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In Mark 11:23, Jesus tells his disicples, "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him."

Does "this mountain" refer to a specific mountain? And if so, which one?

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There appear to be at least four decent options for the interpretation of "this mountain" in Mark 11:23 canvassed by the commentators.

  • (1) there is no specific mountain in mind. True, the Greek here (and in the parallels in Matt 17:20 and (with variation) Luke 17:6, where it is "sycamore" rather than "mountain"; cf. also 1 Cor 13:2) is "say to this mountain" (τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ, in the Markan form). But that could be a use of "this" simply to draw attention to some thing, hypothetical or otherwise ("I met this guy on my way home...").

This is the option that the old ICC commentator, E.P. Gould (...the Gospel according to St. Mark (T & T Clark, 1896), p. 215) eventually comes to. Jesus could not intend "mountain moving" literally, so he must be speaking metaphorically about "moving a mountain", even if the Mount of Olives is in plain view.

Two further possibilities are signalled in Cranfield's commentary (The Gospel According to Saint Mark (CUP, 1963), p. 361):

Zech 14:4 (WEB) His feet will stand in that day on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in two, from east to west, making a very great valley. Half of the mountain will move toward the north, and half of it toward the south.

There are other resonances with Zechariah in Mark 11 which promote this further connection between the two passages.

  • (3) or, a possible use of an idiom familiar in later Rabbinic usage, in which the "uprooter of mountains" (ʿōqēr hārîm) is the sage who overcomes the obstacles and objections of interlocutors: see Jastrow's entry for הַר "mountain" (Vol. 1, p. 365 - very blurry scan), and a usage in context: b. Sanhedrin 24a (see also the notes at the link provided):

b. Sanh. 24a ... One who saw Resh Lakish in the Beth-Hamidrash [engaged in debate] would think that he was uprooting mountains and grinding them against each other! ...

This interesting suggestion seems ill-suited the present context, however, and even Cranfield doesn't press it, but rather registers it and moves on.

Joel Marcus's Anchor Bible commentary (Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale UP, 2009), pp. 785-7) defends a fourth possibility:

  • (4) the Temple Mount itself.2 Marcus sets aside the Mount of Olives option (which he thinks is the other leading candidate, if a specific "mountain" is intended) in favour of the "more likely" Temple Mount "which faces travellers as they approach Jerusalem from Bethany" (p. 785). He adds also some Talmudic references (from Bavli) which refer to the Temple Mount as "this mountain".

Marcus is transparent enough to lodge an objection that may be raised against his preference, that is that the "Lord's house" (Isa 2:2 // Mic 4:1) is to be established rather than destroyed. He counters by suggesting that Jesus is inverting this very tradition.

Timothy Gray thinks, like Marcus, that the two leading options are the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount.3 Like Marcus, he also inclines to the latter. But he makes the further interesting suggestion that the very opacity that forces the reader (or listener) to ask the question (that Soldarnal asked!) and ponder an answer is part of the point. Gray argues that the two "mounts" (Olives and Temple) form the two poles between which Jesus moves in this last phase of the narrative: the Temple Mount a negative pole (which, like the fig tree in the same narrative will "fade away") and the Mount of Olives the positive pole which comes to represent the community of prayer.

Assessment

Of the four options, (1) and (3) strike me as those most readily set aside. Those who point out that the tradition is insistent in using "this" have a point, and the path that Gould takes to his "indefinite" understanding has more to do with suppositions about the miraculous than the use of language. (3), the rabbinic parallel, is of course later than the gospel tradition, and as noted, not a good fit in context.

That leaves (2) and (4), the two specific "mountains". My sense is that the Zechariah 14 parallel adds credence to the Mount of Olives option on the one hand. As an "oral" tradition, there is some cogency here. By contrast, the arguments for the Temple Mount are more rooted in subtle textual analysis that depends on a literary setting -- and on Gray's analysis would not be possible apart from the precise formulation of the wider Markan narrative.

Once again, there appears to be no "knock down" argument; even so, my inclination is to see Jesus' words pointing to the Mount of Olives. Although these verses in Mark (11:20-25) seem to move from topic to topic in a way that strains at coherence, having the Mount of Olives in view as "this mountain" invites Jesus' disciples to exercise faith in keeping with the ultimate judgments of God.4


Notes

  1. Favoured also by W. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (NICNT; Eerdmans, 1974), p. 410.
  2. The leading modern "Temple Mount" specialist (!) is Leen Ritmeyer; see also available images from his work.
  3. Timothy C. Gray, The Temple in the Gospel of Mark: A Study in Its Narrative Role (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp. 48ff.
  4. I have heard of one more suggestion, and that is the Herodium (sometimes also referred to as the "Herodion"). This strikes me as quite speculative, and the only commentary I have run across which holds to this option is J.R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 347. The "application" then becomes that Jesus' power "trumps" that of Herod who constructed this artificial mound. Even Edwards makes the connection somewhat tentatively, provides no evidence in support of it, and I'm aware of no other scholars who adopt this view. I include it, however, for the sake of completeness.
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Very cool. I'm learning a lot from your answers. –  Dan Mar 11 at 15:06

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