Ian Paul wonders whether it’s not the besieging Roman army that will be at the closed gates of Jerusalem rather than the Son of Man, who will be “coming on the clouds of heaven” rather than entering by the gates. His interpretation would fit the historical thesis well, but I’m not sure the limited exegetical evidence we have points in this direction.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that Jesus says “at the doors” (epi thurais) rather than “at the gates” (epi pulais). The distinction can be illustrated: the high priest Eliashib and his brothers the priests built the sheep gate (pulēn) and set up its doors (thuras) (Neh. 3:1 LXX). It doesn’t make much difference to the immediate sense of the passage but it may have a bearing on its relation to other texts.
There are no doors in the Son of Man tradition, so two distinct imagistic contexts have been brought together. It seems unlikely that either Jesus or Mark thought of the Son of Man descending on the clouds of heaven to land in front of the gates of Jerusalem or the temple. But if distinct traditions have been juxtaposed here, there appears no reason in principle why it should not be Jesus who is at the doors.
So are there any other texts that might throw light on the meaning of “he/it is near, at the doors”? As far as I can tell, these are the only options.
1. Jesus goes on to say in this passage that no one can know the day or hour when all these things will take place, that the disciples “do not know when the time will be”. He is clearly still talking about the same event, expected within a generation. It is like a man who goes on a journey: he puts his servants in charge and “commands the door-keeper (thurōrōi) to stay awake” (Mk. 13:34). The moral of the story for the disciples? Stay awake, in case the master comes back and finds them asleep.
So one possibility would be that “at the doors” anticipates the story of the master who goes away and returns—Hooker notes that it is more naturally at home in the next parable.1 There may be redaction-critical objections to this, and “at the doors” may suggest a city gate with two doors rather than the house of a master with one door (cf. Matt. 25:10). But the connection is worth noting.
2. Luke has neither “at the doors” nor the “door-keeper” in his version of this passage, which reinforces the connection highlighted in Mark (Lk. 21:29-36). There is no ambiguity regarding the subject: “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Lk. 21:31), but we also have the saying:
when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise (eparate) your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (engizei). (Lk. 21:28)
One can’t help wondering whether Psalm 24:7-10 isn’t somewhere in the background:
Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory!
This would suggest that either YHWH himself or Jesus as the glorified Son of Man would be at the gates, about to enter Jerusalem, having defeated his enemies. This is certainly a central aspect of the coming of the kingdom of God. But the Septuagint version of the passage makes no reference to “heads” and has pulai (“gates”) rather than thurai (“doors”).
3. James tells his (Jewish-Christian) brothers to be patient until the coming of the Lord, just as the farmer waits for the “precious fruit of the earth”. They are to establish their hearts “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (hē parousia tou kuriou engiken). They should not quarrel among themselves “so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door (pro tōn thurōn)”. They should take the prophets as an example of “suffering and patience” (Jam. 5:7-11).
This seems very close to Jesus’ argument in Mark 13: the believers are having to endure persecution but the “summer” or “harvest” is coming (theros can have both senses), the coming of the Lord is at hand, who will judge their persecutors.
In view of these parallels, I am now inclined to think that in Mark 13:29 it is a person who is near, at the gates, who will judge both his servants and Israel. Jesus is the Son of Man who has been given authority by God to execute this judgment. The disciples will be able to read the signs when this judgment—and their vindication—is about to take place.
- 1. M.D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St Mark, 321.