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“He” or “It” is Near - Mk 13:29 (Monday with Mounce 181)
Here is a great example of the ambiguity of personal endings. In Mark 13:29 Jesus says, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near (ἐγγύς ἐστιν), at the very gates ” (ESV).
Any first year Greek student knows that ἐστιν is third singular, and that the personal ending does not designate gender. So what is the subject of the verb?
As usual, the rule is context. What does the previous verse talk about? V 28 talks about learning the lesson from the fig tree, and the preceding verses talk about the return of the Son of Man, Jesus. So it is natural that the ESV would use “he.”
This has some pretty serious implications, not the least of which is v 30. “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” This is one of the great conundrums in the gospels. Jesus seems to be saying that the Son of Man will return within a single generation. And of course, he didn’t.
If you wander over to the NIV, though, you see something interesting. “Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.” “It”? Where does that come from? Certainly, ἐστιν can mean “it is” just as easily as “he is,” but why would they chose neuter?
The answer comes from the overall approach to the passage. I agree that the chapter is in an ABAB structure. The disciples ask a question, which we know from the Matthean parallel is really two. (1) What are the signs that the temple will be destroyed? (2) What will be the signs preceding Jesus’ return.
The signs that the temple is about to be destroyed are laid out, and then Jesus warns that people should flee when they see the abomination of desolation. But if this is the end of the world, then why flee anywhere?
But in typical prophetic telescoping, Jesus skips thousands of years between verses 23 and 24, and talks about his return. What is different here is that there will be no signs, and there will be no need to run.
Then in vv 28ff. (the second “A”), Jesus returns to the first question of the temple, and then in vv 32ff. he moves back to his return (the second B). Typical jumping around of the apocalyptic genre.
If this position is right, then what does ἐστιν refer to? It refers not to his return (“he is near”) but to the destruction of the temple (“it is near”), which did happen within one generation (v 30).
Whether you agree with this interpretation or not isn’t the point. The point is that ἐστιν is ambiguous, and sometimes it is the larger context and not the immediate context that defines its subject.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.
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