In the records of Christ’s Olivet Discourse reported by Matthew and Mark, as Jesus alludes to the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy concerning “the abomination of desolation,” the respective authors have inserted a parenthetical comment: “let the [one] reading understand” (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14).1 What is the significance of this statement?
A Popular Inference
Because of the exact repetition of the words (ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω) in the two Gospels, a number of critics have claimed this is indicative (proof?) of literary dependency, i.e., copying from one or the other or from a common literary source.2 However, this explanation fails to appreciate the surrounding textual differences, the transmission of biblical data from an ancient-oral-culture perspective, the widespread dissemination of verbal instruction, as well as the function of collective memory.3
Notwithstanding the Holy Spirit’s guidance, both Matthew and Mark lived and wrote in the same historical period and would have shared much more in common than just literary sources.4 If we take the internal textual evidence at face value rather than relying on subjective literary theory and philosophical presuppositions that drive the conclusions of many liberal scholars,5 questions of authorship and dating are much less daunting and the biblical texts themselves are more readily explicable.
A More Contextual Approach
Seeing that no one in the early centuries of Christianity had his or her own personal copy of the Bible, the parenthetical comment in the accounts of Matthew and Mark appears to be a note inserted in the written text for the public reader in church assemblies.6 The Gospels of Matthew and Mark were likely written within a comparable timeframe not long before this prophecy was fulfilled, i.e., by the instigation of the Jewish War that led to Jerusalem’s destruction.7 Not only would the directive invite the reader (and listeners) “to identify with the immediate followers of Jesus and respond as they were expected to,”8 it would serve as “a clue to Christian eyes but an enigma to others, presumably the imperial authorities.”9
This simple parenthetical insertion, decades after the Lord issued the prophetic warning, confirms that the prophecy was to be fulfilled during the lifetime of his contemporary disciples (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30) and their awareness of the signs about which he spoke. Particularly relevant to Matthew’s reading audience was the object of the prophecy’s fulfillment (nationalistic Judaism), while particularly relevant to Mark’s readers was the channel of the prophecy’s fulfillment (Rome).
Although we live centuries after the fact, these words have been preserved in the biblical text for our learning. Therefore, let the one reading understand.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. The Olivet Discourse is recorded in the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew and paralleled in Mark 13:1-37 and Luke 21:5-36.
2 See, e.g., B. D. Ehrman, The NT: Historical Introduction (4th ed.) 93; R. H. Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed.) 46; H. B. Swete, Commentary on Mark 305; “almost universal assent among contemporary New Testament scholars …” (D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 91). Contra K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 48-55.
3 See K. L. Moore, “Oral Transmission of the Biblical Records,” Moore Perspective (18 Jan. 2012), <Link>.
4 While Jesus and his immediate followers spoke Aramaic, from Pentecost onwards the oral transmission of the gospel message was not limited to this language (Acts 2:4-11; 8:4; 11:19-20). Since these teachings came to be recorded in Greek, it is only natural to assume they had also been verbally communicated in Greek, particularly among the Hellenists, the Greeks, and the bilingual populace of the Roman Empire. Even Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews were proficient in Greek. See A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek NT 26-29; D. A. Caron and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 240, 624, 644-45; J. D. G. Dunn, The Parting of the Ways 41-47; F. F. Bruce, NT History 217-19.
5 Redaction critics scrutinize how authors allegedly created literary works by editing and modifying their source(s) of information. However, this popular theoretical approach is “based upon reasoning developed out of a ‘logocentric’ perspective -- the idea that any similarities MUST have been the result of copying -- out of a grossly anachronistic assumption that ‘simpler is earlier’ rooted in evolutionary thought, and out of grossly anachronistic assumptions about ancient methods of composition” (J. P. Holding, “Relationship of the Synoptic Gospels”). The authors of the NT Gospels “ought rather to be thought of as men who had keen interest in the material that passed through their hands and a full knowledge of the extent of the tradition, from which they were drawing what served their purpose to best advantage” (E. F. Harrison, Introduction to the NT 153).
6 See K. L. Moore, “Sociocultural Context (Part 8): Public Reading” Moore Perspective (14 Aug. 2019), <Link>; and “The Public Reading of God’s Word,” Moore Perspective (29 Jan. 2020), <Link>. C. Bryan says this “is probably to be understood as a stage direction to ‘the one who reads aloud (that is, to the assembly).’ If so, then in performance these words should be omitted, on the principle that one does not recite stage directions, one carries them out” (Preface to Mark 111 n. 9). Others, however, see this as applicable to the reader of Daniel [cf. 12:10] (R. T. France, Gospel According to Matthew TNTC 340; R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary 481).
7 Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse does not include the parenthetical statement, which is understandable if his Gospel was published much earlier. See K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 55-57; also “The Dating of Luke-Acts and Why it Matters,” Moore Perspective (4 March 2012), <Link>.
8 L. Perkins, “‘Let the Reader Understand’ – a Contextual Interpretation” 11.
9 V. Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (2nd ed.) 511.
Image credit: adapted from https://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/bible-paper.html