From: Apocalyptic and History: Matthew 24 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
-- Part One --
THE FALL OF JERUSALEM DESCRIBED
(Matthew 24:1-15; Mark 13:1-14a; Luke 21:5-20)
Part One includes:
The Questions of the Disciples (Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7)
Warning: The Danger of Deception (Matthew 24:4; Mark 13:5; Luke 21:8a)
1. False Messiahs (Matthew 24:5; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8b)
2. War (Matthew 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a; Luke 21:9-10)
3. Rumors of War (Matthew 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a)
4. Famines (Matthew 24:7b; Mark 13:8b; Luke 8:11a)
5. Earthquakes (Matthew 24:7c; Mark 13:8b; Luke 8:11b)
6. Pestilence (Luke 21:11c)
7. Frightening and heavenly phenomena (Luke 21:11d)
Warning: This Would Not Be All! (Matthew 24:8a; Mark 13:8c)
THE QUESTIONS OF THE DISCIPLES
(Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7)
The discussion found in all three parallel accounts resulted from a startling assertion of Jesus and the disciples’ questions in response to it,
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when His disciples came to
point out to Him the buildings of the temple. But He answered them, “You
see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one
stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” As He sat on the Mount
of Olives, the disciples came to Him, privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this
be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him,
Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And
Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left
here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” And as he sat
on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and
Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the
sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” (Mark)
And as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with noble
stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things which you see, the days
will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will
not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be,
and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?” (Luke)
Jesus refers not just to the central place of worship in its narrow sense, but to the entire complex (note how in Matthew and Mark, the account refers to “buildings” in the plural), which would include the “surrounding porches and edifices, which belonged to the temple.” Ironically, the final touches on the structure were still not fully completed even during Jesus’ lifetime, even though the bulk of the work had been finished. When the workforce was at its maximum, literally thousands of individuals were involved. The temple was finally completed in 64 A.D., only to be destroyed a few years later in 70 A.D. It had literally been the work of a generation and was its pride and joy: some of His questioners referred to the fact that it had required “forty-six years to build this temple” (John 2:20).
[Page 50] Luke’s account alone of the three mentions the “noble . . . offerings” that were within the temple. This is rendered as “gifts dedicated to God” in the NRSV and “votive offerings” in the New American Bible. These were expensive gifts bestowed upon the temple by the rich and powerful “to beautify and enrich it.” There was, for example, a golden vine that Herod had given to the Temple.
The complex was of central significance due to the religious role it played. Because of this, it also became the magnet for unrelated and semi-related activities that further enhanced its importance in the culture and politics of the era. As J. Andrew Overman writes, “Power, influence, and wealth were gathered around the temple. The temple was both a crucial economic institution in Israel and the meeting place for local leaders and imperial forces. Banks, guards, judges, troops, priests, and provincial rulers are some of the personnel one finds in and around the temple area when reading Josephus.”
The group had already left the temple behind when the disciples began pointing out the various buildings that were part of it. From their external vantage point, the main thing they were seeing were the impressive “walls and fortifications surrounding the outer court and constituting the defenses of the Temple.”
This view of the external massiveness and beauty of the Temple was especially relevant to the point Jesus wished to make: Not one stone” would remain “upon another” (verse 2). This was both inherently improbable and horrifying. It was improbable because the country was at peace. It was horrifying because it would symbolize to friend and foe alike the rejection of the Temple and its worship and the people who utilized it as their most sacred religious site. Whether this was only temporary or permanent would be interpreted differently according to the background of the individual meditating upon the destruction. But no one would be able to successfully deny that it was, at the absolute minimum, a horrifying expression of at least temporary Divine censure.
Some have argued that the description is technically inaccurate “since in A.D. 70 the temple was burned and many stones remained standing. For example, [Page 51] the present, well-known Wailing Wall is a part of the substructure of Herod’s ancient temple.” On the other hand, the contemporary Josephus speaks of the order to “demolish the entire city and temple” and notes that only three major towers and the west wall of the city were spared. Of the city wall in particular he notes that “it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” One would naturally anticipate the same thoroughness was applied to the temple itself.
Furthermore, it is hard to see how remnants of the foundation remaining (the “substructure”) affects the issue. Even in our age, if we say a tornado has utterly destroyed a home, we are unlikely to include the foundation. Two decades ago in rural Indiana, a cement slab was pointed out to me in the middle of an abandoned field and that very observation made that a tornado had moved through and destroyed the home. It is the normal way of expressing ourselves. Indeed, we would probably utilize the same rhetoric if a few two by fours remained standing in the grim ruins. All would understand our language even if one could, on “literalistic” grounds quibble with it.
In the English translation, the disciples seem to ask three questions: (1) “When will this be?”, i.e., the destruction of the temple. (2) “What will be the sign of your coming?” (3) “What will be the sign . . . of the close of the age?”
As we noticed in the preceding discussion of the intended chronology of fulfillment, what was intended by the apostles is not necessarily identical with the intention of Jesus in His response. In other words, He develops His reply in His own way, to make the points He desires without being bound to the limitations of the apostles’ own thinking. In doing so, He clearly presents two divisions of time, near-term and long-term, regardless of the numbers of questions intended by His inner group of disciples.
Taken as three questions, verses 4-34 deal with the first question and verses 35-44 with the third (cf. our earlier analysis). The second question is answered in both sections. The destruction of Jerusalem is presented as the coming of Christ (verses 29-31) as well as the events that occur at the end of the age (verse 44). This is not to be considered a contradiction; rather, it is to be taken as a double judgment, [Page 52] first upon Israel and then upon the entire human race. No one--regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, or national origin--would ultimately escape that greater and more comprehensive judgment.
On the other hand, it has been argued that actually the second two questions really form a single query. If true, both the “coming” and “the close of the age” are references to the second coming of Jesus. This approach is based on the argument that this is the proper understanding of the construction of the sentence in the Greek--which, of course, underlies the English translation. Hence there only two questions--the destruction of the temple and the parousia--that are under discussion. Taken from that standpoint, Jesus’ coming in judgment on Jerusalem would be interpreted as a foreshadowing of that later and final coming in judgment, rather than being part of the answer to a third query.
The second event in the text (Jesus’ “coming”) is described, in the underlying Greek text, as the parousia. In a secular context, parousia was the technical designation used by the Greeks to describe the coming of a ruler to one or their cities or provinces. It was a time of joyous celebration and festivity, in which the community went all out to impress the visiting dignitary. (After all, how often did kings visit?) In its New Testament usage (which is exclusively of the return of Jesus) it was a very appropriate description because it implies Jesus’ royalty and kingship, as well as the enthusiasm and dedication His followers were expected to exhibit toward His return.
Linked with the parousia is “the close of the age” (“world” in the King James Version). Although Jesus alludes to an apparent end of cosmos in verse 35, is this in mind here as well? That it could be linked to a parousia of Jesus would be natural in light of the unique nature of each event. It has been objected that the actual terminology used for “age” or “world” in the Greek is applied of the period of Jesus’ life on earth, including His ultimate death (Hebrews 9:26). It is also used by Paul of the period in which his contemporaries were living (1 Corinthians 10:11). Hence, the terminology would not have to describe an end-world scenario, though it would certainly fit. Clearly the apostles had some dramatic event in mind and, even in the Jerusalem-only scenario, it was a “terminal” one unlike the use of [Page 53] the term to describe a significant period of time in the Hebrews and Corinthians texts. Whatever the allusion in Matthew 24, the usage here seems clearly different from those.
Although there are at least two questions that are presented to Jesus, the deeper issue is not how many questions there are, but whether they refer to different events or are different questions about the same event. In the latter case, the two (or three) questions would be the two sides of the same coin: one would relate to the date of the event; the other side of the inquiry would be as to indications that it was drawing near. From this approach, Jesus’ entire dialogue answers this question. It all concerns events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem.
That the destruction of the temple weighs heavily on the apostles’ minds is certain. Their very first question is “when” the event will occur. Certainly they perceived that the destruction would mark “the close of the age” since a non-temple society, by its very definition, would represent a revolutionary departure from one that had the temple available. Hence this could also be taken as a different way of approaching the destruction of Judaism’s holy tabernacle.
But how would Christ’s parousia (“your coming”) fit into such a Jerusalem/temple only interpretation? For this we would need to go to the preceding chapter. There a harsh indictment is made of the spiritual guardians of the temple--the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, Jesus presents the temple as already polluted due to unholy murder having occurred within its precincts (Matthew 23:35). He groans, in reference to either Jerusalem or the temple (probably the latter is specifically in mind), “Behold your house is forsaken and desolate” (Matthew 23:36). Hence Jesus’ parousia could have been regarded by the apostles as synonymous with the heavy judgment to be carried out upon the temple.
Whatever the parousia was conceived to be, it was hardly likely to have been thought of in terms of a second coming. The most casual reading of the synoptic gospels makes it transparent that the apostles were extremely unwilling to accept Jesus’ death, much less a return. Indeed, His death was looked upon as a shattering of their dreams (cf. of the broader band of disciples, Luke 24:18-24). This indicates that they had no real belief in anything occurring concerning Jesus beyond that tragedy.
[Page 54] Hence the apostles almost certainly believed (hoped against hope, if nothing else--in light of His repeated forewarnings of His ultimate death) that within their shared future they would both see the tragedy of Jerusalem and the triumph (parousia) of their Lord. In short, the parousia was surely conceived of as something in the near future and, even if more distant, one that would definitely occur while Jesus was still alive.
If the apostles had only this one event scenario in their minds--and it is certainly one credible reading of their likely mind-frame--Jesus goes out of His way in what follows to answer two questions, the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia, and to do so in ways that shatter their anticipation of a single event. The destruction will not be immediate, but still within their lifetimes. Many spiritual and temporal tragedies must occur first. He then distinguishes (verses 34-36) between what is short term and the long term, after which His parousia will explode upon the world in a time of superficial peace and tranquility.
Hence whether they intend multiple questions (two or three) or whether there was only one underlying question (worded as to different aspects of their concern), what Jesus answers is considerably different from what they were expecting.
Having evaluated various interpretive approaches to the intent of the passage, the remainder of our study will be devoted to an analysis of the interpretation of the phenomena that are described. Throughout this study we will be emphasizing the Old Testament roots of Jesus’ remarks--that they were firmly rooted in the rhetoric of apocalyptic and the actual events of Israel’s history. There is no better place to begin that with the grim warning of the destruction of the Temple.
That Matthew 24 and Luke 21 represents a pseudo-prophecy written after the event of the fall of Jerusalem--and Mark during the Great Revolt itself--is a common belief among modern scholars, either as to the entire text or to significant portions of it. There is considerable internal evidence, however, that it was spoken prior to the destruction of the city and that any editorial touches by the synoptics affect only the style of presentation rather than the substance.
[Page 55] From the negative standpoint, there is the inclusion of phenomena that was likely to occur but not explicitly documented from other sources--such as the appearance of false Christs. There is also at least one event known to have occurred (a Christian flight to Pella) which is not mentioned by Matthew. Instead he seemingly refers to a different flight, one that was simply into the mountains rather than to a specific city. In addition, there were horrible events (cannibalism during the siege, the burning of the temple) that Josephus records but which Matthew omits.
Furthermore, the christological concepts found in the chapter are not those expected among conscious inventors. The difficulty (though not impossibility) of reconciling the Son’s lack of knowledge of the date of the end with a “strong” definition of Jesus’ supernaturalness clearly troubled a number of manuscript copyists who drop the words from their copies.
An additional major argument in behalf of the genuineness of the prediction is its consistency with Old Testament concern with just such catastrophes. It was the type of message that a true prophet might well deliver against a rebellious audience.
Although the Old Testament had not spoken explicitly of no stone being left on another, the warning that the place could be thoroughly destroyed had been known from the days of the first temple. Israel's chronic temptation in that earlier period was idolatry. At the very time the text describes God as assuring Solomon of His acceptance of his rulership and his newly built temple, God warns that idolatry would bring about its destruction,
But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do
not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you,
but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from
the land which I have given them; and the house which I have consecrated
for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and
a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins,
everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say,
"Why has the Lord done thus to this and to this house?" Then they will say,
"Because they forsook the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of
the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them and
served them; therefore the Lord has brought all this evil upon them." (1
Idolatry was not the only reason God's house might come under Divine judgment. When Micah spoke of its coming ruin, he tied it in with the moral degradation of the land,
Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of
Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong. Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests
teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord
and say, "Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us."
Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall
become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
If the mount of Zion was to be "plowed as a field" and if the "mountain of the house" were to become "a wooded height," could one stone have been left upon another? Although the wording is not explicitly found, Micah's description would seem to presuppose such a situation.
The religio-political power structure of Micah’s day was convinced that Jerusalem not only would not, but could not fall. Micah “throws back into their faces a reversal of their belief in immunity for them and their city.” The delusion was furthered by the fact that the city had escaped capture by Sennacherib during his invasion 701 B.C. If it had escaped his mighty hand, it seemed utterly improbable the city would fall when confronted by any other foe. Furthermore the city had continued to grow ever large through the past centuries. The original [Page 57] city contained perhaps only 2,000 people. By Solomon it had grown to a population of 5,000. In Hezekiah’s day, under whom Micah prophesied, the city walls were expanded further westward and the city could hold between 15,000 and 25,000 residents.
Although Micah spoke of the day when a “remnant” would be forgiven by God (Micah 7:18-20), there is nothing in the book that holds out prospect for a short term change of mind of the masses that would cause God to reverse His threat. Yet such a major change in public (or at least official leadership) consciousness occurred that the destruction did not come to pass. Jeremiah 26:16-19 asserts that the message caused King Hezekiah to “fear the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord” (verse 19). Oddly enough 2 Kings 18:3-6 and 2 Chronicles 29:1-11 describe Hezekiah’s devotion to Yahweh worship but omit any reference to Micah’s message playing a role in igniting it or continuing it.
As it was, the nation changed course and avoided the danger, but the admonition of Micah was remembered by many in the future, even to a few generations later when Jeremiah would speak in similar terms. In chapter 26 of that book, the prophet does not explicitly refer to the destruction of the city. On the other hand, his warning that God would “make this house like Shiloh” (verse 6) carried the idea implicitly since all knew how that city had been destroyed. The prophet’s critics who wished to see him put to death (verse 8) properly read into this the interpretative gloss that “this city shall be desolate, without inhabitants’ (verse 9). This may well be the historical narrative that goes with the prophecy recorded in Jeremiah 7. There the parallel with Shiloh is also made (verse 12) and the threatened destruction of the temple, though still implicit, made even clearer (verses 12-14).
The prediction set off an outburst of rage. The ringleaders of the effort to have Jeremiah executed were “the priests and the prophets” of the city (verse 16). In the initial confrontation “all the people” sided with them (verse 8). The theoretical justification (if any bothered to give one) was surely that the Temple was so uniquely and permanently holy that any such prediction was inherently blasphemous and worthy of death.
[Page 58] When “the princes of Judah” rushed to the scene to try the case (verse 10), an element of orderliness was imposed under a situation of potential lynch law. Either because of Jeremiah’s own words (verses 12-15) or the calming of tempers or the infusion of bystanders who had not been in at the initial arrest, “all the people” backed the princes decision that “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God” (verse 16).
Nor were the official officeholders and the general opinion all that was standing in the way of execution. The publicly accepted “elders” of the people reminded everyone that in the days of Hezekiah (over a century before), Micah had spoken of the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet he had not been put to death, as had been urged for Jeremiah with his similar message. Hence governmental/legal precedent was on the side of the seer.
These “elders” were most likely official leaders of some type, though the term literally means “older men” and could have a purely age-of-speaker connotation. In either case, it is quite possible that the protesters had heard of Micah’s fiery message from their grandfathers who themselves had listened to it. The quotation of Micah’s earlier prediction in Jeremiah’s defense argues for a conscious preservation of the writings of acknowledged prophets even when the contents of their oracles ran contrary to what was popularly preferred.
The fact that the political-judicial leaders, the “elders,” and “all the people” ultimately sided to spare Jeremiah also argues that the moral situation of the land at that time was not quite as dismal as the reading of the text of Jeremiah itself might seem to superficially imply. There were still some grounds for hope, as Jeremiah’s pleas for repentance argue when considered from this viewpoint. In contrast, Jesus holds no such hope out for the temple cataclysm that was to occur in the lifetime of some of His listeners.
WARNING: THE DANGER OF DECEPTION
(Matthew 24:4; Mark 13:5; Luke 21:8a)
Although warning of the devastation of the temple, Jesus recognized that He needed to go far beyond that bare fact. Setting the stage for His discussion of the future, Jesus begins by warning of the spiritual danger His disciples faced, “Take heed, that no one leads you astray” (Matthew 24:4 and Mark 13:5 read identically). In Luke the wording is, “Take heed that you are not let astray.”
Old Testament precedent. Many Old Testament texts take for granted that deception was a very real danger. There are repeated injunctions against idolatry (Leviticus 19:4; Deuteronomy 29:16-18; Isaiah 10:10-11), a rebuke of false prophets (see the discussions, below, of false Christs, Matthew 24:5, and false prophets, Matthew 24:11), and a strong condemnation of those who would change either the religious or moral content of the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:5-6). Furthermore, by the texts repeated references to how individuals had fallen into these various types of transgressions, it takes for granted that deception was no longer an abstract issue but had become a glaring religious reality. Indeed, Paul points to Old Testament examples of such incidents as precedents that could be repeated in his own age (1 Corinthians 10:5-13).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. The New Testament explicitly refers to several means whereby deception could be carried out: Empty, meaningless words by false teachers (Ephesians 5:6), human traditions that subvert the Divine will (Colossians 2:8), and expecting things before the time for them has arrived (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Doubtless, other means of deception could be listed, but these are representative of the fact that it can take varied and widely different forms.
In Matthew 24:4 Jesus is asserting the possibility of apostasy; in the following verses He points out that the possibility will often become a reality. In regard to false Christs, He warns that “they will lead many astray” (verse 5). Likewise “false prophets will . . . lead many astray” as well (verse 11). Hence, when He warns against false teachers, He is not just presenting a theoretical possibility, but warning against a real and live danger.
1. FALSE MESSIAHS (Matthew 24:5; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8b)
The first explicit sign of the approach of the tragedy he records Jesus as saying, “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many stray” (Matthew 24:5). Mark and Luke read slightly more ambiguously, “I am he.” Luke speaks of a related rhetorical slogan the false Christs would use, “The time is at hand!” And he adds the words implied by the others, “And do not go after them.”
In Matthew and Mark the emphasis is upon the reality that the false pretenders would enjoy considerable success: “they will lead many astray” is the rendering in both of these accounts. As recounted by Luke the degree of success is left totally up in the air, unmentioned at all. Instead the stress is upon individual responsibility in reacting to the temptation, “Do not go after them.” Although their appeals may be tempting, they represent resistible temptations.
Luke also brings out that such individuals would consciously present themselves as proof that the predicted events are near, “the time is at hand.” Jesus’ argument as reported in all three accounts is the very opposite of this: their very existence is proof that the time is not yet at hand. Luke’s addition, “Do not go after them” represents the spelling out of the implication found in all three texts: If Mark and Matthew had wished to condone these individuals they would not have held up such individuals as a warning. They very fact that they are warned of constitutes a plea not to heed them.
Old Testament precedent. The Old Testament does not present individuals as claiming to be the Messiah. It does, however, speak of a parallel situation (or, at least, very close to it): the existence of false prophets at the same time as real ones. Jeremiah 23:21-22 speaks of God's anger at them--not just because they had spoken what they had been unauthorized to speak, but also because they were dead wrong [Page 61] in the message they had actually selected to deliver, "I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings."
In large part, they were self-deluded. Their message came from their own dreams (Jeremiah 23:25, 32), which, in turn, had sprung from their own misguided hearts (verse 26). Their message was typically an optimistic one when the reality was grim and disaster looked them in the face (Jeremiah 14:13-16).
In the deutero-canonical books of Maccabees we read of a phenomena that edges even closer into the claim of being the Messiah. When the Maccabees successfully secured their nation’s independence it was very easy for their admirers to look upon them as Messianic. In retrospect, when Christianity appeared they may well have been regarded within the movement as Old Testament era false Christs. From the standpoint of orthodox Judaism the status of the Maccabees was more complex: they needed to be honored as patriot-heroes, but not as the fulfiller of Messianic prophecy since the Messianic kingdom, as they interpreted it, had not been established.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Of first century false Christs we know nothing explicit. It is quite possible that some of the false prophets of the age had the hope that they would be recognized as Messiah if the insurrections they were encouraging were successful (see the discussion of Matthew 24:11 below).
We edge closer to the idea of a false Christ in the Egyptian false prophet who, as described by Josephus, led the people “to the mount of Olives.” There he confidently claimed that “he would shew them from whence, how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down.” It is hard not to connect this assertion with Jesus’ own claim that not one stone of the temple would be permitted to remain standing. These parallel ideas [Page 62] may suggest that the speaker was claiming to be the same individual who made the prophecy concerning the temple. Even if he were not making such an overt declaration, it would have been tempting to some Christians to read into his claim such a conviction. This might well tempt them to yield themselves to his leadership.
The reference to false Messiahs in Matthew 24:5 can be read to indicate that Christian false Christs are under discussion: the individuals would “come in my name.” An orthodox Jewish false Christ would hardly desire to link his name with that of the despised and crucified Nazarene: It would undercut his potential audience. However, “in my name” can also be interpreted to mean that these latter “Christs” were making the same claim as Jesus, i.e., to be the Messiah. In this case, Jewish as well as Christian pseudo-redeemers could well be the subject of the text. Less likely is the approach that takes this to refer to Christ-like authority figures, i.e., individuals who speak as if possessing the authority of the Messiah whether or not claiming to be such.
Due to the lack of explicit evidence, some commentators deny that there were false Christs in the first century. Documentable or not, the greater weight of probability is on the side that such men did, indeed, arise during the first century. As McGarvey and Pendleton rightly note, the unsettled conditions of an age desiring revolution cried out for such a person to arise.
How then do we account for the lack of hard historical data concerning them? Three explanations readily come to mind. First of all, except for Josephus, the records concerning events and circumstances in first century Palestine are very scanty. Second, none of them may have become popular enough for a sufficient length of time to attract attention by name. Third, they found no institutions that survived to perpetuate their memory.
The book of Acts is the one surviving Christian narrative of Palestine during part of this era between the death of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem and even it does not cover the entire period. That volume concentrates on the expansion of the church rather than the political turmoil that might have been stirred by false Christs. Looked at from the pagan side, even Jesus Himself is barely mentioned by polytheistic historians. Hence it would be unrealistic to expect them to say much if anything about others who claimed to be Messiah.
[Page 63] But what of Josephus? It has been argued that since he had applied the Messianic texts to Vespasian, he would have been hesitant to point to others who had been so described and yet came to disaster. The historian does not hesitate to mention “deceivers” who time and again led Israel into minor and major rebellions against Rome, but never explicitly applies the Messianic label to them or their claims. It could be that Jewish readers would typically take the references in a Messianic sense and so needed no explicit reference. From the Roman/Gentile standpoint, however, it would have been politically expedient to keep the allusion vague. Hence whatever false claimants to the Messiahship that arose in that era would be unlikely to find a direct mention in the pages of that writer.
What of their success? Judging from the known success of the revolutionaries in 66-70 A.D., we have every reason to assume that at least some would gain significant followings. It is unknown and unknowable whether any Christians fell into this kind of self-delusion. What is clearly conveyed as a danger is that Christians might be spiritually/patriotically seduced into accepting them. (Why warn Christians of the danger unless they were also susceptible?) Indeed, in part such pretenders would be a temptation because of the very enthusiasm early Christians felt for Jesus to return.
2. WAR (Matthew 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a; Luke 21:9-10)
Several related phenomena are discussed together in Matthew 24:6-7a (and parallels), “And you will hear of wars, and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . . .” The remark takes for granted that at the moment the world was (at least in the main) at peace.
Some have speculated that “nations” and “kingdoms” refer to different types [Page 64] of political structure: respectively, “a form of democracy” versus “a form of autocracy or dictatorship.” This seems a back-reading into the ancient world of modern political ideology. Indeed, a political entity could have elements of both at the same time. Rome was ruled by an emperor (i.e., it was autocratic), yet many cities simultaneously enjoyed self-government (“democracy”).
Within its own historical context, the distinction (if one is intended at all) is likely to be between the nations in the sense of “peoples” and in the sense of organized “kingdoms” with clearly defined organized political structures. Alternatively, the contrast could be between “nations” (implying their existence as an organized people but without reference to possibly varying political structures) and “kingdoms” (as monarchies in particular).
Luke omits the reference to “rumors of war” found in both Mark and Matthew but adds an additional reference to the types of conflicts that may occur. He calls them “tumults” (“insurrections,” NRSV and New American Bible; 21:9). These could run the gauntlet from local disturbances of a major riot type to formal efforts to overthrow the local or regional political order. Disturbances of this type were so widespread that there would be few who had not either witnessed it or personally know someone who had survived such an encounter with civic chaos. In a more symbolic sense it could refer to the divisions over policy within a government that are so common when war is engaged in or threatened.
Old Testament precedent. As early in the Biblical text as Leviticus 26:14-20, Israel was warned that lack of faith to the Divine code would eventually result in God using alien enemies to crush their delusions of independence and self-centeredness,
But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these
commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my
ordinances, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my
covenant, I will do this to you:
I will appoint over your sudden terror, consumption, and fever that
waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. And you shall sow your seed in
vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you
shall be smitten before your enemies, those who hate you shall rule over you,
and you shall flee when none pursues you.
And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, then I will chastise
you again sevenfold for your sins, and I will break the pride of your power,
and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass, and your
strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and
the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.
It was not only the "bad" guys, but the "good" ones as well who could loose in war. Even a people thoroughly faithful to Yahweh could still suffer defeat in warfare (Psalms 44:6-19). Hence the warnings of the horrors of carnal conflict were potentially applicable to one and all. The Torah quite clearly painted the devastation to the nation, to the individual's well being, and how military conflict could be destructive of even the most basic instincts of love for family members (Leviticus 26:29-33).
At the best, and if one were fortunate, defeat in war would result "only" in political and economic humiliation. When Rehoboam faced the invading army of King Shishak of Egypt, the cost was overwhelmingly political, though significant human losses were probable in the loss of various cities (2 Chronicles 12:4). The war was remembered, however, for the loss of the national treasury (verses 9-10) and submission to Egyptian rule (verse 8).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Some commentators have insisted that “[t]he period from A.D. 33 to 70 was not particularly marked out by wars and natural disasters . . .” (our emphasis). A closer look at these decades, however, reveals that there were bouts of dangerous restiveness and that in the years just before the fall of Jerusalem the Empire was dangerously close to catastrophe and possible collapse.
[Page 66] Geographically, the decades before the Great Jewish Revolt included military conflict widely dispersed throughout the empire. First there was war against what became Britain. There was, of course, the initial Roman invasion in 43 A.D. Aulus Plautius commanded the four successful legions assigned the task. Afterwards there followed a nine year guerrilla war waged against the occupying forces. This was ended when its leader, Caratacus, was captured and brought to Rome. In 61 A.D. a vigorous and vicious revolt under Boudicca swept across the occupied land. Romans and her supporters were massacred by the thousands, a treatment returned in at least equally large numbers when the Romans reasserted their control.
England was on the edge of the Empire and a late acquisition. Far more ominous were the conflicts in what later became Germany. In response to a local insurrection (apparently exaggerated in the retelling), Gaius led a punitive expedition into Germany in 39 A.D. The uprising was quickly squashed but led to a plot to murder him by a fellow Roman general. The Batavian Revolt of A.D. 69-70 was assisted by the local Germanic tribes, but its main danger to the Empire came from the fact that the local legions backed the rebellion.
If there were not bad enough, Rome itself could not escape self-inflicted military violence in 69-70. After the suicide of Nero, the Empire was plunged into civil war concerning who should be his successor. Even Rome itself was drowned in a sea of blood inflicted by competing factions. Bodies littered the streets and even the temples, as successive waves of “winners” massacred their opponents.
On the psychological level how did the Romans interpret these events? In apocalyptic terms that would immediately echo in the minds of the readers of John’s “Revelation”. Of the several decades before the destruction of Jerusalem, but especially that beginning with the suicide of Nero, Tacticus writes, “I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” Of the last months of 69, Tacitus speaks of how “the assaults of enemies and the perfidy of allies all but overthrew the power of Rome.” He speaks of how “Italy was in a blaze of war” and “the whole empire was divided against itself.” A little later in the same work he writes how “all other nations were equally restless” (our emphasis). And he alludes to the “world-wide convulsion” the Empire was undergoing.
[Page 67] Drawing our attention from the western empire to the eastern, we find that in Palestine itself there were repeated military confrontations throughout these decades.
An interesting case can be made that these are the primary focus of Jesus since He speaking to Jews, about conflicts “you” (i.e., Jews and fellow Jews?) would live to see.
Some of the conflicts that plagued the region were the result of unwise decisions by the appointed Roman provincial rulers. Even with the sincerest effort (often lacking), they were on top of a potentially explosive volcano.
The first century Jewish war leader and historian Josephus discusses the various conflicts at length. He describes how the general restless and outright rebellions took several different forms.
Throughout the period there was an on-going problem with brigands who walked the thin borderline between traditional banditry and outright guerrilla warfare. Like many revolutionary movements of later ages, these groups had their official target (the Romans) but if their own people did not cooperate “they set fire to [their] villages and plundered them.” While theoretically upholding the honor of the citizenry of their own country, they defiled the religion which was basic to their people. Even the sanctity of the Temple was not exempt. These rebels “slew others not only in remote parts of the city, but in the Temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty.” They also resorted to kidnapping Romans for ransom and demanded the release of their own men who were held prisoner.
At its worst, there was outright rebellion, including a general one during the reigns of Felix and Festus. The insurrectionists insisted that those who “willingly chose slavery [by obedience/loyalty to the Romans] ought to be forced from their desired inclinations.” The rebels “plundered the houses of the great men, and slew the men themselves, and set the villages on fire; and this till all Judea was filled with the effects of their madness. And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war.” Festus was able to put down most though not all of the rebellion.
[Page 68] If these were not sufficient to destabilize society, there were repeated incidents of inter-ethnic conflict as well. The tensions with the Samaritans were of long standing and the contempt of both sides toward the other of legendary depth. In this period the violent death of a Galilean escalated into a massive but leaderless assault on the Samaritan community. The leaders of Jerusalem intervened and were able to convince most of those involved to lay down their arms.
Even the Roman capital of Caesarea was not exempt. During the reign of Felix there were repeated disturbances and riots of Gentiles versus Jews and vice versa. The local civic authorities ultimately became outraged at both sides. It turned out that a disturbance from the Jewish side pushed matters over the edge. When Felix saw that “this quarrel was becoming a kind of war, he came upon them on the sudden and desired the Jews to desist; and when they refused to do so, he armed his soldiers and sent them out upon them, and slew many of them, and took more of them alive. . . .”
During the Great Revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, a number of cities in the region took that as an opportunity to justify an assault upon their resident Jewish communities. At Askelon, Ptomelmais, and Tyre large numbers were killed and “a greater number [thrown] in prison,” Josephus tells us. A few places conspicuously refused to take advantage of the opportunity but those that seized it to settle old grievances easily grabbed the bulk of attention.
Shortly before the revolt a particularly nasty anti-Jewish outbreak occurred in Alexandria, Egypt. Here there was both conflict between Gentiles and Jews but also intra-Jewish conflicts due to those “that were for innovations,” their nature unspecified. Quite likely this meant between those who wished an accommodation with Roman power and those who rejected such a course. A large military contingent of two legions plus several thousand other armed forces happened to have returned out of Libya at a time when the disturbances were particularly intense.
[Page 69] The Roman governor took advantage of this force to strike out. As Josephus records it, “They were also permitted not only to kill them, but to plunder them of what they had, and set fire to their houses. . . . No mercy was shown to the infants, and no regard had to the aged; but they went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, till all the place was overflown with blood, and fifty thousand of them lay dead upon heaps. . . .”
As with so many revolutionary movements, those hating Rome divided into factions that refused to yield authority or leadership to others. This resulted in the willingness of Jews to engage in war with their ethnic kinsfolk even at the time the countryside was attempting to overthrow the yoke of Roman dominance. Worse yet, when the great rebellion was faltering and the revolution was increasingly being confined to Jerusalem, the mini-empire building did not cease.
Tacitus records how a faction under Simon possessed the walls; one under John the middle section of the city; and Eleazar’s party controlled the Temple. “There were continual skirmishes, surprises, and incendiary fires” as they fought each other. Even when the approach of the Romans produced a “reconciliation,” it was far from complete. The factions continued to grab the opportunity to skirmish with each other.
In short, these decades were a period when serious violence erupted time and again. One need not engage in some “end time speculation” bemoaning the horror of war in our own age or that of any theoretical future. The first century had enough of it--and in abundance--to warn Jesus’ listeners that the predicted events could occur anytime in the then near future.
3. RUMORS OF WAR (Matthew 24:6-7a; Mark 13:7-8a)
For unknown reasons Luke has chosen to omit the reference to the rumors of conflict that are mentioned in the other accounts. Although a number of the other divergences can be explained on such grounds as the desire to provide supplemental data or to put a difference emphasis upon the same information, there seems no [Page 70] particular reason to explain this particular divergence. He does, however, refer to the danger of being “terrified” and in modern experience this seems to come as often by rumors of what has happened as by actual knowledge of it. Hence the reference to fear may carry an implicit recognition of the rumors that would be magnifying the scope and danger of any conflict.
Old Testament precedent. Rumors of the outbreak of war (or of the apparent preparations for war) may lead to a pre-emptive strike. In a text that could refer either to accurate reporting or the distorted tales that may pass as such, Daniel 11:44 speaks of how “tidings from the east and the north shall alarm him; and he shall go out with great fury to exterminate and utterly destroy many.” In the Septuagint Greek translation of this text, the expression is found that is used by Jesus when he speaks of the “desolating sacrilege” (Matthew 24:15). Hence it would not be unexpected if a reference to this passage is intended in the present context as well.
In their own way, rumors of war can be just as devastating to national morale as actual conflict: they can magnify tension and fear, feed the sense that all is hopelessness, and produce the gut feeling that absolutely nothing can be done. Without a person dying in combat, the very fear that conflict may be coming one's way can force a government to modify its policies and accept "compromises" that would otherwise be rejected. Especially is this the case when the potential target of war has known recent defeat or when the power ratio is so disproportionate that defeat is virtually certain. Deuteronomy 28:65-68 discusses the despair that a defeated people share when looking toward the future. Factor the threat of war (or renewed war) into the situation and a foe has great probability for accomplishing whatever he desires.
Looking at a foreign locale, Isaiah 19 speaks of how war can disintegrate optimism and the conviction of an acceptable outcome. We read of how war would cause "the spirit of the Egyptians within them [to be] emptied out" (verse 3) and how they would be "in despair" (verse 9) and "grieved" (verse 10). "The Lord has [Page 71] mingled within her a spirit of confusion; and they have made Egypt stagger in all her doings as a drunken man staggers in his vomit" (verse 14).
Jesus speaks scattered words of encouragement in Matthew 24, lest His disciples are overwhelmed by the grimness of the near future. Multiple wars in a short period of time--either sequential or simultaneously--could easily unnerve those who heard of them. Such were times when all were in potential danger, when individuals needed encouragement lest they give into despair. In imagery echoed in Christ's warning of widespread conflict, Azariah also tempted to lighten the grim picture of a much earlier age,
But when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel,
and sought Him, He was found by them. In those times there was no peace to
him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all
the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces, nation against
nation and city against city, for God troubled them with every sort of
distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your
work shall be rewarded. (2 Chronicles 15:4-6).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Olshausen insists that, “Rumours of wars relate to wars that have not actually broken out, but the fearful rumors of which keep the mind in a state of alarm.” He seems to imply that these rumors were cut out of whole cloth. Although a goodly number of such rumors (even today) are of this nature, perhaps an equal or even larger number are based upon actual hostile acts that are quite capable of leading to a war. Hence they might be either true or untrue. Given the inflammatory situation that persisted in first century Palestine, it would only have required a minor incident to cause a story of imminent war to quickly spread throughout the region.
Furthermore, rumors can easily precede the official confirmation of disaster. In the ancient world vague and disturbing reports of catastrophe might precede by days or weeks confirmation of the tragedy. This might occur because travelers or merchants happened to be leaving just as first word began to arrive in the nearby [Page 72] cities. It naturally took time for those involved to regroup, prepare a report, and speed it on its way. Furthermore, the government itself might be reluctant to confirm the worst--how many times have twentieth century governments deliberately done so! Hence the informed individual often had to rely upon only a partially reliable source, that of rumor.
Specific first century examples of this are the tragedies that occurred during the Batavian Revolt of A.D. 69-70. Tacitus speaks of how rumors quickly spread back to Rome the reports of what had happened in Germany. He stresses how the repeated stories of disaster made the minds of the people callous to the significance of what they were discussing.
In such cases we refer to accounts of real conflict currently going on--however partial and even misleading they might be. But other types of rumors float around as well. Albert Barnes suggests that the words under discussion refer to “wars declared or threatened but not carried into execution.”
Barnes cites two examples, “Josephus says that Bardanes, and after him Volageses, declared war against the Jews, but it was not carried into execution (Antiquities 20, 34). He also says that Vitellius, governor of Syria, declared war against Aretas, king of Arabia, and wished to lead his army through Palestine; but the death of Tiberius prevented the war (Antiquities 18:5:3).” He might have added a third example from Josephus as well: During the reign of the procurator Cumanus (48-52 A.D.) war was only averted by his yielding to the demand that a sacrilegious Roman soldier be punished for his impiety.
News of these crisis situations would have swiftly been disseminated throughout the land. Yet there are also actions so transparently militaristic and blatantly aggressive in intent that even the most dense observer can calculate what will happen next and produce rumors about future military action.
Many or all of the incidents we discussed in the first century war section (above) must have produced such rumors either before their outbreak or rumors that the conflict was expanding. Not to mention rumors as to what had happened, was happening, and might happen. Has there ever been a war without such stories? Hence these events and events like them (especially those from foreign locales) would have stirred the kind of discussion of calamity that Jesus warned would occur prior to His judgment upon Jerusalem.
4. FAMINE (Matthew 24:7b; Mark 13:8b; Luke 8:11a)
Having dealt with the certainty of wars and the rumors of conflict that would also arise, Jesus turns to how the human race would be tormented by natural phenomena as well, “ . . . [A]nd there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:7b and parallels)
Old Testament precedent. Famine could be produced by drought (Joel 1:15-20; Haggai 1:9-11).It might be geographically limited to a region, but in catastrophic cases, the affected areas involved huge pieces of territory (Genesis 12:9-10; 26:1-5; 41:54). Food supplies could become so limited that one's most valuable possessions had to be sold (Lamentations 1:11). Yet the situation could degenerate even further. It could reach the point where even the wealthy would not be able to purchase supplies at any price (Jeremiah 14:1-6; cf. Lamentations 4:6). Duration could play a key role. A one year famine was bad enough. In the worst case it could continue for years (Genesis 41:43-54; 1 Samuel 21:1; 2 Kings 8:1; 1 Chronicles 21:11-12).
The failure of crops was only one of the most obvious causes of famine. In time of war, a city could be surrounded and if the besieger had the resources to maintain it for a prolonged time, internal starvation was the result (2 Kings 25:1-4; cf. Jeremiah 19:9).
At its worst, famine could drive one to depths of despicable behavior that even the reprobate would otherwise shun as unthinkable,
They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified
walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land, and they
shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord
your God has given you. And you shall eat the offspring of your own body,
the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given
you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress
The man who is the most tender and delicately bred among you will
grudge food to his brother, to the wife of his bosom, and to the last of the
children who remain to him, so that he will not give to any of them any of the
flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing left him, in
the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all
The most tender and delicately bred woman among you, who would
not venture to set the sole of her foot upon the ground because she is so
delicate and tender, will grudge to the husband of her bosom, to her son and
to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out from beneath her feet and her
children whom she bears, because she will eat them secretly, for want of all
things, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress
you in your towns (Deuteronomy 28:52-57).
Such conduct may seem unthinkable to the well-fed western public. Those who lived in a dominantly agricultural society could not be so arrogant. On a small scale, many will remember the plane crash a few decades ago in the Andes Mountains where cannibalism was resorted to in order to survive. Pushed to and beyond normal limits, the human psyche is quite capable of breaking and doing "whatever is necessary" for survival. Even the most stoic advocate of self-control has a breaking point. Perhaps the amazing thing is that so many who have been pushed far beyond normal human breaking points have somehow survived with their dignity and self-respect intact.
Some texts speak of famines without any hint that God played any role in producing them or that He intended a moral message to be derived from them. Other texts, however, alerted the reader that God was quite capable of utilizing His power over such natural phenomena for a greater purpose (Leviticus 26:18-20; Psalms 105:16; Isaiah 17:10-11; Ezekiel 4:16-17; Ezekiel 14:12-14; Amos 4:6; Amos 5:16-17).
[Page 75] Just as Jesus later in Matthew 24 speaks of escape from the worst of the crisis that would endanger early Christians, the ancient writers were aware that even the dire circumstance of famine might be escaped. Just as God could use famine to teach humility before the Divine law, He could also teach faithfulness by rescuing individuals from perishing during such a dire crisis (Job 5:20; Psalms 33:18-19).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. The New Testament chronicler Luke records both the prediction of a world-wide famine and its fulfillment in the days of Claudius (Acts 11:27-30). Eusebius takes for granted that such a universal famine occurred and asserts that others (secular/polytheistic historians, presumably) had written of it. Eusebius speaks of how this “famine [had] seized the world.”
Famine conditions did not hit everywhere simultaneously. Instead, the adversity worked its way from east to west. In the fourth year of Claudius’ reign it hit Judea; in the ninth it ravaged Greece; and in the eleventh it savaged Italy. No sooner had one region began to really bounce back than it hit yet another area.
A look at three widely separated geographic locations will amplify both the seriousness of the Claudius-era famine as well as others that periodically erupted in the empire. First of all let us consider what happened on the island that became Britain. We read of famine hitting there in 10 A.D. However emotionally satisfying was Boudicca’s rebellion in 61 A.D., it erupted in the spring and resulted in the fields not being sown. When Rome crushed the revolt, there were simply inadequate supplies to avoid a devastating shortage of food.
A policy of benign neglect was always dangerous no matter where a famine occurred. But when it hit Rome itself, the Emperor’s personal prestige was on the line like nowhere else. At one point during Claudius’ rule, only fifteen days supply of grain remained for the city. The citizens attacked the emperor in the Forum--with crusts of bread. A military force promptly intervened and assured that events would not move from insult to bodily injury or death.
[Page 76] Tacitus records the incident and then confesses that it was only due to “the signal bounty of heaven and the mildness of the winter” that catastrophe was averted. Suetonius, another first century historian, speaks of how the incident convinced the emperor to “resort to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season,” lest the city ever again be so endangered.
Josephus is, once again, a provider of major data as to conditions in Palestine. During the famine of the forties, outside aid was sent to Jerusalem through the generosity of Helena, who ruled as Queen of Adiabene.
Much more is said by him of the horrible conditions that prevailed within Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city. The zealots tried to steal what little food remained. They resorted to brutal terror to coerce an admission as to where the remaining supplies were hidden. Those who were too important to torture, found themselves stripped of their possessions through false charges of treachery.
Society was ripped apart by the lack of food. Friendships were literally destroyed for but a scrap of nourishment. Starvation even forced family members to steal scraps from each other. Whole households starved to death together and afterwards their homes were ransacked.
Survival and self-respect took second place to any measure that might secure food. So hungry were many that the danger of death by crucifixion did not stop them from the highly risky gamble of fleeing the city. The danger seemed a lesser evil than the famine by which they were dying. Even inanimate objects were turned to for a fragment of nourishment. At least one case of cannibalism became public knowledge, to the shock of both besieged and besieger alike.
The end result of famine and war was massive death for those who had taken refuge in the city. Josephus estimated that over a million died during the siege, including both combat casualties and starvation victims. However much these numbers may have been exaggerated due to shock at the scale of the disaster, the Roman general Titus was so horrified by the number of dead that he made it a point to disavow responsibility for their fate.
5. EARTHQUAKES (Matthew 24:7b; Mark 13:8b; Luke 21:11a)
It is interesting to notice that Luke describes these in regard to intensity rather than breadth of location: they are “great earthquakes.” It may be that Luke, due to his wide travels, was far more aware of how common earthquakes could be. To those in an area such as Palestine, where earthquakes would usually be few and modest in nature, the fact of their occurrences would itself tend to be an alarming phenomena. To one of wider travels, the intensity would be far more disturbing. Since Jesus is intentionally painting the picture of great upheaval and unrest, both ideas fit well with his underlying intent.
The earthquakes are purely natural phenomena, so far as we can tell. No hint is made of Divine intervention, though such punitive miracles would not be without Old Testament precedent. The suggestion of demonic intervention would seem out of place in a chapter in which the subtheme is the vindication of God and His Messiah over earthly foes.
Old Testament precedent. Earthquakes are discussed in several contexts in the historical chronicles. In some, they are simply part of the historic record--they happened and deserved mention for that reason alone. An earthquake is implied in the description of how Korah, Nathan, and Abriam perished (Numbers 15:25-35). When Jonathan and his armor-bearer attacked a Philistine military company, an earthquake sent the defenders into a panic (1 Samuel 14:11-15). We read of an earthquake during the reign of Uzziah (Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5): the wording indicates that it was so strong that it became a standard of comparison for other quakes.
Earthquakes are emblematic of vast powers beyond the ability of the human species to control, alter, or eliminate. Perhaps for this reason, we read of earthquakes sometimes occurring when Yahweh chose to manifest Himself. The obvious example was at Sinai, while Moses received the divine law. Here the related physical phenomena are sometimes interpreted as indicating Sinai was part of an active volcanic zone. Whether the text was ever intended to be read that way is [Page 78] another matter: the text simply attributes the phenomena of fire, smoke, and earth movement, to the special presence of Yahweh at the site (Exodus 19:19; cf. Psalms 68:7-8). An earthquake also accompanied God revealing Himself to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:11).
Symbolically, the upheaval of the temporal world that occurs in war is depicted as an "earthquake," the physical equivalent of the world being changed beyond the capacity of any individual to control it and in ways the individual can not anticipate. We find this usage in Isaiah 13:13-16 in particular. Although Matthew 24 apparently means literal earthquakes, a politico-religious earthquake occurred as well as the result of the Roman victory against the Great Revolt. The “landscape” of contemporary reality was never the same again.
A vivid word picture of the power and terror of an earthquake is painted by Isaiah as a warning of the punishment God can inflict,
Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the
earth! He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and he
who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of
heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.
The earth is utterly broken, the earth is rent asunder, the earth is
violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunken man, it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.
(Isaiah 24:17-20. Cf. the word description of a quake and its results in
In Isaiah 29:6 the prophet paints a more concise word picture of the effects of a quake. There he refers to its "great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flames of a devouring fire." Here the earthquake is representative of the destruction of those who fight against Israel (verses 7-10).
Even outside an explicitly war context, the earthquake symbolizes God's power over natural phenomena and the world. As Nahum 1:5 puts it, "The mountains quake before Him, the hills melt; the earth is laid waste before Him, the [Page 79] world and all that dwell therein." The imagery is appropriate since just as there is no defense against an earthquake, there is no defense against God's power when He determines it is time to exercise it.
The Psalmist links the earthquake imagery with the idea of mankind's futile defenses against Divine wrath, "O God, thou hast rejected us, broken our defenses; thou hast been angry; oh, restore us. Thou hast made the land to quake, thou hast rent it open; repair its breaches, for it totters" (Psalms 60:1-2; cf. Psalms 18:15; Psalms 104:32).
Nor is the terminology used exclusively of God's power being exercised on behalf of the collectivity of His people. The power God brings to bear to rescue the individual who is unjustly suffering is also compared to a quake moving the earth (Psalms 18:6-13).
In Matthew 24, Jesus speaks of the catastrophe being kept from becoming as total as it could (verse 22) and He provides guidance as to how the disciples can protect themselves against the worst of what is to occur (verses 15-18). These words, respectively, of explicit and implicit reassurance have an Old Testament root. The Psalmist reminded his reader that even in an age when the world seemed to be falling apart ("the mountains shake . . . the mountains tremble with its tumult"), God could still safely guide His people through the crisis (Psalms 46:1-7).
First century occurrence of such phenomena. Again, widely diverse localities suffered from this phenomena of nature. Crete was rocked by a major earth movement about 46 A.D. Apamaea in Phrygia similarly suffered in 53 A.D. In Roman Asia, Laodicea was struck by an earthquake in 60 or 61 A.D.
In 51 A.D., Tacitus tells us, there were “frequent shocks” at Rome. Buildings tumbled and there was such widespread panic that many were stomped to death in the flight of the crowds. Pompeii was hit in 62 A.D.
Quakes in Palestine were common. In more recent centuries (where data has been far more complete), the area has recorded between two and six “light” quakes every year and one or two major ones each century. Josephus refers to an earthquake prior to the Jewish Revolt. In the second century A.D., a second [Page 80] massive Jewish revolt spread across the land under the leadership of Bar Kokba. Only a handful of years before it erupted, both Emmaus and Caesarea were devastated by a major quake.
6. PESTILENCE (Luke 21:11b)
In Luke there is no question of the textual genuineness of the word, though its presence in Matthew and Mark has been challenged. Since pestilence is a not uncommon result of warfare, it would be anticipated even if not explicitly warned of.
Old Testament precedent. War, famine, and pestilence are all disasters in and of themselves. David was told he would be punished for his sin by his having to select one of these for his people to face (1 Chronicles 21:11-14). The horror of the events Jesus describes is intensified by the fact that not just one but all three were to occur. Likewise "sword, famine, and pestilence" are linked together as punishing tools in Jeremiah 29:16-19.
Indeed, the three were often the result of war in the ancient world: besieged cities faced short rations and ultimately famine. The weakened bodies that resulted, in turn, made the population susceptible to contagious disease. This is the reason Leviticus 26:23-25 speaks of pestilence accompanying the crowded conditions of a town under siege.
Of course, pestilence could strike independently of war. Disease could multiply in a given locality and bring large scale death. Likewise plant pestilence could produce food shortages and ultimate human suffering as well. The significance of damage to farm production in an agricultural economy can not be over-emphasized. It was a grim reality known to one and all. In Deuteronomy 28:38-42, we find God warning of the various crops that would face devastation if the people became unfaithful,
You shall carry much seed into the field, and shall gather little in; for
the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but
you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes; for the worm shall
eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you
shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. . . . All
your trees and the fruit of your ground the locust shall possess.
Likewise God would use human disease as a punishing tool if they insisted on following mythical deities. Even natural phenomena would be utilized as the rod of divine judgment (Deuteronomy 28:20-24),
The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and frustration, in
all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on
account of the evil of your doings, because you have forsaken me. The Lord
will make the pestilence cleave to you until he has consumed you off the land
which you are entering to take possession of it. The Lord will smite you with
consumption, and with fever, inflammation, and fiery heat, and with
drought, and with blasting, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you
perish. And the heavens over your head shall be brass, and the earth under
you shall be iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and
dust; from heaven it shall come down upon you until you are destroyed.
The same phenomena is re-emphasized in verses 58-63, but made even more threatening. Not only would disease plague the land, but diseases that they thought they had left behind in Egypt would once again raise their ugly heads to bring hurt and injury in their wake,
If you are not careful to do all the words of this law which are written
in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awful name, the Lord your
God, then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary
afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting.
And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt, which you were
afraid of; and they shall cleave to you. Every wickedness also, and every
affliction which is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring
upon you, until you are destroyed. Whereas you were as the stars of heaven
for multitude, you shall be left few in number; because you did jot obey the
voice of the Lord your God.
First century occurrence of such phenomena. This disaster did not limit itself to one region of the empire. Josephus speaks of “a pestilence [that] came upon those at Babylon, which occasioned new removals of men’s habitations out of that city. . . .”
It was Rome’s turn in 66 A.D. Tacitus speaks of how “a terrible plague was sweeping away all classes of human beings. . . .” It indiscriminately hit men and women, young and old, slave and free-born. Even wearers of the senatorial purple joined the poorest of the poor in unexpected death.
Natural disasters were occurring in other areas as well. Of these horrible events Suetonius wrote, “To all the disasters and abuses thus caused by the prince there were added certain accidents of fortune; a plague which in a single autumn entered thirty thousand deaths. . . .”
Just as the Old Testament spoke of pestilence accompanying the prolonged siege of a town, the same phenomena occurred during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Josephus considers this to be the fulfillment of a prophecy--not that of Jesus but, rather, of Niger of Perea, who had been killed by the zealots.
“In various places” (Matthew 24:7)
In light of this remark, no one earthquake, no one famine, and no one pestilence was intended as the sole embodiment of this prediction. Instead of a single, specific type of event, what was significant was that there would be several (or more) of the same type. Not merely in one geographic location, but scattered in [Page 83] several. As already carefully documented, this is, indeed, just what happened.
7. FRIGHTENING AND HEAVENLY PHENENOMENA (Luke 21:11c)
“And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven,” is the warning in Luke’s account. This could be read as terrors from heaven, i.e., not only impressive and awesome phenomena will occur in the heavens but some of them will be outright terror producing. Alternatively this could refer to the terror produced by the famines, earthquakes, and wars that have just been mentioned. In that approach, the heavenly signs may carry the connotation that just as the earth is being torn apart, it is as if the heavens also are undergoing turmoil and revolt
The theme of heavenly phenomena is returned to again in Luke 21:25-26 and is introduced in neither Matthew nor Luke’s accounting until the parallel point to that latter reference. The introduction of this at two different points stresses the repeated nature of what was to occur. It would not be a one time or once only phenomena but an ongoing one.
What could it refer to? One commentator reminds us, “A dreadful apparition over Jerusalem at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes is reported by 2 Maccabees 5:24 and Josephus describes heavenly portents during the siege of Jerusalem in the war with Rome (Jewish War, 6:288-300). Luke may have had some such event in mind.” Further comment on strange heavenly phenomena in this period we will reserve until Luke 21:25-26, where we will discuss the matter in more detail.
WARNING: THIS WOULD NOT BE ALL!
(Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8c)
[Page 84] What has already been pictured was grim enough. But Jesus promptly warns that it was far from over. “This is but the beginning of the sufferings” (Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8c). Jesus’ implicit strategy is to keep His listeners from being emotionally devastated by the scope of what the future held.
“Beginning of the sufferings” translates two Greek words that usually refer to literal “birthpangs.” In some cases it was also applied to a death that was accompanied by intense and wrenching pains. Both fit the context: it was the death of one age and the birth of a new.
It was to be a period of “sufferings.” What Jesus had just described would be sufficient calamity for any generation. Yet He immediately proceeds to warn them that far more is in store for that minority who remain loyal to their spiritual master. The previously pictured events, by their very nature, would affect all individuals regardless of religion; those about to be described would be targeted specifically at Christians.
The verbal picture combining the images of childbirth and suffering is rooted not only in observational reality, but in the prophets of old. The punishment of ancient Ephraim’s “iniquity” is pictured “[t]he pangs of childbirth [that have] come for him . . .” (Hosea 13:12-13). A people facing certain defeat in war is pictured as like a woman who “writhe[s] and groan[s]” because she is “in travail” (Micah 4:10). That “day of the Lord” that comes upon a people in Divine judgment produces “pangs and agony” and “anguish like a woman in travail” (Isaiah 13:6-8).
Although Luke does not record the remark, he is certainly aware that it is an accurate depiction since he proceeds to a lengthy list of additional disasters that will occur. Furthermore he has twice emphasized that the time was not at hand (verses 8, by condemnation of those who claimed it was, and verse 9, where it is made explicit). Hence he had already expressed the idea twice and may have seen no need for it to be emphasized yet again.
John J. Kilgallen, A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1988), 197.
W. R. F. Browning, The Gospel according to Saint Luke: Introduction and Commentary, in the Torch Bible Commentary series (New York: Macmillan Company, 1960), 150.
John Nolland, Luke 18:35-24:53, in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1993), 988; cf. Luke T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, in the Sacra Pagina series (Collegeville, Minnesota: A Michael Glazier Book/Liturgical Press, 1991), 320.
Eduard Schweizer, The Good News according to Luke, translated from the German by David E. Green (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1984), 313.
J. Andrew Overman, Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew, in The New Testament in Context series (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996), 329.
J. W. McGarvey, A Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Copyrighted 1875; reprint, Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, [n.d.]), 203.
[Page 86] Brunner, 842. He introduces this in the context of proving that the text can not be a post-70 invention since such incongruences would have been removed. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus ([St. Ives, England:] Penguin Press, 1993), 257, also introduces the argument in the same connection.
Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews VII.I.1. As printed in Flavius Josephus, Josephus: Complete Works, translated by William Whiston, 1737 (Reprint, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1964). All quotations from the Wars of the Jews come from this volume.
This is a preferable method of explaining the language to that of Margaret Davies, in her volume on Matthew, in the Readings: A New Biblical Commentary series (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press/Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 1993), 166, who also attempts to explain the alleged historical inaccuracy. She claims that the text “is not a depiction of what happened but a dramatic intimation of destruction.”
For the Greek grammatical argument see Morris, 596, and Augustine Stock, The Method and Message of Matthew (Collegeville, Minnesota: A Michael Glazier Book/The Liturgical Press, 1994), 362.
George T. Montague, Companion God: A Cross-Cultural Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1989), 263, and Barclay M. Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, in the “United Bible Society Handbook Series” for translators (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 732.
Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 477.
Richard B. Gardner, Matthew, in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1991), 351.
Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 319.
Philip J. King, Amos, Hosea, Micah--An Archaeological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 43. Such numbers are based upon the assumption of how large a geographic area was within the walls of the Jebusite Jerusalem that David captured. Gihon Spring, Jerusalem’s major water supply in the ancient era, was believed to have been outside the city’s walls. 1998 brought the announcement that the Jebusite walls included the spring. If later evacuations verify that these walls were not a mere isolated defense position, but part of the city walls proper, then the Jebusite city could have been twice as large as previously believed. See Abraham Rabinovich, “Canaanites Built Jerusalem Water System,” Jerusalem Post (International Edition), August 1, 1998, 32, and Abraham Rabinovich, “A Tower & Tunnel Change the View,” Jerusalem Post (International Edition), 7.
King, Amos, Hosea, Micah, 42. The fact that both estimates come from the same individual is a bit perplexing. The lower figure could be a typographical error, since it is given in numbers; while the larger figure is spelled out in words. On the other hand, it could be that he had decided that his original estimate was too high.
Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 26-52: To Build, to Plant, in the International Theological Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 6.
Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 516.
From this incident we see that officialdom was not as totally opposed to Jeremiah as is often assumed, though the amount of support may well have plummeted in the political crisis during the rule of Zedekiah. See the remarks of Douglas R. Jones, Jeremiah, in the New Century Bible Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 343.
Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 185.
F. B. Huey, Jr., Jeremiah-Lamentations, volume 16 in the New American Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1993), 238. On why these “elders” would have been in Jerusalem and why their opinion would have been a valued one, see William L. Holladay, Jeremiah: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26-52, edited by Paul D. Hanson, in the series Hermeneia--a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 107-108.
[Page 89] Charles L. Feinberg is explicit (185). Andrew W. Blackwood, Jr., Commentary on Jeremiah: The Word, the Words and the World (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1977), 196, clearly leans in that direction.
A possibility raised by Blackwood, 196.
J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, in the series The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 527.
See John Bright, Jeremiah, in the Anchor Bible series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 168.
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX:8:6. As printed in Flavius Josephus, Josephus: Complete Works, translated by William Whiston, 1737 (Reprint, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1964). All quotations from the Antiquities of the Jews come from this volume.
For the Christian false claimant interpretation see Saldarini, 53. It is argued at length by Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 336.
Smith, 283. Cf the theory of them being Christ’s special representative: Brunner, 845.
[Page 90] H. L. Ellison, “Matthew,” in F. F. Bruce, et. al., editors, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), 167. For other examples, see Geldenhuys, 530, and Plummer, 478.
J. W. McGarvey, and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel or a Harmony of the Four Gospels (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, [n.d.]), 621.
R. C. Foster, The Final Week (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House; 1962; second printing, 1966), 134.
Cf. John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, in The American Commentary series (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 483.
Adela Y. Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1992), 81, denies that Christians are the targets of their rhetoric.
Melancthon W. Jacobus, Notes on the Gospels, Critical and Explanatory: Matthew and Mark (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1848; 1872 printing), 240.
MacArthur, Jr., 19.
Schweizer, Luke, 314, points to how conflicts short of war were far more common than war itself.
[Page 91] Luke T. Johnson, 320, finds a possible reference to “the turbulence of the imperial court after Nero,” which would lead to this type of concept. On the other hand, his acceptance of the term “revolution” as describing what was happening would seem to more naturally point to the civil wars.
For an overview of the Roman conquest and rule in Britain see Peter H. Blair, Roman Britain and Early England, 558 B.C.-A.D. 871 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, inc., 1963), 36ff, and Sheppard Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain (Cambridge, Massachusetts.: Harvard University Press, 1967). For a much older treatment see J. A. Giles, History of the Ancient Britons, Volume One (London: George Ball Printer, 1847).
Cornelius P. Tacitus, Histories IV:1, as found in Cornelius P. Tacitus, The Annals and the Histories, translated by Alfred J. Church and William J. Bradribb, volume 15 of The Great Books of the Western World ([N.p.]: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952). Unless otherwise noted all citations from the Histories come from this volume.
Histories I:2. He goes on at considerable length, just providing a concise summary of the disasters Rome endured.
Histories III:49 254.
Alford, New Testament for English Readers, 164.
Herman Olshausen, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament, translated by A. C. Kendrick, First American Edition, Volume Two (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman & Company, 1858), 2:232.
See Eusebius’ account in his The Ecclesiastical History, Volume One, translated by Kirsopp Lake, in The Loeb Classical Library series (New York: G. P. Putnams Sons, MCMXXVI), II:8.
”Famine,” The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Henry S. Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, MCMLXX), 294.
Don and Patricia Brothwell, Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), 177.
R. G. Collingwood and J. W. L. Myres. Roman Britain and the English Settlements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936; reprint, 1945), 103.
Charles Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, Fourth Edition (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 449.
[Page 94] Cornelius P. Tacitus, The Annals, XX:43, as found in Cornelius P. Tacitus, The Annals and the Histories, translated by Alfred J. Church and William J. Bradribb, volume 15 of The Great Books of the Western World ([N.p.]: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952). Unless otherwise noted, all citations from both the Annals come from this volume.
Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars V:18, as found in Suetonius, Volume Two, translated by J. C. Rolfe ([N.p.]: G. P. Putnam Sons, MCMXX). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Suetonius come from this source.
Antiquities XX:2, 5.
Wars V:10:3. On famine in Palestine also see Myers, Strong Man, 104, and Johnnie C. Godwin, Mark, in the Laymans Bible Book Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1979), 104.
Mary A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1989), 261.
On these quakes see Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, volume 1, Fifth Edition (London: Revingtons, 1863), 236.
Annals XII:43. Cf. the description of the quake by Charles Merivale, 448-449.
Godwin, 104; Alan Menzies, The Earliest Gospel: A Historical study of the Gospel according to Mark (London: Macmillan and Company, Limited, 1901), 234.
S. Kraus, “Earthquake,” The Jewish Encyclopedia ([N.p.]: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., [n.d.]), V:28.
L. E. Toombs, “Earthquake,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George A. Buttnick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962) 2:4.
Alford, Greek Testament, 236, refers to the dating of it in “about November A.D. 67.”
Luke T. Johnson, 320.
Powell, 186, Stock, 364, Hugh Anderson, The Gospel of Mark, in the New Century Bible series (Greenwood, South Carolina: Attic Press, Inc., 1976, 292-293, and Ivor Powell, Matthew’s Majestic Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1986), 429.
“The death rattle,” Brunner, 849.