The Olivet Discourse—a lengthy discourse that Jesus presented to His disciples on the Mount of Olives—is occasioned by a conversation between Jesus and His disciples at the Jewish Temple.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2, all Scripture quotations from New International Version unless stated otherwise)
Jesus’ statement has been generally understood as a prediction of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70 (Tasker, 223). That destruction was the climax of the first Jewish-Roman War, which lasted from about AD 66 to 73. Almost all of the detailed information about that war comes from the works of Josephus (Josephus, 615-771 and Goldberg website). He may not always be a reliable source, especially of analysis of motives, since he was intimately involved in events himself. He was a Jew who fought against the Romans until he was captured and began to act as an ambassador to the Jews who tried to persuade them to surrender. Nevertheless, he described the war in great detail, and he probably mostly told a true story.
In this article, I shall briefly describe the war. I shall limit interpretative comments. This article will be an important resource later when I discuss the arguments of Preterism.
Several groups and individuals in Judea agitated each other to the degree that war became inevitable. Florus was the procurator at Jerusalem. Josephus depicts him as a very dishonorable man. For example, when he had been appealed to by moderate leaders of the Jews, his response was to send his Roman troops into a section of the city to kill and loot—3600 were killed. Later, he laid a trap for a group of moderate Jews. They went out to conciliate a group of soldiers. But a few radicals hurled insults. Florus had given the word that the Romans were to attack when that occurred, so many were killed.
Judea was also the home of radical Jews who were pushing for war against the Romans. They also were constantly fighting moderate leaders who sought accommodation with the Romans. Moreover, the radicals were not unified and did not hesitate to attack other radicals.
In addition, in the coastal city of Caesarea, non-Jewish elements (“Greeks”) gained control and harassed the Jews. These conflicts between Jews and non-Jews were intensifying throughout Galilee and into Syria and elsewhere. For example, 50,000 Jews were killed in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Greeks in Caesarea precipitated a crisis by surrounding the synagogue with buildings so that entrance was difficult. One of them sacrificed birds on an upside down pot near the synagogue entrance. This outraged the Jews on two counts: it was a pagan sacrifice near their worship space, and it was similar to the Hebrew ritual cleansing of leprosy—implying that the Jews were a leprous people. Later, 20,000 Jews were killed at Caesarea. This sort of friction added to the push for rebellion by the radicals.
In August of 66, a group of radicals overthrew the Roman garrison at Masada, a fort perched on a high plateau near the Dead Sea. About the same time, Eleazar, one of the radicals who had authority in the Temple, forced the priests to cease making sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor (Nero). This insult demonstrated the determination of the radicals to break with Rome.
In the days and weeks following, the radicals fought with the moderates. Eventually, they took over most of the city and burned the high priest’s house. They also burned the records office that contained records of debts—in hopes of attracting the poor to their cause. About this time, Menahem (also spelled Manahem) arrived with a following. They were armed with Roman arms they had collected at Masada. Menahem tried to force his way into the leadership at Jerusalem and to be declared a king. However, he was eventually killed.
Since Florus was unwilling or incapable of controlling the situation, Cestius, the Roman official in Syria, invaded Galilee and Judea with an army of 18,000. This was in mid-October, 66. He invaded the city, setting part of it on fire. He made an attempt to attack the Temple, where many of the radicals were stationed, but was unsuccessful. Although he probably had a good chance of taking the city if he had stayed with the task, he withdrew his army. As he was retreating, he was attacked by Jews, who killed about 6,000 Romans.
Cestius’ failure was a turning point. Josephus believed it was ordained by God (or by the gods, depending on his audience) so that things would turn out as they did, to the advancement of Vespasian. Whiston, the translator of Josephus, has another interpretation. He believes that the arrival of Cestius and the Roman legions with their pagan ensigns was the “Abomination of Desolation” of Matthew 24:15 that would signal to the Christians to flee Jerusalem and head for the mountains. In addition to these speculations, one definite interpretation was that of Nero: he was not pleased. Because of this, he decided in January of 67 to send Vespasian to put down the Jewish revolt.
Vespasian’s campaign (along with his son Titus) began in Galilee. This first effort took most of 67. During that campaign, they captured a Jewish officer by the name of Josephus. He had been appointed one of the regional governors/generals by the radicals at Jerusalem. Later, Josephus would serve as a messenger to the Jews in Jerusalem to try to persuade them to surrender. Eventually, he was freed and even adopted into Vespasian’s family. This was partly because he had early on predicted that Vespasian would become emperor.
In 68 and 69, the invasion spread from Galilee into Judea. When Nero died, the effort began to lag for a while. In the year following Nero’s death, four different men were briefly emperor. Then, Vespasian began to gain support throughout the eastern empire. His army finally defeated Vitellius’ army in Italy, and Vespasian was the last man standing, now the leader of the vast Roman Empire. At the time he and Titus were in Alexandria, Egypt. Vespasian proceeded to Rome, and Titus led troops back to Judea to complete the job there. It was December, 69.
In the meantime, the radicals of Jerusalem split into three factions who fought bitterly with one another. They would continue fighting until the walls of Jerusalem were about to fall down and necessity would unite them against the Romans.
By May 1, 70, four Roman legions (about 5,500 men each) were encamped near Jerusalem. By May 25, they had broken through the “third wall” on the northwest and three legions were encamped within the suburbs of Jerusalem. A fourth legion was to the east on Mount Olives. By June 4, they had broken down the “second wall” on the north. They were in a section of the city directly west of the Temple.
(The Temple complex included a very large set of courtyards, apartments, and other buildings as well as the Temple itself.)
Part of the Roman strategy was to terrorize the residents in hopes that they would surrender. One way they did this was to crucify Jews that they captured. During part of their siege they were crucifying 500 people a day. This only intensified Jewish determination.
The Romans erected siege works at various points, not always with good outcomes. Jews managed to undermine one and set fire to the supporting timbers. This resulted in many Roman deaths. The Romans responded by building an earthen ridge that surrounded the whole city. This confined city residents who tried to slip out and forage for food. Many were captured. Others were simply trying to slip out of the city for good. Some of these had swallowed gold coins as a way of “taking it with them.” Romans slit many of them open searching for gold.
One important target of the Romans was the Fortress Antonia, a tower on the northwest corner of the grounds of the Temple. By July 24, the Antonia wall had been broken down, but another had been built behind it. Eventually, the Romans scaled that wall and drove the Jews deep into the Temple complex. As things grew more desperate, the radicals ordered the daily sacrifices to cease on August 5, 70.
Titus now focused on the western wall of the outer Temple court. On August 27, he tried to scale it, but had little success. So, he ordered its gates burned. However, in a council of war the next day, he gave orders to preserve the Temple itself. The next day, August 29, there was a pitched battle in the vast courtyard. The Jews were forced back into the Temple. At the same time, throughout the area, fires were burning. A Roman grabbed a firebrand and threw it into the chambers that bordered the Temple along the north side. Now the Temple itself was in danger of being burned. Titus managed to get into the Temple and see its magnificence. He ordered the fire extinguished. However, a soldier took a brand and set fire to the interior. The Temple was lost, August 29, 70.
Josephus relates two horrors of this time. He tells of a group of desperate men who entered a woman’s residence. They smelled something cooking and demanded she give them her food. She then presented to them her half-eaten baby. The men left in shock. This story spread throughout the city and through the Roman army. Josephus also tells of a “false prophet,” ironically named Jesus, who urged many people to go to the Temple mount where they would be saved. These people ended up in chambers along the west side of the area. The chambers were put to the torch and 6,000, mostly women and children, died.
As the Temple was burning and the Jews were definitely routed in that area, the jubilant Romans brought their ensigns, with eagles and signs of their particular legions into the area and sacrificed to them. The Roman soldiers were said to honor their ensigns above all other gods.
The Roman army continued its conquest. By September 26, the entire city was in Roman hands and much of it was on fire. Eventually the walls as well as the Temple were totally destroyed. A few towers were left standing. About 1,000,000 Jews had died, and 97,000 had been taken prisoner. Many had been sold into slavery. Romans looted a great deal of gold. It was said that they were carrying so much gold that the price of gold was cut in half in the area.
After the collapse of Jerusalem, there was some mopping up action. The final chapter of the First Jewish War (from the Roman standpoint) was Masada. It had remained in Jewish hands and had been a base of operations. The Romans finally attacked in 73. The Jews carried out a suicide pact, so when the Romans broke through, they found all of them dead except two women and four children. Thus ended the attempt of the Jewish radicals to throw off the Roman yoke.
One more comment from Josephus needs to be included. Josephus tells of a set of “signs” or omens that he believes were warnings of the terrible destruction that was to come. The following is a list of those signs (He is vague as to when these occurred, but he implies they took place a few years before the conflict.):
a. A star resembling a sword stood over the city
b. A comet that stood for a year
c. During the feast of unleavened bread, one night, a bright light shone around the altar and Temple for ½ hour
d. A heifer gave birth just before it was sacrificed in the Temple
e. The eastern gate of the inner court (extremely heavy—it normally took 20 men to swing it) opened on its own
f. Chariots and troops of soldiers were seen in the sky
g. Priests heard voices from the Temple saying, “Let us remove hence.”
h. A prophet named Jesus cried out: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house…a voice against this whole people!”
This account from Josephus—along with other features of this war—requires extensive discussion, because they relate directly to the Preterist interpretation. I shall delay making my comments until I have completed analysis of Matthew 24 and 25.
Goldberg, G. J. A Chronology of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome according to Josephus.
Tasker, R. V. G. The Gospel According to Matthew. Vol. 1 of Tyndale New Testament
Commentaries. General Ed. R. V. G. Tasker, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ.
Whiston, William, trans. The Works of Josephus, by Flavius Josephus. N. p.: Hendrickson
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