Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the apocalypse

A group of Westmont students has been in Jerusalem the past couple weeks, finishing up a semester abroad. I spent a few days with them in Jerusalem and Galilee, which was great fun—and a great challenge to my sabbatical mentality, as they kept zinging questions concerning biblical texts, events, and interpretation at me. Oh yes, I do have to return to the classroom in a few months, don’t I…

One question that came up several times related to the interpretation of the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. This post is inspired by the students’ interest in these texts, which made me pay more attention to the presence of war in Luke’s version.

Remnants of the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Jerusalem

Remnants of the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Western Wall excavations, Jerusalem

“Do you see these fabulous buildings? Not even one stone will be left on another here–every last one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2, my own loose translation). In Mark 13, Jesus warns his disciples about the destruction of the temple, the persecution of his followers, and the apocalyptic upheaval about to come. There are several different interpretations of this ‘Little Apocalypse.’ Some think it is about the end of the world—events that are still yet to come, nearly two thousand years after Mark was written. This interpretation picks up on the grand language of the text: suffering the world has never seen (v. 19), the heavenly upheaval (vv. 24-25), the coming of the Son of Man and gathering of the ‘elect’ (vv. 26-27). It runs into a problem with verse 30: “Amen, I say to you that this generation will most certainly not pass away until all these things happen” (my own translation). The use of ‘amen’ here insists on the truth of the statement, and the Greek behind ‘will most certainly not pass away’ is the strongest negation possible in the language. If Mark 13 is about the future, which is now our future, ‘this generation’ demands some fancy interpretive work.

In general, Jewish apocalyptic texts like Mark 13 were addressed to their immediate audiences (not to people living thousands of years later). These texts use very dramatic imagery (like the sun going dark) as symbols or metaphors to emphasize the dramatic changes coming to God’s people, but the apparently universal or cosmic scope of the imagery is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. In fact, a second interpretation of Mark 13 notes the repetition of its words and imagery in the rest of the gospel: for instance, the warning to keep awake in Mark 13:35-37 is repeated in Gethsemane (Mark 14:34, 38); the betrayal of brothers in Mark 13:9 has an immediate fulfillment in the betrayal of Jesus by his ‘brother’ Judas; the coming of the Son of Man in Mark 13:26 is repeated in Mark 14:62; at Jesus’ crucifixion, the sun goes dark. It is very possible (and I think, very likely) that Mark 13 is an apocalyptic interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the turning point of time, from old creation to new.

Matthew’s version of Mark 13 emphasizes the connection with the crucifixion and resurrection—for Matthew, as for Mark, Jesus is the apocalypse. Luke’s version goes a different direction, representative of the third major interpretation of the Little Apocalypse. According to this interpretation, probably the most popular among scholars, the text is about the events of 70 CE, when the Romans besieged Jerusalem. Mark’s ‘abomination of desolation,’ an image borrowed from Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11, is taken to be the destroyed temple; the famines and wars and suffering refer to the First Jewish Revolt, a time when (according to Josephus, anyway) many false prophets and messiahs were running around Palestine. In Luke 21:5-36, the connection of the Little Apocalypse with the revolt and destruction of Jerusalem is made clear through the insertion of a reference to revolt in verse 9, the image of Jerusalem surrounded by armies in verse 20, and the warnings that the residents of Jerusalem would die by sword and be taken captive and that Jerusalem would be trampled by Gentiles in verse 24—as all happened in the Roman siege and capture of the city.

Luke includes several warning of the destruction of Jerusalem. During the triumphal entry, Jesus pauses to weep over the city. Since the city has not recognized him—the “things that make for peace,” and the “visitation from God”—the city will be besieged by the enemy, surrounded and hemmed in on every side, crushed and destroyed along with the residents, totally flattened (19:41-44 NRSV). Even earlier, Jesus lamented Jerusalem’s refusal to receive the messengers of God, and unwillingness to receive him. “Behold, your house is left to you” (13:35, my translation): This odd statement suggests the city is abandoned by God, left in the (incapable) hands of the residents. Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse in chapter 21 completes this message. Jerusalem will be utterly destroyed, Jesus tells his disciples; war is coming.

Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse, its integration with the crucifixion and resurrection in Mark and Matthew, and Luke’s association of it with the First Jewish Revolt and the siege of Jerusalem are fascinating in and of themselves. Much can be said—and much has been said—on the details of the Little Apocalypses in the three synoptic gospels, the historical development of the texts, their theologies and potential interpretations. But what really interests me, in the context of my own research this year, is Luke’s deliberate inclusion of a warning for women and children in the midst of his account.

When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:20-24 NRSV).

Mark and Matthew both also have a warning directed at pregnant women and nursing mothers. It’s a more general warning, though, and it’s also part of a list of warnings to others in each gospel—the women are just one of many groups who will suffer terribly in the coming days (check out Mark 13:14-20). Luke singles out the pregnant and nursing women, making them the prime representatives of the horrors of the desolation of Jerusalem. Luke also associates the warning explicitly with war, even more specifically with siege. The focus on pregnant women and nursing mothers in an apocalyptic text, in the context of war, deserves particular attention—more attention than this already long post can offer. In the next few posts, I want to address this image in the context of war in the Bible and in the Roman world, and in the context of biblical eschatology. Stay tuned!



2 comments on “Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the apocalypse

  1. bethraps says:

    Please, please more! (I feel like one of the students.) Thank you!!!

  2. […] apocalyptic context of the woe in the parallel passages (Mark 13:17, Matthew 24:19–see the first post of the series) is not entirely omitted in Luke 21, despite Luke’s connection of the Little […]

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