Friday, December 19, 2008

The Writings of Luke and the New Prophecies

This is the third post in a series reviewing various New Testament writings and particularly how they handle "new prophecies" -- that is, prophecies of the future that were newly made during the New Testament era, with particular emphasis on how these new prophecies were handled by the authors who wrote the canonical gospels.

In the Gospel of Luke, we can again trace the same three prophecies as in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem along with the destruction of the Temple. However, some of the more interesting material on Luke's handling of the new prophecies is seen in the book of Acts. The fact that this author wrote more than one surviving work covering similar types of material provides a unique perspective into the author's purpose and approach in handling prophecies. After looking at the same prophecies as in Matthew and Mark, we'll consider those as well.

Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial
Readers who have followed this series are, by now, familiar with the general approach to recording Peter's denial in Matthew and Mark. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, records a prophecy of Peter's denial (Luke 22:34) and records the fulfillment of that prophecy as Peter denies knowing Jesus (Luke 22:60-62). The record of the prophecy's fulfillment again contains explicit mention that the prophecy was remembered when it was fulfilled. Here Luke stays close to the material and approach already known from earlier sources such as Mark.

Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection
In Luke's handling of the prophecies of Jesus' death and resurrection, we find one such prophecy at Luke 9:22 just before the transfiguration, as in Matthew and Mark. Luke does not repeat the prophecy as Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain, as Matthew and Mark do. Luke records Jesus repeating the prophecy at 18:31-33, and here he records the disciples' incomprehension, which Mark had mentioned in a somewhat different form as the disciples came down from the mountain after the transfiguration.

When recording the fulfillment of these prophecies, Luke records details not found in Matthew or Mark. He also places repeated emphasis on the remembrance of the prophecy:
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee, 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8, emphasis added)
And again,
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44, emphasis added)
Particularly in the record of the fulfillment of the resurrection, we see Luke contributing information not known from Mark or Matthew, and showing some independence from both Mark and Matthew.

Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple
The prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple was seen as a fairly short passage in Mark, then as an extended section in Matthew. Luke also has an extended section on the prophecy of the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Luke 21). There is another possible prophetic allusion to the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 23:28-31, though that is not so clearly worded as to be classified beyond dispute as a prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction.

"No one knows the day or the hour" -- this hesitancy formula was seen once in Mark shortly following the prophecy of Jerusalem's fall. As we saw, it was repeatedly emphasized in Matthew, both following the prophecy of Jerusalem's fall and also in passages more closely associated with Jesus' return from a long absence to pronounce judgment. Here in Luke, we see a form of the "no one knows" passage in a parable of the Last Judgment (Luke 12:46; see Matthew 24:50, possibly Mark 13:35). In Luke, this is far removed from the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem. Did Luke place it there because he knew that Jerusalem had now fallen, or did he place it there because even in Mark the "no one knows" motif is contextualized in the "return from an absence", which is not necessarily the fall of Jerusalem?

Again, Luke has no mention of the fulfillment of this prophecy. Why not? The author has made a point of recording the fulfillment of prophecies; it is part of his intended material. Would Luke omit mentioning the fulfillment of a prophecy if it had already been fulfilled? If so, why mention the prophecy at all? Had the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple simply not happened yet, providing a fairly straightforward reason why it was not mentioned? Or was it merely outside the scope of his narrative, outside the scope of his intended material, and was not mentioned for that reason? Would a concern for limiting and focusing the scope of his narrative outweigh his concern to mention the fulfillment of prophecies? To consider this, we are fortunate to have more than one document written by Luke. The other document, the book of Acts, sheds light on that question.

From Luke to Acts
In the gospel of Luke, the author had developed what he intended as a historical narrative of what could be known with certainty about Jesus of Nazareth. In the book of Acts, the author seems to intend a historical narrative of the growth of the religious movement viewed as a continuation of the narrative about Jesus, now focusing on those who proclaimed the message about him, the message that Luke had set out to document in his gospel.

Among these early followers of Jesus, some were reckoned as prophets. When we consider how Luke handled prophecies, we see additional examples of prophecy that have a bearing on our question. We find that we do have an example of a prophecy that was made in which the details of the fulfillment were not in the scope of his main narrative. Given the religious content of his writing and the religious interest of his readers, how would Luke have handled a prophecy with a fulfillment outside his main narrative?

Acts: Agabus' prophecy of a famine
Agabus receives only two brief mentions in the Bible, both of them in the book of Acts. Luke introduces Agabus as a prophet:
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30, emphasis added)
Here we have Luke recording a prophecy of a famine, but the famine itself is not within the narrative scope of his writing. Still, we see Luke mention the fulfillment of the prophecy. Luke may have recorded the fulfillment because he had recorded the prophecy and now wanted to show that his record was reliable, or that Agabus was a reliable source, or that the Christian movement had special gifts of the knowledge of God. Luke may have also recorded the fulfillment because of the involvement of later Christians during the time when the prophecy was fulfilled (see vv. 29-30), though it would hardly be necessary to mention the prophecy if this were the whole of the reason. Compared with other prophecy/fulfillment pairs we have seen in Luke's writings, there is no "remembrance" or "told you so" clause; then again, the prophecy and its fulfillment are recorded together in the narrative with no intervening material. Here we see that Luke records the fulfillment of a prophecy even when the details of the fulfillment are outside his area of direct interest. The prophecy itself as a prophecy seems to be of interest to Luke so that he records the fulfillment, even though there is not much interest in recording the famine as such.

Acts: Agabus' prophesy of Paul's arrest
For thoroughness' sake, we will also review the other prophecy which Luke records from Agabus.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'" (Acts 21:10-11)
In this case, the fulfillment of the prophecy -- Paul's arrest -- is of direct interest to Luke, and he records the fulfillment in some detail later in the same chapter.

While trying to determine whether the gospel of Luke was written before or after the fall of Jerusalem, the internal evidence within the gospel of Luke was much the same as that from the gospel of Matthew. That is, the silence about the destruction of Jerusalem was striking given the author's pattern of pointing out the fulfillment of prophecy, but this break in pattern may not be persuasive in that we can easily imagine other reasons for this break in pattern, particularly that it may have been outside the scope of his narrative, and given that Luke -- in distinction to Mark or Matthew -- lacks the "no one knows" disclaimer in any text associated with the fall of Jerusalem. The lack of the "no one knows" disclaimer is in itself a flag. But a flag of what? A flag that Luke considered the "no one knows" material to have been misplaced, in that he records it elsewhere? A flag that Luke knew a version of Mark with a different version of the "no one knows" formula, as there are textual variants there? Or a flag that Luke knew when Jerusalem fell when he wrote the his gospel, but chose not to mention the prophecy's fulfillment? From the gospel of Luke alone, the evidence is ambiguous, much as it was with Matthew.

It is the book of Acts which provides a way to evaluate how likely Luke would have been to keep silence about a fulfilled prophecy that happened to be outside the scope of his main narrative. We see in Luke's handling of the prophecy of the famine: if Luke records a prophecy, Luke at least works in a mention of its fulfillment if he is aware of it, even if the mention is pointedly brief so as not to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophecy and fulfillment, or that he had more interest in Agabus' reputation than Jesus' reputation, or that Luke did not know of the fall of Jerusalem when he wrote the gospel of Luke. Based on the texts we have, the first two seem implausible to me, and the third option seems the most plausible. Bear in mind that the main reason for dating the synoptic gospels later than the fall of Jerusalem has been their inclusion of the prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction. But in one gospel after another we have seen that this is the only new prophecy whose fulfillment is not recorded. In Matthew and Mark, this prophecy is accompanied by a hesitancy formula that is in sharp contrast to the "remembrance" and "told you so" formulas seen for the prophecies that were known to have been fulfilled. In Luke, this prophecy is not granted even a passing mention of fulfillment such as Luke grants to Agabus and his famine.

The argument for a late date based on the existence of these prophecies is an incomplete argument; it neglects to study how the authors handle the fulfillment of prophecy, and the evidence that the authors consistently record such a fulfillment whenever it is known. Based on the internal evidence of how the synoptic gospels handle the fulfillment of the recorded prophecies, it seems likely to me that the three synoptic gospels were written before the fall of Jerusalem.

I hope I haven't tired everyone on the subject yet, but I still have two more posts intended in this series: the 'let the reader understand' comments during the prophecy of the destruction, and the handling of prophecy in the gospel of John.


BruceA said...

I think you make some good points here, especially with the Acts material.

I'm not fully convinced of this:

Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophesy and fulfillment, or that he had more interest in Agabus' reputation than Jesus' reputation, or that Luke did not know of the fall of Jerusalem when he wrote the gospel of Luke.

If the gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple, there is still a big difference between Agabus' prophecy fulfilled during the reign of Claudius some two decades prior, and the destruction of the Temple, which would be a current event.

It would be similar, possibly, to the difference between:
"Xyzzy predicted in the 1970s that a woman would be appointed to the Supreme Court (this happened in 1981)" and "Xyzzy predicted when Martin Luther King was assasinated that a black man would some day be elected President." I don't need to say that this was fulfilled last month.

Were someone to make the claim that the gospels were written long after the destruction of the Temple (as some have), I think they would need to justify the lack of explicit mention that the prophecy was fulfilled. But if they were written soon after, I'm not convinced that it would be necessary.

BruceA said...

Oh, and by the way,

I hope I haven't tired everyone on the subject yet,

I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying this series.