Deissmann on parousia

Gustav Adolf Deissmann will be known by some for his work in Greek language.  What follows are some quotes from a book that he wrote entitled Light from the Ancient East concerning the word parousia.  This word is what was used by the disciples to describe the coming of Christ.  In his work, Deissmann explores the usage of the word in the time period surrounding Christ’s life which directly impacts how it would have been viewed by the first century church.  You’ll understand what I mean as you read the quotes.

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Yet another of the central ideas of the oldest Christian worship receives light from the new texts, namely: parousia, “advent, coming,” a word expressive of the most ardent hopes of a St. Paul.  We now may say that the best interpretation of the Primitive Christian hope of the Parusia is the old Advent text, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee” (Zech. ix. 9; Matt. xxi. 5).  From the Ptolemaic period down into the 2nd cent. A.D. we are able to trace the word in the East as a technical expression for the arrival of the visit of the king or the emperor (or other persons in authority, or troops).  The parusia of the sovereign must have been something well known even to the people, as shown by the facts that special payments in kind and taxes to defray the cost of the parusia were exacted, that in Greece a new era was reckoned from the parusia of the Emperor Hadrian, that all over the world advent-coins were struck after a parusia of the emperor, and that we are even able to quote examples of advent sacrifices.

The subject of parusia dues and taxes in Egypt has been treated in detail by Wilcken.  The oldest passage he mentions is in the Flinders Petrie Papyrus II. 39e, of the 3rd cent. B.C., where, according to his ingenious interpretation, contributions are noted for a crown of gold to be presented to the king at his parusia: “ for another crown on the occasion of the parusia, 12 artabae.”  This papyrus supplies an exceptionally fine background of contrast to the figurative language of St. Paul, in which Parusia (or Epiphany, “appearing”) and crown occur in collocation.  While the sovereigns of this world expect at their parusia a costly crown for themselves, “at the parusia of our Lord Jesus” the apostle will wear a crown – “the crown of glory” (I Thess. ii. 19), won by his work among the Churches, or “the crown of righteousness” which the Lord will give to him and to all them that have loved His appearing – 2 Timothy iv. 8.

I have found another characteristic example in a petition, circa 113 B.C., which was found among the wrappings of the mummy of a sacred crocodile.  A parusia of King Ptolemy, the second, who called himself Soter (“saviour”), is expected, and for this occasion a great requisition has been issued for corn, which is being collected at Cerceosiris by the village headman and the elders of the peasants.  Speaking of this and another delivery of corn, these officials say: “and applying ourselves diligently, both night and day, unto fulfilling that which was set before us and the provision of 80 artabae which was imposed for the parusia of the king….”

Are not these Egyptian peasants, toiling day and night in expectation of the parusia of their saviour king, an admirable illustration of our Lord’s words (Luke xviii. 7) about the elect who cry day and night to God, in expectation of the coming of the Son of Man (Luke xviii. 8)?

As in Egypt, so also in Asia: the uniformity of Hellenistic civilisation is proved once more in this instance.  An inscription of the 3rd cent. B.C. at Olbia mentions a parusia of King Saitapharnes, the expenses of which were a source of grave anxiety to the city fathers, until a rich citizen, named Protogenes, paid the sum – 900 pieces of gold, which were presented to the king.  Next comes an example of great importance as proving an undoubted sacral use of the word, viz., an inscription of the 3rd cent. B.C., recording a cure at the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, which mentions a parusia of the healer (saviour) god Asclepius – “and Asclepius manifested his parusia.”  For the combination of parusia with manifestation see Thess. ii. 8.  Other examples of Hellenistic age known to me are a passage in Polybius – “to expect earnestly the parusia of Antiochus” (the verb is very characteristic, cf. Rom. viii. 19) – referring to a parusia of King Antiochus the Great, and two letters of King Mithradates VI., Eupator of Pontus at the beginning of his first war with the Romans, 88 B.C., recorded in an inscription at Nysa in Caria – “and now, having learnt of my parusia.”  The prince, writing to Leonippus the Praefect of Caria, makes twofold mention of his own parusia, i.e., his invasion of the province of Asia.

It is the legitimate continuation of the Hellenistic usage that in the Imperial period the parusia of the sovereign should shed a special brilliance.  Even the visit of a scion of the Imperial house, G. Caesar (+ 4 A.D.), a grandson of Augustus, was, as we know from an inscription – “in the first year of the epiphany [synonymous with parusia] of Gaius Caesar” – made the beginning of a new era in Cos.  In memory of the visit of the Emperor Nero, in whose reign St. Paul wrote his letters to Corinth, the cities of Corinth and Patras struck advent-coins.  Adventus Aug(usti) Cor(inthi) is the legend on one, Adventus Augusti on the other.  Here we have corresponding to the Greek parusia the Latin word advent, which the Latin Christians afterwards simply took over, and which is to-day familiar to every child among us.

How graphically it must have appealed  to the Christian of Thessalonica, with their living conception of the parusiae of the rulers of this world, when they read in St. Paul’s second letter – (“the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus . . . shall destroy by the manifestation of His parusia, whose parusia is according to the workings of Satan” 2 Thess. ii. 8-9) – of the Satanic “parusia” of Antichrist, who was to be destroyed by “the manifestation of the parusia” of the Lord Jesus!

How deeply a parusia stamped itself on the memory is shown by the eras that were reckoned from parusiae.  We have heard already of an era at Cos dating from the epiphany of G. Caesar, and we find that in Greece a new era was begun with the first visit of the Emperor Hadrian in the year 124; – the magnificent monuments in memory of that parusia still meet the eye at Athens and Eleusis.  There is something peculiarly touching in the fact that towards the end of the 2nd century, at the very time when the Christians were beginning to distinguish the “first parusia” of Christ from the “second,” an inscription at Tegea was dated

“in the year 69 of the first parusia

of the god Hadrian in Greece.”

Even in early Christian times the parallelism between the parusia of the representative of the State and the parusia of Christ was clearly felt by the Christians themselves.  This is shown by a newly discovered petition of the small proprietors of the village of Aphrodite in Egypt to the Dux of the Thebaid in the year 537-538 A.D., a papyrus which at the same time is an interesting memorial of Christian popular religion in the age of Justinian.

“It is a subject of prayer with us night and day, to be held worthy of your welcome parusia.”

The peasants whom a wicked Pagarch has been oppressing, write thus to the high official, after assuring him with a pious sigh at the beginning that they awaited him “as they watch eagerly from Hades the future parusia of Christ the everlasting God.”

Quite closely related to parusia is another cult-word, epiphaneia, “epiphany, appearing.”  How closely the two ideas were connected in the age of the N.T. is shown by the passage in 2 Thess. ii. 8, already quoted, and by the associated usage of the Pastoral Epistles, in which “Epiphany” or “Appearing” nearly always means the future parusia of Christ, though once it is the parusia which patristic writers afterwards called “the first.”  Equally clear, however, is the witness of an advent coin struck by Actium-Nicopolis for Hadrian, with the legend: “Epiphany of Augustus”; the Greek word coincides with the Latin word “advent” generally used on coins . . . the new proofs available are very abundant.

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There are some that suggest that the coming of Christ could happen over an extended period of time.  They suggest that Christ’s second coming could have many stages.  Perhaps He comes first to rapture the church and then goes back to heaven only to physically return at a later point in time.  The problem is that this idea is not explicitly taught in scripture.  Further, it goes against the basic idea of parousia which means a kingly, physical presence.  In each instance above those who were expecting the parousia were expecting a king to come and remain with them.  Certainly many things would happen when that king would come during his extended visit.  But the base meaning of this word should be clear.  It refers to the physical presence of King Jesus here on earth.  There can be no establishment of an invisible presence of Christ over the earth while He remains in heaven.  Hopefully the above quotes can foster some further study on the subject.

Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

-The Orange Mailman

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3 Responses to Deissmann on parousia

  1. Alan K says:

    Hi Darrin,

    Thanks for your article. I would, however, caution you when citing Deissmann uncritically. Since his publication almost a hundred years ago, the data and approaches to the data have been developed. Take for example his understanding of “parousia” as a technical expression in the East “for the arrival of the visit of the king or the emperor (or other persons in authority, or troops).” It is not a technical term, because there are contexts that do not convey authority, and in this case kingly authority.

    Next, you wrote, “Further, it goes against the basic idea of parousia which means a kingly, physical presence.” Basic ideas or base meanings do not carry meaning outside of an application (context). The danger of this is that the interpreter imports meaning into the text from another context. It is similar to the common word-concept fallacy; in this case, every time “parousia” is used it has this “kingly” meaning. Not so. One cannot assume this. Context determines meaning.

    You also wrote, “It refers to the physical presence of King Jesus here on earth.” But Paul in 1 Thess 4:15 has the parousia beginning in the sky, not earth. Further, during Christ’s inception of his parousia he does go back to heaven to usher his redeemed resurrected people before the Father. So we should not be so rigid on this narrow view of what the parousia is suppose to be, lest we skew God’s purposes for his Son’s parousia; especially since Jesus’ parousia will be a unique event.

    Thanks,

    Alan

    • Hi Alan, you are welcome and thank you for the comments. There are examples even in scripture of parousia not conveying a kingly presence such as I Corinthians 16:17 and II Corinthians 7:6-7. Certainly context will determine meaning. Given the wide usage of this term in relation to a kingly presence as noted in the work above, the times when we read about the parousia of Christ as He comes in power and glory it is not importing a foreign meaning into the text.

      Paul does have the parousia of Christ beginning in the sky, but there is no evidence that Christ retreats back to heaven. When I write about Christ’s parousia here on earth I am contrasting a place here in our earthly sphere in contrast to His place at the right hand of the Father now. When He appears and descends, every eye here on earth will see Him, see Revelation 1:7. The nations will see Him coming and respond accordingly, see Matthew 24:30. So when I write about the physical presence of Christ here on earth I am talking about the entire parousia, beginning in the air and descending to earth. It makes no sense for Christ to appear so that all nations can see Him and then He suddenly disappears and goes back to heaven.

      Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

      -The Orange Mailman

  2. The parousia of Christ will cut short the persecution of Satan/Antichrist, (Matt. 24:22, Mark 13:20). When God decides it is time to end the persecution of Satan/Antichrist against His elect, God will turn out all natural light sources, (Joel 3:15, Rev. 6:12-13, Matt. 24:29); then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, (Matt. 24:30); then Jesus will be seen coming on the clouds with angelic accompaniment and the sounding of the trumpet of God, (Matt. 24:31, I Thess. 4:16); then the dead in Christ will be called from the grave, (I Thess. 4:16, I Cor. 15:52); then God will send forth the angels to gather the living elect into the air, (I Thess. 4:17); then Christ and the elect (both Israel and Gentiles) will return to heaven, (John 14:1-3); then the six trumpet judgments will fall upon the earth to finish out the 70th Week of Daniel. The first day after the end of the 70th Week of Daniel the death of the two witnesses will occur, (Rev.11:7-10). Christ will immediately come to earth and gather together all Israel for her salvation, (Rev. 10:7, 14:1; Rom. 11:25-27; Zech. 14:4); then Christ will split the Mount of Olives and send Israel to Azel for the duration of the bowl judgments, (Zech. 14:5); then Christ shall return to heaven while the bowl judgments fall upon the kingdom of Satan, (Rev. 14:14-16:21); then the final event called Armageddon will occur, (Rev. 19:11-21). The parousia of our great God and King will end with the beginning of the 1000 year reign of Christ on earth.

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