MARK 13: The Prophecy
RICHARD McKIM 2/15/13
Well, Bob, you want teaching, this is teaching! Jesus maps out a hellish future for this world that’s about to crucify him. What a thunderous prelude to the Passion. Horrible things are going to happen, and soon — parents killing their children, children killing their parents, wars, earthquakes & famines, the sky gone black & collapsing. Not even time to grab your coat!
But don’t be shocked, I’m foretelling it all for you. Stand guard, watch for the signs, hope you’re among the eklektoi, the chosen few. Pray that the apocalypse won’t happen in winter, but woe to the mothers of babies whenever it does. Don’t follow false prophets. Preach the gospel [what is that?] to all ethnoi. When you’re dragooned before the authorities, say whatever the holy spirit moves you to say. Only those who stand firm till the end will be saved. Don’t let the Lord catch you sleeping. The second coming is at hand.
Not the uplifting moral wisdom you’ve been hoping for. Rather, the Urtext of Calvinism, I think. You’re either eklektos or you’re not, with nary a hint that you can qualify by moral behavior. Just stay awake & stand guard [over what?]. Bob & I should be glad of this, since we both want to uncouple moralism from salvation. But are we? Do we really?
To preserve a moralistic Jesus, you’d have to import the moralism from elsewhere in the book. “He means, you’ll be eklektos if you love your neighbor. Stand guard by doing that.” But that’s a stretch here. No hint of a moral high ground, let alone mercy — quite the reverse. It seems to be all about fearing God & believing the right prophet of doom.
Yet surely this is the dramatic climax of the pre-Passion Mark story. This is what it’s been building toward, where the hammer falls. Bob invoked a “ring of truth” criterion earlier as indicating a genuine J–saying. Admittedly a slippery standard, but to me that same bell is booming loudly in 13. It makes clear why people sat up & took notice of this guy, far more so than the moral pronouncements or even, perhaps, the healings. Yes, it’s presented as private counsel to four disciples, but here it is in a book for all to read. And for impact, it blows Mr Nice Christ away. Sky and earth shall pass away but these words shall not pass away. Eschatology trumps morality. Terrifying stuff!
For the first time I understand the fundamentalist obsession with the Rapture. Enlightening as the rest of Mark’s book may be, this is the first passage where it becomes a ball of fire.
Lots of 20/20 hindsight here. Israel must have been a real mess when the legions finally went on their rampage. (13:14 “the abomination of desolation,” cf. solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant). Anyone here read Josephus’ account? I haven’t, yet. And there’s that darn fig tree again!
Right, the fig tree, symbol of the impending end time — just as its leaves are a sure sign that summer is upon us, so the fulfillment of J’s prophecies will be a sure sign that “he [it? who? what?] is at your door” (ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἐπί θύραις). θέρος (summer) becomes θύραις (doors). Nice!
W. ROBERT CONNOR 2/16/13
You have poured more high proof stuff for us, Rick! Packs a wallop. I’m trying this on: serious writing does not just HAVE an audience; it CREATES its audience. Or so my Lit Crit friends tell me. So what is Mark doing here? In a back-then setting he may be saying “Use the part of your mind that knows how explosive ‘world orders’ are. They have a way of turning into chaos, destruction, holocausts, world-disorders. Listen up. Jesus knew that too, and THAT is when the gospel really comes home to you — when you wake up and realize you need another kind of kingship.” Is that the audience Mark is trying to create for his work by skipping over so much of the teaching, the “ethics”, and getting us straight to the moment of catastrophe? I don’t think this necessarily means that Mark was writing after the destruction of the Temple in the 60s. Good old Vespasian! You could see it coming. Adrienne Mayor’s book The Poison King shows what the dark side of Roman rule was like in the first century. Jesus or Mark did not need prophecy to see that.
“It seems to be all about fearing God & believing the right prophet of doom.” It’s all about fear, Rick. Box office, box office. “Ball of fire” is right; get the medics ready just in case. Every step of the way, Mark has one eye on the script (Q) and the other eye on his potential audience. Pack them in, the hell with the “message”!
Compare the eschatological diatribe of Matthew’s Jesus (24:3-25:46) with that of Mark’s (13:4-37). There are the usual verbal identities, and both emphasize that as soon as you see this stuff hit the fan, with the Roman legions (Matthew’s “eagles,” Mark’s “abomination of desolation”) occupying the land and the holy of holies (come on, guys, this has got to be hindsight), you’ll know that the Second Coming is nigh. And Jesus’ generation won’t die out before it happens. So get ready right now. But Matthew’s is a hell of a lot longer, with one parable after another appended to illustrate what’ll happen if you’re too dumb or distracted to get ready. And Matthew’s eschatology culminates in the Last Judgment, where all that matters is whether you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, provided hospitality, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Remember, this is the same Matthew who makes Jesus say that the Golden Rule is the whole Torah and the Prophets.
But when it comes to Mark, as you say, Rick, “you have to import the moralism from elsewhere in the book.” For Matthew, the message seems to be important, something for you to take home and think about; for Mark, all that counts is to keep you on the edge of your seat all the way to the end. As Aristotle put it, Φόβος καὶ ἔλεος καὶ κάθαρσις τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων — fear, pity and catharsis are what really counts in theater. Matthew cares about what happens after the curtain falls. Mark wants us to remember, too, but what? Did he ever really get the message?
“Come on, guys, this has got to be hindsight.” Bill, I honestly don’t see why. The spooky phrase “abomination of desolation” comes, as you know, from Daniel (three times). What was Daniel pseudo-prophesying ex eventu? Couldn’t J simply be recapping some of the OT prophets’ greatest hits, & then along comes Vespasian or Titus & people think “That’s what he meant!” when really such a generic catalog of disasters could have been foretold at almost any time in history — especially the history of the Jews! — & be within a stone’s throw of some catastrophe or other that vaguely resembles it.
The alternatives are either (1) whoever wrote kata Markon or Q has the bright idea, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I made up prophecies to match events & put them in J’s mouth so people will think he was a prophet,” or (2) “J was the son of man/God so he must have prophesied all this, so I’ll write that he did.” I’m not sure either is as plausible as you (& many others, of course) assume. I’m inclined instead to think that J was a brilliant synthesizer of OT tropes spiced by some original variations on the theme from his own fevered imagination. Even if he was deluded about having foresight, he could count on history to keep people thinking that he’d foreseen exactly what they’re going through, right down to today & beyond.
As for Matt’s appendix of Mr Nice Christ bromides — come on, guys, surely it’s more likely that someone tacked them on from elsewhere in J’s canon of sayings, in order to make this prophecy less fearsomely amoral, than that Mark deliberately omitted them to sell popcorn.
Well argued, Rick, up to the word “bromides”. O.K., I recognize your fine irony in calling the magnificent grand conclusion of Matthew’s eschatology, the great division of saints and sinners (hardly Mr. Nice Christ here), merely an inauthentic platitude, just to show up how absurdly I’d characterized Mark’s dramatic technique. But, honestly, I don’t think the “technique” was deliberate. Either Mark didn’t get the importance of the Last Judgment criteria (King Jesus’ Law), and just omitted that part to move the story along — or he’d never heard it, or had forgotten it, or just hadn’t been paying attention to his sources. What sources?
Let me latch onto one of Bob’s latest remarks: “Mark tells us only what he is pretty sure he knows, from first hand observation or from reports from people he trusted, or is it what he thought we absolutely needed to know?” I’ll buy “people he trusted” — maybe people like Paul, especially if Mark really was that on-again-off-again amanuensis whom Paul did, and didn’t, trust. Want to know anything about Jesus? Just ask Paul; he wasn’t there, but he can always check his visionary Rolodex and tell you what he has on it. But I suspect even Paul was too subtle for Mark.
First point taken, Bill. I don’t think Matt’s grand conclusion is either inauthentic or platitudinous. Magnificent is more like it. So it doesn’t much matter whether it’s an original part of the prophecy that Mark 13 leaves out, or patched in by Matt from elsewhere in J’s teachings. Both sides of J are important. I think we all agree there’s something about him that Mark didn’t get. He did get the scary part, but in promoting that part because it’s too much ignored these days by non-fundamentalists, I don’t really mean to discount the compassionate one.
Re 20/20 hindsight: in Josephus, Bellum Iudaicum 6.3-4, the story of a mother driven to such desperation by the barbarity of the Romans during the Jewish War of the 60s that she eats her own son: While the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow ,,, she attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, “O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? … Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.” As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and eat the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.
Then the “prophesied” destruction of the temple, complete with false prophets per Mark 13: And now the Romans, judging that it was in vain to spare what was round about the holy house, burnt all those places … They also burnt down the treasury chambers … There it was that the entire riches of the Jews were heaped up together … The soldiers also came to the rest of the cloisters … whither the women and children, and a great mixed multitude of the people, fled, in number about six thousand … The soldiers were in such a rage, that they set that cloister on fire; by which means it came to pass that some of these were destroyed by throwing themselves down headlong, and some were burnt in the cloisters themselves. Nor did any one of them escape with his life. A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose on the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God … Now a man that is in adversity does easily comply with such promises; for when such a seducer makes him believe that he shall be delivered from those miseries which oppress him, then it is that the patient is full of hopes of such his deliverance.
Bill, something tells me you’re trying to curb my enthusiasm for this chapter! One thought on “hindsight”: Couldn’t Josephus’ account, especially the baby-eating mother and false prophets, be based on the prophecies (probably not just J’s) rather than the prophecies being based on events? Jesus doesn’t prophesy parents eating their children, just killing them, but he does say “Woe to nursing mothers in those days!” Couldn’t someone imagine the baby-eating on that basis?
But even if Josephus is reporting what actually happened — just because a prophecy comes true doesn’t mean it’s not a prophecy!
By all means, continue enthusiastic, Rick! Still, I hardly think that a serious historian like Josephus would base his account on prophecies. A hundred more paragraphs from him, and you’ll see that the reality he’s reporting is far more awful and awesome than any “prophecy” could have had the power to describe — which to my mind gives primacy to the reality, and a subordinate, after-the-fact status to the “prophecy”. But, hey, we’re a couple of millennia away from the events, so nobody’s theory is to be dismissed out of hand.
I’ve been reading Josephus, too. He likes the dramatic not to say hysterical, but when I read Bill’s passage substituting “Assad and his loyalists” for the Romans, I don’t find it entirely incredible, or a story concocted out of prophecy.
Mark 14: The Last Supper
Mark 14:22-24 (the bread & wine at the last supper) agrees with Matthew 26, often verbatim. But the earliest version we have is in Paul, 1 Corinthians 11. There it’s worded differently, followed almost verbatim by Paul’s fellow traveler Luke (23).
Paul: For I received this from the Master, and I’ve passed it on to you, too: On the night of his betrayal, Master Jesus took bread, and, after giving thanks, broke it, and said, “For you this is my body. Do this in my memory.” Likewise, after the meal, he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. As many times as you drink, do this in my memory.”
Mark: And while they were eating Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and having given it to them, said, “Take it: that is my body!” He then took a wine-cup, and after giving thanks, passed it to them, and they all drank from it. And he told them, “That is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is being shed on behalf of many.”
What really fascinates me is that Paul begins by saying he received his account “from the Master”. In other words, it came from another of his Jesus visions — not from the apostles. And it’s not something that’s been in the Christian tradition all along. It’s something that he himself has “seen”.
Where do I go with this? Hide somewhere?
My non-scholarly knee-jerk reaction to Bill’s parallel supper texts is to trust Paul & Luke over Mark & Matt. The latter (both following Q?) omit the reason why we should eat the body, which strikes me as their oversight rather than Paul’s embellishment. The reason that Paul has Jesus offer is not just “do this in my memory” but also Τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ σῶμα τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν. Bill renders this as “for you this is my body”, but I think that’s an under-translation, misleading in that it suggests “from your point of view”. τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν demands at least “this is my body for you,” where ὑπὲρ “for” seems quite strong — “for your sake”, “on your behalf”, meaning more like the traditional “this is my body [which is given] for you”.
Thanks, Bill, for this VERY USEFUL comparison. Was Jesus establishing a memorial meal? Paul and Luke seem to think so; Matthew and Mark don’t say so. And John passes over the whole business. That’s a nice scholarly problem, esp. when we add Bill’s keen observation about HOW Paul came by his account.
But, of course, there’s more to it than that. How can a follower of Jesus maintain contact after Jesus’ disappearance? That’s the issue that matters. I suspect the early Christians struggled with this question and gave many different answers to it. Foot-washing, fasting, prayer … But the communal Eucharistic meal eventually took first place, not so much because it rested on the authority of Paul and pals, but because the emphasis on feeding runs through all the gospels, not least Mark. Something special was going on in that last supper in his view. Otherwise, in his get-on-with-it manner, why would he stop even to mention it?
Point taken, Rick, on my translation of ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν. I see how it could be misleading, and will amend it accordingly. Yes, Bob, not a word in John about instituting the Eucharist during the last supper. Something else is far more important to Jesus there, something he wants the disciples to do in remembrance of him: wash each other’s feet. 13:12-15: Now, when he’d finished washing their feet, had put on his outer garment, and had reclined once more, he asked them, “Do you realize what I’ve been doing for you? You call me ‘Rabbi’ and ‘Master,’ and properly so, because that’s what I am. Therefore, if I, your master and teacher, have washed your feet, then you, too, are obliged to wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you an example, so that you may do just as I’ve done for you.”
Note, however, that long before that meal John has Jesus make the following outrageous statement (starting 6:48): “I’m the one who is the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert — and they died. But this bread here is the bread that comes down from heaven so that you can eat of it and not die. It’s I who am the living bread that’s come down from heaven; if you eat of this bread, you’ll live into the next eon. The bread that I’ll give is my flesh, given for the life of the world.” The Jews disputed with one another and said, “How can this fellow give us his flesh to eat?” So then Jesus told them, “I swear, I swear to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. The one who’s eating my flesh and drinking my blood has life for the eon to come, and I myself will raise him up on the last day, for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who is eating my flesh and drinking my blood abides in me, and I in that person. As the living father has sent me, and as I’m alive because of the father, so also will the one who is eating me be alive because of me. … The one who eats this bread here will live into the next eon.”
These assertions were spooky enough to drive away a number of potential followers. Privately, however, to his disciples, Jesus explains that he only meant it in a “spiritual” sense. John 6:61ff: On his own, Jesus knew that his disciples were grumbling about this. To them he said, “Is this a stumbling-block for you? So then, would it be a stumbling-block if you beheld the Son of Man rising to where he was before? It’s the spirit that makes things alive; the flesh is no help at all. What I’ve just told you about is spirit, it’s life!”
A disclaimer like that was probably one of the things that recommended John’s gospel to Luther. Literal interpretations of the Eucharist, inspired by the “inferior” synoptic evangelists, are fodder for the Papists, nicht wahr?
Wahr indeed, and perhaps a reason why John “displaces” the whole idea from the last supper to a floating discourse, thinking that the meal setting encourages an over-literal notion of what it means to eat & drink the body & blood. Another argument for an early John, before the meal became institutionalized? It does seem strange that John dispenses with the meal setting and makes the theophagy part of J’s message just generally. Unless Paul’s “Jesus vision”, being the earliest account, is the source of the whole last-supper story. But then, where else would John have got the idea that (spiritual) theophagy is central to J’s teaching? I’m all questions here, no answers.
At any rate, all Pauline/synoptic supper accounts agree on diatheke (covenant) for the wine/blood, a word that apparently goes back at least to God’s diatheke with Noah. Covenant or last will & testament? One online pundit says that the Hebrew “may or may not have the character of an agreement. Sometimes a [covenant] is more in the nature of a one-sided promise or grant.” Which seems to fit here. Might there be some kind of authenticity in the pervasiveness of this (semi-technical) word?
The diatheke may be more with Moses than with Noah. Paul goes pretty deeply into the nature of the two “covenants” in Hebrews 9:18-22. (I’m in the tiny minority that thinks Hebrews really is by Paul, who’s barely recognizable behind the fringes & tassels of full Pharisee drag.) Under the first covenant with Moses, the high priest was allowed annually to enter the inner tent (Holy of Holies) after “purifying” the environment with sacrificial blood.
But now that the Messiah is the new high priest, a priest forever, he has entered the real Holy of Holies (heaven) once and for all, having sprinkled everything with his own blood (Hebrews 9:11-12: But when the Messiah came as high priest of the good things that were done [early MSS variant: will be done] by means of the bigger and more perfect tent — the tent not made by human hands, meaning the tent that is not of this worldly establishment — he entered once and for all into the holy place, not by shedding the blood of goats and calves, but by shedding his own blood; he had come up with a redemption that would last into the next eon.
Pre-Passion Interlude: The Synoptics versus John
Despite our initial resolve to meet Mark on his own terms, we’ve often strayed into Matthew territory — which is natural, since he and Mark are so often reading from the same script. As for Luke, he has the same scholia, he’s just written more elaborate lyrics, and in finer Greek. In all three, I sense the fine hand of Paul, to one degree or another: Matthew less, Mark more, Luke most.
We may need to recall that Paul wrote years, maybe decades, before any of the synoptic evangelists. At the very least, we can regard the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 as a terminus post quem for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, since all of them have “the tourist” refer to the physical destruction of the temple (“not a stone upon a stone”), which is of course more 20/20 hindsight.
Not so John. His Jesus talks of tearing down the temple of his body and rebuilding it in 3 days, but doesn’t predict the destruction of the actual temple. We suspect it hasn’t yet happened for him. We also suspect that he hasn’t read Paul, possibly because Paul hasn’t yet written.
All three synoptic evangelists have the ritual of the eucharist at the Last Supper; this was a big thing with Paul, and a tool he found useful in his proselytizing program. Not so John: just the washing of feet.
And that’s not all. John’s Last Supper scene generates something else that’s “new”, and not in the synoptic accounts: John 13:34-35 “I’m giving you a new commandment: cherish each other so that you cherish each other just as I’ve cherished you. If you have that love in common, that’s how everyone will know that you’re my disciples.”
A final note on John’s Last Supper: for the betrayal, all agency is taken away from Judas, and put on Jesus (13:26-30). It is he who knowingly causes his own destruction by dipping the bread and handing it to Judas. As soon as Judas has taken the bread, the devil flies into him and flips his switch: he scuttles off, still galvanically clutching the bread. Jesus himself sets the machinery in motion, instead of just lying back and letting it happen as in the synoptics.
“Peter’s declaration in Mark 8:29 that J is the Christ seems like a turning point, triggering the first prediction & the transfig. Did his ‘true’ messianic nature dawn on J gradually, the exchange with Peter snapping it into sharp focus?” (Rick) No transfiguration anywhere in John, which is odd and/or ironic because John is one of those present for the transfiguration in Mark 9! And if there was ever a turning point in John, it’s Lazarus — who is never mentioned in the synoptic Gospels! Lazarus’ resurrection is the big miracle in John (ch. 11): it brings Jesus back to Judaea, sparks major crowd enthusiasm, and leads quickly to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday). John’s miracle isn’t just a dubious resuscitation from a comatose state, but the actual enlivening of a corpse that’s been decomposing for four days: (11:39). For John, it’s the one event that brings about the enemies’ decision to kill not only Jesus (11:53: “So from that day forward they plotted to kill him”), but poor convalescent Lazarus himself (12:10-11: “Now the high priests plotted to kill Lazarus as well, because many Judaeans were going there [i.e. Bethany, near Jerusalem] on his account and were becoming believers in Jesus.”) Again, not a breath about Lazarus in the synoptics. Too far from the events in both space and time? Aren’t we tempted to rule out all chances of “eyewitness accounts” in the big three?
John represents a radically different tradition that manifests itself in any number of ways, and suggests that it’s the tradition of the original Jewish church, the Jerusalem church, unaffected by Pauline influence. For one thing, the direct quotations from Jesus (most of them claiming his birthright, no “identity creep” in John, even from the git-go) far outnumber those even in Matthew. We seem even to have one such pronouncement delivered in Greek to diaspora folks who didn’t understand the local jargon (12:20-28).
For another thing (to me the most important), John is the only one who actually says “I swear that this is true because I saw it, I was there, I held him in my arms!” In Mark, it’s been a guessing game for us to decide what might or might not be eyewitness reporting. But we’re left with the fact that neither he, nor Matthew, nor Luke ever says “That was me, I was there,” even though Matthew names a “Matthew” as the toll-booth guy whom Jesus collects in Capernaum. (Hey, if the evangelist were really the apostle Matthew, why would he need the genealogies and the fairy tales, why would he need to consult Q?)
I remember years ago reading some voice in the wilderness arguing that John was earliest, something I’d dearly like to believe — in particular, I want the logos theology to be original, subsequently lost on synoptic gospellers not sophisticated enough to get it, rather than being tacked on later by a misguided mystic. But I assumed the earlier date was wishful thinking, an example of my own theory that, in scholarship on the ancient world, there’s no position so outlandish that you can’t find a scholar who’ll adopt it. You know, “Heliogabalus: Greatest of Roman Emperors” — that sort of thing.
So you can imagine my delight at your theory, Bill. Count me in, though no doubt for reasons you’d find wrongheaded. In Geza Vermes’ latest book, he sees the “real” Jesus as a moral teacher, a view very much in tune with yours & Bob’s I think, but he affirms the usual late dating of John to support that view in the usual way — John being a later stage in the (pernicious) deification of J, culminating at Nicaea, by which the church gravitated away from J the moral visionary toward J as an object of worship. As for me, Nicaea is my all-time favorite council. I’d like to think that the Nicene creed was where the Church finally nailed what J was all about. Whether I actually do think so is, of course, another matter.
But are we safe in asking “Which gospel is earliest?” That is good 19th-century German philology, but suppose MANY traditions were circulating, orally and in short notes and pamphlets. People who knew Mark might also know what the Matthew folks were chewing on and vice versa. John had some ideas and recollections that overlapped, borrowed some stuff, loaned out other anecdotes, and was thought to be out in left field on other matters. As this generation died off it seemed important to preserve its various traditions. In this model, early and late don’t have much force. Possible?
Dunno. If you’re asking, Does it really matter which is earliest?, I’d agree that it probably doesn’t. What would matter, on the other hand, would be which, if any, represented a decidedly separate tradition — not just overlaps and borrowings but really, distinctly different — and at the same time being the only one making an outright claim to authenticity. John qualifies, I think, even if he’s telling the Biggest Lie in town.