A preposition is a “linguistic form that combines with a noun, pronoun, or noun equivalent to form a phrase that typically has an adverbial, adjectival, or substantival relation to some other word.”1 There is a recurring phrase in three of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Revelation that refers to a certain figure coming in the future. His coming is associated with heavenly clouds. In the gospels this figure is the Son of Man and in the Book of Revelation this figure is the resurrected Lord Jesus.2
All of these recurring expressions are thought by New Testament Scholars to be derived from the Book of Daniel 7:1-28, where the author says:
I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him (Daniel 7:13, RSV).
The preposition (‘m) in the phrase “with the clouds of heaven” is regularly translated as with and it is so translated in the Septuagint (Greek translation of Hebrew Bible) as meta, which is “with” in Greek. The image evoked by the phrase (“coming with the clouds of heaven”) is unclear—that is to say: do the clouds surround him or precede him or follow in his wake?
In the New Testament three different Greek prepositions are used in the phrase “coming [with, in, upon] the clouds of heaven. Two verses (Mark 14:62; Rev 1:73) use the preposition “with,” as it appears in Dan 7:13. Three verses (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27, 1 Thess 4:174) use the preposition “in” (en in Greek). The image evoked by the phrase (coming in the clouds of heaven) is also unclear. Is the figure covered by the cloud, or among the clouds in the air? There are parallels in Hebrew Bible for this figure being covered by (that is, he is “within”) the cloud (Exod 19:9, 24:15-16, 34:5; Lev 16:2; Num 11:25, 12:5). On the other hand, five verses (Matt 24:30, 26:64; Rev 14:14-16) use the preposition “upon” (epi in Greek). There is no question about the image evoked in these verses. The figure is upon the cloud (in Revelation he is “seated” upon the cloud).
Ancient Gods were associated with heavenly clouds. The Greek God Zeus, for example, lived on Mount Olympus among the clouds and was called the “Cloud-gatherer”; and the Canaanite storm God, Baal, was known as the “Rider of the Clouds.” Here is a similar statement from Hebrew Bible:
An oracle concerning Egypt: Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud (Isa 19:1, RSV).
Artists have shown a great fascination with the subject of the triumphant Christ returning [with, in, upon] clouds of heaven. Modern readers of the Bible, however, should note that a scientific view of clouds was common knowledge in 5th century BC Greece. Here is a quotation from a comedy by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, making that clear:
[I]s the phenomenon of rain best explained as a precipitation of totally fresh water, or is it merely a case of the same old rainwater in continuous re-use slowly condensed by the Clouds and then precipitated once more as rain?5
For the careful critical reader, the inconsistencies between the images and their obvious mythology do little to inspire confidence in the historical credibility of the biblical narrative. Only in myth, romance, or fiction do clouds become stable platforms for divinities.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “preposition.”
2Critical Scholars in general think that the “Son of Man” is an apocalyptic figure other than the resurrected Christ. See Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels (Harper, 1993), 76-77.
3A few manuscripts change the preposition “with” to “upon” (epi in Greek) in these verses.
41 Thess 4:17 refers to the saints “in the clouds,” while the Lord is “in [eis] the air.”
5From The Clouds: W. Arrowsmith, Four Plays by Aristophanes (Meridian, 1994), 125.