PMT 2016-089 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my previous article, I began a brief consideration of Acts 24:14–15. This passage is often used by Hyper-preterists in an attempt to demonstrate that the corporate, public, universal, systematic Christian faith has not been mistaken on one of its foundational doctrines for 2000 years. They mistakenly hold that this passage points to the expectation of a first-century resurrection of the dead.
In my opening article I focused on the lexical issues involved in the key term mellein in this passage. They believe it means “about to,” which it does not. Please read that article to orient yourself to the argument. In this article I will conclude by noting their syntactical and contextual error.
The syntactical data
Second, syntactically when mello appears in conjunction with a future infinitive (as here in Acts 24:15) it indicates certainty. In Acts 24:15 mello appears as mellein, a present active infinite, which becomes a helping verb for the immediately following word esesthai, the future middle infinitive of eimi (“to be”).
The Baur-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Lexicon states: “With the future infinitive mello denotes certainty that an event will occur in the future.”
The phrase appearing in Acts 24:15 occurs only two other times in the New Testament (Acts 11:28 and 27:10). But it also appears in Josephus, and in a closely related construction in Diognetus.
In Acts 27:10 Paul warns the captain of the ship he was on: “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be [mellein esesthai] with damage and great loss.” The pilot and the captain of the ship disagreed and forged ahead. Paul was prophesying the ship’s wrecking as a certain event.
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In Acts 11:28 Agabus prophesies “that there would certainly be [mellein esesthai] a great famine all over the world.” And we read that it most certainly did come to pass in the reign of Claudius.
In fact, in the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (2:403) we read that “in Acts mello contains no suggestion of a near future.”
In Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews 13:12:1 the same phrase is used of a certain future occurrence:
“The occasion of which hatred is thus reported: when Hyrcanus chiefly loved the two eldest of his sons, Antigonus and Aristobutus, God appeared to him in his sleep, of whom he inquired which of his sons should be his successor. Upon God’s representing to him the countenance of Alexander, he was grieved that he was to be the heir of all his goods, and suffered him to be brought up in Galilee. However, God did not deceive Hyrcanus; for after the death of Aristobulus, he certainly [mellei esesthai] took the kingdom.”
In Diognetus 8:2 we read: “Dost thou accept the empty and nonsensical statements of those pretentious philosophers: of whom some said that God was fire (they call that God, whereunto they themselves shall go [mellousi choresein], and others water, and others some other of the elements which were created by God?”
This is why none — not one — of the standard translations of the Acts 24:15 translate mello as expressing nearness. Rather they translate it simply as a future, certain event (see: KJV, ESV, NEB, NIV, NAB, NKJV, NRSV, etc.). The NASB (cited above) has an excellent rendering: “having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.”
This is why, also, we do not find Acts 24:15 used by liberals to show the error of prophecy in the Bible. That is, no liberal commentator points to this verse as evidence that Paul made a mistake, though they point out other near-term passages as involving error (though they wrongly interpret those texts): texts such as Mark 9:1 and Matthew 24:34.
For instance, we note that Mark 9:1 is brought up as an error for expecting the near-term return of Christ in: The Intepreter’s Bible, The New Century Bible Commentary, and Meyer’s New Testament Commentary. But Acts 24:15 is never mentioned as such in these commentaries.
The contextual data
Third, contextually: Paul’s argument in Acts 24 supports this idiomatic usage of the certainty of the resurrection, rather than of its nearness.
Paul is on trial for his life, having been brought to court by Jews. His clever maneuver is to divide his opponents against themselves: the Pharisees believe in a resurrection of the dead; the Sadducees do not (cp. Acts 23:6–7). Thus, Paul argues for the certainty of the resurrection (by use of this idiomatic expression, mello esesthai) and concludes: “For the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you today” (Acts 24:21). He is not on trial for declaring the resurrection is near, but is attempting to gain the hearing of the Pharisees over against the Sadducees on the fact of the resurrection.
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Note also a little more fully what he states as he defends his Christianity (called “the Way”): “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:14–15).
Consider two further important observations: Here he is asserting the resurrection as (1) a fact of Scripture (i.e., the Old Testament) and (2) as being held by the Jews (the Pharisees and their followers) themselves. He declares it a fact of Scripture when he states: “believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets.” And he also declares that “these men cherish [this truth] themselves.” We see the resurrection in the Old Testament (e.g., Job 19:25–27; Isa 26:19) and in intertestamental Judaism (e.g., 2 Macc 7:9, 14, 23; 12:43; 1 Enoch 51:1; Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2:8:14; Antiquities 18:1:3).
He is surely not arguing that the Old Testament prophesied that the resurrection would occur “soon”! Nor would he be affirming that the Pharisees believed it was fast approaching. He is speaking of its certainty not its nearness. Thus, the Hyper-preterist use of this verse is erroneous.