Wars. Natural Disasters. False Prophets and messianic pretenders. Trials and tribulations. The material in the Eschatological Discourses of Mark 13 is the standard stuff of apocalyptic literature and these oracles could be correlated with any number of events covered by the Jewish historian Josephus in the lead up to the Jewish War of 66-74 CE and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. But what is the “abomination of desolation” (τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως), the sign that signals to the reader that in Judaea must flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14). A few things to note that the neuter βδέλυγμα is modified by the masculine participle “standing” (ἑστηκότα, from ἵστημι), seeming to imply that it is a someone rather than a something. Second, the allusion is to Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11 which originally referred to an attempt to defile the Temple by Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (1 Macc 1:57; 4:38; 2 Macc 6:2ff). Third, the implied audience is in the know with regards to Mark’s cryptic description, for their immediate response at the sight of this sign is to be flight. who is this desecrator?
- Gaius Caligula attempting to set up his statue in the Temple in 40 CE, a plan that could have been disastrous had it not failed to be carried out due to Caligula’s assasination (Josephus, Ant. 18.257-309; Tacitus, Ann. 12.54.1). Note other examples of the sensitivity towards Roman standards or defilement of the Holy City or Temple as when Pilate brought his shields with Roman inscriptions into Herod’s palace and the mob offered up their necks rather than see their laws defiled (War 2.169-174; Ant 18.55-59; Philo, Gaium 299-305), or when Pilate’s stealing of Temple funds to build an aqueduct resulted in a clash with protesters (War. 2.175; Ant. 18.60-62) or when Judas and Matthias zealous for the Law encouraged their followers to tear down the golden eagle Herod erected over the temple and were executed (War 1.648-655; Ant. 17.151-162)
- The occupation by the Temple by the Zealot leader Eleazar son of Simon in the winter of 67-68, filling the Temple with violence and turning it away from its function as a “house of prayer for all nations” to a “brigands den” (cf. Mark 11:17).
- A genuine future prediction (by Jesus, some Christian prophet or the evangelist) of a future antichrist figure who will attempt to defile the Temple and this time (unlike Caligula) will succeed.
- Luke explicitly interprets Mark’s cryptic abomination of desolation as the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem (21.20-21).
- Roman soldiers bringing standards into the Eastern Court and sacrificing to them (War 6.316). Titus entered the sanctuary with his troops, but Josephus “conveniently” has him on the scene after a fire started to not implicate him in an act of impiety (J.W. 6.254-283).
- Hadrian’s plans to turn Jerusalem into the Greco-Roman polis Aelia Capitolina and construct a temple for Jupiter, which may have precipated the revolt under the messianic leader Simon Bar Cochba (132-35 CE) (note that Cassius Dio Hist. 66.12.1 and Eusebius H.E. 4.6.4 seem to disagree on whether building of this temple began before or after the Bar Cochba revolt). Against Detering, I am convinced by the dating of Mark between 65-75 CE.
- Nicolae Carpathia, the antichrist and Satan incarnate, riding a pig into Jerusalem and sacrificing it on the alter, breaking a seven-year treaty with Israel in the Left Behind Series (joking :) ).
Whatever the sign, and I lean towards a prediction of a future antichrist figure that has been influenced by the Caligula crisis in Mark is pre-70 and Titus if it is after 70 CE, it starts the great tribulation that precedes the “coming” (erchomenon) of the Son of Man. What is this coming? Traditionally, it has been read as the Second Coming of Jesus. However, some scholars (N.T. Wright, Andrew Perriman, Thomas R. Hatina, R.T. France) have argued that Mark 13:26, like the vision of one like a son of man representing the saints of Israel triumphing over the beast-like empires oppressing them, refers to the ascent of the Son of Man on the clouds to the Ancient of Days or the figure’s vindication. The Son of Man is vindicated when his prediction of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (Mark 13:1-2) is fulfilled. The cosmic imagery is symbolic for the dramatic events of the fall of Jerusalem and is used in the Hebrew Bible for the historical downfall of nations such as Babylon (Isa 13:6, 9-11; 14:4, 12-15; Jer 50:6, 8, 28; 51:6-10, 45-6, 50-1, 57; Zech 14:2-5, 9), Edom (Isa 34:4-6), or Egypt (Ezek 32:5-8). The only difference in France’s interpretation is that he spots a shift signalled by peri de in Mark 13:32 that the topic has shifted to the yet unknown day of eschatological judgment (Mark, 541-46), but the other scholars read the whole chapter in light of the events of 70 CE. However, while it creates the theological issue of the delay of Jesus’ return, I remain convinced that Mark meant that all these things” (tauta panta) in Mark 13:1-14 that take place in “this generation” (genea hautē) will be the preliminary sign that “he/it is near” (eggus estin) (13:29-30), though ultimately not even the Son knows the exact eschatological day or hour (13:32). Thus, Mark dampens some of the eschatological enthusiasm by pointing that the experiences of the readers in this generation is not the end itself and refusing to offer a detailed apocalyptic calendar. Here are some reasons why I still think Mark 13:26 refers to the descent of the Son of Man in judgment at the end of the age:
- Dale Allison, Millenarian Prophet, pp. 153-171; “Victory of Apocalyptic“, pp 130-34; Edward Adams, The Stars will Fall From Heaven, pp. 52-126 have demonstrated that Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman (Stoic, Epicurean) sources could take the imagery of cosmic conflagration quite literally. This is natural as the ancients were as familiar with solar eclipses and “falling stars” as we are today.
- Early interpreters understand the tradition underlying Mark 13:26 as referring to Jesus’ descent: Paul has the Lord descend on clouds (1 Thess 4:15-17), Revelation 1:7 has the descent of “one like a son of man,” and Matthew’s eschatological discourse uses the technical terminology parousia (24:3, 27, 37, 39; cf. 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:14-17; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1; Jas 5:7-8; 2 Pet 3:4; 1 John 2:28) in reference to Christ’s predicted coming. I am not persuaded by Wright’s (Victory, 341) downplaying of the significance of the term in Matthew by stating that it only denotes “presence” as opposed to “absence.” Note also the metaphor of the “thief in the night” in the double tradition/Q eschatological discourse (Matt 24:43-44/Luke 12:39-40) that is interpreted elsewhere in reference to the second coming (1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; contra Thomas saying 21).
- The coming of the Son of Man with angels to usher in the eschaton in 13:26-27 seems to be spectacularly visible and have universal implications: clouds could be used for transport for exalted human agents (e.g. Abraham, Moses, the one like a son of man, the church) or in divine theophanies (see Exod 16:10; 19:9; 34:5; Ps 18:11-12; 97:2-5; 104:3; Isa 19:1; Nah 1:3) and 13:27 envisions the gathering of the elect throughout all the nations. Ironically, I think this gives better support to Wright’s points that the (Markan) Jesus announced the “end of exile,” which would have been understood by the first hearers as the literal re-gathering of the dispersed tribes throughout the diaspora (cf. Deut 30:3-4; Isa 11:12; Jer 32:37-38; Ezek 34:11-16; Zech 2:6-10; Tobit 14:7; 2 Bar 78:1-7) and the righteous of the nations streaming to a renewed Zion in the last days rather than just interpreting the angeloi of 13:27 as human messengers bringing the gospel to the nations.
- In the context of Mark 13, he warns of false Christs and false prophets who claim “I am he” (ego eimi) and try to deceive with signs and wonders (13:5-6, 21-22), so a spectacular appearance would clear up who is the real Messiah and who are the messianic pretenders.
- Later Christian texts struggle to reinterpret the earlier imminent eschatological expectations. While Paul already had to make provisions for the unexpected reality that some members of a congregation died before the return of the Lord (1 Thess 4:13-18), Luke-Acts inserts an extended “time of the Gentiles” before the restoration of Jerusalem (Lk 21:24) and the risen Jesus counsels the disciples to not worry about dates but get on with the mission (Acts 1:7-8). John 21:23 wrestles with why the “beloved disciple” died before the return of Jesus. 2 Peter, likely the last book of the New Testament, responds to scoffers by claiming a day for the Lord equals a thousand years and thus there is extra time for repentance (3:8-9). Since we can see parts of the New Testament already in the process of reinterpreting traditional eschatological expectations (e.g. the literal expectation of an eschatological Temple in Ezek 40-48 interpreted christologically in John 2:20-22; 7:37-39; Rev 21:22; cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19), perhaps this gives license to theologians to rethink language interpreted literally in the first century in light of present Christian experience?
For more sources, see:
- Adams, Edward. “The Coming of the Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel” Tyndale Bulletin 56.1 (2005): 39-61
- . The Stars will Fall From Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and Its World. London: T&T Clark, 2007.
- Allison, Dale. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
- . “Jesus and the Victory of Apocalyptic” pp 126-141 in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel. Edited by Carey C. Newman; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.
- Beasley-Murray, George. Jesus and the Last Days. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.
- Crossley, James. The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity. JSNTSS 266; London: T & T Clark, 2004.
- Detering, Herman. “The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mark 13 Par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kochba.” The Journal of Higher Criticism 7/2 (2000): 161-210.
- France, R.T. The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
- Hatina, Thomas R. “The Focus of Mark 13:24-27 – The Parousia, or the Destruction of the Temple?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996): 43-66.
- Hengel, Martin. Studies in the Gospel of Mark. Fortress: Philadelphia, 1985.
- Incigneri, Brian J. The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2003.
- Marcus, Joel. “The Jewish War and the Sitz Im Leben of Mark.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111/3 (1992): 441-462.
- Perriman, Andrew. The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. Paternoster, 2006.
- Theissen, Gerd. The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.
- Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.