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Mark’s Little Apocalypse

Mark 13 seems like a curious intrusion into the passion narrative of Jesus (Mark 11–15). It has long been suspected that the author inserted an early Christian apocalypse (or even a Jewish apocalypse; click on apocalyptic).

What is more, the chapter as it stands dates the end-of-time events to the generation in which Jesus lived, a prediction which of course has been falsified by history.

A reassessment would not necessarily reverse the prevailing consensus, but it might at least show what grounds are available for the rehabilitation of this chapter, or parts of it. In the process we might hope to clarify how this material came down to us, both in the oral transmission of the material, and in its redaction.



   1.  Let us begin our analysis of Mark 13 with the observation that there is a history of its transmission (at least in part) in the gospel tradition, not as a single entity, but in pericopes which circulated either singly or in clusters; and that there is a history of its redaction (or the process of the editing of traditional material by the gospel writer), however tentative its reconstruction may be.

   2. Analysis of Mark 13 shows that the thematic material is basically of two sorts: the announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem (together with a laundry list of tribulations), and end-of-time events; the one, proceeding with some predictability on the plane of history; the other, bringing history to a close.

   3. In the process of putting this material together, Mark or his source pieced together thematically discontinuous pericopes, whether randomly or intentionally, to make an apocalyptic point.

   4. It is possible to restore the natural thematic continuity of the material; when this is done, the respective themes become more coherent, and misinterpretations (and also a recurrent mistranslation) of texts are rendered correctable.

   5. Such an approach to Mark 13 permits the conclusion, even if it does not require it, that at least some of the material in the chapter may be traced back to statements of Jesus.

   6. This hypothesis, if sustained, would make it unnecessary to attribute to Jesus on the basis of Mark 13 a prediction of the glorious coming of the Son of Man in that generation. (Even with this adjustment, the theme of the imminence of his coming is no less prominent.)

It is readily conceded that this methodology is not strictly speaking form criticism, since we are analyzing themes rather than forms; nevertheless, we do make use of some of the insights of form criticism.


In order to follow the argument being offered here, the reader might first scan the text as it stands in Mark 13, and then scan the rearranged text below, where we have assigned various sections or verses or phrases to the appropriate thematic category.

Mark 13

(arrangement by thematic material)

Destruction of Jerusalem
(and tribulations, false signs)


1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’  
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.   
8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.  
9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.


14But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains;  
[comment #1] 15the one on the housetop must not go down [!] or enter the house to take anything away; 16the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.
17Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not be in winter. 19For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!” —do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.  








[A common apocalyptic device]

[comment #2]







24 But in those days, after [!] that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.


28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he [or, it!] is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [comment #3]
  32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’


If one has read (or will read) each column continuously, the point becomes clear: the one column (Destruction of Jerusalem) contains material which implies historical events, such as rumors of wars, messianic pretenders, persecution, and the eventual siege and destruction of the city; whereas the other column contains material which implies end-of-time events. 

The former theme lends itself to prediction, for those who are able to read the signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56). An Isaiah or a Jeremiah discerned coming invasion and destruction for Jerusalem, and Jesus was no less a prophet than they. Jesus can speak with certainty of the fall of Jerusalem.

The latter theme, which refers to end-of-time events, by its very nature does not easily give up its secrets, and Jesus disclaims any access to them.



Comment #1

15The one on the housetop must not go down [!] or enter the house to take anything away; 16the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.

This saying has given rise to tortured and implausible interpretations, essentially because the point has been overlooked that it has to do not with the flight from an invading army but with welcoming Christ’s glorious coming. One may just as well welcome the end-of-time events from one’s housetop as any other place, and a person in the field will not need a coat. But if it is an invading army, then the advice is nonsensical: if one is not to go down from the housetop, how can she/he flee from the enemy without going down (hardly across the rooftops as one commentator proposed)? if one is in the field and becomes a refugee from an advancing army, he/she will need to turn back and take a coat. The saying then likely presupposes an announcement of end-of-time events.


Comment #2

24 But in those days, after [!] that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light . . . .

It is most often in sequential or chronological links that an author’s editorial activity is to be observed, with characteristic formulas—in this case (in) those days (cp. 13:17, 19, 20). If the author of Mark or his source was piecing together bits of tradition, an apocalyptic interest may well have accounted for the introduction of this sequential link, in those days, after that suffering. Other sequential phrases are to be found: 

•  ... But the end is still to come (Mark 13:7)
•  This is but the beginning of the birthpangs (Mark 13:8)
•  Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days (Mark 13:17)
•  ... In those days there will be suffering (Mark 13:19)
•  ... He has cut short those days (Mark 13:20)
•  I have already told you everything (Mark 13:23)
•  Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place (Mark 13:30)
•  ... You do not know when the time will come (Mark 13:33)

Alternative possibilities are of course available, e.g., that the chapter is the composition of a single author, who provides both the materials and the sequential links, to produce what was intended as a miniature apocalypse. But the presence of units which possibly are traditional, such as the parable of the fig tree, and the parable of the doorkeeper, suggests that we may safely leave open the option proposed; i.e. that we have at least some traditional material, even if infelicitously edited by an author with apocalyptic inclinations.

If we regard the phrase But in those days, after ... as an editorial link, then the announcement of the coming of the Son of Man in Mark 13:24-27, in its original (or at least, in an earlier) form, is not necessarily dated to that generation.


Comment #3

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he [or, it!] is near, at the very gates (Mark 13:29)

There is a bit of a problem in that most translations supply the pronoun he as the subject of is near, in 13:29. The pronoun is lacking in the Greek text, and is to be supplied from the context. Now if the Son of Man is coming on clouds of glory, does it make sense for him to be near, at the gates? This language suggests rather an army drawing near a city’s gates, an event moreover which is predictable, even as the leafing out of the fig tree tells us that summer is near.

What then are the alternatives for supplying a subject for near (Greek, engus; we keep in mind the fact that a masculine, feminine, or neuter pronoun may be supplied)? 

•  Most translators supply the masculine pronoun, he, referring to the Son of Man.

•  Luke supplied kingdom of God as the subject, even though this phrase does not occur in the chapter.

•  Should we supply it, for ho kairos [masculine], the time, as in “you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33)? Or,

•  Should we supply it, for an army advancing against Jerusalem, as in “when you see the desolating sacrilege set up [in the Jerusalem Temple] where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains” (Mark 13:14)?

Some uncertainty will remain, but it seems to create more difficulties than it solves to supply the pronoun he, and there seems no reason for not supplying it instead. In this case, the little parable of the fig tree may be taken to refer to an historical event which Jesus predicts rather than to end-of-time events.


   •  Mark 13, as it presently stands, exhibits pronounced apocalyptic tendencies.

   •  Nevertheless, authentic pericopes, originally without apocalyptic associations, may have survived in Mark 13; these pericopes, when incorporated into the chapter, then assumed an apocalyptic meaning.

   •  Thus, if the present hypothesis is valid, one may acknowledge that authentic Jesus material has survived in Mark 13, without having to label him an apocalyptist.

   •  Whether undated predictions of end-of-time events would qualify Jesus as an apocalyptist is a matter beyond the scope of this note.







Revised December 31, 2003


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