Sunday, November 7, 2021

Things that are Pangs in the Birth

Things that are Pangs in the Birth

Below is my translation of Mark 13:1-8, the Revised Common Lectionary’s Gospel reading for the 26thSunday after Pentecost. This text is the beginning of what some scholars call Mark’s “little apocalypse,” where Jesus speaks of cataclysmic signs, persecutions, the “abomination of desolation,” and “the son of man coming in the clouds.” Much of this language and texture comes from Daniel – particularly that part of Daniel that was written when the Selucid General Antiochus IV Epiphanes overthrew Jerusalem and desecrated the temple. 

It is my reading that apocalyptic literature is protest literature, particularly at times when imperial powers try to usurp that which is rightly God’s. That is, I read the last half of Daniel as a protest against the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes, when he desecrated the temple in 167 BCE. And I read Mark 13 as a protest against the actions of the General and future Caesar Titus, as he destroyed the temple in 70 CE to squash a rebellion. 

This particular pericope begins with the unnamed disciple marveling at the seeming indestructibility of the temple. As Mark’s audience knows, that indestructibility is far from certain. This pericope also follows the story from last week, where the poor widow is contributing to a temple system that is destructive. As some readers pointed out last week, in light of that passage, this week’s text may be read as judgment on the temple. 

Mark 13:1-8

Καὶ ἐκπορευομένου αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Διδάσκαλε, ἴδε ποταποὶ λίθοι καὶ ποταπαὶ οἰκοδομαί. 
And as he was exiting out of the temple one of the disciples says to him, “Teacher, look what stones and what buildings!” 
ἐκπορευομένου: PMPart gsm, ἐκπορεύομαι, 1) to go forth, go out, depart
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἴδεImpv of aorist 2 of εἶδον,see! lo! behold! as calling attention to something present.
1. The pronoun ποταποὶ is interesting. It could be a general exclamatory, “What ...”or “What manner of ...” or it could be reflective of origin, “From what country ....” The disciple seems to be marveling, but at what, exactly, is hard to say. Some translations flavor it with adjectives like “marvelous” or “large.” 
2. I’ve always heard this disciple as a Gomer Pyle type of Galilean country boy, going to the big city for the first time and saying, “Well Gol-ly! Look at them stones and buildings!”  But, given how Jesus has been quite candid about going to Jerusalem and being betrayed by the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, I should give this disciple more credit. It could be more akin to, “Seriously? We’re going to take this on?” I’m guessing that this temple by Herod the Great was a show of power as much or more than a show of piety. If the term ποταποὶ still retains its early sense as referring to the origin of a stone/building, this disciple could be reckoning with the notion that the temple is that “house of prayer for all peoples,” and not just a Galilean/Judean matter. 
3. I’ve read that some of the stones of the temple measured 40 feet long – a single stone! That would seem formidable even in times of modern architecture and, following the violence of this text, modern warfare. 

καὶ  Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Βλέπεις ταύτας τὰς μεγάλας οἰκοδομάς; οὐ μὴ ἀφεθῇ ὧδε λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον ὃς οὐ μὴ καταλυθῇ. 
And Jesus said to him, “See these large buildings? Not a stone may be left on a stone that may not be demolished.” 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Βλέπεις: PAI 2s, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
ἀφεθῇ: APSubj 3s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  1a) to bid going away or depart 
καταλυθῇ: APSubj 3s, καταλύω, 1) to dissolve, disunite  1a) (what has been joined together), to destroy, demolish
1. At this level of rough translation, this last sentence is a very awkward construction to translate word for word. I think the sense is clear enough – Jesus is picking up on the ‘stone’ and ‘building’ reference by the disciple and countering his amazement with an expectation of utter destruction.
2. Most likely, Mark is writing this text long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a time when the temple is either undergoing destruction, is already destroyed, or is in imminent threat of being destroyed. Mark’s own language throughout this chapter  – when he slips from the future to the present or past tense (see v. 20) – seems to indicate that this is not merely a ‘prediction’ or ‘prophecy’ of Jesus, but a text whose narrator is embedded in the destructive event itself. Mark even interjects himself as the narrator in one place, when he interrupts Jesus’ words to the disciples to offer words to the readers (v.14). I would argue that Mark is quite deliberately using these changes of tenses and self-reference, thus this is less a predictive prophecy – as some are wont to read it – and more of a theological interpretation of an event that is devastating both literally and theologically. 

Καὶ καθημένου αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν κατέναντι τοῦ ἱεροῦ ἐπηρώτα αὐτὸν κατ' ἰδίαν Πέτρος καὶ Ἰάκωβος καὶἸωάννης καὶ Ἀνδρέας, 
And seating himself in the Mount of Olives over-against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew interrogated him in private,  
καθημένου: PMPart gsm, κάθημαι, 1) to sit down, seat one's self  2) to sit, be seated, of a place occupied  2a) to have a fixed abode, to dwell 
ἐπηρώτα: IAI 3s, ἐπερωτάω, 1) to accost one with an enquiry, put a question to, enquiry of,  ask, interrogate
1. The verb ἐπερωτάω could be translated “asked,” as most translation put it. But, it often has a ring of confrontation or at least some kind of challenge. I’ve listed the Markan uses below. 
2. The verb ἐπερωτάω is also curious, because it appears here in the 3rdperson singular form and the most obvious subjects are Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Perhaps Mark is using the very collectively, but I would have expected a plural verb with plural subjects. 
3. It is curious that Andrew is added to the usual triumvirate of Peter, James, and John. 
4. I tend to use ‘curious’ when I don’t have a judgment to make – have you noticed? 
5. We have seen the phrase κατέναντι before (see last week’s post, when Jesus sits over-against the treasury).  κατέν/αντι literally means over/against. But, as I suggested last week, it seems to be more than a location and implies an attitude or stance of opposition. 

Εἰπὸν ἡμῖν πότε ταῦτα ἔσται, καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον ὅταν μέλλῃ ταῦτα συντελεῖσθαι πάντα. 
“Tell us, when will these things be and what [will be] the sign when all these things may be about to be fulfilled?   
Εἰπὸν: AAImpv 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἔσται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
μέλλῃ: PASubj 3s, μέλλω, 1) to be about  1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something  1b) to intend, have in mind, think to 
συντελεῖσθαι: PPInf, συντελέω, 1) to end together or at the same time  2) to end completely  2a) bring to an end, finish, complete
1. I’m kind of shaky on this translation. The latter part of the sentence seems to need something, so I supplied a carry-over ‘will be’ from the first half. 
2. The words ποτέ and ὅταν are both temporal terms: ποτέ, “once i.e. formerly, aforetime, at some time”; and ὅταν, “when, whenever, as long as, as soon as.” 

 δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἤρξατο λέγειν αὐτοῖς, Βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς πλανήσῃ: 
Yet Jesus began to say to them, “See that someone may not lead you astray.  
ἤρξατο: AMI 3s, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule 
λέγειν: PAInf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Βλέπετε: PAImpv 2p, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye 
πλανήσῃ: AASubj 3s, πλανάω, 1) to cause to stray, to lead astray, lead aside from the right way 
1. This is the second time Jesus begins a sentence with “See” (Βλέπετε). The first time (v.2) it is in an interrogative; this time in an imperative form.  

πολλοὶ ἐλεύσονται ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου λέγοντες ὅτι Ἐγώ εἰμι, καὶ πολλοὺς 
Many will come with my name saying ‘I am,’ and many shall follow. 
ἐλεύσονται: FMI 3p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
πλανήσουσιν: FAI 3p, πλανάω, 1) to cause to stray, to lead astray, lead aside from the right way 
1. The “I am,” (Ἐγώ εἰμι) is similar to the repeated usage in John’s Gospel, as well as an echo of the conversation between God and Moses in Exodus 3, where God answers the question of his name with “I am whom I am” (or, “I will be whom I will be”). Here, Jesus speaks of many who come both "in my name" and using that phrase which we so often identify with the unnamable God. Does this mean that many will come claiming to be God/Jesus/the Christ? Or, does it refer to those who will come invoking the name of God/Jesus/the Christ in vain (i.e. for their own purposes)? 
2. Jesus himself will use the phrase, "I am," in 14:62, in answer to the High Priest's query, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"

ὅταν δὲ ἀκούσητε πολέμους καὶ ἀκοὰς πολέμων, μὴ θροεῖσθεδεῖ γενέσθαιἀλλ' οὔπω τὸ τέλος. 
Yet when you may hear of war and sounds of wars, do not be alarmed; the end is necessary to happen, but not yet.  
ἀκούσητε: AASubj 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
θροεῖσθε: PPImpv 2p, θροέω to cry aloud, to make a clamor. Here, passive, to be frightened so as to be made to cry aloud or make a clamor.
δεῖ: PAI 3s, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten 
γενέσθαι: AM(dep)Inf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. Mark seems to use δεῖ to indicate a kind of divine necessity - e.g. in 8:31, “The Son of Man must suffer many things.” 
2. The word order for the last phrase perplexes me a bit. The verb δεῖ can either take a subject (“X must”) or be substantive (“It is necessary that ...”). I think it works best to use ‘the end’ as the subject of both verbs “it is necessary” and “to happen,” as well as the cautionary “but not yet.” The KJV and NIV supply “such things” as the subject of “must happen,” but δεῖ is not plural.

ἐγερθήσεται γὰρ ἔθνος ἐπ' ἔθνος καὶ βασιλεία ἐπὶ βασιλείαν, ἔσονται σεισμοὶκατὰτόπους, ἔσονται λιμοί: ἀρχὴ ὠδίνων ταῦτα. 
For nation shall be raised against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes along places, there will be famines; these things [are] a beginning of birth pangs.” 
ἐγερθήσεται: FPI 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The last phrase lacks a verb, so I supplied ‘to be’. 
2. I’m puzzled why so many translations make ἐγερθήσεται active “shall rise”, when it is passive “shall be raised.” 

Here are the uses of ἐπηρώταin Mark. Many of them indicate a kind of challenge as opposed to simple inquiry. 
And he asked him, What is...
...Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk...
...people, his disciples asked him concerning the...
And he asked them, How many...
...hands upon him, he asked him if he... the way he asked his disciples, saying...
And he saith unto them, But...
And they asked him, saying, Why...
And he asked the scribes, What...
And he asked his father, How..., his disciples asked him privately, Why...
...and were afraid to ask him. the house he asked them, What was... him, and asked him, Is it... his disciples asked him again of... him, and asked him, Good Master...
...unto them, I will also ask of you one... resurrection; and they asked him, saying,
...answered them well, asked him, Which is...
...after that durst ask him any question...
...John and Andrew asked him privately,
...the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest...
...the high priest asked him, and said...
And Pilate asked him, Art thou...
And Pilate asked him again, saying...
...him the centurion, he asked him whether he...


  1. Thanks, I found your translations helpful.

    One of the things that stood out to me in this reading is the verb for "thrown down" which is also used in the story of the rich folks and the widow who are throwing money into the treasury.

    I also noticed there is a lot of this verb "see" in the previous chapter, and later in 13.

    Thanks again.

  2. I stumbled on your blog a few weeks ago and am delighted with its content. Thank you. Please keep it up. We working preachers need such resources. For instance, your "take" this week on the disciples' reaction to the temple opens up a prophetic reading of the text which I find both imaginative and faithful to the context beginning at 12:38 and moving forward.

  3. Thank you for you translations. They make for very interesting discussions at our before service gospel study. We enjoy exploring the new possibilities for understanding that they give us. They have also helped greatly in drawing a more complete picture when I preach.

    Ann Marie

  4. Thank you all for your very gracious comments. I am at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting this week and cannot reply to each message, but I am quite encouraged by them. The only joy greater than meditating on the Scriptures is doing so in community. Thanks,

  5. I like the a la Paul 'birth-pangs' imagery. It's so easy to get sucked into focussing on the gloom and doom and ignoring the hope in this passage. As is so typical, from the pain of chaos and fear and despair G-d gives birth to new life, a new generation, a new creation

  6. I'm not sure this is sermon material but it's "curious" that he sits on a mountain over against the temple. It's curious given the OT development between mountains as sacred places versus the primacy of the temple.

    1. Hi Trevor. That is a curiosity worth pursuing, I think. I wonder if there were an ongoing struggle in the OT over whether the temple was God's will or a concession to the human need. "God does not dwell in houses made with human hands" v. "God's presence is in the temple." Jesus may be siding with the "God doesn't need this place" argument; or perhaps Mark is doing so in a time when the temple's destruction bodes ominous for people who feel that it is the dwelling place of the most high.
      That "over/against" preposition seems pretty potent to me. Curiously.

  7. I understand that what I am about to say doesn't directly connect to your discussion on your thought, "when imperial powers try to usurp that which is rightly God’s", but in light of impact of Covid on churches is there something about how church communities today are too tied to the church building? How many people want church life to go back to "normal" doing worship inside the church? Could there be something prophetic for us reframe covid as a way to understand God is "destroying the temple"? Is it time for the church to look deeply at rethinking ecclesiology? Am I reaching too far?

  8. U r not reaching too far at all! I think that the Pandemic has destroyed church as building and forced the church to rethink its place in the world and how it reaches others through the cyber space. I will use this in my sermon for this Sunday. Thank you! Jay Alanis

    1. Yes, pre-occupation with the "building" has taken many much time. I do see some parishoners as fulfilling their devotion to the church through careful maintenance of the building... But, as in most things, a balance between that kind of effort and our spiritual growth needs to happen

    2. It seems that for years we have sung the song, "I am the church" with the refrain, "the church is not a building ... the church is a people." We've sung it, usually in a church building, and we meant it theoretically. So, yes, I agree that the pandemic has enabled/forced us to reckon with what we have always thought was correct, but had trouble living into.
      On the other hand, my first call was at a new worshiping community and we did not have a building, so to speak. We were leasing space in an office building at a cut rate because of a friendship. As a result, we were moved around every now and then and each time had to take the new space and make the best of it that we could. Sacred Space is a thing. And it was a good thing for us when we built a building where we could invest some years together.
      So ... I'm a little torn. Obviously we can become too consumed with buildings and but into the lies that ornate buildings are somehow signs of faithfulness, etc. On the other hand, ornate buildings can be a sign of faithfulness, etc. And the practical value of being able to gather, to find sanctuary, to remember, and all those things can be a blessing.
      I feel like the ultimate fence-sitter on this one.

  9. A thought on verse 3 and the two sets of brothers who question Jesus: In 1:16-20 it is these four who are the first to be called as disciples, specifically to be "fishers of men." In this, his last discourse, our narrator returns the readers to this initial calling with this final discipleship teaching. This teaching, then, is for those who consider themselves called which would include Mark's community and any latter day reader.


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