Mark Chapter 13:14-27

We left off with Jesus speaking. The speech continues here.

14 Οταν δὲ ἴδητε τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως ἑστηκότα ὅπου οὐ δεῖ, ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω, τότε οἱ ἐν τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ φευγέτωσαν εἰς τὰ ὄρη,

“When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not, let the one reading understand, then those in Judea will flee to the mountain,

“Let the reader understand.” Here it would seem that Mark definitely tips his hand. Jesus is not speaking to readers. So perhaps this is parenthetical. And, if parenthetical, it may easily be an interpolation.

As for “the abomination of the desolation”, this occurs in Daniel (12:11 & c), apparently in 1 Maccabees (1:57) and I won’t pretend to understand it. It is apocalyptic, sure, but what is the real meaning of the term? The Catholic Encyclopedia (where I got the cites/refs) pretty much says that there has never been a true consensus about what this refers to, or, apparently, exactly what the Hebrew text means, whether a reference to heathen worship, or even whether the word generally rendered ‘desolation’ is an abstract noun or whether it refers to a specific individual. If anyone reading this can enlighten, I’d be more than happy to listen.

[ Note: I just took a peak at the KJV, and it actually reads “…the abomination of the desolation, spoken of by the prophet Daniel…” The NIV, meanwhile, renders this as “the abomination that causes desolation…” As with some of the passages of Paul, this may be a possible translation, or it may be a poetic translation, but it’s certainly a translation that inserts a specific point of view.

In the meantime, we’ll settle that it’s a reference to a coming apocalypse, presumably the destruction of the temple, which would certainly leave desolation. And, as such, that seems not to be so difficult, to understand, either. Desolation on the Temple site would be an abomination.

In the end, perhaps the problem is the Hebrew, rather than the Greek.

14 Cum autem videritis abominationem desolationis stantem, ubi non debet, qui legit, intellegat: tunc, qui in Iudaea sunt, fugiant in montes;

15 ὁ [δὲ] ἐπὶ τοῦ δώματος μὴ καταβάτω μηδὲ εἰσελθάτω ἆραί τι ἐκ τῆς οἰκίας αὐτοῦ,

“And [= δὲ, in this case, rather than ‘but’]  he who is upon the house, let him not come down, nor let him not come inside, (nor) take up what is outside the house.

IOW, run! Literally, head for the hill(s), as he said in V-14 above.

15 qui autem super tectum, ne descendat nec introeat, ut tollat quid de domo sua;

16 καὶ ὁ εἰς τὸν ἀγρὸν μὴ ἐπιστρεψάτω εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω ἆραι τὸ ἱμάτιον αὐτοῦ.

“And he (who is) in the field, do not turn back towards the things to take up his cloak.

16 et, qui in agro erit, non revertatur retro tollere vestimentum suum.

17 οὐαὶ δὲ ταῖς ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσαις καὶ ταῖς θηλαζούσαις ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡδὲέραις.

“And woe to those having (a child) in the womb (lit = ‘stomach’; ‘gastris’) and those nursing in those days. 

As a parent, the idea of this makes my guts clench out of fear for the children–mine, or anyone’s.

17 Vae autem praegnantibus et nutrientibus in illis diebus!

18 προσεύχεσθε δὲ ἵνα μὴ γένηται χειμῶνος:

“And pray lest it be winter.

 In these past few verses, we can see the versatility of << δὲ >>. As I mentioned at least once before, the textbook use of this word is with << μὲν >> in the sense of …on the one hand (μὲν)…on the other (δὲ)However, the word is so much more than that. Think of it as an all-purpose conjunction. It can be translated as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘in addition’, and, of course, ‘on the other hand’.

18 Orate vero, ut hieme non fiat:

19 ἔσονται γὰρ αἱ ἡμέραι ἐκεῖναι θλῖψις οἵα οὐ γέγονεντοιαύτη ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως ἣν ἔκτισεν ὁ θεὸς ἕως τοῦ νῦν καὶ οὐ μὴ γένηται.

19 erunt enim dies illi tribulatio talis, qualis non fuit ab initio creaturae, quam condidit Deus, usque nunc, neque fiet.

20 καὶ εἰ μὴ ἐκολόβωσεν κύριος τὰς ἡμέρας, οὐκ ἂν ἐσώθη πᾶσα σάρξ. ἀλλὰ διὰ τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς οὓς ἐξελέξατο ἐκολόβωσεν τὰς ἡμέρας.

“And if the Lord did not cut short those days, all flesh would not be. But on behalf of the elect whom he has chosen, he has cut short those days.

Now, this is interesting. Presumably, we are talking about something that has not yet happened. Yet, the verb tense is aorist, which is the mostly frequently used past tense. Again, has Mark slipped here and tipped his hand that this is a recollection rather than Jesus looking ahead? Or is there something rhetorical about this? Being the miserable literalist that I am, I tend to suspect the former.

And here’s a couple of interesting words: “the elect, whom he has chosen”. The concept of “the elect” will be huge when we get to Romans. That word, in that Epistle is the basis for the whole argument about Predestination that has never, ever been resolved logically and consistently within Christian thought. Now, saying that betrays my heritage as an adherent of the Roman Rite, with the whole Thomas Aquinas thing.

In Predestination thinking, the elect are chosen (that is what ‘electoi’ fundamentally means; the candidate chosen = the candidate elected; it’s a tautology) by God to be saved, not through any merit or action of their own, but solely by the mercy of God’s grace. That is how Augustine came to argue the position. We will talk about this more–much more–when we discuss Romans. For the moment, I hope it will suffice to say that it’s a real can of worms. Of course, what it means here is open to a lot of discussion.

“Elect”, as in “The Elect”, rather than just something chosen, is used three times in Mark, all of them in Chapter 13. The usage is similar in Matthew. What this tells me is that this section was embedded more or less as a unit into the  gospels. Assuming I’m correct, the question becomes, ’embedded from where?’

I think I will have more to say about this in the summary to the chapter.

20 Et nisi breviasset Dominus dies, non fuisset salva omnis caro. Sed propter electos, quos elegit, breviavit dies.

21 καὶ τότε ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ,Ἴδε ὧδε ὁ Χριστός, Ἴδε ἐκεῖ, μὴ πιστεύετε:

“And then if someone should say to you, ‘look, there is the Christ’. (0r) look there,’ do not believe (him).

Here we think back to V-6 above, and the ‘I am he’. The puzzling thing is that here the Christ is specified; before we were sort of left hanging. Given the use of the Christ here, I suppose there is no real reason that ‘I am he’ could not mean the Christ as well. It’s just that, in standard Jewish apocalyptic thought, the Christ was not really tied to the idea of the end of days.

But then, Jesus (so far) has not said anything about the end of time here, has he? This is a great example of reading stuff into the text when laboring under the curse of hindsight, of knowing how future generations would come to read this. So, really, if you read this afresh, then Jesus may actually be committing a novelty by combining the Christ with these times of stress. Let us read on.

21 Et tunc, si quis vobis dixerit: “Ecce hic est Christus, ecce illic”, ne credideritis.

22 ἐγερθήσονται γὰρ ψευδόχριστοι καὶ ψευδοπροφῆται καὶ δώσουσιν σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα πρὸς τὸ ἀποπλανᾶν, εἰ δυνατόν,τοὺς ἐκλεκτούς.

“For the false christs and the false prophets will arise and they will give signs and wonders (or portents, per the Latin), towards the seducing, if  it is able, of the elect.

Regarding the Greek: the verb in the last clause, << ἀποπλανᾶν >> is a very uncommon word. The root is ‘plano’, which earlier I mentioned was the root for ‘planet’. It means ‘to wander’, as the planets were seen to wander among the fixed stars. That is a very common word.

<< ἀποπλανᾶν >>, OTOH, is very uncommon. This is one of two uses in the NT. The few times it’s used by Classical Greek authors, it has more the sense of ‘to digress’, especially to digress from the topic, or the argument (logos). Liddell & Scott cite this as the only example where the word has a different meaning. Here, it’s said to be used metaphorically, as ‘to seduce’. IOW, we’ve come across another consensus translation, or the translation that the KJV settled upon. Interestingly (to me, anyway), the more modern versions of the NT have moved away from ‘seduced’, substituting ‘lead astray’. However, it’s like the use of the word at the beginning of Tacitus’ Annales. In speaking of Augustus, Tacitus says, “he seduced the military…” ‘To seduce’ simply has more emotive power than ‘lead astray’.

Secondly, ‘if possible’. Frankly, this puzzles me. Is it possible? Or isn’t it? Doesn’t Jesus know whether it’s possible? Isn’t this something that the omniscient deity should know? Or is this some sort of literary device used by Jesus that I’m too dense to see through. Wouldn’t be the first time. Or does this arise from that underlying layer where Jesus was not yet a divine entity?

Again here, I frankly don’t know enough to say anything insightful about this. I know, for example, that this warning about false messiahs, and false prophets ended up in the Apocalypse of John, so this is possibly a sort of standard warning that was part of the genre, like the gloating villain in a melodrama. One thing it does do, or should do, is to raise at least a pink flag that one could find the Christ on pretty much any street corner in Jerusalem, or Caphernaum, or wherever. This is the sort of throw-away line that should cause the historian to stop and ask why it’s there. It’s sort of like being able to deduce the presence of an undetectable disease by being able to identify the antibody. The fact that it was necessary to warn against false messiahs indicates that false messiahs were a problem.

And we get the second occurrence of ‘the elect’. It’s used exactly as the first occurrence a couple of verses ago. Again, note that there is no attempt to explain the term; as on the principle of false messiahs, an unexplained term should be seen as one that does not have to be explained. The author simply expects the audience to understand what this means.

22 Exsurgent enim pseudochristi et pseudoprophetae et dabunt signa et portenta ad seducendos, si potest fieri, electos.

23 ὑμεῖς δὲ βλέπετε: προείρηκα ὑμῖν πάντα.

“You must keep watch: I have foretold all to you.

No comment needed. The disciples were put on notice; so have we.

23 Vos autem videte; praedixi vobis omnia.

24 Ἀλλὰ ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις μετὰ τὴν θλῖψιν ἐκείνην ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται, καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς,

“But in those days, after that trial, the sun will be shadowed, and the moon will no longer give its light

I had to look up << φέγγος >>. The standard word for ‘light’ is << φος >>, that is ‘phos’, hence ‘photon’. It does appear that this word became especially associated with ‘moonlight’ among some Classical authors.

Again, the sun and moon becoming darkened is another motif in the Apocalypse of John. It seems to have become an ‘end-of-days’ cliche, like the false christs. Sort of like the car chase in an action/adventure movie.

24 Sed in illis diebus post tribulationem illam sol contenebrabitur, et luna non dabit splendorem suum,

25 καὶ οἱ ἀστέρες ἔσονται ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πίπτοντες, καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς σαλευθήσονται.

“And the stars will be fallen from the sky, and those powers, which (are) in the sky, shall be shaken.

The part after the stars falling (again, boiler plate stuff) is what is interesting. First, just the translation: <<δυνάμεις >> (rendered as << virtute>> in Latin) is the standard word for ‘miracle’. So that’s how I first read this, but that obviously makes no sense. I tried to bend it a bit to get to ‘wonders’ in the sky, but then how do wonders get shaken? Probably doesn’t happen.

So next we try the base meaning of  <<δυνάμεις >>, which is ‘powers’. And that is what 3 of 4 of my crib translations chose. The NIV went with ‘heavenly bodies’. Now, that may not be as ridiculous as it first seems. So let’s think about this: the powers in the sky. What powers are in the sky? Superhuman powers, to be sure, and probably supernatural as well. We have the sense–don’t we?–that God lives in the sky. Are we saying that God will be shaken? Probably not: note that <<δυνάμεις >> is plural, which means we are talking about plural powers. Now, in the ancient world, the sky was often conceived to be the home of spirits and such, whether malign or not.  So is this saying that these spirit-powers will be shaken?

I would never have thought of this on my own, but the NIV has translated “powers” as “planets”. My first reaction to this was not favourable, or even kind. On second thought, however, it occurred to me that the planets were seen as influencing human behaviour, which is more or less the point of astrology. And planets could certainly be shaken from their course, and such an event would be of tremendous eschatological significance, and it would certainly make sense with the stars falling from the sky. Of my 4 crib translations, the NIV is my least favourite, as it is the one least likely to maintain a sense of the original. However, in this instance, I have to acknowledge that by not sticking to the original, it may have hit on a really good reading of the passage.

25 et erunt stellae de caelo decidentes, et virtutes, quae sunt in caelis, movebuntur.

26 καὶ τότε ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλαις μετὰ δυνάμεως πολλῆς καὶ δόξης.

“And then you will see the son of man coming 0n the clouds, with much power and glory.

Now here we’re back to << >> as “power” in the literal sense. So was the translation of ‘planets’ an aberration, or perhaps simply wrong? Maybe not. Rotating the meanings, or using the same word in two different senses in such close proximity is a literary device; as such, it requires a certain amount of deftness. Mark’s Greek is often described as ‘crude’, but here we might have to give some props to his chops.

Otherwise, this passage reads very much like 1 Thess 4:17, in which those who died in Christ, and those living in Christ will rise up to meet the Lord who is coming down on the clouds.  What does this mean? Well, it could mean that Mark was familiar with that passage of Paul. Or, it could mean that Mark and Paul got each got it from separate sources, in which case this would mean that the image was well-ensconced in the proto-Christian tradition. If so, this would further bolster the argument that Jesus was, to some large extent, a preacher of the coming apocalypse.

I will treat this topic more when we come to the summary of the chapter, and of Mark as a whole. To this point, honestly, there has not been great evidence to support the argument for Jesus as apocalyptist. He has been, primarily almost to the point of exclusively, a wonder-worker. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but they don’t necessarily fit together well.

“Fit together.” An interesting phrase, is it not? It could be substituted for ‘woven together’. And this latter phrase is what I have been saying Mark did with several different traditions that came down to him. Paul was the Christ (Messiah) strain. The story from after John’s baptism of Jesus to the Transfiguration was the Wonder-Worker strain, culminating in Jesus’ apotheosis. Now, we have come to the End-Times strain. And, behind the narrative–or all these narratives–we have Mark the Weaver. Am I on to something?

26 Et tunc videbunt Filium hominis venientem in nubibus cum virtute multa et gloria.

27 καὶ τότε ἀποστελεῖ τοὺς ἀγγέλους καὶ ἐπισυνάξει τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς [αὐτοῦ]ἐκ τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων ἀπ’ ἄκρου γῆς ἕως ἄκρου οὐρανοῦ.

“And then he will send the angels and he will collect the [his] elect from the four winds, from the height of the world to the height of the sky.”

The third use of ‘elect’. This word is deeply buried in this chapter, and in the descriptions of the end-times. This is, on the surface, very strong evidence that this particular chapter came to Mark more or less intact. It has its own peculiar imagery, described in its own peculiar vocabulary. This seems to speak of it as a unit. Even the mention of the angels; two of the five uses of angels occur in this chapter; a third occurs in Chapter 12, the first in Chapter 1, which is looking more and more like a sort of preamble attached to the beginning, that perhaps links up to the themes that occur after the Transfiguration story. I will take a much closer look at that now that I have seen the possible connection. After all, it was in Chapter 1, after John was arrested, that Jesus said ‘the time is fulfilled’. That sounds like it has some eschatological overtones.

27 Et tunc mittet angelos et congregabit electos suos a quattuor ventis, a summo terrae usque ad summum caeli.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on July 23, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think your expansion of the cut-and-paste into a woven tapestry of story threads is appropriate and leads to several lines of inquiry. To take a model, the Roma language of the people commonly known as Gypsies contains Turkish words of tin-smithing from a particular time period, which indicates their activities and general locations during that time period.

    I would expand the threads to identify the different versions of revelation and messiah indicated. Daniel-style revelation predicts a coming golden age of good overthrowing evil, where position in society indicated the grades of collaboration with evil, which was philosophically popular outside of Jewish society. Gnosticism explained the dominance of evil over good by linking evil to great powers that good was struggling against, and linking sin to flesh – once again popular outside of Jewish society. Messiahs led Jewish struggles, sometimes with the help of a prophet who heralded them. Healers and wonder workers are always popular with those who need help, still popular after thousands of years. When the change did not happen in the immediate period, it was transformed to explain it in various ways. All of the threads that became heretical have portions of their philosophies still buried within the orthodox writings.

  2. The biggest problem with trying to untangle the skein of traditions is that there was a constant and ongoing cross-pollination of ideas. What became Christianity interacted with what became Gnosticism a number of times, and then did so again when the two had become what their recognizable selves. The better example are the heresies that came later; dualism became a Christian heresy half-a-dozen times, each time with a slightly different emphasis.

    And really, Mark-as-weaver of different traditions isn’t quite so clever as I probably thought when I wrote it here. That, really, is the essence of writing, isn’t it? We weave together whatever pieces of material we have at hand. Sometimes we may “buy” something special by doing research. My thinking evolves on this as I’ve gone forward. Right now I suspect that Matthew had even more sources–but probably nothing like Q as it has been reconstituted–available to him, which led to even more weaving. Or maybe patching an old coat with new material, so that the patches sometimes rip from the underlying garment.

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