Mark 13:14 is not by Mark

In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I excluded Mark 13:14 from my proposed original Olivet Discourse. In the book, I did not have room to explain why. Here I give the reasons I think Mark 13:14 is not by Mark.

But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains:… (Mark 13:14 KJV)

The first thing to note is that the words translated in English as “abomination of desolation” or “desolating sacrilege” (NRSV) are in Greek “the abomination of the desolation.” Two nouns. The “abomination” or “sacrilege” is a statue or other representation of an alien deity or king. The “desolation” is the now-polluted, desolate Temple. Mark creates a metonym: a noun, “desolation,” to stand in for the “polluted Temple.” If we take 13:14 at face value, then, Jesus is warning his disciples that at some time in the future, the Temple will be polluted, and the local Judeans will flee to the mountains.

But in the rest of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is not concerned about the pollution ore purity of the Temple! He stages the Temple Incident, interfering with the routine activities of the outer court of the Temple. He condemns the Temple, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mk 11:17 NRSV). Mark implicitly disdains the earthly Temple when he portrays Jesus as the high priest in the heavenly Temple.

Another reason to think that Mark did not write 13:14 is that–assuming Mark wrote in Rome after 70–it would be imprudent to remind the audience of the recent Jewish War in which Titus, the brother of the current emperor, Domitian, had subdued Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Mark would not make the audience link Titus to an “abomination”!

Some editions of the Gospel of Mark add that the desolating sacrilege/abomination of desolation “was spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” I think this editorial comment is inseparable from the editorial comment “let the reader understand.” The editor who wrote 13:14 is telling the reader to go and look for a precedent in the Book of Daniel.

I say that an editor wrote those two lines, not Mark, because they are poor playcraft. A playwright does not write a character who tells the audience “if you don’t believe me, you can look it up in a book.” That distracts the audience from their attention to the stage. Instead, a playwright tries to keep the audience focused on the world onstage.

There is another way in which Mk 13:14 demonstrates poor playcraft. Within the world of the play, there is no dramatic payoff to the prediction in Mk 13:14. That verse does not foreshadow any stage action. There is no conquest of the Temple, no pollution with a statue, no fleeing to the mountains.

Furthermore, Jesus’s warning in 13:14 is directed to the vague group “those in Judea.” But the entire Olivet Discourse is spoken to the disciples only (and the audience)! There are no Chorus members present. The warning is irrelevant to the disciples, and has no consequences for the (nonpresent) Chorus in the world of the play. The entire warning feels interpolated.

In summary, there are five good reasons to think that Mark 13:14 was not written by Mark:

  1. Mark’s Jesus is not concerned about the purity of the Temple. He tries to disrupt its activities, and the chief priests are his main opponents.
  2. When Mark wrote in the 90s CE, the emperor, Domitian, was the brother of Titus, the destroyer of the Temple. It would not be prudent for Mark to imply that the destruction of the Temple (by Titus’s men) had resulted in an “abomination”!
  3. A playwright does not tell the audience “let the reader understand.” A play must create and exist in its own world.
  4. There is no dramatic payoff for the prediction within the world of the play: it predicts nothing.
  5. The prediction in Mark 13:14 is irrelevant to the disciples, who are Jesus’s audience in the world of the play.

Addendum: Mark 13:14 introduces Mark 13:15-20. If Mark 13:14 is not original, Mark 13:15-20 is also not original.

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