The Eschatological sayings of our Lord 1 have naturally been a veritable exegetical battlefield in modern day Christianity. Protestant's in particular have suffered, being divorced from any stable authoritative source of interpretation, Protestant Eschatology truly bears the mark of Heraclitus, it is in a constant state of flux and change - with new theories and proponents being added daily.
Radical Protestantism 2 in particular has had a field day with Christian Eschatology in general and the discourse sayings of Jesus in particular. In this view, most if not all of the discourse is relegated to the future, when we are told, an Antichrist figure 3 will arise to afflict the planet and a "great tribulation" will occur in the world. 4 The various calamities spoken about by Jesus in the discourse they believe, can be traced to the happenings around the world today. It has been chided that these people understanding Sacred Scripture with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.
On a much more stable reading of the texts, "classical" Protestants feeling the force of the historic interpretation of the pericope, have argued that the discourse refers both to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Roman armies and to future events. 5
However, the point of this post is that the discourse of Jesus Christ mainly refers to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as a vindication of the Annointed One and divine retribution of God towards the Jews of the first century for rejecting and killing their long awaited Messiah. The famous Eusebius Pamphili of the fourth century 6 gives in his Ecclesiastical History a classical Catholic interpretation of the discourse. 7
Eusebius as he does in many places in his Ecclesiastical History quotes the Jewish historian of the first century - Josephus freely, to show corraborative testimony from a non-Christian source regarding the historical veracity of the claims of the New Testament writings.
On the Fleeing Before the Calamaties
The Sacred Text reads,
"then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in the house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get a coat" (Matt 24:16-17).
Eusebius comments on this event,
(after giving the timeline context of describing the martyrdoms of St. Stephen and St. James and so on), "But the rest of the apostles who were harassed in innumerable ways, with a view to destroy them (by Nero) and driven from the land of Judea, had gone forth to preach the gospel to all nations, relying on the aid of Christ, when he said, "Go and teach all the nations in my name." The whole body, however of the church as Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella." 8
Thus, Eusebius records the historical first century fulfillment of the prediction of Jesus when the Christians fled Jerusalem from the impending destruction of the city by the Romans.
The Abomination of Desolation.
The Sacred Text reads,
"So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)," (Matt 24:15).
"these facts, as well as the whole tenor of the war, and each particular of its progress, when finally the abomination of desolation, according to the prophetic declaration...anyone that wishes may see accurately stated in the history written by Josephus." 9
St. Luke also makes this clear,
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." (Luke 21:20).
On the Motif of Suffering, Betrayal and Calamity
Throughout the discourse running as a thread is the idea of great suffering and incomparable calamaties,
"and there will be famines and earthquakes" (Matt 24:7)
"many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another" (Ibid. 24:10)
"And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold" (Ib. 24:12)
"And alas for those who are with child and for those who are nursing in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." (Ib. 24:19-21)
Eusebius cites Josephus concerning the famine that struck the inhabitants of Jerusalem as the food and water supplies were cut off by the Roman armies and the general feeling of the Jews,
"For famine surpasses all other evils, but it destroys nothing so effectually as shame; for that which would otherwise demand some regard, is contemned in this. Thus wives tore away the food from the very mouths of their husbands, children from their parents, and what was most wretched of all, mothers from their infants, so that whilst their dearest children lay waisting in their arms, there was not shame enough to prevent them taking away the very drops that supported life...Old men were beaten that held back their food, and women were torn by their hair, if they concealed what they had in their hands. Nor was there any pity for gray hairs or for infants; but taking up the infants clinging to their morsels, they dashed them to the ground." 10
The generation (that killed Jesus) was the worse of the worse according to Josephus, he goes on to say,
"I cannot hesitate to declare what my feelings demand. I think that had the Romans lingered to proceed against these guilty wretches, the city would either have been swallowed up by the opening of the earth, or overwhelmed with a flood, or like Sodom, been struck with the lightning. For it bore a much more impious race than those who once endured such visitations. Thus, by the madness of these wretches, the whole people perished." 11
Thus, the whole populace of Jerusalem dove headlong into madness because of the famine and strife. A new and dreadful low was reached as Josephus recounts,
"I am going to relate a piece of wickedness, such as is not recorded either by Greeks or barbarians. It is horrid to relate, and incredible to hear...I would cheerfully pass by this occurrence, if I had not innumerable witnesses still living...A woman...named Maria, the daughter of Eleazar, of the village Bathezor...distinguished for her family and wealth...The tyrants had already robbed her of all her possessions...But as to the relics of her property, and whatever food she provided, the ruffians daily rushing in, seized and bore it away. A dreadful indignation overpowered the woman...But as no one either through resentment or pity would slay her...the famine now penetrated the very bowels and marrow, and resentment raged more violently than the famine. Urged by frenzy and necessity as her counsellors, she proceeded against nature herself. Seizing her little son, who was yet at her breast, she said, "wretched child! in the midst of war, famine and faction, for what do I preserve thee"...as she said this, she slew her son; then roasting him, she ate one half herself, and covering over the rest, she kept it. It was not long before the murderers came in, and perceiving the fumes of the execrable food, they threatened immediately to slay her if she did not produce what she had prepared. She answered she had reserved a find portion of it for them, and then uncovered the relics of her son. Horror and amazement immediately seized them. They stood mute with the sight...After this, they indeed, went trembling away, cowerdly at least in this one instance...Forthwith the whole city was filled with the dreadful crime, and everyone placing the wickedness before his eyes, was struck with a horror as if it had been perpetrated by himself. Thenceforth, the wretched people overcome with hunger, only strove to hasten death; and it was happiness yet for those who died before they heard and saw miseries like these." 12
Eusebius goes on (using Josephus) to recount the various false messiah's that sprung up deceiving many (sometimes to their death), of the numerous signs in the sky that appeared over Jerusalem, all this in complete accord with the predictive power of Jesus in the discourse. 13 Eusebius then cites Josephus to note what happened after the fall of Jerusalem to the Jews. "eleven hundred thousand perished by famine and the sword". The young men were taken as trophies by the Romans (of these alone remarks Josephus, there were upwards of ninety thousand). Those above the age of seventeen were thrown into the slave pits in Egypt and a large multitude were spread across the provinces to be destroyed by the sword or by wild beast in the theatres.
All this was according to Eusebius,
"divine justice, for their crimes against Christ and his apostles, finally overtook them, totally destroying the whole generation of these evildoers from the earth."
1. Which are centered around the so-called "Olivet Discourse" (Matt 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 and to some degree the Apocalypse of John).
2. That is characterized by a sharp rejection of tradition, is (a)historical and lives and breathes and has it's being in the "now" culture and also is known for it's radical individualistic hermeneutic of Scripture.
3. Which sometimes is identified with a Catholic Pope of the future.
4. The poor-man versions of this eschatological schema are found in popular Dispensational writers such as Hal Lindsey, the "left-behind" series of books, etc. On a more serious level, are the works of more "progressive" Dispensationalists such as John MacArthur and Robert L. Thomas. There have also been non-dispensational "futurist" defenses such as the works by G.R Beasley-Murray (especially his Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse).
5. A few examples are; "Does Jesus speak of the destruction of the temple or of the End? In fact, Jesus speaks of both" Joel B Green, (Luke: NICNT, 731). "Some of the utterances clearly point to the destruction of Jerusalem; others equally clearly to the return of the Christ" Alfred Plummer, (St. Luke: ICC, 477).
6. Who was the Catholic bishop of Caesarea Palaestina and is immortalized in his history of the Christian Church from the time of the Apostles up to his day (Ecclesiastical History).
7. It goes without saying that many (if not most) New Testament scholars today hold to a variation of the eschatological discourse as referring mainly to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70. A few examples are; N.T Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God). R.T France' contribution (Mark) in the esteemed NIGTC series is perhaps the best treatment of the discourse from a conservative Protestant standpoint. The theological note in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (on the discourse of Matt 24) correctly notes, "the language used to describe the day of the Lord in Joel and elsewhere is here applied to the fall of Jerusalem, the details of which must therefore not be taken too literally" (p. 23). Above all else, this interpretation of the discourse in it's context does the most justice to the literary audience of the gospel's original readers/hearers. Jesus spoke directly to his target first century disciples about events that are very soon to happen (see further on these points, R.C Sproul, (The Last Days According to Jesus), Ken Gentry, (Before Jerusalem Fell)). Sproul especially has an excellent introductory discussion on the hyperbolic apocalyptic genre language that is used by Jesus in the discourse and how it derives from the genre of the Old Testament prophets that describe historical calamities using such dark and visionary images.
8. (Ecclesiastical History, 86).
9. (Ibid. 86).
10. (Ibid. 88).
11. (Ib. 90).
12. (Ib. 92).
13. So exact is the fulfillment of the saying of Christ that an innumerable amount of liberal scholars (of all stripes) have either rejected out of hand that Jesus spoke these words before A.D. 70 or that the gospel writers later wrote (post 70 A.D.) these historical events as if Jesus had spoken them pre-70.