[This article was contributed by Apollos]
For just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. 38 For as they were in those days before the flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark; 39 and they took no note until the flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be. (Matt 24:37-39, NWT)
In our publications the above passage of scripture is often cited as support for our interpretation of the word parousia.
At face value it seems to fit. It sounds as if the “presence of the Son of Man” is being likened to the decades of human activity which led up to the flood. Furthermore, during this same period we teach that Noah was commissioned to warn the people, and the passage seems to imply that they took no note of this warning.
This understanding has been used to support the doctrine of Jesus’ invisible presence beginning in 1914, and in particular to define the meaning and scope of the word parousia as used in God’s Word.
Therefore what I would like to examine here is whether this scripture truly conveys the points that are claimed.
If you are interested in weighing the evidence with an open mind then you might need to start by clearing your preconceptions. When I was originally trying to study this passage, it seemed crystal clear that the meaning was just as presented in our publications. When you have the whole framework of a 1914 presence in mind the extract of v37-39 seems to fit like a glove. That is, until you take into consideration the context and the true meaning of the Greek text.
Let’s begin by examining the possible meanings of the word parousia in general.
Strongs offers this:
2. the coming, arrival, advent
The first thing to note is that these are not mutually exclusive renderings. In our doctrine we have been taught to treat them as alternatives in order to claim the superiority of translating parousia as “presence” rather than “coming”. It is certainly true that the meaning is differentiated from erchomai e.g. Matt 24:30, where the scope is restricted to the specific event of “coming”. However, in the case of parousia, a presence cannot occur without there also being an arrival that begins it. That is why Barclay explains it as both the arrival and subsequent presence of the King.*
It is a simple enough concept to grasp. If I am to visit and be present with you, then there also has to be a point at which I make my arrival. Keep this collective concept in mind as you read on.
The question becomes: when the word parousia is used in Matt 24:37, is attention being drawn to the ongoing visitation, or is it to the aspect of the arrival that commences it?
To answer this we must examine the immediate context – both the verse that precedes, and the verses that follow.
(Matthew 24:36) “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father.
(Matthew 24:40-42) Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken along and the other be abandoned; 41 two women will be grinding at the hand mill: one will be taken along and the other be abandoned. 42 Keep on the watch, therefore, because YOU do not know on what day YOUR Lord is coming.
It is interesting that even in the NWT this entire passage from v36-42 is formatted as a paragraph. In other words it is accepted that there is a common thought flowing through these scriptures, which of course becomes evident to the reader who is approaching this passage without preconception. The subject matter is the sudden nature of arrival of the Son of Man. This being the case, v37 makes most sense if it is referring to the moment that commences the presence – the arrival – rather than being a virtual parenthetical definition of what the ongoing presence would be like. Most certainly v38 describes an ongoing period of time that leads up to the arrival, but is the parousia of the Son of Man being likened to this extended period, or to the actual sudden unexpected arrival of the flood itself? The context would suggest that it is the latter. The text of v37 allows for this understanding. Note the following translations:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (NIV)
because just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be when the Son of Man comes. (International Standard Version)
And as in the days of Noe, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (Douay-Rheims Bible )
When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. (New Living Translation)
When the Son of Man appears, things will be just as they were when Noah lived. (Contemporary English Version)
When the Son of Man comes, it will be like what happened during Noah’s time. (New Century Version)
For as it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the Coming of the Son of Man. (Weymouth New Testament)
In other words the focus is on the critical event that took place during the days of Noah, as opposed to defining the parousia as like the entire time period of the days of Noah.
Ah, but doesn’t v39 include an allusion to the preaching work by saying “they took no note”? And in turn does this not parallel the modern day preaching work with the preaching commission that we say was given to Noah?
Meleti has already partially explored this subject in his article Misappropriating Scripture, but did not touch on the passage under consideration.
First of all, to get a true idea of what the text says you might want to check your Interlinear Translation. The direct translation is “and not they knew until came the cataclysm”. On the face of it there is nothing to suggest that they were ignoring a formal warning being given by Noah. Thus the NIV renders it “and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away”. Several others are similar.
Yet again that concept actually fits the context, because here Jesus is simply talking about the fact that people would not be expecting his coming at a particular time. So the point of the text is not that the people were unresponsive to something, but rather that the coming events would be unexpected.
If Noah truly was given a second commission, then why was Moses not inspired to mention it? Considerable detail is spelled out in Genesis regarding Noah’s commission to build an ark, but there is not a single word of a preaching commission to take place at the same time. Gen 6:13 suggests that Jehovah had already made his judgment. There is no indication that Noah was commanded to attempt to convert the populace at that time.
The ark was apparently constructed of a reasonable size to take two or seven of each kind of animal, plus eight human passengers. If there was the possibility of a numberless conversion of additional people then where were they going to go? If not, then why give such a commission?
2 Pet 2:5 says that Noah was a “preacher of righteousness”. Again we infer a commission that coincides with the building of the ark, but this is never stated. Surely the passage tells us what Noah was as a person, and why he was chosen to be saved, rather than implying a commission that he was given after that judgment had been passed. Noah was in his fifth centenary when all of this started to unfold. Would it not be likely that during the preceding years Noah would have naturally tried to share his faith with the people around him? In which case he would have already proved himself both a “righteous man” and a “preacher of righteousness”. Peter does not say that Noah was given a special commission during the construction of the ark.
Now that is not to say that there would not be a preaching work in the time of the end. Matt 24:14 makes it clear that there most certainly would be. But if v4-14 are events that would lead up to the sign of Jesus’ presence as the passage implies, then there is no reason to infer that this was part of the parallel that Jesus was drawing with Noah’s day in Matt 24:37-39. Modern day preaching is not being used here as any indication that the parousia of Christ has occurred or is in progress (2 Thess 2:1,2). Rather the parousia will commence just as the flood of Noah’s day did, with the people taken completely unawares as they went about their everyday affairs. The warning is for Christians not to be caught off guard in the same way but rather to “keep on the watch”.
Further Notes on Parousia
I would like to add the following thoughts, but keep them separate from the main body above since they are not directly related to the passage under discussion. However, they are helpful to further scrutinize our official definition of parousia, and so may help the reader to understand the point made at the outset, viz. that whilst parousia undoubtedly includes the idea of being present, it cannot be detached from the arrival of the one who becomes present, and in some cases the usage may be focusing on the arrival rather than the subsequent presence.
In English it would be easy to demonstrate the concepts using the virtual synonym “visit”. We may say:
1. Expect the doctor to visit at 2pm.
2. His visit will take approximately 3 hours.
In the case of (1) the focus is on the commencement of the visit. In (2) the focus is on the duration.
In other words the same word receives two different treatments based on the context. Therefore context is key to understanding the specific usage. Whilst it is true that we expect the doctor in question to “be alongside” for a period of time, the instruction contained in (1) does not concern itself with that aspect of the meaning.
Having established this concept, notice Matt 24:33, just a couple of verses before the passage under consideration:
(Matthew 24:33) Likewise also YOU, when YOU see all these things, know that he is near at the doors.
Keep this in mind as you consider a quotation from the Watchtower which seeks to justify the strict translation of parousia as presence. I’m not even going to make a commentary on this, but will leave it for the reader to reason on in the light of what has been presented. As you read the part about Shem-Tob’s Matthew ask yourself this: If we remove the blatantly speculative statement “Christ may have used bi??ah? to allow for more than what they were thinking” what are we left with? Does Shem-Tob’s Matthew suggest that Jesus’ audience would have understood that he was talking about a grand entrance, or an invisible presence? Enjoy also the fact that we have to turn to “a 14th-century polemic against Christianity” for agreement, and the last line which suggests that the writer’s intention would have to support what Jehovah’s Witnesses have long taught.
*** w96 8/15 pp. 12-13 pars. 15-19 Jesus’ Coming or Jesus’ Presence—Which? ***
15 As noted, Matthew evidently wrote his Gospel first in the Hebrew language. So, what Hebrew word did he use at Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39? Versions of Matthew translated into modern Hebrew have a form of the verb boh?, both in the apostles’ question and in Jesus’ reply. This could lead to readings such as: “What will be the sign of your [boh?] and of the conclusion of the system of things?” and, “As the days of Noah were, so the [boh?] of the Son of man will be.” What does boh? mean?
16 Though having various senses, the Hebrew verb boh? basically means “come.” The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament says: ‘Occurring 2,532 times, boh? is one of the most frequently used verbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and is at the head of verbs expressing motion.’ (Genesis 7:1, 13; Exodus 12:25; 28:35; 2 Samuel 19:30; 2 Kings 10:21; Psalm 65:2; Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 11:16; Daniel 9:13; Amos 8:11) Had Jesus and the apostles used a word with such a range of meanings, the sense might be debatable. But did they?
17 Bear in mind that modern Hebrew versions are translations that may not present exactly what Matthew penned in Hebrew. The fact is that Jesus could well have used a word other than boh?, one that fitted the sense of pa·rou·si?a. We see this from the 1995 book Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, by Professor George Howard. The book focused on a 14th-century polemic against Christianity by the Jewish physician Shem-Tob ben Isaac Ibn Shaprut. That document set out a Hebrew text of Matthew’s Gospel. There is evidence that rather than being translated from Latin or Greek in Shem-Tob’s time, this text of Matthew was very old and was originally composed in Hebrew. It thus may bring us closer to what was said on the Mount of Olives.
18 At Matthew 24:3, 27, 39, Shem-Tob’s Matthew does not use the verb boh?. Instead, it uses the related noun bi·?ah?. That noun appears in the Hebrew Scriptures only at Ezekiel 8:5, where it means “entranceway.” Instead of expressing the action of coming, bi·?ah? there refers to the start of a building; when you are in the entryway or on the threshold, you are in the building. Also, non-Biblical religious documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls often use bi·?ah? regarding the arrival or commencement of priestly courses. (See 1 Chronicles 24:3-19; Luke 1:5, 8, 23.) And a 1986 translation into Hebrew of the ancient Syriac (or, Aramaic) Peshitta uses bi·?ah? at Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39. So there is evidence that in ancient times the noun bi·?ah? may have had a sense that differed somewhat from the verb boh? used in the Bible. Why is this of interest?
19 The apostles in their question and Jesus in his reply may have used this noun bi·?ah.? Even if the apostles had in mind simply the idea of Jesus’ future arrival, Christ may have used bi·?ah? to allow for more than what they were thinking. Jesus could have been pointing to his arrival to commence a new office; his arrival would be the start of his new role. This would match the sense of pa·rou·si?a, which Matthew subsequently used. Such a use of bi·?ah? would, understandably, have to support what Jehovah’s Witnesses have long taught, that the composite “sign” Jesus gave was to reflect that he was present.
Parts of Matt 24:37-39 have been translated in a unique way in the NWT. Whether this was done on the basis of doctrinal bias it is not possible for me to say. What is clear is that a literal translation of the passage draws the focus of the parousia to the aspect of Jesus’ arrival rather than his ongoing presence.
On a personal note, I continue to believe that his presence is imminent. I pray for God’s kingdom to come in line with that expectation. All true Christians should keep on the watch. There are ridiculers who ask “Where is this promised presence of his?” I am not one of those and neither should you be. All things are not continuing exactly as from creation’s beginning. The parousia will come just as surely and suddenly as the flood of Noah’s day did. (2 Pet 3:3-10)
* William Barclay, New Testament Words, 222-224