In my February 13, 2012 posting, I briefly focused on Acts 24:15, a passage widely cited by an unorthodox movement known as hyperpreterism. The hyperpreterist uses this verse as evidence that the resurrection of men occurred in the first century, and that it will not occur at the end of history. They believe that the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the great judgment occurred in conjunction with the destruction of the temple and the closing of the old covenant economy in AD 70.
Unfortunately, in that article I had a typo that confused a perceptive reader. In today’s posting I will re-cast and expand that earlier presentation, both clearing up the confusing typo and adding some additional material. I will also respond to a comment made by the reader of my previous article.
Acts 24:15 and Hyperpreterism
In Acts 24:14–15 Paul writes:
“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.” (NASB)
The supposed evidence that the hyperpreterist draws from this text is found in the Greek phrase that is here translated: “there shall certainly be a resurrection.” The Greek words behind this English translation are: anastasin mellein esesthai.
Hyperpreterism seizes upon the word mellein (from the Greek: mello) and argues that it should be translated “about to.” That is, they would translate this phrase: “there is about to be a resurrection.” According to them, therefore, Paul is stating that he is expecting the resurrection to occur soon (i.e., at AD 70).
Acts 24:15 and Orthodoxy
Unfortunately for the hyperpreterist, this is a misreading of Paul that wrongly is used to support their theological error. Let me explain.
First, lexically the word mello has several possible meanings. That is, it does not simply mean “about to,” as the hyperpreterist argument requires. Indeed, it is a rather ambiguous term. Daniel B. Wallace has published an important Greek grammar titled, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (1996). On p. 536 of this work he comments regarding:
“the ambiguity of the lexical nuance of mello (which usually means either ‘I am about to’ [immediacy] or ‘I will inevitably’ [certainty]).”
This is widely recognized by lexicographers. For instance, the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (2:404) declares: “Clearly . . . mello does not always have a fixed meaning.”
Below I will cite a few technical sources for the definition and explanation of mello. Please be aware: when I cite these lexical sources I will expand the abbreviated (space-saving) terms rather than encumber the reader with [bracketed] expansions. Other than this, the citations are exact.
The Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Lexicon exposes some of the ambiguity by offering the following definitions of mello:
“1. to take place a future point of time and so to be subsequent to another event, be about to, used with an infinitive following…. 2. to be inevitable, be destined, inevitable…. 3. The participle is used absolutely in the meaning (in the) future, to come…. 4. delay….
In the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (vol. 1) we read the three leading meanings of mello:
“mello: to occur at a point of time in the future which is subsequent to another event and closely related to it — ‘to be about to.’” (p. 636)
“mello: to be inevitable, with respect to future development — ‘must be, has to be.’” (p. 672)
“mello: to extend time unduly, with the implications of lack of decision — ‘to wait, to delay.’” (p. 646).
In the Exegeticl Dictionary of the New Testament (2:403) we read the following definitions: “intend, be about to, will (as auxiliary verb for the future), be destined to; consider, hesitate, delay.”
The ambiguity of mello is clearly seen in these lexical definitions. The term can even have opposite meanings, speaking either of a soon-coming event or a delay!
It is not helpful to a new movement to base an important argument on the single appearance of an ambiguous verb in an attempt to overthrow 2000 years of Christian orthodoxy. This lexical evidence alone renders void this particular hyperpreterist argument. But this evidence does not stand alone: there is more!
Second, syntactically when mello appears in conjunction with a future infinitive (as here in Acts 24:15) it indicates certainty.1 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 Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Lexicon states: “With the future infinitive mello denotes certainty that an event will occur in the future, mello esesthai.”
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 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” (NASB). The pilot and the captain of the ship disagreed and forged ahead. Paul was prophesying the ship’s wrecking as a certain event.
In Acts 11:28 Agabus prophesies “that there would certainly be [mellein esesthai] a great famine all over the world” (NASB). 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 cohresein), and others water, and others some other of the elements which were created by God?”
This is why none of the standard translations of the Acts 24:15 translate mello as expressing nearness, but simply as a future certain fact (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 are prone to 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.
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 trail 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.
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, "the Law and . . . the Prophets") 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 2:18:14; 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 hyperpreterist use of this verse is erroneous.
The gentleman who noted my typo ended his comment by declaring:
“It seems that even if in this instance mellein is intended to mean ‘shall certainly be,’ because of it being combined with a Future Infinitive verb, that it does little to denounce the nearness of the resurrection in the first century, seeing that all the other events the resurrection is to occur with were being expressed by Jesus, the Apostles and the other writers of the New Testament as happening in the not too distant future.”
He is mistaking my point. I was not using Acts 24:15 to prove the orthodox position. I was responding to a common argument of the hyperpreterists. Thus, I was rebutting their position, not affirming orthodoxy’s.
1. In my original article I stated: “Second, syntactically when mello appears in the future infinitive (as in Acts 24:15) it indicates certainty.” I meant to say: “Second, syntactically when mello appears with the future infinitive (as in Acts 24:15) it indicates certainty.” That is, when mello is used as a helping verb with the future infinitive it signifies certainty rather than nearness.