The Prophetic Environment of the First Century
There is an important principle that must be borne in mind if one wishes to understand the actions of people who think they are living at the end-time. This especially applies to those who are convinced the Bible and its prophecies are true and will in no way fail. It simply means that every prophecy that the Bible says is destined to be fulfilled during that end-time will indeed take place. And if one expects that a generation of 40 years will witness the completion of all prophecies, then one must look at the historical events happening within that expected period to see how people living at the time interpret their relevance in bringing the age to a close.
Since it can be shown that the apostles (along with Jewish and even Gentile people) were anticipating the dawn of a new age within the 1st century, it will pay us to study the historical events which were then occurring and try to find out how those occasions were appraised by the early Christians. Obviously, the apostles were keenly aware of what was happening in the historical environment and they were carefully observing the political situations in the world. They were even told by Christ to “watch” for prophetic signs (Mark 13:37).
What were some of the historical events which inspired the apostles to imagine that the end-time prophecies were being fulfilled in the 1st century? What made the apostle Paul believe that 63 C.E. was a cardinal year for the expectation of prophecy? We have discussed some of the reasons in the last chapter, but we now need to look at the matter even closer. It will help us get a firm grasp of apostolic thinking on the matter of prophecy, and it will aid us in determining when the New Testament canon came into existence and why it was necessary to formulate a standard text for Christian belief.
The main prophecy was Christ’s teaching which seemed to say that he would return from heaven within one generation after his resurrection from the dead. This made the period of 40 years an important benchmark for prophetic fulfillment. Such a period had excellent credentials from the Old Testament as being a significant span of time, especially in prophetic and allegorical teachings. It was commonly accepted that the Exodus experience in the time of Moses was a type of that which was to occur just prior to the arrival of the Messianic kingdom. Since it took Moses 40 years to get the Israelites from their ‘baptism” at the Red Sea to the borders of the Promised Land, so it was thought in the 1st century that it would take 40 years from the “baptism” of the Christian community at Pentecost in 30 C.E. (Acts 2) until Christians would see the real Promised Land of Christ by 70 C.E.
In actual fact, the 40 years’ period of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt was a favorite theme for allegorical application in interpreting events among the Jews (and consequently Christians) who lived in the 1st century. It was felt that the events which Moses and the Israelites encountered were destined to have a repetition in the generation prior to the emergence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The New Testament writers certainly maintained this belief.
The apostle Paul in the Book of Hebrews devoted two chapters to explain how the period of the Exodus was being reflected in that generation. He taught that Christ had succeeded Moses and that Christ was the one responsible for leading God’s people into the true rest of the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 3:5–6 and following verses). The fact that Christ possessed the name of “Joshua” (Jesus) was a reminder of his prophesied role. As Joshua once led the children of Israel into the Promised Land, so the true “Joshua” (Jesus) was typically leading Christians across the Jordan River into a “sabbatical period” of a thousand years (Hebrews 4:8–10). This belief in a millennial existence for Christians is further explained in 2 Peter 3:8–10 and Revelation 20:1–4 with the early Epistle of Barnabas and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. 1
The apostle Paul was active in presenting this ‘Exodus theme” in his allegorical teachings. The passage through the Red Sea represented baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2), and the temptations that the Israelites endured for those 40 years were examples of Christian experiences in Paul’s day (verse 6). Indeed, the apostle Paul made an exact association between what happened under Moses in the Exodus period and what would befall Christians under the leadership of Christ. He said the Exodus events were types of occurrences then under way at “the end of the age.”
“Now all these things [of the Exodus] happened unto them for ensamples [types]: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”
1 Corinthians 10:11
Thus, the events of the Exodus (with the wanderings in the wilderness and how Israel reached the Promised Land) became types of Christian experiences which would result in a salvation in Christ. Even today it is common to make the analogy. We are all familiar with the music of black folklore which tells of leaving oppression and “going into Canaan’s Land,” or “Michael, row the boat ashore ... across the muddy Jordan.” And in the 1st century, crossing the River Jordan at the end of the 40 years’ Exodus period became a type of entering the true Christian rewards which Christ has prepared for his people. It was looked upon as something more than simple allegory. Christ himself seemed to say that only one generation would elapse for all things in the Old Testament to find fulfillment.
The apostles at first believed that the generation of 40 years after the resurrection of Christ (in repetition of the Exodus period) was to witness the final age just before the Millennium. The Old Testament seemed to support this prospect by its insistence that history and prophecy were to be interpreted in a circular fashion. Many modern commentators of the Scripture have not understood this principle for prophetic fulfillment, but the apostles were very much aware of it and attested to those cyclical events in history and prophecy. 2 The gist of the biblical belief was this: Significant historical events of the past were ordained by God to be repeated at special times in the future. There were several scriptures which sustained this concept of the historical cycles. It was believed that history was ordained to repeat itself.
“The sun rises and the sun goes down; back it returns to its place and rises there again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round arid round it goes and returns full circle. All streams run into the sea, yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return again. ... What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look, this is new?’ No, it has already existed, long before our time.”
New English Bible, italics mine
“Whatever is has been already, and whatever is to come has been already, and God summons each event back in its turn.”
Ecclesiastes 3:15 NEB
“Produce your cause, says the Lord, bring forth your strong reasons, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them forth and show us what will happen: let them show the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare us things to come.”
The apostles applied these Old Testament teachings concerning the reoccurrence of important historical events to their own time.
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our [1st century] learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you.”
2 Peter 2:1
“Now all these things [of the Exodus] happened unto them for types: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the age are come.”
1 Corinthians 10.11
An encouragement for the cyclical interpretation of prophecy was found in the Book of Daniel concerning the renewal of the three world kingdoms (or empires) Out of the four world empires which were mentioned in the prophecies of Daniel chapter 7, it states in verse 12 that their kingdoms would be prolonged, but in verse 17 it shows that those kingdoms which once were in existence in the 6th, 5th, and 4th centuries before Christ will be renewed together at the end of the age. This is the cyclical manner of prophecy being placed in action.
Out of the fourth empire of Daniel Seven would emerge a ruler who would be like Nebuchadnezzar of old who would become a symbolic type of a future man of evil called the son of perdition, the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:1–8), or the Beast (Revelation 13). Thus we see a duality principle in action. A man of the past would symbolically come forth at the end of the age to pursue the same kind of evil as his predecessor. Such things were believed in the 1st century. And though some non-religious people of the 20th century may feel that such beliefs are absurd, our modern opinions have no bearing on the issue in interpreting the beliefs of the past. It is what the people of the 1st century thought that can best explain their opinions, not what we might believe today.
This cyclical view of history, and how the fulfillment of prophecy was often believed to be a repetition of events or the reappearance of personalities from the past, applied not only to the prophecies concerning evil people to come, but there are also examples of righteous counterparts in early Christian opinion.
Not only were prime historical events of the past expected to be repeated, but like King Nebuchadnezzar, there were to be a renaissance of the earlier types of historical personalities. These people were thought to come in the spirit of the former person. A major doctrinal teaching of the apostle Paul was based on this belief. Paul taught that Adam was a physical type of the spiritual Christ (Romans 5:12–19) and that Christ was considered as being “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45).
The identification did not stop with Adam. The New Testament writers thought of Christ as “the second David.” Whole sections of Old Testament references to King David, particularly in the Psalms, were applied in the duality sense to Christ (Psalm 2:22, etc.). The birth of Isaac and his intended sacrifice on Upper Moriah (the Mount of Olives) were also reckoned as types of the birth and crucifixion of Christ (Galatians 3:16; Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:11 and verses 17–19). Reference was even made to a young woman in Isaiah’s time who, by the cyclical principle of interpretation, became identified with the virgin Mary who lived over 700 years later (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23). And let us not forget the identification of John the Baptist who came in the spirit of Elijah. The real Elijah appeared to Israel some 900 years before John (Matthew 11:14).
This principle of prophetic repetition was a widespread belief among early Jews and Christians. Prophets destined to appear in the future were connected with personalities who lived centuries before. The High Priest Joshua, living some 500 years before Christ, was told that he and his companions were to be signs (translated “wondered at” in the King James Version) to signal important future events. Two contemporaries of the former High Priest were called the “olive trees” of the Temple. These personalities were later identified in the Book of Revelation (in a dual sense) with two future witnesses prophesied to appear on earth just shortly before the advent of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 11:1–12). These future prophets were believed to be ordained to repeat the miracles that Moses and Elijah performed while they were on earth (Revelation 11:6). This was like Moses and Elijah reappearing in person, but this time together, and in a prophetic unity at the end of the age.
The duality principle in Jewish prophetic interpretation was especially in evidence in regard to the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, Christ Jesus became the apex of all typical achievement in the eyes of the apostles and early Christians. The apostles thought Christ to be the composite fulfillment of all the righteous accomplishments of the patriarchs, prophets, and kings of the Old Testament. Even the whole nation of Israel at the Exodus became likened to the infant Christ when he was brought out of Egypt by his parents (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:5). Christ was also accounted as the Rock who followed Israel out of Egypt (1 Corinthians 10:4) now making his reappearance on earth at the proper ordained time. He typically became the “second Moses” and the “second Joshua” to lead true Israel (Christians) out of spiritual bondage (Hebrews chapters 3 & 4).
One of the main reasons the apostles saw Old Testament personalities and events as having a dual significance in Christ and other New Testament individuals is because they believed that the Kingdom of God was to be established on earth in their generation. In a word, the apostles felt “the ends of the age” were upon them (1 Corinthians 7:29; Hebrews 10:25, 37; 1 John 2:18). This meant, to them, that all prophecies throughout the Old Testament (no matter where they were found or in what time period they were given) were to be applied to the generation which succeeded the resurrection of Christ. And even though the interpretation of these prophecies was mostly allegorical and chronologically difficult to apply, this did not dissuade the people of the 1st century from making practical applications in regard to them. It is not unusual for Christian and Jewish theologians today to think in this fashion.
Recall that the Book of Revelation drew prophecies from all over the Old Testament and combined them into a single prophetic framework which was destined to occur within one generation of 40 years and with a final period of 7 years. This resulted in ancient prophecies referring to Babylon, Tyre, Assyria, Egypt, Edom, etc., being combined together into one prophetic scenario to occur in a single generation just prior to Christ’s second advent.
Indeed, this type of prophetic interpretation was not limited to Christians alone. When one surveys the apocalyptic literature written around the time of Christ, one sees much evidence of this type of explanation being in vogue. People were identifying all types of ancient nations with political entities existing in the 1st century. The Dead Sea sectarians who lived just before and during the time of Christ interpreted the prophecies of Habakkuk about early Chaldeans as being the people of Chittim (which they acknowledged as the Romans of their day).
After all, it was evident that many of the ancient prophecies had not yet found fulfillment but it was firmly expected that all of them would occur. The generation of fulfillment was anticipated to last for 40 years (with the final 7 years being most crucial) before the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. And to the apostles that strategic end-time period was presumed to occupy the period of 40 years after Christ’s resurrection. Clearly, they thought the prophetic cycles of history would find an accomplishment in their lifetimes.
Thus, when the last sabbatical period of 7 years which was a part of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks’ Prophecy was expected to commence (63 to 70 C.E.), it was believed that a new and reborn Nebuchadnezzar (or a man coming in the spirit of the earlier Nebuchadnezzar) would set up an Abomination of Desolation in the Temple at Jerusalem (Daniel 11:21–35). Once that would happen, it was naturally believed that the rest of Daniel’s prophecy from 11:36 to 12:4 (the part that all prophetic interpreters knew had never happened) would finally be fulfilled.
The one main event that prophetic interpreters felt had to take place before the last sabbatical period of Daniel could transpire was the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. It was made clear in Daniel 9:26 that those two Judaic institutions had to be destroyed before a covenant involving one sabbatical period of 7 years could commence (verse 27). The latest this could happen and still witness the last 7 years of Daniel’s prophecy remaining within the 40 years’ generation from Christ’s resurrection was in 63 C.E. Even this interpretation crowded a lot of events into this last period of 7 years.
For one, any ruined Temple and city had to be hurriedly rebuilt for the Abomination of Desolation was expected to be placed in the Holy of Holies after 3½ years of the final 7 years had elapsed. If most of the Book of Revelation were written about 56 C.E. 3 then this belief would have been an acceptable interpretation because the first 3½ years saw a measuring reed (for construction) associated with the prophecy of the Two Witnesses (Revelation 11:1). So, since Daniel said the last 7 years could not start until the Temple was in ruins (Daniel 9:26), some power had to arrive on the scene to cause that destruction. The apostles must have expected this major event to occur.
At all odds, for the final sabbatical period to commence and still be within the 40 years’ generation from Christ’s resurrection, the end-time events had to start by 63 C.E. This was a crucial year. And true enough, this year seemed to have some good credentials to have buttressed one’s confidence. 4
But note this. There was another event which had to take place before the last 7 years of Daniel could begin. The Roman Empire had to be overthrown. This is a little known requirement among biblical interpreters regarding the prophetic anticipation of those in the 1st century, but it is one of the expectations that would have allowed Daniel’s last sabbatical period to commence. The reason for this is plain.
There was hardly a prophetic interpreter in the 1st century who did not consider the Roman Empire to be the “iron legs” of the Babylonian image (Daniel 2). And in 63 C.E. those “iron legs” were as strong as ever. 5 But Daniel’s interpretation of the image made it clear that the “iron legs” would break into ten divisions, some strong as iron and others weak as miry clay. Since these ten kingdoms were to be associated with the “little horn” (variously interpreted as a new “Nebuchadnezzar,” or a new “Pharaoh,” a new “Assyrian,” or another “King of Tyre”), Rome had to disintegrate into those ten kingdoms. There were also other prophecies showing this. In Daniel, “the ships of Chittim” mentioned in 11:30 were identified in history as being Roman.
In the 1st century it was common for most Jews to consider Chittim prophetically as being the Romans: In the prophecy of Balaam, it was mentioned that in “the latter days” the ships of Chittim would attack Assyria (considered to be the Parthian Empire) and the Jews (Numbers 24:14 with verse 24.). And though the prophecies showed that the Assyrians and Hebrews would be afflicted, it was the Chittim people who would “perish for ever” (verse 24).
Thus, biblical people in the 1st century thought a major world war would happen which would overthrow the “iron legs” of the Roman Empire. The outcome would witness ten kings taking over the Roman territory with the aid of the “little horn” who would come out of the area north and east of Palestine (from the same region as the earlier empire of Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians). These ten kings appeared to be identified in Psalm 83, a psalm that had never been fulfilled — nor has it been to this day.
These were the only identifiable “ten nations” mentioned in the Old Testament, and it was believed that they (or some ten kings like them) would quickly take over control in the Middle East after the demise of the “iron legs” of the Romans.
It appeared in the middle of the 1st century as though Jerusalem and the Temple might well be the focal point of this world war between the East and the West and that a partial destruction of Jerusalem would take place. The prophet Daniel had made it clear that Jerusalem was first to be “destroyed” before his last sabbatical period of 7 years could commence (Daniel 9:26–27). The key to everything, however, was the fall of the “iron legs” and the emergence of the “ten kings” made of iron and miry clay (Daniel 2:41–43). It was to be in “the days of these kings that the God of heaven would set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44). It was at the end of Daniel’s last period of 7 years that Christ was expected to return from heaven, but not before the “iron legs” of Rome were first overturned. Even Christ seemed to prophesy about Rome’s breakup into segments when he stated that nation would be rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Matthew 24:6–7).
This worldwide rebellion against Rome (which was expected to happen in the 1st century) was thought to be the beginning of the end-time sorrows (Matthew 24:8), which were to occur before the final end-time events would happen (verse 6). Indeed, when the “little horn” was destined to come on the scene, the nation of Egypt would have broken away from its political allegiance to Rome and then be a free and independent power, along with the Libyans and Ethiopians (Daniel 11:43). Even the nations of Moab, Ammon and Edom would also be independent countries and no longer a part of the Roman Empire (Daniel 11:41). The nation of Edom was especially to become a prime force among the ten kings, with armies from all the nations of the world gathered within it for a major showdown with the Messiah at the time of his arrival (Isaiah 34 with Isaiah 63:1–4). 6
The point that must be understood is that all the prophecies connected to end-time events, no matter where they were found within the Old Testament revelation, were expected by 1st century Christians to have a complete fulfillment within that single generation of 40 years that succeeded the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, Daniel’s last sabbatical period of 7 years was to start with the Roman Empire being destroyed and ten kings arising from its ashes. This is what the apostles and most Jews were looking for in the middle of the 1st century.
The apostle Paul was no doubt referring to the collapse of the Roman Empire when he told the Thessalonians as early as 50 C.E. that the advent of Christ was not then imminent since the prophesied apostasy had not yet occurred (2 Thessalonians 2:3) and that a powerful personality or government was “holding down” or “hindering” the arrival of the Man of Sin (verses 6 and 7). Since it is clear in Paul’s comments that he had been giving the Thessalonians a commentary on the prophecies of Daniel, the only “hinderers” mentioned in Daniel’s prophecies were angelic powers who had control over the nations, especially those directing affairs within the world empires mentioned in Daniel.
Recall that the angel Gabriel informed Daniel that “the Prince of Persia withstood me [hindered me] one and twenty days” (Daniel 10:13). There was also the angelic prince over the empire of Javan (interpreted as being Greater Greece) who was also a “hinderer” to Gabriel (Daniel 10:20). In fact, it was believed in early times that all the nations had angelic powers ruling over them and that all of them were ultimately under the control of Satan (Matthew 4:8–11; Ephesians 6:12). On the other hand, the nation of Israel had the archangel Michael in charge of its affairs (Daniel 10:21). Michael is the only angelic authority recorded in the Bible who had the power to overcome these “hinderers” who ruled the various nations on earth.
These angelic powers were believed to battle one another in heavenly spheres and the outcome of those wars was reflected in the history of nations on earth (Revelation 12:7–17). Whatever people today may think of such beliefs is not at issue in our discussion. It is what the ancients thought that can help us understand the history of the 1st century. And certainly, the apostle Paul believed that there were angelic powers in charge of the various nations of the world. In Daniel, those angelic powers who ruled over the Gentile nations were often the “hinderers” of righteous angels in doing their assigned tasks on earth. Only Michael the archangel had superior powers to those “hinderers” as far as information in the Bible is concerned. And the apostle Paul could see in 50 C.E. that the angelic powers in charge of the Roman Empire were still very much in command of the Roman government.
There was then no evidence to Paul (when he wrote Second Thessalonians in 50 C.E.) that the angelic powers of the prophesied ten nations that were to arise from the ruins of the “iron legs” were winning any celestial battles which would have warlike ramifications on earth. This is why the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians that the angel in charge of the Roman Empire was still “hindering” the arrival of the ten nations and the appearance of the “little horn” of Daniel. Paul told them this hindering prevented the emergence of the Man of Sin. This “thing” that hindered was no doubt the Roman Empire (or the angelic personality ruling that Empire — 2 Thessalonians 2:6–9).
To the apostle Paul, it was the Roman power (or as he probably thought, the empire of the “iron legs”) which stood in the way of the arrival of the false messianic figure who would control ten kings after the collapse of the Roman Empire. This meant that as long as the Romans were strong and in solid control of Palestine and Egypt, there could be no Antichrist coming forth from the eastern areas of the Empire.
There was one other important point of prophecy that had to be fulfilled. It was plain in the long prediction found in Zechariah chapters 12 to 14 that for a short time before the introduction of the Kingdom of God on earth (and no doubt because of the collapse of the Roman Empire), the people of Judah would once again become a powerful, independent nation among other peoples of the Middle East. It was felt that a restoration of Israel to independent nationhood and the revival of the Davidic kingdom would occur just before the coming “Day of the Lord.” This restitution was a part of the task that a future “Elijah” would accomplish (Malachi 4:5–6) — a person whom Christians thought would finish what John the Baptist had begun (Mark 9:11–12).
This restoration was mentioned by Peter as something that must occur just before the return of Christ. Indeed, it would be that very restitution that would signal the revelation of the Messiah from heaven (Acts 3:19–21). This is what Zechariah no doubt referred to when he said that Judah would once again become a powerful and independent nation (with the Davidic dynasty restored) just prior to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom (Zechariah chapters 12–14). The first six verses of Zechariah chapter 12 spoke particularly of this restored condition of Judah to a renewed prominence in the land of Palestine just before the coming of the prophesied Kingdom of God to earth.
“In that day will I make the governors of Judah like an hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf; and they shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left; and Jerusalem [which the prophecy shows was lately attacked] shall be inhabited again in her own place, even in Jerusalem.”
Of course, people in our own time usually see this as pointing to the nation of Israel today, because it seems to fit so well (and this appears to be true). But remember that back in the 1st century, when the apostles thought that the end of the age was upon them, those prophecies in Zechariah (and all the other end-time prophecies found throughout the Old Testament) were expected to have their fulfillment in their generation.
With this belief firmly held in their minds, the apostles had no alternative but to imagine that the breakup of the Roman Empire was inevitable (with ten kingdoms developing from its ruins), and that Judah, for a short time, would overthrow the Herodian rulers to bring about a restoration of the Davidic dynasty (Zechariah 12:8–14). This would be followed, so they thought, by a Great Tribulation upon Judah which would witness the destruction of two-thirds of the population (Zechariah 13:7–9). Soon after that holocaust the prophecy of Zachariah said the Lord would arrive on the scene at the Mount of Olives to deliver Judah from their troubles and that they would then be blessed forever (Zechariah 14: 1–21).
Since these prophetic events had never occurred to the Jews, the apostles believed that Christ would be the one to place his feet on the Mount of Olives at his second advent. It must have been clear to them that all the events mentioned in Zechariah (and in other prophecies) had to take place before Christ could come back to earth. And the last possible year for the sequence of events to begin and have their fulfillment by the end of the single generation of 40 years starting from Christ’s resurrection from the dead was the year 63 C.E. This was the year to begin the last 7 years of Daniel’s sabbatical period in his Seventy Weeks prophecy.
While all of this scenario was generally believed, a great problem arose. The year 63 C.E. came and went without any clue that the Romans would invade the Parthians as well as the Jews, and in consequence the Romans would lose the war and an independent nation of Judah would arise on the political scene. In fact, just the reverse happened. The off and on wars of the Romans and Parthians which lasted through the first nine years of Nero’s reign came to an end in the spring of 63 C.E. with Parthian envoys appearing in Rome with a proposal that offered terms of capitulation to the Romans. 7
Instead of a world war starting between the East and the West in 63 C.E., followed by a revolt of the various kingdoms within the Roman dominion (to fulfill what Christians thought to be Christ’s prophecies, Matthew 24:6–7), just the opposite occurred. Rome had become stronger than ever in the spring of 63 C.E. With the passing of 63 C.E., the last possible year for the start of Daniel’s final sabbatical period of 7 years (occurring within the generation of 40 years from Christ’s resurrection), Paul came to the conclusion that the “iron legs” of Rome were going to remain in power for a much longer time. Paul surmised that the prophesied ten kings and the “little horn” were not then going to appear in the 1st century.
The apostle Paul was not the only one to accept this truth. The apostle Peter not long after 63 C.E. also became convinced that a great deal of time was still left in world history before the second advent. That was when he wrote his second epistle and said that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years. This was Peter’s acknowledgment that Christ had not really delayed his coming. It simply meant that the final “generation” of 40 years before the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth would happen many years (even centuries) in the future.
The apostles came to realize that there was nothing wrong with Christ’s prophecies, but that Christ had been teaching that the actual end-time would arrive upon a particular generation which would “see” the events of Matthew 24 and Zechariah 12 to 14. But with the year 63 C.E. over, it became obvious that the generation which succeeded Christ’s resurrection was not the prophesied one of the end-time.
This was the signal to Paul (and shortly afterwards to Peter and John) that it had become necessary to formulate a standard body of Christian documents which would last the Christian believers until those end-time events would actually occur.
Indeed, it took apostolic authority to canonize some of the books that were already circulating among Christians because some of them spoke about the soon coming of Christ back to this earth and this would have meant that the books themselves were suspect of giving false information by some people. Yes, some of the earlier books of the apostles taught that very thing.
One of the reasons we can be assured that the writings of the New Testament are reliable is because several of the earliest books in the New Testament canon do not hide the fact that the beliefs contained in them showed the soon coming of Christ. This is the very thing the apostles wanted later people to understand. They wanted readers of the New Testament epistles and documents to realize that the early apostles completely misunderstood the chronology of the end-times in the 1st century. To show this, among other things, the apostles felt no compunction in placing these earlier books within the canon to give this misunderstanding by the early apostles a full recognition by later Christians of what in fact occurred in the historical period that succeeded Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Look at one book in particular. In the first canonization of the New Testament, it must have been a difficult decision to include the Book of Revelation. The first edition of this prophetic book written before 60 C.E. (which the apostle John purported to be a writing from Christ himself) seemed to show its readers that the time of the end was imminent (at the very doors). The popularity of this prophetic book before 63 C.E. (because all people are interested in the prophecy of their times) must have produced a strong negative reaction in the minds of many people after the great disappointment actually took place.
When 63 C.E. came and went without the detailed events prophesied in those recorded visions having occurred in that generation, there is little doubt that a respect for the Book of Revelation in the few years that followed went down considerably in the eyes of many people, along with the reputation of the apostle John who wrote the book. The effect of the great disappointment was a major setback to the acceptance of the Book of Revelation among some Christians. 8
It even took the apostle John a long time to regain his reputable standing among certain Christian congregations, as well as among ordinary Jews and Gentiles who were not Christians. History shows that this decline in John’s popular authority even continued to wane in some powerful Christian circles in the last three decades of the 1st century. Indeed, John’s decline in popularity continued for a hundred years and more in some of the western areas of the Christian community. I will give the historical reasons on this matter in a later chapter.
On the other hand, after Jerusalem was destroyed, just as Christ said it would be, the Book of Revelation in some circles slowly began to be accepted again as a Christian account of the end-times. The apostle John in the last decade of the 1st century even added some points to the first edition to bring it up-to-date for canonization purposes. The fate of most apocalyptic writings (and there were scores of them circulating in the 1st century) is that they are often accepted by people at first, especially if approved by top religious leaders, and then, if their so-called “time prophecies” fail to materialize as most interpreted them, they became suspect with the highest degree of skepticism. Had not the Book of Daniel been placed in the canon in the time of Ezra, and sanctioned by him and the Great Assembly (and later by Christ Jesus), it would never have been held in high esteem after the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E.
And had not a body of men close to the apostles (and the apostle John in particular as we will come to see) rescued the Book of Revelation at the end of the 1st century, it would also have been jettisoned as “useless apocalyptic literature” like the majority of such documents were appraised by later Jews and Christians. It was retained, and properly so, because the early Christian authorities in the eastern Roman Empire came to understand that the Book of Revelation was written for the final generation before the second advent of Christ whenever that generation would take place. This is, in fact, the correct interpretation of that important prophetic document.
In the next chapter we will see some historical events that did develop from 63 C.E. onwards which were highly significant in the creation of the final doctrines of the apostles Paul and Peter, and why the New Testament canon had to be established by those two apostles to direct all Christian believers to a standard body of documents that would remain authoritative until the actual second advent of Christ.
1 The Epistle of Barnabas 15:4. Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin with Trypho. 81.1ff. Both works are in Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 1.
2 It was also common among the Gentiles to believe that historical events happened in cycles (Berosus, Fragment 4).
3 We will discuss this later.
4 See the previous chapter.
5 We know from later history that they were to remain in strength for another 300 years.
6 There were several interpretations about who this “Edom” represented in the first century. The word “Edom” can mean man or mankind (and James, as head of the Jerusalem Christians, interpreted it this way by quoting Amos 9:11 in Acts 15:17). Some even considered “Edom” to mean the final “Kingdom of Man” (the 666 kingdom of Revelation) and to be the head of the other nine kings of the end-time confederation. Others thought of Edom as Judaea itself under the rulership of the Herods. Still others imagined it to be Rome and not the literal “Edom” southeast of Judaea. It was this latter interpretation that finally prevailed in later Judaism.
7 Cambridge Ancient History: The Augustan Empire, 44 B.C.–A.D. 70, Vol. X (London: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 770–773.
8 In fact, the arguments for its inclusion in the New Testament canon were not fully eliminated until another three hundred years had passed.
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