The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?

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by Neil Godfrey

“Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.” Yazidis of Iraq fleeing to the mountains.

When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:14-19

What was that “abomination of desolation”? When we read “let the reader understand” we surely are right to think that it is some sort of mystery to be decoded or explained to us.

The following explanation comes from Der Weg Jesu by Ernst Haenchen (1968). Since it is in German I have had to resort to a machine translation. Fortunately, though, Ken Olson on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum set out the main argument to enable me to get started. I recommend reading his post for more detail than I will provide here.

To begin with Jesus is addressing an inner circle of his disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, “in private”. So it is secret teaching that we are reading.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them . . . .

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

Haenchen pulls us back from immersion in the story and confronts us with the question: Who was “Mark” writing this for? Was he writing a warning for Christians who were caught up in the Jewish war of 66 to 70 CE? If so, what was the point? The warning was recorded too late for them.

Further, the warning is for those who “see”, not “hear about”, the abomination of desolation. So was the abomination of desolation something that could be seen by all and sundry “in Judea”, not just in Jerusalem?

Common explanations suggest the abomination was something set up by the Roman army in or near the temple in Jerusalem. But if that were the case then what was the point in telling people throughout Judea to run for the hills at that point? If the Romans were already inside Jerusalem then they had already swept through Judea. Why wait to run until after the enemy has occupied your homeland?

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

“Then the king’s officials came to the town of Modein”

Compare the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Symbolic language is used, arguably to protect those who treasure the writing. It is proposed that explicitly anticipating the fall of Rome was not something to shout out about so Babylon was substituted for Rome. Those “in the know” knew the coded language. The Book of Revelation also speaks in its thirteenth chapter of a terrifying moment when God’s chosen would face an image of a beast and be ordered to worship it or be killed.

What situation in these early days of Christianity, in the days when the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation were being written, would arouse such fear that the only way out was to drop everything and run immediately into the wilderness and hide in the hills?

The answer: the visit to one’s town of an imperial official setting up an altar and calling on all inhabitants to sacrifice to the emperor. Penalty for refusal was death. The mere possibility of such a moment was enough to generate fear.

Mark was not writing a warning for the people of Judea long after any danger facing them had passed. The war was over. What he was doing was couching (or coding) a warning to his readers in Italy, Syria, anywhere throughout the Roman empire, in the language of Daniel the prophet.

Haenchen writes, p. 446

Nun kommt es nicht darauf an, ob der römische Staat damals tatsächlich derartige Pläne erwogen- hat. Entscheidend ist, daß jene Christen, für welche die Offb geschrieben wurde, ihm tatsächlichetwas derartiges zugetraut haben, wie es die Offb beschreibt. Damit haben wir das Recht, nun auch – versuchsweise – in Mk 13 eine ähnliche Erwartung vorauszusetzen: Rom wird mit Gewalt die Anbetung des Kaisers zu erzwingen versuchen – was sollen die Christen dann tun?

which Google Translate renders:

Now it does not matter whether the Roman state actually considered such plans at the time. What is decisive is that those Christians for whom the Rev. was written actually credited him with something of the sort described by the Rev. In this way we have the right to presuppose a similar expectation in Mk 13: Rome will try by force to force the worship of the Emperor – what should Christians do then?

Delay could prove fatal. Such a visit meant one had to flee immediately.

Mark appears to have had such a situation related in 1 Maccabees in mind. In chapter 2:15-31 (GNT),

Then the king’s officials, who were forcing the people to turn from God, came to the town of Modein to force the people there to offer pagan sacrifices.

Many of the Israelites came to meet them, including Mattathias and his sons.

The king’s officials said to Mattathias, You are a respected leader in this town, and you have the support of your sons and relatives.

Why not be the first one here to do what the king has commanded? All the Gentiles, the people of Judea, and all the people left in Jerusalem have already done so. If you do, you and your sons will be honored with the title of Friends of the King, and you will be rewarded with silver and gold and many gifts.

Mattathias answered in a loud voice, I don’t care if every Gentile in this empire has obeyed the king and yielded to the command to abandon the religion of his ancestors. My children, my relatives, and I will continue to keep the covenant that God made with our ancestors. With God’s help we will never abandon his Law or disobey his commands. We will not obey the king’s decree, and we will not change our way of worship in the least.

Just as he finished speaking, one of the men from Modein decided to obey the king’s decree and stepped out in front of everyone to offer a pagan sacrifice on the altar that stood there.

When Mattathias saw him, he became angry enough to do what had to be done. Shaking with rage, he ran forward and killed the man right there on the altar.

He also killed the royal official who was forcing the people to sacrifice, and then he tore down the altar.

In this way Mattathias showed his deep devotion for the Law, just as Phinehas had done when he killed Zimri son of Salu.

Then Mattathias went through the town shouting, Everyone who is faithful to God’s covenant and obeys his Law, follow me!

With this, he and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving behind all they owned.

At that time also many of the Israelites who were seeking to be right with God through obedience to the Law went out to live in the wilderness, taking their children, their wives, and their livestock with them, because of the terrible oppression they were suffering.

The report soon reached the king’s officials and the soldiers in the fort at Jerusalem that some men who had defied the king’s command had gone into hiding in the wilderness.

The Gospel of Matthew adds to Jesus’ words: Pray that your flight will not take place … on the Sabbath. (24:20) Mark was more “Pauline” about the law than was Matthew, but notice what happened when the people in Antiochus’s time fled and were caught out by the sabbath (2:32-38):

A large force of soldiers pursued them, caught up with them, set up camp opposite them, and prepared to attack them on the Sabbath.

There is still time, they shouted out to the Jews. Come out and obey the king’s command, and we will spare your lives.

We will not come out, they answered. We will not obey the king’s command, and we will not profane the Sabbath.

The soldiers attacked them immediately, but the Jews did nothing to resist; they did not even throw stones or block the entrances to the caves where they were hiding. They said, We will all die with a clear conscience. Let heaven and earth bear witness that you are slaughtering us unjustly.

So the enemy attacked them on the Sabbath and killed the men, their wives, their children, and their livestock. A thousand people died.

In Mark 13 we are reading, it may well be argued, a warning to all Christians throughout the Roman empire about a possible threat that faced them daily. The warning is nested in the framework of Daniel’s prophecy. Once a local population was called to appear before the altar to participate in sacrifice to the emperor it would be too late. If it were winter, if one were pregnant or carrying an infant, the situation would be even more intolerable.

Wir wissen heute nach den Erfahrungen der Flüchtlingstrecks nur zu gut, wie eine solche Flucht aussehen kann. (p. 447)


Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.

Daniel is channeled once more through the pen of Mark so that Jesus is made to warn, Mark 13:19-20

Those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

Haenchen’s explanation:

Mark 13 is  depicting a situation where Christians will be required to flee for their lives without warning whenever the emperor’s representative comes in to set up the image of the emperor and requiring sacrifice. The “day x” is unpredictable. The stress is therefore constant. The escape must be made immediately, regardless of whether one is pregnant, or that it is winter, etc.

V.19 beruhrt sich so eng mit Dan 12,1, daß deutlich wird: mit diesem Geschehen wird sich fur Mk die danielische Weissagung erfullen. V.20 beschreibt indirekt das Furchtbare dieser Verfolgungszeit: wenn Gott nicht – seinen Erwählten zuliebe – die (Zahl der) Tage verkurzt hätte, würde niemand gerettet werden – auch keiner der Erwählten! Das ist freilich unlogisch: ein Erwählter, der nicht gerettet wird, ist eine contradictio in adjecto. Aber der Ausdruck soll eben die alles Maß übersteigende Größe der” Trübsal” schildern, und das gelingt ihm gut.

Wenn man sich vor Augen stellt, daß die Christen in solchem Falle von einer Minute zur andern, ohne alle Vorbereitung fluchten mussen, im Gebirge oder in der Einöde den Unbilden der Witterung ausgesetzt, womöglich von Häschern des heidnischen Staates gejagt, dann ist die Überzeugung des Mk, daß sie das nicht lange aushalten könnten, keineswegs phantastisch, sondern durchaus realistisch. Und Vorbereitungen kann man nicht treffen, weil der “Tag x” der Verfolgung eben nicht bekannt ist, sondern völlig unbestimmt!

Google translation with minimal human assistance:

V. 19 touches so closely with Daniel 12:1 that it becomes clear: With all of this happening the Daniel prophecy will be fulfilled for Mark. V. 20 indirectly describes how terrible will be this time of persecution: If God had not for the sake of his chosen ones shortened the number of days nobody would have been saved, none of the chosen would be saved.

Of course that’s illogical. An elected person who is not saved is a contradiction in terms. But the expression is just to describe the magnitude of the tribulation, and the author succeeds well.

If you imagine that in such a case the Christians’ lives are subject to change from one minute to the next, without having time to prepare, to the mountains or the wilderness, exposed to the rigors of the weather, possibly hunted by the pagans of the pagan state, then the conviction of Mark, that they could not stand it long, is not at all fantastic but quite realistic. And you cannot make preparations because “day x” of the persecution is not known, “undefined”.


To me, Haenchen’s explanation has “explanatory power”. Several curious remarks in Mark 13 make sense in view of his interpretation. The gospel becomes more relevant to its contemporary readers.

Why did Mark add “Let the reader understand”? I can’t see that such a wink would have been needed if all he meant was to remind readers that he was reminding them of the abomination of desolation set up in the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. The very expression itself, “abomination of desolation”, was all that was needed to bring Daniel’s prophecy to mind. It does seem to make sense, though, to imagine alerting his readers to translate the apocalyptic words of Jesus to his inner circle to their own situation.

Haenchen, Ernst. 1968. Der Weg Jesu. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Olson, Ken. 2018. “Let the Reader Understand… Again.” Biblical Criticism & History Forum. February 15, 2018. http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=3896&start=120.


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13 thoughts on “The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?”

  1. I’ve for a long time thought Mk 13:18 fits Hadrians erection of statues to Jupiter and himself on the Jerusalem Temple site rather than Titus’ destruction, the original ‘abomination’ being Epiphanes’ erection of a statue to Zeus in the Temple. That seems a plainer and less convuluted reading of what the reader is to understand.

    1. If the abomination of desolation was something so obvious as a repeat performance of Antiochus Epiphanes setting up a pagan statue in the temple then we are at a loss to explain why “Mark” added “let the reader understand” at all. There was nothing mysterious to understand.

      I take it you are not troubled by the other questions Haenchen raised if Jesus was referring to something standing in the temple area itself.

      1. I don’t find Haenchen’s argument very likely, it might be plausible, it might be possible but neither of those things necessarily raise it to probable. Why should I credit it over the musings of any other theologian? I don’t credit soothsayers or casters of horoscopes: Haenchen’s ‘discipline’ is in the same category of nonsense.

        The dubiousness of the Chrstian persecution complex aside, in the story context Jesus is making a prophecy. That prophecy seems to better fit the circumstnces of Hadrians reign. “In 132, the revolt led by Bar Kokhba quickly spread from Modi’in(!) across the country”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_Kokhba_revolt, referencing Axelrod, Alan (2009).
        Little-Known Wars of Great and Lasting Impact
        . Fair Winds Press. p. 29.

        The Revelation of John substitutes a past power destructive to Judah, Babylon, for the present destuctive power, Rome. G.Mk is doing samewise with the Seleukids. Symbolism, as you say, to protect those for who treasure the text. Both are equally obvious, we should reject one and accept the other?

        Arguments and hypotheses are fine; but without evidence (I see none presented; and in the fifty years since the myth of Christian persecution has been pretty much deconstructed.) the thing is fifty/fifty and we have to say we don’t know.

          1. That “Mark” is writing in some sense for a Chistian – if that is not an anachronism – audience is clear. What isn’t clear is what he was saying. Haenchen may or may not be correct, however since he wrote the idea of “Christian Persecution” has been pretty much deconstructed as myth. Besides, I don’t think that is relevant if you want to argue for a date. “Prophecy” is after the fact and we have numerous examples of them being rejigged when they don’t happen. Lay the events of The Bar Kochba War over the “abomination” prophecy of Daniel and more points are checked than laying the events of The Jewish War over them. The writer of Daniel goes awry at a point where they can be dated practically to the year. Apocalyptics were and still are enamoured of Daniel; they won’t chuck it and continually repurpose it. One thing that has come down about the Bar Kochba War is that it was long in the planning and the rebels had been diverting arms production for a good time beforehand. It was probably known at the time things were going to kick off well beforehand and the likely course of events when it did. What do you think the well-versed in Scripture were going to think when all these ticks cumulate in a rising radiating, probably deliberately, from Mod’in? Anyone “Zealous for the Law” was going to be narked by Hadrian’s statues and proposed temple of Jupiter, they were also going to be piqued by current events mirroring Daniel. Is this The Day of the Lord? Bar Kochba and the rebels obviously thought this was so, and took up arms; but Christians seem to have thought salvation a cosmic event and would interpret the “prophecy” differently.

            I don’t know if I’m right in my thinking better than anyone else does. All this is weak tea and conjecture but at least I am trying to argue from the evidence, paltry though it might be, rather than eisegesis and legend.

              1. From Wikipedia:-

                The prophecies of Daniel are accurate down to the career of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and oppressor of the Jews, but not in its prediction of his death: the author seems to know about Antiochus’ two campaigns in Egypt (169 and 167 BC), the desecration of the Temple (the “abomination of desolation”), and the fortification of the Akra (a fortress built inside Jerusalem), but he seems to know nothing about the reconstruction of the Temple or about the actual circumstances of Antiochus’ death in late 164 BC. Chapters 10–12 must therefore have been written between 167 and 164 BC. There is no evidence of a significant time lapse between those chapters and chapters 8 and 9, and chapter 7 may have been written just a few months earlier again.[41]”

                G.Mark knows Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and that people should get the hell out of Dodge when that comes about. They knows the Temple is destroyed and the Mount desecrated with statues. They leave the end game open. Therefore, on analogy with dating Daniel, G.Mark seems to have been written immediately before, or during, the Bar Kochba War.

            1. (This is why theologians–‘worthless’ as they are, come closer to grasping the intended meaning, contextual import and intended psychological effect of other legendary materials and mythemes of other theologians better than a one-dimensional rationalist ever could lol.)

  2. The Jewish War was kicked off by an affront which occurred in Caesarea in the year 66. The abomination which causes desolation was the sacrifice of birds at the entrance of the synagogue in Caesarea. “This thing provoked the Jews to an incurable degree, because their laws were affronted, and the place was polluted.” Wars of the Jews Book 3.14.4. Josephus recalls that this was the defining event. Other barbaric actions of the new Roman procurator Florus, “the unjust judge” of Luke 18:1-8, (The widow is Berenice, sister of Agrippa II) fanned the flames of war. There is nothing in the verse in Mark or Matthew which indicates that the abomination occurs in the Temple.

  3. i tend to agree with p george / s c watson both here…symbolism to hide ref to Romans , josephus’ a/c of defilement at entrance to temple, dates of hadrian better , events that applied to the jews generally rather than ” christians ” especially..imo

  4. Already Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga noticed in his verklaring van het evangelie naar Matthaeus that `hestikos’ refers rather to a person than an object, which makes the ‘standing’ refer to the Antichrist.

    At the time of the synoptics, this should be Marcion, as a successor to Simon Magus who was already known as a standing one.

    But the naive faith in Markan priority once more inhibits a closer examination of the context. Already Hermann Detering, in his great work Die synoptische Apokalypse — ein Dokument aus der bar Kochba Zeit, realized that the Matthean version is more original in some points, yet one needs to go back even further. Another early christian writing to be examined in this context the situation is the Apocalypse of Peter.

    1. Oops, I slipped into the wrong line. In Mk, it is hestekotas', versushestos’ in Mt.

      Detering lists several differences between the versions of Mk and Mt. Three of them can be explained as Markan slips while using a prototype more similar to Matthew’s version.

      The Apokalypse of Peter (the Jewish christian text, not the unrelated gnostic document found in NH) does not refer to the destruction of the temple. The naive assumption of many scholars, according to which Apoc. Petr. used Mt and Luke, is thus inappropriate. But it is also not possible that Apoc. Petr., itself a poorly coherent patchwork, served as the hypotext of the synoptics. There must have been an independant source of both the synoptic apocalypse and the one assigned to Saint Peter. The apochryphal apocalypse refers to a liar-messiah who prosecuted the true believers, which can refer once more to Bar Kochba.

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