Objections to Mark 13 as AD 70: Cosmic Imagery

Yesterday I laid out a few observations about Mark 13, suggesting that the chapter should be read as an extended prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and Temple, as occurred in AD 70.

One paragraph in Mark 13 (often referred to as “The Olivette Discourse”) appears to undermine the AD 70 interpretation. It comes in verses 24-27. From my shiny new Common English Bible:

    In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

The first thing that is important to recognize is that this language, which is stock language of apocalyptic writing, should not be taken literally. It is the kind of imagery we see elsewhere in the Bible to describe not falling stars but falling empires or other such geo-political earth-shattering events. (Earth shattering?! Does that mean I think the earth is literally going to be cracking beneath my feet?)

One important example of this is found in Isaiah 13: “The oracle concerning Babylon… See, the day of YHWH comes… For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil… Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of YHWH…Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be punished, and their wives ravished. See, I am stirring up the Medes against them…”

The imagery of a disintegrated cosmos is used to describe the fall of the Babylonian empire. Some of the correlations are direct (darkened sun), but the more important thing to recognize is that this is the same kind of language.

Perhaps as importantly is the speech of Peter in Acts 2. This obviously is not Jewish “background” material, but it is an important indicator of how one early Christian understood the Old Testament imagery of cosmic disintegration. In the case of that sermon, the cosmic imagery signals not the fall of an empire, but the enthronement of a new king.

On the day of Pentecost, after the Spirit has been poured out and Jesus’ followers speak in various languages, Peter says, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel, ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on al people… I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. The sun will be changed into darkness and the moon will be changed into blood…”

Um, Peter? Where’s the dark sun? Where’s the bloody moon? The point is, that this is all imagery for an earth-shattering event: the end has arrived, but what “the end” means is the ascension and enthronement of God’s chosen king, Jesus. The signs and wonders begin with Jesus’ ministry, they continue through the acts of the apostles.

The point: there is significant biblical context and precedent for seeing the cosmic imagery as indicative of the sort of earthly transition that might be marked by the falling of a city, the enthronement of Jesus as king, the victory of Titus’ army over the Jerusalem armies in AD 70.

But what about the coming of the son of man? The Human One, as the CEB calls him? We’ll hit that tomorrow.

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