It is claimed that Jesus’ prophecy that He would return in their generation never happened, proving Jesus is a false prophet. Is this true? The knol canvasses the different views, and concludes that the passage has likely been mistranslated into English, making it appear a contradiction exists. Hence, this claim of a contradiction is an insubstantial one, and thus no basis to discredit Jesus.
The Standard Dilemma: Temple Destruction Tied To Events Seen By This Generation
Some Jewish critics of Jesus claim he could not be a prophet because he expected his return in one generation’s time — 40 years approximately. (Gerald Friedlander, The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount (1911) at 250-51.) This is repeatedly frequently by modern critics of Jesus of Jewish persuasion.
In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus answered two questions that His disciples had asked Him:
- When would the Temple be destroyed? and
- What is the sign people should expect that will herald the end of the world and the return of Christ?
The juxtaposition of the two questions in Matthew and the two answers has led readers to assume they are asking about the same general time and thus the answer is supposedly about the same general time. That was an assumption in the questions, but it is not necessarily present in the answer. Clearly, it was an assumption evident in the expectation of disciples that both events are near to one another, i.e., that the Temple’s destruction would happen around the same time as the Second Coming of Christ (cf. Acts 1:6-7; John 21:20-23).
However, it may be that the two time periods are connected by many commentators by a hasty assumption in reading the passage. Jesus very well did not likely mean to connect His second coming to the Temple destruction prophecy. However, for purposes of this knol, we will indulge in that common assumption because there are other significant solutions that more easily resolve this issue.
Thus as many read the passage, and as critics who claim Jesus is a false prophet read it, Jesus supposedly leads his disciples to believe his prophecies of calamities would take place at the same time the Temple would be destroyed (which event took place in 70 AD). This is the key quote:
“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34)
“Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.” (Mark 13:30)
“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:32)
Was that a false prophecy? How could it be that “this generation” would see the end-times calamities, including Christ’s return, which necessarily is in the future, yet the Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago? How can all these things — Temple Destruction and Christ’s return — both have taken place in “this generation” when one of the two prophecies has taken place 2000 years ago but not the other?
A Jewish critic who believes Jesus is a false prophet argues thusly:
Jesus explicitly describes his Second Coming: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the nations of the earth will mourn (Matthew 24:30).” It will involve suffering “never to be equaled again (Matthew 24:21).” This did not happen when the Temple was destroyed.
There are two traditional rebuttal explanations.
First, the preterist view, which says all these things did happen in Jesus’ generation (i.e., 40 years from his death) including Christ’s private return, but this is flawed because the preterist view requires an invisible coming, which Jesus denied is how He will return (Matt. 24:26-27).
The second explanation is the Futurist explanation which says Jesus meant “this generation” as the one alive in the future. A Jewish critic rebuts this, saying: “The idea that Jesus is referring to a future generation fails too. Throughout this speech Jesus refers to his audience as “you.” When Jesus says, “when you see… (v.15)”
However, Jared Olar summarizes a third view: what if when Jesus used the word “generation” (Greek genea), He didn’t mean the same thing that we mean? What if He wasn’t using “generation” to refer to a group of people all living at the same period of history? 
According to Archer, sometimes genea (“generation”) was used as a synonym of genos (“race,” “stock,” “nation,” “people”). Archer writes:
“Although this meaning for genea is not common, it is found as early as Homer and Herodotus and as late as Plutarch (cf. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed., [Oxford: Clarendon, 1940], p.342).’
“6. Race; kind; family; breed; stock.”
Genea’s Literal Meanings
The Greek word genea, translated “generation” here, does also mean the offspring of a common human ancestor. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament provides the following definitions of this word:
1) a begetting, birth, nativity
2) that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
2a) the several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
2b) metaph. a group of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character
2b1) esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation
3) the whole multitude of men living at the same time
Thus, if Jesus was correctly translated as genea, only if meanings 3 and 4 apply does a contradiction emerge. Otherwise, if the more generic meanings of 1-2 apply, there is no contradiction or false prophecy.
Early Church Leaders/Commentators Concurred On Genea Has Generic Meaning In This Passage
Theophylactus wrote between 1055 and 1085 AD that he saw Jesus meant the race of Jews:
“Or else, ‘This generation shall not pass away,’ that is, the generation of Christians, ‘until all things be fulfilled,’ which were spoken concerning Jerusalem and the coming of Antichrist; for He does not mean the generation of the Apostles, for the greater part of the Apostles did not live up to the destruction of Jerusalem. But He says this of the generation of Christians, wishing to console His disciples, lest they should believe that the faith should fail at that time; for the immovable elements shall first fail, before the words of Christ fail; wherefore it is added, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.‘ ”
“By ‘generation’ here He means the whole human race, and the Jews in particular. And He adds, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,’ to confirm their faith in what has gone before; as though He had said, it is easier to destroy things solid and immovable, than that aught should fail of my words.
Thus, Jesus’ words might be rendered, “This people [i.e., the Jews / church?] shall not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.” In that rendering, He could have been referring to the Jewish people or to the Church for both Israel and the Church are given divine promises that they would remain in existence until the end of time (Jeremiah 31:35-37; Matthew 16:18). The “you” to whom Jesus spoke then are the national, racial “you” rather than “you” the few people listening. Thus, that “you” was as much present 2000 years ago as such “you” is still with us today. Hence, this prophecy can still be future, and Jesus addressed this to “you” in the generic sense of Jews or the church.
Genea as Solely 40 Years of Offspring
However, an opposing view of genea is set forth in the Wikipedia on “Second Coming.” (By the way, Wikipedia does not mention this third view, discussed above, despite it being mentioned by Jerome, Bede, and Theophylactus, suggesting a lack of objectivity in Wikipedia‘s article). This Wikipedia article argues “if Jesus meant ‘race’ he would have used genos (race) not genea(generation).”
The Bauer lexicon (since updated by Arndt and Gingrich) of Koine Greek states that genea means “the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time. Generation, contemporaries.” Robinson’s Greek & English Lexicon states that genea means: “The interval of time between father & son… from thirty to forty years those living in any one period; this present generation.”
The Greek meaning of genea is, to the contrary, expansive enough in usage to mean people, race, etc. In such a case, the contradiction disappears, suggesting that too much emphasis is put by Wikipedia on the ordinary meaning of genea to create a contradiction.
Thus, a legitimate way to read Jesus is that “this people shall not pass away / will continue to exist until all these things be fulfilled.”
C.S. Lewis Admits ‘Error’ But Then Contrary Text Follows
C.S. Lewis despaired at finding a solution to this passage. Lewis reluctantly conceded to the assertion of the skeptics that Jesus was in error. He attributed this to the supposedly limited knowledge Jesus had in His incarnate human form. He despairingly wrote:
“Say what you like,” we shall be told [by some critics], “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.
‘Time of the Gentiles’ Quote
In the Lucan amplification of the Matthew discourse, a long period lies between the destruction of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic events which precede His coming:
Luke 21:24, “They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
This supports reading the two points as distinct — the Temple destruction is a long time prior to the “time of the Gentiles.” Hence, this also supports that genea was used as genos in this passage, as Archer says there are several examples in Greek literature of this usage.
We have canvassed pros and cons, and hopefully demonstrated that those who insist upon a contradiction, are not being charitable in reading Jesus’ words in their Greek translation. No one has a duty to be charitable. Yet, when I see the otherwise brilliant and witty words of Jesus, as well as His fulfillment of the OT role of Messiah, besides the competing textual clues that the Temple talk and the Return talk are not actually connected, etc., the better view is this is not a clear contradiction. There are reasonable interpretations that maintain a consistency. Try to find fault elsewhere, if you wish. This is not conclusive, and not a strong proof.
- Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982) at 338-339.
- The footnote in the New American Bible (Catholic Edition) asserts without any rationale: "The difficulty raised by this verse [Matthew 24:34] cannot be satisfactorily removed by the supposition that this generation means the Jewish people throughout the course of their history, much less the entire human race. Perhaps for Matthew it means the generation to which he and his community belonged.''
- Quoted by Aquinas Catena Aurea - Gospel of Mark at page 268, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/catena2.iii.xiii.html
- Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Golden Chain), Parallel Gospel of Matthew 24:29-36 (John Henry Parker, v. I, J.G.F. and J. Rivington:London, 1842)
- Arndt and Gingrich (1952) at 153
- C.S. Lewis, "The World's Last Night" (1960), The Essential C.S. Lewis at 385.