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Mark 13 and Register Analysis

Frequenters of OST who follow the debates surrounding Andrew’s radical re-reading of the gospels according to a historical narrative interpretation, and the focus on the Olivet discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 17), will be interested in Gustavo Martin’s reading of Mark 13 which draws on the principles of Halliday’s register theory (“the set of meanings, the configuration of semantic patterns, that are typically drawn upon under the specific conditions, along with the words and structures that are used in the realization of these meanings” [Halliday, 1978:23]).

Gustavo Martin’s reading requires an active brain, a working knowledge of NT Greek, and a dictionary which contains the definition of words like ‘ideational’, ‘ergative’, ‘paraenesis’, ‘anaphoric’ etc. His densely detailed examination of the text of Mark 13 draws attention to shifts of language in the three sub-sections: 5-23; 24-27; and 28-37. In particular, his analysis supports the contention that 13:24-27 introduces a different time horizon from 13:5-23 - setting it in the more distant future.

Gustavo Martin also has interesting comments to make on the use of Daniel in Mark, in particular Daniel 7:13, and the supposed trajectory of the Son of Man, which is given considerable interpretive significance by N.T. Wright, whose interpretation Gustavo contests. Gustavo points out significant variations from Daniel in its use in the Markan material, suggesting that an unamended application of Daniel was not Mark’s aim.

Gustavo Martin has, to my mind, made an important contribution in support of the case that the Olivet discourse has two horizons of understanding: the destruction of the temple in AD 70, and a more distant parousia of Jesus which has yet to occur. It’s also a fascinating piece of scholarship.

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Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis

Thanks Peter, thats very kind of you.

Well, I hope folks are not turned off by the linguistics references.  The article was much longer originally and contained more of the linguistic method that I have deployed in other places. However, in order to fit the journal article format, the editors of Biblica asked me to edit out most of that methodology material, leaving only enough to make the point.  I think its fair to say that you do not need to know linguistics to read and understand this, with the exception of those terms Peter highlights above. 

Assuming you accept Markan priority, as most do, the article should proof a useful contribution to our understanding of the Olivet Discourse and how and why this material evolved from Mark to Matthew especially, as well as the tradition of the “coming of the Son of Man.”   I believe I have taken into account all the major linguistic elements in the Markan version of the speech: The “when” (hotan) clauses, the imperatives, the references to “end” (telos), the “you” subjects, etc, and have suggested an interpretation of the speech that I believe is consistent and highlights how carefully crafted / edited it is, by both Mark and Matthew.

You will find that I see a distinct “register,” that is, a  functional variety of language in vv. 5b-23, the section in which Jesus answers the disciples question clearly and directly.  A register is a type of language that is specific to a context of situation, for example, academic English, the language of recipes and instruction manuals, etc.   The features of what I have called “procedural register,” present in that main section, are completely absent from vv. 24-27, and are picked up again in vv. 28-37 which, I have argued, are the interpretive key to the entire discourse.

I have engaged with what I believe to be the strongest discussions of the passage including classics such as Pesch, Lambrecht, Hooker, Trocme, Beasley-Murray, Taylor etc, less known but key works such as those of Juan Mateos, etc and recent works such as Witherington, Villota Herrero, Yarbro Collins, Balabanski, Keith Dyer, Geddert etc.  

Mainly, though, I am responding to N.T. Wright, France, and my former colleague Tom Hatina, now at Trinity Western in Canada.  These last three have, as you know, put forth preterist or near preterist interpretations, arguing that all or nearly all the discourse is referring to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.  Wright in particular is hard to engage with, since he flies high above the details of the text, and tells us instead what Jesus could or could not have believed.  It is interesting to see how Wright, ever the gentleman scholar, loses his cool and becomes so disrespectful of the opinions of others when it comes to this passage.  If you disagree with his view, you are either a “would be scholar” or a fundamentalist.  The way that he regularly makes fun of that poor student who did not know erchomenon can mean “coming” or “going”, in lectures, footnotes etc., is telling, in my view.  I think you will find Wright is by no means free from dogmatism in his treatment of Mark 13.

Well, perhaps thats enough for an introduction.  Happy to hear your reactions if you are so inclined


Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis

Gustavo, it’s a fascinating and stimulating article – plus I enjoyed your comments on Wright the gentleman scholar. I agree that there is a distinct change of register between 13:5b-23 and 24-27, but I am not convinced that this can only be explained in terms of a major temporal disjunction. I’ve attempted a rough response on my p.ost site.

Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis


Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I really appreciate it.

Here are my thoughts in response to yours.

Regarding the shift in v. 24. You write

Martin acknowledges that Jesus repeats ‘in those days’ (en ekeinais tais hēmerais) from verse 19, but does not explain how this obvious temporal connection is somehow overruled by the change of register. The adversative (‘But…’) indicates a change of something, but not necessarily of time frame; and the words ‘after that tribulation’ only mean ‘after that tribulation’. For good measure Matthew adds ‘immediately’ (eutheōs) here, and it is very difficult to see how this is supposed to mean anything other thanduring that time frame and directly following on from the tribulation

The obvious temporal connection? I am surprised by your style here. The meaning and referent of this phrase is hardly obvious, as evidenced by the many interpretations in the literature over the last 100 years+ Here as in the Septuagint, this rather formulaic phrase can refer to a number of things, and need not necessarily refer to the same events as before. In the paper I point to the adversative “but” which begins the new paragraph and sets the new setting, and the preposition meta, after. However, my case for the two horizons rest on far more than two particles. Since you agree that this section is crafted in very different style or register, I will not repeat again the arguments that show that. I will highlight, instead, how Mark uses a different register to describe a new temporal horizon, completely different from the first. More on this below.

Further, I am surprised you mix, in your quote above, material from Matthew 24. Matthew has reshaped the Markan account substantially in light of his own needs. I believe my analysis and comparison with Matthew 24 shows that for Matthew, the fall of Jerusalem is no longer of interest, since he writes years after 70 A.D. He has chosen, therefore, to highlight the parousia (his term not Mark´s), which he inserts in the disciples´question, and to eliminate much of Mark´s procedural language in Mark 13:5b-23. We must keep the two passages separate, however. We are looking at Mark and trying to understand his shaping of the speech in light of his audience´s /readership´s needs.

On verses 26-27. The passage is entirely positive, and the purpose of the Son of Man´s coming is salvific, to gather His elect to Himself. Nothing here about temple´s destruction or judgment of enemies or sinners. As I pointed out in my article, the transitivity patters in Mark, especially in Mark 13 are interesting. In the main section of the speech, the disciples are placed, grammatically speaking, on the receiving end of the violent actions of persecutors, rulers, etc. These acts of violence are reminiscent of those suffered by the Son of Man in the three passion predictions, culminating in the detailed list of 10:33-34. The disciples in vv. 5b-23 are merely patient sufferers, just as the Son of Man in the three passion predictions, especially the final one. In v. 26 however, the Son of Man appears in the only ergative (highly transitive, with an agent carrying out an action that extends to an object) clause with the Son of man as subject in the entire gospel. The Son of Man´s gathering has direct beneficiaries, not the disciples only, but His elect from the four corners of the earth. This section is profoundly encouraging for any Christian audience or readership.

Readings of Daniel 7. I agree with you that Mark is merely using the Daniel passage in his own way, not quoting it. That is clear. I addressed the issue in order to respond to Wright´s (and after him France´s and Hatina´s) claims regarding the direction of the Son of Man´s movement (not to earth but to God´s throne, as in Daniel, so they claim), and the purpose of that movement. I believe I have shown that in the Markan passage, as in the rest of the coming Son of Man N.T. passages, the Son of man is coming to earth in order to gather His elect. The NT authors, including Mark, have altered the structure of the clause in Daniel´s Aramaic, precisely in order to highlight that the coming is downward to earth. This rewriting of the clause to emphasize the manner of coming is done not by Mark only but by Paul, the author of the Apocalypse and other NT Writers, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. All of these early Christian writers understood the coming of the Son of Man to be a yet future parousia of Jesus, in order to save and deliver, finally and completely, His people.

If the entire speech is about the destruction of the temple, then why go to such lengths to create two separate registers? Why finish the first section so sharply, pointing back to the disciples question about signs leading up to the temple´s demise by saying: “I have now told you all things?” Why are the disciples no longer addressed in vv. 24-27, and no longer told to watch and be prepared for what is coming, if indeed it’s the same event? How do you explain the clear distinction Mark makes between the commands to blepete (watch out), included in the main section, the section addressing the question about the temple, and the commands to remain alert (blepete-agroupneite, gregoreite, gregoreite) which are required in the context of the other event, since its time is not known?

You fail to engage completely with my reading of the final section, interpretive key to the speech. How do you deal with vv. 28-37, in which Mark is showing us how the speech ought to be understood?. The final section clearly differentiates that event of which the time is known, i.e. signs leading up to it are provided, exactly as the disciples requested, from that event about which the time is most emphatically not known, and which requires, therefore, permanent vigilance and alertness. The parable used to illustrate the second event, the story of the lord of the house who goes away on a journey and orders his servants to watch, is used by the Markan Jesus to instruct His disciples: “So remain alert, therefore, for you do not know when the lord of the house comes.” The reference to the coming of the Son of Man in v. 26 is clear here.

My article has shown that this final section has two distinct subsections, each containing a parable or story. In the first (vv. 28-31), the Markan Jesus is picking up again the procedural style, with the “when” clauses and associated commands, as well as the language of signs and their proper interpretation, to clearly connect with the first section of the speech (vv. 5b-23), which addresses the question of the disciples, the destruction of the temple, certainly to be fulfilled in the lifespan of “this generation”(v. 30). The second subsection begins thus “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows.” This leads to the parable of the lord of the house, whose future coming at an unknown hour, not only the disciples, but “everyone” (v. 37) ought to expect and remain alert for. This second section point to the second horizon, lacking the procedural register, to verses 24-27, the coming of the Son of Man. My reading of Mark 13 shows the detailed cohesiveness of the entire speech, and makes this final section particularly clear and intelligible.

Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis

Sorry to be so slow on the uptake, but I’m trying to grasp what’s at stake in this debate. It seems that, in Mark 13, Jesus links the destruction of the Temple to a series of events ushering in the end of the age, the last judgment, and the establishment of God’s reign on earth. It seems pretty obvious that all the dominoes didn’t fall: the Temple fell long ago and still the end hasn’t come. Consequently, if one wants to preserve the accuracy of Jesus’ prediction as recounted by Mark, two options are available:

(1) The events described in Mark 13 have already happened, just as Jesus predicted. However, he wasn’t talking about the end of the world, but rather about the end of a particular historical era.

(2) Jesus didn’t run all these prophesied events together in a continuous time sequence. Rather, he envisioned a gap in time between the destruction of the Temple and the end-times events.

Andrew supports interpretation (1), whereas Gustavo supports (2). The two of them tacitly agree to disregard the third option, namely that Jesus’ prediction (as recorded by Mark) was inaccurate. Is that the gist?

Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis

I think that very neatly summarises the position, except that in his article, Gustavo introduced some fresh ways of supporting (2.), which Andrew has rebutted, whilst sidestepping some of Gustavo’s argument.

The debate has now gone underground, and become entangled with the annoyingly inconsequential and interminable narrative of Sir Toby’s. It is to be hoped that the season might produce a more charitable resolution of differences than the maudlin maze of meandering mendacity to which we have become accustomed.

Re: Mark 13 and Register Analysis

HI John

What I have done in this article is to take a fresh, detailed look at all the linguistic data in the Olivet Discourse (setting, question, and answer) as presented by Mark in Mark 13.  Especially the “when clauses,” the imperatives associated with those when clauses, the references to “end,” the subjects etc.  I have concluded that the Markan Jesus addresses directly and explicitly the question of the disciples regarding the destruction of the temple, a first temporal horizon in the speech, in vv. 5b-23, ending in the colophon-like statement: “I have told you all things.”  

The Markan Jesus, however, goes on to address a new topic starting with vs. 24 and through to vs. 27.  The coming of the Son of Man as part of a second temporal horizon.  Absent from this section are all the features of the procedural style I identified in the previous section.  Here Jesus is not addressing His disciples.  

In the final section, vv. 28-37, I am suggesting Jesus gives us an interpretive key to the speech, and I have shown how this interpretive key points clearly and in turn to first and second horizons.  Regarding the first, signs leading up to the event are supplied and the event will surely take place within the life of “this generation.”   The second horizon is addressed in vv. 32-37.  The point about the second horizon is that no one knows the hour.  No signs lead up to it.  Jesus compares it to the lord of the house who goes away on a journey.  His servants dont know when he is coming back.  Jesus says: Therefore you also should be ready since you dont know when the lord of the house comes etc.  The link to the second horizon is clear.

The main difference between Andrew’s reading and mine is that I see TWO temporal horizons here and not one.  The speech addresses the destruction of the Jerusalem temple,  as well as the second coming of Jesus, the “parousia” as expressed in Matthew’s version of the discourse. This remains, of course, the majority view among Mark scholarship. What I believe I have contributed is concrete linguistic data showing those two horizons carefully differentiated in the text, and an interpretation that shows Mark’s careful and masterful editing of the entire speech, in light of the context of situation and needs of his community.  This becomes even clearer when you compare Mark 13 with Matthew 24.

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