Bulverism is a silly word. It was made up by C.S. Lewis in order to make fun of a silly mistake sometimes made by silly people. He mentions it only once, in a light-hearted introduction to a serious religious lecture. He doesn’t use it consistently. Sometimes Bulverism is a rather dishonest rhetorical trick; sometimes it is a logical fallacy; and sometimes it is a very serious metaphysical error.
But Lewis’s silly word is frequently used seriously by conservative Christians. If you ever dare utter the phrase “you only think that because...” then someone from the American Internet will pop up and accuse you of Bulverism....
A very long (10,000 words) commentary on C.S Lewis's very succinct essay: available to Patreon Backers right now.
“where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?”
and he sendeth forth two of his disciples
and saith unto them,
“go ye into the city
and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.
and wheresoever he shall go in
say ye to the goodman of the house, the Master saith,
where is the guest chamber,
where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
and he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared
there make ready for us”
and his disciples went forth
and came into the city
and found as he had said unto them
and they made ready the passover.
Jesus preached in Galilee; but he dies in Jerusalem. Three times he tells his disciples that he expects — nay, intends — to die. He doesn’t say that the Son of Man came despite the fact that he was in danger of being killed: he says that he came in order to sacrifice his life.
But we look in vain in Mark for a theology of the death of Jesus. The Son of Man is to give his life as a ransom — but there is not the slighest hint as to who the ransom is to be paid to, or what it achieves. The evangelical view — that Jesus is like Carton in Tale of Two Cities, volunteering to have his head chopped off so the guilty man can go free — is just not here. There is no harrowing of hell. And there is certainly no sign of Jesus cunningly tricking Satan into exceeding his authority, even though that was the Church’s understanding for a millennium and a half.
If there is a clue to what Mark thinks the crucifixion of Jesus means; and why it is central to his story, we have to look for it here, in this passage and in the Jewish ceremonial calendar.
As the story rattles on, it becomes more and more enigmatic. Characters come on stage; they perform a brief role in the story; and they disappear. We never find out who they are. The woman with the jar. Simon the leper. Judas himself. And now, a man with a pitcher of water, who leads the disciples to a large room, set up for a special meal.
Does Jesus have an arrangement with this man, in the way he had an arrangement with the donkey wranglers in Bethsaida? Has he made a reconnaissance trip to Jerusalem to lay the groundwork for this final week? Does he have a network of agents who use “the master needs it” as their call sign?
We are told that it was unusual to see a man carrying a pitcher. But how did Jesus know that the man doing the woman’s work would bump into the disciples at exactly the right moment? Did he just happen to know that old Levi the bachelor inn-keeper always went to the well around lunch time on a Thursday? Or had he given him prior instructions to walk up and down outside his house with a bucket until the disciples showed up? Or did a particular male employee spend all day walking to and from the house with jars of water, so the disciples were bound to spot him sooner or later?
The eleventh sign of the Zodiac is the Water Carrier. By telling the disciples to follow the man with the pitcher, perhaps Jesus is signifying that the inauguration of the Eucharist signifies the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Or perhaps he isn’t.
and in the evening he cometh with the twelve.
and as they sat and did eat,
Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you,
One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.”
and they began to be sorrowful,
and to say unto him one by one,
“Is it I?” and another said, “Is it I?”
And he answered and said unto them,
“It is one of the twelve,
that dippeth with me in the dish”
By tradition, the youngest person present at a Passover meal asks “Why is this day different from all others?” and notes four things which set this meal apart: why do we recline at the table instead of sitting up straight? why do we dip our vegetables in salt water? why do we only eat matzos? and why do we eat bitter herbs? King James says that Jesus and the disciples are sitting down to dinner: but the Greek is clear that they are reclining. Jesus refers to dipping food in a communal dish. There can be no question that Mark understands this meal to be a seder.
King James again used the word “betrayed”; but as we have seen, Jesus consistently talks of being handed over. The Son of Man will be handed over to the priests and the lawyers and they will hand him over to the gentiles.
And now it comes. One of you says Jesus — one of you twelve — is going to hand me over. The disciples are sad — grieved — and they say to him one at a time “Is it I?”
Look carefully. When Jesus says, a few paragraphs later, that all the disciples are going to run away and desert him, they deny that this is so. “No, boss” they all say “Definitely not. How could you think that? We would never do such a thing.” But when he says that one of the twelve is going to hand him over, they simply ask “Do you mean me?”
They are not talking among themselves: they are talking to Jesus. And they are not crying out in shock. Mark is quite clear. They take it in turns to ask him: “Is it me?” “Is it me?” “Is it me?”
It’s a solemn ritual. Jesus isn’t making a prophecy. He isn’t saying “I know what transpired between Judas and the Priests.” He is laying the task on someone’s head. “I tried to give myself up. I gave them every chance to arrest me. But they wouldn’t take me. So one of you is going to have to surrender me to them.” And the question goes round the table, one by one. “Not me.” “Please, not me.” “You surely don’t want me to do it?”
“the Son of man indeed goeth
as it is written of him
but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!
good were it for that man if he had never been born”
Is Jesus threatening Judas: warning him that if he does a bad thing he’ll get a comeuppance? “One of you goons is planning to shop me to the cops. I warn you, he’ll live to regret it!”
Maybe. I think that’s how Matthew understood it. But if I am right, Jesus has said “One of you has got to do this”; and all the disciples have said “Do you mean me?” Jesus seems to see Prophecy as a set of instructions; a script. The Prophets have provided a to-do list for the Son of Man. He intends to follow it to the letter. "I have to decided to die in the way that the prophets say that I have to die; and that means that someone will have to hand me over. And I know what I am asking. I am laying a terrible task on someone. That person is going to wish that they had never been born."
If I am right, Jesus is not making a threat. He is expressing sympathy.
If Judas stands for the Jews, that is absolutely crucial.
and as they did eat,
Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them,
and said, “take, eat: this is my body”
and he took the cup
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them:
and they all drank of it.
and he said unto them,
“this is my blood of the new testament
which is shed for many.
verily I say unto you
I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine
until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God”
Sometime around the year 50 of the common era, a Christian named Paul wrote a letter to a group of Christians in a town called Corinth. “I told you what I’d been told,” he writes “That the Lord Jesus, on the same night when he was handed over, took bread, and broke it…” Our best guess is that Mark is writing in the year 70 or 80. But we can be pretty confident that thirty years earlier — within a decade of the crucifixion — “Christians” were telling each other more or less this story in more or less these words.
Jesus says that the bread they are eating is his soma, his flesh. The word can certainly be used to mean a dead body: Jesus said that the woman with the jar had prepared his soma for burial. But it could equally just mean the body. The woman who touched Jesus’ clothes felt in her soma that she was healed.
Broken, klao seems specifically to be something you would do to bread. We are used to hearing that Jesus body was broken, like the bread: but neither Mark nor any of the other Gospel say that he used that word. (Idiomatically, we would have to sy “This is my body, sliced up for you”.)
Jesus “spoke a blessing” over the bread: eulgesas. He “gave thanks” for the wine eucharistēsas. When he fed the five thousand we are told that Jesus “blessed” the bread: when he fed the four thousand we are told that he “gave thanks”, so we can probably treat the two words as roughly synonymous. The Christian re-enactment of this event is called Eucharist. A certain kind of clergyman will tell you that celebrating Eucharist is like sending a thank-you note to Jesus, but I wish they wouldn’t.
The word diatheke is translated either as “covenant” or as “testament”. I think we understand both words to mean “a very solemn legally binding statement”. Some of us remember our parents signing “covenants” to help pay for our upkeep while we were in college; a set of instructions to be carried out after we die is our “last will and testament”. The word diatheke is very commonly found on ancient legal documents. Due to the sterling efforts of Dr Henry Walton Jones, everyone knows that the Jews’ most sacred artefact was called the Ark of the Covenant.
Jesus hands round the wine. According to King James, he says “this is my blood which is shed for many”. But you don’t shed wine: you pour it out. You might metaphorically say that blood is pouring out of an injured person. When the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel rants against the Pharisees, he blames them for the blood of all the holy people which has been poured out over the years.
So there is a kind of triple meaning. This wine, that Jesus is pouring out, from a bottle, into a cup, is his blood. A few hours from now his blood is literally going to be pouring out of his body. What he is doing now represents what is going to happen in a few hours. And they both represent a solemn promise which God is making: which is going to replace the solemn promise which God made to the disciples’ ancestors; and which is celebrated, on this day every year, by the killing of a sacred lamb.
Jesus doesn’t say that the wine represents his blood: he just says “this is my blood”. Wars have literally been fought over this point.
And then he makes one more comment: one which doesn’t usually appear in Christian re-enactments and which it is therefore easy to overlook. “This is the last glass of wine I will ever drink”, he says “Until I drink the new wine in God’s kingdom.” It’s a cryptic, intrusive remark.
If this were a story… If we didn’t know the ending; if we didn’t already know what Mark “must have” meant… Then I think we would expect this story to end with a coronation. The return of the king. King Jesus sitting in the newly rebuilt temple, sharing a glass of passover wine. That is where the story is pointing: and that is where the story entirely fails to go.
“I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine”, says Jesus. Remember that line. There is a kind of a pay-off coming.
In the Jewish calendar a day is deemed to end when the sun goes down. The festival of Passover begins at twilight on the 14th day of the first month. The 15th is a Sabbath: the first of seven holy days on which yeast can’t be eaten. The 21st is also a day of rest. The lambs are slaughtered on Passover Eve, the 14th; the seder, the Passover meal, is eaten after dark on that day.
Mark is very clear that the Last Supper is a seder. It follows that Jesus’s trial and execution takes place on Passover itself. But nothing in the story is remotely consistent with Jesus dying on a Sabbath. The Sanhedrin is convened on a day of rest; Simon comes in from the fields on a day of rest; people go to the market to buy cloth and spices on a day of rest; a crowd assembles outside the governor’s palace on a day of rest.
Yes, the Priests are the baddies and Jesus’s trial is a travesty: so it is possible that they tried him in secret when no trial was meant to take place. But why does Mark not draw our attention to this? One of the sources of conflict between Jesus and the authorities is that he is insufficiently strict at keeping the Sabbath: why does no-one say “But the Pharisees themselves broke the Sabbath in a much more blatant way when it suited them?”
Yes, Jesus could have decided to hold the seder a day early. I have heard of Jews holding “mock seders” so they can celebrate with their college friends before going home and spending the actual holy day with their family; or so that they can have fellowship with their non-Jewish friends who it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite to the real thing. But wouldn’t you expect this to be mentioned by someone in the story? (“In case you are wondering, we were eating turkey and mince pies on the 22nd because Dad was a fireman and had to be on duty on Christmas day that year.”)
There is no way of persuading Mark’s Gospel to make chronological sense. And indeed, John’s Gospel works according to a different time-table. His Last Supper is not a seder: it takes place on the 13th. Jesus is arrested and killed on the 14th, and has to be buried in a hurry so his body isn’t still hanging on the cross on the holy day.
What we should take away from this is that Mark is relatively uninterested in history and chronology, but intensely interested in ritual and liturgy. The meaning of the story is more important than narrative logic: and the meaning of the story depends on the Last Supper having been a Passover meal. Theologically — mythically — magically — the Last Supper was a Passover. So that is how he told the story.
Joseph Campbell, who is wrong about most things most of the time, makes a very good point about the nature of ritual. Think, he says, of the American flag. There are many thousands of iterations of the flag: anyone can sew some cloth together and create a Stars and Stripes. But each individual piece of cloth is The Flag. You can salute the flag which hangs on Granny’s lawn just as much as the one on the roof of the White House; if you burn or tread on the cheap bit of nylon you bought at Wallmark you are nevertheless insulting The Flag.
Rituals, says Campbell, are like that. The sacred story has been reenacted many thousands of times: but when the Priest takes on the role of Zeus or Mondarin he isn’t copying or reenacting or pretending: he actually is Mondarin or Zeus. Every time. A mythical story isn’t one that took place a long time ago and then gets reenacted: it’s a story that takes place for the first and only time whenever the priests perform their sacred role-play.
after two days was the feast of the passover and of unleavened bread
and the chief priests and the scribes
sought how they might take him by craft and put him to death.
but they said, not on the feast day,
lest there be an uproar of the people
and being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper as he sat at meat,
there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard
and she brake the box and poured it on his head.
and there were some that had indignation within themselves
and said, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?
for it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence
and have been given to the poor”
and they murmured against her.
and Jesus said,
“let her alone; why trouble ye her?
she hath wrought a good work on me.
for ye have the poor with you always
and whensoever ye will ye may do them good
but me ye have not always.
she hath done what she could
she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
verily I say unto you,
wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world
this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”
and Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve,
went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
and when they heard it, they were glad,
and promised to give him money
and he sought how he might conveniently betray him
Two stories, wrapped around each other: the culmination of Jesus' conflict with the Priests; and a woman with a jar of perfume. Mark wants us to think of the two stories together.
The anointing of Jesus is of pivotal importance. The Messiah is the One Who Has Been Anointed: that is what the word — mashiach — means. We readers have known that Jesus is the Messiah from the very first verse of Mark’s book: but that information was concealed from everyone inside the story. But a few pages ago Peter let the holy cat out of the holy bag. Jesus is not just a prophet; and he is not even Top Prophet. He is the One Who Has Been Anointed. People are openly calling him “Son of David” and quoting Messianic hymns when he arrives in town.But this is the moment when Jesus literally becomes Jesus Christ.
Would it have been better if the woman had sold her ointment and given the money to the poor? Jesus’ answer is double-edged. Today no; but in the future, yes. On any other day in human history, help the poor. Today, do what you are supposed to do for me. Many very good sermons about faith and works and worship and charity have been preached on this. It either proves that Jesus was definitely a socialist; or it proves that he definitely wasn't. But I don't think that this is the point of the story.
We are listening to Mark telling a story about Jesus. And, for the first time, Jesus, inside the story, looks forward to the time when the story will be told. This woman’s deed will always form a central part of that story: of course it will. You can hardly tell the story of the Anointed One without telling the story of the person who did the actual anointing. Jesus doesn’t say that the story of Peter or James or John or even Andrew will be told all round the world. Mark, by including the story in his text, shows that Jesus' words were true. The story of this woman is part of God’s spell.
But Mark remembers where Jesus was staying. At the house of someone called Simon the Leper. But he doesn’t remember the woman’s name.
Many good sermons could be preached on this point, too. It may prove that Mark was definitely a feminist or it may prove that he definitely wasn’t.
But I don’t think this is the point of the story, either.
Jesus has been anointed. Literally anointed. And no-one present seems to understand the importance of what has just happened. They don’t say “He is literally the Christ”. They say “Gosh. That anointing oil was awfully expensive.” They have missed the point.
One might even say that, when we miss the point of the story, we get it.
At the exact moment that Jesus becomes literally the Anointed One, people are plotting to kill him.
It is the Priests who want to kill Jesus. No-one else. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem, made straight for the Temple, and announced that the Priesthood and the temple itself is going to come to an end. Obviously the Priests would want him dead.
The story is focussing down. Jesus versus the priests. The bearer of the holy dove against the temple. God against religion.
And therefore, of course, Christians against Jews.
Remember the mountain in Galilee: Jesus choosing twelve men from among his disciples, giving them new names and declaring them his envoys. The Rock and the Thunder-Brothers and Andrew “and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him.”
So we come to Judas' part of the story.
Mark tells us three things about Judas: his first name, his last name, and the fact that he handed Jesus over to the Priests.
His last name doesn’t tell us very much. There might have been a town called Kerioth, so he might have been Judas of Kerioth, so he might not have been a Galilean.
On the other hand, there was a group of Jewish Ninja who carried daggers called sica so he might have been Judas the Sicarri. This is pretty desperate stuff.
But unfortunately, his first name tells us a very great deal.
Judah was the brother who dissented from the plan to sell Joseph into slavery. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, he gave Judah twice as much corn as the others. Father Jacob called Judah a lion; that’s why we talk about the lion’s share. He predicted that Judah’s descendents would be kings. That’s why we talk about the Lion of Judah. And King David did indeed come from the tribe of Judah. Most of Jacob’s descendents disappeared after the Babylonian exile, but the tribe of Judah came home. The action of Mark’s story has shifted from Galilee to Judea: the land of Judah. The religion of the temple is known as Judah-ism. After Daniel’s Abomination of Desolation, the temple was freed by a hero named Judah.
Yehuda. Judah. Judas.
Jesus is handed over to the Jewish Priests by a man whose actual name means Jew. There is no way out of it.
We can only ascribe human motivation to Judas by adding to Mark’s text; by referring to things which are not there. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because the woman wasted so much money. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because he saw that Jesus was claiming to be Messiah and feared the repercussions. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he understood that Jesus wanted to die and needed someone to facilitate it. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he was a greedy old shylock who saw the chance to make a fast buck. None of this is in the text.
We will have to get used to this. As Mark’s story builds towards its climax, there are more and more silences. More and more characters who we know nothing about. More and more places where we have to imagine or guess or make up what is going on.
The Priest’s decide to kill Jesus. A woman anoints Jesus. Judas hands Jesus over to the Priests. That is Mark’s story.
So let me make something up.
At the end of Act I of Tristan and Isolde, a member of the supporting cast inadvertently switches the cups containing “deadly poison” and the cups containing “magical and incurable love-potion”. The hero and the heroine enter into a suicide pact: they believe they are ending their lives, but they are actually binding their hearts together for eternity. Symbolically, within the story, being in love and being dead are the same; and the music manages to convince us that this is so. Devotees talk about the liebstod, the lovedeath.
I think that something slightly similar is going on here. Making Jesus king and making Jesus dead are the same thing. He’s the victimking; the sacrificemessiah.
Kings get anointed. “Jesus Christ” means no more and no less than “King Jesus”. But corpses get anointed as well.
The woman Christifies Jesus: she pours oil on him. Everything has been building up to this moment. But in that same moment Jesus redefines what Christification means.
Jesus is turned officially into King Jesus. The audience start to obsess about the cost of anointing oil. Jesus says “you haven’t prepared me for my coronation; you have prepared me for my funeral”. And Dagger-Wielding-Foreign-Jew is in the same moment become the betrayer: the one-who-hands-him-over.
Jesus is to all intents and purposes a dead man. And tomorrow is the most important sacrifice of the Jewish year.
Fun Facts: Things which Mark does not say
1: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was called Mary.
2: He does not say that Jesus’ hosts in Bethany were named Mary and Martha.
3: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was a prostitute.
4: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus had narrowly avoided being stoned to death for adultery.
5: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was sinful in any respect.
6: He does not say that she poured oil over his feet or mention her hair in any context.
7: He does not say that she cried over Jesus.
8: He does not say that it was Judas who objected to the waste of money.
9: He does not even say that it was the generality of disciples who objected.
10: He does not say that the Priests agreed to pay Judas thirty silver pieces.
Jesus was a nutcase who thought that the world was going to end very soon.
The world did not end. The central plank of his ministry; the thing which he most strongly believed, was simply not true. His followers have spent two millennia trying to salvage something of his reputation from this wreck.
For at least the first half of the 20th century, this was the prevailing view of the historical Jesus.
I really didn’t know how to approach this chapter. I seriously considered skipping it altogether. I am eventually going to collect all these essays into a book and “Commentary on the Whole of Mark’s Gospel Except the Difficult Bit About the End Times” might have been a good title.
and as he went out of the temple
one of his disciples saith unto him
“Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”
and Jesus answering said unto him
“seest thou these great buildings?
there shall not be left one stone upon another
that shall not be thrown down”
and as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple
Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,
“tell us, when shall these things be?
and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?”
The disciples admire the Temple. Jesus tells them to admire it while they can: the whole thing will soon be razed to the ground, utterly destroyed. Naturally, they want to know when. So Jesus starts to talk: the longest sustained passage of preaching in Mark’s Gospel; a whole chapter of Jesus’ voice. He doesn’t answer their question, of course: he answers a completely different question. That was his way. Here is the whole thing — with one, single, utterly bizzarre interjection by Mark:
"take heed lest any man deceive you:
for many shall come in my name,
saying, I am Christ;
and shall deceive many.
and when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars be ye not troubled
for such things must needs be
but the end shall not be yet.
for nation shall rise against nation
and kingdom against kingdom
and there shall be earthquakes in divers places
and there shall be famines and troubles
these are the beginnings of sorrows.
but take heed to yourselves
for they shall deliver you up to councils
and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten
and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake
for a testimony against them.
and the gospel must first be published among all nations.
but when they shall lead you and deliver you up
take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak,
neither do ye premeditate
but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye
for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.
now the brother shall betray the brother to death
and the father the son
and children shall rise up against their parents
and shall cause them to be put to death.
and ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake
but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
but when ye shall see the abomination of desolation
spoken of by Daniel the prophet
standing where it ought not"
let him that readeth understand
"then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains:
and let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house
neither enter therein to take any thing out of his house:
and let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment.
but woe to them that are with child
and to them that give suck in those days!
and pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.
for in those days shall be affliction
such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.
and except that the Lord had shortened those days,
no flesh should be saved:
but for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen
he hath shortened the days.
and then if any man shall say to you,
lo, here is Christ;
or, lo, he is there;
believe him not:
for false Christs and false prophets shall rise,
and shall shew signs and wonders,
to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.
but take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.
but in those days,
after that tribulation,
the sun shall be darkened,
and the moon shall not give her light,
and the stars of heaven shall fall,
and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.
and then shall they see the Son of man
coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
and then shall he send his angels,
and shall gather together his elect from the four winds,
from the uttermost part of the earth
to the uttermost part of heaven.
now learn a parable of the fig tree;
when her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves,
ye know that summer is near:
so ye in like manner,
when ye shall see these things come to pass,
know that it is nigh, even at the doors.
verily I say unto you,
that this generation shall not pass,
till all these things be done.
heaven and earth shall pass away:
but my words shall not pass away.
but of that day and that hour knoweth no man,
no, not the angels which are in heaven,
neither the Son,
but the Father.
take ye heed, watch and pray:
for ye know not when the time is.
for the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey,
who left his house,
and gave authority to his servants,
and to every man his work,
and commanded the porter to watch.
watch ye therefore:
for ye know not when the master of the house cometh,
at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:
lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
and what I say unto you I say unto all, watch"
This is my best attempt to paraphrase what Jesus has just said:
“Be careful. Don’t get caught out. Lots of people are going to claim to be me, but they won’t be. All the usual bad stuff is going to happen, and carry on happening: natural disasters and wars and pandemics. That doesn’t mean I’m coming.
You personally are going to be persecuted for your faith. But that doesn’t mean I’m coming.
There are going to be civil wars. Families will divide. Some of you will be killed. That doesn’t mean I’m coming.
But then a very bad thing is going to happen, specifically in Judea. It’s going to feel like the worst thing that has ever happened. It’s going to look like the Stinky One from the book of Daniel has returned. When that happens, get the hell out of town. But even that doesn’t mean I’m coming.
After that horror, pseudo-prophets and pseudo-messiahs are going to rise up out of their graves. They will perform miracles and I am afraid some of you are going to get fooled by them.
But then — only then — there are going to be cosmic events: earthquakes and eclipses and meteors. And that — and only that — is the sign I am coming.
It’s like reading the seasons. When the tree has leaves, it means the figs will soon be ready. (You know how good I am at spotting when there are figs on a fig tree.) When the great disaster strikes Judea, that is the sign that I am coming.
Not yet, but soon. In your lifetime. You’ll remember these words even after the world has ended.
So stay awake! You don’t know when the boss is coming to check up on you, so you stick to your post at all times. You don’t know when I’m coming: so stay awake.
If you only remember one thing I said, remember that. Stay awake!”
“This generation shall not pass until all these things be done.”
Any attempt to understand Mark collides with this passage. It is near: it’s waiting outside the door. Real soon now. In the lifetime of the disciples. Before all the people now living have died.
“Truly I say to you that no, not shall-have-passed-away the generation-this until that these things all shall-have-taken-place.”
Peter probably died in the persecution after the fire of Rome in 64 CE. There are extant writings from very early Christian leaders who knew a very old Christian who they believed to be John the brother of James; he was alive as late as 100 CE. The world obstinately refused to end. Peter and James and John and Andrew did not live to see Jesus come back.
They did, however, live long enough to see the Abomination of Desolation.
This is sufficiently important that Mark adds an editorial footnote. “Let him that readeth understand.” The one reading, let him understand. Reader: pay attention….
This can’t be Jesus talking to the four. This can’t even be Peter talking to Mark. This can only be Mark talking to us: to the people who will read the story after he has written it down. It is the one time when he stops and points something out in his own voice. Something which wasn’t meaningful to the people who Jesus was talking to, but which is meaningful to the people reading Mark’s text.
"You need to pay special attention to this bit."
An abomination is something disgusting, appalling and foul-smelling. Desolation is the word used to refer to deserts and wildernesses: in this context it means "the thing which makes things desolate" the thing which reduces everything to a wilderness.
Mark particularly wants us to understand who the Stinky Desert Maker is. And he tells us where to look it up: the book of Daniel.
I guess we have all heard of Daniel. Jewish dude: deported to Babylon but stayed kosher; had an unfortunate run in with some lions. But he also wrote pages and pages of prophecy: golden statues with feet of clay and ten headed unicorns coming up out of the sea. On three different occasions he mentions something called the Abomination of Desolation.
“…his forces will desecrate the temple. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation…”
“…in the middle of the week he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of the temple will come the abomination of desolation… “
“…and from the time the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation set up, there will be 1,290 days…”
So the Abomination is specifically a destroyer of temples. The disciples wanted to know when the Temple would be destroyed. This is Jesus’ answer. The Temple is going to be desecrated in their lifetime. They themselves will live to see the Stinky Desert Maker.
Daniel’s prophecy came true. In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV installed a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and started sacrificing pigs to it. (Some people are cynical enough to think that the prophecy was written after the event.) Jesus thinks that something as bad or worse is going to happen in the next thirty or forty years.
And of course, he was right. In CE 64 the Jews finally rebelled against the Romans. The Pharisees and the Saducees set up a Judean provisional government, and yes I know how Pythonesque that sounds. The Romans responded with massive military force. In 70 CE they destroyed the Temple. It was never rebuilt: even the most extreme Zionists don’t think it should be. Judaism as Jesus knew it came to an end. It ceased to be a religion of sacrifice and became a religion of the book.
A young Muslim lad once told me that his family were going to Saudi Arabia. I asked if they had relatives out there. “No”, he replied. “We are going to visit Mecca, which is where Allah lives.” I don’t think that any good Jew at the time of Jesus thought that God literally inhabited the Holy of Holies. But we can underestimate how cataclysmic the destruction of the temple would have seemed. Not like the Vatican being burned to the ground: more like someone nuking the kabaa.
"You will see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not stand."
And that came true. They did.
Jesus says that this will be the very worst time in human history. “The shall be affliction such as was not, from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.” Fundamentalists and Prof. Richard Dawkins think that every word in the Bible must be taken at its exact face-value. Jesus never used metaphor or hyperbole. That kind of thinking can take us down some unhelpful blind alleys. (“The worst time in human history was the holocaust. Therefore Hitler must be the Abomination.”) But if Jesus was the kind of person who used parables and figures of speech then that kind of interpretation is unnecessary. During the siege of Jerusalem the Romans were crucifying five hundred people a day. They crucified so many people that they ran out of wood. Thousands of naked people nailed up alive for days at a time in hot weather and left there until they rotted. It may not literally have been the worst thing that has ever happened in human history, but it would have seemed pretty bad to the people inside.
It seems, then, that this passage has a very plain and obvious meaning. Stuff — bad stuff — is going to happen over the next thirty or forty years. But don’t expect Jesus to return yet. Wait until the worst horror you can imagine hits Jerusalem. Wait until the temple is in ruins and the old system comes to an end. That’s when to expect Jesus. In 70 CE or very soon after.
Jerusalem fell. Jesus never returned. Where do we go from here?
Maybe Mark got it wrong. Maybe Jesus never said it.
But that only makes the problem more perplexing. If Jesus never said it, why did Mark say that he said it?
Because he, Mark, sincerely believed that Jesus would return in his own, Mark's, life time? But in that case he was wrong: and we have to explain why the first writer to give an account of Jesus life predicated it on a claim that wasn’t true.
Because he consciously wanted to depict Jesus’ as a failed prophet, for some obscure theological reason? That’s very hard to square with anything else in the story. Why depict a wonder-working Jesus who can forgive sins and chastise storms and have amicable chats with Moses and then show him making false promises at the climax of his career?
Because this was part of the oral tradition — something which “everyone knew” about Jesus, and which Mark couldn’t leave it out? But in that case why depict it as a secret teaching, something shared only with four out of twelve disciples?
Well then. Jesus told Peter and Peter told Mark and Mark lived long enough to know that it wasn’t true. And Mark didn’t think that this one failure invalidated the Gospel. Gurus have had much worse failings than this. Maybe Mark thought that the end-times prophecy was peripheral to Jesus teaching. Maybe Peter thought the same. But in that case, why give them such prominence in the Gospel?
Perhaps we have to read the passage as a Kierkegaardian test of faith? In order to be a true Christian you have to believe that the world is going to end in CE 70 even though it clearly didn’t. Philip K. Dick had a theory that the world really did come to an end in the first century and that we are currently living inside a hologram. This theory has not met with widespread acceptance.
Or perhaps Jesus was talking in more than usually obscure metaphorical language. His disciples asked him when Jerusalem would fall; he answered by talking about personal, spiritual realities as if they were historical events. If we want to understand what Jesus said we have to de-mythologize him. Jesus told the Four that they had to always be prepared because he might come back at any moment. The important thing to take away is that we should live with a sense of urgency and contingency and watchfulness — even though the Second Coming is not an historical event. There is always a cataclysm and a parousia in the near future. The eschatological is always bursting in on the immanent.
It sounds good on paper. But if you can demythologise the Second Coming then you can demythologise the miracles and the resurrection and the very existence of Jesus. If you take it to its logical conclusion you end up writing Honest To God, flailing around for a form of words which will allow you to be an atheist and a vicar at the same time.
Mark said that Jesus said that the Second Coming would happen during the lifetime of the disciples.
Either Mark was wrong, or Jesus was wrong.
A lot depends on where we place Mark on a time-line between, say, 30 and 100 CE. Is the fall of Jerusalem still in the future? Is it a contemporary event people are still coming to terms with? Or has it already receded into history by the time Mark starts to tell his story?
If Mark is writing early, say, in CE 50, then we have to read Mark 13 as pure prophecy. “In the fairly near future, a catastrophe is going to hit Jerusalem. That will be the warning sign that Jesus is coming back.”
But if Mark is writing soon after CE 70 then Mark 13 is a last, urgent warning before the final act of the drama. “Last year, a catastrophe hit Jerusalem, just like Jesus said. And that’s the sign he gave us: get out of town and get ready because he is coming back right now.”
But if Mark is writing much later, say in CE 100, then he is saying “As we all know, a long time ago, a catastrophe hit Jerusalem, just as Jesus predicted. He said he would return very soon after that catastrophe. He never did: but I don’t think that matters.”
If the Gospel is very early then there is a very good chance that Mark is passing on what Jesus actually said. And the sheer awkwardness of this passage makes that pretty plausible: Jesus must have said it, because otherwise, why make it up?
If the Gospel is very late, then there is more chance that this is folkore or a literary device. Word of mouth has shaped Jesus actual words into a new form, like the mutation of a folk-song. Pious story-tellers put the Christian cult’s beliefs about Jesus into Jesus' own mouth. The very early church — before you could call it a church — believed in some things that the historical church has rejected. We can note that they believed the world would end in their lifetimes as an interesting data-point, and move on. If we can abandon the love-feast or baptism on behalf of the dead we can quietly pass over the imminence of the apocalypse.
Are those our only options? We can believe that Mark was telling us pretty accurately about a real historical person; but only if we accept that that person was hopelessly deluded. Or we can comfort ourself with the idea that Jesus probably didn’t believe that the world was going to end in a few decades; but only by saying that the what we have in the earliest Gospel is a heavily fictionalised Jesus and the real person is lost to us.
Honestly? I think that the second possibility is most likely to be true. Mark wrote urgently, straight after the horror of the Siege of Jerusalem, desperately reminding people that this horror was not the end of everything and that Jesus would soon be back. That was his message: Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah is coming back. We started with John, and we’re kind of ending with John. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, again.
But there is another way through the maze. I would be the first to admit that it is a bit of a stretch.
The disciples ask Jesus “Tell us when these things will be. And what will be the sign that all these things are going to be finished?”
I think it is overwhelmingly likely that this is another piece of poetic parallelism: saying the same thing twice in different words. But it is just possible that Mark intends us to think that the disciples are asking Jesus two questions.
Question one: when will these things, the things you just mentioned, that is, the destruction of the Temple, take place?
And question two: what signal will we get when everything else is going to be finished as well?
Jesus says that after the destruction of the temple and the Abomination, there will be a series of cosmic events:
“but in those days, after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out the angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Not you: they. The disciples will see the Abomination: but someone else will see the Son of Man’s actual arrival.
Jesus is directly referring to another dream-sequence in the book of Daniel. Daniel dreamt that he saw God: white beard, firey throne, river pouring out from under him, thousands and thousands of people worshiping him. He refers to him by a circumlocution: the Ancient of Days.
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
There is no doubt that Jesus' prophecy is alluding to this passage. Mark has already told us to have the book of Daniel open in front of us while we read this chapter. And there is no doubt that for Daniel, “the Coming of the Son of Man” refers to a human going into the presence of God and being given quasi-divine power. It is not entirely unlike the passage that Jesus was riffing on earlier today in which God tells the Messiah to take the chair right next to him.
So: when Jesus talks about “the coming of the Son of Man” he does not mean “the coming of the Son of Man back to earth”. He means “the coming of the Son of Man into heaven.” So the destruction of the Temple is not the sign that Jesus is about to come back: it is the sign that he has got home safely.
So we can give slightly less alarming answers to the problems posed by this passage.
What will the destruction of Jerusalem signify? The arrival of the Son of Man.
Where is the Son of Man arriving? Heaven — the literal throne of God.
Who will witness this? The cosmic forces in the heavens — the sun, the moon, the stars and the powers — who will be shaken by the event.
There will be persecutions and fake Messiahs. There will be an awful horror. The temple will be desecrated and destroyed. They are not the sign of Jesus return. But they are the signs of his posthumous exaltation. His apotheosis. The sign that he has gone up to heaven and is acting as God’s vice-regent.
So, that is the answer to the disciples’ first question.
When will the Temple end? Not yet, but in your lifetime.
But that still leaves their second question.
What signal will you give us that everything is over? None. Even I don’t know when that is going to happen. God hasn’t told me. You just have to be ready for it. At any time.
Jesus says “Concerning that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The word “that” is being used for emphasis. Concerning that day, that fateful day, that big day, that day as opposed to all the days we’ve been talking about up to this point — concerning that day — well, no-one knows.
When will Jerusalem fall? Real soon now.
How will we know Jesus is in heaven? Because Jerusalem falls.
When is Jesus coming back? No-one knows, not even Jesus himself.
I think it’s a stretch. But it’s the best I can manage under the circumstances.
Pretend you are reading this story for the first time:
We left the temple. Jesus was still thinking about the lady who had put her whole week’s budget in the collection plate. We were thinking about what he’d said. How the owner of the vineyard was going to kick the tenants out; how love counted for more than temple ceremony; how taxes didn’t matter one way or the other. Peter was still obsessing about the fig tree. And so of course, he had to say something.
“But right now, Lord, it is a very beautiful building.”
“Beautiful, is it?” said Jesus “It is going to be pulled down. All of it. Not one stone will be left on another.”
He looked at Peter in a funny way when he said that. Not one stone.
So we sat on the hill and watched the sun go down behind the temple, and I went over to Jesus: me and my big brother James and Peter and his little brother Andrew. “When will it all happen Rabbi?” I asked quietly “When will the temple fall? And all those other things you talk about: the kingdom of God, you coming back surrounded by angels — will we get a signal that that is going to happen?”
And Jesus, for almost the first time, opened up. He started to talk and talk. It didn’t feel as if he was talking to us; he was just letting it all out. All the stuff he knew. About the future; about terrible catastrophes; demons out of the Old Testament. Some of it was strange and some of it was baffling. I didn’t understand much of it. Years later, on an island a very long way away, I would understand a little more.
Eventually he stopped talking. “I can’t tell you about the big day” he said “That’s something even I don’t know. God hasn’t told me. It could happen at any moment. So be ready for it. Always.”
We walked the mile or so back to Bethany. We were staying with a leper; of course we were. A woman with a jar was heading out there as well. The next day was a Thursday. Jesus never set foot in the temple again.