In 1499, the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Stöffler predicted that a vast flood would engulf the world on 20th February 1524. In Europe, more than 100 different pamphlets were published endorsing Stöffler’s doomsday prophecy. Business boomed for boat-builders, not least for German nobleman Count von Iggleheim, who constructed a three-story ark on the Rhine.
Although 1524 was a drought year in Europe, a light rain did fall on the designated day. Crowds of people—hoping to gain a seat on Iggleheim’s ark—began to riot. Hundreds were killed and the count was stoned to death. Stöffler later recalculated the actual date to be 1528, but by then his reputation as a soothsayer had been ruined 1.
The gospel reading from Mark 13:1-8, known as “the little apocalypse”, also appears at first sight to be a prediction of the end of the world, or at least the end of the age and the heralding of a new age. The great temple will be destroyed, there will be wars and rumours of wars, earthquakes and famines. Further into the chapter, the writer describes fighting within families, and persecutions of believers by religious and secular authorities; false prophets will perform signs and wonders to deceive believers. Following this the sun and moon will stop shining and the stars will fall from the sky; a powerful supernatural figure will be seen in the clouds. But don’t worry if you’re one of “the elect”, because you will be gathered up by angels!
How do you react to this reading? Does it fill you with terror? with outrage that a loving God could allow such things to happen? Well, there’s good news – like old Johannes Stöffler’s prediction, it didn’t turn out quite as described. Is it sacrilegious to compare the two stories? Many Christians might think so. But to me, the sacrilege is the misunderstanding of the gospel reading which turns Jesus into some sort of phony prophet who can’t even get the date right. Because these words were written, not as a prophecy of the future, but as a way of trying to understand the violent events of the recent past.
Most biblical historians agree that the Gospel of Mark was written sometime after 70 CE, when the Romans had brutally suppressed a Jewish rebellion, captured Jerusalem, and ordered the complete destruction of the Temple. As well as being of enormous religious significance to the Jews, the Temple was the seat of political power and a substantial business place. It had been magnificently refurbished for Herod the Great, a Roman sympathiser who was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, and was paid for by heavy taxes. There is evidence elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus spoke against the Temple and what it stood for, but the extended discourse on the end times in Mark 13 appears to biblical scholars to be compiled by the Gospel author from disparate materials, some of which contradict other parts 2. In fact, in the middle of the “speech” the author steps out from behind the story and writes “let the reader understand” (Mark 13:14). And the reader in the First Century would have understood exactly what the author was saying, would have recognised the subversive criticism of the Roman rulers of their day.
According to the First Century historian Josephus, the future emperor, Titus, seized enough treasure from Jerusalem to cause a collapse in the price of gold in Roman Syria to half its former value, and then sailed for Rome to celebrate the conquest of Jerusalem in one of the most extravagant Triumphs in the history of Rome. The fall of Jerusalem was acted out during the pageant – legionaries charging, Jews massacred, the Temple in flames. Cruellest of all for Josephus (himself a Jew although chronicling Roman history) was the parading of the splendours of the Holy of Holies: the golden table, the candelabra and Law of the Jews 3.
Truly, it must have seemed like the end of the world to the remnant Jewish communities, including those who considered themselves the Annointed, the Elect, the followers of the Messiah. They had seen what happened when the Zealots, one Jewish political faction of that period, had challenged Rome’s military might. They had experienced the bitter divisions within and between the surviving groups. How they must have hoped for God to intervene and bring in a new age!
One such group was the recipient of the Letter to the Hebrews, our second bible reading today. This was probably written in Rome between 90-115 CE, and presented as a sermon rather than a letter, to a group perhaps in Jerusalem 4. Although sometimes attributed to Paul, this is unlikely, and its stylistic and linguistic differences were recognised as early as Origen in the Third Century. To quote a more recent author of New Testament history: “the very carefully composed and studied Greek of Hebrews is not Paul’s spontaneous, volatile, contextual Greek”5.
Traditionally the letter has been interpreted as developing a theology that Christ (and thus Christianity) had superseded Moses, the law, the Temple, and so forth as a means of approach to God. However, the work is unashamedly Jewish in its construction as an extended midrash (a Jewish style of exposition) in which its themes are built around key Old Testament writings4. We tend to read it as a Christian work because we transliterate the Greek, “Christus”, into the word Christ, when the word is actually a translation of the Hebrew “Messiah”, or “Anointed One”. Put in historical context, we can imagine the writer is encouraging a Jewish, not Christian, audience to consider how they can continue to worship the God of Israel following the destruction of the Temple. For these followers of the Annointed, Judaism no longer needed a physical Temple to be a centre for sacrifices because Jesus had offered a once-for-all blood sacrifice. Other Jewish groups developed their own understanding of how life must go on: in mainstream Judaism the synagogue replaced the Temple, and repentance, charity and prayers replaced the sacrifices6.
This Sunday we commemorate the armistice which finally silenced the guns at the end of the First World War. On the 5th November we commemorated the violent eviction by colonial troops in 1881 of the people of Parihaka, who lead a peaceful protest against land confiscation. There have been terrible events throughout history, which must have seemed like the end of the world to those living at the time. CS Lewis speaking to students at Oxford in 1939 7 said that “We are mistaken when we compare war to “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.”
So, what does the end of the world look like today? Pandemics, earthquakes, floods, wars and rumours of wars, climate crisis. It is not hard to think that we might be seeing the beginning of the end! But there are different ways of reacting to terrible events. The futile slaughter on both sides during in the First World War contrasts dramatically with the pacifist approach espoused by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka – their refusal to meet violence with violence. The followers of Jesus, in all their varied forms of the first two centuries, took the peaceful route of resistance to Roman rule through subversive writing and low-level civil disobedience, in contrast with the Zealots of Simon bar Giora who were militarily defeated by Titus. Mainstream Judaism found new life in the synagogue, orthodox Christianity found it in the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In modern times, some Christians isolate themselves, looking forward to the end of the world, hoping for privileged escape to something better. Others heed what they feel is the voice of God to take action: to bring healing, to feed the hungry, to plead for peace, to avert climate change; and they take comfort from the belief that a loving God walks with them through their difficulties.
There is a Japanese art called kintsugi: putting broken pieces of pottery back together using lacquer dusted with precious metals to make the broken object beautiful again. Symbolically, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather seeing it as something to disguise. I think the letter to Hebrews and Mark’s “little apocalypse”, even the Gospels in their entirety, can be seen as theological kintsugi – putting the pieces back together after the dramatic events of the crucifixion, after the victory of Rome over the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple. And perhaps this is where the deepest lesson lies: by acknowledging the past and facing our current difficulties we can piece together something of beauty – a way forward to a better future.
- Ten Notable Apocalypses That (Obviously) Didn’t Happen | History | Smithsonian Magazine
- Funk R.W., Hoover R.W, and the Jesus Seminar – The Five Gospels: the search for the authentic words of Jesus. New translation and commentary, Polebridge Press 1993
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Jerusalem – The Biography p155, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2011
- White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity pp. 318-323, HarperOne 2016
- Duling, C. Dennis. The New Testament : history, literature, and social context (4th ed.) p281. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth 2003
- Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler, Prof. Amy-Jill Levine, Is Atonement Possible Without Blood? A Jewish-Christian Divide (thetorah.com)
- C. S. Lewis on War and Peace | C.S. Lewis Institute (cslewisinstitute.org)