I started out meaning to reply to a few questions sent to me about Mark 13: Isn’t it the case that Mark places the “final apocalypse” immediately after the destruction of the temple? Doesn’t this point to a failure of prophecy? Didn’t Jesus say that he would return within a generation? I thought it might be helpful to address these “apocalyptic” questions in the setting of the narrative in Mark beginning with the entry into Jerusalem. Just reading difficult texts in context can solve a lot of problems. But then it occurred to me that Easter Week will soon be upon us, so in the end it has become a reflection on the significance of Good Friday and Easter as much as on whether Jesus was a failed eschatological prophet. Indeed, the whole point is to show that this is all one coherent, meaningful, and believable story.
Jesus puts on a good show
The entry into Jerusalem is carefully staged as a parousia, a royal advent—the implicit enactment of the coming of Israel’s king to be with his people and the enthusiastic reception that he will receive (Mk. 11:1-10). He is riding a young horse, or some similar animal, to signal his confidence that YHWH will soon “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem.” The defencelessness of Jesus is a sign that God will soon intervene to put things right. Captive Israel will be set free, prisoners of hope will return to their stronghold, and this modest king shall “speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth”—beyond the Greek world (Zech. 9:10-13).
On arrival in Jerusalem he briefly visits the temple, but it is already late and he heads out to Bethany with the twelve. The next day, on their way back to the city, he curses a fruitless fig tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mk. 11:12-13). The tree, of course, is blameless. This is the prophet Jesus, the Son sent to the vineyard to do the work of a servant (Mk. 12:1-11), taking the opportunity to denounce unrighteous Israel.
Filled with the spirit of an angry God, he enters the temple and violently disrupts the business end of the sacrificial enterprise, invoking Jeremiah’s stark warning to their forebears that YHWH would not hesitate to destroy “the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust” (Jer. 7:8-15). It hardly amounts to an insurrection, but it’s great performance art.
Later that day, they find the cursed fig tree of Israel withered, and Jesus, in effect, gives his disciples permission to pray that “this mountain” on which the temple stands will be thrown into the sea (Mk. 11:20-23).
By what authority are you doing all this?
Back in the temple the next day the Jerusalem hierarchy—the chief priests, scribes, and elders—demand to know by what authority he is doing and saying these things (Mk. 11:27-33). They do not get a straight answer, but the question about the baptism of John makes it clear enough that Jesus sees his activity as a direct continuation of John’s call to Israel to repent in advance of the sort of coming of YHWH implied in Zechariah 9. Jesus is the Son doing the work of the servant-prophet, seeking the fruit of righteousness and warning of the imminent action or “kingdom” by which God will reform his people and extend his influence to the ends of the Greek-Roman world. But he is also the Son who will inherit rule over the people after YHWH has acted (cf. Mk. 12:7) , the future king who will need no warhorse because God has defeated his enemies. The leaders of the people take offence at the deeply subversive parable and look for a way to silence Jesus (Mk. 12:12).
The controversy rumbles on through chapter 12. Is their loyalty to Caesar, who occupies and oppresses, or to the God who will liberate and restore (Mk. 12:13-17)? The Sadducees have not grasped the power of God to raise up a dead and subjugated people (Mk. 12:18-27). A scribe recognises that the performance of sacrifices in the temple counts for far less than love of God and of neighbour and is therefore “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:28-34). Why? Because when God acts as king to put things right, as he soon will, the whole corrupt temple system will be swept away, the Temple Mount will be thrown into the sea, and some other way of living in the presence of God will have to be found.
Jesus makes the point again that YHWH will act to defeat the enemies of his people and establish the rule of his anointed king at his right hand (Mk. 12:35-37; cf. Ps. 110:1). He warns his followers of the hypocrisy of the scribes, who “will receive the greater condemnation” (Mk. 12:38-40). Finally, Jesus points out the sacrificial giving of the poor widow as an example to the disciples, who will also have to give up everything in the coming years for his sake (Mk. 12:41-44).
The apocalyptic discourse
This has all been happening in the temple, and we should not miss the point that the future of the temple is the central theme of the whole narrative. The whole political-religious infrastructure of Israel is about to be swept away.
They now leave the temple, the disciples express admiration for the “wonderful stones and… wonderful buildings,” and Jesus says, grim-faced, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The disciples naturally want to know when this will happen and what “sign” will appear to mark the fulfilment of the programme which Jesus has outlined (Mk. 13:1-4).
Jesus then proceeds to tell them what to expect. They will hear many voices in Israel claiming to have the solution to the crisis. There will be talk of war; there will be outbreaks of fighting, regional conflicts (cf. 2 Chron. 15:6 LXX), earthquakes and famines as signs of political turmoil (cf. Is. 29:6; Jer. 10:22; 11:22; Zech. 14:5). These will be the beginning of the “labour pains” that will climax in the birth of the age that will succeed second temple Judaism (Mk. 13:5-8).
The disciples will be examined and punished before Jewish councils and in the synagogues; they will be tried before governors and kings because of their witness to Jesus. The good news about what YHWH is doing in Israel precisely through these tumultuous events will be proclaimed to the nations. Their loyalty to him will cause painful divisions in Jewish families. But those who persevere through to the end of this time of upheaval will be saved (Mk. 13:9-13).
The reference to an “abomination of desolation standing where he [or it] ought not to be” reminds the reader of a previous pagan intrusion into the temple and the cessation of the sacrifices (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; 1 Macc. 1:54).
When Jesus says that “in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be” (Mk. 13:19), he echoes Daniel’s words about the crisis faced by the Jews at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes: “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (Dan. 12:1). But Josephus also uses this language about the war against Rome: “it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were” (War 1:12). We are not at the end of the world. We are at the end of the age of second temple Judaism.
We are seeing from Ukraine just how dreadful war can be in any age, but for the sake of those who have been chosen to proclaim these events as “good news” to the nations, to be the vanguard of a new future for Israel, Jesus says, the days will be cut short (Mk. 13:20)—otherwise, it’s unlikely that any will survive.
The coming of the Son of Man
Then, directly following on from the “tribulation” of the war, they will see the “sign” that they asked about (cf. Matt. 24:30). There is no pause, no interruption, no lacuna in the storyline. The lights of the heavens will be darkened, either because they are obscured by the smoke rising from the burning city or because in the Old Testament such prodigious acts of divine judgment are necessarily accompanied by disturbances in the heavens (Mk. 13:24-25; cf. Is. 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15). In any case, this is still not the end of the world. Jesus’ meaning, fully in keeping with the use of the language in the prophets, is simply that events of enormous political significance on earth have repercussions in the heavenly realm.
At this time, the disciples will also see what Daniel saw—or something very much like it: “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Dan. 7:13-14; Mk. 13:26). In Daniel’s vision this is the coming of the persecuted righteous in Israel to the throne of God, set up for judgment on earth, to receive vindication and rule. Perhaps Mark imagines Jesus coming from the throne of judgment having already received power and glory, but nothing clearly points to a coming to earth. After all, with Jerusalem destroyed, there is no city to which Israel’s king might come in an earthly parousia. Instead, angels are sent out to gather the scattered and persecuted envoys of Jesus from the ends of the earth, bringing to an end their hazardous mission to the nations, bringing the age of second temple Judaism to a close. Job done.
All this means that the disciples will have some pretty clear indication of when this tragic course of events will be reaching its climax. “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” Jesus says; “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mk. 13:28). God reserves the right to determine the timing of the end, but Jesus is quite certain that it will all play out within the lifetime of some of those living, before the current “adulterous and sinful generation” of Jews passes away (Mk. 13:30; cf. 8:38; 9:19).
The dawn of a new age
This is the story that accounts for the sacred Easter Week moments. Jesus’ outspoken denunciation of the leadership in Jerusalem and his warning that YHWH is prepared to bring a catastrophic judgment on this reckless and corrupt generation inevitably provokes a backlash. It’s now two days before the Passover, and “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (Mk. 14:1).
Ironically, the means of suppressing the prophetic movement will enable its success. The authorities will have Jesus executed, but God will raise him from the dead, install him as king at his right hand, and before long punish the mutinous and violent tenants of the vineyard. The disciples must tell these things to the nations and will suffer greatly for it, but their mission will end with the final public vindication of Jesus following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. That puts everything in place for a new age to succeed the troubled age of second temple Judaism, but nothing in Mark hints at the belief that this new age would be anything other than more history.