Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Daniel and Mark: Intertextuality, part deux

So... yesterday we left it with the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem was not only a magnificent edifice, but also a problem. Yes, it was large, beautiful, and - with some of the stones in the walls measuring 40 feet long!- seemingly indestructible. That explains the conversation that Jesus had with some of this followers at the beginning of that crucial chapter 13 in Mark's gospel. One of the disciples said what every small town visitor to the temple would say at some point, "Golly, gee willikers, would ya look at the size of this place! Looky there at that stone- that honker is bigger than my entire house! Thank G_d we finally have a temple that will last forever!"

It was a reasonable statement and it seemed as if Herod the Great, empowered by Rome, had built Jerusalem an eternal temple that would never again be destroyed. But, that unimaginable destruction of the temple is exactly what was happening when Mark's gospel was being written. And the golden eagle that I mentioned yesterday- a symbol of Rome's prowess that was perched over the gate leading into the temple- was a symptom of the problem. It was an unsustainable arrangement: The God of the universe, the Lord of all power and might, to whom all glory and loyalty is due, above whom and beside whom there is no other, who alone is worthy of praise- that God cannot have a temple, the symbols of which say, "This worship of the God of the universe is brought to you today by the largesse of Rome." To a faithful worshipper entering that temple gate, perhaps is sounded more like, "Yeah, yeah, worship this so-called 'YHWH' all you want, but remember that Jupiter is your real daddy!"

I don't want to make too much out of that eagle- they're just glorified vultures looking for a little road kill- but it was not only offensive symbolically, it was a real political statement. That's why a band of faithful Jews sneaked into the temple one night and chopped it off. And, that's why Rome responded by crucifying 300 Jews for it- both as a punishment and an obscene public overkill reminder of who was really in charge, who was truly the Lord and Master, around here! That eagle was a symbol of the unsustainable arrangement of having Rome as the guarantor of God's temple and the empire that ruled over God's people.

The tension came to a head around 66 CE, when a group of Jews- remembering the Maccabean revolution against Greece during the 2nd century BCE (200 years earlier) began a revolt against Rome. (Remember, the 2nd century BCE was the time during which Daniel 7-12 were written.) This revolution was probably doomed from the start, but they were zealous fighters and not easily defeated. In time, the sheer size and ability of the Roman army was too much, and the revolutionaries took to the temple and a few other places (like Massada) as havens of last resort. In time, the massive Roman army surrounded Jerusalem and held it in seige, finally defeating the revolution by destroying the temple itself. (Can you imagine how devoted this empire was to its power? It destroyed this magnificent architectural wonder- that they had built!- as a 'scorched earth' means of stamping out this rebellion. As Mark Twain once said, "If your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails." Rome's tool was power ... bang!)

One of the dilemmas facing Jews and early Jewish Christians during this tragic seige was the question, "Should I stay or should I go?" That's why I have The Clash playing in the background on my computer right now, to remind me of this question that the people faced regarding whether to stay and fight or to surrender to the Romans. That is one of the questions that Jesus is addressing in that crucial 13th chapter of Mark when he says, "Neither! Leave! Run to the hills, don't stop for anything, just get out of here!" It is not an 'end-time' issue of some day in the future when the Great Tribulation begins. It was a real, existential question for Mark's community in 69-70 CE: "What do we do, how do we respond, what does faithfulness look like right now, while the Roman army is destroying our temple, our holy city, our center of life?" To the early Christian community, Mark is telling the story of Jesus, saying "Don't fight, don't surrender, get out of harm's way; and don't follow the next wanna-be messiah, either. Things are going to get worse for a while."

And, as Mark is writing and addressing this real-time issue facing his people, he employs some of the language from Daniel 7-12, the last time the temple was destroyed as God's people were trounced by an invading empire.

Mark 13:14 is the critical conjunction between the latter half of Daniel during the events of 169 BCE and the destruction that Mark's community was facing during the seige of 69-70 CE: "But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Jerusalem must flee to the mountains...."

This is one of the most amazing verses in all the New Testament for the following reasons.
1. There is the comment, "Let the reader understand." Bible translators put those words into parentheses because they represent an unexpected change of voice. It is as if Mark jumps out of his seat as narrator and stands in front of the camera for a split second to interject a direct statement in this movie that he is making about Jesus. Or, if the movie imagery doesn't work for you, this is similar to a literary wink and nod. Mark's voice changes from being a narrator to a commentor.
2. Mark uses a phrase from Daniel that we noted yesterday: "the desolating sacrilege." In Daniel's Aramaic text, it gets translated 'an abomination that desolates' (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11). In Mark's Greek text, it comes out 'desolating sacrilege,' but he is definitely using Daniel very deliberately here as a way of interpreting the destruction of the temple.

Perhaps it was simply not possible for Mark to speak directly about the destruction and say, "Those cursed Romans!" It might be that anyone caught with that kind of subversion or anyone reading it aloud to a gathered Christian community would immediately put everyone's life in peril. I'm guessing that's the reason for the cryptic reference to Daniel and the wink and nod comment to the Christian community encouraging them to make the connection between what happened when Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple and what the Romans were doing in Mark's time.

Tomorrow we'll see how Mark continues using Daniel's imagery with a reference to the Son of Man. For today, I simply wanted to show how the situation facing Mark's community was such that Mark was able to point back to the situation facing the Jewish people 200 years earlier for imagery and, ultimately, for words of hope. These are not silly words of hope like, "Don't worry; be happy." It was real tragedy. But, it was not hopeless despair. God had been faithful before; God would be faithful again. Even though things were bound to get worse (as Jesus puts it, "These events are just the beginnings of the birth pains"), God would be faithful. Tomorrow, we'll see how Mark describes that faithfulness.

(Isn't intertextuality a rich and meaningful way of engaging these texts? To me, this approach makes these texts come alive. I hope I am communicating some of that richness to you as well.)

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