This post will explore what was written in the early writings of the believers of the first few centuries concerning the possibility of a Rapture. Most of the commentary by early, anti-nicean saints is inconclusive on the rapture question, but evidence does exist both for and against. The strongest evidence against a rapture might be the writings of Cyprian (200-258 AD) who seems to suggest pre-trib believers might face martyrdom at the hands of the son of perdition.
I'll summarize below, from an objective standpoint, what was said in...
In each case, I've provided links you can click on to go and read what they actually said in its full context, rather than just reading the quotes I'm providing. This will give you a chance to see for yourself the context that establishes what they were saying.
Non Biblical Evidence of Rapture (or not) via Tradition and Apocrypha
This list is mostly in chronologyical order. I'll make a distinction between writers who support the idea of a PRE-TRIB DELIVERANCE and a PRE-TRIB RAPTURE since there's more than one way God can deliver believers than rapturing them from the earth.
Ezra - (click here to read the book of Ezra) - Claims to be written circa 400 BC.
It's hard to have a middle ground opinion of Ezra. It claims to be written about 400 BC and foretells the death and atonement of the Messiah. So either Ezra was a prophet whose every word should be considered scripture or the whole book is a total fraud. It's not like other apocryphal books where you could come up with some middle ground opinion of saying it should be given weight, but not be authoritative. It's either a "Thus saith the Lord" the whole way or a forgery.
Some texts of Ezra says in chapter 5:1
"behold, the days shall come, that they which dwell upon earth shall be taken in a great number, and the way of truth shall be hidden, and the land shall be barren of faith
Other texts read...
"behold, the days shall come, that they which dwell upon earth shall be seized with great terror..."
Some would interpret the first translation as a "pre-trib deliverance" category. It does NOT say that a rapture will occur, though you could read that into the text. But the second translation may be more accurate. The difference could be due to the underlining Hebrew text it was translated from. The 2 versions read;
"behold, the days shall come, that they which dwell upon earth shall be
taken in great measure (אמה),
and the way of truth shall be hidden,
and the land shall be barren of faith
"behold, the days shall come, that they which dwell upon earth shall be
seized with great terror (אימה)..."
The underlined part is in both versions. The bold part differs, and the italicized is in one version only. "Taken" and "seized" are not significantly different words. Grammatical differences are often merely translational, and both "in a" and "with" would be represented by a Hebrew "BET" prepositional prefix.
This bold variant is probably due to different interpretations from a Hebrew source. "אימה" in Hebrew can mean "terror" while "אמה" is a unit of measurement. For this reason, I changed "number" in the original translation I used to "measure" the second time I quoted it because that was probably the more literal conveyance of the original Hebrew text. Bad handwriting or a little ink that peeled off or smeared over could be to blame for this variance. Let me write both versions in Hebrew....
"לקח באמה רבה "
= "taken in great measure (אמה),
"לקח באימה רבה "
= "seized with great terror (אימה)..."
Only 1 letter difference in Hebrew. So basically, one must stay open minded about the various ways to interpret this and not conclude that it proves one pre-disposed concept or the other, since it is too vague to prove much of anything.
While the meaning of "seized with great terror (אימה)..." seems obvious enough, there are multiple ways to itnerpret what is meant by "taken in great measure (אמה)". Whos is taken and where are they taken to? Are they taken by the Beast to be killed? OR are they taken someplace by God to be spared (the wilderness, heaven, death, etc)? Ezra is not clear.
Ezra says several things that are parallelled in the New Testament. For example...
4 Ezra 5:8 "There shall be a confusion also in many places, and the fire shall be oft sent out again, and the wild beasts shall change their places, and menstruous women shall bring forth monsters: "
Matt 24:19 "How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!" 4 Ezra 6:20 says "And when the world, that shall begin to vanish away, shall be finished, then will I shew these tokens: the books shall be opened before the firmament, and they shall see all together: " Revelation 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened...
Ezra 9:3 So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes,
Matthew 24:7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Though the timing is different. However, all of Revelation uses symbolism that's used in the Fall feasts of Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur. On these holidays, the following symbols are an important part of what goes on...
- Trumpet blasts
- Revelation 1:10 On the Lord's Day (or "Day of the Lord") I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet. While a lot of Christians interpret "Lord's Day" to be the Sabbath, this phrase "Day of the Lord" or "Lord's Day" depending on how you want to translate it - was used to describe Yom Teruah. I believe Yochanan / John is saying these events happened on Yom Teruah. This would be significant, in that it speaks to us further about how Jewish tradition surrounding the symbols of these Fall feasts are important in helping us understand what the book of revelation is saying.
- Revelation 4:1After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this."
- Revelation 8 - the 7 trumpets
- Doors opening on Yom Teruah, closing on Yom Kippur
- Books opening on Yom Teruah, closing on Yom Kippur
- Only appears in Revelation in 20:12, but this is an important Fall feast symbol, and its also used by Ezra
- Seals on Yom Kippur
Ezra was cannonized as scripture by the Council of Carthage (349-419) is accepted by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. But it has been rejected by most Protestant traditions.
The Didache, circa 100-120 AD
Long considered an important writing, it talks of the second coming. But the language it uses seems to suggest it is drawing completely from the book of Ezra. On the last days, the Didache 16 says...
- 6. And then shall the signs of the truth appear, first the sign of a rift in heaven (Note how this parallels 4Ezra 6:20, which predicts a sign in the "firmament"), then the sign of the sound of a trumpet (Note this parallels 4Ezra 6:23), and thirdly, a resurrection of the dead. (Paralleling 4Ezra 6:25)
- 8. Then shall the world see the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven."
No writing other than Ezra mentions these three things in this order this close together. So the writers of the Didache must have considered Ezra to be scripture. Now one could use this an an argument to accept Ezra, or it could be used as an argument to reject the Didache, since the Didache accepted as cannon books not accepted as cannon by tradition and included in the Bible, depending on how you want to view this one. The Didache mentions nothing about a rapture or pre-trib deliverance of any kind. While the Didache is clearly relying on Ezra, there is not enough in it to tell us which version, and whether the source text used by the writer(s) said "taken in great measure (אמה)" or "seized with great terror (אימה)" since that statement does not factor into any of the Didache's comments.
The Shepherd of Hermes (100-150 AD)
"I come near it, and, huge monster as it was, it stretcheth itself on the ground, and merely put forth its tongue, and stirred not at all until I had passed by it.....Thou hast escaped a great tribulation because thou hast believed and at the sight of such a huge beast hast not doubted. "
This involves an allegory in which the beast chooses not to attack the man being addressed. The man choose to believe the beast would not attack him, and his faith panned out. Of course, we know that in the end times, the beast of Revelation WILL choose to attack the Church, so whether this story REALLY applies to the end times or not is doubtful. Many people do apply it to the end times and the beast of Revelation, and there are some parallels. But if it is applied, it would suggest that if I have enough faith, the Beast of Rev 13 won't attack me. However, the analogy may have simply been about faith and not relevant to end times and it may not necessarily been trying to convey the thought that faith will keep the Beast of the False Messiah from capturing and killing us.
In another place, it says, "Happy are they that endure the tribulation that is coming." (Vision II)
Irenaeus (120-200 AD)
Beginning with chapter XXV of Book V, Irenaeus talks a lot about the last days, the son of perdition, etc., but makes no mention of a rapture. There's no reason to suspect this omission to be significant, other than the length of time spent on discussing the topic.
Irenaeus has been falsely credited with having said the following, "when the end is suddenly here, the Church will be taken away." But this is not in any of the writings of Irenaeus. It came from a Latin commentary by a guy named "Weiter" talking ABOUT Irenaeus, not from Irenaeus. Of course, even this quote places the "taken away" at "the end", not prior to the tribulation. But the quote came from a commentary ABOUT him many centuries AFTER Irenaeus died and it is not in his writings.
Hippolytus (170-236 AD)
In his Treatise on the Christ and Antichrist , he comments extensively on the end times, but mentions nothing about a rapture. He places the "last trump" of Thessolonians at the Resurrection. In the last part of his writing, he emphasizes that he is drawing soley from scripture. This might suggest that Oral tradition on the topic was lost or debated by this point in history, and from him onward believers probably debated the interpretation of things and were interpretting scripture, rather than relying on a tradition tracing to the apostles.
Commodianus (200-250 AD)
Commodrianus talks a lot about the second coming, the False Messiah, and martyrdom during the tribulation, but never mentions a rapture happening beforehand. He does speak of the tribulation as being 7 years in length, with Elijah "occupying [the first] half of the time" and the False Messiah would occupy the second half. He sees Nero as the False Messiah and says he would be raised from the dead. From chapters XLI (Of the Time of the AntiChrist) to chapter XLV , he goes into enough detail one would expect the rapture to be mentioned if it were part of his philosophy.
Cyprian (200-258 AD)
I've heard some people distort the words of this writer to say he was suggesting Messiah would deliver us from the persecution of the son of perdition who will persecute believers in the last times. Far from it. In Letter 55, he talks about martyrdom in general, how some of the Macabees experienced it, the apostles experienced it, and then talks of the evil one to come - the son of perdition or anti-christ. Of martyrdom, he says...
Whatever our Lord and God taught, He also did, that the disciple might not be excused if he learns and does not.
Now Messiah suffered unto death, and here Cyprian is using Messiah as an example of how we should not faint when presented with the possibility of martyrdom. In his very next sentence, he then goes on to talk about the antichrist, saying...
Nor let any one of you, beloved brethren, be so terrified by the fear of future persecution, or the coming of the threatening Antichrist, as not to be found armed for all things by the evangelical exhortations and precepts, and by the heavenly warnings. Antichrist is coming, but above him comes Christ also. The enemy goeth about and rageth, but immediately the Lord follows to avenge our sufferings and our wounds. The adversary is enraged and threatens, but there is One who can deliver us from his hands. He is to be feared whose anger no one can escape, as He Himself forewarns, and says: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell."
Here, Cyprian is suggesting that present believers could face death at the hands of the son of perdition, but warns us not to shrink back and value eternal more important than temporary life. This would have been the perfect spot to mention a rapture, but instead, he suggests that his contemporaries, in his time, even himself, might face martyrdom at the hands of the anti-messiah. It would seem Cyprian did not believe or had not heard the doctrine of a rapture if he thought he might go through this himself. But if he was saying Messiah would rapture us from martyrdom by the antichrist, then there would have been no point in quoting "Fear not them which kill the body..."
Dionysius of Alexandria (200-250 AD)
Dionysius was one of the few Ante-Nicean writers who rejected the literal interpretation of Revelation, saying it was "impossible to understand it in its literal sense."
Didascalia Apostolorum (200-250 AD)
This teaching covers many topics, and discusses martyrdom, following that with a discussion of the resurrection, but does not talk about being raptured prior to the massive end time martyrdoms.
Victorinus (circa 240 AD)
Victorinus said this,
" Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather in the grapes of the vine,”] he signifies it of the nations that should perish on the advent of the Lord. And indeed in many forms he shows this same thing, as if to the dry harvest, and the seed for the coming of the Lord, and the consummation of the world, and the kingdom of Christ, and the future appearance of the kingdom of the blessed... “And the angel thrust in the sickle, ......“For a thousand and six hundred furlongs.”] That is, through all the four parts of the world: for there is a quadrate put together by fours, as in four faces and four appearances, and wheels by fours; for forty times four is one thousand six hundred. Repeating the same persecution, the Apocalypse says, “And I saw another great and wonderful sign, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is completed the indignation of God.”] For the wrath of God always strikes the obstinate people with seven plagues, that is, perfectly, as it is said in Leviticus; and these shall be in the last time, when the Church shall have gone out of the midst." (Commentary on Rev 14 and 15)
Is the statement "the Church shall have gone out of the midst" a pre-trib deliverance promise ? Hard to tell because what comes before it is so close to the timing of Armageddon that he may have seen all these events as happening in the same day. It is not clear that he sees the Church having "gone out of the midst" 3.5 years prior or any anything of the like, and the context is AFTER the harvest, which most people do place the timing of as coinciding with Armageddon. It is possible he is thinking pre-trib deliverance, mid-trib deliverance, or even seeing all these things at the harvest just a wink before Armageddon.
Lactantius (250-325 AD)
Lactantius goes into significant detail discussing the tragedies mentioned in Revelation, but no mention of believers escaping them through a rapture. He devotes several chapters (14-26) to the topic and even says, "the things which are said by prophets and seers to be about to happen before that last ending comes upon the world, I will subjoin, being collected and accumulated from all quarters."
Cyril of Jerusalem (315-387 AD)
Cyril attempts to reconstruct the chain of events that will occur in sequential order during the end times, but omits any mention of a rapture. His omission may be the most conspicuous of all writers since he is clearly attempting to put together the general sequency of events in order.
Ephraim the Syrian (4th century)
Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD) grew up in Eastern Turkey, where Syriac or Aramaic was the major regional language and where the Book of Revelation was not accepted as the cannon of scripture. It wasn't accepted as scripture by the Church of Syria until 508 AD. So the book of Revelation may or may not have been an influence on his thinking. He did not live in Syria, but was called "The Syrian" because of the language he wrote and taught in.
2 works attributed to him about the end times are
- Sermon by Ephraim on the End of the World known only in Syriac / Aramaic. In this text, he clearly teaches against a pre-trib rapture.
- On the Last Times, the Anti-Christ, and the End of the World . known only in Latin. The Latin version is not a translation of the Syriac version; they are two separate works. This text could be interpreted as pre-trib. If it is interpreted in light of the Syriac text, a different result is obtained.
The Syriac Text
The Apostle has penned a warning for us in his epistle to the Thessalonians:
‘Let no word or no letter trouble you that is not from us.
For the rebellion comes first, also the Man of Sin
And he will exalt himself over God, Making himself to be God.’
And when the Accursed One comes and displays his mighty works and wonders, the nations will gather together and come as (if) they were going to see God....every person will renounce their deity;
The elect will flee from his presence ...People will flee to cemeteries and hide themselves among the dead, pronouncing the good fortune of the deceased who had avoided the calamity: ‘Blessed are you for you were borne away (to the grave) and hence you escaped from the afflictions! But as for us, woe is us! For when we die, vultures will serve as escort for us!
This is clearly teaching against a pre-trib doctrine, since it says that those who died before the tribulation escaped the tribulation and are blessed. They escape the tribulastion through death.
The Latin Text
Videte, ne in vobis compleatur profete illam sententiam ita dicentes; Vae his, qui concupiscunt videre diem Domini. Omnes enim sancti et electi Dei ante tribulationem, quae ventura est, colleguntur et a Domino assumentur, ne quando videant confusionem illam , quae universum, propter peccata nostra obruit mundum. Itaque, karrissimi mihi undecima hora est et finis huius mundi ad metendum pervenit, et angeli, adcincti et praeparati, falces in manibus tenent, Domini expectantes imperium.
(From Pascua Mediaevalia, page 524)
See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: "Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord!" For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour and the end of the world comes to harvest, and the angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord.
(Translation by Cameron Rhoads)
This says believers are "taken"? Is it by rapture. Or do we try to harmonize this with the Syriac text and conclude they are taken by death? Either interpretation is possible. A harmonization might suggest a mass death of believers would occur just before the rapture. It is definitely a pre-trib deliverance text, whereby deliverance comes either by death or bodily rapture, depending on how one chooses to interpret this. Since they are "taken to the Lord", it rules out forms of pre-trib deliverance such as wandering in the wilderness as is possible with some of the other commentators. But it is not clear HOW Ephraim thought they would be taken.
Perhaps Ephraim was not clear because he did not know. He may have been relying on Ezra in saying this. Remember my earlier comments about how there were 2 different version of Ezra; one saying believers would be "taken in great measure (אמה)" or "לקח באמה רבה" and the other saying they would be "seized with great terror (אימה)" or "לקח באימה רבה" - a clear difference of opinion on how to interpret the original Hebrew text. Latin Ephraim may have been relying on the first of these 2, since his comments do not go beyond the wording of Ezra at all, but stays within the boundaries of its wording.
Ezra does not say they would be taken "to the Lord". Was this something Psuedo Ephrem read INTO his own interpretation of Ezra? Did he get "taken" from one of the two versions of Ezra and add "to the Lord" himself?
In short, none of these writers say anything to prove a belief in a pre-trib rapture existed at the time. At the same time, their comments do not disprove it either, except for Syrian Ephrem. Latin Ephrem could be interpreted as consistent with a pre-trib belief at the time, but could also have merely been an interpretation of Ezra that was not relying on any traditionally handed down belief.