Desecrating the Temple: The challenge to literalists

I really think that those who endorse a “plain reading”, strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible are missing out on some of the most awesome stuff that God has given us the Scripture. Let me give a bit of background to explain what I mean:

I was recently asked to preach on Mark 13, in which Jesus describes the end times (and also some more imminent times). It’s a complex chapter and I’m not going to try and unpack all of it here, but I was particularly struck by his description of the Temple desecration. Jesus starts by saying that the Temple will be destroyed, torn apart block by block, and also says that the fulfillment of this prophecy will give the listeners confidence in what he tells them about the end times. The destruction of the Temple will happen soon, in the lifetimes of his listeners, and then they will know that what he says about his second coming is also true.

So why do I say that this is a challenge to a literalist reading of Scripture? Well, let’s look at what Jesus says. He warns the listeners to flee from the destruction, and he does it using these words:

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14, NIV)

The bit that I want to focus on is is expression, “the abomination that causes desolation”. The abomination that he’s talking about is a perversion of a holy thing: in the simplest sense, it’s the referring to an incident shortly after the Romans broke the seige of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the Roman general Titus placed an idol on the site of the Temple. So that seems easy enough to understand with a plain reading of the text.

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But there is more to it: Jesus follows up that expression by saying, “let the reader understand”, which seems a very odd remark. Why does he say “reader” instead of “listener”? Note that this is not an editorial insertion from the writer of Mark, this is a quote from Jesus speaking to his disciples. Jesus’ reference to “reader” is his way of pointing out the historical parallels with his prophecy: his expression “the abomination that causes desolation” is in fact a direct reference to the book of Daniel, which his disciples – being dilligent readers of the Hebrew scriptures – would understand. Daniel wrote in about 536 BC, and one of his prophecies foretold the invasion of Israel by Antiochus IV Epiphanies, who sacked Jerusalem in 168 BC and sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the altar of the temple. Nearly 400 years before this event, Daniel prophesied about it thus:

“His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation.” (Dan 11:31, NIV)

Now, this is the textual allusion that Jesus is making to “the reader”, but he is also talking about the end times and his return as described in the Revelation. In the apocalyptic setting of Mark 13, where Jesus is also warning against false prophets and false claimants to the second coming, the “the abomination that causes desolation” can further be taken as a description of the ultimate exemplar of its type, the Antichrist. In Revelation the Antichrist is a perverted version of the Christ, the ultimate false prophet, the abomination that causes desolation for all who follow him.

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There are many more layers to this passage, but I hope that is sufficient to illustrate my point. There are at least three levels to what Jesus is saying here, and his remark “let the reader understand” indicates that he was intending his prophecy to be understood on multiple levels. This is a powerful and important passage, it’s not simply a foretelling of the Roman destruction of the Temple. But if we restrict ourselves to a rigidly literalist reading of the text, we cannot possibly unravel the full extent of what Jesus is telling us here.

Of course I’m not advocating any silly post-modernist “every viewpoint is equally valid” rubbish. But it’s vital to realise that the Biblical texts were written on multiple levels, and usually have multiple layers of meaning.

A literalist reading risks losing much of the richness that God has given us in his Word.

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Related posts:

The power of narrative

Revisiting the Law

Matters of interpretation

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7 thoughts on “Desecrating the Temple: The challenge to literalists

  1. Usually the term helps cull the obscure and convoluted interpretations that have no relation to the plain reading/meaning. I agree though that the sticklers can take the fun out of reading and applying the scriptures.

    • I fully agree that we need to avoid reading our own ideas into the text, but I see extreme literalism as preventing people from reading what is already there, and can easily be perceived with even a little understanding of the historical and literary context of the passage. The problem also comes up when certain nasty historical stuff is described without comment: on a superficial reading that could look like condoning (or at least ambivalence towards) the various events, but even just knowing that the writers were recording the events from within the old covenant framework allows us to see that they are being presented as examples of depravity, etc.

  2. Jesus’ reference to “reader” is his way of pointing out the historical parallels with his prophecy: his expression “the abomination that causes desolation” is in fact a direct reference to the book of Daniel, which his disciples – being dilligent readers of the Hebrew scriptures – would understand

    I read that several times, getting a different nuance each time. I would put it this way: Jesus is not alluding to and pointing out parallels with an earlier prophecy but rather directly quoting and explaining Daniel’s prophecy, along with some handy survival tips. 🙂 In other words, “See what it says here? Now when you read this, understand…”.

    Jesus as living Bible commentary. Now that would be an awesome resource indeed!

  3. I’m late to the party, but I also have always thought that “the abomination that causes desolation” was referring to the Antiochus IV incident, however, I have heard more recently (not necessarily that I agree with) that the Dome of the Rock Mosque is “the abomination that causes desolation”!

    Either way, I completely agree with your premise that literalism can often lead to not actually taking the text seriously, and much of the text has multiple layers of meaning, if not indeed, many prophecies having multiple fulfilments . Revelation for example… (but lets not open that can of worms)

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for the comment. Without wanting to open up the Revelation can too much, there are indeed a host of similar examples there. The Beast with 7 heads appears to represent “the powers of the world”, and as such the great Roman Empire with the seven hills of Rome seems an obvious interpretation. But at the same time, the Roman Empire can be understood as an archetype of any great worldly power. As such, even if we interpret the Beast as “a powerful military empire” we need not limit the text to referring to only one particular empire.

    • Hi Michael,

      Interesting link, thanks for sharing it. I’m afraid I really can’t see anything of spiritual value in that particular construction, it really just looks like a hideous vanity project!

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