The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
There are some important questions to be asked about apocalyptic texts such as Mark 13. We need to locate such texts in their historical context—something I have done in https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/
We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.
The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.
An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.
Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.
When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).
The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).
In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.
Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.
Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).
Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.
So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.
Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.
Paul D. Hanson developed a strong case for understanding the apocalyptic literature of the second century BCE and the following centuries as being the result of “a long development reaching back to pre-exilic times and beyond, and not the new baby of second century foreign parents”, as some other scholars have maintained. See https://www.readings.com.au/products/6590310/the-dawn-of-apocalyptic-the-historical-and-sociological-roots-of-jewish-apocalyptic-eschatology
The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.
This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***
John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination
We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.
Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.
Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.
In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.
There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.
All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.
And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).
Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.