The Eschatology of Mark 13
In the preview to Mark 13 in my commentary, I list some issues for which interpreters give divergent answers. I suggest that the interpreter’s goal should not be to eliminate the ambiguities of Mark 13, but to understand why they are there. If the controlling assumption of Mark 13 is that one cannot know the timing of the End, then events that seem pregnant with eschatological significance may or may not be end-time events, for all Mark knows.
According to Mark, some events are not part of the End, and some are. But there is another category of events that may or may not be part of the End. Mark does not know. Jesus did not know. According to Mark’s Gospel, no one can know until the events occur and God’s undisclosed plan emerges.
The events listed in Mark 13:5-27 seem to fall into three categories:
- Beginning events: These events are not directly related to the End. They happen before the final end-time events start to unfold. People claiming such events as signals that the End has come are deceivers (13:5-6).
- Events that belong to the beginning of the End and/or the End: These events are not clearly linked to the End, but they are also not clearly separated from the End. The ambiguity is deliberate because no one can know whether these events will lead directly to the End or not.
- End-time events: These are of two kinds. First, they include events on earth that must happen before the End can come. Second, there are events in the heavens and the Son of Man’s return.
Which events fall into which categories? Here are my suggestions:
1. Beginning Events, events that do not belong to the End (Mark 13:5-13).
- The need for discernment because deceivers wrongly claim that the things listed below are end-time events (vv. 5-6).
- Catastrophes, such as wars, earthquakes, famines (vv. 7-8).
- Mission in the context of persecution (vv. 9-13). Mission and persecution are beginning events (as shown by the position of vv. 9-13) and also events that occur right up to the End (as shown by the content of the verses themselves (note first, v. 10; to the end, v. 13).
2. Events that belong to the Beginning and/or the End (Mark 13:14-18).
- Desolating sacrilege, … where it ought not to be (v. 14a; a cryptic reference to events at the temple and possibly to a future antichrist).
- War causing great woes (vv. 14b-18; war in Judea possibly prefiguring another great tribulation).
3. End-Time Events: events leading directly to the End and those constituting the End. These include various kinds of events:
Events on Earth (vv. 9-13, 19-23).
- Mission in the context of persecution (vv. 9-13).
- The greatest tribulation ever (vv. 19-20).
- The need for discernment because deceivers claim this is the End itself (vv. 21-23).
Events in the Heavens (vv. 24-25).
- Sun and moon darkened.
- Stars fall.
Return of the Son of Man (vv. 26-27).
The crucial question is this: Do the events of 13:14-18 belong to the beginning events, or to the end-time events, or to both? Theoretically, there are three possibilities, each with many defenders:
View 1. Verses 14-18 belong to the beginning events, not to the end-time events. On this view, these verses refer to events in and around Jerusalem only, including a sacrilege there, and the war that results from it (and presumably results in the destruction of the temple; cf. v. 2). These events cause distress for people who are counseled to flee but may have a hard time doing so. The events from verse 19 onward are later end-time events.
View 2. Verses 14-18 belong to the end-time events, not to the beginning events. On this view, the sacrilege and war in Judea lead directly to the final tribulation and the return of the Son of Man. In this view, Jesus and/or Mark has produced an end-time scenario that the passing of time has proved to be false.
View 3. Verses 14-18 are end-time events, but belong to the beginning of the unknown waiting period before the end. On this view, all necessary end-time events, except the return of the Son of Man, occur during the time of the desolating sacrilege and war in Judea (around 70 CE). The only event predicted to occur at a totally unknown time after that is the return of the Son of Man. We still await this final end-time event, but we should expect no premonitory signs indicating that its coming is either near or far away. The Son of Man’s arrival is permanently imminent; disciples are to fill the entire waiting time with mission, discernment, and faithful discipleship.
Where are there implied time gaps in the sequence of events referred to in Mark 13? Which events are referred to by all these things that will occur within this generation (vv. 4, 30)? Was the prophecy mistaken or not? Which end-time events, in the teaching of Mark 13, are still in the future from our perspective? All these questions are answered differently, depending on which of the above three views one accepts.
Which is the correct view? All of the above views have been vigorously defended. A minority of scholars have said, “We simply do not know.” However, most of these have said this because they consider Mark 13 too unclear to allow for a definite decision. My view is that Mark 13 teaches us to say, “We simply cannot know.” Mark’s goal was to prevent readers from choosing one of the three options and rejecting the other two.
If we could ask Jesus (as portrayed in Mark 13) which of the three views is correct, he would respond, “It might be view 1 or 2 or 3; we will have to wait and see!” View 2 can certainly no longer be considered a possible option (since the End did not come directly after 70 CE, when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed), but it was still one of the options possible at the time the prophecy was uttered (and recorded).
I think this is the most satisfactory explanation for what we actually find in Mark 13. The chapter is full of ambiguous statements. It is possible that scribes added some of the ambiguity in the decades after Mark wrote the Gospel. There are references to these things and all these things, without clarity about which things are meant (as in vv. 4, 30). There are references to those days, without clarifying which days (as in vv. 19, 24). There are grammatical oddities like neuter nouns paired with masculine participles (v. 14). Some of the ambiguous statements are possible only in Greek (where subjects of verbs can be left unspecified, as in v. 29).
There is backtracking: instead of moving progressively forward in time, the text keeps jumping back, leaving us uncertain which period of time is meant (e.g., 13:28-29 refer to events prior to v. 26; v. 30 might refer to events prior to v. 24; v. 37 refers to a time period before v. 24). In addition, there are cryptic references and calls for the reader to understand, but with no hints given (cf. v. 14).
What do we do with all these uncertainties? The typical approach is to eliminate them. A person might study the ambiguous statements, adopt one of the possible meanings, then consider the other possibilities “proved wrong.” In this approach, one eliminates the uncertainties in order to determine what Jesus (or Mark) must have meant.
I am convinced that the ambiguities and uncertainties are intentional. They are there so that Mark’s (and Jesus’) uncertainty about end-time events could be preserved, and so that readers would not claim to know more than Jesus did (cf. v. 32).
The disciples want to know when the temple will fall and which sign will signal it (and the accompanying events). They may or may not believe that the fall of the temple signals the End of the age. Jesus does not supply what the disciples want. His view is that sign-seeking (here and everywhere else in Mark) is inappropriate. Instead, he clarifies for them that there are hard times ahead that call for discernment, faithful discipleship, and mission. The destruction of the temple will also come about, accompanied by difficult times for people in Judea. A great tribulation will precede the final return of the Son of Man.
What Jesus does not know is when the End will come (v. 32). Will the events in Judea lead directly to the End? Will they fulfill the necessary preconditions so that the Son of Man can return at any time? Or will they merely prefigure another set of events that will take place at the end of time? Since Jesus does not know, the chapter appears as it does; it does not tell the reader when the End will come. We do violence to Mark 13 by trying to eliminate the ambiguities.
I have heard people suggest that all this sounds far too complex and improbable to be either Mark’s view or Jesus’ view. But what if we take 13:32-33 as the basic assumption behind all of Mark 13? No one knows when (v. 32). That is why constant discernment and faithfulness are necessary (v. 33). If that is the assumption that controls all of Mark 13, the whole chapter should reflect the following points:
- Jesus does not know when the End will come.
- Mark does not know when the End will come.
- The reader cannot know when the End will come.
- No signs can help us predict when the End will come.
- Coming catastrophes may or may not lead directly to the End; we do not know.
- Discernment and faithfulness are always necessary precisely because we cannot know when the End will come.
- Mark 13 teaches disciples what it means to be discerning, faithful disciples in various kinds of situations that will occur before the end, but Mark does not claim to know when the End will occur.
That is exactly what we find in Mark 13, complete with all the ambiguities that must be there to preserve the uncertainties that verses 32-33 affirm.
I am persuaded that the eschatological time frame of Mark 13 looks a lot less complicated if we manage to put ourselves into the time of Jesus; he is looking forward to all of the events recorded there. We look backward, and it messes up our perspective. I have heard people say that there cannot be a time gap between verses 18 and 19 because those days mentioned in verse 19 have to refer back to the same days that have been described as then in 14b. We look back in time to those days, which refer all the way back to then. But Jesus was looking forward. For him, then in verse 14b was a future date. To look beyond that future date (v. 14b) to those days beyond it (v. 19) creates a reference that can easily be separated in time from the events referred to in verse 14b.
We do not know when Mark was writing. My own view is that it was likely before the destruction of the temple or soon enough after it that view 2 above was still thought to be one of the possible scenarios. If this is the case, the three scenarios considered possibilities by Jesus (according to Mark) were still possibilities at the time Mark wrote. If Mark wrote well after 70 CE, then he himself would have known that View 2 (see above) was no longer possible. In that case, he preserved all three possibilities (in the mouth of Jesus), even though he himself knew that only the first and third could still come about. This is possible, but unlikely, in my view.
Mark 13 is a chapter about which many have thought deeply, and even more have written on! It is not an easy chapter to interpret. The perspective I have attempted to lay out here and in my commentary is the one that has helped me make most sense of what is clear in Mark 13 and what is unclear. My hope is that those who have worked through this short essay are in a better position to understand the interpretation in the commentary and therefore also better able to judge whether it does justice to Jesus’ important but challenging discourse on the future.
- Cousar, Charles B. “Eschatology and Mark’s Theologia Crucis: A Critical Analysis of Mark 13,” in Interpretation 24/3 (July 1970): 321–55.
- Geddert, Timothy J. Watchwords: Mark 13 in Markan Eschatology. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1989.
- _____. “Apocalyptic Teaching.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. Joel B. Green, et al. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.
- Wenham, David. The Rediscovery of Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse. Gospel Perspectives 4. Sheffield: JSOT, 1984.
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|—Timothy J. Geddert|