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 roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. (Mark 13:14-16)Note that the passages from Mark and Matthew are so close that I am not aware of anyone arguing for their independence. Mark alludes to a previous prophecy; Matthew places it in the book of Daniel. For reference, here is the first of two passages from Daniel about the 'abomination':
So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel -- let the reader understand -- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. (Matthew 24:15-18)
His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. (Daniel 11:31, emphasis added; see also Daniel 12:11 for the second such prophesy of Daniel.)Setting aside Daniel for the moment and looking at the prophecy of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Mark, the question is: why is there a note 'let the reader understand' at that point in the narrative of a prophecy? Does it give us any insight into whether the prophecy already been fulfilled at the time of writing?
I think that a prior fulfillment is not the most natural interpretation of the phrase 'let the reader understand'. If the author wanted to call the reader's attention to the fulfillment of the prophecy, 'let the reader remember' might have been more suitable; it would be closer to the approaches to highlighting fulfilled prophecies that we have seen in other passages of Matthew and Mark. And why, if it were a recollection formula, would it be placed particularly next to the allusion to the 'abomination that causes desolation'? Why not call attention to something that would have been a more public and a more visible remembrance, such as the sack of Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple? Why is 'let the reader understand' placed only next to an allusion that might be difficult for the reader to understand?
It seems more natural to me that 'let the reader understand' means that the reader should understand the allusion to Daniel (possibly also to Maccabees; see the endnote to this post). The rest of the prophecy is fairly plain: stones being knocked down, buildings in ruins, armies around the city, people fleeing for the mountains. These things need no special information to understand. However, "the abomination that causes desolation" does need special information to understand. It is an allusion to another prophecy, one probably familiar to the more learned readers of Matthew and Mark, the two gospels which are most highly saturated with Jewish references. If the phrase 'let the reader understand' is meant to give a slight jog to the reader's memory with regards to the allusion to the prophet Daniel, that would explain the phrase's placement next to the only obscure phrasing in the prophecy, and why the call was to let the reader 'understand' the abomination rather than 'remember' it. It would also make more sense of why the text is closely followed by a call to run for the hills when the event comes.
It might be in order to take a quick look at Luke also:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those that are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. (Luke 21:20-21)Luke does not have the aside to the reader 'let the reader understand' -- neither does he have a reference to the abomination that causes desolation. Then again, it's possible that Luke might have removed the aside to the reader for other reasons than not mentioning the abomination. He might have thought it was bad form to insert a direct comment to the reader in the middle of that passage, and likely other explanations could be imagined. At any rate, Luke's treatment is completely consistent with the view that 'let the reader understand' had referred to the allusion all along. Those who believe 'let the reader understand' had referred to something besides the allusion might need an explanation for why Luke dropped 'let the reader understand' together with the allusion.
The earlier readers might also have understood the 'abomination' in Maccabees or in the historical recollection of what the 'abomination' had meant at the time of the Maccabees:
Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side ... (1 Maccabees 1:54, 1611 AV)The relevance to Matthew and Mark is indirect: the book of Maccabees shows the idol in the holy place as the abomination, which the readers of Matthew and Mark may have understood. Matthew and Mark record Jesus predicting a second fulfillment as the sacrifices are once again abolished.
One more post is intended in this series: the treatment of 'new prophecies' in the gospel of John.