Apocalyptic and Eschatology are incorrect and misleading anachronisms that should never be applied to Mark 13, the Book of Revelation, and Jesus.
Apocalyptic, to many, means something like the old Norse Ragnarök, the end of all things. In November, in places where Vikings frequented, things get very dark and frigid. With dread, ancient peoples living there knew winter and scarcity were fast approaching. Death followed. Older people and the very young would suffer. This time encompassing Samhain and Yuletide would occasion thought about death and beyond-life.
The Church found good in these things and baptized them. November for Catholics is a time to consider the poor souls in Purgatory and the Last Things.
This “Last Things” November orientation inspired this post. Guided by the scholarship of late Context Group scholar Bruce Malina, I thought that we might examine the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel called “Mark.” This section is referred to by many Biblical scholars as “the Synoptic Apocalypse.” Often it is called an “eschatological discourse.” Its Synoptic Parallels are Matthew 24:1-51 and Luke 21:5-38. I invite you to read it over.
What do you think that Jesus is talking about? Read the text and watch the video below. Would you call this an “apocalypse”? Does the Markan Jesus sound “apocalyptic”? Is Mark 13:1-37 and its parallels give an example of “eschatological discourse”? What do “apocalypse” and “eschatology” mean to you?
Problem with History: Wrong Scenarios
I greatly appreciate the importance of history and the work of historians. Of all my professors back in college, my most beloved was a storyteller who taught in the Honors program. One of my closest friends (someone I am proud to call brother) is another professor of history at a nearby University where I once served as campus minister. We need serious historians like these two, just as we need their excellent historical insights.
That said, there exists a glaring problem with Westerners doing history. It essentially consists of out-of-place chronological and cultural scenarios in the mind of the historian. This raises a problem: How can we test such mental scenarios as lining up with what really happened?
Dr. Bruce Malina illustrates that in the social-science method the simple test is to find comparable behavior somewhere on earth in the contemporary world. A medieval principle of logic supports this test: if something exists, it could have existed, but just because something can exist, (if we can conceive of it), it did/does not necessarily exist (Ab esse ad posse valet illatio, a posse ad esse non valet illatio).
One plausible way that we can understand the prepaschal Jesus is as a holy man (a shaman) from first century Israel. Perhaps we should try to find a parallel case of another shamanic figure in regards to Mark 13? Keep this in mind as you listen to the following story from Bruce Malina here:
Iran So Far Away from Apocalyptic & Eschatology
No historian today would apply the terms “apocalyptic” and “eschatology” to the situation in modern Iran. Indeed, they are correct not to as it does not apply. Curiously though, they do apply these terms to Jesus and Mark 13. Here they are wrong. Ultimately, Jesus in Mark 13 has a lot more in common with Iran in the story above than with anything “apocalyptic” or “eschatological!”
From where do we get the concepts of “apocalyptic,” “eschatology,” “salvation history,” and “delay of the parousia”? We find these “Germanisms” all over contemporary theological and exegetical works! Pick up a volume on New Testament studies, and you can’t help but encounter them. Read a recent textbook dealing with the Resurrection or the ministry of Jesus, and you will almost assuredly find them littered all over the document. Why?
Spurious familiarity is a perennial problem for 21st century Christians reading the Bible. It also plagues Biblical scholars and theologians. Bruce Malina shows that this spurious familiarity derives from the 18th and 19th centuries. It begins in Northern European ideology and categorization. This way of thinking has become for many a comfortable shoe full of holes that we just can’t trash. Addiction prevents the wearer from seeing other, more plausible views. So 21st century scholars remain stuck onto a past Northern European paradigm.
“Apocalyptic” and “Eschatology” are Germanisms from the 18th and 19th centuries. We should ask: is any biblical document a German document? If not, why use these terms? If it’s silly to consider the Gospels as 18th or 19th century German writings, wouldn’t it likewise be silly to apply to them these Germanisms from the same time period? “Apocalyptic” and “eschatology” are inescapably inaccurate and misleading when applied to any biblical work.
How You See Time
People have not always understood the past in the way we 21st century Westerners strive to do. When and where did people begin understanding history as we do now? For example, when exactly did humanity begin sharply distinguishing fact from fiction? When did history become more historiographical than story? All this came with the Enlightenment, folks.
Go to any Jeff Cavins popular Scripture study. There the Bible will be presented as a great novel detailing “salvation history.” But when did Christians begin reading the Bible as a novel, complete with all the qualities of one? This was not until the 19th century, a Romantic-era push-back against 18th century rationalistic approaches.
All of this affects how we see the Germanisms “salvation history”—used everywhere in Church!—and “eschatological delay.” That’s all post-Industrial era European stuff! Should we be projecting it back into Mark 13? Wouldn’t doing so be gross anachronism?
The word “eschatology” sure looks Greek, but it’s really a German word wearing a Greek disguise. It was born in 1804. “Apocalyptic” also appears Greek and sure sounds at least as ancient as the book of Revelation. But it really comes from Germany also, no earlier than 1852. Etymology will not help us here.
Bart Ehrman’s Apocalyptic Vision
In The New Testament, A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (p. 451), scholar Bart Ehrman defines “apocalypse.” Says Ehrman, an apocalypse is “a literary genre in which an author, usually pseudonymous, reports symbolic dreams or visions, given or interpreted through an angelic mediator, which reveal the heavenly mysteries that can make sense of earthly realities.”
If we took Ehrman’s definition seriously, we would be forced to admit that there is scant material in Revelation that can rightly be called apocalyptic! Moreover, none of the Gospel discourses are apocalyptic either. That includes Mark 13. But inconsistency won’t stop Ehrman and friends from labeling Revelation and Mark 13 as being “apocalyptic literature!”
So Bruce Malina asks: After perusing what scholars accept as “apocalyptic” writings, would a first century “apocalypticist” [say like the author of Mark 13] realize that he was apocalyptical? And would a first century “eschatologist” know that he was eschatological?
Cultural Baggage and Time
It doesn’t matter if you are a brilliant scholar like Ehrman. We all have our cultural baggage. Whatever “apocalypse” and “eschatological” exactly mean, the terms invariably in some way deal with time. And those Western terms are tainted as it were with Western conceptualizations of time. Different cultures perceive and interpret time in radically different ways.
Bruce Malina corrects a mistaken notion many of us have about where words acquire their meanings. Malina affirms that the meanings of language and words are not derived from lexica or dictionaries. He says they must originate from the social system of the speaker or author. The significance ascribed to time determines what native speakers (in this case, post-Industrial Revolution Germans) might mean by them. This includes “eschatology” and “apocalyptic.”
Ancient first century Mediterranean personalities understood time in a radically different way than we Western peoples do. Since this is so, how then can we NOT distort and misunderstand works like Mark 13 and Revelation should we apply to them categories such as “apocalypse” and “eschatological discourse”?
Hebrew has no future tense. What would a culture need in order to speculate about or consider the future as we Post-Industrial Westerners do? Wouldn’t you need 19th century abundance or 20th/21st century superabundance? If you didn’t have that, all your energies would be committed to subsistence survival, no? This is how peasants are everywhere. Our Western concerns for the future are completely absent in both peasants and in the prophets of Scripture.
Mark 13 Cannot Be Apocalyptic
Bart Ehrman and many scholars like him would have us believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Was he? Could he possibly have been such a thing? And what is an apocalyptic prophet, anyway? What is apocalypticism? What makes an apocalypse an apocalypse?
Is Mark 13 an example of the genre of literature called “apocalyptic”? What exactly was the Markan Jesus communicating to his disciples about in Mark 13? Why is it so difficult for even renown and brilliant scholars to shed the ideological chains of 18th and 19th century views?
Ehrman and friends have appropriated the 19th century category of “apocalyptic” and have anachronistically applied it to Jesus. Ehrman claims that many first century people held this apocalyptic worldview. Did they? Could they have?
And moving momentarily from scholars to fundamentalists and dispensationalists, is Mark 13 concerned with our present day? Or was it focused on the Temple of Jesus’ day (or perhaps better, the Temple situation at the time “Mark” was composed)? Do we find in Mark 13 any urgent expectation of cosmic upheaval, of everything on earth being destroyed? Or was Mark 13 about the immanent destruction of the Temple City, Jerusalem? What is the scope of the catastrophe spoken of by Jesus in Mark 13?
Mark 13 Cannot be Eschatology
In theological and exegetical works, “apocalyptic” is always paired with “eschatology.” Another brilliant scholar, Vicky Balabanski, tells us that eschatology is “the expectation of an imminent end.” Bruce Malina inquires: an imminent end to what? And also, an imminent end of what? Is it the ultimate, definitive END of everything, of the whole world? Many would say yes, and they would be confident that this is clearly expressed in Mark 13.
But if the Markan Jesus was only talking about the end of the Jerusalem Temple and its expression of the then current political religious form, how could Mark 13 be an “eschatological discourse”? Most biblical scholars are quite vague about “eschatology,” although they adore using that word. Going by almost any sample of its use, Malina says that quite often “eschatology” tends to mean not much more than simply “future orientation.”
Malina is right to criticize its employ. This is so because “future orientation” depends on one’s cognitive scheme of time. For example, our Western society is future-oriented. We grapple continually with concerns of the “not-yet.” In contrast, the only emphasis given by New Testament documents is for the “now.” No tension existed between the “now” and “not-yet” in first century New Testament communities.
Given that, don’t we need to seriously rethink “eschatology” (along with “apocalyptic” and “Parousia”)? Isn’t it us, 21st century Western readers (including theologians and exegetes) who are overlaying the New Testament with ethnocentric and anachronistic baggage? By baggage I mean our future-orientation? The New Testament, an ancient Mediterranean library, is concerned with the present, fundamentally and directly.
Mark 13 is the Final Discourse Genre
It turns out that Apocalypse (i.e., the book of Revelation) is not apocalyptic, and neither is “the Synoptic Apocalypse,” Mark 13! To clear things up for us concerning the latter writing, Bruce Malina begins by eliminating the categories “apocalyptic” and “eschatology” altogether. He offers three reasons for doing this. One, they are anachronisms. Two, they conceptualize faulty history. Three, Mark 13 is the final discourse of an Israelite near death concerning the fate of the Temple city, Jerusalem.
What is the genre of the book of Revelation then if it is not the anachronistic misnomer “apocalyptic literature”? There’s nothing apocalyptic about it! Bruce Malina and John Pilch explain it to be an astronomic report—Israelite sky lore and astral prophecy. It concerns the stars and the forthcoming, not the future. But the book of Revelation is too complex to deal with thoroughly in this post. We will soon explore it again in a future piece.
So back to Mark 13—it is the final discourse of a dying man concerning the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem. Looking carefully at Mark 13:1-4 should make obvious what Jesus is really concerned about.
“But the World Forever Stays”
While a few ancient elites may have been concerned with cosmic destruction, not so with Israelite belief. The disintegration of creation was inconceivable to Biblical Israel (Ecclesiastes 1:4; Mark 13:31; Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17). The God of Israel created the cosmos and its foundations are firm.
Malina explains that most first century Hellenized peoples believed that the geocentric universe was permanent. Israel agreed. The “ge” or geo part of geocentric was thought to be immutable. The vaulted skies shifting and changing roundabout the stationary earth could never be destroyed either.
Compounding the Problem
Calling Jesus, John of Patmos, and “Mark” “apocalypticists” steeped in “eschatological” concerns really messes things up. It can distort them into being authors of fiction. With STAR TREK, Gene Roddenberry wrote about a fictional Starship Enterprise to comment on real problems of his day meanwhile giving TV viewers hope. So too we may imagine Jesus and “Mark” were telling symbolic stories to help their people address the crises at hand and hope for a better tomorrow. Any visions such authors claim are but the ruse of fiction. But this is anachronism.
Western historians studying Mark 13, like most Western people, generally are closed off to altered states of consciousness experiences. This is so even with 90 percent of world cultures regularly experiencing them. Western scholars studying “Mark” are more concerned about the history of religious ideas than the social system out of which Mark 13 emerged. The genetic mislabeling of Mark 13 as “apocalyptic” and “eschatological” pools their ignorance.
Is there anything in the New Testament documents that the authors of such would categorize as “supernatural”? Try to find a scholarly commentary on Scripture that lacks the word “supernatural.” But the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” does not emerge until Origen of Alexandria (d. 253).
And how could there be any “eschatological delay in the Parousia”? Ancients believed that lords, whether earthly or cosmic, were never late or early in arriving. Like Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf, they arrive precisely when they mean to! So while there can be a refusal on the part of the Lord to actualize the Parousia (victorious return and presence), there can be no “delay’ to it. Therefore “eschatological delay” is misplaced.
Nothing Apocalyptic about the Final Discourse
Again, the genre of literature that Mark 13 and its Synoptic parallels are is that of the Final Discourse. Western persons are individualists. Many when close to death claim to see their lives flash before their eyes. On the other hand, those dying persons living in the Mediterranean world experience something quite different. Unlike Americans, these collectivistic personalities are group-oriented. Dying, they believe themselves to become prescient about what will happen to their surviving ingroup. How does this affect how we understand Mark 13 and what is going on there?
Bruce Malina presents us with a thorough comparison and contrast of the received view of Mark 13 with one informed by the social sciences. In the basic Synoptic story, Mediterranean Jesus knows that he will soon be put to death. It didn’t need divinity to know that. Jesus was very proficient at public insult. He excelled at humiliating elites. The result of such behavior was a foregone conclusion. Jesus was morally certain that his death was forthcoming. Mark 13 serves as a culturally plausible final discourse prior to his immanent death.
Dying Mediterraneans, dyadic personalities, believe themselves prescient. This is so because they are closer to the world of the gods (who know all mysteries) than to that of human experience. Therefore dying places the Mediterranean into a certain type of altered consciousness. This grants them a divine perspective or POV. Bruce Malina explains we have ample documented evidence of this behavior and expectation from antiquity. There is nothing “apocalyptic” at work here.
Our American focal social institution is economics and this explains why our last words and testaments deal with disposing goods. But in the Mediterranean world of the Bible the focal social institution is kinship. Thus, their final words are concerned about death sundering the social fabric of kin. Therefore, the dying Mediterranean is deeply concerned with what will become of his or her ingroup. Malina explains that this is the cultural framework in which Jesus’ words in Mark 13 must be understood.
Scholarly commentaries on Mark 13 list all the biblical allusions there. But most scholars seem oblivious as to how much Mark 13 relates to and shares with contemporary astrological/astronomical documents of the period.
Malina explains that when ancient Mediterraneans forecasted the destruction of a polis, they would employ various stereotypical formulas and themes to do so. Were an Israelite to do this, he would use what Malina calls “Bible-speak” phraseology drawn from Israel’s scriptures. In the Synoptic Gospels, whenever God speaks to people it is always via “Bible-speak.” Israelites close to the realm of God (e.g., soon-to-die Jesus) also employ “Bible-speak.”
The sequence of destruction is stereotyped: wars, international strife, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, solar eclipses. All of these, Malina explains, ancient Mediterraneans interpreted as being caused by celestial entities and events in sky vault (Mark 13:24-27). These aren’t apocalyptic. They are astronomic or astrological.
As with the Canaanite and Mesopotamian deities, the military exploits of Yahweh Sabaoth are accompanied by dramatic meteorological phenomena. These include mists, clouds, lightning, and thunder (see Judges 5 and Exodus 15). Yahweh “roars” from the sky with thunderous voice (Isaiah 42:13). Again, nothing apocalyptic here. This is just how God makes an entrance.
Cosmic Son of Man Comes = City Destroyed
In Revelation 14:6-20 a great sky being and servant of God comes down to earth. But that does not necessarily mean that the final end of all things is at hand. Rather it signals that a city is about to be destroyed. Is there a new sky vault and earth brought about by the destruction of ancient Babel by “one like a Son of man” (i.e., the constellation Ares)? Nope. Rather, God has condemned Babel and its inhabitants.
This is exactly what is going on in Mark 13. Western scholars miss this typical Israelite astral prophecy because of wrong scenarios in their heads. Their commitments to “apocalyptic” and “eschatology” distorts what they are reading.
Those informed of the social sciences can test scenarios. How? As we showed above with the story about Ayatullah Khomeini (PBUH), we can demonstrate comparable behavior in the contemporary world. This blows away any ridiculous claims of finding in the Gospels anything remotely “apocalyptic” or “eschatological.” With this test in mind, watch the video below which compares, relative to Mark 13, the Received (anachronistic) View with the Social Science View:
Evolution vs Devolution
Bruce Malina explains that first century people believed that the world and everything within it was running down. The universe is getting worse as time creeps on. The Bible agrees, although it doesn’t highlight this. It does not stand out in the writings. When it peeks out, Western scholars confuse this for something “apocalyptic.”
Scholars and theologians often miss that all ancient Mediterranean peoples believed in devolution, regress, and ultimate cosmic loss. Whether eventual cosmic renewal would come or final dissolution was contended. In the spirit of making modern theological words out of Greek spare parts, Malina suggests something fun. Why not instead of the inaccurate “apocalyptic” and “eschatology,” we call the Mediterranean perspective as “kakoterology” (meaning worse-ology).
But nineteenth-century Germans, and modern Euro-Americans after them, hold to evolution and progress. Even our fundamentalists types who vigorously deny anything Darwinian still implicitly hold to improving life through progress. We might call our Western perspective “kreittology” or “kreissology” (meaning “better-ology”).
Belief in cosmic regress was held just as ardently by the ancients as we hold to progress. But Malina stresses that the New Testament simply does not highlight or even note this perspective. New Testament stories focus on the forthcoming, on what will be “soon,” and “next.” Malina offers that perhaps we should call this perspective in writings like Mark 13 and Revelation as proximatology or nextology.
Lots to chew on here. We should get rid of calling ancient works apocalypses. They aren’t “eschatological discourses” either. When our history is culturally informed the wonderful result is that many invisible things to Western eyes come into focus. Consequently, Mark 13 is seen as the final discourse, final words of an Israelite about to die, given to his family about what is forthcoming for them.
This post would have been impossible without the tremendous scholarship of Bruce Malina.