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How should we read Mark 13?

Like many, I had to preach on Mark 13 yesterday, though unlike most it was a dialogue sermon where I was asked (prepared) questions, and we then opened it up to the ‘floor’ for further questions. So I had to make my mind up about this passage!

There are three main ways this has been read:

1. The ‘traditional’ approach, which goes back at least as far as Jerome in the fourth century, that this is primarily about the ‘end of the world’ though with specific predictions about the destruction of the temple mixed in.

This has a number of problems to it:

  • The main one is Jesus stern saying in v 30 ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.’ There is some wriggling about the meaning of genea embedded in an NIV footnote as ‘race’—but all other uses of this in Mark (and the other gospels) make it clear that it really does mean ‘this generation.’
  • To solve this, commentators for the last couple of hundred years have seen a Jewish ‘apocalypse’ embedded here and (clumsily) incorporated. So in fact in context what Jesus’ saying means is ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until around three of the five things I have just mentioned have happened.’ This is very unsatisfactory since, like much source criticism, it suggests that neither Mark nor his first readers really understood what Mark himself had written, and had not understood what Jesus said.
  • It fails to pay attention to Mark’s language. So Cranfield at one point comments on ‘Mark’s depiction of the Parousia’ without noticing that the word parousia is conspicuous by its absence in Mark 13.

This was the view I was brought up with, and it was explained by means of the ‘prophetic telescope’: when you are looking to the future, you see things in the near and distant future next to one another, so you might not explain things in order. This does make Jesus look like he does not really know what he is talking about!

2. Tom Wright’s view is that this ‘whole chapter’ is about the destruction of the Temple (see Jesus and the Victory of God pp 339f and Mark for Everyone 176f). (However, he appears to have a different view when going to read the more extended version in Matthew 24–25; the ‘eschatological’ parables do in fact appear to be about ‘final judgement’.) A key to his argument is the language about the ‘coming of the Son of Man’:

  • ‘The Son of Man coming on the clouds’ is an exact citation of Dan 7.13 LXX, and of course the ‘coming’ is not a coming to earth but a coming to the Ancient of Days, the Power (meaning the God of Israel) for vindication as the one personifying the faithful people of God. This is the sense it is used in the trial scene in Mark 14.62, and makes most sense of being understood as referring to Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection and the subsequent preaching of the good news about him. Note that ‘coming’ in this saying is erchomenos, the participle of erchomai, to come or approach to, and not parousia meaning ‘presence’ and used of the Emperor’s coming to cities in the Empire.
  • The language of sun, moon and stars in Mark 13.24 comes from Isaiah 13 and 34, and refers to the fall and judgement of great empires and political powers (in this case, Assyria and Edom). It is also used in Joel 2, and strikingly is cited by Peter in Acts 2.17f. Peter appears to think that these ‘apocalyptic events’ are happening in his day.

3. Dick France sets out a third position, with agrees with much of Tom Wright’s revision of the traditional understanding of this passage—though (as Dick pointed out to me!) he was proposing this some years earlier, and so might well have influenced Wright’s own thinking. Contra Wright, he believes that the last part (from v 32) is about Jesus’ return, for several reasons:

  • Although there is quite a strong alla (‘but’) at v 24, the much stronger break comes in v 32 (though this is obscured in NIV and other English translations). This is the phrase peri de ‘Now concerning…’ which indicates quite strongly a change in subject. (Paul uses this phrase in 1 Corinthians to introduce a new subject in 7.1, 7.25, 8.1, 12.1, 16.1 and elsewhere in his letters).
  • The sign of the fig tree in v 28 closes an inclusio in relation to the Temple, matching the example of the withered fig tree as an enacted parable in chapter 11.
  • ‘That day or hour’ in v 32 is introduced without an antecedent; such a ‘day’ has not been mentioned before (the distress in the earlier verses is referred to as ‘those days’ in the plural).
  • The idea of a long time of waiting is in marked contrast to the previous language of an intensity of specific ‘signs’.

France also notes that the disciples’ initial question to Jesus, whilst focussed on when ‘all these things will be fulfilled’ in Mark, in Matthew is more explicitly made a double question: ‘When will this [the destruction of the Temple] happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ This is then given a double answer, in Matt 24.4–35 about ‘these things’ and then in 24.36f about that day.

It is also interesting to note that the focus in Mark is on the Temple events, but in Matthew there is a more extended interest in the signs of ‘the end’ following the Temple. This would make good sense if Mark was written in the 60s, possibly during the Jewish War, and Matthew was written post-70, so that the main interest in Jesus’ depiction of the fall of the Temple is in his words coming true, rather than as immediate advice.

Both these last two views leave the real problem for most readers of how to make sense of Mark 13.27: ‘He will send his angels [messengers?] and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens’. Some things to note:

  • Jesus has already inserted language of the good news being preached to ‘all the nations’ prior to the destruction of the Temple in 13.10. This is, arguably, a key theological point behind the narrative of Acts, with Peter then Paul preaching to the known world prior to AD70. Indeed, it could be argued that knowing this saying of Jesus was part of Paul’s motivation in writing Romans to get support to fulfil this goal.
  • It is clear elsewhere in the NT that the OT promise to ‘gather the elect’ from the nations has now been fulfilled in the preaching to the Gentiles, for example in 1 Peter and in the seven-fold phrase ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ in Revelation.
  • In the Matthew parallel, there is a ‘loud trumpet call’ (Matt 24.31) which we usually read in parallel with the ‘last trump’ of 1 Thess 4.16. But in fact the shofar, the ram’s horn, was used to call people to worship at the start of the Sabbath, an invitation to enter the rest of the seventh day, both in imitation of God’s resting at the end of creation, and the invitation to enter the promised ‘rest’ of the coming kingdom (Hebrews 4).

So I now find option 3 the most persuasive, since on the one hand it takes seriously the form of Mark 13 as we have it, and its first-century context, but addresses the criticisms of option 2 as underplaying the role of Jesus’ second coming within both Mark and Matthew.

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15 Responses to How should we read Mark 13?

  1. Alan Darley November 28, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Hi Ian. I enjoyed your talk last night and I’m glad you don’t go for a full preterist/pantalist view. Your argument has weight and I remember similar points from sitting under Dick France’s teaching many years ago at London Bible College. I’m not convinced though! For one thing the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 also talks about all nations and is natural to assume that these are the same nations as he has talked about it 24:14.(and by extension the same as in Mark 13:27). But this leaves the embarrassing conclusion for preterists that the great Commission has been fulfilled and the elect only consisted of those in the Roman Empire – (broadly speaking Europeans!) This is not good news for the rest of the world because Christians have no ‘commandment’ to reach them!

    Dealing with the root of the problem: Why can’t ‘this generation’ simply mean ‘the generation that sees ALL these things’ i.e. the last generation. ‘You’ is then the generic ‘you’ of the people of God not limited to the original hearers. Although as with prophecies of the first coming of Christ – eg Immanuel in Isaiah 7 – there can be a dual application and clearly there was a fulfilment of some of these things in AD 70.

  2. Ian Paul November 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Alan–good to meet you IRL last night!

    Several things here. Firstly, as France points out, the phrase in Mark 13.10 ‘eis panta ta ethne‘ does not suppose that all the nations will come to believe, but simply that the message will be made known to them. Secondly, the straightforward reading of the text suggests that Mark’s Jesus (and so Mark, and after him Matthew) did believe that this had happened ‘before this generation had passed away’ and certainly prior to the destruction of the Temple. This is important because it meant the new order of things (God’s people being from all nations) was in place before the old order (Temple- and ethnic-centred worship of God) had passed away.

    The problem of the Commission being fulfilled is not exegetical as such, but hermeneutical. However you understand Matthew 28, Jesus’ words to the disciples will have meant to them whatever ‘all nations’ meant at the time. Any reading of these words for us must mean something to us by extension, since we see the world differently. So the fact that the good news about Jesus was made known to a wide audience of Gentiles prior to the destruction of the Temple does not mean there is nothing more to do—as the extended teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 makes plain.

    Why cannot ‘this generation’ mean ‘that last generation’? Because a. that could not have been what Mark meant, and b. it evacuates the phrase of any meaning. ‘The last generation will not pass away before the last things happen’ is just a tautology. Contra this view, it appears to have been significant to the first readers that Jesus was in fact correct in his prediction.

  3. bondboy November 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    The only interpretation that makes sense is that Jesus thought the end was literally near and it turned out not to be.

    But then the question is why a wrong prediction would be preserved in Mark?

    My guess is that Mark was written early enough that the imminent end was still believed by any people. The letters of Paul and 1st Peter are infused with language predicting the end. Some of that was probably toned down by editors and some writings were added later (such as 2 Peter) to present an alternative explanation, but the imminent end was probably so embedded in the authentic Jesus Movement that it was hard to entirely erase.

  4. Alan Darley November 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Thank you for your reply Ian. While Mark could be read this way, I’m not sure this provides a canonical interpretation of the passage.

    A lot depends on the dating of the book of Revelation. If following Irenaeus’ testimony we take it as written under the Domitian persecution (96) then John still thought of the coming of Jesus as future and he still describes it in apocalyptic terms from Daniel 7 as ‘coming in the clouds’ (Rev 1:7). France and Wright’s argument that Daniel’s son of man figure comes to the Ancient of Days and not to the earth is not inconsistent with this because the son on man is a corporate figure in Dan 7 representing the saints of the most high and in 1 Thess 4 we see that Christ both comes TO his saints and then his saints are caught up together WITH him in the air. (to meet the Ancient of Days?), so the two comings are not mutually exclusive but refer to the same event. I Thess 4 cannot be understood in preterist terms without unnatural allegorisation (as I think you agree).

    It is undoubtedly true that early Christians after AD70 regarded the fall of Jerusalem as a fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy but it is a moot point whether or not these Christians also saw this event in terms of the coming of the Son of Man.

    They were still for instance using the ancient prayer ‘Maranatha’ after AD70 in the didache and the shepherd of hermas. But this would mean that either they had misunderstood Jesus or that Jesus did not mean to say that he ‘came’ in AD 70.

    Regarding your points on ‘this generation.’ It is not tautologous to say that the last generation will see all of these things whereas prior generations will only see some of these things! Perhaps every generation is potentially the last generation if it takes the Gospel to all people groups and so ‘hastens the day of the Lord.’ (2 Peter 3:12).

  5. Charles Twombly November 28, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    Great laying out of options, great discussion. Thanks, gentlemen.

  6. Brian LePort November 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    I think I find France’s reading the most persuasive as well. It does seem that Matthew and Luke make more of an effort to communicate a distinction between the events and Christ’s coming, especially Luke’s statement about an age of the Gentiles. Mark, if pre-70, would have no reasons to make this split.

  7. Ian Paul November 28, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Bondboy, (or should I call you Albert?) you are not the first to think this. But the problems with it are:
    . you must know what Jesus meant better than Mark
    . you must have spotted an inconsistency that did not bother the early church
    . you need to ignore the nascent two-stage ‘end’ in Mark which is developed quite clearly in Matthew.

    What Tom Wright has hit on is an explanation of how these texts made good sense to the first readers, steeped in Jewish language of the OT, but France offers an important corrective to this.

  8. Ian Paul November 28, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Thanks Brian. It is clear that Luke has Jesus add graphic details such as ‘throwing up the ramparts’, but there are other traditions present here, such as the allusion to Jeremiah.

    The challenging thing with all these is that Jesus must have said (simply on the basis of how long it takes to say these things) a lot more than any one gospel records, which has often (rather strangely) been ignored by scholars trying to ‘reconstruct’ the ‘authentic’ Jesus.

  9. Ian Paul November 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

    Alan, I am worried that you have missed something important, which is the distinction between the erchomenos of the Son of Man and the parousia of the Son of Man. If France (and on this point, Wright) is correct, then the erchomenos of the Son of Man happened with the destruction of the Temple and the preaching of the good news to the Gentiles, which fulfilled the OT promise of ‘gathering of the elect.’ But all still believed in a further, future parousia of the Son of Man, though this idea is least developed in Mark–as is the account of the resurrection, coincidentally.

  10. Alan Darley November 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    If Caiaphas was alive in AD 70 he must have been at least 72 (assuming he came to office as young as 30 since he was in office for 9 years and was deposed in AD37). But the ossuray of Caiaphas discovered in 1990 if the same man has the remains of a man of only about 60 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caiaphas_ossuary). This means that Caiaphas would have been dead in AD 70 and Jesus could not have meant that his seeing the son of man coming in the clouds referred to AD 70. (Matthew 26:64).Caiaphas ossuary – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.org
    The Caiaphas ossuary is one of twelve ossuaries or bone boxes, discovered in a b…urial cave in south Jerusalem in November 1990, two of which featured the name “Caiaphas”.[1] The especially beautiful ossuary is twice inscribed “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” and held the bones of a 60-year-old male. The li…See more..A few seconds ago · LikeUnlike · .

  11. Ian Paul November 29, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Thanks Alan. The only problem with this is that when Jesus says ‘You will see the Son of Man coming with power’ the ‘you’ is plural. So it was not about Caiaphas on his own, but the priesthood as a whole who would see it.

  12. Alan Darley November 29, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    Yes the plural of ‘you’ does weaken my argument considerably! (not quite checkmate after all, rats!).

    Regarding the two verbs for ‘coming’. In Matthew’s account (ch 24) ‘parousia’ is still embedded right in the middle of this discourse in verse 27 (before the break in v 36). Doesn’t it do violence to the text to separate them?

  13. Ian Paul November 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    Yes, ‘parousia‘ is right there–at the point where Jesus is saying that it won’t happen then! His point is that people are pointing to a secret parousia, and he says that his parousia will be plainly visible and not then.

    We are seriously hampered by reading the same word ‘coming’ in English when there are two quite distinct words and ideas in Greek. Re-read the passage with erchomenos translated ‘vindication’ or ‘approaching God’ and it looks very different.

  14. David Brockman October 12, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    Ian

    What are your thoughts on the parallel passage in Luke 21:25-36? ( I have to preach on it on first Sunday of Advent!)

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