The full verse of Matthew 24.29 reads in Greek:
Εὐθέως δὲ μετὰ τὴν θλῖψιν τῶν ἡμερῶν ἐκείνων
ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται,
καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς,
καὶ οἱ ἀστέρες πεσοῦνται ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ,
καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν σαλευθήσονται.
(Matthew 24.29, NA28)
Or in English:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken."
(Matthew 24.29, ESV translation)
Background in the Hebrew prophets
The Hebrew prophets, in general, spoke in relation to events of their own times. When Syria and Israel were posing a threat against Judah, Isaiah spoke to that context (e.g. Isaiah 7-9). When Babylon posed a threat to Jerusalem, Jeremiah spoke to that. Their primary interest was in events that had national or cultural importance for Israel and/or Judah.
The prophets delivered their prophecies in various ways, but they were often rich in figures of speech, using (of course) common images from their culture to help their audiences understand what it was they were saying — such as street-corner prostitutes (Ezekiel 16), economically prosperous vineyards (Isaiah 5), or a devastating plague of locusts (Joel 1-2). But they also used hyperbolic, exaggerated pictures to stress the gravity of the events they had in mind.
One such hyperbolic metaphor was 'cosmic darkness'. Here are several examples of this distressful picture:
- Isaiah 5.20; 8.22; 13.10,13; 34.4
- Jeremiah 4.23-28; 13.16
- Ezekiel 30.18-19; 32.7-8; 34.12
- Amos 5.8,18-20; 8.9
- Micah 3.6
- Nahum 1.8
- Zephaniah 1.14-16
- Haggai 2.6
- Joel 2.1-2,10,30-32; 3.15-16
And for good measure, a few examples from the Psalms:
- Psalm 18.7-11
- Psalm 97.2,4-5
The 'cosmic darkness' had a wide range of depictions, from something as typical as a thunderstorm, to something as catastrophic as a full-blown decreation of the universe. Common elements include:
- Dark clouds
- The sun being extingiushed, or disappearing mid-day
- The moon being extinguished, or turning red
- The stars being extinguished, or falling to the earth
- The earth being shaken
- The heavens being shaken, or collapsing
How did they use this picture?
We find this picture of 'cosmic darkness' scattered throughout a variety of contexts, across several centuries-worth of prophetic material. Obviously, a necessary question should be, How did they understand the imagery they were using? A minor detour is required to answer that.
The 'Day of YHWH' (or 'Day of the LORD') is found earliest in the book of Amos. However, based on how he speaks about this 'day', it is generally agreed the ideas Amos utilized were around for quite a while before he came along.1
We find the Day of YHWH idea used over and over throughout the biblical prophets, but there is little indication they thought history would grind to a halt on that 'Day'. An explicit example is found in Jeremiah 46, where we read about Nebuchadnezzar conquering Necho II, with this event called 'the Day of YHWH of Hosts' (verse 46.10). The 'Day of YHWH' label was used for events that would leave this or that nation undone, while the rest of the world marched on without them.
In most of the texts from the list I provided above, the 'cosmic darkness' is used in association with 'the Day of YHWH'. If Amos was the earliest prophet to use the Day of YHWH, he was also the earliest to use the cosmic darkness in association with it. The language of 'cosmic darkness' was carried along with the 'Day of YHWH' concept from its earliest recorded stage. This would mean the 'cosmic darkness' idiom was also being used for significant events — events perceived as God's judgment — that were not perceived as literally world-ending.
For example, one particularly poignant use of the 'cosmic darkness' used it for the destruction of Jerusalem's (first) temple:2
That crowning disaster went beyond anything that prophecy had to explain and justify in the past. It was experienced as a collapse of the ordered world itself. With the destruction of the Temple the divinely appointed order had lost its centre, the correspondence between heaven and earth had been disrupted. As he contemplated the ruins of Jerusalem the prophet Jeremiah felt that he was witnessing a return to primordial chaos:
I saw the earth, and it was without form and void;
the heavens, and their light was gone.
I saw the mountains, and they reeled;
all the hills rocked to and fro.
I saw, and there was no man,
and the very birds had taken flight.
Based on all of this, I would suggest a reading that makes the best sense of (a) the historical development of the picture, and (b) the textual placement of the picture, the 'cosmic darkness' was a hyperbolic idiom that described socio-political upheaval/
It was not a literal disruption of nature, let alone anything like the end of the universe, or 'a disturbance in the electromagnetic field or the forces of gravity'.
Do later Jewish and Christian speakers and writers continue using this picture in the same way?
This is the big question. When we find the idiom used in later texts, several centuries after the biblical prophets, did they understand it as describing 'geo-political upheaval', or did they read it as a literal disruption of worldly elements, or did they invest it with some other meaning?
In the Greek version of Esther, the first additional chapter has Mordecai having a prophetic dream. In it, two dragons fight one another, and amid their combat Mordecai sees
every nation prepared for war, to fight against a nation of righteous people. Look! A day of darkness and gloom! Affliction and anguish! Oppression and great chaos upon the earth! ('Old Greek' Esther A.6-7, NETS translation)
The two dragons are later explained as symbolizing the conflict between Mordecai and Haman that arises in the book, with the 'war' and 'day of darkness and gloom' standing for Haman's decree that people may kill the Jews scattered throughout Persia ('Old Greek' Esther F.4-6). At least in this example, the idiom of 'cosmic darkness' is not far off from the meaning we find in the biblical prophets.
The book of Daniel, written in the early second century BC, contains just a hint of the 'cosmic darkness' concept, with its meaning being relatively close to the earlier usage. Chapter 8.10 depicts a goat's 'little horn' as reaching 'to the host of heaven'; it proceeds to throw 'some of the host and some of the stars' down to the earth. This imagery is immediately explained in verse 8.24 as symbolizing an evil king who would 'destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints'.
The later 2 Baruch, written about the end of the first century AD, also drops a reference to 'decreation' when talking about Jerusalem's temple being destroyed in 70 AD (see 3.4-9, especially verse 7).4
In Acts 2.19-21, Peter directly quotes Joel 2.30-32. Just how far he intends to go with this quotation is debatable, but at the very least the context has Peter applying the passage to events taking place at that very moment (i.e. Pentecost, circa 30 AD).
Hebrews 12.25-29 quotes Haggai 2.6, but we're provided with no historical context.
Revelation 6.12-16 and 8.12 use the picture in its most destructive form (the universe physically falling apart), but there is little agreement on what meaning the author intended to convey here, or when he expected it to take place.3
Outside of Matthew 24.29 (and its parallels in Mark and Luke), there aren't any more examples in the new testament. The few we do find are in such distinct and vague contexts, we can barely tell their intended meanings.
Jesus' usage of the idiom
The saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 24.29 is quite similar to Isaiah 13.10,13 in the list above, so his phrasing was probably dependent on that particular example. (Many English translations will reference Isaiah 13.10 in a footnote for Matthew 24.29.) In fact, the Greek wording behind 'and the moon will not give its light' is nearly identical to the Greek version of Isaiah 13.10:
και η σεληνη ου δωσει το φως αυτης (Isaiah 13.10)
και η σεληνη ου δωσει το φεγγος αυτης (Matthew 24.29)
Matthew 24 has Jesus prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem's second temple (24.1-2), international conflict (24.6-7), and war in Judea (24.15-28). In terms of context, we're clearly in the same realm of thought: socio-political upheaval.
Based on how the idiom is used in the Hebrew prophets, and how it carried the same approximate meaning even through the first century AD, I think this is Jesus' intended meaning.
1 Michael Ufok Udoekpo, Re-thinking the Day of YHWH and Restoration of Fortunes in the Prophet Zephaniah (2010), p.204.
2 Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come (2001), p.147-148.
3 My personal thought is that John had in mind the collapse of the Roman Empire, i.e. 'the beast', and that he did not expect the universe to literally fall apart at that time, since he portrays history as marching on for quite some time even when 'the beast' is defeated (cf. Revelation 19-20).
4 The author takes on the identity of Jeremiah's secretary Baruch, writing about the recent destruction of the second temple as if it was the first temple.