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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):

  • (2) the Mount of Olives (by Bethany, the setting for some of the movements in Mark 11, see v. 1) - in which case an allusion to Zechariah 14:4 might be intended:1

    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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  • 1
    Very cool. I'm learning a lot from your answers.
    – Dan
    Mar 11 '14 at 15:06
  • "This mountain" ?? I'm no fan of mixing up Hebrew grammar with Greek grammar. And then using English grammar to explain the meaning without any consideration to the actual Greek grammar. Especially on the definite/indefiniteness of "τω ορει" or "ο ανθρωπος". Especially when there exist usages elsewhere in the Greek text that demolishes this arbitrarily rule concocted from English grammar. Jul 23 '17 at 21:41
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The answer to this question is very obvious when you look at the beginning of the story, which starts:

And when they came nigh to Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount of Olives, he sendeth forth two of his disciples,
-- Mark 11:1 (KJV)

Notice here, Bethphage and Bethany are "at the mount of Olives". So we see at this point in the scripture, Jesus and his disciples were close to the mount of Olives. Any one who has ever gone to an area where there is a mountain knows that you can actually see the Mountain visible from miles around.

Now if we go down in the text to Mark 11:12-14 we read the following

12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not [yet].

14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard [it]

Then notice that verse 15 begins by saying

15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began

Matter of fact if you read Verse 1, verse 11 & 12, verse 15 and verse 27 You begin to notice that From verse 1 of Mark 11 through to the end of this chapter, Jesus journeys through this narrative was only from Bethany/Bethphage to Jerusalem severally.

Researching further, we find that Bethany is located about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives(Wikipedia). We also find the elevation of the Mount of Olives to be 826 m (2,710 ft) according to Wikipedia.

So if the fig tree that Peter saw was withered which Jesus spoke to earlier was located somewhere in between Bethany/Bethphage(where the mount of Olives is) and Jerusalem . Then no doubt the mount of Olives at its height of 826 m (2,710 ft) must have been pretty visible from where the withered tree was. And we can only conclude based on the facts from the text that the mountain Jesus spoke of must have been the mount of Olives.

Notice also that Jesus did not say 'a mountain', but he said 'this mountain'. So he was refering to a particular mountain which all evidence shows is the mount of Olives.

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    – enegue
    Jun 7 '17 at 4:51
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Whether Jesus was referring to the Mount of Olive or the Temple Mount I believe is irrelevant. He could have just been using the mountain as an example of something deeply rooted, such as a tree, to convey the power of faith. A mountain appears to be immovable, but with God all things are possible if you believe. Any mountain would do to demonstrate God's power catapulted through our faith. So no matter the problem, no matter the stronghold, faith in God through his son Jesus Christ can move it--no matter how secure it feels or appears. Trust in the Lord with all your heart...

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    – ThaddeusB
    Aug 12 '15 at 1:01
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While there maybe a secondary meaning in this verse you have to put it together with verse 24 which kind of further explains to you that it's talking about which is having faith in God to do mighty things, so I Have to agree with Pamela White here and any other illusions we try to draw from it are by far secondary. The context is faith "believing" which makes the impossible possible with God faith in him and who you are in him as a believer having been given authority and power. Though faith I have received healing on numerous occasions some serious conditions and some minor, the focus here is the mountain (the problem that stands in the way) the answer is our faith in God, we have a choice we can either speak to God about how big our problem is or we can speak to our problem about how big our God is. After all the power of life and death are in the tongue and all that use it shall eat of its fruit (whether that be doubt and unbelief or faith and life).

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