Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Let the reader understand' - the aside to the reader in Matthew and Mark

This post focuses on a particular detail of Jesus' prophesies of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple as recorded by Mark and Matthew: the aside to the readers found in those gospels. First, then, the relevant texts from those gospels:
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)

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)
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 prophesy; Matthew places it in the book of Daniel. For reference, here is the first of two passages from Daniel about the 'abomination':
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 prophesy 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 prophesy? Has the prophesy already been fulfilled at the time of writing?

I think that 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 prophesy, 'let the reader remember' might have been more suitable; it would be closer to the approaches to highlighting fulfilled prophesies 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 prophesy 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 prophesy, 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 prophesy, 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 prophesies' in the gospel of John.


BruceA said...

I think you have a good point about "Let the reader understand" referring to the "abomination that causes desolation" and not to the destruction per se.

But just what were Matthew and Mark asking the reader to understand about the reference? As you suggest, the early readers might have understood Daniel's words in terms of idols in the Temple from the days of the Maccabean revolt, but would they have understood it in terms of the destruction of the Temple?

Both Matthew and Mark make at least an implicit connection between the Temple's destruction and the prophecy from Daniel — Jesus references both in the same speech — and expect the reader to make a connection. Luke understands the "abomination" to be armies surrounding Jerusalem. Is is plausible that this new interpretation of Daniel was so widespread that even a Gentile Christian would make such a connection before the event happened? If so, I don't see a reason Mark or Matthew would have to add "Let the reader understand," because they already would.

To me it seems more likely that "Let the reader understand" is inviting the readers to finally see the full meaning of Jesus' words in light of then-current (or recent) events.

But I could be wrong.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Bruce

Trying to figure out what exactly was in someone's mind is an adventure, but it makes for interesting detective-work.

I think it's a safe bet, based on the texts we have, that when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple, he associated the prophesy of the 'abomination that causes desolation' with the destruction (like you were mentioning), which finds its way into Mark and Matthew. I think it's significant that the form that finds its way into Luke is an altered form with less grasp of the original Jewish context: here you see Luke's probable lesser familiarity with the Old Testament (and Maccabees?) compared to Mark and Matthew.

Your basic point seems to be that Luke is a Gentile, and could Luke (as a Gentile) really have made that association -- and expected his readers to make it? And I think at this point, if we read Luke by itself, he has worded his text so that it does stand alone without the Jewish context. He doesn't reference an abomination at all. He doesn't reference Daniel's prophesy. Luke simply has the 'desolation' of Jerusalem, which does not really need for the readers to be familiar with any Jewish prophesy or culture. And when we compare Luke to Mark and Matthew on that point, it looks like Luke (predictably enough, you saw this coming) is less familiar with Jewish culture, with no ties left to the prophesy of Daniel or the days of the Maccabees except the vestigial reference to "desolation", likely carried over from Mark.

I'd be curious myself to know how much Luke understood when he read Mark. (Was Mark around when he read it? We have reason to believe they probably met.)

Btw I really appreciate all the feedback you're giving. I think you might be the only reader sticking with me through this series, so I think I should mention to you that I'm now planning on 2 more in the series: 1) how new prophesies are handled in GJohn, and 2) an exhaustive look at the new prophesies in the synoptics, with a focus on Luke. I've done some of the research already even if my write-ups are further behind, and I think you'll see one of your own hunches partially vindicated. :)

Btw I don't think the ultimate point of this series is any definitive proof of dates of authorship. Honestly, if we had a note on the cover of an ancient manuscript of Luke saying "I, Luke, completed this on the 35th Pentecost after Jesus' ascension", I still don't think it would be taken as definitive proof of pre-destruction dating; it would be assumed to be a forgery, so strong are the current assumptions in favor of post-destruction dating. My real point with this series is that the assumptions of post-destruction dating are based on a less-than-thorough review of the material, and it's time the assumptions were re-examined with all the data on the table.

Take care & God bless