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.