Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Francesco Hayez
Trudy Pert suggests that the crisis of modern Christianity deepened when mid-nineteenth century Protestant theologians embraced the higher criticism. Especially in Germany, the traditional devotional approach to the Bible was replaced by the “objective” techniques of historical and literary criticism. As a consequence, educated Christians turned their attention away from the “supernatural Christ” to the “historical Jesus.” A new sort of Kulturprotestantismus, or cultural Christianity, was born: Jesus Christ became a teacher of ethics rather than the incarnation of the divine. The crisis was real enough; it reflects a continuing failure by Christians to recognize the pivotal moment when the “supernatural Christ” burst back into human history to avenge both the crucifixion of the “historical Jesus” and the persecution of his faithful followers during their forty year mission to the ends of the earth.
In AD 70, Roman armies under Titus besieged Jerusalem to crush a long-running Jewish rebellion. Their triumph was a bloody affair; not only was the city sacked and pillaged but, according to the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, the dead, most of whom “were pure and holy” Jews, numbered over one million.[i] The Romans also systematically destroyed the massive Temple complex. In doing so, they ripped out the redemptive heart of Old Israel. The massive Temple complex was the hub around which revolved the ritual observance of the Mosaic Law underlying Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. For Jews and Romans, alike, the destruction of the Temple was an act of world-historical significance. But the meaning of that cataclysmic event was not confined to the realm of secular history.
Divine providence played a leading role in the fall of Jerusalem. Certainly, the disaster that befell the Jews came as no surprise to first century Christians. Forty years earlier, standing outside the Temple with his disciples, Christ had foreseen that “not one stone here will be left on another” when he came again at the “end of the age. The Day of the Lord’s return was not to occur in some far distant future, perhaps thousands of years later. Christ assured the crowds who heard him that “this generation will certainly not pass away until these things have happened.”(Matthew 24:2-3, 34) In the period between the advent of Christ and his return in AD 70, one of the most important things to happen to Old Israel was the profound transformation in what it meant to be a Jew.
During Christ’s ministry it was already becoming clear that the only truly righteous Jews, the saving remnant of Israel, were those faithful to the risen Christ. On the eve of the destruction of the Temple, Christ tells John of Patmos that those “who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars” are in reality the “synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 3:9) As E. Michael Jones observes, the “Jews” who rejected Christ effectively redefined themselves; they transformed Judaism into a false religion in which carnal Israel became its own Messiah.[ii]
Prior to the Vatican II Council in the Sixties, Roman Catholic tradition held that God was through with Israel at the Cross and “that Jews were collectively cursed for all time because of the crucifixion.” The crucifixion, therefore, was seen as the central event in the redemptive history of mankind. The problem with this interpretation is that the Mosaic Law remained in force until the destruction of the Temple. Jewish Christians were still circumcised in the flesh as well as in the heart. Indeed, Christ had made it clear that not one jot or one tittle of the Law would be disturbed until the end of the age when all of God’s promises to Israel were to have been fulfilled (Matthew 5:18). The preordained end of Old Israel came when God used the Roman armies to demolish the Temple; only then did the Law cease to bind the New Israel. It was at that historical moment—not in our still distant future—that Christ came again in the glory of the Father. This was the parousia (the Second Coming in modern parlance) prophesied by the inspired writers of the New Testament.
The Last Judgement
It was at the parousia that Christ rendered his final judgement on Old Israel. It was then that the Lord avenged, fully and completely, the Jewish crime of deicide and the subsequent persecution of the early church. The end of the Old Covenant left the widely-scattered Jewish diaspora high and dry. Those who refused to accept the New Covenant were compelled to re-invent Judaism as a highly particularistic ethno-religion younger than and set in opposition to Christianity.
The Talmud became “the defining document” of those who insisted that the advent of Christ had changed nothing and that the Old Covenant remained valid. Two versions of those rabbinical writings developed over several centuries; the one reached its final form in fifth century Palestine, the other was completed in Babylon in the seventh century AD. Modern Judaism, whether it flatly rejects the Messiah or seeks instead to reclaim a merely mortal, “kosher Jesus,” remains in a permanent state of denial, refusing to accept that God was finished with Old Israel in AD 70. For Christians, of course, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple marked the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. After the demolition of the Temple, the gospel found a new spiritual home in the Christian nations which became the true, spiritual, seed of Abraham.
In fact, the destruction of the Temple was the consummation of the historical/redemptive process that began with the advent of Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection and was continued by the apostles after down to the end of the Old Covenant age in AD 70. These were the last days (Greek: eschaton) of the Jewish age foreseen by the Old Testament prophets; they marked the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Salvation was indeed from the Jews (John 4:22) but those who rejected Jesus the Christ were no longer the faithful seed of Abraham; instead, Christ declared, they belonged to their “father, the devil.” Not surprisingly, therefore, they carried out their father’s desire by killing Jesus (John 8:44). But the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ or even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) did not in themselves secure the final victory of Christ over the synagogue of Satan.
Only in AD 70 when the gospel of the kingdom had been preached to the whole world (Greek: oikumene)did the time and the season become ripe for the fateful intersection of secular and redemptive history which inaugurated the Christian age. In the New Jerusalem that arose out of the ashes of the Old, the leaves of the tree of life were for the healing of all nations not just carnal Israel. Anchored in the hearts of Christ’s faithful followers, the early church (ie the spiritual Body of Christ) burst into history as a temple not made with hands.
Unfortunately, few Christian theologians now attach more than a merely “local” importance to the first-century destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Jews, of course, continue to deny the apocalyptic significance and divine provenance of what can be called the First Holocaust. Any suggestion that the Roman armies which laid waste to Jerusalem were the providential instrument of divine vengeance designed to punish the Jews for the crime of deicide is automatically labelled anti-Semitic.
Most liberal Protestants and post-Vatican II Catholics hew to the philo-Semitic party line, denouncing “the doctrine of supersession” for teaching (falsely they say) that Jews have been rightly punished for the sin of rejecting their Messiah. Theology texts routinely decry the examples of “this teaching and its terrible consequences” that “can be found in all periods of church history.”[iii] Most Christians prefer to shut their eyes to the theological meaning of the terrible events of AD 70.
Progressive theologians, in particular, dare not acknowledge that the destruction of the Temple amounted to a decisive victory of the early church over the synagogue of Satan—the historical moment when Yahweh’s Old Covenant with ethnic Israel was superseded by the New Covenant creation of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. Ignoring the fiery holocaust which consumed the Temple, mainline Protestant intellectuals piously affirm the allegedly “deep and inseparable relationship of Israel and the church.”[iv] This postmodern, “Judeo-Christian” ideology finds little support either in the Bible or in the writings of the early church fathers.
Preterism versus Futurism
For much of the postwar era, the ruling liberal consensus successfully relegated the events of AD 70 to the status of a historical footnote. In recent years, however, a Bible studies movement known as “preterism” (from the Latin, preter meaning “past”) has presented a serious challenge to academic orthodoxy. For preterists, the cataclysmic collapse of ancient Judaism in AD 70 was the preordained fulfilment of biblical prophecies promising the creation of a new heaven and new earth. In particular, they interpret the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the disaster that was to befall Old Jerusalem in the then very near future. Revelation thus brings to a close the biblical story of the old heaven and the old earth which began with the creation of the cosmic temple in the Book of Genesis. AD 70 marks the end of the transition from the Old to the New Covenant, the moment when the Kingdom of Christ overturns, once and for all, the racially exclusive Law of Moses by opening its doors not just to Jews but to all nations.[v]
Because preterists consign Old Covenant Israel to the dustbin of history, their “fulfilled eschatology” has been denounced as heretical, especially by evangelical Protestants and Christian Zionists who cling to an apocalyptic vision of the end times associated with a still future Second Coming of Christ. Pre-millenial dispensationalists interpret the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 as a sign that the Christian age will end with the imminent return of Jesus to rule from a physical throne in a rebuilt Temple in Old Jerusalem. Preterists, on the other hand, flatly deny that the Jews are still God’s chosen people. Not only does modern Israel not possess a divinely-ordained title to Palestine, but the Kingdom of God established in AD 70 has no end.
The Bible, therefore, is the story of how the Kingdom was born into a world without end as well as a warrant authorizing the church to extend its spiritual dominion over all the nations of the earth. But the world will not end tomorrow or even in the next century. In fact, it is likely to endure for millions more years; there is, therefore, no urgent need to establish the universal dominion of the Kingdom any time soon. Indeed, that goal is now utterly beyond reach, given the weakened condition of modern Christianity. The spiritual enfeeblement of Christendom is in large part the consequence of the futurist eschatology that most Christians now profess. Western Christians look to the church mainly for an assurance of personal salvation in a hopelessly sinful and unrepentant world.
Churches have become private, voluntary associations; the Old Faith has been pushed out of the public square and religious experience is confined to the private, inner life of individuals. The Bible, accordingly, has ceased to be the sacred charter of an ecclesiastical authority presiding over a way of life, a communion, and faith practiced in public and in private by all manner of men and women. For mainline Protestants, the Bible is merely the man-made medium through which we hear human witnesses to the Word of God, the otherwise inaccessible divine Logos incarnate in Jesus Christ. Liberal theology no longer views the Bible as a warrant to baptize all the nations so as to expand the spiritual dominion of Christendom to the ends of the earth. Those who look to Christ’s Second Coming sometime in our future are unable to make coherent sense out of either Genesis or the Book of Revelation which deal, respectively, with the beginning and the end of Old Israel. Nor can they account for the time-texts elsewhere in the New Testament suggesting that Christ would return on a cloud of glory before the present generation of those listening to him had passed away.
In recent decades, the preterist tradition has helped Christians to rediscover the full meaning of the Word of God. Clearly, if the eschatological prophecies concerning the last days of Israel and the coming of the Kingdom were fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, Christians must think more deeply about the future. For preterists, the Kingdom of God is a presently existing reality in a world without end. Within the preterist tradition, therefore, the Bible is recovering its former status as the foundation charter of the new covenant creation, not as a fossilized text, but as the seedbed for the renewed spiritual dominion of Christendom.
The dominion theology implicit in preterism not only provides a warrant for the eventual conversion of the Jews; it mandates “nothing less than the complete conversion of our planet through the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The restoration of Christendom cannot be limited to the quest for mere personal salvation or a quick religious “fix” for depressed and downtrodden individuals. It offers healing to the nations. For almost two thousand years, those who call themselves Jews have resisted and denied the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Of all peoples, therefore, Jews have the greatest need for the healing power of his saving grace.
Needless to say, contemporary Jews condemn campaigns to convert them as an intolerable recrudescence of Christian anti-Semitism. In an effort to ward off such accusations from Jews and the inevitable charges of heresy coming from their fellow Christians, some preterist writers seek support for their interpretations of the events of AD 70, not just in the Bible, but in the writings of the early church fathers.[vi] The remainder of this essay assesses whether patristic writings do lend weight to the preterist tradition. We will seek answers to four questions that arise out of preterist interpretations of the fall of Jerusalem.
[v] Timothy P Martin & Jeffrey L Vaughn, Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation (Whitehall, MT: Apocalyptic Vision Press, 2007). For a comprehensive introduction to preterism, see almost any of the books authored by Don K Preston, eg Like Father, Like Son: On Clouds of Glory (Ardmore, OK: JaDon Management, 2010.
[vi] See, eg Gary DeMar and Francis X Gumerlock, The Early Church and the End of the World (Powder Springs,GA: American Vision, 2006).