How many times did the audience see flashes of a man in a red jacket before Tyler Durden introduced himself to our narrator on that airplane in Fight Club? Maybe the first time you saw it you missed it. Maybe the second time too. Like subtle hints of where the story is going the single-frame flashes of Tyler can be easily overlooked. The story doesn’t necessarily suffer from their absence. The audience can follow the narrative, connect with the characters, be devastated or enthralled by the unfolding action and never register those split second frame flashes. Yet when they are pointed out, when viewers begin to discuss what they are, why they are there, and what they mean the story takes on a richer meaning. We watch it differently.
When we look at the Gospel of Matthew we find something very similar at work. We have spent the last several post looking at the Old Testament and Pseudepigraphal text which play a role in shaping the context of darkness imagery in Jewish thought and the specific textual traditions from which the evangelist may have drawn. Having looked at these intertextual allusions behind the darkness at the cross I will now transition to the innertextual evidence within Matthew’s Gospel itself. Herein lies the crux of my hypothesis: not only can the death of Jesus be viewed as an apocalyptic event of eschatological tribulation through allusions to Old Testament prophecy and Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic literature within the crucifixion narrative, but Matthew’s Gospel itself prepares for this interpretation through his own apocalyptic material. Much like the flashes of Tyler early in the film leading up to his ultimate appearance, Matthew’s Gospel gives us clues, flashes ahead of time, of the darkness at the cross within the context of the gospel’s apocalyptic material.
Matthew’s Apocalyptic Discourse: Exegesis of the Text
The bulk of Matthew’s apocalyptic material is found within his so-called apocalyptic discourse of chapter 24 (||Mark 13), though some material is also found within Matthew 10. For my purposes I will focus on the specific reference to darkness found within Matt 24:29 and the way it prepares the reader for the darkness at the cross and sets Jesus’ death in the context of apocalyptic imagery and eschatological tribulation. Since there are a variety of views about the precise meaning of this passage, many of which would go far afield from my purpose, I will only briefly situate the relevant verses within the larger context of Matthew 24 as a whole.
The passage begins with the disciples’ admiration of the Jerusalem temple complex (Matt 24.1) followed by Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction (Matt 24.2). This prediction incites the twofold question of the disciples found in v. 3: “when will these things happen [the destruction of the temple], and what will be the sign of your visitation.” The ambiguity of this question’s relation to what follows gives rise to the scholarly debate around this passage within which this allusion is found.
The allusion of darkness is situated at the climax of the entire discourse. Having warned of deception by false messiahs (Matt 24.4-5), wars, famines and earthquakes (Matt 24.6-8), the disciples’ being handed over and mistreated (Matt 24.9), the increase of betrayal and interpersonal violence (Matt 24.10-13), the preaching of the gospel in the nations (Matt 24.14), instructions to flee upon the erection of the desolating sacrilege in the temple (Matt 24.15-20), the great hardship which is to follow (Matt 24.21-22), and a second warning against false messiahs (Matt 24.23-28), Jesus describes the climatic moment that will take place:
“Immediately after the θλῖψιν (thlipsin, suffering) of those days
ὁ ἥλιος (ho hēlios, the sun) σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, will be darkened),
and ἡ σελήνη (hē selēnē, the moon) οὐ δώσει (ou dōsei,will not give) τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς (to pheggos autēs, its light);
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.
The majority of discussion around this text has to do with where Jesus’ response transitions from addressing the disciples’ first question about the timing of the temple’s destruction to addressing their second question about the sign of Jesus’ visitation. More specifically, does (a) Matt 24.29 mark the transition, describing Jesus’ parousia, (b) the transition take place in v. 36 when Jesus begins addressing the “day and the hour”, with v. 29ff describing, in metaphorical and apocalyptic language, the destruction of the temple, or (c) the passage take the duel question of v. 3 to be in apposition and address only the events of the temple’s destruction without mention of a parousia.
According to R.T. France and Wright, the language of v. 29ff is drawing on Old Testament imagery of sociopolitical upheaval to describe the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Wright argues Jesus takes the Old Testament language of YHWH’s judgment of the preeminent pagan city of that time, Babylon, and uses it to describe the downfall fated YHWH’s own city, Jerusalem, due to their refusal of Jesus’ message. Adams, who presents a pointed argument against both Wright and France, maintains the apocalyptic language here should be taken, while not necessarily literally, as referring to the actual expectation of cosmic catastrophe associated with the coming of God. He argues while the Old Testament text may have used metaphorical language for city collapse, the use of such imagery developed in the first century to refer to the expectation of actual cosmic catastrophe.
The trouble facing Keener and Hagner is interpreting the passage in such a way that the “immediately” of v. 29 can refer to the parousia while still interpreting vv. 4-28 as referencing a first century CE tribulation. Hagner postulates the “immediately” may be a Matthean addition which does not go back to Jesus but rather reflects the (erroneous) belief of Matthew’s community that the eschaton was imminent. Keener considers either Jesus skips in v. 29 from the first century tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, namely his return, or Jesus views the whole intermediate period from the temple’s downfall to his parousia as being an extended time of tribulation. He also suggests vv. 4-28 blends the first century tribulation with the eschatological tribulation, so the “tribulation of those days” is referencing not a first century tribulation but one of the end of the age This said however, he does not find the minority position of reading vv. 4-28 as being wholly future to the post-70 CE reader a defensible position.
Though I will not arrive at a hard conclusion about the precise referent of v. 29ff, whether a future parousia or the temple destruction of 70 CE, here it will suffice to recognize what can be agreed upon by both sides of the debate: the passage uses apocalyptic language and metaphor, and contains all the hallmark signs of eschatological tribulation — war, famine, earthquake, interpersonal strife and betrayal, violence, and celestial disturbances — examined above. It is this context, to be examined more closely through the investigation of the Old Testament allusions underpinning the text, which will prove enlightening. Like the flashes of Durden by the copy machine or at the doctor’s office, these reference to darkness earlier in Matthew’s Gospel will prove to be significant in understanding how the darkness at the cross functions and what it says about the death of Jesus.
 Allison Jr., “Victory” 17ff.
 Matt 24.29-30 NRSV; Gk. NA27
 Keener, Matthew. Hagner, Matthew 14-28.
 France, Matthew. 901.
 Wright, People. 330ff. writing on the Markan parallel.
 Ibid. 340.
 Adams, Stars. 160.
 Ibid. 160.
 Keener, Matthew. Hagner, Matthew 14-28.
 Ibid. 711-712.
 Keener, Matthew. 577-578.
 Ibid. 577-578.
 Wright, People. 340.
 Pitre, Jesus. 228ff.