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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