Early dates for GMark, part II: How could Jesus say such a thing?

Lion of Mark

10th Century Lion of Mark

This series (first post here) is about Jesus’ prevision of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple complex, which is found in Mark 13:2,

Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”

How much support does Mark’s reporting of this statement lend to estimates that Mark’s Gospel was composed after the Romans destroyed those great buildings in 70 CE, rather than sometime before? The question itself is somewhat curious, since Jesus is supposed to have said this in the 30’s.

This post finds that Jesus could easily have said such a thing back then even if he, or whoever first attributed the remark to him, lacked foreknowledge of the disastrous Roman-Jewish War. Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have intended his remark as a personal prediction of a specific near-future (about 40 years) catastrophe. Finally, it isn’t much more or less likely for Mark to have included this remark in his story, depending on whether the Temple was or wasn’t intact when he made his choice.

Jesus could naturally apprehend an eventual destruction of the Temple

1968 NY Times ad

Click to enlarge.

Absolutely no preternatural or supernatural ability was needed for this forecast. As was shown in the last post, ordinary people wrote about the prospect that an airplane would damage a World Trade Center tower a generation before it happened. The danger was rationally apprehensible from the outset. People did not predict the eventual catastrophe, but they did discuss it before it happened.

The Hebrew Bible tells vivid tales of the disastrous fate of Jerusalem and the first Temple. It is easily possible that any thoughtful First Century Jew who was familiar with his nation’s history and scriptures might look at the Second Temple and speculate that someday, it, too, might be destroyed. Some of today’s visitors to One World Trade Center likely experience similar thoughts.

Moreover, long before Jesus would have spoken, the author of Daniel had already predicted that this new Temple would eventually be destroyed by hostile military action (9:25-26).

Know therefore and discern that from the going out of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem to the Anointed One, the prince, will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will be built again, with street and moat, even in troubled times. After the sixty-two weeks the Anointed One will be cut off, and will have nothing. The people of the prince who come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end will be with a flood, and war will be even to the end. Desolations are determined.

Mark‘s Jesus was familiar with Daniel. Jesus refers to Daniel three times a few verses after his own remarks about the Temple,

Daniel 9:27, from immediately after Daniel’s destruction prophecy above, at Mark 13:14,
Daniel 12:1 at Mark 13:19, and
Daniel 7:13 at Mark 13:26.

From a literary perspective, Jesus’ recollection of the substance of Daniel‘s Temple prophecy is prompted by his disciples’ unsophisticated admiration of the Temple. This brief episode sets the stage for Jesus’ subsequent end-times discourse, which uses, among other ingredients, those specific textual features of Daniel. Peter, James, John and Andrew take Jesus aside, and ask Jesus about signs and portents of the end times. Jesus says many things in answer, with tribulations, devastations and disasters aplenty, but the Temple’s destruction is never mentioned again.

That it will be desecrated is mentioned. One possible fulfillment of that aspect of the prophecy might have been the murder of the high priest Jonathan and a series of other murders in the Temple (see Josephus’ Antiquities 20.8.5 164-166, link) beginning during the procuratorship of Antonius Felix, sometime from 52 through 58 CE. That is about the time usually estimated for Paul’s letters. Scholars generally estimate that Mark was written after Paul. Josephus looks back on these murders as both desecrations and as signs of disaster, (same passage as just cited)

And this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of his hatred of these men’s wickedness, rejected our city; and as for the temple, he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein, but brought the Romans upon us, and threw a fire upon the city to purge it…

Nothing in the disciples’ reception of Jesus’ remark shows them to have understood Jesus to be making a specific prediction about the fate of the Second Temple, except as part of the end times. Jesus, in turn, answers their question as if he understands it to be about the end times as a whole, and not about the destruction of the Temple specifically.

Jesus and Daniel were not alone in vaguely foreseeing inevitable catastrophes

A survey of other ancient Jewish predictions of a Third Temple to replace a desecrated or ruined Second Temple exceeds the scope of this post. Beyond Jewish culture, sentiments of eventual doom in the indefinite future similar to Jesus’ can be found in ancient Roman and Greek literature.

For example, Polybius, writing in the later half of the Second Century BCE, describes the thinking of the victorious Roman commander Scipio, meditating after his sack of mighty Carthage (Histories 38.22 link),

Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain. [Iliad 6: 448-449]

And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human. Polybius actually heard him and recalls it in his history.

All things which have a beginning also have an end. Jesus’ prediction in Mark asserts no more than to specialize this timeless general truism to the Second Temple. Unlike Daniel’s cryptic prediction, Jesus suggests neither a mechanism for the Temple’s destruction nor a timetable more concrete than before or during the end of days.

Conclusions for the timing of Mark

As used here, naturalism means explaining natural events (such as writing a narrative) exclusively in natural terms. Naturalism is a desirable feature within a secular view of history.

There is no consideration from naturalism that prevents Mark having been composed before the fulfillment of Jesus and Daniel‘s vague previsions. Naturalism doesn’t prevent Jesus, if he really existed around 30 CE, from remarking at that time on the prospect of the Temple’s destruction based on history, the precedent of Daniel and the foreseeability that all things will pass. If Jesus was a fictional character whose supposed sayings came to Mark’s attention, nothing naturalistic prevents a saying like this from being attributed to Jesus at any time from the 30’s onward.

If Mark thought Jesus existed and that he had said this, then what more reason does Mark need to write a scene where his Jesus says this? There’s nothing in what Jesus says that betrays anybody involved, not him and not Mark, as knowing any particulars, only as recognizing the inevitability of what someday certainly must be.

1979 Pakistan Intl. Airline ad

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Although there is no naturalism issue, intuitively, a ruined Temple could only increase Mark’s interest in Jesus’ remark. A ruined Temple would have increased the salience of sayings about the Temple, and so influenced Mark to include this saying in his story more readily than others available to him. In the last post, we wouldn’t have been discussing a generation-old advertisement that ran a few times in a French magazine except that 9-11 made its innocent graphic seem ominous.

By how much would an already ruined Temple increase Mark’s interest compared with other earlier circumstances? Salience doesn’t greatly distinguish 70 CE from 66 CE when the war began. Jerusalem was in peril throughout the war, the enemy being neither weak, tolerant of violent dissent nor soft-hearted. The war actually broke out in the city of Caesarea (Josephus, Wars, ff, link), where ethnic tensions had been escalating since about 60, when Nero dramatically curtailed Jews’ civic rights (Antiquities ff. link). Wars and rumors of wars, as Mark 13:7 puts it. Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed” about those. Fine, but those things might plausibly inspire dark thoughts.

What if it had turned out that the Temple had survived that war after all? Well, Jesus didn’t say otherwise, did he? Including the remark in the 60’s wouldn’t have been a risky editorial choice, and might have seemed timely even before the first blood was spilled.

Early Christian Writings, a sober source, estimates the composition of Mark as probably occurring sometime between 65 and 80 (link). That seems to be a reasonable interval. There may be reasons to prefer a date after 70, but the vague prevision attributed to Jesus in Mark gives no strong basis for that.



Filed under Knowable historical Jesus

2 responses to “Early dates for GMark, part II: How could Jesus say such a thing?

  1. A survey of other ancient Jewish predictions of a Third Temple to replace a desecrated or ruined Second Temple exceeds the scope of this post.

    I am not sure what you meant by this statement. What other Jewish predictions regarding a third temple are you referring to? I don’t think the bible specifically mentions that a third temple will be built– Eziekel’s temple probably should have been the second temple, but was his vision was so crazy, I don’t think that they could implement all of his ideas. And when everyone in the world didn’t become Jewish after the second temple was built, his prophecy would have failed anyways. I am sure that Jews have wanted to rebuild the temple since it was destroyed–but am not aware of any specific writings or predictions. Can you tell me what you were referring to? I am not sure if my original post went through, so I am posting again. Hope to hear from you.


    • Hi, Kris

      You’ve got it: Ezekiel and those who admired him.

      Regardless of the merits of Ezekiel’s prophecy, he had put the idea of a Third Temple in play. Ezekiel’s prominence plausibly contributed to an environment in which a writer and his audience before 70 CE might believe and be interested that a Jewish preacher in the 30’s was concerned about the destruction of the Second Temple.

      However, Mark’s Jesus doesn’t preach Ezekiel especially. Daniel suffices, in my view, to carry the point of the post, but Daniel wasn’t the only highly visible relevant Jewish influence operating. The balance I struck was to include a mention of the Third Temple idea, and leave it at that.

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