Peeking Under the Covers
Mark 13 is often referred to as the Markan “Little Apocalypse.” Jesus discusses the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in response to the gee-whiz comments of one of the disciples in Mark 13:1. We should note that the Markan composition is performed and transcribed during and after the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. Therefore, the described destruction is now accomplished fact. We can talk later about why that is important in the Markan composition.
For now, however, I want to focus on and remind us of the nature of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and beyond. While the Book of Revelation is, perhaps, the best known and most studied apocalyptic document around the first century, it is by no means the only such document. It demonstrates characteristics that can help us to understand and interpret other apocalyptic documents, such as Mark 13.
The Greek verb, apokalupto, means to “reveal” or to “disclose.” The literal meaning, when we take the word apart, means something like “to remove the cover” or “to bring out from hiding.” Apocalyptic literature uncovers what is happening far more than it seeks to predict what will happen.
Apocalyptic literature is a kind of prophecy, but it is prophecy in the sense of most prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not foretelling so much as it is forth-telling. Pablo Richard, in his book, Apocalypse, offers several guidelines for interpretation here. While he is speaking specifically about the Book of Revelation, most of his guidelines are applicable to Mark 13 as well. So, I will share selections from those guidelines to assist us in our grappling with the text.
Richard notes that apocalyptic literature arises in times of persecution. In particular, such literature comes to the fore in situations of chaos, exclusion, and ongoing oppression. The eschatology (discussion of the “last things”) in such literature takes place in the present of the composer rather than in the future.
If, for example, the Markan composition comes to light during and after the Jewish War and the persecutions before, during, and after it, then the discussions of persecution, trial, family division, and the need for endurance were issues for those listening to the composition. It may be that the “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14ff.) has already taken place and needs to be interpreted. The necessity for alertness is clearly addressed to the listeners in Mark 13:37.
Richard notes that Revelation (and, I would say, Christian apocalyptic in general) is about the process of history rather than events at the end of history. Therefore, for example, the little parable of the fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) shows how history really works. Apocalyptic literature uncovers the work of God in and through history as well as the work that transcends that history. So, we have both the description of the earthly tribulations and the expectations of cosmic disruptions in Mark 13:24-27.
The Little Apocalypse unites apocalyptic and prophecy, I would argue, just as does the Revelation to John. As in the case of John’s apocalypse, some of this “prophecy” is almost certainly after the fact, pointing to events that had not yet happened in Jesus’ time, but which had taken place by the time the Markan composition was performed. The Little Apocalypse explains and interprets far more than it predicts.
Apocalyptic literature brings together eschatology and politics. We can certainly see that in Mark 13. And Richard urges us to interpret apocalyptic literature in the historical context in which it arose.
Therefore, the Little Apocalypse made sense to those first performers and listeners. It helped them to understand, interpret, and endure their experiences as Jesus followers. If the Little Apocalypse became meaningful only in our time, as some interpreters would argue, it is unlikely that it would have been preserved by all those people confused by the opaqueness of a document not meant for them.
“The content of revelation is the reality of heaven,” Richard writes, “that is, the transcendent world of the presences of God in history. The opposite of revelation is covering up,” he continues, “what today we would call ideology. Ideology serves to conceal injustices and legitimize domination. Apocalypse un-conceals the world of the poor and legitimizes their struggle for the reign of God, which is life and liberation. This liberation is therefore,” he concludes, “good news for the poor” (page 37).
I think it is critical to remember the way in which the Markan composer frames the Little Apocalypse. Last week we read and studied the basis for the Little Apocalypse in the critique of the greedy scribes and the offering of the poor widow. Jesus sat “opposite” the Temple treasury in Mark 12:41. That word can have the sense of being in contradiction of or in opposition to something. It’s important to remember that position, not only in terms of geography but also in terms of theology.
Then in Mark 13, Jesus leaves the Temple and sits “opposite” the Temple, gazing on it from the Mount of Olives. The word for “opposite” is the same as in the previous passage. By now we should know that such repetition is neither accident nor coincidence in the Markan composition. Something interesting is going on here.
Following the Little Apocalypse is the story of the woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus’ head. The text begins with the brief reminder that the chief priests and the scribes were looking for an opportunity to remove the troublemaker (or to put down a dangerous disruptor, depending on your perspective). The woman is scolded for wasting money that could have been given to the poor. Woman, money, poor – the Markan composer wants us to see that this is connected to the other piece of the frame in Mark 12.
I find it most helpful to read apocalyptic literature as a method of theological and social analysis rather than as mere history or fantastic prediction. The method is to uncover Reality, insofar as it is possible, from God’s point of view rather than from the view of human power structures. The analytical framework of the Little Apocalypse, therefore, is about the exploitation of the poor for the sake of the Jerusalem elites in the first century. What can we take from the analysis for our own Way of discipleship? That’s part of the question for this week.
When an ideological system perceives challenges and threats to itself, it responds first with falsehood. I can’t help but think of the pseudo-messianic claims of the previous president, for example. “I alone can fix it,” he declared in 2016. I live in a neighborhood where there is flag promoting the candidacy of that former president in 2024 with the slogan, “Saving America Again.”
The Markan composer notes that many will come in Jesus’ name and say “I am.” If you recall the extended discussions of that phrase in connection with the Gospel of John, you will remember that this assertion vibrates with claims of divinity. Those vibrations take us all the way back to the call of Moses in Exodus. The ones who make such claims will deceive many and lead them into error. “Astray” is not just being lost here. It is being mistaken.
A threatened ideological system will seek to displace the blame for problems on to outside agents and structures. Every autocrat needs a credible and demonic enemy or two. “Wars and rumors of wars” are useful for maintaining the level of anxiety necessary to keep people from risking resistance.
These days the threats are caravans of migrants overwhelming the southern borders of the United States and rabid socialists overwhelming the moral resources of the individualist, capitalist regime. Always lurking in the background, and now in the open, is the bugbear of the black beast, ready at a moment’s notice to rape white women and steal white property. Many are led into error these days by such ideological nonsense.
When messianic promises and demonizing the Other are not sufficient to maintain power, then actual violence is employed. The description in Mark 13:9-13 is specific and precise. I suspect that some of the listeners to Markan composition could nod in remembrance of their own experiences, finger their own scars, and mourn those who had not endured or survived.
Wherever the Markan composition was produced and performed, there would likely be in the audience refugees from the Jewish War who had fled to the mountains to escape the disaster. There were those who left everything to get away. There were some who lost children on the trip. In the midst of the chaos and dislocation, there would certainly be those who still claim to be the only ones who could fix it.
The framing of the Little Apocalypse in the Markan composition leads us to believe that the “problem” was the Imperial system of wealth extraction, undergirded by the public theology of the emperor as savior and son of a god. The Jerusalem Temple and its functionaries had a complicated relationship with that system and that theology – neither all good nor bad. But in the end, that system could tolerate no resistance. And the oppressed could not the tolerate the deception and theft. There was war.
We can ask ourselves, in this time of dislocation and deconstruction, what ideologies are being uncovered for what they truly are? The ideology of Christian Nationalism, which is the framework and foundation of four centuries of White Supremacy on this continent, is perhaps the most obvious candidate for discussion here. There is a great uncovering happening in our time. And the response is predictable – messianic promises, externalized threats, and violent suppression. While that response was more in the shadows in the past, it is now quite in the open and is celebrated by at least a third of the population (far more among so-called “Evangelical Christians”).
I don’t know that most of us white preachers are going to make that direct connection in our sermons this week (unless we have our walking papers prepared for execution). But at least we might raise the question, after helping people to begin to understand what Mark 13 is about. What systems are being uncovered among us now for what they truly are? Will we resist and testify? Or will we retreat and ossify?
For me, at least, the verdict is (I am sad to say) still in doubt…
References and Resources
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.