Mark 13:1-27 — end of the world; dawn of Christianity

Reading: Mark 13:1-27

After Jesus and the disciples go to the temple, he talks to them about what is for anybody in their culture the end of the world; the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. This talk must have been difficult to hear for so many reasons, and there must have been so much that went through the disciples minds when they heard these prophecies — there must have also been many things that went through their minds as their lives unfolded; but the first think that comes to mind is confusion.

The first place the mind must have gone is the literal absurdity of the temple being destroyed so completely. King Herod took the 500 year old temple and completely renovated and expanded it. The temple was built on a plateau on Mt. Moriah, and Herod built up the mountain, replacing the slope with a floor that matched the level of the plateau; the Temple became a great feat of engineering as it was no longer a building on a mountain, but the land itself was changed to hold the temple. This great structure is, of course no longer there; but when my grandfather visited Jerusalem, he was able to visit the Dome of the Rock, and he told me of the flat stone covering the Temple Mount. Not one stone of the temple remains — but the alteration to the Mountain that allowed this temple to be built remains.

The temple was an impressive structure; one would look at it and wonder at how such a thing could be built; and one would also wonder how it would be so completely destroyed. There was something about the Temple that was just as permanent as Jerusalem — it would have been hard to imagine a Jerusalem without a temple. The temple, if it survived, would remain as a wonder of the ancient world.

Of course, they might also start to think about the history of the descendant’s of Israel and where they worshiped. The story starts of course with the Exodus. A portable temple that we call the Tabernacle was made during the time of Moses, and as the people of Israel wandered in the desert, their Tabernacle moved with them. The place of worship moved with the people, but even after the people of Israel were settled, they continued to use the Tabernacle.

After the people of Israel were settled for centuries, David observed that he lived in a royal palace, yet the sacrifices, and the national place of worship was a mere tent. It had been hundreds of years since the Israelis were nomadic; people lived in permanent houses — yet, the Tabernacle was a relic of the nomadic past when they were landless people. David felt it was not appropriate that he had a palace, and that God had a tent — so he called for a temple.

God tells the prophet Nathan to tell David that God never asked for a temple, and that he would not build one — but his son would build it. Solomon’s temple was impressive. It had impressive wood panels, gold inlays, and many gold artifacts. The temple lasted 400 years, until the Babylonians came and burned it down and took all of the gold and the artifacts.

After 70 years, Cyrus the great ordered that the Jews be allowed to return to Jerusalem. There were some attempts to rebuild the temple; first Zerubbable, prince of the Jews in line to David’s throne was appointed governor. The Persians sent raw materials, and ordered the temple to be rebuilt; and according to the prophet Haggai, Zerubbable built a ‘richly paneled’ house for himself while the temple lay in ruins; the implication is that he used the material that was intended for the temple.

Zerubbable, the prince of the Jews was replaced with a governor-priest, Ezra, who was replaced with Nehemiah. After a couple false starts, the temple was rebuilt, but it was just a shadow of what the original was. The second temple lacked several things that were in the first, but the most important was that there was not ark of the covenant — the symbol of God’s presence that was in the most holy place in the first was missing so that the holy of holies in the second temple was empty.

Eventually, the Greeks conquer the Persians, and Judea falls under Greek rule. The Greeks try Hellenize the Jews by forcing them to eat pork. They even put up a statue of Zeus in the temple, and sacrificed a pig to Zeus to rededicate the temple to Zeus. The Jews would of course revolt, drive the Greeks out, and rededicate the temple, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom — the celebration of this is called Hanukkah, and we read about this in the Maccabees.

Mark Antony set up Herod as king of the Jews, so he replaced the Hasmonean dynasty with his own kingdom, and Judea was at this point very much a client kingdom of Rome. Herod was, among other things, a great builder; you might say that he made Jerusalem great again — and, while nothing could return the ark of the covenant to the temple, he not only made the temple great again; but he made it greater than it had ever been.

The history of the temple is the history of the Jewish world ending; the Jewish world fell apart when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and it fell apart again when the new temple was defiled by the Greek empire. Perhaps when the disciples heard this, they would think of the meaning of Hanukkah, or perhaps they would think of the destruction of the first temple.

No matter what the disciples thought Jesus meant, very soon they would watch their world completely fall apart. In a few days Jesus would be arrested, tried, and executed. With Jesus, the hopes that the disciples held would die no less than if the temple were torn down — the disciples world was about to end.

Of course, Peter would have told this story after the Resurrection — while his world ended, a new order was re-established, but this story also remained current. Peter lived through some interesting times; the last three emperors of his time were named Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Caligula is famous for being a murderous madman. His antics include ordering members of the audience into the Colosseum to be executed, because there were not enough prisoners for his entertainment. Perhaps the best known antic was when he had a horse made a senator — and that he would have political dignitaries dine with the horse.

A lesser known antic, however, is that Caligula heard that the temple in Jerusalem had no divine image for people to worship, and he realized that although he was a god, there was no temple with his image — he thought it would be great to solve both problems by erecting a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem. Fortunately, he was assassinated before this happened.

Claudius had the Jews expelled from Rome, due to a disturbance related to somebody named Chrestus. Now, there are two possibilities — either this is the first time that Christians became known to the Emperor, and at this time they were seen as part of a Jewish argument, or this Chrestus is somebody else. Either way, negative imperial attention is a bad thing.

When Claudius’ nephew Nero became emperor, the Christians got his full attention in the first full persecution of Christians. Among the Christians who were executed under Nero were Peter and Paul. One might say that for the Christians, the first great persecution would be the end of the world, a time when you really don’t know whether you will be taken or left alive.

Personally, I like the idea that the gospel of Mark was the story that Peter told; and that this oral story was written down by memory after his death. Peter died in the mid to late 60’s, between 2 and 6 years before Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. The war that led to the destruction of the Temple started in 66 AD, at which point Peter might still have been alive — the war began as an anti-tax protest, and escalated into a full scale war. Peter would die before this war ended, but the prophecy of the desolation and destruction was, at the time that Mark was put to paper, current events. The temple would be completely destroyed in 70 AD.

Titus attacked Jerusalem just before Passover, just under 30 years after Jesus predicted the fall of the temple. According to Josephus, over 1 million civilians would die, most of which were visitors to Jerusalem who were trapped in the siege, and as the city was under siege; the people who came in to celebrate Passover largely died of starvation.

After Jerusalem was razed, and the temple was completely destroyed, and the city lays in ruins for 60 years. The Emperor Hadrian builds a new city on the site of Jerusalem named Capitolina, and he dedicates the city to Jupiter. This remains the name of the city until the 7th century AD, when the city falls to the Arabs.

After the temple and the city was destroyed in 70 AD, Jerusalem would not be a Jewish city again until the 20th century. The temple would, as far as anybody can tell, never be rebuilt. At this point, the world ended; and a new world had to be rebuilt; it was a terrible time to be a Jew, and it was not an easy time to be a Christian either.

Jesus prophesied a very hard thing to imagine; something that would produce an existential crisis for Jews, and a great persecution against His followers. Nero’s time came, the persecution came, and Jerusalem was completely destroyed — but, both Christianity and Judaism survived — but both also changed. Rabbinic Judaism developed in absence of the temple becoming something that we can recognize now; and as the disciples were being killed, something new happened in Christianity: Christians began writing down the stories and teachings of Christ; Christianity changed from people who expected the world to end, to people who watched their world end, and realized that there would be another generation after them. Christianity changed from people who remembered Jesus to people who wrote down memories of Jesus before they were lost.

We are the community that survived the end of the world. While Peter lived, he likely did not imagine that Christianity would be in parts of the world that were not yet discovered, and that people would be talking about the stories that he told 19 and a half centuries after he died. I imagine that Peter spent his life believing that he’d see Jesus coming back in the clouds. I think there is a reason that Christian scripture is largely written from the time of Nero to Domitian. I think the reason is that before, Christians see the prophecies of the world falling apart, and do not realize they will survive. Once they watch Jerusalem fall, and they experience the persecutions, they see that Christianity not only survives, but it thrives; yet it must thrive without the first Christians — it must change. Nero kills Peter, but we exchange Peter and the others for our Bible.