Friday, October 10, 2008

Daniel and Mark: Recurring Tragedies; Renewing Hope

If you go to Jerusalem today, you can visit 'the wailing wall,' which is about all that is left of the temple that Herod the Great built. It was one of the architectural wonders of the world in its day, built by the authority and power of Rome. It was also destroyed by the authority and power of Rome, which- if you ask me- is indicative of how empirical power works. All things are created as legitimations of power and therefore all things are liable to destruction as legitimations of power- religion included.

If you go to the Roman forum today, you can see the Arch of Titus, a commemoration of Rome's victory over the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE. Inscribed there is a picture of defeated Jewish captives and someone carrying the seven-branched candlestick of the temple into Rome. For Rome, perhaps, this was just another stamping out of an upstart rebellion in a remote part of its empire. For Jews, it was a tragedy, just like the tragedy of 200 years earlier when the Greek army defeated them. And, of course, for those Jews (and Jewish Christians) who saw the establishment of Jerusalem and the temple as signals of God's covenant, even the hope of the world that one day the temple would indeed be the 'house of prayer for all nations,' this was more than simply a military defeat.

Most New Testament scholars today accept that Mark was the first written gospel, dated from somewhere around this time of the rebellion-siege-destruction of Jerusalem; so, anywhere from 65-70 CE. Likewise, the theory goes, Matthew and Luke each had access to Mark as one of their primary sources when writing their own gospel. Luke, for instance, begins his gospel with an inscription that openly declares his process of trying to wade through the various accounts of Jesus' life, including the oral stories that preceded the written texts, in order to get the story as accurate and orderly as possible. I expect that Luke had a copy of Mark in hand and, there are places where Luke and Matthew seem to be talking back and forth to one another, but I cannot discern who might be answering whom in that one. Compare, for example, Matthew's sermon on the mount (cc. 5-7) with Luke's sermon on the plain (6:17-49). These texts are uncanny in their similarities and differences to the point where one seems to be 'correcting' the other.

If we take intertextuality seriously, we can look at a story in Mark, consider its purpose for Mark's gospel and in Mark's time; then look at how Matthew and Luke might tell the same story a bit differently. The similarities would be very important; the differences would be very important. So, I'm going to take a fleeting look at Mark 13, what is sometimes called "Mark's Little Apocalypse," and then compare it to Matthew 24-25 and Luke 21. Today, we start with Mark 13.

Mark 13 is where Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. The disciples respond with the question, "when will this be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" The Question that leads into the scary scenario of nation rising against nation, etc., is the question of when the temple will be destroyed and what signs will accompany that event. I'm not making this up- they're at the temple and Jesus says it's going to be destroyed and the disciples ask when and what signs can they expect. THAT'S what the scary scenario is about in Mark 13. And, if Mark is writing anywhere between 65-70 CE, that's THE burning question for anyone who puts stock in Jerusalem and the temple as loci of God's blessings.

Jesus' response is varied. There will be persecution, wars and rumors of war. There will be a zillion false messiahs rising up and calling people to follow them. Families will turn on one another. The desolating sacrilege will be set up where it ought not to be (a reference to the past, when Antiochus Epiphanes did his ugly deed in the temple 200 years prior; as well as a coded reference to what the Romans were doing in Mark's time). More false Messiah's screaming "I am he, look at me!" A quote from Zephaniah that puts the catastrophe into cosmic terms (dark sun, shaking powers of heaven). And, then, a quote from Daniel, "They they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the 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 winds of heaven."

Okay, that's a lot. Let's unpack it a bit:

1. The question is about the destruction of the temple. The answer is about the destruction of the temple.
- The destruction of the temple happened in 70 CE. If you don't believe me, go see the wailing wall. It was utterly destroyed and the events in Mark 13 are not in the future.
-It is not legitimate for us to leap all of this text forward to some day in the future that has nothing to do with the destruction of the temple. Left Behind Theologians: Stop it.

2. Mark is writing to his people at his time, while telling this story of Jesus talking to his disciples at his time.
- I don't know what implications this has for anyone's definition of 'biblical inspiration' or 'biblical authority.' But, I am not willing to sacrifice taking this text at face value in order to preserve someone's view of the Bible. Here are a couple of idiosyncrasies from the text itself that demonstrate Mark's intentional use of this text for addressing his own time.
- First, there is the change of voice. As I showed yesterday, Mark changes his voice from narrator to commentor, from Jesus talking to the disciples to Mark talking to his readers in 13:14, which the NRSV translates as the parenthetical phrase "(let the reader understand)".
- Then, there is the curious change of tenses. As you go through this chapter, it is future tense, future tense, future tense, "Many will..." "When you hear..." "they will..." "when you see..." and then, suddenly, HEY!! In 13:20 "And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days."
Where in the world did these past and present tenses come from? 'Had not'? 'Has'? If Jesus is talking to his disciples about events that will happen 40 years or so down the road, shouldn't his language be 'will not' and 'will'? This is another indication that Mark is addressing his people and his time and their tragedy with Jesus' words. That is, by the way, exactly the pattern that whoever wrote chapters 7-12 of Daniel followed, when they addressed their people and their tragedy using 'Daniel's' words. It is not lying; it is not deceptive; it is a way of honoring the truth-telling of Daniel and of Jesus to take their way of speaking, their vision of hope, and to address it to one's own time and crisis.
- So, the question might arise: Did Jesus actually say these words that Mark has re-oriented to address his time, place, tragedy, and hope? And I can't answer that question. The "Jesus Seminar" might say 'No!' just like a biblical fundamentalist might say 'Yes!' but this is one of those moments when 'I don't know!' is probably the most honest answer we have going. And here is the deal: What we are encountering is a different way of recounting story. Gospel writing is honorific story-telling, not literal history-telling. Our penchant for literalism is such a new development in the large history of writing that our biggest error is to assume that ancient writers (writing Daniel 7-12 or Mark) give one fig about what we call 'history.'

3. What Mark has Jesus ultimately saying is, "have hope and endure to the end," or something to that effect. And in what can one hope when the holy city and temple are being bombarded? Hope in the same thing Daniel said to hope in: 'The Son of Man coming in the clouds.' Do we know exactly what that looks like? Nope. Did the Son of Man come in the clouds during Daniel's tragedy? Nope. Did the Son of Man come in the clouds during the temple's destruction or shortly thereafter? Nope. Is this a 'prophetic time line' that only the really smart insiders of Left Behind Theology can figure out for us? Nope. Is anyone really reading this blog? Nope.

4. So, here's the hard question. Were Daniel/Jesus/Mark wrong? Again: Nope. Not in their minds, because they were not giving literal prophecy any more than they were giving literal history. They were saying, "Have hope; God is not finished, even when the temple is desecrated or destroyed." The phrase "Son of Man coming in the clouds" is a hope-filled phrase that points to God bringing hope out of despair. The title 'Son of Man' is both the thoroughly human one, who will suffer and die, as well as the symbol of hope, who will conquer death and bring salvation. So, just when it seems like all is lost, God will save. That's the message of hope that Mark communicated to a forlorn people wondering what is up as Jerusalem and the temple are besieged.

On Monday: What does Matthew have to say about this?

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