In this blogpost I discuss several fragments of New Testament and early Christian writings which describe signs in sun, moon, stars and sky (‘heavens’), and unnatural light/darkness changes. In part one I gave the texts themselves. In part two I have put the essence in a table, not only the ‘signs’, but also accompanying information which I have divided in three categories: supplementary phenomena, messianic information and political/chronological information. Footnotes provide additional information. This third and last part provides a general discussion of the subject.
At the end of this overview of the signs in sun, moon, stars and sky in the New Testament and in other early Christian writings, we are able to understand better the imagery of the coming of the Son of man on a cloud. Since creation the pre-existent messiah had been present in heaven near God or even as a part of God (see the gospel of John chapter 1). During the fire of Jerusalem the vault of heaven was unfolded, as became clear from the disappearance of the stars. Between the open heaven and earth a temporary connection was present which allowed the pre-existent messiah to move from heaven to earth and to become a human being, a ‘son of man’. The connection piece between heaven and earth was the smoke and dust cloud that covered Jerusalem and its environs. The vortex of this cloud can be imagined as a staircase through which the messiah reached the earth. In Matthew 24:30 this cloud is called ‘the sign of the son of man in the sky’.
Old Testament precursors of this ‘signs’ imagery are Joel 2:10 (also concerning the capture of a city) and Jeremiah 33:19-21 (describing the disruption of the day and night sequence).
The texts in part one, in combination with relevant Dead Sea Scrolls writings, provide a clear view of how their writers saw the transition from the era of degeneration under Roman rule to the golden Jewish messianic era. For these authors a complete turn of the era would take place with the ultimate victory of the Jews over the Romans. God would intervene by bringing about this final victory, and he would send his messiah to establish Jewish dominion over the world for ever (not for a limited period like the rule of the empires of the past, or like Roman rule that would end soon on the ‘day of the Lord’). That the military situation was turning out completely the opposite did not mean that the Jewish freedom fighters were not eagerly looking for the arrival of their God-sent messiah. As no messiah rose who achieved the final victory over the Romans, a small ‘substitute’ victory became the start of the messianic era, and as a result the man who accomplished this one-man victory became their messiah. During the decisive battle of Jerusalem, which was the eagerly awaited moment of God’s intervention, something exceptional and spectacular happened to the Galilean priest and rebel leader Jesus son of Saphat, who survived his execution by the Romans. With this new ‘substitute’ messiah the Jews had to bury their skyhigh political ambition of world dominion. They gnashed their teeth at the continuation and tightening of Roman occupation. And the one (= the Roman emperor) shall reign whom those who inhabit the earth (=the land of Israel) do not hope for.
In the table in part two I have only mentioned the chronological clues in the verses under consideration. If we look to the broader fragments to which these verses belong, we see that there are chronological indications pointing to the war in all the writings under discussion except the passion narratives of the gospels. The Synoptic Apocalypse, Didache XVI and Revelation do not provide incidental chronological and/or war information as they are dedicated to the war in their entirety. In all these writings firestorm information, messianic information and Flavian political/chronological information is intertwined. In full contradiction with the other text of the table above, the passion narratives of the gospels stage Pontius Pilate as their most important time indicator. Comparison with the ‘signs’ texts under discussion shows that the chronology of the gospels has been forged.
I did not work out the element of the ‘powers of heaven that are shaken’. Maybe this is a summarizing ‘signs’ phrase. Another possibility is the interpretation of the δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν as ‘those in power in heaven’. In this view the celestial beings who rule the heavens (God and his angels) are disturbed by the aggressive infringement of their realm.
The Epistle of Barnabas XII:5 speaks of ‘a sign when Israel is falling’ (ἐν σημείῳ πίπτοντος τοῡ ʼΙσραἠλ) without any further specification. Probably here the different signs are concentrated into one single overarching sign. This verse is a highly important as Jesus’ execution is closely connected to ‘the sign when Israel is falling’.