Wednesday, 12 August 2015

How could a historical Jesus predict that the Temple would be destroyed? (Vaticinium ex eventu?)

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

Of course, academics don't constantly keep every single debate under constant review - that would be a disproportionate burden on them. (There are some things in life that are kept under constant review, such as what kind of cancer care gives the best value for money, for example.) If there is a particular debate that most academics think is settled, then one has to have a good reason for asking academia to re-open it. In this case, there are good reasons, which I will review below, and one in particular: that prior to the fall of the temple, some Christians had already re-evaluated the role of 'temple' in their lives, and decided that their community was the 'temple' that they cared about. The Jerusalem temple's centrality had been dislodged before the Roman army even laid siege to Jerusalem. We see this vividly in letters written a couple of decades or so (that's the consensus) before the fall of the temple, written by Paul. When academics have thought about the gospels being written after the fall of the Jerusalem temple, the data in Paul has been inadequately considered. As such, it is good grounds for re-opening the question. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  

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 Israelites 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 idea of 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, and is grounds for re-considering the secular academic consensus. 

He wrote to his churches that ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you’ (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. People don't always realise how significant this is.

The question is whether that striking 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. In fact, there is no other developed rival explanation worth speaking of. 


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. The question I want to pose is this: if Mark was writing after 70AD, and wanted to be a real clever clogs and put words into Jesus' mouth about the events of 70AD, to make it look like Jesus was a great prophet, is Mark 13 really what you would expect Mark to have written? There are problems with such a view, and I'll go through a few of them.

Let us consider some of the things known after 70AD: decades passed after Jesus before the temple actually fell, by which time most of Jesus' contemporaries would already be dead. Beyond a mere rumour, the Roman-Jewish war actually happened, and lasted years; the siege of Jerusalem started at the religiously notable time of Passover 70AD and lasted months; so long that the horrific privations resulted in cannibalism of babies according to Josephus. More than alarming, the war was cataclysmic. And when the Romans overran Jerusalem, they burned down the temple, the fire was visible from miles away. Still, some of the temple remained standing afterwards - one of its walls is still standing to this day (the "Wailing Wall"). So if Mark was writing after 70AD and being smart, putting words into Jesus' mouth about 70AD to make Jesus look like a great prophet, why on earth would Mark write this? -

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down…. when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmedPray that it may not happen in winter ... for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the daysthis generation will not pass away until all these things take place … But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son ...” [emphasis added] (Mark 13)
Would those really look like the words of a great prophet after 70AD? Only if the prophecies were meant to be vague warnings, generalities. But if you were inventing the words of a great prophet, couldn't you be smarter? So, let's look at that in detail.


If Mark had been writing after the temple fell, you might wonder if he would make use of the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem began at Passover, a fact that Mark could have made much of, since Jesus had been executed at Passover. But we find Mark doing nothing of the kind, and what we do find seems rather weak by comparison. Mark 13 tells us that as Jesus was leaving the Jerusalem temple, he is asked when it will be destroyed. His answer:

Pray that these things will not happen in winter… No one knows when that day or time will be…”

Winter? Why not instead go for the big story, that of a siege beginning at Passover? Why Winter? 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.
And, since after 70AD it was known that the siege began at Passover, and the temple fell a few months later in August, why would a post-70AD author invent Jesus saying that "No one knows when that day or time will be..."? Surely a bit weak and gratuitous to invent such as that, after the temple's fall. If Mark himself supposedly already did know the day and the time, then why on earth would he put into Jesus' mouth that Jesus did not know the day and the time? It makes Jesus look weaker or less knowledgeable than Mark. I find the notion of Mark doing so a bit implausible. 

So, words such as “Pray that these things will not happen in winter… No one knows when that day or time will be…”  (Mark 13) tell us precisely that they had not yet happened. People after 70AD knew if it happened in winter or not (not!). Any author after 70AD knew "the day and the time", yet here is Jesus encouraging prayer that it will not be in winter, a warning not needing to be invented after 70AD. 

Mark’s Gospel therefore was surely written before 70AD. Therefore, it is clear that Mark's gospel contains a forecast made before 70AD about the temple's destruction made before 70AD. Therefore, Jesus in the 30s could make such a prediction. (Which explains why Paul in the 50s is radically de-centralising the idea of temple.)

And Mark's readers are given something to hang onto if they doubt it will happen. In Mark 11:20–21, the mysterious destruction of a fig tree is treated that way: the fig tree has died, and the message is not to lose hope that the same will happen to the temple on the temple Mount.



There are more good reasons to think that it is a prediction that was spoken before 70AD, and written down by Mark before 70AD. The heart of this prediction is Jesus’ speech that fills Mark 13. So closer attention needs to be given to this speech:

·         Mark 13:1-2 Of the temple, we find Jesus' prediction: “There will not be left here one stone upon another.” But we know that one of those actual temple walls is still standing to this day. So, that’s not entirely literal - which is reasonable if spoken before 70AD. But, after 70AD, what pious Christian would put into their Lord’s mouth something that is so literally incorrect that it potentially risks the accusation “false prophet” in the eyes of an overly literal reader? (Combine this with a later point below about “this generation”.) It is less problematic for these words to be apocalyptic poetry from before the temple fell.

o   By the way, if a creative Mark knew after-the-fact the 70AD truth, that the temple had burned down, he could have cleverly contrived a clear allusion to the Old Testament to create a ‘better informed’ Jesus, using such verses as: “They burned your sanctuary to the ground” (Psalm 74:7 NIV); "And he burned the house of the Lord and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down" (2 Kings 25:9 ESV). But Mark misses the opportunity to do so by a country mile. He’s as silent about this as he is about the siege starting at Passover. I'm making an argument from silence there, but it adds further to the impression that Jesus’ words date from before anyone was aware of how the temple actually fell in flames. The Romans lit fires in the temple because it was made of marble, which splits apart if it gets too hot.

·         Mark 13:7: "And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet." This sits most uneasily with the idea of someone creatively writing it in the years after the epoch-ending war of 70AD. To gratuitously put such words into the mouth of Jesus would surely seem fatuous after the end of the temple, when the Jews were reeling from the horror and devastation of the bloody war that had just been. “Rumours”? That word would surely fall on cold ears. More like ugly finality, bloodshed on a massive scale and the traumatic loss of the Jerusalem temple. It would be a little bit too late to tell people not to be alarmed. It would be an insult.

·         Mark 13:11: “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” Such reliance on the Holy Spirit for what to say before rulers may be there to reassure believers that “God is/was on your side,” but it perhaps implies little in the way of church leadership and apostolic authority to call upon in such moments, which thus implies a date before Christians became increasingly dependent on church leadership. That surely implies an early date. This is not a huge problem, but cumulatively with the other points, the overall impression of words that pre-date (rather than post-date) 70AD is strong.

·         Mark 13:12-13 “And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child...” Similar to the last point above, this might better fit an earlier date, viz. the scenario of the known conflict between stricter or looser adherence to the ways of Judaism (such as we see evident in Paul’s letters, and in a document such as the Didache). So, this suggests an earlier rather than a later first century setting. It’s difficult to see what it could refer to later than 70AD in the first century.

·         Mark 13:14: " let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains" We don’t know if they ever did this and it’s an allusion to Isaiah 2:29 - so it’s difficult to grant a post-70AD sitz im lieben to these words, but they are absolutely fine before 70AD. In fact, Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples in the 30s being told to go to Galilee then - after the resurrection - which adds weight to a pre-70AD sitz im lieben.

·         Mark 13:20: “And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” Post-70AD, it’s hard to imagine what any creative writer could be dreaming of in writing such words. The war lasted years and the siege of Jerusalem lasted months, and starvation got to the point that people there resorted to cannibalism, according to Josephus. I’m really not sure how the end of the siege saved the elect either. Putting these words into Jesus’ mouth after 70AD makes no sense, but it is fine before 70AD as a vague encouragement not to be fearful.

·         Mark 13:30: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Bera in mind that it’s likely that the large part of the people alive in the 30s of the century were dead by 70AD. So it would be trite for Mark after 70AD to gratuitously invent these words and put them into Jesus’ mouth: "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.” Added to the fact that the temple still had a standing wall full of stones one on top of another, this additional fact would have a naïve Mark again creating a risk of a “false prophet” Jesus. It’s less of a problem if these words were spoken as a vague encouragement before 70AD, and indeed not a problem at all in a naturalistic reading if spoken in the 30s.

In short, Jesus’ words about “not one stone” and “this generation” were not fulfilled if taken overly literally, and were altogether gratuitous to put in the mouth a prophet after the fact. Whereas things that go unsaid would have been better said (if known to an inventive post-70AD author): the siege started at Passover; and the temple burned down. Some things would have been fatuous and unfeeling to include after 70AD: not to be alarmed by “rumours of wars”; and saying “this generation will not pass” and “cutting the days short” as if this was good news. Some things less clearly fit a late date: “brother against brother”; “for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit”; regrouping in Galilee. Taken cumulatively, together with everything I have said above, it is difficult to see much merit in maintaining a post 70AD date. It’s not that it’s merely possible that Jesus’ words date from before 70AD. It’s overwhelmingly likely that they do.

So, if Mark was supposed to be writing after 70AD, being a real clever clogs inventing words to put into Jesus' mouth about events of 70AD, wouldn't it then seem a bit strange that:
  • Jesus urged prayer that the crisis wouldn't be in winter, not knowing when it might be
  • Jesus didn't know the siege would start at the religiously significant time of Passover
  • Jesus is saying that every stone would be brought down, when that didn't happen?
  • Jesus talks about every stone falling down, without knowing that the temple burned down?
  • Jesus doesn't use Old Testament verses about the temple burning down?
  • Jesus is saying not to be afraid of rumours of war - after a cataclysmic one?
  • Jesus is saying God would cut the time short when it was a prolonged crisis?
  • Jesus is saying this generation will not pass away, when actually most of it probably had by 70AD?
If Mark is being a clever clogs after 70AD, inventing clever things to say about 70AD, is Mark 13 really what he would invent? Hardly. What this actually is rather is Jesus speaking in the style of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, expressing in poetic language dire warnings.


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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