The Roman-Jewish War and the Destruction of Jerusalem
The Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 A.D., culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, was an event of enormous importance for the Jewish people, the Christian church, and even the Roman Empire. In the subject of dating the time of writing of the books of the New Testament, its primary significance is that none of the books of the New Testament give any sign that they were written after this event, and many of the books show evidence that they were written before it. Here, we will briefly review the history of this war, then follow with a survey of some New Testament readings which look to be written prior to it.
History of the WarThe war between Rome and Judea broke out in Caesarea in 66 A.D., when Greeks sacrificed birds in front of the Jewish synagogue there, leading to a violent riot. The Jews in Jerusalem rebelled and staged a successful attack on the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The Roman legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marched to Jerusalem to attack it, but after initial resistance, his nerve failed him and he ordered a retreat. Roman armor was not designed for fighting a retreating battle in difficult terrain, and Jewish pursuit turned the retreat into a rout, with nearly the entire Roman twelfth legion being destroyed. This initial failed Roman attempt on Jerusalem may figure into a New Testament passage, and we will return to it later. In political and military terms, this defeat convinced the Romans of the seriousness of the Jewish revolt. Around this time, the Christian community in Jerusalem evacuated to Pella in Jordan. Eusebius states: "But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella." [Eusebius, History of the Church , 3.5.3]
Rome responded to their initial setback by sending to the province a much larger army under Vespasian, who opted to save a second attack on Jerusalem for last. Vespasian concentrated first on reducing Jewish resistance in the Galilee area, and several extremely violent battles were fought there. The war went on hiatus for a year in 68 A.D. when Nero died, and the ensuing struggle for succession eventually brought Vespasian to the throne, with his son Titus taking over the military campaign in Judea. After subduing the Jewish rebellion elsewhere, Titus returned to Jerusalem in the spring of 70 A.D. A violent struggle for leadership within the Jewish community in Jerusalem had greatly weakened the city, which fell to the Romans on July 29-30 of that year. Jerusalem and the temple in it were burned. Casualties among the Jews were massive, with Josephus citing a figure of 1.1 million killed in the overall campaign.[Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3] After Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews were not allowed to rebuild it or inhabit it. The temple was never rebuilt. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple marked the permanent end of the religion of sacrificial Judaism, along with the role of the priests and Levites. Judaism would survive through the years in the dispersed Jewish communities as a rabbinic/synagogue led religion.
The Arch of Titus near the Coliseum in Rome depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Still, there remained a large Jewish presence in the area, and the Jews had one more major rebellion left. The Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 A.D. briefly re-established an independent Jewish state, until the Romans under the Emperor Hadrian crushed it in 135. Hadrian had Jerusalem rebuilt as a Roman city and named it Aelia Capitolina.
The New Testament and the Jewish-Roman WarBefore looking at how the New Testament fits into this picture, we can first look at an early Christian writing that clearly was written after 70 A.D. The Epistle of Barnabas (probably not the Barnabas of the New Testament) dates itself when it says: “I will also speak with you concerning the Temple, and show how the wretched men erred by putting their hope on the building, and not on the God who made them, and is the true house of God… You know that their hope was vain. Furthermore he says again, 'Lo, they who destroyed this temple shall themselves build it.' That is happening now. For owing to the war it was destroyed by the enemy; at present even the servants of the enemy will build it up again” (Barnabas 16:1-4). This letter was clearly written well after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. However, he was writing before the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 A.D., since after that no one could possibly think that “the servants of the enemy [Rome] will build it up again.” At no point does the New Testament say anything like the Epistle of Barnabas about Jerusalem. On the contrary, when Jerusalem is discussed in the New Testament, it is always assumed to be a standing city with a standing temple and an ongoing sacrificial system.
Before we get to the gospels, let us consider first the book of Hebrews. Heb 5:1-4 says “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.” This passage about what high priests do is set entirely in the present tense, something that would be overcome by events if the book was written after 70. Heb 9:25 says “the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.” Heb 10:11 says “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Again, both passages are set in the present tense. Furthermore, Hebrews is making a case that the sacrifices before Christ were insufficient. If the writer knew of the destruction of the Temple, the altar, and the entire sacrificial system, he could have used these events to bolster his argument, saying “see, they have passed away in any case.” The reason he doesn’t do this is probably because when he wrote Hebrews, these things had not yet happened.
Another book which is problematic if written after 70 is the book of Revelation. In Revelation the situation is complex because there are several very different schools of interpretation of the book. However, the date situation is problematic for all of them. In Rev 11:1-2, the author is asked to measure the temple but to leave out the court. This is an earthly temple in Jerusalem, as Rev 11:2 makes clear. Two witnesses with supernatural power then testify from Jerusalem for a time, until they are killed. The city of Jerusalem is called “Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Then in Rev 11:13 there is an earthquake that destroys a tenth of the city, and 7000 people are killed. Now consider how strange this passage would be if written in 95 A.D. (a date often suggested for Revelation), when Jerusalem had been an uninhabited ruin for 25 years. Why would the author bother to criticize its spiritual condition, as in 11:8? What would be the significance of saying that a tenth of the city would be destroyed, when in fact the entire city had already been destroyed? 7000 people in Jerusalem are described as being killed in this earthquake, but no one lived in Jerusalem in 95 A.D. The best recourse that allows for a 95 A.D. date is to assume that the author knew all this, but was looking forward to a future time when Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and then these things would happen. This is not really possible with what is called a “Preterit” interpretation of Revelation, which applies all of Revelation to the time it was written. The “Futurist” interpretation of Revelation, which places much of the book in the future immediately prior to the Second Coming, could allow a 95 A.D. date, though even there a difficulty remains in that Revelation says nothing about Jerusalem being rebuilt – it just assumes it. Now Revelation is almost always assumed by scholars, including very conservative scholars, to have been written during a period of persecution under Caesar Domitian in 95 A.D., and trying to date this book before 70 A.D. may create more problems than it solves. We will discuss this in more in the article on Revelation. It is sufficient for the moment to just introduce the problem to the reader.
Now we can briefly survey the gospels. John 5:2 says “Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes.” There is no ambiguity about the verb tense here; the Greek word estin, translated “is”, is a present tense verb. However, what John writes is untrue now and has been untrue ever since 70 A.D. It was true only before 70. Furthermore, if John wrote to the generation living anytime around the fall of Jerusalem in 70, or even the Bar Kochba revolt around 135, what John said would not only have been untrue, it would also have been painful for a Jew to read. It would be similar to telling an American that there is a nice restaurant on the top flower of World Trade Center Tower 2 (there was before September 11, 2001). Many scholars consider John to be the last of the four gospels written, and indeed it may have been last, but this verse still points to it being written prior to 70.
In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we have a different situation, because in these books Jesus clearly predicts the fall of Jerusalem. Luke has an example which is not in the other two synoptic gospels. Luke 19:41-44 says: “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." This passage is very clear that the city will be destroyed. Some critics say this indicates that Luke was written after the fall of Jerusalem. The argument goes – “foretelling a future event is impossible, even for Jesus, so since this book foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, it must have been written after it happened.” Now a moment’s thought reveals that this argument is really very weak. Certainly it requires the anti-supernatural presumption that Jesus was not divine, but it goes beyond that. Winston Churchill was not divine, but he accurately predicted the Second World War. When it started he was concerned about the outcome, but when the Allies started losing badly, he accurately predicted that the Allies would win. Human predictions are possible, and predicting a collision between Rome and the Jews was not a great stretch. Furthermore, if such a collision were to take place, predicting that it would go badly for the Jews would be obvious to any clear-thinking person.
In a similar category is Matt 22:7, a verse buried in the middle of the parable of the King's supper: "But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire." Since the parable seems to address in part the reject ion of God's message and servants by the Jews, this verse can be read as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Actually, when evaluated carefully, the sayings of Jesus that foretell the destruction of Jerusalem are presented in such a way that they indicate that the prophecy has not yet (from the author‘s viewpoint) been fulfilled. For one thing, none of the authors make any claim that the prophecy has been fulfilled. This is the sort of thing the New Testament is usually eager to do. In Matthew alone, twelve times he says something to the effect of “this fulfilled the word of the Lord through the prophet…”. Though these are generally Old Testament prophecies, New Testament prophecies are also noted when fulfilled. In Acts 1:5, the coming of the Holy Spirit is foretold, and this is fulfilled in Acts 2. The progress of the spread of the gospel is outlined in Acts 1:8, and this is fulfilled through the course of the book. Agabus accurately prophecies a famine (Acts 11:28) and Luke says this was fulfilled during the reign of Claudius. Agabus again describes how Paul would be bound in Acts 21:10-11, and this is fulfilled over the next two chapters. The Holy Spirit promises Paul in Acts 23:11 that he would witness in Rome, which happens in Acts 28. In John 21:19, there is an oblique reference to Peter dying according to Jesus’ prophecy. Yet none of the gospel authors make any claim that Jesus’ promised destruction of Jerusalem had been fulfilled.
There are further oddities in the way this prophecy is presented in the gospels. At this time, it would be best to address the primary passage that deals with the fall of Jerusalem, which is present in all three synoptic gospels. We will lay out in parallel the main part of the prophecy.
At this point, Jesus’ only prophecy is that the temple would some day be destroyed. This is hardly a remarkable prophecy since almost every building ever built is torn down at some time, but for the disciples, the idea of the destruction of the temple was horrible. They equated this with the end of the world, as their follow-up question shows:
Jesus responds with warnings about hard times: wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, and especially false religious leaders, along with the spread of the gospel. He then reaches the passage that deals most directly with Jerusalem.
Jesus then goes on to describe His own second coming, and this is one of the interpretive difficulties with the passage: it is hard to untangle which parts refer to the destruction of the temple and which parts refer to the second coming, or if certain parts are intended to refer to both. The differences between the gospels are also interesting. Matthew and Mark refer to the “abomination of desolation” being the event that would be the warning to flee. Luke changes this to “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” as the trigger event. Luke’s gentile readers probably wouldn’t understand what the “abomination of desolation” was even if they had read Daniel, and so Luke apparently chose to put the saying in terms his readers could understand. Yet this interpretation almost creates more difficulties than it solves. For one thing, it would seem that if one waited until one was surrounded, it would be too late to flee. Certainly when Jerusalem was surrounded in 70 A.D. it was too late. Running desperately short of food, many Jews did try to flee. They were caught by the Romans and crucified facing the city walls to demoralize the defenders. At the height of the siege, Josephus states that 500 people a day were being crucified outside the walls.[Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5.11.1] Perhaps the solution lies in the history of the earlier aborted attempt on Jerusalem by Cestius Gallus in 66 A.D. That could have motivated the Christians to flee, and it may have been at this time that the Christian community departed for Pella, though Eusebius, who describes the evacuation, does not connect it to Jesus’ words in the gospel. Also, the timeline of the war, with four years elapsing between the first and second attempts on Jerusalem, doesn’t seem to fit with the sense of urgency in Jesus’ prophecy – "woe to those who are pregnant or nursing, pray that your flight is not in winter or on the Sabbath." And finally, Luke’s quote from Jesus about Jerusalem being trampled down by the gentiles “until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled” was certainly not fulfilled during the lifetime of the author of Luke or anyone in the early church. If the gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, they would likely have been much clearer in separating that event from Jesus’ words about the second coming, and they would also probably have pointed out how the prophecy was fulfilled.
Teachings Overcome by EventsSome of the teachings preserved in the gospels became more or less obsolete after the events of 70 A.D. These can be divided into two categories.
The first category is when a teaching clearly addresses something that is obsolete, yet the deeper and primary meaning of the teaching still is apparent. An example of this would be Matt 5:23: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” This passage is addressing one of the offerings described in the early chapters of Leviticus, which were to be presented at the central altar of worship for the community. This was the altar in front of the temple in Jerusalem; this is the altar Jesus was talking about. It was destroyed with the temple and the whole system of sacrifices on altars ceased to exist for Jews, so the immediate example given by Jesus became obsolete at 70 A.D. However, the deeper meaning remains plain – reconciliation with your brother is an urgent priority. Even if the book was written after 70, one can see how sayings like this would be left in. There are many sayings of Jesus that fall in this category.
A more difficult passage to leave in is the repeated “destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it” (John 2:19-20). This comes from the mouth of Jesus in John, and in Matthew and Mark it is a charge at his trial: “This man stated, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days'" (Matt 26:61, Mk 14:58). It is then repeated as mockery to Jesus on the cross: “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself!” (Matt 27:40, Mark 15:29-30). These words would indeed be awkward to read in the shadow of the temple’s destruction.
Another example possibly in the same category would be the sayings directed at the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a powerful religious faction, since the office of the high priest was consistently held by Sadducees. However, due to their priestly connection and their identification as a pro-Roman faction, they ceased to exist shortly after the fall of the temple. Matthew frequently mentions Pharisees and Sadducees together, and all three synoptic gospels include Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection (Matt 22:23-32, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-37). Since this passage argues for the important doctrine of the resurrection, it would not be surprising to find it included even if it was written after the Sadducees had ceased to exist. However, the wording of the passage does contain one point that is difficult to reconcile with a late date. All three gospels place the Sadducees’ belief system in the present tense, as though this is a currently existing party with a currently existing doctrinal belief. Furthermore, all three gospels use a different word, yet all three keep the word they choose in the present tense. Matthew says the Sadducees “say” ("legontes" - present participle in Matt 22:23), Mark says “they say” ("legousin" - present active indicative in Mark 12:18), and Luke says they “speak against” ("antilegontes" - present participle in Luke 20:27) the resurrection.
There is another category of New Testament text that is more difficult to fit with a post-70 date. There are some passages in which the primary point of the passages was overcome by events in 70 A.D. In Matt 17:24-27, Peter is challenged as to whether or not Jesus pays the two-drachma tax. This was a tax collected to maintain the temple. The short account ends with Jesus and Peter both paying it. Now there are several spiritual lessons that can be drawn from this story, but it seems likely that the most immediate application of the story for Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers at the time was to inform them that they ought to continue to pay this tax. Needless to say, this points to a date of writing before 70.