount Zion, and the people will be overcome with fear and will be unable to fight him. The Messiah will conquer not with weapons, but with rebukes and the Law, freeing the oppressed people of the world. The lost tribes of Israel will be restored. (13.29-50)
  • The new Jerusalem and restored paradise will appear. The Messiah will rule for four centuries, then all will die. After seven days of silence, the dead will be raised to face the final judgment. (7.26-44)
  • The righteous will be rewarded with eternal life and peace in paradise. The wicked will be punished with torment in Gehenna, and will disappear. The righteous will become like the sun, like stars. (7, especially 7.36,61,97)

The author’s awareness of history up to his time is steady, but the moment he begins to predict even his immediate future he gets everything wrong. The Messiah didn’t rise up during Domitian’s reign, let alone destroy Rome; the new Jerusalem didn’t appear, let alone in time for four centuries of Messianic rule; the resurrection didn’t happen, let alone the final judgment.

The prophecy, in a word, failed.

But the book was kept for some reason — by Christians — and underwent revisions. Additional chapters were written at the start and end of the book (5 Ezra a.k.a. 2 Esdras 1-2 and 6 Ezra a.k.a. 2 Esdras 15-16, respectively), while chapters 11-12 suffered elaborate interpolations. The original vision of an eagle (Rome) with twelve wings (the twelve emperors) was updated to give the eagle eight more wings as well as three heads, adding eleven emperors to the original count. This would mean the redactor expected the Messiah to come during the rule of Septimius Severus.3

Revision of Daniel

Fourth Ezra is just one of many apocalypses from the Second Temple period or shortly after. The Book of Daniel is one of the earlier ones, but it exhibits many of the same tropes. The origin story of Daniel is also complex, even more than 4 Ezra.

First, prior to the second century BC, there existed a shifting collection of folktales about a Judean sage living in a foreign kingdom. At some point, this sage was named after an Ugaritic folk hero, Danel (who is also mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel as an ancient man known for his wisdom). An initial collection of folktales may have existed in a form similar to Daniel 3.31-6.28.

Next, around 167 BC, an Aramaic writer gathered, unified, and edited the Daniel folktales to have a linear narrative that followed the wise Daniel as he and a few comrades peacefully lived among their foreign rulers. The author was responding to the Syrian occupation of Israel in the early second century, which was quickly turning to violence. An apocalyptic vision was appended, based on a prophetic dream from one of the folktales, and was used to predict the outcome of the emerging war. An angelic guide explains the vision to Daniel. The book now consisted of Daniel 2-7.

Not long after, probably 166 or 165 BC, a Hebrew writer drafted a prelude that properly introduced Daniel and his comrades, and a series of additional apocalyptic visions were written, with explanations attributed to the angel Gabriel. These new visions repeat the original vision from Daniel 7 while also expanding upon it. This form of the book is nearly the final product, Daniel 1-12. (Several years later, a couple more folktales about Daniel were attached to the book, surviving in the Greek copies.)

The result was a book predicting the end of the war would happen within a matter of months. And not only the end of the war, but the eschaton itself, the full revelation of God’s kingdom upon the world, accompanied by the resurrection of the dead.

  • Four kingdoms will come, one after the other: Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. (2.31-45; 7.1-7; 8.20-21; 10.20)
  • Israel was conquered by Babylon, ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, then Belshazzar. (1-5)
  • Babylon was conquered by Media, ruled by Darius the Mede. (5.30-6.27; 11.1)
  • Media was followed by Persia, ruled by Cyrus. (6.28; 10.1)
  • There will be four more Persian kings: Cambyses, Bardiya, and Darius. The fourth, Xerxes, will fight against the Greeks. (11.2)
  • The Greek king, Alexander, will conquer much of the world, but he will suddenly die at the height of his power, and his kingdom will split between the north and the south: Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt. (8.5-8,21-22; 11.3-4)
  • The Seleucid and the Ptolemaic kingdoms will feud against each other for many generations. (11.5-20)
  • A horrible new king of the north, Antiochus Epiphanes, will rise. He will oust the Jerusalem high priest, Oniah III. He will make a covenant with Judeans who Hellenized and abandoned the Torah. He will desecrate the Jerusalem temple, endings its sacrifices, and he will outlaw the Torah and its observances. War will erupt between him and Torah-observant Judeans. (7.8,23-25; 8.9-14,23-25; 9.26-27; 11.21-22,30-39)
  • Antiochus will be attacked by the Ptolemies in Egypt, and he will retaliate by conquering Israel, Edom, Moab, Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia, but he will be worried about news from north and east. (11.40-44)
  • Antiochus will set up his tents between the sea and the mountain. He will be killed by divine intervention. The Torah-observant of Israel will be rescued, and God will give the world’s kingdom to them. (7.26-27; 8.25; 9.27; 11.45-12.1)
  • The dead will be raised, some rewarded with eternal life and others with eternal punishment. The wise will become like stars. (12.2-3)

Dan 7.25 expected Antiochus Epiphanes to outlaw the Torah for about three and a half years. This original prediction is then made more specific in Dan 8.14, as ‘two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings’, just under 3.25 years. When this time period failed to be fulfilled, it was revised in Dan 12.11 as ‘one thousand two hundred ninety days’, just over 3.5 years. And when that passed and failed it was revised again as ‘one thousand three hundred thirty-five days’, nearly 3.75 years. For whatever reason, each revision left the previous one in the text.4

The book gave hope to the community that produced it, but each time a failed prediction left people scratching their heads, someone came along and attempted to ‘correct’ the prophecy. When the crisis ended, and the resurrection and judgment didn’t happen, people began to reinterpret the entire book as not yet fulfilled.5

Revision of Jesus’ Apocalyptic Teachings

When the Romans conquered the Levant, readers began to reinterpret the entire sequence laid out in the Book of Daniel so that the fourth kingdom was Rome. We saw before how this interpretation was spelled out in 4 Ezra.6 Jesus was also among those who interpreted Daniel in this new way.

The eschatology of Jesus is not laid out in an orderly way in any of the canonical Gospels, except for one passage found in Mark 13 (and parallels Matt 24 and Luke 21), known as the Olivet Discourse. Using this as our baseline, we can reasonably piece together his eschatology from the Synoptics. Similar to 4 Ezra, Jesus describes a series of ‘signs’ to watch for that will precede the eschaton.

  • Signs that the end is near: There will be false messiahs. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nations and kingdoms will fight one another. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. (Mark 13.5-8)
  • More signs that the end is near: The followers of Jesus must proclaim the Gospel across the world. They will be persecuted by councils, synagogues, governors, and kings. Family members will betray one another. (Mark 13.6-13; Matt 10.16-22)
  • The abomination of desolation from the Book of Daniel will be set up. The Judeans must escape their homeland if they hope to survive. There will be more false prophets and false messiahs. (Mark 13.14-23)
  • The temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. (Mark 13.1-4)
  • Jerusalem and the temple will be punished before that generation has passed away. (Matt 23.32-39)
  • The sun and moon and stars will go dark. (Mark 13.24-25)
  • The son of man will come on the clouds, gathering the chosen of Israel together from the diaspora. (Mark 13.26-27)
  • The son of man will come with the angels to establish God’s kingdom while Jesus’ generation is still alive. (Mark 8.38-9.1)
  • The son of man will come before Jesus’ followers are able to proclaim the Gospel to every town in Israel. (Matt 10.23)
  • The dead will be raised. (Mark 12.18-27)
  • The son of man will come with the angels to send them to separate the righteous from the wicked to cast judgment judgment. The righteous will become like the sun. (Matt 13.36-43)
  • The son of man will come with the angels to pass judgment from his throne. All nations of the world will be judged. The righteous will be rewarded with eternal life. The evildoers will be punished with the eternal fire. (Matt 25.31-46)
  • The son of man will sit on his throne. The twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones to judge the tribes of Israel. All thing will be renewed. (Matt 19.27-30)
  • The kingdom of Israel will be restored. (Acts 1.6-7)
  • All of this will happen before Jesus’ generation has passed away. (Mark 13.28-31)

For Jesus’ eschatology the key event is his reinterpretation of Daniel’s ‘abomination of desolation’. Originally, this was the desecration of Jerusalem’s temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC. For Jesus, the end will come after the Romans destroy the temple and conquer Judea.

Fourth Ezra did not actually predict the twelve emperors, it was written during the time of the twelfth. Likewise, Daniel did not actually predict the coming of Antiochus Epiphanes and his desecration of the temple, it was written after that had already happened. This is called prophecy ex eventu, prophecy after the fact. The accuracy of both 4 Ezra and Daniel drops to zero after their prophecies catch up with to their respective present time periods.7

The same problem exists within Jesus’ eschatology: we don’t know how much of it is from Jesus himself, or how much of his own prophecies were shaped by the authors around their knowledge of events as they had already happened. Jesus very well could have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple four decades ahead of time. I think it’s possible, even likely, he just had that much insight into the political landscape of his time. But once we reach the destruction of the temple in the timeline of his eschatology, all accuracy drops to zero. After Jerusalem fell, the son of man did not come with the angels, the dead were not raised, the kingdom of Israel was not restored, the son of man did not judge the nations of the world, and the apostles did not become judges over the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now, nearly two thousand years later, we have thousands of competing interpretations of Jesus’ predictions. They generally fall under three schools of thought, each with their own method of solving the inherent problems. The Historicist school stretches out Jesus’ eschatology across hundreds of years, so that they began to be fulfilled in the first century, but are still ongoing. The Futurist school revises the prophecies, changing the meaning of basic words (like ‘this’, or ‘generation’) so that Jesus’ predictions are now perpetually on the horizon.

The Preterist school of thought appears to have risen sharply in the last twenty years. I would speculate this is in reaction to the persistent failure of Futurist teachings, which dominated twentieth century Christianity. Preterism acknowledges the expectations by Jesus for his predictions to be fulfilled during his own generation’s lifetime. To protect the integrity of this clear temporal restriction, Jesus’ prophecies which succeeded are left literal (e.g. his prediction of the temple being destroyed), while his prophecies which failed are ‘spiritualized’ away (the arrival of the son of man was the invisible enthronement of Jesus in heaven). Some Preterists even go so far as to say that the second coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment also occurred in AD 70, while the majority simply dissociate these events from the rest of Jesus’ predictions and cast them into an undetermined time in our future.

Conclusion

Mark was the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written. When Matthew and Luke were written, they each took Mark and built on his narrative by adding information from other sources about Jesus, while reworking parts of Mark. Which is to say, when we read the Olivet Discourse in either Matthew 24 or Luke 21, both of those texts are expansions upon, and revisions of, Jesus’ prophecy. Mark 13 predicted that the coming of the son of man (i.e. the return of Jesus) would happen after Jerusalem fell to Rome in AD 70, but Matthew and Luke were each written more than a decade after AD 70.

Matthew’s author solution was twofold. He first inserts a vague buffer, ‘the sign of the son of man’, between the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the son of man. What this ‘sign’ was, or when the author expected it, is left ambiguous, but it succeeded in padding out the timeline of Jesus’ prophecy for at least a little while. Then, where Mark 13 ends with Jesus imploring his followers to ‘stay awake’, Matthew continues with a parable in 24.43-51. (Luke also has this parable, but it places it chapter 12.39-48, much earlier in the narrative.) This parable contrasts the way two servants behave while their master is away. The dutiful slave completes the tasks he was assigned. But the other slave? He disobeys the orders he was given, because ‘my master is delayed’. The idea had set in that the son of man did not arrive when Jesus said he would.

The author of Luke came up with another solution. As seen throughout Luke-Acts, this author was partial to the inclusion of non-Judeans into the Jesus movement. By the time he was writing his books, the gentile followers of Jesus far outnumbered Judean followers. So he invented the ‘age of the gentiles’, a time period that would take place between the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the son of man. He didn’t need to worry about defining its length, for it was an ‘age’; it could last for decades, even centuries.

Followers of a prophetic message revising that very prophecy when it fails is not a recent phenomenon within Christianity. It didn’t start with Harold Camping in the twenty-first century. It didn’t start with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the twentieth century. It didn’t start with the Historicist, Futurist, or Preterist schools when they emerged amid the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. It started with the earliest Christians, in the first century.


1 Craig Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, 33.

2 Cf. Hill, 61-63; John Collins The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 8. Common tropes in Second Temple-era apocalypses include: symbolism visions, angelic guides, cosmic dualism, prophecy ex eventu, scenes of the afterlife, defeat of evil.

3 Lorenzo DiTommaso, ‘Dating the Eagle Vision of 4 Ezra: A New Look at an Old Theory’, JSP 20, 3-38.

4 John Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia), 400-401. For his review of the evidence concerning the book's formation through successive additions, see pages

5 That the Book of Daniel underwent revisions to correct a failed prediction regarding the duration of a crisis is ironic. The prophecy of seventy ‘weeks’ in Dan 9 is itself a revisionistic interpretation of the failed prophecies in Jer 25.11-12 and 29.10-14, which state that the Judeans would be exiled in Babylon for seventy years. Depending on if we begin the exile in 587 BC (Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem) or 597 BC (Nebuchadnezzar takes Jerusalem’s king into exile), the Babylonian exile only lasted 49-59 years. Even the historical revisionism in Daniel 1, which has the exile begin in Nebuchadnezzar’s first year as king (605 BC), still falls short by three years.

6 The first-century Judean historian Josephus also believed Daniel predicted Rome would conquered Jerusalem (Judean Antiquities 10.11.7).

7 Hill, 100.