Little Apocalypse and the Bar Kochba Revolt

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by Neil Godfrey

Mark 13 is often called the Little Apocalypse or the Mount Olivet Prophecy. Many scholars use its content to calculate that the gospel of Mark must have been written either during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 ce or shortly afterwards. (A minority see in this chapter evidence to date the gospel much earlier, to the 40’s ce, but I will be discussing this view in a later post.) Dr Hermann Detering has a different view that I find quite persuasive. He places this chapter in the time of Hadrian and the Bar Kochba war of 135 ce. He does not date the gospel of Mark so late, but sees this chapter as a later redaction.

I posted the following on the JesusMysteries discussion group in 2001 and, as previously indicated, am adding it here as part of my efforts to collate things I have composed over the years. Unfortunately I don’t read German and used a machine translator to work out the main gist of his article. Happily since then his article has been translated into English by Michael Conley and Darrell Doughty and is available online here. So if you have any sense you will dismiss the rest of this post and go straight to the real thing, here (again).

What follows is a re-edited version of a set of comments by another poster, Peter Kirby, and my original responses.

What relation to the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce?
Mark 13 opens with the disciples asking Jesus when the Temple will be destroyed. Yet there has always been a difficulty in fitting the rest of the apocalypse with this question. Jesus never actually mentions the destruction of the Temple in his reply. Some see this as one of the indications that verses 1-4 are Mark’s attempt to find a way to fit the ‘little apocalypse’ (already in existence before he wrote) into his gospel. Or perhaps it could be a a later redaction completely.

Wars and rumours of wars
In v. 5-8, the author speaks of “wars and rumours of wars,” but “this is not yet the end.” If ch 13 is speaking of the First Jewish Revolt, this indicates that some had predicted earlier that the end would come during the war, a view which the author must deny (or perhaps slightly modify, cf v. 24) after the fighting has ended. The author speaks of “famine” during this time when nation is rising against nation, and Josephus reports the horrors of pestilence and famine during the First Jewish Revolt.

But “Wars and rumours of wars” fits the time of Trajan far more aptly than any time in the first century. Dacia and Arabia Petraea; Armenia and Mesopotamia; including the popular rumours of a Nero redivivus leading a Parthian force to overthrow Rome. Trajan’s mobilization of the armies of Syria and other eastern kingdoms would presumably have had a more immediate impact on those peoples (including Mark’s audience there?) than memories of a more distant power struggle and suppression of the Jewish revolt.

Peoples against peoples
“Nation against nation” or in less anachronistic language, ‘peoples against peoples’, also fits events in the time of Trajan yet to me remains a mystery if we are talking about the first century. From around 115 c.e. there were very bloody revolts of Britons, Moors, Sarmatians and Diaspora Jews against Romans, Greeks and others throughout the empire — Egypt, Cyprus, North Africa, Cyrene, Mesopotamia….

Famines and earthquakes
We also have the famines that accompanied Roman war efforts that devastated the countryside, particularly in the second Jewish revolt.

Mark also mentions earthquakes in the same breath as war. A very severe and deadly quake around Antioch in Syria in 115 severely disrupted Trajan’s war plans and nearly killed him too. (How likely is it that Mark’s audience was Syrian?)

Concerning v. 9-13, Robert Funk writes in The Five Gospels: “The sayings in Mark 13:9-13 all reflect detailed knowledge of events that took place – or ideas that were current – after Jesus’ death: trials and persecutions of Jesus’ followers, the call to preach the gospel to all nations, advice to offer spontaneous testimony, and the prediction that families would turn against one another are features of later Christian existence, not of events in Galilee or Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime. The note about children betraying their parents may be an allusion to the terrible calamities that took place during the siege of Jerusalem (66-70 C.E.)”

However Detering observes that the evidence for such events is far less open to question from very late first century, say from after around 85 ce. During the time of the second Jewish revolt Christian Jews who did not support the rebellion were particularly targeted by their brethren. Moreover, Christianity itself appears to have been more widely known from the early to mid second century — the claim to have preached the gospel to all nations is more meaningful from this time. It would be more consistent with Mark’s theme of the need for urgency and preparedness in his audience.

Abomination of Desecration
Verse 14 says: “When you see the ‘Abomination of Desecration’ standing where it should not be – let the reader take note! – those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” The parenthetical comment to “let the reader take note” underscores the fact that this speech was written for the Christians of Mark’s time. It is widely assumed that the contemporary audience of Mark would understand very well what he was talking about, although the ‘Abomination of Desecration’ is a cryptic reference to us. The phrase is borrowed from Dn 9:27, where it refers to Antiochus profaning the Temple of Jerusalem c. 165 BCE (probably with an image of Zeus), although it has been adapted to the evangelist’s times. In the context of the First Jewish Revolt, this probably refers to the profanation of the Temple by the Romans. Josephus tells us that the victorious soldiers raised their imperial standards and worshiped them in the holy place (Wars of the Jews 6.6.1).

A problem with this explanation as I see it is that this would imply it was not necessary to flee till after the temple was captured and destroyed, and that most of the suffering was to occur after this event. It is also just a bit of a stretch to understand the Roman standards, idolatrous symbols though they were, being comparable to the placing of a statue of Zeus in Temple as per Daniel’s apocalypse — recalling also that Daniel wrote of such an event as the beginning, not the culmination, of suffering. Luke did not like this explanation either.

Yet Hadrian did purposefully model himself on Antiochus Epiphanes in his handling of the second Jewish revolt. And note that 13:14 does not mention a temple, but only a place where something ought not to be. Hadrian’s ordering of the setting up the statue of Zeus along with his own image was the beginning, not the culmination, of the most terrible calamaties. Then was the time to flee.

Winter time
One should also note that the reference to flight in winter had specific meaning for the events the second Jewish revolt. It was in winter that the Roman armies partially withdrew to regroup thus allowing a flight. Nothing like this happened at a winter time in the first revolt.

False prophets
Josephus refers to false prophets during the final phase of the Roman assault on the Temple as it was engulfed in flame: “A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose on the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God; and this was in order to keep them from deserting, and that they might be buoyed up above fear and care by such hopes.” (Wars of the Jews 6.5.2)

It is interesting to compare Josephus’ description of false prophets up to 70 ce with those the events leading up to 135 ce, and to see which best fits Mark’s account. Firstly Mark would appear to link false Christs directly with persecution, and even as the instigators of it (vv. 6 & 11); he says they will actually say bluntly that they are the Christ (v. 6); will be accompanied by false prophets; and perform miracles and deceive many. Bar Kochba did claim to be the Messiah; the leading rabbi, Akiba, proclaimed him as such; he instigated persecution against those (Christians) who denied his claim; and was reputed to have had super-human powers and could make fire to come out of his mouth; and he did appear to have the following of the overwhelming majority of Jews in the area.

If the author of this chapter appears to have certain events clearly in mind then which events make the more detailed and vivid fit — those of the first or of the second Jewish revolt?

That’s it. But will add here one note from the English translation of Detering’s essay. He refers to it as Theissen’s fundamental working principle:

“The fewer the number of textual fragments that under no circumstances can be fitted intot the presumed context and, as such, must be excluded as later interpolations, the better the final result.” (Theissen’s Lokalkolorit und Zeitgeschichte in den Evangelien)

If one reads the Little Apocalypse against the background of the Bar Kochba rebellion “not a single element needs to be excluded from the entire text” as a later interpolation. This applies principally to Matthew’s version (Matt.24) since Detering demonstrates that Mark 13 has truncated a text that originally looked more like Matthew’s. The original text from which Matthew and Mark drew was composed in the early 130’s ce. But to see the rationale for such a “radical” conclusion you will have to return to Detering’s original publication, linked not here, but back there, in the intro to this post. (If you don’t want to read all 50 pdf pages then skip to page 185 and start reading from there.)

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Little Apocalypse and the Bar Kochba Revolt”

  1. Neil:
    Wars and rumours of wars
    Peoples against peoples
    Famines and earthquakes

    These have been true many times in the past both in ancient Judea and even the middle ages. Its hard to pick a period of time from descriptors like this. Personally these things dont really count as evidence imho.

    Abomination of Desecration

    Your comments are fine imho.


    I believe this text is not so much about religion but jewishness itself. Even today the boundaries between the religion and the people is not truely separated, the word Jewish itself can refer to either or both as is often the case. Words such as preaching and persecution can also refer to the troubles rebels were facing with Romans. I think the encoding of various rebel leaders and groups in the names of the apostles can be seen as part of commentary on these very groups trying to convince the populace to join them in their rebellion.

    False prophets:

    This is also true of 70AD. Jesus himself was a false prophet to some extent he made promises to this generation that never eventuated if you ask most xians. They will tell you that time is still coming and will happen around now.

    All your points are fine, however i believe you have done a disservice in not also placing side by side how these same things are a fit with the destruction in 70AD. There are also other events and narratives that also fit 70AD and possibly Bar Kochkba which should not be ignored and add weight if one is forming an opinion.

  2. Thank you for this brief article. I have recently been impressed with H. Detering, and his theses on Marcion and the epistle of Galatians. I think that this is ground breaking work, and should open a door to the neglect paid to the Dutch Radical (root) School of criticism.

  3. I’ve written on this from a Believer’s perspective. Though since then my views have changed on some things.

    In the future I will argue the Abomination of Desolation here can Bar-Kokhba himself, not Hadrian’s statue.

  4. Pingback: Remembering |

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