Can someone explain to me what the reader is supposed to do with their understanding in Mark 13:14-17? If it refers to the first Jewish war, then isn't it too late to be issuing warnings to flee? It sounds like the author knows what happened. The nod & wink to the reader doesn't seem to make sense in this context. I'm sure there is a simple explanation.
I’ll suggest an answer to that question based on the interpretation of the passage offered by Ernst Haenchen in Der Weg Jesu, (German, 1968) 443-447. The explanation itself is simple, but getting there is a bit complex. You can skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to read the whole thing.
Mark is writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The defeat of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple must have been a severe disappointment for those expecting the immanent establishment of God’s rule on earth, whether they were Jews or Christians. If the end were coming, it would seem it ought to have come then. Mark is reassuring his readers that the divine plan has not gone astray. The destruction of the temple had been foretold (Mark 13:1-2) and there were still many things that would happen before the end (Mark 13.5-8).
In addition to the their disappointment over the kingdom of God’s non-arrival in the Jewish War, Christians faced the possibility of persecution, including being brought to trial, which Mark addresses in Mark 13.9-13 (“You will stand before governors and kings for my sake”). The possibility that Christians will apostatize in the face of persecution is a major concern of Mark’s (4.16-17, 8.34-9.1, 14.27, 66-72). Mark 13.13, “he who endures to the end will be saved,” urges Christians to hold out a little bit longer (as did 9.1), because the end is immanent.
In Pliny’s letter to Trajan, which I take to be two decades or so later than Mark, Pliny describes the procedure he used in trials of those accused of being Christians:
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. (Pliny, Letters, 10.96).
Those who refused to deny Christ and make an offering to Casear he ordered executed, except for those who were Roman citizens and insisted on a trial at Rome.
Mark 8.34-8.38 seems to be addressing a similar situation, and he requires Christians brought to trial to accept martyrdom rather than deny Christ: “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”; “whoever is ashamed of me … of him will the Son of man also be ashamed.” Similarly, the cases of Jesus, who admits to being the Christ at his trial in Mark 14.61-62, which leads to his execution, and Peter, who saves his life by denying Jesus three times (Mark 14.68, 70, 71) can readily be understood as good and bad models for Christian behavior in the face of persecution.
Mark 13.14-16 suggests an acceptable alternative to martyrdom—fleeing to the hills. Rather than undergoing martyrdom in order to avoid having to deny Christ and worship the images of Caesar and the gods, a Christian can simply flee to avoid trial. The idea seems to come from the First Book of Maccabees. The “abomination of desolation,” is of course, found in the Daniel, which Mark knows well, but also in 1 Macc 1.54. The idea of fleeing to the hills to escape having to worship idols, though, is from 1 Macc 2.27-28. The preceding 1 Macc 2.1-26, begins with royal officers coming to the town of Modein to enforce apostasy by making the inhabitants offer sacrifice Mattahias, the patriarch of the Maccabees, kills the royal official on the altar that had, apparently, been set up in Modein, and tears it down (1 Macc 24-25). Mattathias and his sons then flee to the hills in 1 Macc 2.27-28.
The situation in Mark 13.14-17 is not exactly parallel, but it is similar. Mark is not actually advocating killing royal officials and destroying altars; he’s advocating fleeing beforehand to avoid being compelled to make offerings in the first place. “Let the reader understand” signals he is about to speak in code. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen,” in Mark 4.9 likely has a similar function. And the code is very likely anti-Roman—the author of Revelation uses similar signals when he’s going to use a code for Rome or Caesar (Rev. 13.18 “this calls for a mind with wisdom”; 17.9 “this calls for wisdom, let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast”). The “abomination of desolation” is a statue of Caesar, as many interpreters have suggested, but it’s not in the temple. It’s set up where it ought not to be in that it’s receiving worship which only God may receive. Parenthetically, I think this is also what Mark is addressing in Mark 12.16-17: “Whose icon and and inscription is this? … Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are Gods.” The logical corollary is: do not render to Caesar the things that are God’s.
So the simple explanation is this: Mark is not concerned with what the people of Judea ought to do during the Roman siege, which has already occurred. He is very concerned with what Christians ought to do in the face of persecution in his own time. The “abomination of desolation” is not in the temple (though Matt 24.15 takes it to be), it’s a statue of Caesar set up in whatever city Christians might be put on trial by the Roman authorities, and “those in Judea” are the Christians of that city, who might well choose to flee from it rather than be martyred. This reading, is, of course, contestable at many points, but it does make sense of the data in terms of Mark’s concerns.