Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dating Mark After 70: Revisited

I am back in England for Christmas, but as usual I have brought my blogging machine with me and as time allows, I will continue to blog over the Christmas period, though probably with a little less regularity than usual what with eating, drinking and watching TV to do.
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One of the central arguments in my recent paper on Dating the Crucial Sources in Early Christianity (Handout; Blog Series on Dating) was that Mark's focus on the temple, in which prophecies of its destruction, alongside a narrative climax that stresses its connection with Jesus' death, makes best sense in a post-70, post-destruction context. I suggested that arguments about whether or not Jesus actually prophesied the destruction of the Temple were largely beside the point. What I wanted to stress was the narrative function of prophecies like this in a text like Mark. It is all about the way in which the reader is led to recognize successful prophecy, and how that successful prophecy functions to legitimate the words of the speaker, and the text where they are found.

The inevitable difficulty, however, with an argument like this is that people do not actually hear the argument about narrative function and instead only hear phrases like "ex eventu", phrases that trigger a particular kind of response along the lines that "Jesus could have prophesied the destruction of the Temple", as if the argument had been "Jesus could not have prophesied the destruction of the Temple". Now if the discussion of the dating of Mark's Gospel is only allowed to constrain itself to the issue of whether or not Jesus could or could not have prophesied the destruction of the Temple, the argument is unlikely to move forward. It gets stuck on questions that unhelpfully draw in the writer's own prejudices about what Jesus could or could have done, could or could not have said. It is a bit like those discussions of Gospel miracle stories that get stuck on whether or not a given miracle could have occurred when the writer is attempting to reflect on its function in its narrative context.

What I am suggesting is that the way forward in this context is to by-pass the historical Jesus questions and to focus instead on literary context and narrative function, to notice that the clearest parallels to what is happening here in Mark are found in texts that post-date the events that are being prophesied. Josephus reports Jesus ben Ananias's prophecies of doom because they turn out to be accurate predictions of what in fact happened. The very point of narrating them is that the reader says, "Ah-ha -- they did not listen to Jesus just as they failed to listen to the prophets of old." Indeed, the story of the persecution of the prescient prophet (try saying that before breakfast) is one that provides a model for both Josephus and the Synoptic evangelists -- it is the old Deuteronomistic history's means of showing that the punishment of exile was an unavoidable consequence of the people's failure to hear the prophets' warnings.

I discovered Adam Winn's book about Mark late in the process of writing my paper on "Dating" and he has a helpful passage here that bears on the topic:
Much of the debate surrounding the authenticity of this prophecy has centered on whether is is an authentic Jesus tradition. The logic works in the following way: 'If it can be shown that this prophecy is an authentic Jesus tradition, it cannot be considered a vaticinium ex eventu and, therefore, Mark can be dated prior to the destruction of Jerusalem." But here, we suggest that this prophecy's identity as an authentic Jesus tradition is only indirectly related to Mark's date. Mark could have just as easily recorded an authentic Jesus tradition at a point after the temple's destruction as before it and doing so would make the tradition no less authentic. The days in which we concluded that Mark simply recorded all the tradition that was available to him are long past. We have come to recognize Mark as a creative and selective author who intentionally shaped his material. The prophecy then must be considered Mark's own prophecy that comes from either his (possibly authentic) sources or his own imagination. The focus of the debate over Mark's date of composition, therefore, should not be on whether this saying is an authentic Jesus tradition, but on whether Mark recorded (or created) this prophecy (essentially adopting it as his own) at a time before or after the temple's destruction (Adam Winn, The Purpose of Mark's Gospel: An Early Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT, 245; Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 57-8).
It is, in other words, a question about the success of prophecy. The prophecies embedded in this narrative that stresses the destruction of the temple tell the reader about the prophet's authority. They are, by their nature, retrospective, celebratory, confirmatory of the speaker's authority and prescience. The point here is as it is in the Hebrew Bible: the prophets told them so, and just look at what happened.

8 comments:

Doug Chaplin said...

I find myself wondering if Mark 14:56-59 rather works against this argument.

James Crossley said...

I've discussed the issue further:
http://earliestchristianhistory.blogspot.com/2008/12/once-again-date-of-marks-gospel.html

Scott Ferguson said...

The days in which we concluded that Mark simply recorded all the tradition that was available to him are long past. We have come to recognize Mark as a creative and selective author who intentionally shaped his material.

It is hard to believe that there were days when trained professionals treated the evangelists as tape recorders and not disciples faced with the task of delivering a message in the most effective way available.

steph said...

I can't believe this...

Paul said...

As noted by John A.T. Robinson some time ago, some parts of the relevant passages dubiously apply to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 -- and would thus fail as a specific prophecy of that event. So it would be reasonable to argue that the passages would have been written down pre-70, since recording them after that point would simply look like writing about an obviously failed prophecy.

Jim Deardorff said...

A.T. Robinson's point, from Paul, is much too relevant to simply dismiss. Also, I regard the Wailing Wall as a remnant of the Temple where stones are still properly emplaced on each other and not thrown down.

Brant Pitre said...

Thanks for the thought provoking discussion regarding dating issues. I really enjoy your work.

However, regarding your statement "The prophecies embedded in [Mark 13].. are, by their nature, retrospective, celebratory, confirmatory of the speaker's authority and prescience. The point here is as it is in the Hebrew Bible: the prophets told them so, and just look at what happened."

Pardon me for being difficult, but which verse in Mark 13 do you have in mind when you say they are "retrospective"? Which verse looks back on the Temple destruction as a past event (i.e., retro-spective; contrast Mark 7:19; John 2:22)?

And which verse in Mark 13 do you have in mind when you say they are "celebratory"? Which verse celebrates the destruction of the Temple as something that has happened, confirming the prescience of Jesus? (This would have been easy to do with a single verse.)

And which verse in Mark 13 do you have in mind when you say they are "confirmatory"? Where does Mark say "just look what happened"? Where is the past tense? I know that the Epistle of Barnabas does just this regarding the Temple, but that is precisely why nobody argues that it is pre-70AD.

It seems to me that the retrospective, celebratory, and confirmatory elements are **precisely what is lacking in Mark 13.** What IS present is a long string of future statements and exhortations to be ready for a future event ("Take heed.. take heed... takee heed.. When you hear... when you see... watch.. pray... Watch!)

We also find exhortations to pray that the tribulation not happen at a certain time of the year ("Pray that it not happen in winter" Mark 13:18). How is this retrospective, celebratory, or confirmatory, when it evinces no knowledge of when the event will actually happen? Why should the audience pray that a past event that they are celebrating as confirmed not take place in winter?

Just some thoughts. Thanks for the discussion.

thinker of things said...

I always find these arguments about the dating of Mark based on the destruction of Jerusalem and Mark 13 very fascinating discusions, but I'm always intrigued that often the parallels in the Gospel of Matthew are left out of the discussion. Of course, Matthew 24 follows Mark 13 very closely (at least, much more closely than Luke 21, esp. Lk 21:20-24). It seems to me that if someone insists that Mark 13 indicates a pre-70 date then Matthew 24 should also indicate a pre-70 date (even though few scholars, other than John A. T. Robinson would argue for a pre-70 date for Matthew). But many of the same scholars who argue that Mark is pre-70 because the predictions in Mk 13 aren't accurate enough or contain warnings to flee also argue that Matthew is post-70. Seems rather inconsistent to me.