Mark 13 is often called the “Little Apocalypse” and in many English translations it is given the title “Signs of the End Times.” But there are good reasons to doubt the claim that Mark 13 contains “Signs of the End Times.”
The chapter begins with Jesus’ disciples marveling at the grandeur of the temple and Jesus predicting that it will be destroyed (Mk. 13:1,2). When the disciples ask about the timing of this event, and about the sign leading up to it, Jesus responds with a long speech about events to come and how his followers are to respond to them. But it is not at all obvious that he gives the disciples what they want from him – The Sign (let alone many signs)!
Truth is, this chapter has been interpreted in many different ways, especially as regards “the Sign” or “the signs”. I will summarize six views before sharing my own.
VIEW 1: There are many signs which point to the imminent destruction of the temple (e.g. deceivers [Mk. 13:5]), messianic pretenders [Mk. 13:6], wars and rumors of wars [Mk. 13:7,8a], earthquakes and famine [Mk. 13:8b], persecution [Mk. 13:9a,11], witness and evangelism [Mk. 13:9b,10], disruption of families and relationships [Mk. 13:12,13], the “abomination of desolation” [Mk. 13:14], the “great tribulation” [Mk. 13:19,20], more deceivers [Mk. 13:21,22], “signs” in the sun, moon and stars [Mk. 13:24,25].
VIEW 2: All these signs point, not toward the temple’s destruction, but to the return of the Son of man.
VIEW 3: Some of these signs [Mk. 13:6-14] precede and point toward the temple’s destruction, and the rest point toward the return of the Son of man.
All three of these views read the chapter as though it contains references to many signs. All seem to overlook the fact that that disciples did not ask about “signs” (plural) but about “the sign” and also the fact that none of the events cited is ever called a sign by Jesus or by Mark! Noticing these things, another set of interpreters concludes that Mark 13 contains only one sign. Again there are three variations:
VIEW 4: The one sign the disciples wanted [Mk. 13:4] is the “abomination that causes desolation”, interpreted as something that desecrates the temple (see Mk. 13:14) and it helps predict when the temple is about to be destroyed.
VIEW 5: The one sign the disciples wanted [Mk. 13:4] is the “abomination that causes desolation,” interpreted as some sort of “Antichrist” whose arrival helps predict when the Son of man is about to return [Mk. 13:26].
VIEW 6: The one sign that “all these things” (i.e. events connected with the End of the Age) are about to occur is that the temple is destroyed.
All three of these seem to me more plausible than the first set of options. But none of them, I think, captures Mark’s main concern in this chapter (and of course behind Mark, Jesus’).
VIEW 7 (my view): There are no signs of the End Times (at least not in Mark 13). I conclude this for a variety of reasons.
First, nothing in Mark 13 is ever called a “sign” and Jesus warns against sign-givers [Mk. 13:22].
Second, in Mark Jesus’ most common response to questions from his disciples is not to answer them and provide what they want, but to challenge the assumptions behind their questions and then provide something else.
Third, the “answer” to the disciples’ question in Mk.13:4 is found in Mk.13:32 (Mark and Jesus both don’t know!)
Fourth, the whole chapter should be read as a call to turn away from sign-seeking and toward a completely different set of priorities (discernment, faithfulness, witness, etc.)
Fifth, in the only other reference to signs in Mark, Jesus says that “this generation” will not be given any [Mk. 8:11f].
Sixth, the chapter predicts the kinds of events that will happen throughout all of history (and the fact that interpreters through history have thought the “End Times Signs” were happening in their day is proof of that!)
I could go on, but instead, let me suggest how I read this chapter (much of this following an article I wrote for a publication in Germany).
- Mark 13 addresses two separate (but possibly related) topics: The coming destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Mk. 13:2,28-30, etc.), and “The End of the Age” (Mk. 13:7,13,24-27,32-37, etc.).
- Mark 13 predicts a whole series of events that will take place after Jesus’ life on earth is over but before “The End” comes (Mk. 13:5-23).
- Mark 13 provides no “Signs of the End of the Age.” The disciples want to know what “sign” will help them track the progress of God’s eschatological calendar, but none of the predicted events is to be understood as a sign. The events that Jesus predicts in Mark 13 should be considered “non-signs.”
- Concerning the timing of the Temple’s destruction and accompanying events: The outside limit for this is predicted to be one generation (13:30).
- Concerning the timing of “’That Day’ and ‘The Hour’” (i.e. the End of the Age): Both Jesus and Mark explicitly claim ignorance. They do not know, and they tell us that they do not know (Mk. 13:32).
All these taken together seem to imply all of the following:
- Since both the speaker (Jesus) and the author (Mark) claimed they did not know when “the End” would come, both were also claiming ignorance about whether “The End” would come at the time of the Temple’s destruction, or whether it would come at some later time, i.e. whether the outside limit of one generation applies only to the Temple’s destruction or also to “The End.”
- Thus neither knew whether all the events predicted in verses 5-23 (the non-signs) would precede the fall of the Temple or whether only some of them would.
- Since the author did not know whether “The End” would come at the time of the Temple’s destruction or at a later time, it was necessary for the predictions in Mk. 13:5-23 to be presented ambiguously (technically “polyvalently”). These predictions can be read both as “recurring events in ordinary history” and as “history-ending events,” precisely because the author could not be sure whether those events would be the one or the other.
- Thus all attempts by interpreters to figure out which of the events predicted in Mark 13 are related to the Temple’s destruction (only) and which are related to the End of the Age (only), as well as all attempts to determine exactly how these two major events relate to each other are doomed to failure. It would be attempting to extract answers from a speaker/writer that they have declared they cannot give because they do not know.
- Thus the best explanation for the ambiguities so often identified in Mark 13 is that they were deliberately embedded in the text by the author. Readers are expected to learn as much as the author is able to reveal, but no more. The goal of interpreting Mark 13 is to understand the ambiguities within it, not to make them go away.
And these persuasions lead me to conclude the following:
- Until the actual destruction of the Temple, nobody could know, based on the text of Mark 13, whether or not the End of the Age would occur at the time of, and in connection with, the Temple’s destruction, or whether history would go on after that until it would be brought to its end by the coming of Son of Man at some future date (Mk. 13:24-27).
- Because the End of the Age could only happen during or after the Fall of the Temple (but not before), the imminence of the Son of Man’s coming, which seems clearly implied by Mark 13:32-37, is thus actually a “conditional imminence.” As long as the Temple was still standing, readers of Mark could know that “the end is still to come” (Mk. 13:7); thereafter, however, (should history go on) “the end could come at any time” (at least as far as the text of Mark 13 is concerned).
- Therefore all the warnings and encouragements of Mark 13, including the calls for both discernment and faithfulness, had immediate relevance for the generation of Jesus’ hearers and Mark’s readers. But all of them would also have continuing relevance (should history go on after that), for every subsequent generation. (“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” Mk. 13:37).
- And precisely for this reason, it was appropriate for Mark 13 to include multiple ambiguous (or polyvalent) references. They were deliberately embedded in the speech/text so that the speaker and writer could simultaneous address the first generation of hearers and readers and every subsequent generation (should there be any). To eliminate the ambiguity would be to erase part of the message.
These are the viewpoints I have been arguing ever since writing a dissertation on this topic.
In my next blog post, I will indicate where I have recently changed my mind about what Mark 13 says.