Commentary on Mark 13:1-8
What do you do when you see someone standing on the sidewalk preaching about the end of the world, future destruction, or false messiahs?
Do you hail them as core to your religious beliefs, or do you casually cross to the other side of the street so as to avoid any interaction?
Mark 13 introduces to the reader a fully apocalyptic Jesus, providing content that today we might most appropriately look at askance. Yet, this is Mark’s Jesus, who pronounced from the very beginning the imminent reign of God, who grapples with demons and myriad challenges of other-worldly origin throughout, and who, in chapter 13, gives his longest discourse of the entire gospel in a fully apocalyptic mode.
Two dynamics of the entire apocalyptic discourse in chapter 13 are immediately apparent here in its opening verses. First, the entire discourse begins through questions posed by the disciples. Initially they remark about how large the stones are, marveling over the ingenuity of its construction. Jesus is not impressed. They will all end up in a heap. Peter, Andrew, and James privately offer a follow up question: When will this happen? Jesus does not answer their question.
An answer is sort of provided in 13:32, when Jesus will finally admit that no one knows when. Jesus, however, uses their question as an opportunity to teach them. But about what? The content of Jesus’ teaching suggests that things are about to get really bad. Being led astray will be a danger, there will be war, earthquakes, famine. And, this will only be the beginning. Here our pericope ends, although Jesus will go on to flesh out some more of the details of this suffering.
Much of what is stated here is apocalyptic boilerplate. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been working with such themes, imagery, and topoi for several centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and Mark in the first century. Conservative biblical literalists, who look for the specific fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies in our modern age, completely misunderstand this genre of literature. Many scholars have found Mark 13 as the best place to try to locate Mark’s gospel in a specific time and place. The reference to false messiahs in 13:5 and to a desolating sacrilege (13:14) seem to locate the gospel in the midst of the turmoil of the war between Jews and Rome in Judaea between 66-70 C.E.
And, some of these specifics in Mark can be coordinated from events that can be verified outside of the New Testament in the historical record (especially in the Jewish historian Josephus). The idea behind this type of interpretation is that Mark has provided his readers enough of a clue as to when they should flee to the mountains (13:14-23). One wonders, then, why Jesus couldn’t just say that. Why is a full apocalyptic discourse necessary?
The fact that Jesus doesn’t answer their question should be taken more seriously. More to the point, when he does answer it, eventually, the answer is completely in the negative: nobody knows when this will happen. This leaves us to then ponder the rhetorical force of the discourse as a whole. Perhaps the disciples had asked the wrong question. When they ask: “When?” Jesus responds with a description of a world that has gone off the rails, replete with danger and betrayal, an upheaval of society.
The operative word throughout the discourse is “Watch out.” It starts the discourse in verse 5, and is repeated in verses 9, 23, and 33. The discourse ends with a parable about a man who leaves on a journey. Jesus’ charge to his disciples is the same to those in charge of the house while the man is away: wakefulness and watchfulness. The discourse closes with the charge: Stay awake!
What is the theological logic of such a discourse? Why, in Mark 13:1-8, does Jesus refuse to answer the disciples’ question? I’m not convinced that the main scholarly trajectory of interpreting this text is appropriate, that it provides an encoded blueprint for the Markan community to know when to flee at the worst point of the war. This would seem to contradict the more basic tenor of the discourse, which is marked by epistemological and temporal agnosticism.
If not meant to provide such a blueprint, what other type of rhetorical force could such a discourse have? If directed at a complacent community, the discourse could become a powerful theological vehicle. It suggests that God is up to stuff that may be beyond human ken, and the community’s job is simply to stay awake for it. It functions like a rumble strip on the side of a highway, meant to jar the community awake as it nods off and drifts toward the ditch.
Theologically, the implication in 13:1-8 of Jesus’ non-sequitur answer to the disciples is that God’s activity is not limited to the human sphere. Mark 13, although much about human activity, is basically anti-anthropological in its theological orientation. It is like Jesus off praying when the disciples simply need to stay awake but cannot.
Apocalyptic eschatology is essentially about God working on behalf of humanity, and that is what is introduced in the beginning of this discourse. It leaves God alarmingly free and open to the future. God is not limited by temporal questions, such as the one the disciples ask. The community is supposed to watch, stay fast, and endure.