I have been misunderstood in light of my recent posts about responsibly interpreting the Book of Daniel, with some of my critics suggesting that I have ignored what Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse regarding the abomination of desolation. I would like to take this opportunity to respond to my critics in a manner which allows for a responsible, historically-critical interpretation of both the Book of Daniel in its original context while also taking seriously the words and teachings of Jesus. There is no use taking Jesus seriously and ignoring Daniel (and vice versa).
I will make my argument in successive numerical points.
Point 1 – The abomination of desolation in the Book of Daniel is an object, namely, a pagan altar, and not a person. This is confirmed by the earliest interpretation of this phrase in 1 Maccabees (“they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar” – 1 Macc 1:54). This point is observed by the consensus of modern commentators on Daniel, Bible dictionary articles on the phrase “abomination of desolation,” and lexicons attempting to offer definitions without bias. In Daniel, the little horn is distinguished from the abomination of desolation. Particularly in Daniel chapter eleven the final king of the north is likewise distinguished from the abomination of desolation. We need to define our terms carefully.
Point 2 – The historical Jesus almost certainly was aware of the events surrounding the Maccabean Revolt, especially Antiochus Epiphanes and his abominable altar which was cleansed in December of 164 BCE. The Gospels portray Jesus as a faithful Jew, indicating that he likely kept the Jewish festivals, including the Festival of Lights (known today as Hanukkah). “Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” and Jesus went up to Jerusalem for this particular festival according to the Gospel of John:
At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. (John 10:22-23)
During this festival the events of the Maccabean Revolt would have been retold along with the tale of how the zealous Maccabean family led the Jews in revolt, purging Jerusalem of pagan forces and subsequently cleansing the temple. In sum, Jesus would have been well aware of what the abomination of desolation meant back in the history of his Jewish heritage.
Point 3 – Jesus, around the year 30 CE, spoke about a future event in which the abomination of desolation will be standing in the holy place. Both Mark 13:14 and Matt 24:15 tell how Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse of the “abomination of desolation.” It is precisely how Jesus understood and reinterpreted this phrase which is the focus of this point. The Greek translated “abomination of desolation” (τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως) is a neuter noun, but Mark modifies it with the masculine participle “standing” in a way which indicates a personal figure. Stated differently, Mark’s Jesus has taken an image from the 160s BCE and reused it in a different way to refer to an abominable personal figure in the future. Note how these commentators likewise understand what Jesus is doing with this phrase:
Daniel is clearly oriented to the great crisis brought on by Antiochus IV. Jesus’ appeal to Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” should be understood in a typological sense. That is, the crisis of long ago, which threatened to bring Judaism and Israel’s national life to an end, will once again threaten Israel and Jesus’ followers. (Craig Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary 34b, 319)
Since the specific events of the Maccabean period were now far in the past, its use in the first century could be understood only of an event or horror which in some recognizable way corresponded to what Antiochus had done. (R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 520)
A climactic event in the period of the final tribulation is the appearance of the “desolating sacrilege” in the holy place. This phrase originally referred to a desecration of the Temple in 167 BCE by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which became an apocalyptic image reinterpreted many times (see Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Mark 13:14). (M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in the New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. VIII, 442)
‘The abomination of desolation’ is, as Matthew makes explicit, from the prophet Daniel, where it refers to the pagan altar and/or image of Olympian Zeus set up in the Jerusalem temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC (9:27; 11:31; 12:11)…But it is no less likely that our evangelist has in mind some future, eschatological defilement and destruction, and perhaps even activities of an anti-Christ” (W.D. Davies and Dale. C. Allison, Matthew 19-28, International Critical Commentary, 345-6)
As we can observe, many modern experts note that the abomination of desolation had an explicit meaning back in Daniel (referring to the pagan altar) and that this image was reinterpreted by Jesus to refer to someone/something new in the future. I regard Paul’s discussion of a future “man of lawlessness” in the temple claiming to be divine along the same lines of thought (2 Thes. 2:3-4).
Point 4 – Both Mark and Matthew insert their voice in Jesus’ teaching about this abomination of desolation as “let the reader understand,” thus signaling that the reader is to carefully note that Jesus is in fact reinterpreting Daniel typologically. Mark in particular uses these editorial remarks often to direct the reader to understand the teachings of Jesus as Mark himself regards them (cf. Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:19; etc.). The command for the reader to understand what Jesus is saying calls for a discerning attitude, rather than a naive approach.
Point 5 – Jesus did not teach that there will be a ‘three and a half year’ period of tribulation once the abomination of desolation is set up, but instead clearly stated that he does not know the day or hour of his second coming (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32). If this point can be taken seriously, a lot of end-times reconstructions would simply disappear. In other words, Jesus did not use any numbers of periods of time in Matthew 24 or Mark 13 (or Luke 21 for that matter) in which one might use to mark their calendars. He did, however, say that he was completely unaware of the day and hour of the second coming. We would be wise to not presume ourselves as more insightful than Jesus himself.
In sum, Jesus Christ taught that there would be a future, personal abomination of desolation in the Jerusalem temple. In doing so, he reinterpreted the image from Daniel from a pagan altar under Antiochus IV to a future abominable person.