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.”


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. But it's based on the idea that people don't make true predictions. Or, more to the point, people don't make supernatural predictions that come true. It's flawed logic. People make political predictions all the time, and some of them come true: usually greeted by politicians saying, 'I told you so!'
And a political prediction that the Temple was doomed 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. Some Israelites wanted the Temple destroyed! It had been destroyed before, so it wasn't impossible to imagine it happening again. It was taken as a sign of God's judgment that it had happened before, and there were some Jews who thought it would be well deserved if it fell again. They may have felt that the likes of Jesus had given voice to their wishes by speaking of its doom. 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. Also writing before 70AD, the israelite St Paul wrote ‘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). All of these ideas which dispense with the need for the Temple standing in Jerusalem were in circulation before 70AD.


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 in the year), 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.

One can go through the gospels looking for tell-tale signs of this kind of thing.

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

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!


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).

(For more on the non-Biblical texts, see Markus Bockmuehl, 'This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah', T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994, pg 63-68.)


Other gospel-related blogs:


Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?

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