Commentary on Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
I was recently fortunate enough to lead my second study abroad trip to Greece.
We visited cape Sounion, location of a temple to Poseidon (and also one to Athena), famously visited by Byron who penned the lines:
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep
On my visit, I read something I had not known before about the temples that once stood there: They were dismantled by the Romans during their occupation of Greece and transported to other parts of the empire and used in other building projects. A disciple’s exclamation about large stones (Mark 13:1), and Jesus’ terse response about their imminent dilapidation (Mark 13:2), brought to mind this trip to Sounion and prompted this reflection.
The Jewish temple in Jerusalem no longer exists, having been destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish war in 66-70 CE, so we can’t marvel at the size of its stones today. Acquaintance with stone in the ancient world, however, was something of a pastime. When later Greeks saw the stonework from abandoned bronze age settlements, they called the style “cyclopean” because, to their eye, the only way such large stones could have been moved and arranged would be if a Cyclops had done it. For example, the lintel stone covering the doorway in the Tholos tomb at Mycenae is estimated to weigh 120 tons. Most every major city in the ancient world would have had prominent examples of monumental stone architecture, almost all of it with civic, religious, and economic connotations.
In Mark 11:15, Jesus enters the temple. As the narrative continues in chapters 11 and 12, most of the stories and parables relate to the temple. One of the primary concerns seems to be economic. Mark 11:15-19 narrates Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, in which he accuses those buying and selling things to be robbers. This story about the temple is intercalated (i.e., sandwiched) between to stories about a fig tree that Jesus curses (Mark 11:12-14). It then withers (Mark 11:20-25), a metaphor for the temple. In Mark 12:13-17 the Pharisees bring up a question about taxes. The offering of the widow, whose two small copper coins outweigh all the offerings of the rich, immediately precedes chapter 13.
After such stories of righteous anger, withered trees, and recalculated economics, the observation from one of the disciples as Jesus leaves the temple in Mark 13:1 sounds like ancient small talk. Like any awkward conversation where one brings up the weather, a sports score, or what happened last night on American Idol, the disciple makes an exclamation that was probably quite common for any visitor to a big city in the ancient world: “Wow, look at those huge rocks … That building is ginormous.” It’s the first thing my students say when they walk up to the Parthenon or approach the Lion’s Gate at Mycenae.
Jesus wants no part of the small talk. He thumbs his nose at the architecture and bluntly declares that it will all come tumbling down. This has always to me, and probably to most scholars, been seen as a key component of placing Mark’s gospel chronologically. Such words about imminent destruction put this gospel either right before, during, or after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 CE. After seeing ancient monumental architecture in Greece, however, I wonder. While the war with Rome is a possible referent, there are many different ways in which an ancient person could have been familiar with dilapidated architecture. By the first century, some of the iconic temples of Archaic and Classical Greece had begun to decay. Earthquakes in many parts of the world regularly caused destruction. What I had not previously considered before my visit to Sounion was the intentional dismantling of impressive lithic architecture. When the Romans engaged in such behavior, it must have held significant symbolic and metaphorical value: taking apart the beauty, ingenuity, and religious impulse of a structure stone by stone and reassembling or repurposing it elsewhere. This would constitute a significant sabotage and subversion to that culture being dismantled.
When I take this information and return to Mark 13, I am increasingly less impressed with the idea that the Romans and the war lie behind the words here. Mark 13 is an apocalyptic discourse, and as such, it seems more interested in profiling the power of God than the power of kingdoms and principalities. Did the Romans raze parts of Jerusalem? Yes. The images on the arch of Titus, with Roman soldiers carrying off sacred implements of the temple, are haunting to this day. But the rumors of wars and falling of rocks is only the “beginning” (Mark 13:8). Eventually there will be a darkened sun and moon, falling stars, and shaking heavens (Mark 13:24-25). Mark 13 isn’t concerned with the day of Rome but with the day of the Lord. Everyone would have seen and known Rome was approaching Jerusalem, but the timing of the Son of Man’s advent is unknowable. There will be signs and portents, but the consistently advocated activity throughout the discourse of chapter 13 is simple: “watch” (e.g., 13:9) and “stay awake” (13:37).
The activity of God profiled in Mark 13 seems more akin to the dismantling of the temples at Sounion than the warring destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. It’s an intentional, if rapid, undermining of the temple’s raison d’etre. God’s reign no longer seems compatible with the way the temple had been functioning.1 Its destruction is God’s doing. This apocalyptic discourse, surrounded by economic critiques, also serves as a prelude to the passion narrative. In Mark 14:58 it is reported that Jesus had said: “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” Thus, the connection between the temple’s destruction and Jesus’ death coheres into an apocalyptic interpretation of those events. Jesus’ death and resurrection are an apocalyptic moment — a time when a veil is lifted and God intervenes in the world. It is no time for nervous small talk. The kingdom of God is at hand.
1 All Christians must wary, of course, of the danger of supersessionism, and how quickly such observations could become implicitly anti-Semitic.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Son of Man, you encouraged your followers to obey only your voice, and promised that they would see your glorious presence. Show us your glory and teach us to obey. Amen.
Hear my prayer, O Lord, Charles Gounod