Dating Jesus’s Prophecy of the Temple’s Destruction

In my last post, I argued that not all prophecies were composed after the events which fulfill them.  But perhaps the argument for dating the Gospels after that date can be nuanced.  Instead of a strict deductive argument, perhaps that dating is still defensible as an inference to the most plausible explanation.  In other words, okay, prophecies can sometimes be written down before the events which fulfill them, and perhaps a few like the Qur’anic example cited in the last post actually were, but which is more likely, that a prophecy was written down before or after the event in “predicts”?  Most people would conclude that it is far easier, and thus more likely, for the prophecy to have been written down after the fact.  Therefore dating true prophecies by presuming that they are ex post facto, composed after the fact, is not always true, but it is a good approximation, in the absence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Like all general principles, this may be generally applicable, but I do not think it applies to the prophecy which the Gospels portray Jesus as uttering about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Prophecies written down after the fact often have different textual features from prophecies made before the fact.  For example, the more detailed a prophecy is, the less probable that it is a lucky guess: it might be possible to guess one or two details right, sure, but 100 details?  Similarly, the more detailed a prophecy is, and especially with certain kinds of irrelevant and arbitrary details, the less likely it was based on reasoning ahead of time.  In a high-crime district, predicting that there will be a murder in a given week may be likely enough.  But predicting that the murder victim will be a fifty-three year old man wearing a blue t-shirt with a Microsoft logo?  That would be more surprising to reason out.  Prophecies derived from reasoning typically contain less specificity, whereas authors composing “prophecies” after the fact often cannot resist inserting all kinds of extraneous details to make the “prophecy” more amazing.  In other words, the more detailed the prophecy, the more likely that it must be either divine revelation or ex post facto.

I revisited the Gospel predictions of the destruction of the Temple in light of these considerations.  In Mark 13, Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed completely, leveled with the ground (v. 2).  He predicts messianic pretenders (v. 6).  He also predicts that there will be wars, earthquakes, and famines (7-8).  He predicts that his followers will be punished for following him, but will testify before rulers, and that even family members will betray his followers to put them to death (9, 12-13).  Verse 14 predicts an “abomination of desolation” (a reference to Daniel 11:31 and 12:11), and then gives instructions for what to do in that context.  Verses 19-20 assert the ultimate severity of the suffering involved in the event, before Jesus circles back in verses 21-22 to predict messianic pretenders and to instruct his followers to be suspicious of them.  Finally, Jesus predicts the end of days and the return of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27).

At first glance, this seems to be rather detailed and therefore a good candidate for ex post facto composition, but let’s take it one step at a time.  Any building will eventually be leveled, if Christ does not return first.  God’s first residence among the Israelites in the land of Canaan, at Shiloh, had been destroyed, and later Hebrew authors made a parable of that fact (Psalm 78:60; Jeremiah 7:12-14; 26:6).  Even if verse 2 is not divine revelation, it is reasonable enough and does not specify when or by whom the leveling would occur.  The reference to the “abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14) hardly adds a specific detail, and the severity of the suffering is likewise non-specific (Mark 13:19-20).  Jesus does not specify when these events would take place.  Messianic pretenders (Mark 13:6, 21-22) had already existed before Jesus and it would be very plausible that they would exist afterward (as, in fact, they have, in a number of different centuries).  Wars, earthquakes, and famines are not even unusual (Mark 13:7-8).  What Jesus is recorded as saying need not imply that all these things would happen at the same time as the destruction of the Temple.  More interesting is Jesus’s prediction that his followers would suffer, be hated, be flogged, and be executed, sometimes in front of the Roman governors (Mark 13:9, 12-13).  But then, it was no surprise to Jesus or anyone else that certain people wished to punish or do away with anyone saying what Jesus was saying, as Jesus himself faced attempts on his own life before he uttered this prophecy (e.g. Luke 4:29).  Jesus may simply have presumed that his followers would continue his message faithfully enough to get into real trouble.  Jesus would have known that the Jewish religious establishment did not have the legal right to execute anyone, and therefore a legal execution would have required giving testimony in front of Roman governors.  The final part of the prophecy, the return of the Son of Man (Mark 13:24-27), has not yet been fulfilled.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe Jesus is the omniscient Son of God who spoke with full knowledge of what the fulfillment of the prophecy would look like.  But I see nothing in the prophecy as given (with the exception of the interpolation, “Let the reader understand”) which would require even an atheist to conclude that the Temple must already have been destroyed before this prophecy was composed.  Matthew’s account adds no new detail (Matthew 24:15 specifies that the “abomination of desolation” is in the holy place, but that’s what Jesus was discussing in context, anyway), while Luke adds only that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20), which implies that the destruction of the Temple would not be a random act of vandalism or a deliberate plan of civic renewal.  But then, large stone buildings are rarely leveled to the ground by random acts of vandalism, and the civic renewal of the Temple had just occurred under Herod a few years earlier and wouldn’t be needed for quite a while, so this again was hardly surprising.  In Luke 21:24, Jesus predicts that the Jews would fall by the sword and be taken captive, which is the customary treatment of defeated people in battle, and that Jerusalem would be “trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” i.e. the victors would occupy Jerusalem for as long as God has determined.  This prophecy does not predict a specific length of time.  So while Luke is the most detailed account, it still contains surprisingly few precise details.

Indeed, the lack of precise details is itself noteworthy, as ancient people had very little sense of historicity, and thus prophecies made up after the fact tend to be full of extraneous details.  Thus the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, claiming to have been a prophecy of the rise of the Arab Muslims by a Christian bishop two centuries earlier, cannot fail to mention the name of their city (Yathrib) and various other circumstantial details.  If the destruction of the Temple by the Romans had occurred before the Gospel accounts reporting the fact had been composed, would not these very accounts have added little details such as the name of the Roman general (and subsequent emperor) who accomplished the destruction, or the precise year when it happened, in order to make Jesus look more divinely knowledgeable?  Indeed, if the Gospel accounts were composed after the destruction of the Temple, would they not have avoided phrases which could be construed as falsified by the events, such as that Christ’s coming would be “in those days” (Mark 13:24)?  Even the ungrammatical interpolation, “Let the reader understand” (Mark 13:14), which makes no sense for Jesus to have said (he would have said “hearer,” if he said it), could easily have been placed elsewhere if the whole composition originated after the events described.  (I think it most likely that that phrase was inserted in the margin of an early copy, and then mistakenly inserted into the main text.)  If the events had happened before the prophecy was “invented,” on the common skeptical model, why then would the author have concocted the detailed instructions for how to deal with a situation which was now past (Mark 13:14-18)?

Instead, it seems to me that the lack of precise details indicates two things, which should be logically acceptable to non-Christians as well as Christians.  In the first place, this is the type of prophecy which was more likely written before the events it described (with the exception of the interpolated instruction to the reader).  Secondly, the point of this prophecy was not so much to describe events in detail, as to give instructions about what to do in certain difficult situations which could be foreseen, but which could potentially shake the confidence of Jesus’s followers.

The final conclusion I draw from this reasoning is more theological, and thus will not be convincing to non-Christians.  That is that the point of including this passage in Scripture is not to say, “Jesus is God, because he could predict future events, like the destruction of the Temple.”  The point of this passage is to reveal that Jesus, as God, promises to sustain his people even through horrendously difficult circumstances, even when what they had thought they could place their confidence in (the Temple) is demolished.  No matter how bad things get, “the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Mark 13:13).  But it is necessary not to be misled by others claiming to be Christ; hence the repeated warning about false messianic pretenders.  The instructions about what to do when the Temple is destroyed are pure grace, as well as a warning not to put your trust even in the Temple, but in the true Christ alone.

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