Wednesday, 12 August 2015

How could a historical Jesus predict that the Temple would be destroyed?

I come across all manner of sceptical claims that the gospels must have been written after 70AD because they feature Jesus predicting something which happpened in 70AD - the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Here it is in the words of Mark's gospel 13:1-2:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him,
“Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus.
“Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

So what's the problem here? Sceptics say that the gospels sneakily take advantage of the news that the Temple had been destroyed by putting words into Jesus' mouth predicting it, to make Jesus look good, and to make the fall of the Temple look like God's judgment. 

A fine hypothesis, that is. And it is more or less the majority view of scholars today. So by what method do they arrive at this conclusion? And what basis, if any, is there for a critical reading to challenge it?


It's based on the idea that people don't generally make true predictions - or, more to the point, in religious literature we don't in general find authentic supernatural/religious predictions that come true. Sceptics have some warrant for being cautious. After all, we can find texts from the ancient Greco-Roman world were predictions of future events that are in the literature turn out to have been written after the event. Sneaky, or perhaps to be fairer a literary tradition in certain genres. And it is reasonable and logical to read across from the general to the specific. In secular scholarship, therefore, the default position is to assume that such predictions are not authentic, but were made up after the event (ex eventu in scholar-speak), unless there is evidence to the contrary. So we do not dispense with that method in this case. 

But it has to be with the proviso - good scholarship - that further evidence could provide an exception to the rule. Therefore, while, in starting out, reading across from the general to the specific is a right thing to do, it does not warrant us to stop short of examining any evidence unique to the specific case

I need to make an aside here to avoid being misunderstood. My blog posts work on the basis of secular naturalistic readings. Although I declare myself a Christian, the purpose of my blogs is to ask what is the best naturalistic reading of a text. For many Christians that will not be of interest, but my purpose for writing is to engage with naturalistic readings on their own ground, and test them. So in this case of discussing whether Jesus could or would have predicted the fall of the temple, my aim is not to argue with readers to accept a supernatural reading. It is about whether the data leads us the conclusion that the default position ultimately supplies us with the best naturalistic reading. We do not know the answer to that without testing the data further. Compared to scientists, historians do not get a free pass to a lower standard - assumptions and data are there to be tested and reviewed. 

On doing so, we may find evidence that either makes it more likely that a particular prediction was written ex eventu, or evidence that makes it more likely a prediction was made before the event. Scholars have to go with the evidence. 

It's too easy to do a text an injustice by ignoring our duty to assess each claim on its own merits on a case by case basis - in other words, scholars start from the default position, but we are not entitled to rest on our laurels there, a fait accompli. The default assumption does not dictate the conclusion. What is the ensuing task? Is it to do apologetics for the default position? Or is to subject the default position's merits in the specific case to critical study? We have no sacred cows when we seek the best naturalistic readings. Default positions are not the end of the story. We have to go the distance. And the case for Jesus' predictions includes a contribution from unique evidence that itself pre-dates 70AD which we ignore at our peril. I will focus on this evidence in this post. (I review the case for an ex eventu prediction in Luke's Gospel in another post.)

Before coming to those unique features, let's look at some features that are not specific to Christianity about the narrative of the fall of the Jerusalem temple   .


People make political predictions all the time, and some of them come true: usually greeted by politicians saying, 'I told you so!' It's difficult for politicians to be wrong all the time. 

And a political prediction that the Jerusalem Temple was doomed had a bit of history to it - and it should be read like a politician's prediction. And it had happened before, so it could happen again. It is just the sort of thing that doom-mongers would have said in the first century in Jerusalem, with trouble brewing with the Romans on and off.
There is nothing necessarily supernatural about that prediction. And there is no good reason why such a political prediction couldn't have been made. And no good reason why it couldn't be made by Jesus. And here comes the thing that may be surprise you - according to Jewish traditions, Jesus wasn't the only one to forecast the destruction of the temple. It's not all about Jesus after all.

  • According to Josephus, a Jewish man called Jesus Ben Hananiah in 62AD spoke a prophecy against Jerusalem and the sanctuary that alluded to Jeremiah 7, which as you may know is about the destruction of Solomon's temple. (Josephus, Ant. 10.276)
  • And Josephus, by the way, took the Roman overthrow of Jerusalem in his lifetime as the fulfilment of prophecies found in Daniel 9:26-27.
  • A later tradition is that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai went to the Romans during the Jewish War (66-70AD) and quoted the Isaiah 10:34 prophecy: "Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one." With Lebanon being a figure for the Temple in Jewish midrash and in the Bible (Isaiah 60.13; Psalm 92:12), this was a prediction of the fall of the Temple. Yohanan also used Zecharaiah 11.1 as a prediction of the fall of the Temple. (See Aboth deRabbi Nathan A 4.41ff. (ed. Schechter, p.11b).)
  • Testament of Judah 23:3
  • Testament of Levi 14:1-15:1
  • 1 Enoch 89:72, 90:28, 91:13
  • Sibylline Oracles 3:665
  • 11QTemple 29:9 (Dead Sea Scrolls)

So it's not so strange that there should be a memory of Jesus of Galilee making this kind of prediction too in the 30s of the first century.
And there's more to it than mere predictions. Some people wanted it. It wasn't impossible for Israelites to imagine it happening again. It was taken as a sign of God's judgment that it had happened before, and there were some who thought it would be well deserved if it fell again. There were religious devotees saying that Herod's Temple need to be replaced with a new one, a more holy one. There is evidence of this in the Dead Sea Scrolls and more. See the above list of texts - none of them in the Bible - which you can check out for yourself:
More than this, there were some Israelites writing before 70AD who held their own community to be a temple. This can be interpreted at times as a challenge to the authority of the temple, even a replacement of it. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, 4QFlor interprets the Qumran community as being a temple and in terms that stood in opposition to the Jerusalem Temple. 

Finally, as I am indicating, it would be virtually inconceivable that in an era when Jerusalem was under a humiliating Roman military occupation, with potentially violent Jewish-Roman conflicts in the air, that it would never have occurred to any politically-minded person there that Jerusalem was at serious risk of major conflict, that it's most potent nationalistic symbol - the temple - was at risk. That risk would be obvious to any observant person there before its end. It did not happen out of nowhere. 

Where do early Christian views fit within this context?


Some Isrealites may have felt that the likes of Jesus had given voice to their wishes by speaking of its doom. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There are two unique features to focus on.


We know that pre-70AD, writing in the 50s, St Paul was already in practice decentralising the temple. This ends any hope of placing all such Christian views post-70AD. This is one of the unique features that must inform our conclusions.

He wrote to his churches that ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God’ (1 Cor 6:19; see also 3:16); and ‘we are the temple of the living God’ (2 Cor 6:16). These ideas dispense with the need for personally interacting with the Jerusalem Temple. Paul is boldly advocating his church communities as alternative localised sacred spaces analogous to the Jerusalem Temple. To what do we attribute Paul taking for granted that such views had a place in the Christian community in the 50s? This is a question that demands an answer. Something had already triggered that process of radical reevaluation of church-temple relationship pre-70AD.

The question is whether that unique evidence is better explained by something Jesus said (and see Mark 14:57-58 below) or by something else. We cannot avoid that one possible explanation is that already, pre-70AD, Christians were reporting that the founder of the movement, Christ, had said something which made such views acceptable. 


Rightly or wrongly, the Jesus-movement seems to have been perceived by outsiders in the first century as anti-temple. This perception is evident in these texts, Acts 6:12-14 and Mark 14:57-58:

They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow [Stephen] never stops speaking against this holy place [the Temple] and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts 6:12-14)

Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him [Jesus]: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:57-58)
The writers of these books are saying that outsiders construed them as being militantly anti-temple, and they felt a need to explain this away as a misunderstanding. The latter passage, in Mark, seems particularly guileless. It is not the manner of religious people trying to pass off an ex eventu prophecy as an authentic one. Why is Mark written this way? Again, this question demands an answer.

It must be added that Mark 14:57-58 would be a very strange thing to invent, if we imagine that for a moment, after 70AD. That would just cause confusion. After the fall of the temple, anyone talking about building a new temple would naturally be talking about the ruins of the Jerusalem temple. This is not the setting in which someone would naturally invent the idea that talk of rebuilding the temple actually belongs in the mouth of a man 40 years ago talking about something completely different (a temple not made with human hands). It is common for scholars to acknowledge that Mark 14:57-58 belongs to a very early layer of Christian tradition. Therefore, along with the evidence of Paul's letters, it is clear that speaking in terms of a fallen temple already had a place in Christian thinking pre-70AD. In this context, no absolute problem exists in regard to someone making a prediction that the Jerusalem temple would fall.

Again, we cannot avoid that one possible explanation is that already Christians were reporting that the founder of the movement, Christ, had said something which triggered this debate. 


In looking at the gospels here, I am going to focus on Mark, since the consensus of scholarship is that Mark pre-dates the other canonical gospels. Mark 13 tells us that as Jesus was leaving the Jerusalem temple, he is asked when it will be destroyed. His answer:

“Jesus said, “... When you hear about wars and stories of wars that are coming, don’t be afraid. These things must happen before the end comes…. At that time, the people in Judea should run away to the mountains... Pray that these things will not happen in winter… No one knows when that day or time will be…”

This served no purpose for people listening to this in the first century except as an alarm call. You don’t need a warning worded this way after the event. 

Words such as “Pray that these things will not happen in winter” (Mark 13:18) tell us precisely that they had not yet happened. People after 70AD knew if it happened in winter or not. Actually it happened in August 70AD (and the siege had begun at Passover earlier that year - something redolent with meaning that really would have been worth a mention, if Mark had written this after 70AD), yet here is Jesus encouraging prayer that it will not be in winter, a warning not needed after 70AD. 

There is no reason why after 70AD, someone would be playing a guessing game with the time of year. Mark’s Gospel therefore was written before 70AD. Therefore, it is clear that Mark's gospel contains a forecast made before 70AD about the temple's destruction.


In any case, remember how the Romans destroyed it - by fire, which is significant. They lit fires in the temple because it was made of marble which splits apart if it gets too hot. Jesus' predictions (e.g. Mark 13:1-2) know nothing about fire being used. Jesus just describes the stones falling down - Old Testament style. On that basis, there is good reason to think that this is a prediction that was spoken before 70AD, and written down by Mark before 70AD, when no-one knew that the smart-Alec Romans would use fire. Now, fire would have really spiced up Jesus' prediction!


What is the question we are trying to answer? In short, it is this: is the above evidence trail better explained by Jesus making a prediction before 70AD or by others inventing it after 70AD? Occam's razor favours that he did make such a prediction as the simpler explanation to account for all of this.

In conclusion, if we were to venture to suggest that no-one in Israel would have dipped into the time-honoured Jewish pastime of invoking woe on the temple when it was still standing, then we would be making a very improbable suggestion indeed. That an up and coming Jewish prophet who wanted to make his mark in the capital city Jerusalem would do so, and model himself on the prophet Jeremiah in doing so, is not at all unlikely. A highly motivated religious prophet like Jesus is more than averagely likely to do so. It is clutching at straws to suppose that such is unlikely, and it is really a failure to consider the context in which Jesus acted. Predicting Jerusalem's fall was a popular pastime among Jewish prophets (see Micah 3:12 and Jeremiah 26:18).

So could Jesus have made such a prediction before 70AD? Yes, of course he could.


Of course, allowing that Jesus made a prediction before 70AD does not in itself mean that the gospels were written before 70AD. But it does call into question the default ex eventu assumption of scholars that says that the prediction must have originated post-70AD and therefore the gospels must have originated post-70AD. Each of these gospels must be judged case by case. If there is unique evidence, that must be taken into account. If it looks like Mark was written before 70AD, it means we cannot rest on our laurels, but have to look at each of the gospels in turn with a fresh eye.

So, is Jesus' Temple prediction really grounds for saying that the gospels must all have been written later than 70AD? No, of course not - you can't decide when the gospels were written just like that, not when there are unique features in the evidence that set it apart from a world of other ancient religious literary 'predictions'. We have to go with the evidence, wherever it takes us.

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