Crass Literalism

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Crass Literalism – Audio Version

Within the last week, one of my readers asked me to cover the thirteenth chapter of Mark. If I am not mistaken, I think that reader wants me to interact with what the Right Reverend N.T. Wright has written about Mark Chapter 13. This, then, is that. 

Since the Right Reverend Wright wrote in an academic manner for his fellow scholars and for seminarians, I might slip back into egghead mode here. If I do, one or two reasons explain the slippage: Reason One – They trained us to write in a particular, peculiar way until it became an ingrained habit. Reason Two – I am striving for clean, concise precision. If you dislike academic jargon and despise seminary-speak, this might not be the blog post for you. But if you’re even moderately tolerant of seminary-speak, please do read/listen on. 

Basically, N.T. Wright claims that Mark Chapter 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming, but instead about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. You heard (or read) that right.  

In response, I will sing my usual refrain: Wright is right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. Yes, Wright is right when he claims that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. Wright is quite wrong when he claims that Mark 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming. Wright unnecessarily forces a false dilemma on his readers. We do not need to choose between the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE on one hand, and the Second Coming of Jesus on the other. Mark 13 speaks to both and links both. Highly important point.

Some of my readers/listeners might wonder if I portray Wright’s position fairly and accurately. Yes, I believe I do portray it accurately. However, if you want substantiation and if you want to double-check my claims for yourselves, you can locate what he says in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, (hereafter abbreviated as J&VoG) Chapter 8, Section 4, beginning on page 339 in my copy from 1996. You will need to wade through several pages of material, though, to get what I give you in my brief summary above. 

Again, Wright forces a false dilemma. And a lot of people fall for it. Wright argues persuasively that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE, because it is in fact about that destruction of Jerusalem. But it is also about Jesus’ Second Coming. Verses 24-27 ought to erase any doubt as to whether Christ’s Second Coming is also in focus. It is. Here are verses 24-27:

24 “But in those days, after that tribulation: The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; 25 the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Wright insists that these four verses are entirely metaphorical. He points out that they contain imagery from the Old Testament. And they do. But the implication is that they must not be understood literally, at all. He spends several pages explaining that verse 26 does not mean that Jesus will someday visibly descend from heaven, but rather has already ascended to heaven in vindication, because the word translated as coming can mean either coming or going in the original Koine Greek (refer to J&VoG, Chapter 8, Section 4, Subsection v The Vindication of the Son of Man, pages 360-365). Wright wants his readers to conclude that Mark 13 is solely focused on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. It is a “crass literalism” to perceive a “physical collapse of the time-space world” (p. 361) in these verses. 

Is it really a crass literalism to perceive the Second Coming in these verses? Is it a crass literalism to perceive the Rapture in these verses? I ask because verses 26 and 27 read like the Second Coming and Rapture to me.

In Wright’s defense, someone might point out that these verses must be metaphorical because we know enough about astronomy to know that the stars will not literally fall from the sky. Plus, verse 25 says that “the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” What does that even mean? It sure sounds metaphorical. Maybe Wright is right here?

Hang on, though. Such a line of reasoning says more about our contemporary assumptions of what must be literal than about how the original hearers would have heard it. The language of these verses evoke vivid phenomenological imagery. We can visualize a sunset, and still know that really it is not setting because the Earth is actually rotating. But we call it a sunset all the same, because that’s what we see. Likewise, we can visualize stars falling from the sky and imagine curious disruptions to the normal order of the heavens. In a way, this is all quasi-literal language, because it is how it would appear phenomenologically. It would see, sound, and feel as Scripture describes. So though it is not necessarily scientifically literal, it could very well be phenomenologically literal. And significantly, it also can be metaphorical. We don’t necessarily have to choose one way or the other.     

But I have an even more pointed reply to Wright; and that is this: Other passages of Scripture do portray Jesus descending in a second coming, and very literally so. In Acts 1:11 two men dressed in white robes (presumably angels) ask the skyward-gazing apostles a question. They inquire, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Uh huh. 

That’s as literal as can be, N.T. That ain’t metaphorical, at all. Jesus literally ascended upward into the sky. And someday he will descend from the sky. And that we call the Second Coming.

Notice that I am using another passage of Scripture to interpret Mark 13. Is that a legitimate move on my part? Yes, it is. It is legit because of the nature of Scripture. You get pieces of information from here and pieces of information from there on the same topic. Both Mark 13 and Acts 1:11 speak to Jesus’ coming and going, or going away and coming again. You can begin to get a feel for eschatology — for what will happen — when you pull the pieces of information together. Jesus will literally descend from the sky. That is how it will appear to us.

That all said, you can learn a lot of valuable information from N.T. Wright about the Bible. He is right when he says that Mark 13 references the destruction of Jerusalem. He is also (partially) right when he says that the destruction of Jerusalem vindicated Jesus, because Jesus predicted it would happen.

My issue with N.T. Wright is that he forces unnecessary choices on his readers. He misses prophetic parallels, echoes, and patterns, and insists instead on this or that. He puts his readers in a false dilemma. 

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