Robert Stein: Jesus, the Temple and the Coming of the Son of Man

Last month Michael Bird posted a brief book notice about Robert Stein’s Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13, which he describes as “the first real full-length treatment of Mark 13 by an evangelical since the time of George Beasley-Murray”. Bird thinks that the best thing about the book is that it “sets out the interpretive issues and main exegetical options for understanding Mark 13”. I think that’s a fair evaluation.

The first chapter offers a helpful overview of historical Jesus approaches to the synoptic Gospels and to the Olivet discourse in particular, but Stein makes it clear that his interest is in what Mark himself “meant and sought to convey by the present text of Mark 13”, not in the reconstructed thoughts of a supposed “historical” Jesus (38-39). He takes the view that the discourse moves back and forth between two temporal contexts—judgment against Israel in the first century and the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world. So we have four alternating sections:

A. Mark 13:2-23 The disciples’ two questions and the first part of Jesus’ response have reference solely to the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. Stein makes the case consistently and thoroughly. Apart from his identification of the “abomination of desolation” with the sacrilegious actions of the Zealots (92-93), which seems not to have the “interpretive continuity” with Daniel, 1 Maccabees, and the Feast of Lights that Stein’s own methodology requires (91), I would say that he gets the reading about right.

B. Mark 13:24-27 Stein then argues, however, that the darkening of the heavens and the seeing of the Son of Man coming in clouds belong to a final parousia event, when history as we know it is brought to an end.

C. Mark 13:28-31 The parable of the fig tree takes us back to the first century and the expectation that judgment will come on unfruitful Israel within a generation.

D. Mark 13:32-37 The warnings about not knowing “when the time will come” refer to the end-of-history scenario again.

In this way Stein is able to acknowledge the force of Third Quest scholarship which locates Jesus firmly in the story of Israel, while at the same time—somewhat hesitantly, I think it has to be said—safeguarding more traditional views of the second coming. The approach is structurally similar to Mounce’s analysis of the chapter, which I looked at a while ago. The main difference is that Stein rejects the view that the second question (“what will be the sign…?”) is answered by the second coming passages.

Stein shows great respect for the historical integrity of section A and recognizes the strength of the case for a single temporal context—as propounded, for example, by Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God (114-15). For an “evangelical” commentary this is all very encouraging. But I agree with Bird that his argument in the end is unconvincing.

1. We surely have to ask whether it is in any way plausible to suppose that the passage zigzags back and forth unannounced in this fashion? Does “in those days, after that tribulation” (13:24) really allow for an entirely different temporal context? Isn’t Jesus simply describing something that will happen following on from the tribulation of the “days” which God will shorten for the sake of the elect (13:20)? Doesn’t “concerning that day or that hour” (13:32) naturally refer back to the passing away of all things within a generation (13:30)? How on earth were Mark’s readers supposed to deduce from the passage that Jesus was talking about two distinct events?

2. Stein makes too much of the shift from direct address to the disciples in A to the third person (“they will see”) in B. In the context of the Gospel, “they will see” anticipates his retort to Caiaphas, the priests and the scribes at his trial: “you (plural) will see the Son of Man… coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). This, to my mind, is a decisive argument in favour of a single historical narrative context. Alternatively, we may suppose that Jesus is referring back to the “false Christs and false prophets” who will endeavour to lead the elect astray (13:22), but this seems a too restricted and too insignificant group.

3. It is not the case that B takes up a new theme “after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple” described in A. Here is perhaps the fundamental flaw in Stein’s exegesis. Mark 13:5-23 does not include the final destruction of Jerusalem. It speaks of the “tribulation” that will precede the climactic destruction of the city—the period of invasion and siege, in effect—because this will directly affect the elect: they need to escape before it is too late, the time of intense hardship has been shortened for their sake, they should pay no heed to voices proclaiming false hope, etc. It is once the elect are safe that the end will come. Then verse 24 depicts in the symbolic language of Old Testament prophecy the destruction of the city that brings the siege to an end. Stein argues that the cosmic phenomena are ‘not the sign indicating that the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem are imminent, for these phenomena will occur “after” these events’ (112). But this is confused. The cosmic phenomena come after the sign that precedes the destruction of the city. In other words, they signify the moment of destruction.

4. The argument that in the Old Testament the symbolic language of cosmic collapse is followed by more literal statements is very peculiar (115). None of the passages cited provides a proper analogy for Mark 13:24-27 because in each case the poetic language is followed by an explicit statement of divine intent to judge: “I will punish the world for its evil…”, etc. In Jesus’ highly compressed discourse verses 24-25 stand for the whole prophetic argument. The seeing of the coming of the Son of Man is a different prophetic motif, serving a different purpose.

5. Stein disputes Wright’s view that the coming of the Son of Man is simply “good first-century metaphor for… the defeat of the enemies of the true people of God, and the vindication of the true people themselves” (116). His objection is that this definition is incompatible with other “coming of the Son of Man” passages in the New Testament, which speak of the Son of Man coming from heaven with great glory. I agree that there are problems with Wright’s statement. In Daniel the coming of the Son of Man to the throne of God to receive kingdom, etc., stands for the vindication of the suffering righteous after the defeat of Israel’s pagan enemies. But I suggest that when Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming on the clouds, he has in mind a subsequent coming from the throne of God, now endowed with kingdom and glory, primarily to judge and deliver his disciples. This is a more tightly focused definition than Wright’s, but it is still directly associated with the judgment on Jerusalem and the temple symbolized by the cosmic events of Mark 13:24-25.

6. There is a close narrative link between A and B in that the Son of Man comes to gather the suffering elect from the four winds—not only those who will flee from Jerusalem before its destruction but also the disciples who have been sent to the nations to proclaim the good news that God raised his Son from the dead. Stein thinks that the gathering of the elect from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem contradicts the circumstances of A, but the point of 13:27 is that the Son of Man brings to an end the period of scattering—whether for security or for evangelism—after the destruction of Jerusalem, at the beginning of the new age.

7. I would also make the point here that Stein assumes that the coming-of-the-Son-of-Man motif has a single meaning in the New Testament. I would argue that Jesus uses it with respect to the judgment on Israel whereas the apostles apply it in the wider context of judgment on the pagan world. The change of perspective leads to some differences in the narrative shape of the motif. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2 there is a lawless adversary whom the Lord Jesus brings to nothing “by the appearance of his coming” (2:8).

8. Stein argues that we find the language of B in “other end-time statements of Jesus” (117). But this merely begs the question. I would say that the harvest at the close of the age, when the Son of Man sends out his angels to gather all causes of sin and lawlessness out of his kingdom (Matt. 13:39-43) is not the final judgment but a judgment at the end of the age of second temple Israel. Similarly, the judgment of the nations by the glorious Son of Man (Matt. 25:31-46) has in view the response of the nations to the evangelistic activity of the disciples (“the least of these my brothers”) as they went about the task which Jesus expected them to fulfil before the fall of Jerusalem (cf. Mk. 13:10).

9. The “biggest problem” faced by those who think that B refers to an end-of-the-world event is the temporal phrase “in those days” (120). Oddly—unless I have not read him correctly—Stein seems to regard this as almost fatal to the traditional interpretation: “it ignores the nearest referent in 13:17 and 19 that involves the destruction of Jerusalem”. He suggests that a “prophetic perspective” that collapses temporal distances like a landscape painting “may be useful in this regard”, but he admits that this approach is not “thoroughly convincing”. 

In the end, it still seems to me that “evangelicals” resort to such unwarranted dissection of the passage only because they feel obliged to preserve a traditional doctrine of the second coming of Jesus. I think that the New Testament teaches a final judgment and a final victory of the creator over everything that corrupts his creation. What Stein’s approach forfeits, however, is a sense of the narrative-historical integrity and urgency of Jesus’ prophetic message. It was important for him to say to his disciples that, after the hardships of their mission across the oikoumenē in the closing decades of the age of second temple Israel, their vindicated and glorified Lord would “come” and deliver them from their sufferings and reward them for their faithfulness and vigilance.

peter | Mon, 01/05/2015 - 13:02 | Permalink

This is an interesting review. It’s encouraging to see that closer attention is being paid to Third Quest scholarship in locating the story of Jesus in the story of Israel.

I agree that a “zig-zag” interpretation of Mark 13 (between immediate and distant events) seems strange if a simpler interpretation is at hand.

Yet I also think the strength of seeing a more distant focus within the prophecy needs to be acknowledged. To me, it’s not so much a zig-zag as a more distant peak emerging beyond the immediate peak. A mountain climber may think he is approaching the summit, only to find it comes into view beyond the more immediate prospect, behind which it had until then been hidden. This is a well known image which has been used to understand the prophecy. It is saying something slightly different from proposing a zig-zag structure. The thought is more fluid.

A fluidity of thought is apparent in other places in Mark 13. For instance, you say:

3. It is not the case that B takes up a new theme “after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple” described in A. Here is perhaps the fundamental flaw in Stein’s exegesis. Mark 13:5-23 does not include the final destruction of Jerusalem. It speaks of the “tribulation” that will precede the climactic destruction of the city—the period of invasion and siege, in effect—because this will directly affect the elect: they need to escape before it is too late, the time of intense hardship has been shortened for their sake, they should pay no heed to voices proclaiming false hope, etc. It is once the elect are safe that the end will come.

But there is a problem here in your alternative time-frame. In 5:14, the “abomination that causes desolation” is already in place before the exhortation to flee to the hills. This would mean that the time-frame of the “distress” in 5:19 follows the siege of Jerusalem, which by now is over. The Romans are already in the temple. You would have to argue that the siege itself was not part of the distress. The warning to flee to the mountains should, in a strictly sequential time frame, have come before the siege, so that those in the city would have time to escape. It’s just an indication that the time-frame of the prophecy itself is not necessarily as strictly sequential as you might think.

In the time frame for which you argue, 5:24 is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, as borne out by the use of the imagery to describe, eg the destruction of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10. So also Wright. But similar language is used in Isaiah 34:4, which reflects the worldwide destruction in Isaiah 24. The focus is not on one place, but the entire inhabitable earth, and not one nation alone, but “all the nations”. (The destruction of Edom is one, perhaps exemplary illustration of the promise of judgment).

So Stein’s argument for a change of time frame in 5:24 onwards is not far fetched. It may include the destruction of Jerusalem, but notably this is not mentioned in the text, which is a strange oversight if it was meant to refer exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Stein’s argument in Mark 13 for a change of time frame in 5:24 onwards is strengthened by the use of the emphatic de “but”, signifying a strong contrast. Without knowing how Stein develops it, there is a stronger case for seeing the gathering by the angels of the elect from “the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” as a distant future phenomenon. If the worldwide gathering was limited to immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, where were they gathered? What evidence is there of such a historic gathering? Is there any evidence that the message which, according to this gathering in history, they are said to have been proclaiming now ceased, and they started to proclaim a different message, or none at all?

I think there is a much greater degree of fluidity in the time frame of the prophecy at this point, and that there is not a simple binary alternative between a 1st century reading and a futurist reading based on dogma. My own reading of it is that angels are sent out in the 1st century for a gathering which is still taking place.

For these kinds of considerations, and some evidence that time-frames are not as tightly buttoned up as we might like to think, the statement: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened” will need to take its place in a more fluid arrangement, but almost certainly referring to events 40 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than the more distant events which were coming into view.

Finally, if 5:32-37 referred exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the days of distress accompanying, it would scarcely have been necessary for Jesus to say “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven or the Son, but only the Father”, since all the clues about a 1st century fulfilment had been given to pinpoint it fairly precisely. Within a generation, which agrees with the other time-frame clues you have identified for the temple destruction, can hardly be described as “a day or hour” which “No-one knows about”. It was the Son himself who provided the time-frame clues for this event.

Not a retraction, I’m afraid, but correction. For some unknown reason, verse references to Mark 13 in my paragraphs 5,6,7,8 and 11 are introduced by 5 where they should have been 13, as eg in para 5 line one — 13:14. Weird.

Just to continue this conversation with myself (and also possibly to conclude it), a correction. “But” in Mark13:24 was ἀλλʼ, not δὲ. It is the more emphatic word, meaning “breaking off and leading over to a new subject. Hartung, Partikell. II. p. 34 f.” Apologies for the mistake.

Peter, ἀλλά is used 45 times in Mark’s Gospel. As far as I can tell, in not one instance (setting aside Mk. 13:24) does it mark a break and the introduction of a new subject. A couple of examples:

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. ἀλλά if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” (Mk. 9:21–22)

And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. ἀλλά for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. (Mk. 13:20)

If anything, this confirms the view that verses 24-27 are a continuation of the narrative of 5-23.