Mark Chapter 13:28-37

This will conclude Chapter 13, and the the Apocalypse of Mark.

28 Ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν: ὅταν  ἤδη ὁ κλάδος αὐτῆς ἁπαλὸς γένηται καὶ ἐκφύῃ τὰ φύλλα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος ἐστίν.

“From the fig learn the (meaning of) the parable: when now the branches become tender (i,e., with new growth) and the leaves grow, you know that the summer is near.

Jesus is referring back to the fig tree that he cursed. If you recall, the tree was in leaf, but there were no figs. This would make sense; it was Passover, which is usually in April, so it was spring and the tree would be in leaf. Assuming the fruit does not form and ripen until autumn, this would explain the state of the tree when Jesus found it. Still, interesting that he grew angry and cursed the tree when he knew full well there would be no figs. 

28 A ficu autem discite parabolam: cum iam ramus eius tener fuerit et germinaverit folia, cognoscitis quia in proximo sit aestas.

29 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε ταῦτα γινόμενα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἐπὶ θύραις.

“And so you, when you see these things happening (lit = ‘having become’), you will know it may be at the door.

Remember, back at the beginning of the chapter, the disciples (conveniently) asked Jesus what the sign would be that portended the destruction of the Temple. Jesus has given it to them.

29 Sic et vos, cum videritis haec fieri, scitote quod in proximo sit in ostiis.

30 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη μέχρις οὗ ταῦτα πάντα γένηται.

“Amen I say to you, that this generation not pass away until all of these things become.

This is fascinating. Here is the fundamental, the irreducible nub that prompts many to say that Jesus was, at his core, a preacher of apocalypse. By the time this sentence was written, much of “this generation” that saw the life of Jesus had already passed away. Per the legend, John lived until approx 100 CE, which would be another generation after Mark wrote, but most of the people who had seen Jesus were likely dead. We are, after all, talking about the passage of forty or more years, at a time when not many people lived past the biblical three-score years and ten. And yet, Mark faithfully records this prediction, in full knowledge that Jesus is pretty much wrong.

Or was he?

Jesus is wrong if we take him to mean the end of times. But that, at root, is not what he has been discussing. Rather, he’s been talking about the destruction of the Temple. Granted, that may still have been 40 years after the fact, but the point is, it had happened, and the audience knew it. So, Jesus, in fact, was right.

But this is more complicated than whether Jesus was talking about the end of times, or the end of the Temple. For let’s not forget that Paul was also expecting the return (the Parousia) of Jesus in the very near future. This expectation 20 years before Mark has to bestow a level of confidence that Jesus, at least, may have foretold apocalypse. Given this, what Mark says here is usually taken to reinforce this belief that this was at the core of Jesus’ message. However, I’m not sure this is accurate.

What we have here, IMO, is Mark actually walking back Jesus’ prediction to some degree. Or, at least, he is hedging the bet. Because if Mark is having Jesus talk in these terms about the destruction of the Temple, instead of about the End Times, then Jesus’ prediction has actually come true. How clever is that? seriously, that is brilliant!

But the bottom line remains that it seems to imply that Jesus did predict end times; or, at least, he predicted something.

30 Amen dico vobis: Non transiet generatio haec, donec omnia ista fiant.

31 ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱδὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται.

“The sky and the earth will pass away, but you see that my words will not pass away.

This is really interesting, mainly because I’m not entirely sure what it means. Not the words; that part is pretty straightforward. Rather, I’m trying to figure out who put this in here: Jesus or Mark? Or someone in between. And why did they put it in? It seems obvious, in its way, but is it? Shakespeare expressed a similar sentiment in one of his sonnets, that his words would outlive buildings of stone. Is that what Jesus is getting at? Or is this Mark, telling us that the world–as Jesus knew it–may pass away, because it did when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. As for the sky, well, chalk that one off to poetic license. But Jesus’ words did not pass away, largely because Mark got hold of them and now has written them down.

Now, we could get seriously metaphysical here, and discuss what Jews or the pagans of the first century thought about eternity, but I’m not sure how much that would help. I think that sort of discussion is reading too much back into the words, because the idea of eternity was undeveloped at best. To the Greeks, the idea of eternal was sort of meaningless; they held, mostly, to a cyclical view of the cosmos, in which one age ended and another began. I do not pretend to understand how Jews saw eternity, but the ‘modern’ notion of linear history was invented largely by St. Augustine in response to the Incarnation of Jesus. Theologically, it was foolish to believe that Jesus would die again in the next cycle of time, so the Incarnation was a unique event, never to be repeated.

It was only when this concept of linear time had come to be that the words “will never pass away”  would come to mean something like we understand the concept. As such, Mark probably did not have this in mind when he wrote the words. Given how the concept developed, IMO, Mark’s meaning would, almost by necessity, be much more limited. Given this, I would have to suggest that Mark’s intention here was only that Jesus’ words had outlived the world in which he spoke them. I do not think this should be taken to signify anything like “end times”. Given this, we have to assess the level of apocalypse in Jesus’ message. 

31 Caelum et terra transibunt, verba autem mea non transibunt.

32 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοιἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ.

“About the day, or that hour, no one know, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, (no one) except the father.

This has always puzzled me greatly. How can the son be the same (homo-ousias) as the father, and yet the father knows something that the son doesn’t? Yes, my good Roman-rite nuns (Dominicans, to be precise) would have said ‘it’s a mystery’ and that would have been the end of it. Perhaps it is; we’re not here to discuss theology, except in a developmental way. What this says to me is that we have another indication that, in the course of this narrative, Jesus is not seen as truly divine. He doesn’t know; and this pretty much necessarily entails that he is somehow, to some degree however small, less than the father, who knows all. Or perhaps saying that Jesus wasn’t ‘divine’ is too strong; this entails that he was not co-equal to the father, even if he were divine. After all, we don’t doubt that the angels are divine, and they don’t know, either.

One other thing. Notice what he doesn’t say. He says that neither the angels nor the son knows; what about the Holy Spirit (here capitalized deliberately)? Does the Holy Spirit know? Or not? Actually, that’s sort of asking someone in Jesus’ time whether cars can be red or green; they would not have known the answer because cars had not been invented. Here is a pretty clear instance of how the Holy Spirit had to be developed, that the idea is not truly biblical. If you had asked Mark or John the Evangelist about the Trinity, they would not have understood the question. In fact, the implication here is that we do not even have a duality, or whatever the proper word is for two that corresponds to ‘trinity’.

32 De die autem illo vel hora nemo scit, neque angeli in caelo neque Filius, nisi Pater.

33 βλέπετε ἀγρυπνεῖτε: οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν.

“Look out, be sleepless; for you do not know when the time (lit = ‘season’) is.

Interesting that there is no << δὲ  >>, or any other grammatical connection to the previous sentence in which Jesus tells us that the son does not know the hour. Offhand, I would have expected a ‘therefore’, or ‘so’, or just the << δὲ  >>. 

33 Videte, vigilate; nescitis enim, quando tempus sit.

34 ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἀπόδημος ἀφεὶς τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ καὶ δοὺς τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐξουσίαν, ἑκάστῳ τὸ ἔργον αὐτοῦ, καὶ τῷ θυρωρῷ ἐνετείλατο ἵνα γρηγορῇ.

“As a man journeying leaves behind his home and gives to his slaves the authority, to each his (assigned) task, and he commands to the doorkeeper in order to be watchful

34 Sicut homo, qui peregre profectus reliquit domum suam et dedit servis suis potestatem, unicuique opus suum, ianitori quoque praecepit, ut vigilaret.

35 γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἔρχεται, ἢ ὀψὲ ἢ μεσονύκτιον ἢ ἀλεκτοροφωνίας ἢ πρωΐ,

“therefore be watchful, for you do not know when the lord of the house comes, whether in the evening, or in the middle of the night, or at cock-crow, or morning.

35 Vigilate ergo; nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat, sero an media nocte an galli cantu an mane;

36 μὴ ἐλθὼν ἐξαίφνης εὕρῃ ὑμᾶς καθεύδοντας.

“lest he coming suddenly, he find you sleeping,  (i.e., since you don’t know the time he’s expected, be watchful so he doesn’t find you sleeping.)

About the Greek: splitting sentences into different verses can lose the grammatical thread, so I added the parenthetical insertion above as sort of an overview. 

36 ne, cum venerit repente, inveniat vos dormientes.

37 ὃ δὲ ὑμῖν λέγω, πᾶσιν λέγω, γρηγορεῖτε.

“Amen I say to you, be watchful.”

37 Quod autem vobis dico, omnibus dico: Vigilate! ”.

OK, think Jesus got the message across to be watchful?

Now all of this does have a strong implication of Parousia; the master returning is obviously a metaphor for the coming of…who? Who is “the lord” of the house that will return? Is it God the Father? The term ‘kurios’ can stand for ‘adonnai’, which is a parallel to YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus is referred to as “the Lord” in Chapter 11; recall that “the lord needed the colt for the entrance into Jerusalem. That such a detail is left to be assumed usually implies that the author simply expects the audience simply to catch the reference, however oblique. Does Mark assume that Paul’s message about the return of Jesus from 1 Thess was so widely known that he could refer to it here like this and the audience would understand?

Or, if Mark was not assuming that Paul’s message was so widespread, then what?

I am not at all certain what the answer to that question is. The obvious, or the easy answer is that Mark was assuming that his audience would understand. But what? That the end was coming? Or that the destruction foretold had already occurred?  This is what I’ve been thinking this chapter means, but the fact that it ends with not one, but three admonitions to be vigilant, really does seem to undercut my idea to some degree.

My apologies, but I’ve been sitting on this post for a bit. The problem is trying to fit this chapter into the context of the rest of the gospel. So, I’m going to publish, but with the proviso, and the caveat, that whatever I may end up recanting things that have been said in this commentary. My apologies for the indecisiveness, but this is a deep an thorny problem.


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 28, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A common method of accurate prediction is to make the prediction so ambiguous that it would have meaning to anybody, anywhere, sometime. It could have different meanings to different audiences, but all finding it satisfactory.

  2. “If you go to war with the Persians, you will destroy a mighty empire.”

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