Comments on this week’s Gospel text (Mark 13:1-8) from Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988), the commentary from Ched Myers, celebrating 30 years of prophetic utterance.
The images Mark uses in 13:7f.–wars, famines, earthquakes–are all virtually generic to apocalyptic literature. One need only consult contemporaneous apocalyptic literature such as John’s Revelation, 4 Ezra, the Assumption of Moses, or the Qumran war scrolls. At the same time, these events could be correlated to contemporaneous history. “Rumors of war” aptly characterizes and describes the way in which news regarding the seesaw political events of 68-70 C.E. would have circulated around Palestine. Was the siege coming? Were the Romans withdrawing? “Kingdom rising against kingdom” might have referred to the wavering fortunes of Rome in 67, embroiled in a civil war and fearing a Parthian invasion. Major natural disasters were also part of contemporaneous history, such as the famine (which hit Palestine especially hard) of the early 50s C.E., or the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that destroyed Laodicia and Pompei in 61-62 C.E. Both Mark and his opponents could–and did–appeal to the “plurivalent” (multi-referential) nature of apocalyptic symbolics in making their respective cases.
Where Mark differed with the rebels was the way in which they identified these cataclysmic political and natural events with the “end time.” He implies that they are using this argument as a means to recruit support for their “messianic” war. The rhetorical structure of 13:7f. takes a sharp issue, parodying the claim of the “end” by calling it “only the beginning”:
A When you hear of wars and rumors of wars…
B …the end is not yet.
a Nation will rise against nation…
b …these are only the beginning of the birthpangs.
Against the rebel call to arms, Mark instructs the listener not to be alarmed (me throeisthe), a rare word meaning to avoid precipitous action (cf. 2 Thes 2:2-4). These events, insists Mark, do not obligate the faithful Jew to join the revolt; indeed “it is necessary that they happen” (here again the apocalyptic dei). Mark is counter-recruiting, challenging the grounds upon which Jews are being conscripted into the “final battle.”
What, then, is the meaning of the traumatic historical events around the war? Jesus calls them “the beginning of the sufferings” (odion), an image drawn from the prophets (Is 26:17; Jer 22:23; Hos 13:13; Mi 4:9f) which can mean the pain of childbirth (I Thes 5:3) or death (Acts 2:4). With this metaphor, Mark prepares the reader for a discourse not of revolutionary triumphalism, but of suffering and tribulation. Against rebel eschatology, Mark pits the death/life paradox of his own narrative symbolics and the politics of nonviolence.