Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Little Apocalypse

The Little Apocalypse (also known as “The Olivet Discourse”) is a passage in the Gospels of the New Testament that depict Jesus’ teachings on the end of the world. Found in the books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the story represents Jesus at his apocalyptic and predictive best, explaining how the world will come to an end in fire and destruction, amidst “wars and rumors of wars” and violent earthquakes and famines. 

Much has been made over the years of these apocalyptic visions. Many theologians and apologists argue that the book of Revelation – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of John and said to have been written by the apostle John – expands on Jesus’ own “little” apocalyptic vision in the Gospels. 

John’s apocalypse, of course, is much more familiar to the average person than the Little Apocalypse of Jesus. However, the story of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision has a lot to tell us not only about who Jesus was, but also about the historical context of the late first century, when the Gospel stories of Jesus were being put to parchment. 


The Gospel of Mark gives us our earliest account of the Little Apocalypse, comprising the entirety of that book’s thirteenth chapter. In Mark, the story tends to stick out like a sore thumb, and the reason for this is because Mark’s Gospel, in general, is not apocalyptically-oriented. In fact, the chapter on the Little Apocalypse represents almost the entirety of any apocalyptic theology in the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark’s Jesus is a wise, yet secretive rabbi, calling for repentance and purification in Israel, predicting his death and resurrection, but generally steering clear of any “end of times” language. Thus, the Jesus we meet in chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel seems out of place. Historical context, however, brings this dichotomy into better focus. 

Mark’s version of this story begins with Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” From here, Jesus segues into a discussion of the end of times. It starts, so Jesus tells us, with “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, false prophets, and great famines. These, Jesus assures us, are the “birth pains” of the end. Jesus goes on to predict that “brother will betray brother to death” and Christians will be tried for crimes and flogged in the synagogues. 

The final sign, however, will be the “desolating sacrilege” standing “where it ought not to be.” In some English versions, “desolating sacrilege” is translated as “the abomination of desolation.” This is a reference to the apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Daniel, which include a “desolating sacrilege” in the Temple. In that book, the desolating sacrilege is an act done by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who conquered Jerusalem in 167 B.C.E. To show his derision for the god of the Jews, Epiphanes erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed swine on it. This action prompted the successful Maccabean rebellion, which led to a century-long “golden age” of Jewish self-rule that ended when the Roman legions arrived.

So Mark’s reference here to the “desolating sacrilege” is a clear reference to Daniel and the horrifying sacrificial desecration of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Mark’s Jesus is saying that when something like that happens again, the end of time will be near.

Jesus encourages his followers to immediately “flee to the mountains” when this happens, without so much as going inside to grab a coat. He laments how terrible it will be in that day for “those who are pregnant and those who are nursing infants.”

More false messiahs will crop up working signs and wonders to deceive people. Finally, the “one like a person” (“son of man” in many English translations) will come on the clouds to gather Christians from the “four winds.” Jesus asserts that although “this generation will not pass away” before these things happen, no one knows for sure when they will take place. Therefore, he says, “keep awake,” lest the apocalypse should sneak up on you like a master on a sleeping servant.

So what, exactly, do we make of these predictions by Jesus? Many historians, in fact, use this passage to date Mark to the early 70’s C.E., shortly after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Thus Jesus predicts an event that the writer of Mark already knew had taken place.

Did Jesus really make such a prediction? That is a matter of faith and is an issue for a theological debate, meaning it is beyond the scope of this essay. What seems fairly clear, however, is that Mark was writing during the chaos and upheaval following the Jewish-Roman war and the destruction of the Temple. Understanding that historical context helps to focus Mark’s theological message in this passage. “Wars and rumors of wars” were something Mark and his community were living with daily.
Additionally, Rabbinical Jews and Jewish Christians were beginning to war with one another, in a theological debate that would ultimately split Christianity entirely from Judaism – though it had not done so yet. Thus Mark talks about Christians being persecuted “in the synagogue,” handed over and brought to trial, rejected by their families, and “hated” by “all people.”

As for the “desolating sacrilege,” historical context would suggest this is a Markan reference to the Roman destruction of the Temple and their subsequent occupation of its ruins. If the offering of swine on an alter to Zeus offended 2nd century B.C.E. Jews enough to call it a “desolating sacrilege,” how much more so would the very destruction of the Temple itself be seen as the most unthinkable of abominations?

Furthermore, Mark gives us a curious clue in the text that may indicate that the Roman destruction of the Temple is precisely what he is talking about. From verse 14: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” That parenthetical statement – “let the reader understand” – seems to be Mark’s way of interrupting the narrative of Jesus and giving a sort of “hint hint, wink wink” to his readers. It is Mark’s method for saying, “The destruction of God’s Temple, which, to our great horror, has just taken place, is what Jesus was talking about here, folks.”

This puts the entire passage into focus: Mark believed the end was at hand right there in the early 70’s C.E. The sign Jesus had predicted – the destruction of the Temple – had just happened. Wars and rumors of wars were all around. Christians were being persecuted. The entire Jewish culture, which included Christianity, was in violent upheaval. The Jews of Jerusalem had “fled to the mountains” and been dispersed following the Roman destruction of their holy city. False messiahs were cropping up everywhere. As part of his prediction, Mark’s Jesus says: “Pray that [this doesn’t happen] in winter.” In fact, the Temple was destroyed in the middle of summer, right at the end of July, 70 C.E., meaning these prayers had been answered.

Thus, Mark believed that the coming of the “one like a person” was imminent. As Jesus predicts in the passage, “When you see these things taking place, you know that [the one like a person] is near.” Soon the sun would be darkened and the stars would fall from the sky (v. 24-25) and Jesus would return to gather his disciples from the “four winds.” Thus, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” and therefore the followers of Christ should “keep awake” to make sure they are not caught unprepared. For Mark, the end of the world was now.


Of course, nearly 2,000 years down the road, we know that Mark was wrong. The end didn’t happen in the early 70’s C.E. The world continued on, Rabbinical and Christian Jews continued to spar with one another, and Christians began to separate themselves from their Jewish brethren and expand instead among Gentiles. About ten years later, in the early 80’s C.E., the Gospel of Matthew was written.

Some evidence suggests that the earliest version of Matthew was written in Aramaic, perhaps around the same time as Mark or even earlier, and our current Greek version of Matthew is a later edition of that early Aramaic version. In any case, the final Greek version of Matthew seems to have taken form by the mid-80’s.

Like his Markan source, Matthew devotes an entire chapter to the Little Apocalypse (the chapter designations, of course, were not original to the texts but were added by later translators). Matthew’s version in chapter 24 starts out closely following Mark’s. Matthew copies much of it word for word, making only minor changes for either syntactical purposes (Mark’s Gospel is notoriously colloquial; scholar Bruce Chilton calls it “Pidgin-Greek”), or in order to gear it better towards his Jewish audience (for instance, Matthew excludes the references to Christians being “beaten in synagogues” and instead makes the persecutors anonymous; he also removes Mark’s harsh language about “[Jewish] brother betraying [Christian] brother to death”).

Matthew’s Jesus, like Mark’s, asserts that the “end will come” only after the good news has been preached. As Matthew moves into the passage about the “desolating sacrilege,” he clears up a bit of Mark’s ambiguity. Matthew’s Jesus, for instance, specifically refers to the book of Daniel (“So when you see the desolating sacrilege…spoken of by the prophet Daniel…”), and he also specifically says that this desolating sacrilege will be “in the holy place,” which is surely a euphemism for God’s land and its Temple.

Starting in verse 26, Matthew adds in a short teaching that does not appear in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew’s Jesus again speaks of false messianic prophets and encourages his followers not to be fooled by them. He then compares the coming of the “one like a person” to lightning that flashes through the sky. Finally, he ends by asserting that “wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” The implication is that like vultures descending on a carcass, so will the “one like a person” descend on the “corpse” of Jerusalem and its destroyed Temple.

Following this short passage, Matthew picks up his Markan source again, copying Jesus’ words about the “one like a person” appearing in the clouds and calling Christians from the “four winds.” He also repeats Mark’s statements about how “this generation” will see all these predictions come to fruition. 

Following this, Matthew again deviates from Mark by including a story from Jesus comparing the sudden appearance of the “one like a person” to the sudden catastrophe of the flood in the time of Noah. He goes on to say: “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Here, Matthew picks up Mark again and encourages his listeners to “keep awake” so that they are not surprised by the second coming.

As we saw with Mark, Matthew seems to believe that the end of the world is near. Writing some ten to twelve years later, he surely realized that Mark had not been entirely correct in assuming the end was imminent, but this does not appear to have concerned Matthew much. Clearly he agrees with his Markan source that the time is coming soon. The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple – the “holy place” now reduced to a “corpse” – was clearly believed by Matthew, as it was by Mark, to be a sign of the end of times.

Matthew is not entirely silent, however, about the fact that Jesus seemed to be taking his time fulfilling the final portion of his apocalyptic vision. Where Mark’s Little Apocalypse ends after Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake” – with the clear implication being that the second coming is about to happen – Matthew adds one more story not found in Mark. Jesus tells a short parable about a servant put in charge of his master’s house while his master is away. If the servant does well, Jesus says, his master will be happy upon return. But if his servant decides that the “master is delayed,” and therefore begins to quarrel with his fellow servants and live the high life of worldly pleasures, then the master will “put him with the hypocrites” in the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The point of this story, as well as its contextual necessity for Matthew, is perfectly clear: Jesus has not returned as quickly as we thought he would in the wake of the Temple’s destruction, but that is no reason to quarrel among ourselves or forget the non-worldly lifestyle that we have committed ourselves to. If Jesus returns and catches us “goofing off” as it were, we’ll be in big trouble. It is reminiscent of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Look busy! Jesus is coming!”


Like Matthew, the Gospel of Luke used Mark as a primary source. Luke’s Gospel was written about ten years after Matthew’s – thus, perhaps twenty years after Mark.

In chapter 21 of his Gospel, the writer of Luke repeats his own version of the Little Apocalypse of Jesus. Like Mark and Matthew before him, Luke opens the story with Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple: “Not one stone will be left upon another.” Still following Mark, Luke’s Jesus predicts false messiahs and warns against them. He changes Mark’s “wars and rumors of wars” to “wars and insurrections” and this may be because by the time Luke was writing, the “wars” of the early 70’s were “rumors” no more. But where Mark states that these wars “must take place, but the end is still to come,” Luke changes the wording to: “These things must take place, but the end will not follow immediately.”

We saw above that Matthew had to deal with the fact that Jesus had not yet returned, as had been imminently expected by Mark. Writing another ten years down the road, Luke had to deal with it on an even greater scale. Thus, “the end will not follow immediately” after the “wars” (that is, the Jewish-Roman wars of the 70’s).

At this point, Luke continues on following Mark, discussing how nations will fight one another and there will be earthquakes and famines. In Mark’s account, Jesus transitions from there into discussing the persecutions Christians will suffer from their Jewish brethren (“you will be beaten in the synagogues”). Thus, for Mark, the persecutions would follow the natural disasters and Gentile wars. Yet Luke again alters Mark’s account by asserting: “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues…” Thus, for Luke, the persecution would happen before the Gentile wars, earthquakes, and famines. These things, Luke asserts, are still in the future.

For Mark, these events happened in the early 70’s, when the Temple was destroyed. Mark read them as predictors of the Second Coming of Jesus. Luke, writing some 20-25 years later, sees that Mark was wrong, so he predicts different wars, and different natural disasters. In Mark, the persecutions – which were already happening when Mark was writing – were the final step before the Second Coming. In Luke, the persecutions are the first step.

Continuing on through Jesus’ Little Apocalypse, Luke follows Mark fairly closely as he describes the various persecutions Christians are facing from their enemies. When he transitions to the “desolating sacrilege” teaching, however, Luke again begins to dramatically edit Mark’s account. There is no reference at all to Daniel’s “desolating sacrilege,” and instead the text says: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is near.” Luke uses Mark’s word “desolation,” but not in the prophetic context of Daniel.

Furthermore, while Mark’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was secretive and vague (recall the parenthetical “hint hint, wink wink” comment to “let the reader understand”), Luke says explicitly that this is about Jerusalem and its destruction. However, by saying that Jerusalem’s desolation will be near when armies surround it, Luke is tacitly removing any notion that this event is one of the “signs” that will accompany the end of times. He makes this even more explicit when he states a few lines later that this is “vengeance” on Jerusalem in “fulfillment of all that is written.” In other words, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans was a punishment from God for the great sin of the Jews (which, to the writer of Luke, would have been illustrated by their rejection of Jesus). The key point there, of course, is that Jerusalem’s destruction was just a punishment, and not necessarily a sign of the imminent end of times. Luke is clearly attempting to assure his readers that there is nothing amiss; Jesus isn’t delayed. Christians (like Mark) of the 70’s only thought the end was near. But that was because they had misunderstood the events going on around them. Luke is essentially doing damage control, addressing what must have been a common concern among Christians of the 90’s: “Why hasn’t Jesus returned?” – and perhaps a common criticism from among non-Christians: “Where is this so-called Second Coming?” 

Continuing through the apocalyptic sermon, Luke expands Mark’s account to have Jesus predict the dispersion of the Jews into the surrounding nations after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. He states: “There will be…wrath against this people [the Jews]. They will…be taken away as captives among all nations [that is, among the Gentiles], and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles.” Writing twenty or so years after the event, Luke displays the knowledge that could only come from hindsight. The Jews were ultimately dispersed around the Mediterranean, their city and their nation left a ruin and inhabited by Romans. Mark didn’t know this, and Matthew may only have had a hint of it. But Luke knew it well.

As Luke transitions next into the passage about the darkening of the sun, he again redacts Mark, this time in a way that is so explicit that it makes crystal clear his purposes in doing “damage control” about the delay in the second coming. In transitioning to the discussion of signs in the sky, Mark had stated, “But in those days, after [Jerusalem’s destruction], the sun will be darkened…” In other words, these heavenly signs would commence as soon as the dust settled from the Roman war. 

Similarly, Matthew had stated, “Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened…” Luke, however, cuts out the transition all together and simply starts talking about how there will be signs in the heavens, among the sun, moon, and stars. Thus, he removes any mention of a time frame. Where Mark and Matthew made it clear that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple represented the “beginning of the end,” Luke eliminates that sense all together. For Luke, these signs from the heavens, and the subsequent coming of the “one like a person,” will simply happen at some unknown point in the future.

Luke stays fairly close to Mark throughout the remainder of the Little Apocalypse. But he has one more trick up his sleeve. We have seen that Mark and Matthew both had Jesus assure his listeners that “this generation” would live to see “all these things” taking place. Luke uses this phrase, but he again does damage control by omitting an important word. Instead of referring to “all these things” taking place, he simply says that “this generation will not pass away until everything has taken place.”

This is a very subtle change, but it eliminates the implication that all these signs and wonders will happen in the immediate and imminent future. However, in reasserting the general principle that the present generation “would not pass away” until these things (“everything”) had been accomplished, Luke reassures his readers that while it has taken longer than expected, and some earlier Christians were wrong to expect it so soon, it is still just right around the corner.


A study of the Little Apocalypse shows us that Mark and his community were convinced that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple signified the “beginning of the end.” Matthew, writing a few years later, noted the delay, but still felt confident that the time was near. Luke, writing yet another decade after that, had to deal with major damage control to quell fears about Jesus’ delayed coming, but still felt confident in asserting that his generation would remain to see the end of times.

As we saw at the start of this account, the Gospel of Mark’s Little Apocalypse is unique because the majority of Mark’s Gospel does not have much in the way of apocalyptic language. An account that is largely non-apocalyptic suddenly becomes apocalyptic on a level not far beneath Revelation or the Jewish apocrypha. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, sprinkle apocalyptic sayings and events throughout their Gospels, making the Little Apocalypse simply a culmination of a general theme. 

How can we explain this? Matthew and Luke likely used a source no longer in existence that scholars have dubbed the Q document. This document can be discerned from the content that Matthew and Luke have in common, but which is not found in Mark. It is interesting to note that this Q material is very frequently apocalyptic in nature. The fact that Mark contains almost no apocalyptic sayings outside of the Little Apocalypse, then, is a strong indication that while Matthew and Luke had access to this source, Mark did not.

Interestingly, some of the sayings included in Matthew’s version of the Little Apocalypse come from this Q document. We saw above that he adds teachings to the Little Apocalypse not found in Mark – a short parable about a delayed master, a discussion of Noah and the suddenness of the flood, and a comment about vultures gathering around a corpse. We know these came from the Q document because Luke also repeats them – though Luke does not place them in his own version of the Little Apocalypse. Instead, he peppers them throughout other portions of his Gospel, attaching them to various other teachings here and there.

Furthermore, there is at least one short passage from Mark’s Little Apocalypse that Luke does not include in his own version of the Little Apocalypse, but instead places into another apocalyptic teaching from Jesus. The passage in question concerns instructions to people not to go into their houses to retrieve their belongings on the last day. In Mark, this was included in the subsection of the Little Apocalypse about the “desolating sacrilege” – that is, the destruction of the Temple. But in Luke, it is in an entirely different account, one that includes the adage about corpses and vultures – an adage, as we saw, that appears in Matthew, but not Mark.

The point to be drawn from all this is simply that apocalyptic perspectives on Jesus and his life seem to go back to the earliest days of Christianity. Numerous texts and oral traditions, imagining an apocalyptic second coming of Christ, were being passed among communities, and we can see this diverse tradition reflected in the varied apocalyptic accounts of the New Testament Gospels.

It is difficult to know for certain what sort of role apocalyptic worldviews played in Jesus’ own life and message. However, many scholars are no doubt correct in suggesting that Jesus’ message, while perhaps not as theologically well-developed and polemically-oriented as it is in the Gospels, must have contained apocalyptic expectations about the imminent end of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom. The question is just how “apocalyptic” that vision was, and whether it imagined the end coming through fire and lightning, or through peace and purity.

In any case, the idea that the “end is near” is surely one of the oldest theological presumptions in all of Christian history – an idea that seems to have been asserted in every Christian generation since the time of Jesus himself, including right up to the present day.


69mentality said...

That was a good read. interesting. Even the previous blog about driving out demons was thought provoking.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Scott said...

If you read this account, you'll know that I made the argument that Luke, even more so than Matthew, was interested in allaying concerns about the perceived "delay" in the Second Coming. The way he does this is through subtly changing Mark's wording to remove any sense of "imminence."

I discovered today another place where you can see this tendency in Luke, though it is not associated with the Little Apocalypse.

During Jesus' trial with the Jewish authorities in Mark, Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah. He responds: "I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

This passage gives the impression that Jesus is predicting that the high priest himself, and all those assembled, will still be alive to see the Second Coming (and "you" will see the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory, etc.).

In Luke's account, the Jewish authorities at his trial also ask him if he is the Messiah. Here he says: "If I tell you, you will not believe me...But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God."

You'll notice first that in Mark, Jesus explicitly says yes, he is the Messiah. In Luke, however, he doesn't give a straight answer and instead says that he if he tells them who he is, they won't believe him.

The second part of the response in Luke is the important one, obviously. No longer will those assembled see the Son of Man coming in the clouds at the Second Coming. Instead, following his death, Jesus, as the son of Man, will simply be seated at the right hand of God.

Luke eliminates any sense of the Second Coming from this response, and thus removes any sense of the imminence of that Second Coming implied by Mark.

Anonymous said...

Clear and well argued. Thanks!

Scott said...

Thanks so much for reading, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Why hasn't the fact Jesus made a wrong prediction on at least three occasions:
1. this generation shall not pass..
2. some standing here who will not taste of death...
3. you will not have travelled through every city in Israel before...

been enough to sink belief he is the Messiah?

Scott said...


Evangelical Christians, whose beliefs largely rely on a literal-historical reading of the Bible, simply gloss over problems like this in the Gospels.

They either ignore them completely, or they assume that they just aren't educated enough to understand exactly what Jesus meant. It's called confirmation bias. They ignore or dismiss data that contradicts what they already believe to be true.

More sophisticated evangelicals will simply come up with convoluted ways to interpret these statements in order to make them seem literally true. For instance, when Luke has Jesus say "Some standing here will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God," they might argue that this simply meant some of these people would have visions of heaven during their lifetimes - much like Paul claimed to have had.

In any case, I don't think this has anything to do with Jesus's status as Messiah. Messianic expectations, after all, were all over the Judaic map in the 1st century, and the "messiah" the Christians claimed Jesus to be was just one narrow interpretation of Messianic theology, and within that interpretation, Jesus fit the bill.

However, the most widely accepted 1st century ideas of the Messiah involved a conquering king overthrowing the Roman oppressors and re-establishing the throne of David. Clearly Jesus didn't do that, so he clearly wasn't the messiah most Jews of the time were expecting. Which, of course, is precisely why most Jews of the time did not accept the Christian message, forcing early Christians to evangelize non-Jews - who weren't biased by pre-existing Jewish beliefs - instead.

Unknown said...

1. Extremely unpopular among Christians is the idea of reincarnation. If you believe a soul's journey back to God may include more than one lifetime, then this statement isn't a problem.
2. Ditto. But if this is the quote right before the transfiguration in Mark, then it refers to what Peter, James and John are about to see.
3. I'm not sure on this one. I've only gone into great detail with Mark.