Mark’s Jesus is a Thoroughly Apocalyptic Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest surviving gospel. It portrays Jesus as one who thought and taught the Apocalypse / the infamous ‘Day of Wrath’ / the gathering of the elect / the great Parousia moment (whatever one wishes to call it) was imminent. Mark’s Jesus admits to not knowing the “day or the hour”, sure, but he incorrectly teaches it be expected within the generation of his followers:

Mark 1:14
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 8:38
Jesus: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.”

^Evidently, the Kingdom of God has not yet arrived. The Son of Man was not ashamed at the generation because he didn’t arrive before they all died.

Mark 13:24
Jesus: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then 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. 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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Mark 14:61
The High Priest asked [Jesus], “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

^Mark’s Jesus goes as far as telling the High Priest that he would see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. The High Priest also died before the gathering of the elect.

In 9:13, Mark’s Jesus also teaches John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the return of Elijah, as prophesied in Malachi 4, whom it was believed would return just prior to the “great and terrible day when the Lord comes”, the day when “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”, “ashes under the soles of your feet”. Evidently this didn’t happen either.

What are we to make of all this when the earliest surviving Gospel text portrays a Jesus whom we can see in hindsight was wrong?

Scholarly thoughts:

“The author [or Mark] makes the destruction of the Temple not the eschatological event itself, but merely the “birth pangs” for the eschaton. In other words, the Markan audience was being told that the traumatic events that had so recently transpired in Jerusalem were – like the onset of labor – the signal that the eschatological age was now about to dawn, in fact within the lifetime of that very generation (13:24-32). Despite their previous misunderstanding, Jesus would return soon.”

– L. Michael White, “Scripting Jesus”, p.266

“More important for the question of the writer [of Mark] and his recipients is the apocalyptic discourse, 13:3-37, which contains the phrase used to date the gospel (“desolating sacrilege,” 13:14), but also has an aside, “Let the reader understand” (13:14). If this phrase was not added later, it implies that the discourse is addressed not only to those in the story, Jesus’ twelve disciples, but to Mark’s intended readers at the time of writing. As the context puts it, “the disciples” are being led astray by false Christs (verses 5-7); they are undergoing tribulation and persecution (verses 8-13); and they are seeing “the desolating sacrilege set up where he out not to be” (verse 14), which has led to more tribulation and to an increase in the activity of false Christs and false prophets (verses 19-23). Yet, the End is near, the Son of Man will soon be seen “coming in clouds with great power and glory” (verse 26); one must now “Take heed, watch” (verses 33-37). If the “desolating sacrilege” in Mark 13:14 refers to the destruction of the Temple by the Roman Titus in 70 C.E., this shattering event would have brought apocalyptic fervor and expectation to a fever pitch. Such an event had to be the beginning of the End. Mark wrote to support this view, to encourage his readers to wait and hope, and to instruct them that as Jesus himself had to go through his passion to his glory, they had to be prepared for discipleship that involves suffering.”

– Dennis C. Duling & Norman Perrin, “The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History”, p.299

“Whatever one makes of Mark 9:1 and 13:30 […], one must come to terms with parables that advise people to watch for the coming of the Lord or the Son of Man, with the pronouncements of eschatological woes on contemporaries, and with the miscellaneous complexes that either announce or presuppose that the final fulfillment of God’s saving work is nigh. Those who dissociate Jesus from imminent eschatological need to show us […] that it misrepresents what Jesus was all about.”

– Dale C. Allision, “Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet”, p. 150

“In sum, Mark 9:1 furnishes the clearest substantiation of the view that Jesus envisaged the coming of the Kingdom in his age, in the first century AD. It is not surprising therefore that we witness all kinds of exegetical acrobatics on the part of ecclesiastical interpreters of this passage”

– Geza Vermes, “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus”, p.281

“[Regarding Mark 9:1], the difficulty that has been felt about this interpretation [viz. that the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in its full and final form lies in the very near future] is that it makes our Lord foreshorten the perspective drastically and sets definite bounds to the extent of his accurate foreknowledge in the days of his flesh. Nevertheless … the interpretation is to be accepted, and numerous writers have shown that admission of such ignorance, and even error, on the part of our Lord is fully compatible with belief in the Incarnation”

– Dennis Nineham, “The Gospel of Saint Mark”, p.231

“Jesus’ soliloquy in Mark’s text thus ties all these religiously portentous events in a specifically Christian concern: knowing the time of the Parousia, the reappearance from heaven of Jesus Christ as the triumphant Son of Man. “When will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” ask some apostles after Jesus predicts the Temple’s destruction. In so doing, they set up Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. He answers by detailing what must come first: false Christs, wars, famine, persecution of those loyal to him, and the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles.

After these events come the abominations, which the understanding reader knows must mean the End; after these comes the Temple’s total destruction (“no stone upon another”); after these, then – since the Lord has already shortened the days – will come the End, and the return of the Redeemer. Mark, in short, sees time stereoscopically. From the perspective of those around Jesus, “the faithless and adulterous generation,” no sign had been given. But from the perspective of his own generation – a faithful generation who had witnessed to Christ before councils and governors, who had withstood the allurements of “false christs and false prophets” working signs and wonders, and who had preached the gospel to the Gentiles – the great and unmistakable sign of Christ’s Second Coming had been given; the destruction of the Temple. The End, Mark thus knew, really was at hand; and some from Jesus’ own generation were still alive to see it (13:30; cf.9:1)”

– Paula Fredriksen, “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews”, p.86

“[Early] Christians prophesied that the end of the world would come within the lifetimes of those hearing the good news. Which [failed to come to fruition]. But the cognitive dissonance caused by those earlier failures would explain the eventual success of a ‘reinterpretation’ that couldn’t be falsified: a messiah who triumphs in heaven, and reveals this fact from heaven, in secret, to a select few. That Christians taught that Jesus had predicted the imminent end is undeniable – see Mark 13…”

– Richard Carrier, “On the Historicity of Jesus”, p.85

“The early Church expected the parousia to take place within the first generation of Christians. For our purpose it is less important that Paul held this belief than that it appears in the gospel tradition. It is impossible to make Mark 13 mean anything less than that Christians contemporary with Mark believed that they would see the whole story through up to the coming of the Son of Man. Mark 13.30 alone is decisive, unless strained meanings are to be given to either γενεὰ (generation) or ταῦτα πάντα (all these things), and this verse is not contradicted by 13.32, which states that within the general nearness of the end no one can name the precise moment of its arrival.

The hearers of this discourse are encouraged to endure to the end, notwithstanding the universal hatred they will incur for Jesus’ sake (v. 13). They will see (ὅταν ἴδητε, when you see, second person plural) the abomination of desolation standing where he out not (v. 14). The Lord has shortened the days of suffering so that the elect may survive (v. 20). The hearers of the discourse will see the signs of the end (v. 29, ὅταν ἴδητε, when you see, again), and will be able to deduce from them that it (or the Son of Man?) is already at their doors. This early dating of the end became a source of embarrassment, and, especially in the later gospels, traces appear of editorial and theological steps taken in view of the “delay of the parousia”; it is most improbable that the Church created this embarrassment for itself, and probable therefore that the conviction that the vindicating parousia would happen soon has deep roots in the tradition”

– C.K. Barrett, “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”

“Critical difficulties emerge with [Mark] 13:30: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” Interpreters struggle with this saying, and many attempts have been made to interpret “this generation” in a way that eases the impression of Jesus’ support for the imminent return of the Son of Man. If Jesus told his contemporaries that the end would come about in their time, then we have a prophecy from Jesus that did not come true. Attempts to avoid the obvious meaning of “this generation” are not convincing. Similarly the reference to the imminence of the end of the world must be maintained.”

– Francis Moloney, “The Gospel of Mark”, p.268

“[Mark 13:30-31] declare that the [preceding] events prophesied will take place within the existing generation. They answer the question: ‘When shall these things be?’ (13:4). […] The ταῦτα πάντα (“all these things”) are all the events described in 13:5-27, including the Messianic woes, the persecutions, the heavenly portents, the Parousia, and the gathering of the Elect. [13:30-31 serve] the interest of [the author’s] contemporary apocalyptic [outlook].”

– Vincent Taylor, “The Gospel According to St. Mark”, p.521

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