Was the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple an Act of Divine Vengeance?
At least one mainstream scholar, GWH Lampe, acknowledges that the belief “that the fall of Jerusalem avenged Christ’s death became a commonplace of later Christian apologetic.” Most famously, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) declared that “the Jews who slew Him, and would not believe in Him…were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom” to be “dispersed through the lands” as “a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” Augustine specifically rejects the notion that an “inseparable relationship” exists between Old Israel and the Christian church: “those Israelites who persist in being His enemies…shall forever remain in the separation which is here foretold.”
The church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (263–339 AD) was of a like mind; he thought it fitting that three million Jews thronged into Jersusalem, “as if to a prison” to “receive the destruction meted out by divine justice.” He related some of the horrors of that tragedy “so that readers may learn how quickly God’s punishment followed their crime against Christ.” Moreover, Eusebius, attributed to Josephus the belief that these “things happened to the Jews as retribution for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus who was called Christ, for the Jews killed him despite his great righteousness.” Justin Martyr (100–165 AD) agreed that it was right and just that Jerusalem was destroyed for the Jews “killed the Righteous One and his prophets before him.” Origen and Tertullian also shared that view. Melito of Sardis (died ca 180 AD) gave a compelling poetic expression to the view that the Jews had received their just deserts when “the Lord thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave voice”to his vengeful wrath against Old Israel by dashing the Temple to the ground.
Perhaps out of concern “that the sentiments” he reports might “be taken as they stand as a record of a present-day Christian’s views,” Lampe downplays the impact of the Temple’s destruction upon early Christian communities. He points out that “the literature of the Christian movement contains relatively few allusions to the fall of Jerusalem.” At the same time, however, Lampe implies that such retrospective uninterest followed from the fact that well before AD 70 Christians had come to regard the eventual destruction of the Temple “as a foregone conclusion.” For Christians in the Gentile world, “as indeed for Jewish Christians as well, the decisive event which vindicated Jesus as the Christ…was not the destruction of his enemies but his resurrection from the dead and his exaltation to God’s right hand.” Paul’s teaching had already established the congregation of the Christian people as the holy temple of God. The Jerusalem Temple was replaced “by a spiritual or heavenly temple ‘not made with hands.’” After the turn of the first century, the events of the year 70 were soon viewed “as a prelude to the even more final and crushing judgement of God executed in 135 AD against the revolutionaries who waged a Second Jewish War against Rome. After that tumultuous series of events, the emphasis of the early church necessarily turned away from the Jewish Question to the more pressing problems associated with the social construction of the new people of God.
In the altered circumstances of the second century, the meaning of AD 70 had more to do with defining the unique character of the Christian people than with divine vengeance on rebellious Jews.
Did the destruction of the Temple inaugurate a New Covenant Creation?
On the dubious assumption that the gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, Lampe believes that New Testament prophecies of the doom of the Temple were most likely vaticinia post eventum (ie a passage in the form of a prediction of an event already in the author’s past). But he does concede that within three or four decades after AD 70 “the separation of the Jewish Christians from Judaism became complete.” Indeed, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas(ca 100 AD) casts doubt on the idea that God ever made a binding covenant with Old Israel. According to this document, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ annulled the Law of Moses “that the new law…being free from the yoke of constraint, might have its oblation not made by human hands.” God had offered a covenant to the people of Old Israel “but they themselves were not found worthy to receive it by reason of their sins.” The new “spiritual temple built up to the Lord” required a new people. “Before we believed on God,” the old temple “built by hands…was full of idolatry and was a house of demons.” Because the people of Israel were terminally corrupt and weak, their worldly Temple “was pulled down by their enemies.” Tertullian was yet another patristic writer holding that the destruction of the Temple was the fulfilment of biblical prophesies of a new spiritual Israel. But Eusebius of Caesarea provided the most comprehensive account of how the fall ofJerusalem signalled the supersession of the Old Covenant by Christ’s New Covenant creation.
In his Proof of the Gospels, Eusebius demonstrated that the Mosaic covenant was destined from its inception to be superseded by a new covenant that “could be applicable to all nations and to men in the uttermost parts of the earth.” Because the Mosaic Law prescribed a particular place inaccessible to anyone living far away from Judea as the venue for the ritual worship of God, it can only be “applicable to the Jews, but not to all of them, and certainly not to the dispersed (among the Gentiles), only in fact to the inhabitants of Palestine.” The “ideal of the new covenant” was intended to “be helpful to the life of all nations.” Eusebius contends that Moses expected the Jews “to receive the new covenant announced by Christ.” Those who refused fell under Moses’ curse. In “due course Christ sojourned in this life, and the teaching of the new covenant was borne to all nations, and at once the Romans besieged Jerusalem, and destroyed it and the Temple there.” At that moment, according to Eusebius, “the whole of the Mosaic Law was abolished, with all that remained of the old covenant, and the curse passed over to the lawbreakers, because they obeyed Moses’ law when its time had gone by.”
It is clear for Eusebius that “the Advent of Christ and the call of the Gentiles would be accompanied by the total collapse and ruin of the whole Jewish race.” Gentiles to the farthest end of the earth would become a new people living under a new covenant. But yet another issue arises out of the biblical prophecies discussed by Eusebius:
Did Christ come on ‘clouds of heaven’—the Parousia—to oversee the destruction of the Temple?
In his Church History, Eusebius tells the story of how James, the brother of Jesus, died at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. He quotes from an account of James’ interrogation written by Hegessipus in which James is reported to have said that the Son of Man “is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of heaven.” Such language immediately calls to mind New Testament assurances (e.g., Revelation 22:7) that the time of Christ’s Second Coming was near. In his Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius suggests that the coming of Christ had occurred before his own time at the fall of theTemple. It must be noted, however, that Eusebius treats the entire period from the advent of Christ to the destruction of theTemple in AD 70 as a single unified episode identified as the “coming.”
Indeed, Eusebius links the coming of Christ with a much wider process of world-historical “synchronization” in which the entire world of classical antiquity was unified under Roman rule. The creation of the Roman Empire extending to the ends of the earth was the essential historical precondition for the call to all the Gentile nations of the oikumene. It was not by “human accident that the greater part of the nations of the world” were gathered together in one empire just as God arranged “the beginning of teaching about our Saviour.” The rulers of the Jewish people were destined “to be shaken by the Descent of the Lord from heaven.” The “Descent of the Word” is related to “the impiety of the Jews and the destruction falling upon them.” Whether Eusebius believed in another as yet future parousia is unclear since he refers to such an event in another context not obviously related to the fall of Jerusalem. But he certainly associates the sufferings of the Jews during the siege with “the days of the Lord.” He cites a prophecy that the Lord will stand in that day on the Mount of Olives which he takes to be a reference to the church “established by God after the fall of Jerusalem.” After “the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ” the city of the Jews, “Jerusalem itself and the whole system and institutions of the Mosaic worship were destroyed.”
It seems clear, therefore, that Eusebius connects “fire and chariots with the coming of Christ at the siege of Jerusalem.” There remains another question, however; namely:
Did some or all of the patristic writers embrace the full preterist belief in fulfilled eschatology?
There was no consensus among the patristic writers on eschatological issues. Very early on, Barnabas advanced a putatively precise, futurist vision of the millennium, declaring “that in six thousand years [beginning with the Genesis creation story] the Lord shall bring all things to an end.” Other prominent patristic writers also declined to associate the fall of Jerusalem with the Second Coming of Christ. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr were among those who favoured a futurist eschatology. On the other hand, Eusebius gives his readers the strong impression that the biblical hope of Israel was fulfilled completely in the forty years from the passion of Christ to the final doom of the Jerusalem Temple. It was only after “the period of the Romans, in whose time the Jewish Temple was burnt for the second time” that the Lord became “King of all the earth;” it was then that “His Name encircle[d] the whole earth and the wilderness.” We must agree, Eusebius concluded, “that the King who was prophesied, the Christ of God, has come, since the signs of His coming have been…clearly fulfilled.”
Using the patristic writers as a benchmark of Christian orthodoxy, it is difficult to sustain the charge that contemporary preterism is heretical. To the extent that both the patristic writers and preterism lend support to supersessionism, it is those who deny the complete theological separation of Christianity from the revolutionary Jews who reject Christ who have departed from Christian orthodoxy. Remarkably enough, no shame attaches to this contemporary brand of heresy. On the contrary, anti-supersessionists such as R. Kendall Soulen freely acknowledge that “the standard canonical narrative” established by patristic writers such as Justin and Irenaeus “makes it appear self-evident that the true Israel of God is a spiritual rather than a carnal community.”
Soulen argues that, precisely because “supersessionism has shaped the narrative and doctrinal structure of classical Christian theology in fundamental and systematic ways,” it has become necessary to reevaluate “the whole body of classical Christian divinity.” As might be expected, however, Soulen simply ignores the events of AD 70. Only by scrubbing the historical record clean of the burning of the Temple and its utter desolation can contemporary Christians be persuaded to embrace “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9) as the eternally blameless victim of tyranny and oppression at the hands of the Church down through the ages. For far too long now, Anglo-Saxon Protestants have dismissed the teachings of the patristic writers on the Jewish Question as an expression of unthinking prejudice. It is now well past time to rethink the apocalyptic meaning of the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. Neither the First nor the Second Holocaust (of the Second World War) should be closed off any longer to historical investigation and theological reflection simply “for fear of the Jews” (John 7:13).
Andrew Fraser is a former law teacher and the author of The WASP Question: An Essay on the Biocultural Evolution, Present Predicament, and Future Prospects of the Invisible Race (Arktos Media, 2011)
 GWH Lampe, “AD 70 in Christian Reflection,” in Ernst Bammel and CFD Moule, Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 169.