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Jesus & the Destruction of the Temple

Jesus & the Destruction of the Temple


The earliest known gospel is Mark. The gospel was subsequently expanded and redacted by Matthew and Luke. A hypothetical source used by both Matthew and Luke is named Q. Aside from these three gospels and Q, we have other gospels named for John, Thomas, Peter, and fragments of lost gospels.

In every one of these gospels, Jesus clashes with the religious elite of Israel, identified by the authors as members of the Pharisee and Sadducee parties, as well as members of the scribal and priestly classes. His sharp criticisms of their perceived sins and hypocrisies occasionally turn to declarations of end-times doom. This theme is so prevalent in Mark that it fills several chapters. Once Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, his criticism of the city, its leadership, and its temple is brought up repeatedly. In the center of these chapters is a section called the ‘Olivet Discourse’ or ‘Little Apocalypse’ (somewhat inaccurately1), the longest section of Mark dedicated to a single topic,2 which begins with a prediction that the temple will be destroyed.

About four decades later, in 70 CE, the temple was destroyed when the Romans razed Jerusalem after waging war for more than three years. Certain details in other parts of Mark indicate the author wrote his gospel after the war had ended. However, even with those details aside, for the author to decide to shape the entire final third of his book around Jesus’ prophetic announcement of the city’s fate—as opposed to emphasizing another theme of his teaching—still suggests the author was looking back on 70 CE.

[Mark] sens[ed] that the end of the age was in fact fast approaching in light of the Jewish war, [and] gave a prominent place to the eschatological discourse and edited it accordingly.3

This begs a question. Prophecy of this sort is invariably invented after-the-fact. Such is the case with eschatological predictions made in apocalyptic texts like Daniel, 1 Enoch, or 4 Ezra. Can the prediction of the temple’s destruction (especially as found in the centerpiece in Mark 13) credibly be attributed to Jesus, decades before 70 CE?

The Olivet Discourse

To approach the question, we need to first summarize and explore the contents of Mark 13.

After being in Jerusalem for a few days in preparation for Passover, Mark 13 begins with Jesus’ disciples admiring the grandiosity of the temple (13.1–2). Jesus promptly shatters this expression of awe by declaring that the temple will be completely destroyed. This sparks a few of the disciples to approach Jesus in private, on the Mount of Olives, to ask him when his prediction will come true and what sign to watch for when the time is near (13.3–4). He outlines a series of events (13.5–23), which concludes with his second coming amid the apparent destruction of the universe (13.24–27). He follows this up with a few brief parables concerning the need to remain observant (13.28–37).

The main part of Mark’s Olivet Discourse, the series of events that Jesus predicts will unfold, is usually divided into three sections.4 First, there are events preceding the eschatological crisis (13.5–13).

‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the holy spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’

This section can be divided into two halves, as seen above. The first paragraph (13.5–8) shows the upheaval of the world order, which manifests in typical ways for the ancient Mediterranean (war, earthquakes, famines), as well as false messiahs or prophets. The second paragraph (13.9–13) has the upheaval of the disciples’ lives as they are sent out to evangelize the world. These two are not chronologically sequential.5 Jesus says of the worldly upheaval that ‘the end is still to come’, saying these signs are just ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’. Of the disciples being persecuted, he implies the imminent arrival of the eschaton: ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’.

Next, there is the tribulation (13.14–23).

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judah must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.’

Jesus restricts the end times to the land of Judah. While worldly disorder does happen leading into the end, the final act of history takes place in the historical land of the Israelites. The instigating sign that the ‘tribulation’ has begun is called τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως, usually translated as the ‘abomination of desolation’ or ‘desolating sacrilege’. This period will bring (again) false messiahs and prophets.

Finally, there is the eschaton itself (13.24–27), the arrival of salvation via divine intervention.

‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’

Jesus invokes the classic language of decreation (the wording appears to be borrowed directly from LXX Isa 13.10) and envisages God’s executor of the final judgment making his appearance to the world. Though judgment is not explicitly mentioned here, a reader would be justified in inferring it. By this time in Second Temple Judaism, the traditional concept of an ‘end times’ consisted of divine judgment on Israel’s enemies and the return of scattered Israelites from their diaspora. The description of the ‘son of man’ gathering God’s chosen ones is close to LXX Deut 30.3–5, a passage explicitly about God rewarding an exiled Israel by restoring the people to their homeland.

The prophecy itself is followed by Jesus’ declaration that the events will ‘all’ take place in the lifetime of his own generation (not a distant future).

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

The choice of vocabulary in Mark 13.2 look like it was taken from Dan 2 (more on this below), and δει γενεσθαι, ‘this must take place’, in Mark 13.7 comes from Dan 2.28–29.6 The phrase in 13.14, ‘abomination of desolation’, is lifted from Dan 12.11 (and mentioned with different wording in Dan 8, 9, and 11). The evangelist even addresses a ‘reader’, perhaps referring to someone trying to understand the Book of Daniel.7 Jesus’ warning to flee into the mountainous countryside echoes 1 Macc 2.27–28, a book which identifies the ‘abomination of desolation’ with the desecration of Yhwh’s temple in Jerusalem by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes.8 This echo suggests the prophecy in Mark 13.14 saw Antiochus’ profane act of idoltry in the Jerusalem temple, and the ensuing flight of God’s faithful followers, as something which would be repeated. The eschaton’s effect on Judah is called a θλῖψις, ‘tribulation’, probably taken from LXX Dan 12.1.9 The messianic figure’s role in Mark 13.26 as a divine agent of judgment is nearly identical to the ‘son of man’ seen in 1 Enoch 37–71, but both versions ultimately go back to Dan 7.13–14, where a symbolic ‘one like a son of man’ does not execute judgment, but is rewarded by God during judgment.

Mark 13 is almost universally understood by scholars as referring to the first war between Judah and Rome (66–73 CE). For example, the evangelist most likely intended the false messiahs and false prophets to be identified by his readers with historical figures like Theudas, the ‘Egyptian’ prophet, Simon of Gischala, and Simon son of Gioras.10 And, because of the textual allusions mentioned above, Mark 13 is also commonly thought to be a ‘midrash’ (interpretative expansion) on the Book of Daniel. This means, in the theology of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was supposed to return not long after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.

Synoptic Expansions

Matthew and Luke, following their usual methods of modifying Mark, each expand on Mark 13 with text from another written source about Jesus (called Q), while also changing details to fit their own perspectives. The primary reason for such adjustments to Mark 13 was to solve an obvious problem: Jesus did not return after the Judean-Roman War ended.

Luke’s redactions make explicit what was before only contextually implied.

Mark 13

Luke 21

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand). Then those in Judah must flee to the mountains’

‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judah must flee to the mountains’

Luke goes on to call the Roman conquest of Jerusalem ‘days of vengeance’ and ‘wrath against this people’. The Judeans’ loss in the war was divinely ordained as punishment. But Luke then inserts a new item into the prophecy. After this loss the world will transition into a new ‘age of the nations’. Mark was written just a few years after Jerusalem was conquered, but Luke was written decades later. The lack of the prophecy’s fulfillment had only become more pronounced. With the introduction of this ‘age of the nations’ into the eschatological program, the prediction could not be said to have failed. Jesus has as much time before his return as the conveniently undefined ‘age of the nations’ must last.

Although Luke 21 rewrites the predictions being made to give his spin on them, the author nevertheless keeps the source material from Mark 13 in the same order, with only occasional additions or subtractions. The largest item Luke removes is the parable of the absent master (Mark 13.33–37). Luke’s material from Q contained two versions of the same parable, which the author already used earlier in his book (Luke 12.35–48).

Matthew’s approach to Mark 13 is different. He makes several more additions than Luke, some of which he also took from Q. For example, where Luke kept Jesus’ words about lightning, vultures, and Noah in a separate context (Luke 17.22–37), Matthew inserts them into the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24.26–28, 37–41).11 Also in contrast to Luke removing Mark’s parable of the absent master, Matthew instead chose to bring Q’s alternate versions of that parable into the Olivet Discourse, using the absent master’s delay to impress upon his readers that Jesus’ absence is inherent to the idea that his return must happen at a time no one expects (24.44–51).12

Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse contains some items not found in either Luke or Mark. Whereas Luke 21.12–19 keeps the persecution of the disciples by synagogues, governors, and kings (Mark 13.9–13), Matthew relocated that passage to a much earlier position, overriding a parallel saying in Q (Matt 10.17–22; cf. Luke 12.11–12). Instead of repeating the persecution of the disciples, Matthew inserts a vaguely similar text that mentions torture, false prophets (for the third time), lawlessness, and love turning cold (Matt 24.9–14).13 Matthew also uniquely includes the ‘sign of the son of man’ (24.30) and angels being sent with ‘a loud trumpet call’ (24.31).

Luke’s unique additions are identifiable as an author looking back on the events of 66–73 CE, making them clear to his readers while also providing an airtight excuse for Jesus’ continued absence.

Matthew’s unique additions cannot be explained the same way; they don’t serve a hermeticizing function. Rather, Matthew’s unique additions are oddly shared by two other texts, one decades older and one roughly contemporary or perhaps a little later. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians shares a similar matrix of terms with Matt 24.30–31 in context of Jesus’ return: clouds, an angel, and a trumpet (1 Thess 4.16).14 Other points of contact with the Olivet Discourse (though not unique to Matthew’s version) include comparing Jesus’ return to the sudden arrival of a thief at night (1 Thess 5.2) and birthing pain (5.3).15 The Didache (a sort of ‘manual’ for converts and Jesus-communities) looks to be the work of multiple hands over many decades, drawing from a variety of sources. While the Didache is often thought to have borrowed directly from the Gospel of Matthew (for valid reasons), it is still odd that where Did 16.3–7 overlaps with the Olivet Discourse, it does so only with Matt 24’s unique material, not the material from Mark.16

Matthew 24

Didache 16

‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.

they will hate and persecute

Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.

and betray one another.

And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

For in the final days false prophets and corrupters will be multiplied, and the sheep will turn into wolves,

And because of the increase of lawlessness,

As lawlessness increases,

the love of many will grow cold.

and love will turn into hate.

But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.

but those who persevere in their belief will be saved by the curse itself.

Then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn,

And then the signs of truth will appear: first, the sign of extension in heaven;

And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call,

next, the sign of the trumpet call;

Though there is disagreement over how many of the stories in Q go back to Jesus himself and how many were created by his followers and attributed back to him, the text of Q is dated before 70 CE. Whatever interpretation either Luke or Matthew brought to the parables they received from the Q source, those stories were not made-to-order explanations for Jesus’ apparent delay after the Judean-Roman War ended. Likewise, the material shared by Matt 24, Did 16, and 1 Thess 4–5 appears to come from an existing tradition about the eschaton independent from either Q or Mark.17

We can detect three sources at play in Matt 24.18 The majority is made up from Mark 13, the Olivet Discourse itself.19 The second, what we call Q, appears to be a written text containing teachings attributed to Jesus, some of which concerned persecution and the eschaton. The third seems to be a much shorter, probably oral tradition summarizing a sequence of events leading up to and including the eschaton.20 Both sources overlapped with Mark 13, allowing Matthew’s author to splice them into the Olivet Discourse, but both of them also pre-date 70 CE.

With Matthew’s post-70 usage of two pre-70 eschatological sources as precedent, it becomes much more justifiable to identify the content of Mark 13 as originating before 70 CE.21 Yet, there is still the question whether it was Jesus himself who prophesied the temple’s destruction, since this would mean he predicted it nearly forty years before it happened.

An Apocalyptic Tract

Mark incorporates the Olivet Discourse into a context that so thoroughly condemns Jerusalem and its religious establishment, the book demands readers recognize the evangelist was looking at 70 CE as past.22 Similar after-the-fact knowledge of the temple’s destruction are why 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch are placed near the end of the first century. Similar hints to the event are found in Hebrews and the Revelation of John. Despite this, Mark 13 contains a few details which some scholars believe contradict the outcome of the Judean-Roman War.

First, Jesus claims ‘not one stone’ of the temple ‘will be left here upon another’ (13.2). If the Gospel of Mark was written after 70 CE, the author should be aware the temple was burned, and parts of the temple grounds were still standing by the time the war ended (they still stand today, nearly two millennia later). How could the author neglect to mention any fire, especially considering how prevalent fire is in the older prophets?23 How could he not know the temple complex was not completely torn down? However, the statement may simply be hyperbolic,24 or it may be referring only to the main temple building itself, not the whole complex around it, and the use of fire is itself irrelevant to the message being made.25

Second, Jesus warns his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they see the ‘abomination of desolation’. In the Book of Daniel and in 1 Maccabees, the ‘abomination’ was Antiochus Epiphanes’ unclean sacrifice inside the temple of Jerusalem. He didn’t destroy the temple, he desecrated it. Apocalyptic Judeans during the Maccabean Revolt believed this desecration marked the turning point in history, kicking off the countdown to the world’s end. When this end did not materialize, later readers reinterpreted Daniel. As mentioned above, Luke 21 identifies the ‘abomination of desolation’ as the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem. Alternatively, the closest Judean-Roman War equivalent to what Antiochus did was when the general (and future emperor) Titus led his forces to the temple grounds and offered sacrifices to the legionary standards. There have also been attempts to identify the ‘abomination’ with a faction of Judeans who set up residence in the temple during the war. None of these is chronologically coherent. In each case, it was too late to flee Jerusalem because the city had already been surrounded by the Romans, and in the case of Titus the temple had already been destroyed. There seems to be no viable explanation for what a post-70 author could have identified the ‘abomination of desolation’ with when looking back at the Judean-Roman War. The language essentially requires the event be the installation of an idol and/or profane sacrifices in the temple, but no such thing happened before the temple was destroyed in the war.26

Third, when Jesus instructs the disciples to flee Jerusalem, he says ‘Pray that it may not be in winter’. This is taken as an overt tip to the reader that the author genuinely expected the eschaton would take place during winter. Or, perhaps, winter had already arrived and the author believed the eschaton was already underway. Instead, the destruction of the temple took place in late summer.

Fourth, there seems to be serious tension between the prophecy providing a clear list of ‘signs’ to watch out for in order to know when the eschaton is about to arrive, and Jesus’ statement later in the chapter that his disciples have no way to know ‘when the time will come’ because it will happen ‘suddenly’ at a time ‘no one knows’.27

These points have led some scholars to accept the Olivet Discourse did originate before 70 CE, but not because they think Jesus uttered the prophecy. Instead they suggest it originated as an ‘apocalyptic tract’,28 which was written just before (or during) the winter of 39 or 40 CE (though some think it was written during the Judean-Roman War).29 It was about this time when the Roman emperor Caligula attempted to install a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, shortly before his assassination in January of 41 CE.30 Ostensibly, an apocalyptic Judean saw Caligula’s attempt as a legitimate threat, and believed the prophecy of the ‘abomination of desolation’ from Daniel was about to be fulfilled. This anonymous person wrote a brief tract laying out a series of ‘signs’ to watch for (after-the-fact, typical of apocalyptic sources).31 The last sign, still future from the author’s point of view, was to be the desecration of the temple by the emperor. Instead, Caligula died and the tract languished, unfulfilled.

The evangelist, then, came across the tract and attributed the prophecy to Jesus himself, while also inserting a few thematically relevant teachings of Jesus taken from other sources.32 The ‘original’ text of the prophecy would have contained the initial signs, the Judean crisis, and the arrival of the son of man. This tract probably consisted of something like Mark 13.7–8, 12, 14–20, 24–27.33

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judah must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The other parts of the chapter—the setting, the persecution of the disciples, the parables, and probably the warnings of the false prophets and messiahs34—would come from Mark’s other sources or his own authorial hand.35

If this is the case, it would mean the Olivet Discourse cannot have come from Jesus (it would be about ten years too late), but also that Mark’s author neglected to ‘correct’ the details incongruent with 70 CE.36 It is definitely possible Mark did not notice them, or simply chose not to change them. After all, Matthew and Luke each interpolated Mark 13 with attempts to justify Jesus’ absence after the Judean-Roman War while still retaining the explicit statement that ‘all’ the predicted events would happen in the lifetime of Jesus’ generation. They included elements in the prophecy that simply do not cohere with their knowledge of past events. This lends credibility to the suggestion that Mark’s author did the same.

A Divisive Saying

If the bulk of Mark 13 did not originate as a prophecy from Jesus—which, though not certain, is a strong possibility that should be considered—how is it that Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the temple during his trial (Mark 14.57–58)? Why was the prophecy inserted here at all?

‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”’

This accusation is then repeated during Jesus’ crucifixion (15.29). Mark claims the accusation came from false witnesses, but Matthew’s changes to the passage (‘many false witnesses’ come forward, but none are found credible) suggest he understood the accusation against Jesus as truthful.37 It may be that Mark intended for the accusation to be ‘false’ only in the sense that, per Mark 13.2, Jesus doesn’t claim he will destroy the temple.38

‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.”’

Luke’s version of the trial omits the accusation, but it doesn’t disappear from the author’s narrative altogether. The sequel volume, Acts, depicts another rigged prosecution, this one of Jesus’ follower Stephen. The author intended for Jesus’ trial to be mirrored in Stephen’s. At the equivalent point (Acts 6.14), Stephen is accused of the same thing.39

‘we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place’

Instead of refuting this accusation, Stephen goes on a diatribe against Israel’s history of disobedience to God, concluding with the warning that ‘the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands’. His speech is meant to justify the prediction which he (i.e. Jesus by proxy) was accused of uttering. The accusation is ‘essentially true’.40

John 2.19 has Jesus declare:

‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’

Thomas 71 instead has:

Jesus said, ‘I will destroy [this] temple, and no one will build it […]’

None of the five versions of the saying completely agree, but the widespread, divergent attestation of this saying indicates it most likely was something Jesus said,41 which the different authors struggled to work around.42 We know of other figures who predicted the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple before it took place.43 We also have samples of apocalyptic texts which predicted the existing temple would be replaced with a superior one.44 All five versions of the saying stem out from an original, but each has modified it to fit their own perspectives. Mark distances Jesus from the saying by calling it a false accusation, but he also somewhat justifies why Jesus might say such a thing, designating Jerusalem’s temple as ‘made with hands’, a common idiom for idols (i.e. the temple was, or became, an improper form of worship). Matthew apparently acknowledges the truthfulness of the accusation, but softens Jesus’ wording, changing it from ‘I will destroy’ into ‘I am able to destroy’. Luke severs the explicit connection to Jesus by instead giving it to Stephen.

John accepts that Jesus said it, but interprets it as a metaphor of Jesus’ resurrection: it is not him, but his enemies who will destroy the ‘temple’, which is his body. This leads to a statement found nowhere else in the New Testament, that Jesus would raise himself from the dead (cf. John 10.18).45 All other NT texts have Jesus raised by God, an indication that this is a revisionist interpretation by the author of John. He was able to come to this reinterpretation by equating the three days rebuilding the temple with Jesus being raised from the dead after three days.46 An inherent problem in John’s reinterpretation of the saying is that Jesus is telling his enemies that he will offer his resurrection as a sign to them of his authority. No first century tradition has the risen Jesus ever appear to his enemies. They never receive the ‘sign’ Jesus said he would show them, again showing the reinterpretation to be John’s own invention.47

Thomas keeps the saying with Jesus, but seems to definitively reject rebuilding the temple altogether. The text in Thomas’ version breaks off before the last word, so a permanent rejection of a new temple is somewhat hypothetical.48 This would not be entirely without precedent.49

We cannot know what the original wording was, but we can make a reasonable guess based on the commonalities between the five versions, and by detecting how each author made their own changes.50 A vorlage of what Jesus said would be something like ‘I will destroy this temple, and over three days I will build another’. When would Jesus have said this? The most important clue is John’s version, which has the saying immediately follow Jesus’ disruption of the temple activities. In John 2.13–22, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for Passover. He enters the temple and, infuriated by what he sees, begins driving out the merchants and animals. His opponents approach him and ask ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ and he answers with the saying.51

Compare this to Mark 11.52 Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for Passover (11.1–11; cf. 14.1); he enters the temple and drives everyone out (11.15–18); he is approached by his opponents who ask him ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ (11.28).53 Between these scenes in the temple, Jesus searches a fig tree and curses it for not producing fruit out of season (11.12–14, 20–24). Mark 11 brings distinct episodes from Jesus’ career into a single setting, artificially cutting them together to stress the temple’s fate. This is why the disconnected saying about prayer (11.25) is found where it is; the author simply had it follow the mention of prayer in the fig tree episode. Likewise, this fig tree story itself is artificially split into two halves, placed on either side of the temple incident.54 This way Jesus’ condemnation of the fruitless fig tree symbolically conveys to the reader that the temple is likewise doomed.55 Pulling apart the separate threads Mark has weaved into this chapter, we find the base narrative is the same as John 2.13–22 up to the point where Jesus’ opponents demand he produce a sign/explanation to justify his actions. And though the temple incident takes place early in the Gospel of John’s narrative, ‘virtually all scholars’ accept that it happened late in Jesus’ career, as depicted in the synoptics56 (though some think the temple incident and the saying were not originally together).57

Between Mark 11.18 directly saying the temple disruption was the catalyst for Jesus’ arrest, Mark 14.49 showing that the sole accusation made against Jesus in his trial is that he threatened to destroy the temple, and John 2.13–22 depicting the temple disruption was directly followed by that exact threat, we should expect to find Jesus uttering his divisive ‘I will destroy this temple’ saying somewhere in Mark 11–14, after he arrived in Jerusalem but before he was arrested. It cannot be the Olivet Discourse oracle proper (Mark 13.5–37), which only mentions the temple’s desecration (13.14). This leaves us with Mark 13.2.58

‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

For those scholars who see the prophetic section of Mark 13 as a pre-existing apocalyptic tract copied into the gospel narrative, it is generally agreed that 13.1–2 was part of Mark’s base passion narrative.59 These two verses naturally conclude Mark 11–12,60 and lead smoothly into 14.1. Mark 13.3–4 was written to weld the tract into this point of the passion narrative.61

Jesus prophesying the temple’s destruction is not the same thing as him saying he would destroy it. However, he does make this statement publicly, ‘as he came out of the temple’, separate from the private setting of the Olivet Discourse. And, in fact, textual witnesses ranging from the third to the twelve century contain an extended version of Mark 13.2.62

‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down, and in three days another will be raised without hands.’

In the rare occasions scholars show awareness of it, this textual variant is usually dismissed as a later scribe harmonizing Mark 13.2 with the accusation in 14.58.63 But there is the possibility this extended saying is not based on another New Testament text, since the Greek phrasing differs between the two (καὶ διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν ἄλλος ἀναστήσεται ἄνευ χειρῶν in 13.2; καὶ διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν ἄλλον ἀχειροποίητον οἰκοδομήσω in 14.58). The verbage used in Mark 13.2 instead seems to be based on LXX Dan 2.34–35, 44–45, an apocalyptic vision of God’s kingdom manifesting on earth (presumably in the form of a restored Israelite kingdom), which is described as a ‘stone’ (λίθον) made ‘without hands’ (ἄνευ χειρῶν) that is ‘raised [up]’ ([ἀνα]στήσεται).64 If this extension is based on the Old Greek version of Daniel, it could be an original part of the text that was later removed from Mark (either by scribal error or deliberate omission). If based on Theodotion’s version of Daniel, it must be ruled as an interpolation of the late second or early third century. The language is somewhat closer to Theodotion (ἀναστήσεται) than the Old Greek (στήσεται), weakening the theory of the extended verse’s authenticity.


The formation and interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, and Jesus’ condemnation of the temple, is complex.

The bulk of evidence places the Gospel of Mark as written around 75 CE, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. But this does not mean everything in Mark was invented at that time. Most of the book’s contents predate the Judean-Roman War,65 and even the points which mostly clearly look on the war as an event of the past (e.g. the demon Legion; the coin of Caesar) seem to be redactions of preexisting stories about Jesus. In the process of writing the Gospel of Mark in the mid 70s, the author saw the temple’s fate as a direct consequence of Jesus’ crucifixion.66 Aside from those occasional, opaque references back to the war, the author decided to dedicate the final third of his narrative to push this point onto his readers, even including an explicit prediction from Jesus that the temple would be completely torn down.

A few decades before the Gospel of Mark took shape, a short and fairly generic apocalyptic treatise was written by an anonymous author. This tract, an elaboration on the predictions about the end of the world found in the Book of Daniel, was possibly made in response to Emperor Caligula’s attempt to profane Jerusalem’s temple about a decade after Jesus was crucified.

The author of Mark, like most of Jesus’ followers glimpsed through the New Testament and early Christian literature, believed the end of the world was in the process of unfolding, with the grand finale imminent. The catastrophe that befell Jerusalem was, in his mind, the last major event of the end times. All that was left was Jesus’ return, which he saw in the arrival of the son of man described in that apocalyptic tract. If this tract indeed existed, the evangelist found it and incorporated it—with a few additions but little editing67—into his narrative at the most contextually appropriate moment, when Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction. The result is what we now call the ‘Olivet Discourse’. Matthew expanded the prophecy further with material from Q and another apocalyptic source, both rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

At the same time, Jesus’ overt hostility to the temple was downplayed by the gospel authors.68 Despite keeping the Olivet Discourse, Mark identified Jesus’ own claim that he would be the one to destroy the temple as a wild accusation from false witnesses. And though the temple was destroyed (but not by Jesus as he predicted), the decades wore on. Matthew and Luke were each embarrassed by the son of man’s continued absence, and modified the Discourse in different ways to protect Jesus from uttering a failed prophecy.


1 Craig Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 289; Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to St Mark, 299; Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 594; Adela Yarbro Collins, ‘The Apocalyptic Rhetoric of Mark 13 in Historical Context’, Biblical Research 41, 8.

2 Evans, 291; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 594.

3 Evans, 292.

4 Joel Marcus, Mark 8:22–16:8: A Translation, 865; Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 21, 29.

5 Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 20.

6 Ibid., 9.

7 Yarbro Collins, Mark, 596, sees it as the ‘reader’ of Mark itself, see similarities with Sira P.4–6 and 1 Tim 4.13; cf. Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 22.

8 Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 22–23.

9 Ibid., 9, 22.

10 Ibid., 17–18.

11 Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Volume III, 327.

12 John Kloppenborg, ‘Evocatio Deorum and the Date of Mark’, Journal of Biblical Literature 124.3, 421.

13 Luz, 129 sees this as ‘somewhat freely composed’ from Mark 13.9–13, but see below why others disagree.

14 Abraham Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 265; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 600.

15 Basil Lourié, ‘The “Synoptic Apocalypse” (Mt 24– 25 Par.) and Its Jewish Source’, Scrinium 11, 102.

16 Allison, 327. But see Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache: A Commentary, 208–213, who demonstrates high verbal parallels throughout Did 16 and Matt 24; cf. Marcello Del Verme, Didache and Judaism: Jewish Roots of an Ancient Christian-Jewish Work, 256.

17 Allison, 327; Del Verme, 254; Lourié, 87–88; Malherbe, 267–269; Niederwimmer, 209–211, 217; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 957.

18 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, 179.

19 Allison, 327.

20 Donald Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 684; Nolland, 956.

21 Yarbro Collins, Mark, 595.

22 Kloppenborg, 427.

23 Evans, 291.

24 Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 22.

25 Kloppenborg, 431.

26 Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 25.

27 Evans, 289; Hooker, 301; Marcus, 865.

28 Allison, 328; Del Verme, 254; Evans, 289; Kloppenborg, 425; Marcus, 865; cf. Candida Moss & Joel Baden, ‘1 Thessalonians 4.13–18 in Rabbinic Perspective’, New Testament Studies 58.2, 202.

29 Hooker, 298.

30 Marcus, 865–866; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 596; Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 23. Some doubt the ‘need’ for speculating a specific historical event that inspired such a tract, e.g. Nolland, 957. Others completely reject such attempts, e.g. David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, 184.

31 Compare 4 Ezra 8.63–9.13; 13.21–58; 2 Bar 25–30. Cf. Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 19.

32 Allison, 332; Aune, 184.

33 Allison, 332; Kloppenborg, 425; Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 20–21. Ulrich Müller, ‘Apocalyptic Currents’, Christian Beginnings: Word and Community from Jesus to Post-Apostolic Times (ed. Jürgen Becker), 300, is more reserved, saying these verses (along with 9b, 11, and 13) likely come from a distinct source used by Mark, but are ‘difficult’ to assign to ‘an originally Jewish apocalyptic writing’. His reasoning is that 13.24–27, the coming of the son of man, ‘is Christian rather than Jewish’. I find this argument completely unconvincing, since these four verses closely fit the Book of Parables in 1 Enoch 37–71, written several decades before Jesus’ time.

34 Niederwimmer, 217; Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 20.

35 Allison, 333.

36 Kloppenborg, 425–426.

37 Allison, 525; Jeff Cate, ‘The Living Text of Mark 13:2: Western Witnesses and the Book of Daniel’, Liturgy and the Living Text of the New Testament (ed. H.A.G. Houghton), 44; Hagner, 795; Nolland, 1126.

38 Hooker, 358; Marcus, 1014.

39 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I–XII, 117; Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, 359; Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, 59.

40 C.K. Barrett, Acts 1–14, 328.

41 Hooker, 359; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 702.

42 Brown, 120; Luz, 427.

43 Aune, 175; R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 595; Marcus, 1014; Yarbro Collins, ‘Rhetoric’, 22.

44 Contra Aune, 175 and Kloppenborg, 433; cf. 1 Enoch 90.28–29; Tobit 14.5; Jubilees 1.17, 27–29; 4QFlor 1 1.11– 13; 11QTemple 29.8–10 (Marcus, 1014).

45 Fortna, 123 fn. 275.

46 Brown, 123. John’s view that Jesus was predicting his death and resurrection, instead of the literal destruction of the temple, is sometimes read back into the other versions (Allison, 526; Hagner, 796; cf. John McHugh, John 1–4, 214), but see for example Nolland, 1128 why this is doubtful. Further, outside of John’s version the saying has Jesus building a new temple ‘across three days’ (διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν). This phrasing is specifically distinct from the formulaic phrases used for Jesus’ resurrection: ‘in three days’ (ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις), ‘after three days’ (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας), and ‘[on] the third day’ (τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ or τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ). The difference is between an act carried out during a period of three days, and an act undertaken only after those three days have passed. John replaces ‘over three days’ with ‘in three days’ to force his reinterpretation of the saying. Scholars generally view ‘across three days’ as having no connection to Jesus’ resurrection, instead being an idiom for ‘a short amount of time’ (cf. Hooker, 359; McHugh, 207; Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St John, Volume I, 349).

47 McHugh, 213.

48 April DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel, 226.

49 DeConick, 227.

50 Schnackenburg, 350.

51 Ernest Haenchen, John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 1–6, 187.

52 Brown, 116.

53 Ibid., 117.

54 Robert Fortna, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessors, 127.

55 Kloppenborg, 427.

56 Fortna, 120.

57 Fortna, 120; Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John, Volume 2: The Gospel of John, 107.

58 France, 494–495, says the connection between 13.2 and 14.58 is ‘clearly implied’.

59 Kloppenborg, 429; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 594.

60 France, 494.

61 Contra Aune, 186, who sees Mark 13.1–4 as a single unit, though he takes all four verses as an artificial setting for the prophecy which follows; cf. Kloppenborg, 429.

62 Cate, 25.

63 Aune, 174; Cate, 27, 36.

64 Cate, 37–40.

65 Kloppenborg, 428.

66 Compare Josephus, Judean Antiquities 18.5.1–2, which says many believed Herod Agrippa’s army suffered defeat because he unjustly executed John the baptizer.

67 Kloppenborg, 421.

68 Allison, 525–526; Cate, 45–46.


  1. Anonymous5.7.22

    Mark can you tell me what you think of this interpretation of NT wright please

    1. It has been shown with numerous religious groups through history that group members often refuse to accept the failure of prophecies. When faced with the contradiction of their subjective beliefs against objective reality, group members often embrace one of three solutions: (A) They simply ignore the failed prophecy, pretending it never happened or was never important. (B) They postpone the time of fulfillment indefinitely, insisting that it will happen 'soon', but soon never arrives, so the prophecy cannot be said to have failed. (C) They claim the prophecy was fulfilled at the correct time, but they insist fulfillment happened in a spiritual way, which makes it conveniently unfalsifiable.

      Daniel identified the fourth kingdom with Greece and the son of man with Torah-observant Jews. The end times were supposed to occur in 164 BCE, when the dead would be raised and the Jewish people would be rewarded an eternal kingdom.

      This didn't happen, so early readers of Daniel used Solution B: the fourth kingdom was reinterpreted as Rome, allowing more time for fulfillment. The synoptic gospels, assuming that reinterpretation, follow 1 Enoch in reinterpreting the son of man as the Messiah, who is Jesus. The synoptic gospels also repeatedly say that the son of man comes on the clouds, he will be accompanied by an army of angels, he will raise all of the dead, he will judge all people from all nations, all righteous will be given eternal life, and all evildoers will be punished in eternal fire. This event will happen soon after the temple is destroyed in 70 CE.

      But this also didn't happen. Now, two thousand years later, preterist Christians like NT Wright use Solution C: the son of man did arrive when the gospels say he would, but his arrival was not an audible, visible, or tangible event, it was a metaphoric 'I told you so'. What about when Jesus said the son of man would arrive with an army of angels? What about the resurrection of the dead? What about the judgment of all people from all nations? None of those things happened in 70 CE. Preterist hermeneutics are wildly inconsistent on these points, pulling from all three of the above solutions as necessary to uphold the claim that the prophecies did not fail.

  2. Anonymous5.7.22

    I am very interested in the written apocalyptic treatise concerning Caligula. can you learn more by sending me to other sources?

    1. See my footnotes 28, 29, and 30.