“The little apocalypse” — its literary function and context

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by Neil Godfrey

Immediately before the plot in Mark’s gospel reaches the point where Jesus experiences his final dramatic adventure — passing through betrayal, trial and death before entering the heavenly kingdom — Jesus delivers a long prophetic speech to his disciples. This inclusion of a detailed prophecy prior to the the hero launching out into a new and climactic phase of extreme life-threatening trial is a common feature of ancient fiction. Mark has modified the focus of this prophecy by having it target the followers of the hero. More correctly, it targets Mark’s audience. A similar variation had been pioneered by Virgil. The effect of this adaptation upon an ancient audience familiar with this standard literary feature would have been to invite the audience to identify themselves with the hero in the final phase of the story. They would have been looking for points of contact between the details of the prophecy and the final days of Jesus’ life.

Mark 13 was therefore not inserted awkwardly into Mark’s gospel some time after it had been written, but follows a literary convention of the day, is woven into the main plot, and is turned to invite the original audience to identify their own experiences of persecution with those of Jesus.

Other literature with “little apocalypses”

Homer’s Odyssey, Apollonius’s Argonautica, Virgil’s Aeneid, Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale and Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story also contain these sorts of prophecies where a prophet outlines to the hero and his followers the sequence of adventures that they must undergo in order to reach their final goal.

Odyssey (book 11)

In The Odyssey the goddess Circe told Odysseus that he must visit the place of the dead, Hades, and return, before he could go on to reach his final destination. But she subsequently gave him a much longer prophecy which detailed specific trials he would encounter in this world in order to arrive home after many years of waiting. To deliver this prophecy she took Odysseus aside, away from the rest of his crew, and sat down before speaking. She warned him that he must face the temptation of the Sirens, and explained to him how he could overcome that. But that would be minor compared with what was to follow — the test of passing through Scylla and Charybdis. More advice and warnings followed. Some of his men would certainly be lost. A fig-tree in full leaf would feature in the coming adventures. Throughout this prophecy, indeed its stated purpose, are warnings to take heed and listen carefully if he hoped to survive to the end.

Argonautica (book 2)

In the Argonautica, the old sightless Phineus tells Jason and his crew as much as he is permitted by Zeus. He explained that heaven wills only that the broad outline be revealed, that certain details are ordained to be concealed. First they will encounter the two Cyanean Rocks that will threaten to crash in on them. Phineus stresses that his warnings must be carefully heeded if they are to survive. Again, that is only the beginning of what must happen, Phineus informs them. More instructions and warnings follow. And specific things and peoples that they will see are laid out so that they can know they are drawing closer to their final goal. This prophet tells them what to expect to see when they do finally reach it.

Aeneid (book 6)

Virgil makes some changes to this well-known literary function of the grand prophecy. He extends it to become a message for his audience and only secondarily as an insight into the future for Aeneas.

Aeneas first asked the Sybil about his future and that of his descendants. Her reply began with the threat of arriving at kingdom of Lavinium, but she consoled him by assuring him he had no need to fear. That was just the beginning. There would be many wars to follow. Yet he and his followers would prevail. She warned him not to lose heart but to endure all afflictions that must come. Some of the details raised questions. It was not clear exactly what they meant and their correct interpretation would only become clear at the time of their fulfilment. Aeneas is portrayed as much bolder than Odysseus and he assures the Sybil he is not afraid to endure all trials to the end.

Next Aeneas asked to see his deceased father in Hades. Better than a mere leafy fig tree the Sybil instructs him to look out for a golden bough that will enable him to pass safely through death and return. It is there in Hades that Aeneas’s father, Anchises, gives the long prophecy of what must happen afterwards. This was the history of Rome being narrated to Virgil’s audience. It enabled the audience to imagine all their history had been foretold and was thus under the guidance of a divine plan. It even included a prophecy of Augustus Caesar, the audience’s emperor. There were admonitions included, too, to instruct Romans in the noble virtues they needed to rule their empire.

Mark (chapter 13)

The prophecy in Mark should be seen in the context of the popular features of ancient literature.

The “little apocalypse” in Mark 13 is an integral part of the gospel and its parts are shared by the examples discussed above:

  1. Just as other storybook heroes reach the point where they must face their greatest trial a consoling and warning prophecy is spelled out in detail, but not too much detail.
  2. Some element of it will be couched in mystery that will only be clearly understood when experienced by the followers.
  3. It is delivered, with the prophet sitting, to a handful who are separated out from their peers.
  4. It begins with a trial that sounds bad enough but it is explained that this is only the beginning; much worse is to follow. The specific prophecies are graduated in severity of danger. (e.g. the statement that “these are the beginning of pains”, “the end is not yet”.)
  5. It is replete with warnings to endure and advice on how to avoid succumbing to the struggles to be faced. (e.g. when and how to flee, how to approach arrest and trial, to watch for the signs)
  6. It is foretold that some followers may be lost along the way.
  7. A piece of vegetation features significantly as indicating the means of survival.
  8. The prophecy culminates with the promise of finally arriving at one’s ultimate home.

And just as Virgil turned the prophecy into a message addressed to his audience, so did Mark.

Virgil’s message was one of conquest and power. Mark’s was one of persecution and enduring being the victim of power. Compare the irony of the way he narrated Jesus’ journey to the cross as an anti Roman Triumph. Like and unlike the Roman conqueror in his procession through Rome Jesus was crowned and hailed as king, mocked, marched with another bearing the sacrificial weapon, ended the journey on the capitol hill or place of the head or skull. (For details see this online article by Schmidt and another of my posts on the role of Simon the Cyrenian.)

The prophecy serves to reassure the audience that what they have experienced is all the plan and will of God. Most commonly in literature it assured audiences that what their hero and his followers were to endure was divinely planned. The chaos that Mark’s audience experienced as Christians — competing sects, official persecution, family betrayals and rejections — were given a structure and meaning. His audience could begin to see themselves as not only victims, but as being part of a plan of God. Their experiences could be rationalized as the signs of hope because of that plan.

But the prophecy also maintained its contact with the ensuing experiences of their hero and his followers in the story:

  1. So the commands for the audience to watch were picked up when Jesus commanded his disciples to watch while he prayed;
  2. the prediction that they would be handed over to councils, synagogues and rulers was picked up again when Jesus was on trial before priests and the governor;
  3. the assurance that they did not need to worry about what to say but to let the holy spirit inspire them was picked up by the silence of Jesus before his judges except for moments of climactic pronouncements about his identity and the future of the kingdom;
  4. the instruction to flee and not return for one’s garment was picked up with the detail of the young man who fled naked — only to return again fully clothed at the end;
  5. the prediction that the sun would be darkened before Jesus returned in power resonated when they heard read that there was darkness for 3 hours in the middle of the day when Jesus was at the gates of entering “his glory” through the cross.

There was enough here for the audience to see that Mark was telling them that in their persecutions they were in fact following the way of their Jesus Christ.

Some scholars dogmatically assert (curiously — I’ve never seen them justify the claim) that the one single bedrock fact we know about Jesus is that he was crucified. Mark’s gospel certainly cannot be claimed as evidence for this “bedrock fact”. He was creating his narrative to give meaning to the experiences of his audience, and so to give them a fortifying confidence and assurance. His little apocalypse is evidence for this.

It is a truism that Mark was giving his audience the hope that their sufferings and even deaths were nothing less than the gateway to the resurrection and the kingdom of heaven. But the main tool he found to do this was borrowed from the popular literature of his day. He played with words and images so as to adapted it in a way that enabled his audience to identify themselves and what they were suffering with the human experience of Jesus.

And part of that experience was to suffer the betrayal and denial by the twelve apostles, and their stubborn refusal to understand a “higher” form of Christian teaching. It is quite likely, as Weeden and others have shown, that Mark also knew his readers would understand the false prophets and teachers in the little apocalypse were those “false” Christians claiming descent from the twelve apostles. (The sins of the false teachers in Mark 13, and in Paul’s letters, are acted out by the twelve in Mark’s narrative.)

The little apocalypse was not from some tradition about what Jesus might have said. Nor a later implant into the original gospel. It was a common feature of popular literature. And Mark was not the first to adapt this feature to give his audience a pride in who they were, and an admonition to hold fast to that identity.