Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Gospel of Mark and the new prophecies

I recently read a work that involved establishing dates for the gospels of the New Testament. The earliest was assumed to be Mark as per current consensus and was dated after the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) based on one criterion alone: that the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple simply must have already happened in order for Mark to have recorded as a fact that Jesus prophesied their occurrence.

In order to test the logic of this hypothesis, I have asked one question in reviewing the various New Testament texts, particularly texts by authors who wrote gospels: How did they treat prophecies made in the New Testament era? I want to be clear that I am not here looking at the separate question of how they treated prophecies made in ancient times by the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, as interesting as that may be. Instead, the question I am pursuing is this: how did they approach new prophecies made either by Jesus or by Christians who were said to be prophesying, as those were prophecies whose fulfillment (or not) might have an effect on how people perceived Jesus and the Christian faith. I am aware that there are those who hypothesize that there were no prophecies at all, but that they were retroactively inserted into the record of Jesus' life by those who wanted to bolster his reputation. That hypothesis is not being directly tested here; this line of inquiry may be of interest regardless of whether someone takes the prophecies as authentic sayings of Jesus. The question under consideration is not directly whether Jesus made the predictions, but rather how the authors handled the issue of prophecy and fulfillment when the prophecy was made by Jesus or his followers (or attributed to them).

In the Gospel of Mark, I have traced three such prophecies: Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem with the accompanying destruction of the Temple. In each case I will review not only the prophecy, but whether the fulfillment is recorded and whether the fulfillment draws the reader's attention to the original prophecy. If the author repeatedly draws attention to a prophecy/fulfillment cycle, we can reasonably conclude that this is part of the author's purpose in writing and that, given another opportunity to do the same, the author would again call attention to another fulfilled prophecy.

Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial

The first prophecy I would like to consider is Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial. The Gospel of Mark records it as follows:
"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "today -- yes, tonight -- before the rooster crows (twice) you yourself will disown me three times." (Mark 14:30)
The fulfillment is recorded later in the same chapter, and ends with the following:
He [Peter] began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, "I don't know this man you're talking about."

Immediately the rooster crowed (the second time). Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows (twice) you will disown me three times." And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:71-72, emphasis added)
In this prophecy/fulfillment pair, we see that the author recorded both the prophecy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author calls attention to the fact that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Here we have a "remembrance" noted in the fulfillment text, underscoring for the reader that the prophecy was now being fulfilled.

Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection

The Gospel of Mark records Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection on several occasions. The first instance of prediction at Mark 8:31 could have been an embarrassment for the early church in that immediately afterwards it shows Peter rebuking Jesus, drawing Jesus' famous reply to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan." (8:33). The second instance of prediction at Mark 9:9-10 notes the disciples' incomprehension of the prophecy (9:9-10) as they try to figure out what "rising from the dead" might mean. The third prediction at Mark 10:33-34 records Jesus openly discussing his upcoming death and resurrection.

Again the author records the fulfillment as the women find the tomb open and a messenger waiting for them:
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell the disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" (Mark 16:6-7, emphasis added)
Here again we see that the author recorded both the prophecy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author again calls attention to the fact that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Here we have a "told you so" noted in the fulfillment text. The author has now established a pattern of recording both the prophecy and the fulfillment. Besides noting the fulfillment, the author has also, at each fulfillment, drawn attention to the original prophecy with either a "remembrance" or a "told you so".

Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple

Next we come to Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. It is based on this prophecy that some have placed the date for the Gospel of Mark and all the other gospels as after the year 70 A.D. since it certainly must have been fulfilled (the argument goes) in order for the author to have recorded it. What does the author record, and is it consistent with the way the author has handled other prophecies which have been fulfilled?

The prophecy is made at some length in Mark 13. In this case, while we do have a prophecy, there are three points of interest here:
  1. We do not have a "fulfillment" record.
  2. We have a "hesitancy" clause: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (13:32)
  3. We have an extended admonition to "keep watch" for these events (13:33-36).
The handling of this prophecy is observably different from the others.


As the Gospel of Mark records Jesus' prophecies of Peter's denial and of his own death and resurrection, we see a pattern emerge. In both the case of Peter's denial and of Jesus' death and resurrection, there is a consensus that the date in which the fulfillment was believed to have occurred had already taken place before the gospel was written. For these prophecies whose fulfillment is known to be already past when the gospel was written, the author records not only the prophecy and its fulfillment, but also calls attention to the fulfilled status of the prophecy by recording either a remembrance formula or a told-you-so formula. In sharp contrast, the prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and of the destruction of the Temple is couched in uncertainty. No fulfillment is mentioned, contrary to the pattern seen in other prophecies considered to have been fulfilled. Jesus' hesitancy about the timing of the fulfillment is recorded, which would have been completely unnecessary if the prophecy were considered already fulfilled at the time of writing. Finally, the readers are urged to watch as if for a still-future event, an urging which did not occur with the prophecies already considered to be fulfilled.

Based on how the author handles the different prophecies, it seems more consistent with the text and the author's established patterns to conclude that the Gospel of Mark was written before the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Next: the same type of analysis for the Gospel of Matthew, focusing mainly on the differences between Matthew and Mark on these points.


BruceA said...

Interesting analysis. I'd like to suggest one factor that you didn't mention: In your two examples of prophecy and fulfillment, the fulfillment happens during Jesus' life. Therefore it is natural to mention the fulfillment in the context of the gospel story. The destruction of the Temple is not something that could be easily included in the narrative. However, there is one possible clue that Mark was written post-70: The parenthetical phrase, "Let the reader understand," in 13:14. This seems to indicate that not only did Mark see a connection between Jesus' words and the later events, but that he also expected his audience to be aware of the connection.

That said, I'm not fully convinced by the arguments either for pre-70 or post-70 for the gospel of Mark.

Weekend Fisher said...

:) I'm getting there. You're anticipating post #3 in the series. Meanwhile, #2 won't hit the blog for another couple of days.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

BruceA said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Tony said...

Thus far I'm enjoying it, too.

I think it's good of you to point out the pattern of Prophesy-Confirmation found throughout the Gospels. If I'm not mistaken, John does it a lot too: Christ will quote a Messianic prophesy, then John will add that the apostles realized later that what Christ had said came true.