The question of what the “abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14) is came up in my recent post, so I thought I’d post a draft version of my work on this topic for the BYUNTC Mark volume.
14 but when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not The phrase “spoken of by Daniel the prophet” is not in the best ancient manuscripts and was likely added later to explain the preceding phrase, which is in fact a quotation from Daniel 11:31. Note that “It is generally held that the phrase in Daniel referred to the heathen altar erected in the Temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BCE.”1 The precise nature of the abomination of desolation is disputed, but “it came to symbolize an unspeakable affront to the sanctity of God’s house and to God himself.”2
The word “standing” is masculine, but it refers to “the abomination of desolation,” which is neuter. This may be a grammatical error, but it is more likely that the abomination is personified as male.3 It may refer to the fact that in Daniel, the abomination was probably a statue of Zeus (and hence male) and/or that in Mark, the abomination is a male. Hence the Rendition’s phrasing of “standing where he should not.”
The basic idea of “the abomination of desolation” is something so offensive (=abominable) that it causes the temple to be abandoned and thus left desolate. There are several possibilities for its specific identity:
In 40CE, Caligula attempted to put a statue of himself in the temple; he failed because he was assassinated. This reading is somewhat unlikely since it is a full thirty years before the destruction of the temple.
Pontius Pilate attempted to have Roman soldiers enter Jerusalem with their standards. (This is perhaps unlikely since it wasn’t successful and it happened in the late 20s).
In 67/8CE, the Zealots entered the temple and took control of it, including investing a “mock high priest to carry out a travesty of temple ritual.”4 While certainty is impossible, this event is the most likely candidate for the fulfillment of this prophecy in Mark. The timing is right, since the event is both shortly before the destruction of the temple but early enough that there was still time to flee the city. Further, the Zealots prohibited Gentiles from entering the temple complex, which could have been viewed as an abomination (especially in light of Mark 11:17).5
In 70CE, Titus entered the temple and the holy of holies.6 His soldiers put their standards (which would have had images of gods on them) in the temple courtyard and offered sacrifices to them. However, the counsel to flee at the end of this verse makes little sense as a response to Titus’ actions, since it would have been too late to flee at that point.7 Further, this event is not a sign of the coming destruction of the temple, but rather the beginning of the event itself.
There are many resonances between the book of Jeremiah and this section of Mark’s Gospel:
LXX Jeremiah 7:10 and 30 use the word “abomination” (Greek bdelugma) and 7:34 contains the word “desolation” (Greek eremoseos).
Jesus condemned the temple as a “den of robbers (see Mark 11:17), borrowing a phrase from Jeremiah 7:11.
The parable of the wicked tenants (see Mark 12:2-5) echoes Jeremiah 7:25-26.
The commands regarding sacrifice in Mark 12:28-34 may allude to Jeremiah 7:21-22.
The prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:2) echoes Jeremiah 7:34, especially since the verb translated as “destroy” in Mark 13:2 is only used three times in Mark (13:2, 14:58, 15:29-30) and always with reference to the temple. It is the same verb as is found in LXX Jeremiah 7:34, where it refers to destruction stemming from the violation of the covenant.
These parallels are significant because in Jeremiah 7:30, the people are warned that housing their abominations in the temple will lead to their land becoming desolate. In this case, there is not one specific referent for the abomination; rather, it refers to all manner of covenant violations.8 If Mark intended to echo Jeremiah’s usage, it suggests that the “abomination” is not one particular historical event but rather a pattern of covenant betrayal. However, one weakness of this reading is that covenant violation in general would be a difficult sign to discern.
Regardless of which interpretation is preferred, this line signals a major turning point in Jesus’ speech, as the following pattern suggests:
13:7: when you hear . . . do not be afraid
13:11: when you are . . . do not worry
13:14: when you see . . . let them flee
Jesus has previously addressed two situations which might cause alarm, but he tells the disciples not to worry or take action. But Mark 13:14 is different: when they see the abomination, they are to take action by fleeing. The similarity in the structure between the three verses highlights the difference in content of the final verse.
1Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961), 405.
2Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 318.
3See Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961), 405.
4N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 525.
5See Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 891.
6See Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 890.
7See John S. Kloppenborg, “Evocatio Deorum And The Date Of Mark,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 124.3 (2005): 424.
8See Robert S. Snow, “Let the Reader Understand: Mark’s Use of Jeremiah 7 in Mark 13:14,” Bulletin For Biblical Research 21, no. 4 (2011): 476.
9See Whitney Taylor Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel First-Century Performance of Mark (Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003), 177.