This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 15, 2015.
Over the years, the thirteenth chapter in Mark’s Gospel has gone by many titles. It has alternatively been called the “Little Apocalypse” because of its hypothesized source material, the “Olivet” discourse for its setting on the Mount of Olives, and the “Eschatological” or “Prophetic” discourse in reference to its presumed genres. One epithet on which scholars can agree for Mark 13 is that of longest discourse in the Gospel of Mark.
Aside from its pride of length, the passage’s pride of place in this gospel clearly signals to Mark’s audience its importance. Its narrative placement as the final teaching material of Jesus’ ministry and as the speech that occurs immediately before the start of his passion shows that it obviously must be a significant discourse. Open a commentary to its discussion of this passage, however, and you will likely be told that, although it is extremely important, it is also one of the most notoriously problematic parts of the NT to interpret.
Part of the difficulty certainly has to do with the expectations created by such adjectives as “prophetic,” “apocalyptic,” and “eschatological,” all of which suggest to readers that the passage will offer predictions about the future, particularly about the end times. Instead of offering an eschatological timeline though, Jesus does quite the opposite in affirming that no one, not even the Son (v. 32), knows the time and date for these events. When readers approach this discourse only as an eschatological code to be broken, they are inevitably disappointed because of the ambiguity of the passage, which some scholars believe was intentional on Jesus’ part. If deliberate, then trying to eliminate the ambiguity by turning its general “signs” into an apocalyptic road map also means that interpreters are overlooking one of the passage’s main critiques—that of the disciples’ need for a sign and their desire to know the future (vv. 3-4).
Instead of giving a detailed timeline, Mark 13 offers exhortations (nineteen imperatives!) for patience, trust, watchfulness, faithfulness, and witnessing in a hostile world. Its purpose is practical and pastoral rather than esoteric or mystical. Its aim is to prepare disciples to remain strong in the face of persecution and suffering.
Something else that Jesus does in this passage is to affirm what we know by experience—wars, earthquakes, famines, etc., all of these traumatic events have always gone on and will continue to do so with ever increasing frequency until the end comes. Rather than plotting out the future, he exhorts his followers not to be “deceived” by imposters (v. 5) or “alarmed” (v. 7) by events because they are not alarm bells signaling an imminent doom. They are simply the “birth pangs” of a very long labor process (v. 8; cf. Revelation 12:2). Yes, the disciples may already be living in the “end times” (cf. Hebrews 1:2; Acts 2:16-17; 1 Corinthians 10:11), but they are only at the “beginning.” The end will not take place until the Son of Man returns in honor (cf. vv. 26-27). Therefore, such “signs” should not provoke anxiety or speculative predictions about the future because there is still a long way to go.
When Mark’s original audience heard these predictions though, no doubt believers were struck by their similarity with contemporary events. There were religious charlatans and messianic pretenders who deceived many (v. 5-6); Theudas and Judas the Galilean (cf. Acts 5:34-39) are just two examples. There were “rumors of wars” (v. 7) when Caligula tried to erect a statue of himself in the temple (AD 40) and actual wars in the year prior to the temple’s destruction when Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian followed one another in rapid succession as emperors (AD 69). That year also saw the Jewish revolt in full swing and Galilean cities falling before the might of the Roman war machine. There were “earthquakes” in Phrygia (AD 61) and in Pompey (AD 63) and also “famines” during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54; cf. Acts 11:28). In short, there were enough “signs” that, according to church tradition, the Jerusalem Christian community fled to Pella in Transjordan before the city was sacked and the temple burnt in AD 70.
One of the main debates that still remains about the “signs” in Mark 13 is whether they should be interpreted only in reference to Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 or also in reference to the end of the world. While interpreters argue about which parts (if any) of the chapter refer to the first-century context and which parts (if any) refer to the future apocalypse, most agree that Mark 13:1-8 focuses primarily on the fall of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus predicts in v. 2.
One of the most important hermeneutical keys to understanding this section as focusing on the temple’s destruction is found in its narrative placement at the conclusion of the temple material in Mark 11-12. By the time we reach ch. 13, Jesus has entered Jerusalem as the Davidic Messiah, the King of Israel, and has ridden to his father’s “palace,” a.k.a. the temple (11:4-11), which he has cleansed by castigating the merchants polluting it (11:15-19). He has cursed a fig tree, a prophetic act pointing towards the destruction of the temple brought on by actions of the temple authorities (11:12-14; 20-21). Jesus has defeated the temple authorities in debate and has roundly condemned them in his speeches (11:27-12:44), particularly in his not-so-subtle parable of the vineyard in which Israel’s religious rulers are compared to the rebellious servants who face their master’s wrath and destruction (12:1-12). Finally, he has declared that religious leaders who are willing to throw widows out of their homes and devour the last remnants of their support (12:38-44) should not be too surprised when the tables are turned and their own “house” is destroyed. Fittingly, the actions and comments in these two chapters culminate with Jesus’ final exit from the temple (13:1) and his prediction of the literal destruction of the complex (13:2), which did occur in AD 70.
Of course, verses 1-8 are just the beginning of the chapter just as the destruction of Jerusalem was perhaps only the “beginning of the birth pangs” in a very long labor that continues until the present. Not unlike our counterparts in the first century, we today also have no shortage of false messiahs, wars, natural disasters, and famines. No doubt, Jesus’ advice to us remains the same: “Watch out” but “do not be alarmed” or “worried.” Even in the midst of turmoil and persecution, continue to be faithful witnesses until the very end.
Dr. Meg Ramey
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Messiah College, Grantham, PA
Tags: prophesy, temple, Jerusalem, watchfulness, faithfulness, eschatology