Sunday, November 4, 2012



This is the thirty-ninth installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 10, chapter 13:1-37, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-eighth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 10: 13:1-37

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. 9 "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 "But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15 the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16 the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21 And if anyone says to you at that time, "Look! Here is the Messiah!' or "Look! There he is!'—do not believe it. 22 False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be alert; I have already told you everything. 24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." (NRSV)


This Scene could actually be divided into two: one short scene when Jesus leaves the Temple Mount and an unnamed disciple draws his attention to the glory of the Temple and Jesus predicts its destruction (13:1-2); and the long explanation to Jesus’ inner circle of the signs and coming of the End (13:3-37). It makes sense, however, to take it all as one interconnected scene, the longest thus far in the Gospel. It is the cosmic context for all of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is known to scholars as “the Little Apocalypse,” for within this chapter most all of the major themes of apocalyptic literature are found.

After Jesus’ predicts the destruction of the Temple – “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down”- the scene moves to the Mount of Olives, just east of the Temple Mount. [1] What is easily overlooked in the remainder of this scene is that it is spoken to just four of Jesus’ apostles - Peter, James, John, and Andrew – Jesus’ inner circle elsewhere in the Gospel, with the addition of Andrew. Mark presents this scene, therefore, as esoteric tradition, information passed on to these chosen four to be revealed later and to which we as readers are privy to hear as it is occurring. Mark is giving us access to the secrets spoken by Jesus to the chosen few. It is clearly in response to the prophecy regarding the Temple, when Mark has the four ask Jesus privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4).

Jesus answers them clearly, but still opaquely because it is the language of apocalyptic thought. Apocalyptic prophecy always engages the language of imminence – it is coming soon! – but never the language of temporal prediction. It is obvious, though, that Jesus expects the end soon and that it is linked specifically to the events that will surround his death and resurrection. How much of Jesus’ speech has been edited or rewritten in light of the delay of his coming is difficult to say with exactness, but the focus throughout on the fact that many will try to lead them astray,  and the need for alertness and wakefulness indicate that Mark has tried to account for a revision in expectations. This is not to say that Jesus did not warn against the travails of the coming end, or the possibility of apostasy amongst his followers, only that the gap between the events of Jesus’ passion and the coming end seem likely to have been understood as  happening in rather rapid fashion in accord with most Jewish apocalyptic scenarios. The long gap which Mark presents appears as an addition in light of how events have actually played themselves out over the past 35-40 years. What Mark does not do, what the early Christians as a whole never do, is disassociate themselves from Jesus’ prophecies about the end. Why? Because he prophesied the end.

The first warning, and it falls on the readers or hearers of the Gospel even more powerfully because there is an essential temporal gap between Jesus’ sayings and our hearing, is “beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” (13:5-7). Faithfulness is essential, as is discernment, but it is laid against the cosmic travail of nations and kingdoms at war and natural disasters, common themes in many Jewish apocalypses. All these things says Jesus are“the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8), an image used elsewhere in Matthew 24:8 (based on Mark) and in John 16:19f, of a new world and a new time  brought into creation. Still, for the followers of Jesus, these trials and persecutions are personal (“they will hand you over to councils” {13:8}; “when they bring you to trial and hand you over” {13:11}; “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child” {13:12}; “you will be hated by all because of my name” {13:13}) and this means that steadfastness is also personal: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). This adds to the cosmic vastness a personal stake in events which have happened already (persecutions) or which will happen in the future. It also promises that personal suffering is not forgotten by God but is even a part of the reality of the end which God knows and will vindicate.

Mark adds in 13:10, though, another cosmic context, that “the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations” either before these travails take place or until the final end comes. He adds later, though, a more local Jewish and Temple specific context for the cosmic end, drawing on images from both Daniel 9, 11 and 12 and 1 Maccabees 1:54, in which Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple by performing sacrifices with unclean animals and setting up a statue, generally thought to be of Zeus, amongst other religious horrors (13:14). This image strikes a reader as Jesus’ most powerful image for his inner circle, drawing on the historical reality of Gentile Temple desecration, which Mark attempts to contextualize for his readers with an aside (“let the reader understand”). When this event at the Temple occurs, whatever it is precisely, the time of the end is near Jesus states: there is no time but to flee (13:14-18). Even so, as with many apocalyptic scenarios in Judaism, the end is a time of unrelenting and unimaginable pain and terror, which even the faithful could not withstand if God “had not cut short those days” (13:19-21). The danger has not passed, though, of being led astray with the cutting short of “those days,” for in the midst of them will come “false messiahs and false prophets…to lead astray, if possible, the elect”(13:22).  The goal now is to “be alert; I have already told you everything” (13:23), by "everything" must be meant all that is needed for salvation, i.e., you have no need of another messiah or prophet.

Mark then returns us to the cosmic apocalyptic context, so common, for instance, in 1 Enoch (see chapters 56 and 80 for examples): “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (13:24-25). Ultimately, though, we are brought to Daniel 7’s image of the “Son of Man:”

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (13:26-27)

Only when these things take place, like a fig tree putting “forth its leaves, you know that summer is near,” will the end be near, “at the very gates” (13:28-29). In this speech, as Mark has constructed it, we move back and forth between the clear signs of the end, which is so near, and alertness, for we do not know when it will occur. There is a dramatic tension between “soon, very soon” and “we do not know when,” or “these things must all take place, but still more is to come.”  

The last verses double up on the tension of “soon, but not yet,” for Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”(13:30), but even the first readers and hearers must have asked, what things? The things just described? All of these things and more? What generation can it be? The one who first heard the words, including the apostles Simon, Andrew, James and John? For, these things have not happened and those apostles have passed away. It might be why Mark inserts 13:31: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” to assure his readers that the truth of these cryptic words is not to be doubted. He adds also the warning  that no one knows the exact time of the end, not even Jesus: “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). The task, then for the followers of Jesus is constant vigilance, really constant tension for what is coming soon and yet to be. It is the definition of the dramatic, but it permeates the whole of life. The reader as follower of Jesus is asked to “beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (13:33), “to be on the watch” (13:34), to “keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come” (13:35), to “keep awake” (13:37).

Mark places the reader in this scene both in the tension of the text and the tension of the coming end of time for the followers of Jesus. And this cosmic drama is the context for Jesus’ end, which is coming soon.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @BibleJunkies



[1] Some scholars suggest that Jesus’ prediction indicates that the Gospel of Mark was written prior to 70 AD because the claim that “not one stone will be left here upon another” did not come to pass in the Roman destruction of the Temple. This seems faulty to me for two reasons: it takes Jesus’ prediction too literally – it is idiomatic language for “destroyed;” and it hints that Jesus could not have made such a prediction, which seems on the face of it incorrect given the attestation of all of the Gospels that he did precisely that.  I do think Mark is written prior to 70 AD, but not on the grounds of the prophecy regarding the Temple’s destruction.