Week 11 | Wednesday | Mark 13:14-20
This week’s readings are all from Mark chapter 13. Click here to see a full listing of each day’s reading and the full chapter of Mark 13. Full readings of each day’s smaller segments of the readings will be posted on this site during the week.
14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be” (let the reader understand), “then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. 15 The one on the roof must not come down or go inside to take anything out of his house. 16 The one in the field must not turn back to get his cloak. 17 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! 18 Pray that it may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, or ever will happen. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved. But because of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut them short.
The Question: When will these things take place?
It is important when reading this passage to frame it in the context of what Jesus has previously said and the question that he was asked. When coming out of the Temple complex, his disciples are amazed at the structures (which had taken 40 years to complete). Jesus tells them that 'not one stone will be left upon another.' In response they have asked him, 'When will this happen?'
In the first-century context, for many Jewish groups, this idea of the Temple's destruction would potentially be tied to the idea of what we might call the 'end times' and the Messianic era/World to Come. It would have additionally been tied to the deeply felt history of the first Temple's destruction by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile in Babylon, which had been foretold by OT prophets before it happened. So there was perhaps a mixed element of expectation of deliverance and tribulation, all tied together in apocalyptic themes. The disciples' question may have come out of this context, but the bottom line is they are still asking: 'When will these things [the tearing down of the stones] take place?' Jesus' answer ultimately is, in reverse order: I don't know exactly (Mark 13.32) but this generation won't pass away before it happens (Mark 13.29–30). In our reading from today, Jesus also warns about the coming of great suffering for the city and how to escape it (at least on some level) by fleeing to the mountains.
In some early Christian literature, this destruction and the defiling of the Temple (AD 70) and Jerusalem (AD 135) by Rome is seen as fulfillment of Jesus' words in this passage. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem during both of these conflicts, upon seeing the approach of war and Roman armies, fled to the Decapolis city and region of Pella, on the east side of the Jordan River:
“But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.
But the number of calamities which everywhere fell upon the nation at that time; the extreme misfortunes to which the inhabitants of Judea were especially subjected, the thousands of men, as well as women and children, that perished by the sword, by famine, and by other forms of death innumerable, — all these things, as well as the many great sieges which were carried on against the cities of Judea, and the excessive. sufferings endured by those that fled to Jerusalem itself, as to a city of perfect safety, and finally the general course of the whole war, as well as its particular occurrences in detail, and how at last the abomination of desolation, proclaimed by the prophets, stood in the very temple of God, so celebrated of old, the temple which was now awaiting its total and final destruction by fire, — all these things any one that wishes may find accurately described in the history written by Josephus.”
Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine, & Oration in Praise of Constantine.
vol. I of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. Accordance electronic ed. (New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1890), paragraph 1419, emphasis added.
The Abomination of Desolation
Jesus' answer draws upon apocalyptic themes from the OT prophets, particularly themes of tribulation and, specifically, elements from Daniel with references to 'the desolating abomination' (Dan 11.31; 12.11) and 'the Son of Man' (Dan 7.13). Daniel's 'desolating abomination' had been understood to be the defiling of the Temple and altar by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in the middle of the 2nd century BC. Josephus wrote:
[Daniel] said that the ram signified the kingdoms of the Medes and Persians, and the horns those kings that were to reign in them; and that the last horn signified the last king, and that he should exceed all the kings in riches and glory: that the he-goat signified that one should come and reign from the Greeks, who should twice fight with the Persian, and overcome him in battle, and should receive his entire dominion: that by the great horn which sprang out of the forehead of the he-goat was meant the first king; and that the springing up of four horns upon its falling off, and the conversion of every one of them to the four quarters of the earth, signified the successors that should arise after the death of the first king, and the partition of the kingdom among them, and that they should be neither his children, nor of his kindred, that should reign over the habitable earth for many years; and that from among them there should arise a certain king that should overcome our nation and their laws, and should take away their political government, and should spoil the temple, and forbid the sacrifices to be offered for three years' time. And indeed it so came to pass, that our nation suffered these things under Antiochus Epiphanes, according to Daniel's vision, and what he wrote many years before they came to pass. In the very same manner Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them.
Josephus Antiquities 10.263–281 || 10.11.7, emphasis added
That Antiochus Epiphanes was the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy was also understood by the author of First Maccabees:
Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a abomination of desolation on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire.
1 Maccabees 1.54–56, see also 1 Maccabees 6:5-9
However, in Jewish culture, it is frequently the case that one event/element/person is the way of speaking about or referencing other similar events/elements/persons. For example, the opposition to the Israelites by the Amalekites in the Exodus (Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 17:17-19) becomes a way of referring to any Gentile oppression and violence towards Jews. In the Passover Seder, this becomes 'in every generation they rise up against us.' In the book of Esther and celebration of Purim (the festival started at the end of Esther and happens to occur this week! See Esther 9.26, 28–29, 31–32) the idea is also present (Haman was an Agagite, the offspring of Agag king of the Amalekites, not a Persian). As another example, in Talmudic Jewish literature 'Gog and Magog,' rather than referring to a particular people or nation, become more generally the 'nations who rage against YHWH and his Messiah' from Psalm 2 (see b. Berakhot 7B.11). Something comparable happens in early Jewish-Christian literature where 'Babylon,' the empire within which Jews were in exile int the 5th and 6th centuries BC, becomes a way of speaking about 'Rome,' an empire in which first-century AD Christians felt like exiles (see Matt 1.11–12, 17; Acts 7.43; 1 Pet 5.13; Rev 14.8; 16.19; 17.5; 18.2, 10, 21).
In this vein of interpretation, the 'abomination of desolation' or 'desolating abomination' is seen as a metaphor for whatever or whoever comes and defiles the sacred area of the Temple and/or the city of Jerusalem. Antiochus Epiphanes is the the first direct example of a 'desolating abomination', but so are (according to Josephus) the non-priestly Jewish zealots who took over the Temple compound prior to its destruction by the Romans, and then also perhaps the defiling by the Romans during the Temple's destruction. The Romans shed innocent blood there and made sacrifices made to their military standards and their gods. Just as 1 John says that there are "many antichrists" (1 John 2.18) there are also several potential and real 'desolating abominations' in history.