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"Chapter 5: Multiple Fulfillment"


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A remarkable phenomenon appears in a number of places in Scripture. Oddly, it has been little noticed by scholars. It seems that prophecies can have more than one fulfillment.

Second Timothy 3 opens by saying: "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce ...." And the dreadful litany continues. (Incidentally, the picture given here of the time just before the end is as opposite as it can be to the dreams of Teilhard de Chardin, who taught that just before the return of Christ, most of the world would be bound together in close love, and perhaps also telepathy. Compare also Luke 18:8, Matthew 24:12, and 2 Thessalonians 2:3.)

The Jerome Biblical Commentary, on that passage in 2 Timothy. Observes: "In the last days: in the Messianic period, but with special emphasis here on the final days before the parousia [the return of Christ at the end]." "The last days" has a double meaning: it refers to all the time between the Ascension and the return of Jesus, and also to the time just before that return. Notice that the whole time from Ascension to end is called "the last days." The reason is that we are now in the final period of God's dealings with men. There is to be no other arrangement or regime to supplant Christianity. (On this, compare Vatican II, Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. 4.) This helps us understand some otherwise puzzling words in Scripture, in which we are told that the time is short (including I Corinthians 7:29, Revelation 1:3, and 2 Peter 3:8, wherein we read that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day").

Another fascinating instance is found in the prophet Daniel 12:7. The man clothed in linen who has appeared to Daniel raises his right hand and his left to the sky and swears by Him who lives forever "that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time; and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be accomplished." A note in the New American Bible on Daniel 12:7 explains the three and a half years as either a symbol of evil (half of seven, the perfect number) or as the total approximate duration of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria. "The author's perspective," the note adds, "is the end of Antiochus, and beyond, the final consummation of all things." Again it is shown that a prophecy may have more than one fulfillment.

Incidentally, the translation of the words of Daniel 12:7 saying that the things will happen "when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end" is much debated. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that we are here dealing with a mistranslation into Hebrew from an Aramaic original (see Anchor Bible, p. 274). In the next verse, Daniel 12:8, Daniel himself is also puzzled: "I heard, but I did not understand." Most scholars seem not to have noted another possible translation of the Hebrew ukekalloth in verse 7. The expression would then read that these things will happen—in the final fulfillment of the prophecy—"when He has brought to an end (completed) the scattering of the power of the holy people." This could conceivably refer to the final reunion of the scattered Israelites from the dispersion.

The interpretations of St. Matthew's Gospel of Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1, which we offered as probable instances of a fuller or multiple literal sense, can also, obviously, be taken as instances of multiple fulfillment of prophecies.

A specially interesting probable case of multiple fulfillment comes in the mysterious chapter 24 of St. Matthew. At the start, the disciples ask Jesus for the signs of two things: the fall of Jerusalem, and of the end of the world. Commentators are far from agreement on interpreting the rest of the chapter. Some have tried to divide it so as to have some parts refer to one question, others to the other. But a careful analysis reveals that practically all of the signs given were actually fulfilled before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Jesus first warns: "For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray." There were false Messiahs before 70 A.D. The Acts of the Apostles 5:36-37 tells of revolts led by self-proclaimed Messiahs named Theudas and Judas of Galilee. (There is a problem as to the dates of these Messiahs. Judas seems to belong to 6-7 A.D., but his followers were probably active long after that. Gamaliel is represented in Acts as saying that Theudas was recent, that is, in the 30s, while Josephus, a later Jewish historian, places Theudas in the 40s. But Josephus is not always accurate, and Luke may be using the Greek genre of speeches within history. (See chapter 9.) Acts 21:38 speaks of another such leader from Egypt without giving his name.

Of course there will be false Messiahs before the end: the great Antichrist himself, and lesser figures claiming to be Christ.

Jesus continued: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars .... There will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the sufferings."

There were many wars before 70 A.D. Besides the smaller struggles over false Messiahs, there was the great Jewish revolt that began in 66 A.D. Further, in 69 A.D. the Roman empire suffered, after the fall of Nero, from what is called the year of the four emperors: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. The first three held power only for a few months each. There were famines in the time of Emperor Claudius, who ruled from 41-54 A.D. The Acts of the Apostles 11:28 says that a prophet, Agabus, predicted a severe famine.

There were pestilences too. The Roman historian Tacitus, in Annals 16:13, says of the year 65 A.D.: "A year of shame and of so many evil deeds, heaven also marked by storms and pestilence. Campania was devastated by a hurricane, which destroyed everywhere country houses, plantations and crops, and carried its rage to the neighborhood of Rome, where a dreadful plague was sweeping away all classes of human beings ... the houses were filled with lifeless bodies, and the streets with funerals. No age or sex was spared. Slaves and freeborn were cut off alike .... Knights and senators died indiscriminately."

Tacitus also reports many earthquakes in various places in the empire: in the province of Asia in 53 A.D. (Annals 12:58), frequent shocks in Rome itself in 51 A.D. (Annals 12:43), in Campania and especially Pompeii in 62 A.D. (Annals 15:22). The Roman philosopher Seneca and the Jewish historian Josephus also report earthquakes.

Jesus also foretold persecutions: "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another" (Matthew 24:9-10).

There is no need to cite the documentation for persecutions before 70 A.D. The facts are too well known. The Second Epistle to Timothy adds: "Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (3:12). Before the final end, "Also it [the Beast, the Antichrist] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead' so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast, or the number of its name" (Revelation 13: 16; 17).

The next words of Jesus in Matthew are frightening: "And because wickedness is multiplied most men's love will grow cold" (24:12). None of the usual translations really brings out fully the complete force of the Greek for the first words of this line, for English does not have the needed structure. Freely, it means: "Because sin will go the limit, the love of most people will grow cold." (What a contrast to the dream of Teilhard de Chardin!)

We think too of the terrible warning given by Jesus in Luke: "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (18:8). We do not have a record of so great an apostasy before 70 A.D. But there was immense sin. Perhaps we should just say that the multiple fulfillment is not total in all details.

Matthew predicts that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (24:14). The language is well adapted to multiple fulfillment, for the Gospel was indeed preached throughout most of the Mediterranean world before the fall of Jerusalem. St. Paul himself told the Romans (15:23) that he no longer had a place to preach in the eastern Mediterranean. Before the ultimate end, the Gospel will reach absolutely all parts of the globe.

A difficult line follows in the next verse of Matthew: "So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place ... then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" (24:15).

Daniel referred to the desecration of the Temple in the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (167-165 B.C.). The Roman Emperor Caligula, in 40 A.D., ordered that a statue be placed in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that his subordinates had the good judgment to ignore the command. However, as the earliest Church historian, Eusebius, tell us (Histories, 3.5), many Christians in Jerusalem did see something that led them to flee the city of Pella before the fall of Jerusalem. Did they merely see the course of events developing? Or did they actually see the eagles atop the standards of Roman soldiers in the outer temple area? The soldiers actually worshiped those eagles, so they were literally idols.

"Immediately after the tribulation of those days," Matthew warns, "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven" (24:29-31).

We might say that these words apply only to the final end. Yet they seem to be an odd pattern of writing, called apocalyptic, that arose in Judaism around the second century B.C. and had a run of about four centuries. This kind of writing uses extremely colorful imagery, much stronger than a sober description would call for. Thus in Isaiah, referring to the fall of Babylon, we find: "Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation .... For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light (13:9-10). (Compare Isaiah 34:4, on the fall of Edom, and Ezekiel 32:7-8, on the distress coming to Egypt.)

Finally, Jesus Himself warns us that the signs are not so clear that most people will read them: "As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man" (Matthew 24:37). People will be eating, drinking, marrying—business as usual. And suddenly it will be there, the visitation (the concept of the Hebrew paqad: God coming to "visit" for weal or woe). Hence St. Paul told the Thessalonians that the day would come "like a thief in the night" (1, 5:2-3; compare also 2 Peter 3:10 and Matthew 24:36-44).

What of the words "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34)? These words came true most clearly in that many of the original hearers of Jesus were alive in 70 A.D. But the words can also refer to the final end. As Vatican II tells us, Christianity is the final stage of God's dealings with man. It will not be supplanted by another regime. So the Christian dispensation, the Messianic Age, will not pass away before the end (On Divine Revelation, par. 4).

Interestingly, St. Augustine often makes use of the technique similar to our multiple-fulfillment idea in his great City of God. He studies minutely an Old Testament prophecy, such as that in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 or Psalm 72. Following a translation that matches the Vulgate. St. Augustine noted that the promise to David that his successor would build a Temple was not entirely fulfilled in Solomon, since verse 16, as St. Augustine read it, said: "His house will be faithful." But Solomon was not faithful; he fell into idolatry. So the prophecy, which partly fits Solomon, completely fits Christ. He and His house. the Church, will always be faithful, will last forever. (Other examples in St. Augustine's City of God are 17:13 and 18:45.)

Finally the monks of Qumran, writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, seem to have had similar ideas, as can be seen in their pesher commentary on the prophet Habakkuk. They "update" the message to refer to their own community.

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