as a signal
or June (close to Temple)
or Late August in Temple
event that has
Flight to the
? Unknown except
Christians’ flight to
Persons are alarmed by this event and flee to the mountains
Siege and destruction
Destruction: late August-
There follows a protracted period of terrible trouble.
Monday, December 24, 2012
MATTHEW 24-25, PART 5
MERRY CHRISTMAS! FOR UNTO US HAS BEEN BORN A SAVIOR, WHO IS CHRIST THE LORD!
In recent articles, I have described the interpretations of Matthew 24:4-14 by Preterists (represented by J. S. Russell) and Dispensationalists (represented by J. Dwight Pentecost). I shall now do similar analyses of Matthew 24:15-22. In this article, I shall present and respond to the views of Russell on this passage.
THE PRETERIST INTERPRETATION OF
Russell is critical of the interpreters of his day who tried to extract “double meaning” from the Olivet Discourse. So, when he comments on this passage, he emphasizes there is not a transition from, but“continuity” with the previous material in verse 15 (Russell, page 62). He also stresses that verses 15-22 have a
strict and exclusive reference to Jerusalem and Judea. Here we can detect no trace of double meaning, of primary and ulterior fulfilments [sic]…Everything is national, local, and near: ‘the land’ is the land of Judea,--‘this people’ is the people of Israel,--and the ‘time’ is the lifetime of the disciples,--‘When YE therefore shall see.’ [original emphasis and British usage] (Russell, page 72-73)
These comments are typical of the Preterist position. The whole thesis of that understanding is that Jesus’ Discourse was a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the end of the Jewish religion as a judgment on that nation for its rejection of Christ.
Verse 15 includes the phrase “the abomination of desolation” (Greek: tes bdelugma tes eremoseos, “the detestable thing which makes desolate”). Russell’s comment on this phrase is surprisingly brief. He concurs with others that this expression referred to the standards of the Roman Legions, which included eagles. The soldiers worshiped these as idols. Russell refers to a previous instance when Jewish authorities objected to Roman legions carrying their standards through Judea. “How much greater the profanation when these idolatrous emblems were displayed in full view of the temple and the Holy City!” (Russell, page 73) This, he says, “was to be the signal to all Judea to escape beyond the mountains [verse 16]…for then would ensue a period of misery and horror…” (Russell, page 73)
Russell then interprets the “great tribulation” [his usage] of verse 21 to be the “dreadful calamities attending the siege of Jerusalem…” (Russell, page 73) He then focuses on the story of the mother who ate her baby as an example of those calamities. He stresses Jesus’ words in verse 21 “no nor ever shall be” that Jesus was speaking of the historical fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem and not “any subsequent events at the end of time.” That is, he would take it that “nor ever shall be” would imply a future history of humankind after the “great tribulation.”
I believe that I have represented Russell’s commentary on this section of Scripture (Matthew 24:15-22) fairly. The reader might be a little surprised, because it seems so brief. In fact, his entire commentary covers pages 72-74 in his book. So, yes, it is surprising that such a key passage would be given so little attention.
Russell draws four conclusions from these verses.
1. That the wording of verses 16-20 is good evidence that the passage refers to events in Judea in the first century.
2. That the “abomination of desolation” is the presence of the standards of the Roman legions. These were idols and would desecrate the city and the Temple.
3. That the presence of these standards was the signal for the Jews to escape from Judea to the mountains “for then would ensue a period of misery and horror without parallel in the annals of time.” (Russell, page 73)
4. That the “great tribulation” was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
His first conclusion is a strong point, especially with regard to the local “flavor” of verses 16-20. His focus on “you” will need to be dealt with in conjunction with discussion of verses 32-35. I believe that I will need to return to the issues concerning the “Jewishness” of verses 16-20 at another time. The issues include points raised by the Dispensationalists as well the subject of “double fulfillment” of prophecy (an idea that Russell abhors). Instead, I shall deal with the latter three conclusions. I believe that I make a good argument that those conclusions cannot be supported. If that is the case, the first conclusion is almost destroyed, and yet it does create problems for any other interpretation.
The Abomination of Desolation
(Russell’s First Two Conclusions)
The following is the wording of Matthew 24:15:
“[Quotation from Jesus] So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (all Scripture quotations from English Standard Version unless stated otherwise)
Note that Christ is predicting that a detestable event or thing is going to make something desolate and that it is going to stand in the Holy Place. This event was to be the signal to flee to the mountains. We should apply these criteria to various options that would fit the Preterist hypothesis that Jesus’ predictions apply exclusively to the events of AD 70. I shall consider two options—one is the presence of the troops of Cestius (not Russell’s idea) in the Temple area in AD 66 and the other is the presence of the troops of Titus in AD 70.
Before considering these options, I should comment on the criterion that the event in question served as a signal to flee to the mountains. Russell states that this was be a signal “to all in Judea to escape beyond the mountains…” (Russell, page 73). This conforms to his contention that Jesus was speaking to the disciples about Jewish events. The problem with this reasoning is that the Discourse was spoken in private to the disciples on Mt. Olivet. These men would live the rest of their lives in a state of alienation from their countrymen because of their devotion to Jesus, so they would not be in a position to spread this word of warning to “all in Judea.” In fact, there is no record that Jews used this warning from Jesus to flee the Romans with one exception.
The only people who are believed to have heeded this warning is a group of Jewish Christians who took refuge in Pella, just east of Jordan in the Decapolis, at some point during the Jewish-Roman War (SEARCH). When their flight occurred and how it corresponded to other events is not very clear. Commentators often cite this flight to Pella as a very satisfactory confirmation that Jesus’ reference to the Abomination of Desolation had something to do with Roman legion standards. (They also refer to Luke’s term, “Jerusalem surrounded by armies.”—see Russell, page 73) It seems very likely that Christians were aware of Jesus’ words and took heed by fleeing to Pella. What event triggered their flight is unknown. Nor does their flight confirm a Preterist interpretation of the relevant Scriptures. Four interpretations of their flight are possible. One is that they knew Jesus’ words and understood they applied to the situation at hand (Preterist view). A second is that they knew Jesus’ words and applied them on their own to the situation. A third is that they did not know Jesus’ words and simply fled because they recognized the danger. A fourth is that they understood a double-meaning to Jesus’ words and applied them to the situation, but also understood them to apply to the end times. We have no way of deciding among these possibilities.
Option 1: The Troops of Cestius: Whiston, the translator of Josephus, believed that a set of legion standards that were displayed earlier than the siege of Jerusalem was the signal to flee. He gives this opinion in a footnote. In November, 66, Cestius (a Syrian commander) brought Roman legion soldiers into the city in order to subdue the revolution that was threatening to begin. Whiston believed this was the signal for people to flee to the mountains (Whiston, pages 631-632). If people were alert to this sign, they may have avoided considerable danger by fleeing, since Vespasian’s legions would begin their campaign in Galilee and Judea in 67. This “signal” of the troops of Cestius would have been about 3 ½ years before the siege of Jerusalem. It may well have been the signal heeded by the Christians who fled to Pella. This signal, though, does not seem to live up to the Abomination of Desolation. In the historical record, it is a footnote. The presence of the standards did not seem to create a Jewish reaction as an abomination (as I read Josephus). In fact, moderate Jews had invited Cestius and his army into the city in order to quell the radicals.
Option 2: The Troops of Titus: Russell focuses on the ensigns (of the legions of Titus) being “in full view of the Temple and the Holy City!” (Russell, page 73, includes exclamation) as the Abomination of Desolation.
I have outlined the siege/battle of Jerusalem in a previous article. The Roman Legions, under Titus, arrived about May 1, 70. A short time after that, Jerusalem was surrounded by these armies. By June 4, some Romans were within the city proper and close to the Temple. By August 29, Romans had entered the outer courts of the Temple complex, and on that same day the Temple was burned. The city was totally subdued by September 26. From about July onward, the Romans had cut off all escape from the city.
Russell is vague whether he regards their presence in the armies surrounding Jerusalem or after they actually entered the city to be the Abomination. However, he (Russell, page 73) argues that the presence of the ensigns in Judea would be bad enough and that their presence in the siege armies would be “last token which portended that the hour of doom for Jerusalem had come.” (Russell, page 73) He cites Luke 21:20 (Jerusalem “surrounded by armies”) as confirmation for his argument. Note that Russell places more emphasis on the role of the event as a warning signal than he does as an abomination that makes desolate (see below).
The first question to ask is this: Did the legions of Titus stand with their standards in the Holy Place and make desolate something? There are two parts of the question. The first is: “Did they stand…in the Holy Place?” In fact, from a description by Josephus of events in the Temple area August 28-29,70, probably actual standards did not enter the Holy Place (Whiston, page 740). Russell avoids this question by simply making their presence “in full view of the temple and the Holy City” “a profanation of the law.” (Russell, page 73) This does not compare in degree to the original Abomination of Desolation. That event was when Antiochus Epiphanes, in 168 BC, sacrificed a pig on an altar to Zeus within the Temple. (See NIV Study Bible at Daniel 9:27 and 11:31 and ESV note at Matthew 24:15.)
Did the Roman legion standards make the Holy Place desolate? If one reads the details of all that went on before and during the siege, one would be struck by the level of violence and betrayal in Jerusalem, including bloodshed in the Temple area that took place at the hands of Jews. For example, Jewish radicals killed the high priest in September of 66, four years before the Romans laid siege. Also, the sacrifices had ceased August 5, 70, weeks before the Romans broke into the Temple area. Moreover, by the time the legion standards were in the Temple complex it was on the verge of burning down. So, from a Jewish perspective, it is difficult to see how the presence of legion standards would be a decisive desecration of an already degenerate Jewish religious situation. But, from a Christian viewpoint, the Jewish Holy Place was already desolate. Jesus spoke of the nation (and not the Temple) in Matthew 23:38 when He said: “See, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:38) However, it was true enough that the desolation of the House of Israel was a religious desolation. When Jesus was crucified, the curtain that divided the two holy places—Holy Place and the Holy of Holies—was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). This signaled the end of the old system of worshiping God and the institution of a new and living way into God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19-20).
The second question to ask is this: Would anyone in the area of Judea have been warned by the presence of the Roman Legions? Yes, that is possible in the early days of the siege, since some were escaping. However, once the siege was in earnest, there would not likely be any escapees. Moreover, once the Romans broke into the city and the standards were in the presence of the Temple as abominable idolatrous objects, no one outside Judea would have known it.
The third question to ask is this: would escape have been of any great consequence once the Jerusalem siege began? After the destruction of Jerusalem, Roman operations were limited. There was a siege of the city of Macherus by the Roman legate Bassus, who also totally destroyed the Jews hiding in the forest of Jarden. Also, many of the Jews of the city of Antioch were killed by the Gentiles of that city as well as being harassed by a turncoat Jew, named, coincidentally, Antiochus. (Whiston, pages 758-762) My point is this: Once the siege of Jerusalem was over, the Roman-Jewish War was essentially over. The final battle would take place three years later at Masada, but this was the completion of the mopping-up of Jewish resistance. (Josephus, page 762ff) It does not appear to me that, for ordinary persons—Christians or Jews—that “escape” from Judea (excluding Jerusalem) during or after the siege would have been an escape from a horrible situation. Russell himself defines the “great tribulation” of Matthew 24:21 to be the siege of Jerusalem (Russell, page 73).
I do not believe that there is a good case for Russell’s conclusions concerning the Abomination of Desolation. The presence of Roman legion standards would have been an affront to the Jews in an isolated action by Roman authorities. However, in the heat of the battle in Jerusalem, it would have been “just one more thing” to remind the Jews of their crushing defeat. Moreover, the standards were there because the legions were there, not as a direct assault by the Romans on the spiritual values of the Jews. Josephus claims that Titus had a certain respect for the Temple and that its destruction was contra his orders (Whiston, pages 739-740). (Of course, Josephus’ reporting is suspect, but it is about all we have.) Keep in mind that the implication of Jesus’ words is that He is predicting spiritual defilement and not physical destruction. I do not believe that there is an historical record of this sort of defilement by the Romans beyond what would take place in the heat of battle.
One other point needs to be made. Although Russell separates the two, I believe there is a twisting together in the minds of many of an event that would signal escape, on the one hand, and the destruction of the Temple on the other. Russell does not confuse the two, but, because they are so close in time, many do confuse them. This leads to a discussion of what is the Great Tribulation.
The Great Tribulation
Russell’s final conclusion is that the siege of and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is the “great tribulation” of Matthew 24:21. He reinforces that idea with the horror of a woman eating her baby. Certainly, the destruction of Jerusalem was a horrible time. I am not an expert on sieges. I read an account of the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in World War II. That, like all sieges, was terrible. By their very definition, sieges are designed to starve the enemy out of a city or fortress. Keep in mind that about 650 years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Babylonians had done the same. Lamentations 2:20 and 4:10 tell of mothers eating their children during that siege. So, whether the siege and destruction of Jerusalem was the worst of all sieges probably could be debated. Moreover, Jesus’ words in verse 22 indicate that the tribulation He was speaking of would be world-wide, since “no human being” could be saved if those days not be cut short. Therefore, to assign the Great Tribulation period to the events of AD 70 does not seem to match the Lord’s words.
In addition, chronology is a problem when one compares Matthew 24:15-22 with the events of AD 70. If one follows Russell’s reasoning, the following table would apply:
Note that Russell’s scenario for the Abomination of Desolation overlaps the Great Tribulation so that, about the time the signal to flee occurs, the Great Tribulation is almost over. If one posits Cestius’ entrance into the city in AD 66, the chronology problem is solved, but one is left with an obscure event. If one reads Jesus’ words, a scenario far different from the events of AD 70 seems to be implied, as I have indicated in the table.
One other point needs to be made. Jesus indicates in verse 22 that those days will be “cut short,” otherwise no one would be saved. There is no indication that the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem was a day shorter than it needed to be. Some survived, but only to be sold into slavery or to be imprisoned.
I do not believe the destruction of Jerusalem is a fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction of the Great Tribulation.
Russell, a representative of the Preterist method of interpretation, believes that verse 15-22 refer exclusively to the events around AD 70 in Judea, that the presence of the standards of the Roman legions was the Abomination of Desolation, that the legion standards signaled people to flee to the mountains, and that the siege of Jerusalem and its destruction along with the destruction of the Temple was the Great Tribulation. I believe that the legion standards were not a spiritually significant abomination that desecrated Jerusalem and the Temple. If one posits the presence of the standards during Titus’ siege and destruction, the timing would not be adequate to warn people to flee from Jerusalem and would be of doubtful benefit to people throughout Judea. If one posits the standards of Cestius’ troops, it is doubtful that there was any obvious affront to Jewish sensibilities. Though the siege and destruction of Jerusalem were horrific, it is a debatable question that it would fit Jesus’ description of the horrors of the Great Tribulation. Overall, the chronological problems and the nature of the hypothetical Abomination of Desolation make it unlikely that there is a “fit” for the events of AD 70 to Jesus’ predictions in Matthew 24:15-22.
NEXT: DISPENSATIONALIST INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW 24:15-22
Barker, Kenneth L., gen. ed. The New International Version Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan (International Bible Society), 2002.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 235445-235449). Good
News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Russell, J. S. The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our
Lord’s Second Coming. (Google Internet Book) London: Daldy, Isbister
& Co., 1878.
SEARCH (the Society to Explore and Record Christian History) “Escape to
Pella” in www.christianhistoryproject.org.
Whiston, William, trans. The Works of Josephus, by Flavius Josephus. N. p.: Hendrickson