‘The Coming of the Son of Man: Mark 13:24-27
Although popular and naive positivist readings from the text can lead us, at times, to similar interpretative conclusions as the most ardent hermeneutically sensitive scholar.1—I do not want to place authentic reading of scripture simply into the realm of the academy—the hermeneutical chasm, in passages, like Mark 13:24-27 is so great that extra caution, and sensitivity is not just ideal, but required, for the twenty first century interpreter reader simply does not read the text in the same way as the initial readership. 2 This hermeneutical chasm becomes evident in the language of cosmic catastrophe in Mark 13:24-27.
For instance when we hear that 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 heaven will be shaken’ we need to ask whether we are right to read this text literally, so that the fall of Jerusalem is followed by a ‘cosmic breakdown’. Or, do we adopt a different understanding of the nature of language and follow N.T. Wright and R.T France, amongst others3, in seeing that the cosmic catastrophe language of Mark 13:24-25 is being used symbolically to describe to describe historical and political events.
N.T. Wright warns us that ‘such language [Mark 13:24-25] cannot be read in a crassly literalistic way without doing it great violence’4 .In chapter ten of New Testament and the People of God, Wright in describing Jewish apocalyptic thought draws attention to two key points. Firstly, he argues that few Second-Temple Jews were ‘looking for the end of the world’–that is the end of the space-time universe. Secondly, he argues that Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature is ‘a complex-metaphor system which invests space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological, significance.’5. Likewise in Jesus and the Victory of God Wright defines Jewish second temple eschatology, and therefore that of Jesus, as being about,
‘the climax of Israel’s history, involving events for which end-of-the world language is the only set of metaphors adequate to express the significance of what will happen, but resulting in a new and quite different phase within space and time history’6.
Wright follows in the line of his teacher and mentor George Caird. However, we should note that Caird does not totally remove the cosmic breakdown language from the bible. Caird famously, in a highly influential book, The Language and the Imagery of the Bible7, wrote,
the Biblical writers believed literally that the world had a beginning in the past and would have an end time in the future.
They regularly used end-of-the-world language metaphorically to refer to that which they knew well was not the end of the world ‘8
N.T. Wright, it seems, takes part of Caird’s analysis very seriously (2) but downplays or rejects any notion of the dissolution of the cosmos (1). He states confidently ‘that there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe.’9 In stark contrast to Wright’s view Edward Adams in the recently published monograph ‘The Stars Will Fall From Heaven’10, with N.T Wright in his critical sights, has produced an excellent resource in attempting to bring under scholarly focus a variety of texts which refer to ‘cosmic catastrophes’. His conclusions show that Caird’s viewpoint described above (1) does have strong biblical and intertestamental support. After detailed interaction with may texts he reaches the conclusion ‘that the created universe is destined to be dissolved is clearly expressed in the Old testament….. Jewish apocalyptic and related writings.’11
‘in the light of the comparative evidence, language of a cosmic catastrophe such as we find in the New Testament simply cannot be regarded as conventional, first century language for referring symbolically to socio-political change.’14
‘In the end, we cannot be entirely certain how the writers (or redactors) of these texts meant the language of global and cosmic catastrophe to be understood.’13
However, although Adams leaves the door open in some sense, it is closed firmly again for the ambiguity of these passages, does not lead Adams, on the basis of his other studies to allow a question mark to be placed over cosmic catastrophe language used in the New Testament. For ,
If Adams is right, and the evidence certainly points in his favour, then it is clear that Wright has overstated his position. However, this does not mean that all language of ‘cosmic breakdown’ is to be taken literally, for Caird’s second point remains potentially valid for some ‘cosmic catastrophe language, does seem to refer to socio-political events within space and time, and anticipates the continuation, not the cessation, of the present created order. In other words, just because some second temple Jews believed in the end of the world, does not not necessarily mean, as we shall see, that all end-of-the-world language actually refers to the end of the world.
Adams, himself, leaves the door open for such an interpretation when he, after discussing in a section ‘Global/Cosmic Catastrophe Language in Oracles against Specific Places’12 , concludes,
In contrast to Adams I do not believe that this is the case for Mark 13. A full discussion of Adams scholarly and provocative monograph cannot be given here. However some clarity can be brought into the situation by exploring some of the Old Testament allusions in verse 2415.
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
Bearing in mind C.H Dodd, who said that a quote or allusion in the New Testament often presupposes the original Old Testament context behind the allusion and not just the allusion itself,16we must take the context of the Isaiah allusion seriously. When we do we find that Isaiah 13:9-10 is set within an ‘oracle concerning Babylon'(13:1). The focus of the prophecy does appear to be global in places for we have a prophecy of a coming day (v6,9) in which YHWH, as the divine warrior(v4c), will bring destruction to the nations of the world (kingdoms v4 , nations v4 , whole land v5). In contrast to the creative order of Genesis 1:14-18 there will, on the day of YHWH’s visitation, be, whether this is understood as literal or metaphorical, cosmic disorder (10:13). However, following the prophetic narrative flow of Isaiah 13 we see that this language of cosmic disturbances does not result in the disintegration of the cosmos, but in a new age, in which YHWH will restore the fortunes of Israel (Is 14:1-2). We may say then, that Isaiah 13 desribes a localised judgement on Babylon, using symbolically the language of global and cosmic destruction and judgement.
The larger context of Isaiah 13-14 shares a number of parallels with the larger context of the eschatological discourse at a number of levels.
YHWH is acting to destroy Babylon. Isaiah 13:1
YHWH is bringing destruction to the temple. (Mk 13:2)
Language of cosmic disturbances is used to set scene for destruction of Babylon
Language of Cosmic Disturbances are being used to describe the destruction of Jerusalem.(Mk 13:24-25)
This is the Day of YHWH’s coming
Jesus embodies the presence of YHWH (Mark 13:3 in the light of prologue.)
Destruction will be followed by restoration (Is 14:1-2)
Tribulation will be followed by the the restoration of God’s people (Mk 13:27)
It is likely, then, given the similarities between Mark 13 and Isaiah 13-14, that the allusion to Isaiah 13:9-10, is meant to evoke not only the allusion itself but its larger context. Although reference is being made in Mark 13:24-25 to ‘cosmic events’ the focus of the judgement is the locality of Jerusalem and the temple, the events of Mark 13:24-25 are part of Jesus’ answer to the disciples question concerning the destruction of the temple. In agreement with Hatina ‘The point which needs to be stressed …. is that the cosmic, universal-type language is used figuratively to describe the demise of a political entity within history. It is not a reference to the closing act of history.17
As YHWH came to judge babylon, he is also coming to punish Israel. As YHWH brought restoration to exiled Israel after the destruction of Babylon, YHWH will bring restoration, through the ‘Son of Man’, to his exiles.
It seems then that Jesus, or the final editor of Mark, intended the readers and hearers to recognise his allusions to Isaiah 13:9-10, and I suggest that it is plausible, and likely, that the readers were intended to also pick up the contexts of the Isaianic background. A similar point, although admittedly more tentative, can be made by comparing Mark 13:25 with MT Isaiah 24:4-5. I say more tentative as it lacks direct textual allusion but both passages evoke the imagery of disturbances in the skies. The target of the this day of vengeance in Isaiah is not Babylon, but Edom. Is Jesus, or the Markan editor, shaping his material in such a way to say that Jerusalem is now like Babylon and Edom ,and will face a judgement within space and time in the form of a socio-poltical catastrophe? To support an affirmative answer to this question we are reminded by Hatina that Isaiah 24:4-5 is followed by the gathering of God’s people, a theme which is also picked up by Mark 13:27. Other possible allusions include Ezekiel 32:7-8, Joel 2:10, 3:15, and Amos 8:9, which, although admittedly being linguistically weaker than Isaiah 13, also, arguably, use cosmic imagery to describe a localised crisis.
Following on from what we have suggested should be understood as the loclaised destruction of Jerusalem we read of ‘ the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.’ (Mark 13:26). Turning to the main commentaries we may feel that an interpreter is basically faced with a choice of either going the way of France and Wright and see this passage as referring to vindication of the Son of Man before the ancient of days, or by following a mainstream position of seeing this passage as prophecy of the visible parousia. Although we shall briefly explore both options, I suggest, that a false choice lies before us, and that the meaning of this passage lies somewhere in between both options, in that Mark 13:24-27 s calling attention to a non-visible parousia, in which Jesus, as the embodiment of YHWH, is vindicated.
1I follow N.T. Wright in adopting a critical-realist reading of scripture which steers a middle course between the extremes of positivism, and naïve realism on the one hand, and extreme post-modern suspicion on the other hand. See Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 31-44.
2 R.T France, before commenting on Mark 13:24-27, rightly points out, “The key to this understanding in particular of vv. 24–27 lies in our willingness and ability to hear the prophetic imagery as it would have been heard by those in Jesus’ day who were at home in OT prophetic language, rather than as it is ‘naturally’ heard by Christian readers for whom the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ has since gained a different connotation through its association with the idea of παρουσία (a word which is conspicuously absent from this discourse in Mark)France, The Gospel of Mark.
3Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church (Paternoster Press, 2005), 38-47.
4 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 284.
5 Ibid., 299.
6 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 209.Also of note is his response to criticism of Dale Allision in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press).
7G. B. Caird, “The Language and Imagery ofthe Bible,” London: Duckworth 1: 980.
8 Ibid., 256.
9Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 299.
10Adams, The Stars Will Fall from Heaven.
15See the detailed analysis provided by Rikki Watts in G K Beale and D A Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Apollos, 2008), 225-227.
16 The biblical writers often worked with an illusion in its original context. This does not mean that they could not creatively transpose it do a different key, its original context often steers the transposition. As Dodd days ‘In general, then, the writers of the New Testament, in making use of passages from the Old Testament, remain true to the main intention of their writers. Yet the actual meaning discovered in a given passage will seldom, in the nature of things, coincide precisely with that which it had in its original context. The transposition into a fresh situation involves a certain shift, nearly always an expansion, of the original scope of the passage.’ C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: the sub-structure of New Testament theology (Nisbet, 1952).
17HATINA, “The Focus of Mark 13,” 53-59.