This post advances another reason to think that the author of the Gospel of Mark depicted the final days of Jesus as a metaphor for the fall of Jerusalem. If so, it follows that the resurrection of Jesus symbolized the emergence of a new “body of Christ” and “Temple of God” in the “ekklesia” or assemblies of Christians (what we think of as the “church”). I owe a special debt to Clarke W. Owens whose book on a literary-critical analysis of the gospels, Son of Yahweh, I posted about recently. I also owe much to a few insights advanced by Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb, on which I have also posted a little.
To begin, let’s recapitulate some of the essentials from those earlier posts.
I am persuaded that the Gospel of Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ tomb was based on a reading of the Greek version of Isaiah 22:16 that describes the destruction of the temple. In Isaiah 22:16 the temple is likened to a tomb carved out of a rock:
What hast thou here? and whom has thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock.
Compare Mark 15:46 speaking of the tomb Joseph of Arimathea used for the body of Jesus:
. . . and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock . . . .
Recall at this point that we know ancient authors of the era in which the gospels were composed loved to imitate, draw upon, rearrange, allude to, transform, other well-known literature. We have numerous examples of this being done in the Gospel of Mark. The author has regularly taken passages from the Book of Daniel, the Psalms, other prophets, 1 and 2 Kings, Genesis and Exodus, and woven them into a new story so that they take on new meanings. We see this at the beginning with the introduction of Jesus through the announcement of John the Baptist. That opening chapter is replete with allusions to Elijah, the exodus of Israel from Egypt and the forty year wandering in the wilderness. The Passion scene at the end is equally rich with allusions to Daniel and Psalms, such as the cry of desperation from the cross, the mocking of Jesus as he was dying, the dividing of his garments, the promise of a return on the clouds in glory.
The Symbolic Narrative
We need also to recall the many reasons we have to believe this gospel was primarily a series of symbolic tales rather than a depiction of historical events. The characters are far from true to life: the disciples are unnaturally obtuse, so much so that they can only be understood as ciphers for a certain kind of person in the wider world who is blind to the meanings of the miracles of Jesus. Jesus is himself said to have remarked that at least two miracles had a hidden, symbolic meaning (Mark 8:17-21); in the same chapter Jesus says he would perform no miracles for the hard-hearted Pharisees (Mark 8:12) — a statement that makes no sense literally since the gospel is full of miracles witnessed by the Pharisees. We also find the names of persons and places carry symbolic meanings. The end of the gospel at Mark 16:8 (the following verses are well-known to be a much later addition to the original) certainly makes no sense of a story meant to be read literally.
So I don’t think we should discount the probability that the author originally wanted readers to associate the tomb of Jesus with the doomed temple in Isaiah 22:16.
I also believe that the episode in Mark where the four friends of the paralytic dig out the roof of the house where Jesus is sitting is a foreshadowing of the tomb scene at the end of the gospel. Again, I partly think this interpretation is justified in the context of this gospel’s many other instances of similar foreshadowings. I have discussed this to some extent at The Taming of Mark’s Unruly Faithful; some foreshadowing examples are listed at Mark’s Flags For Interpreting Mark? But this is an aside.
Karel Hanhart does not argue that the original gospel was written to symbolize the fallen temple of Jerusalem. He believes the gospel was modified by the author after 70 CE (the date of Jerusalem’s fall) in an attempt to account for the shattering turn of events. Until that time many Christians had quite likely assumed Jesus would eventually return to free Israel from the Romans and rule from Jerusalem. After Jerusalem and its temple no longer existed there was a lot of explaining to do.
Clarke Owens has applied literary-critical studies to explain the gospels through the context in which they were written. I have posted a series on his analysis; I cannot repeat everything here. One cardinal point of his argument is that in the “last days” of the Jerusalem and its temple the Romans crucified countless captured Jews outside the city. The sight of crucifixions — for the “benefit” of those Jews trapped in the city to witness — became a horrific spectacle as memorable as the eventual destruction of the temple and mass slaughter themselves. If the Gospel of Mark was written shortly after the war (as probably most scholars believe) then it was written in the context of the destruction of the Jewish “nation”, their city and centre of worship — that is, it was written in the context of their institutions central to their identity and religion (could the two be separated?) being destroyed.
I can only try to imagine what such a loss would have meant not only to Jews in Palestine but to those of the Diaspora, too. Owens sees this context as the key that explains the content of the gospel: the death and resurrection of the Jewish people through Jesus as their symbol. Crucifixions were the way thousands upon thousands of Jews at the time met their end; Jesus crucified was a fitting symbol. Owens draws the comparisons with earlier Jewish literature that we can also identify elsewhere in the gospel. The suffering servant in Isaiah is one such motif.
One also recalls the symbolism of Jesus acting out the part of Israel when he comes out of the waters of baptism and is driven into the wilderness for forty years, just as Israel was (as Paul said) baptized in the Red Sea and entered a time of testing in the wilderness for forty years.
There appear to be other supporting signs in the Gospel of Mark that support this view that the suffering of Jesus was a metaphor for the fall of Jerusalem. Interesting, I think, that both Hanhart and Owens have come to the same conclusion through quite different methods.
One more detail of evidence?
I’ll mention just one more detail I think supports this interpretation.
In Mark 13 Jesus delivers his prophecy of the end of the present order and introduction of the new. We have abundant evidence that apocalyptic language such as he used — stars falling, the sun and moon ceasing to shine — is poetic. It was used of the fall of Babylon in Isaiah and we know that such things did not literally happen then. Jesus is speaking of the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. The metaphoric language of apocalypse refers to the fall of great cities and peoples. The Mosaic order came to an end.
Something else is prophesied just as surely as Jesus prophesied his resurrection after his death:
And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:26)
Stars falling and the sun turning dark are not literal events. Nor was David speaking literally when he wrote of God coming down to earth in a dark cloud to fight for him. The image is from Daniel 7:13. This was a symbol of the victory of the Maccabees in the second century BCE against their Seleucid overlords. The fourth beast of Daniel’s vision represented Antiochus Epiphanes and it was replaced by a kingdom represented by “humanity” — the Maccabees who “knew their God” and were thought to restore His rule on earth.
But the image of God coming down in clouds is an image of judgment. It spells the end of the oppressors and the liberation of God’s chosen.
Jesus is speaking of the kingdom or rule of God being transferred from the Jews and their temple institution to those who worshiped him “in spirit and truth”, without the need for a physical temple. Jesus (=Joshua) replaced Moses. The new people of God were being led into the spiritual kingdom. This was their new identity as the “new Israel” or assembly or “church” in Christ.
What does this have to do with the crucifixion of Jesus? I think Mark 14:62 gives us a clue. Jesus is addressing the high priest at his trial:
And Jesus said, I am; and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Jesus is saying that this is something the high priest shall witness. The high priest is about to witness God’s judgment upon Jerusalem and the temple. Jesus makes this announcement at his trial that led to his crucifixion. This is exactly the promise made earlier to the followers of Jesus — in particular the readers or audience of the gospel itself. Yet this time Jesus appears to be saying that the high priest before whom he is standing will see this. In narrative time, if we read the crucifixion symbolically, that’s exactly what that high priest did witness — on Golgotha.
There are many other passages in this gospel that do not make sense when read literally. One is the ending; the other is the absurd blindness of the disciples; another is Jesus teaching in parables so his audience does not understand, and on it goes. Read “spiritually” we can see how Mark is narrating a symbolic tale: blindness means spiritual blindness; possessed pigs rushing into the sea means the overthrow of imperial power; the young man fleeing naked. . .
It’s one more detail, just a little one, but I suspect it lends support to the interpretation that Jesus’ death is itself a symbol of the fall of the old order represented by the physical temple — an event that was the liberation for the followers of Jesus but also the judgment upon the rest of Israel.
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18 thoughts on “Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews”
“If the Gospel of Mark was written shortly after the war (as probably most scholars believe) then it was written in the context of the destruction of the Jewish “nation”, their city and centre of worship — that is, it was written in the context of their institutions central to their identity and religion (could the two be separated?) being destroyed.”
Which Mark the Gentile Prophet is quite happy about.
He’s definitely a post-war writer. But “shortly” after the war? Since scholars estimate their dates based on credulous and literalist interpretations, I would not put too much stock in their estimates. (Many or most of them think Luke was written in the 80s, so they use that false anchor to back-date Matthew and Mark.)
“I can only try to imagine what such a loss would have meant not only to Jews in Palestine but to those of the Diaspora, too. Owens sees this context as the key that explains the content of the gospel: the death and resurrection of the Jewish people through Jesus as their symbol. Crucifixions were the way thousands upon thousands of Jews at the time met their end; Jesus crucified was a fitting symbol. Owens draws the comparisons with earlier Jewish literature that we can also identify elsewhere in the gospel. The suffering servant in Isaiah is one such motif.
Except that Mark and his Christian brethren are not Jews. They are Gentiles who are happy to witness the destruction of the Temple, and interpret that event as the Wrath of God’s Judgement against the Jews. Now is Mark’s opportunity to write a new “Biblical” book from this perspective and help shape a new religion that won’t seen new, based as it is on supposedly ancient scriptures.
“But the image of God coming down in clouds is an image of judgment. It spells the end of the oppressors and the liberation of God’s chosen.”
Correct. Which, according to Mark and Paul, are Gentiles. The “oppressors” in this interpretation are Jews. Mark transvalues Daniel.
“Jesus is speaking of the kingdom or rule of God being transferred from the Jews and their temple institution to those who worshiped him “in spirit and truth”, without the need for a physical temple. Jesus (=Joshua) replaced Moses. The new people of God were being led into the spiritual kingdom. This was their new identity as the “new Israel” or assembly or “church” in Christ.”
Not just “the new Israel,” but the “true Israel.” The genius of Mark was to take a concept that would have been considered bizarre and improbable before 70 — Gentiles, not Jews, were the actual chosen people of the Jewish God — and create a plausibility scenario for that idea. The Pauline writers filled in the rest.
I agree with much of what you say here.
The reason I see Mark as “soon after” the fall of Jerusalem (I’m opting for simplicity’s sake for the 70 CE fall — the question of the Bar Kochba and Hadrian events are too complex to introduce here — has to do with the arguments about the nature of apocalyptic literature by Clarke Owens. I am assuming this sort of literature is written for people who are deeply affected by past traumatic events like this. The question of how to make sense of what happened, the question of revised identity-building, would appear to mean that such literature finds its meaning soon after the events that led to its creation.
On the other hand, Doherty has well argued that the 90s would be a better setting for a readership suffering persecution.
I leave the date question — 70s, 90s, 130s — for another time to explore more attentively.
One question I have about Mark being a gentile who may have been pleased to see the fall of Jerusalem is that I wonder if this conflicts with the tragic tone with which he writes. He also clearly knows the Jewish scriptures very, very well — he weaves them seamlessly into his narrative almost imperceptibly. If he’s a gentile he surely loved and knew like the back of his hand the Jewish Scriptures and midrashic ways of writing. Would he have welcomed the fall of Jerusalem any more than Paul would have?
And yes, “the true Israel”. This is a constant refrain throughout all the Jewish Scriptures, as Thomas L. Thompson writes much about. The reiterated message is that the old Israel is a warning for the new, and those “new” are the readers of the current message. Mark’s gospel follows the pattern and tradition of the Jewish Scriptures.
I find this so helpful. And how appropriate to post this on Good Friday! When I was an evangelical studying at Wheaton College, I came to appreciate how Jesus was presented in the gospels as true Israel and did what Israel was meant to do. But you have taken it to the next level in seeing Jesus’ death as portraying the demise of the former chosen people when Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans and his resurrection representing Paul’s replacement theology in which God chooses a new elect people who embrace Jesus Christ by faith.
This makes me think about something similar taking place in the Book of Revelation with the two women who are contrasted: Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots (representing Old Jerusalem), and the pure Bride of Christ (also called New Jerusalem). If this understanding of the two women is valid, then a similar type of replacement is being taught here, just as you see in Mark. This would make Revelation a later interpretation of Jerusalem’s fall. What do you think?
I’m slowly beginning to see the Gospel of Mark as being written in Paul’s wake after many years of scepticism. I have not found supposed parallels to Paul’s expressions persuasive, but the larger themes, the more I reflect on them, do seem to have a strong coherence. Paul, I am assuming, was not himself anticipating the fall of Jerusalem. Mark is dealing with the new situation.
I have not read much about Revelation for a little while now, but yes, I think you are probably right (or at least that I would agree with you.)
Interestingly Paul-Louis Couchoud argued that the Johannine school represented the false prophets that Paul saw as his rivals:
This seems an appropriate time to resurrect a comment I made at this site some time ago.
“The allegory of the vineyard” aka the parable of the wicked husbandmen:
1. The owner [god]
2. of a vineyard [Israel]
3. sends servants [the prophets]
4. to the tenants [Jews] of the vineyard to collect rent. The Jews kill the prophets so god
5. sends his son [Jesus Christ] and the Jews kill him also [crucifixion].
6. God destroys the tenants [Roman Jewish War]
7. and gives the vineyard to others [non Jews/Gentiles and Christians].
Yes, this is a perfect example of this theology.
Neil, very interesting piece. It makes alot of sense to me. I had a related observation that i was wanting your opinion on. So I agree that much of Mark is about explaining the destruction of the temple and clearly intimates a post war understanding of jewish thought. So how do you interpret the statement by Jesus in Mk. 11.17? Particuarly the sentence, “My house shall be called a house for all the nations.” My feeling is that he is castigating Temple authorities for events that actually happen in 66.
“According to Josephus, the violence which began at Caesarea in 66 was provoked by Greeks of a certain merchant house sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue. The Roman garrison did not intervene and the long-standing Hellenistic and Jewish religious tensions took a downward spiral. In reaction, one of the Jewish Temple clerks Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices for the Roman Emperor at the Temple.” – wikipedia
Do you think Jesus is made to foreshadow and rebuke this action by Eliezar ben Hanania when he mentions the “house of prayer for all nations”? In effect Jesus is addressing this expulsion of the Roman Imperial cult from the temple. It seems to fit the context of this pericope since historically this episode was one part in the chain of events that ultimately led to the war and the destruction of the temple. And the destruction of the temple is the main thing the author of Mark is addressing here. Also Jesus’ enemies in this part of Mark are the Jews of the temple cult (“And when the chief priests and scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him..” Mk11.18). Do you think this interpretation works?
For the benefit of interested readers generally this is the passage in Josephus (Wars, II.14.4-5):
Honestly, Will, to prepare an answer to your question would require me to do a fairly detailed study on the passage and I’m not sure I’m really qualified enough in Greek to do it justice. Perhaps, maybe. I can’t say. It’s an interesting possibility that others more skilled might like to address. (Brodie?)
At the moment my personal preference for the statement that the temple should be made a place of prayer for all nations sits very well with the thesis of Hanhart and also of Owens that the gospel is about the “handing over” of the people of God to the gentiles — where the walls between Jew and gentile are broken down.
Your view is that Jesus uttered those words:
And Jesus said, I am; and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
to the High Priest to refer to the Judgment that will befall Israel. In this way, the punishment for disobedience and corruption of the High Priest corresponds to the death of Jesus ( = the destruction of old Israel ) ?
That is, Jesus is crucified because only in this way will be punished the High Priest ?
In other words, the old priestly elité is punished by making the Messiah the exact thing that was not the plan of God for the Messiah according to the old expectations: to die crucified. What to the readers that don’t know the esoteric allegory of Mark seems to be the victory of the High Priest – the crucifixion of sedicent messianist Jesus — in fact corresponds to his own defeat ( = the defeat of the messianic ideal, kata sarka, of old Israel ) ?
By extension, who must die is the Messiah that was supposed to save the old Israel? The messiah who rises after three days, however, will not save the old Israel – so he’s not the Messiah expected by the high priest – but he is the Messiah that will save only the New Israel.
Is it your view? (I apologize for my English)
I have not thought about it in quite that way but I think I would consider your interpretation valid (whatever my thoughts are worth.)
The idea of the messiah being expected to be a worldly conquering liberator is probably one I should give a lot more attention to.
What I have been concentrating on lately is Mark’s meaning of the “Son of man” as pointing to a corporate identity — not just the person of the messiah but the ‘church’. When Mark speaks of the Son of Man being “handed over” to the gentiles he is at one level thinking of the transfer of the “church” to the gentiles. (This in part accounts for the interpretation of the youth in the tomb passing on a message to the fallen Peter representing Paul.)
Hanhart also sees Mark protesting against the priestly/temple establishment over a calendar controversy. This takes us into discussions of the meaning of “after three day”, the timing of the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, and Sunday worship as it is related to a controversy over the day of the wave-sheaf offering prior to Pentecost. Too much to address here. 🙂
/ Thanks, Neil. Just ran across your good blog. Here’s something I found on the net. Any reactions to it? Lord bless.]
Harvey Milk Stamped “Out” Forever !
The Obama Cabal is behind universal GAYety with a “forever” postage stamp glorifying Harvey Milk, a Jewish homosexual predator “attracted to boys aged 15-19,” according to WikiAnswers! (Also see Wikipedia.)
Global gaydom was even predicted by Jesus (see “days of Lot” in Luke 17 and compare with Genesis 19).
And the Hebrew prophet Zechariah (14th chapter) says that during the same end-time gay “days” ALL nations will come against Israel and fulfill the “days of Noah” at the same time (see Luke 17 again) – a short time of anti-Jewish genocide found in Zechariah 13:8 when two-thirds of all Jews will die.
In other words, when “gay days” have become universal, all hell will break loose!
Shockingly, the same “days” will trigger the “end of days” – and when they begin, worldwide human government will quickly wind down in just a few short years! For the first time in history there won’t be enough time for anyone to even attend college, let alone have a family, save money, enjoy retirement, etc.
One final thought. The more we see gays “coming out,” the sooner Jesus will be “coming down”!
For more, Google or Yahoo “God to Same-Sexers: Hurry Up,” “Jesus Never Mentioned Homosexuality. When gays have birthdays…,” “FOR GAYS ONLY: Jesus Predicted…” and “USA – from Puritans to Impure-itans!”
you may to find interesting this my observation in Josephus about precisely who lived in the temple during the siege of Jerusalem.