My co-blogger Daniel James Levy asked for my thoughts of the “delayed parousia” of Mark 13, so this is my effort to address the passage. For those unfamiliar with the problem it is as follows: Jesus and his disciples are discussing the city of Jerusalem, especially the grandeur of the temple. Jesus informs them that it will be destroyed, completely (v. 2). He warns that there will be false messiahs (vv. 5-6), rumors of wars and actual wars (v. 7), and even “world wars” (“nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” in v. 8a). There will be natural disaster and famine (v. 8b). Jesus say this is but the beginning of “birth pains” (ὠδίνων in v. 8c, which I find interesting since the Apostle Paul speaks of creation as groaning in pain as well, though he uses the word συστενάζει in Romans 8.22. Could this indicate an independent Jesus tradition? Could both Mark and Paul be drawing from a shared Jewish tradition that Mark uses for Jesus’ speech?), which leads Jesus to speak of future persecution in v. 9, 11-13 and state that the gospel will be preached to “all the nations” in v. 10.
This is where it becomes tricky. Jesus speaks of the τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως, which we call “the abomination of desolation”. This would have immediately reminded his hearers of the evil deed of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE and maybe the idolatry of King Manasseh mention in 2 Chronicles 33.7. The main idea is that ruler “paganizes” the holy temple. At this he warns it is time to flee Jerusalem (vv. 14b-18). This is to be the worst tribulation ever (v. 19). If God had not limited the terror no one would survive, but God shortens the days “for the elect” (v. 20). Again, Jesus warns against false messiahs (vv. 21-23).
This leads to the “coming of the Son of Man” in vv. 24-26. This certainly seems apocalyptic and it uses imagery from Daniel 7 where “one like a son of man” (כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ) comes to the Ancient of Days to receive his Kingdom over the pagans. It would appear that Jesus is self-identifying with this character and he sees himself as coming in judgement when the pagan ruler desolates the temple.
What complicates matters even more is that Jesus says in v. 30 “this generation (ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη) will not pass away” before all of this takes place. Yet he immediately states soon thereafter that “no one know” the “day or that hour” except “the Father”. Mark emphasizes that this includes the Son as well. Even Jesus does not know when this will happen.
The confusion caused by this passage is great and I do not pretend to be one who has a solution. These are some of the problems:
(1) Is ἡ γενεὰ of v. 30 “this generation” as in span of time or as some have suggested does “this generation” refer to a particular ethnicity? In Mark the word occurs four times: 8.12; 8.38; 9.19; and 13.30. In 8.12 it seems most likely that it is temporal. In 8.38 it seems to be temporal, but it is not impossible that it is about an ethnicity (which would be quite the negative statement against many fellow Jews by the author though no different from the attitude held by those at Qumran and pretty much any group who understood themselves as a remnant). In 9.19 I think the odds are that temporality is in view. To further support this we could examine how Matthew speaks of a “generation”, especially “this generation” and I am inclined to see temporality over ethnicity as the emphasis. So while we can’t 100% conclude that when Mark said “this generation” he meant “the people of this time” the evidence does seem to lean that direction.
Of course, if Mark were merely recording Jesus’ words like a modern historian we’d have no problems, but he is not. Mark is remembering Jesus’ speech as the tradition with which he was familiar gave it him and as he adapted it himself. Matthew’s use of Mark seems to be fairly consistent in depicting Jesus as speaking of “this generation” frequently, so I am fairly confident it goes back to Jesus. Now if Mark is pre-70 it would explain quite well why he has no qualms with Jesus connecting the fall of the temple with the coming of the Son of Man. What about Matthew though? I think Matthew is post-70. The parallel in Matthew 24.34 moves along quite smoothly as if Matthew sees no problem with what Mark wrote (I am assuming Markan priority here). Even more amazing is that Luke 21.24, which I take to be post-70 for sure, doesn’t blink an eye at Jesus’ claim.
So what we have is what seems to be a face value a statement by Jesus that this would all happen before the current generation disappeared, but now we are very, very close to that having happened and we have the destruction of the temple without a coming of the Son of Man, yet no one seems worried. This should at least give us pause before quickly assuming that Jesus has been proven a false prophet.
(2) The same people who point to Jesus’ statement noting he did not return physically seem to miss something quite interesting: he was right about the temple. Now what I am saying assumes that the destruction of the temple is a reference to Titus’ invasion. Of course, not everything that occurred during Titus’ invasion matches perfectly Jesus’ prediction, but if we assume this has nothing to do with future events, like some dispensationalist, then we admit Jesus was accurate on one part with confusion on the other. Yes, it may be easy for Jesus to deduce that eventually Rome was not going to deal with the Jews any longer and that he made an educated guess whereas his math was not quite as correct regarding his return. Sure, possible, but again I think we must caution ourselves again simplistic solutions.
(3) The apocalyptic imagery itself is troublesome. Many, many exegetes write about a literal cosmic collapse, but Jesus seems to me to be no different than say the Book of Isaiah where Babylon’s invasion makes stars go dark and the world fall apart. Are we sure Jesus meant “end of the world” like we imagine it? I don’t know.
(4) While Jesus is confident that this will happen during one generation he admits almost immediately that he doesn’t know when all of this will happen, only God the Father knows. What do we do with this? What do we do with what seems to be contradictory claims regarding how much Jesus knows? Does he know for sure that it will happen within “this generation”, but he doesn’t claim precise knowledge? Does this change how we read “this generation”?
(5) What about the Lukan Solution? In Luke 21.24 Jesus has some additional insights into the matter. Namely, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” What is this? Why does Luke insert this statement about the time of the Gentiles between the same temple destroying events mentioned by Matthew and Mark and the same “coming of the Son of Man”. Unlike Matthew and Mark it seems like Luke acknowledges some fulfillment. He has the temple falling. He describes the sacking of Jerusalem in terminology that seems a bit like the work of Titus’ armies. He know Jesus did not return and he makes the apocalyptic imagery eschatological! In other words, for Luke, Jesus did split the events and “this generation” if a temporal reference can apply to the first part, but it doesn’t seem the second part (although he does keep the order of Jesus’ saying with Jesus saying this even after his statement about the time of the Gentiles).
Maybe there is something to the author of Luke-Acts knowing the Apostle Paul and maybe even being Luke the Physician who is connected to Paul. In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians he seems to see several hurdles standing in front of the parousia of Christ, including the abomination. Did Luke adjust Matthew and Mark because of Paul’s influence?
(6) What can we say of Paul’s influence? Did Matthew and Mark know of his writings and his eschatology? If so, how does this impact how we read the Evanglists?
(7) What are we to do with the claim in Mark 13.10 and Matthew 28.19 that they expected the gospel to go global. Now I know they didn’t foresee Brazil and Argentina, but they did know the Roman Empire, the eastern world of China and India, and Africa to the south. In the midst of all of Jesus’ predictions there is this presentation of a missionary endeavor that should take more than a generation, unless Jesus or the Evangelist are being hyperbolic.
I don’t know how to put all these pieces together. I know some who think they do and they are apologetic in their purpose. Others think the same and they think they’ve found an obvious piece of evidence that Jesus was a failed prophet. I think this may be oversimplified.
Obviously, I am a Christian who doesn’t find much room for “Jesus-as-a-failed-prophet” in my approach. If Jesus is a failed prophet then I am happy to learn from him, but I don’t see a reason to speak of myself as a “Christian”. I’d be pleased with the Deism of my youth or some form of agnosticism since I am not intrigued by the other religions of the world at this juncture. Personally, I find Luke’s solution worth considering: namely the “age of the Gentiles”. Mark’s earlier date doesn’t guarantee the most accuracy. Maybe Luke knew something Mark did not…or maybe his situation in a post-70 world forced him to dig for a Jesus tradition that would fit and explain why Jesus had not returned yet.
Note: I know of two other common solutions. One is to suggest that this whole prediction is eschatological. This still causes some trouble for interpreting “this generation”. Another is to suggest that Jesus did return, but I think this raises even more questions. If Jesus did return do we need to abandon Paul’s vision of a resurrected and renewed cosmos for a heavenly by-and-by where Jesus never rules the world physically, but only in “heavenly places” as we see in the Epistle to the Ephesians? Maybe, but I’d rather be surprised after death than assume this solution which seems to be begging the question on several fronts.