Mark Summary Chapter 13

What do we have in Chapter 13?

This is an apocalyptic vision. No one would dispute that. The problem is to decide what that means, whether Jesus said anything like this, and what the author, whether Jesus, Mark, or someone in between meant by the words.

As stated, some of the QHJ scholars believe that preaching the apocalypse was Jesus’ primary message. They have, and put forward, excellent arguments for their position, but I don’t believe I agree with them. My disagreement is based on context. The gospel begins with John the Baptist, who preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We have no indication that he preached apocalypse. Yes, there were some at least quasi-apocalyptic writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and John may have been associated with that sect, and he may have shared some of these apocalyptic views. But that is a long chain of contingencies, without a clear link between any of them.

After John was arrested, we are told that Jesus said ‘the time is fulfilled’, and as a consequence he began preaching that the kingdom of God was nigh. ‘Nigh’, or ‘at hand’, or ‘approaching’ can mean a lot of things, and one of these things could be apocalypse.; in fact, this is how the ‘coming kingdom of God’ has come to be interpreted.   The funny thing is, unless ‘kingdom of God’ = ‘apocalypse’, the apocalypse theme pretty much disappears from Jesus’ message until after the Transfiguration. Even in the more oblique “kingdom of God” form, the apocalypse theme pretty much disappears until Chapter 9. The major exception is Chapter 4, in which we get the parable of the sower, and two others that compare the kingdom of God to seeds that are planted. These seeds then grow, naturally and over time, like the mustard seed, until it becomes large enough for birds to build nests. These do not strike me as apocalyptic messages.

The non-occurrence of the apocalyptic theme strikes me as peculiar. By definition, a primary message is one that is stressed repeatedly and consistently. A primary message is not one that disappears for almost two-thirds of the work. Given that, I find it difficult to accept that apocalypse was Jesus’ primary message.

Then we come to Chapter 13, which is all apocalypse, all the time. We noted some peculiarities of this chapter: most of it is direct speech from Jesus, and it’s far and away the longest single speech of Jesus in all of Mark. It feels like a coherent whole, and like a self-contained unit. It could be removed and no one would notice that it wasn’t there. The other similar story is the one relating the death of the Baptist. What does that mean?

I believe it means that each of these stories came down to Mark, more or less intact as he wrote them into his gospel. These represent genuine traditions of Jesus and John that were carried independently of some of the other traditions that Mark knew. The existence of these two stories is a large part of the reason I believe that Mark’s basic accomplishment was to merge several strands of tradition together into a more-or-less coherent whole; but it is a whole where the seams sometimes show, and this is, IMO, a great example of the seams. There is one at each end of the story.

Assuming that my multiple-strands thesis is correct, what does that imply? Basically, that different people heard different things from the message of Jesus. I will discuss this further in my summary of Mark; for now, I want to focus on the apocalypse. Some people who heard Jesus’ message believed that Jesus was preaching apocalypse. Or, which is a very different thing, they were able to interpret the ideas presented by Jesus as predictions of apocalypse. Again, this is where a more specialised background would be of enormous help, the better to understand the role of apocalyptic thought and writing in the First Century. The most famous example of such writing is Daniel; there we find a commentary of the contemporary world, the world of Seleucid rulers set in the distant past, in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. It is similar to the movie M*A*S*H, which sought to criticise the Vietnam war by using the Korean War as its setting. Perhaps Chapter 13 does something similar: it talks of a past event as something that is ‘coming’.

In fact, this addresses one of the main pillars of the Jesus the Apocalyptic Preacher argument. These scholars argue that the inclusion of the passage that the current generation will not die until the events foretold had occurred would have been an embarrassment to the early church.  The church, the argument goes, would have realized that Jesus was ‘wrong’, because the events had not occurred, even though several generations had passed. As such, there must have been a strong impetus compelling them to include this passage; this impetus, they argue, was that Jesus actually said these words.

Fair enough. This chain of logic seems to have some merit; but only if the members of the early church understood the passage the way we understand the passage. What if they understood that the passage should be taken as I have suggested? In which case, members of the current generation were alive when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Jesus was right!

Bear in mind,that in the early-mid 70s CE, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was a highly sensitive issue for both sides. The Romans were still not thrilled with the Judean situation, and it was certainly still freshly traumatic for the Jews who had experienced the decapitation of their central place of worship. Did Mark seek to talk about this, by removing the setting back three or four decades? In this way he could comment on the war and the abomination of desolation without seeming to be criticising the Romans. Matthew will take the theme a little farther by having Jesus weep over the coming destruction: by that point, perhaps enough time had elapsed that he could be less veiled in his implications by having Jesus mourn the ‘coming’ destruction of Jerusalem in ‘advance’ of the ‘coming’ event.

It’s also possible that Mark simply composed this chapter largely by himself. He didn’t receive the ‘tradition’, he created it. For him, or for some of his audience the Jewish War was an open wound. While very painful to the touch, it needed to be cleaned out and perhaps cauterized. How better to do this than to have Jesus ‘predict’ this event? Against this, we have the references–really the reference–in 1 Thessalonians in which Paul uses language similar to what Mark uses in Chapter 13: Jesus coming down from the sky on the clouds; however, there is no necessary contradiction: Mark could have written this chapter because the tradition had come down to him, whether through Paul, or otherwise.

I’ve been having great difficulty coming to any kind of conclusion about this. But that’s as it should be. The question of Jesus’ primary message is still hotly contested by NT scholars. A recent book describing Jesus as a zealot (but not of the party of the Zealots) has been drawing attention. I haven’t read it–yet–but given the author’s credentials, it seems that it has to be taken seriously. So, for the moment, suffice it to say that, despite the existence of this chapter, I do not believe that Jesus’ primary message was one of apocalypse, as we have come to understand the term. I say this because our understanding of “apocalypse” has been greatly coloured by the book of Revelation, in which the vision predicted is one of end-times. Given the example of Daniel, I think we may need to think of “apocalypse” as an allegory for the present, rather than a prediction of the future.

As always, a reminder that this is a work in progress. The opinions of the author are subject to change as new information becomes available! Thank you for your indulgence.


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 August 4, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The adaptation of Jesus’ prediction of coming changes to the destruction of Jerusalem does provide a convenient catastrophe.

    Good point about apocalypses of the present, instead of the future. In the Aeneid, Aeneas doesn’t want to leave the Trojans until his mother reveals to him the invisible workings of the war, showing him in real-time that the gods were tearing down the walls and meant to destroy the Trojans. Only then did he agree to leave.

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