This will be the introductory article in a series of posts that will cover the so-called Olivet Discourse (also been labeled "The Eschatological Discourse," "Little Apocalypse") that is given in the synoptic gospels, (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21)1. And while entire books have been devoted to the correct hermeneutical approach to the pericopes, it is best read I believe in its historical context, namely written by and for first century Jewish Christians in light of impending and momentous events.
It was with the Jewish temple in the background that this discussion took place (Matt 24:1-2) in response to the questions posed by Jesus' disciples. And they were not alone, rabbinic and intertestamental apocalyptic literature around this time was ripe with prognostication and fanciful flights of imagination2. Jewish apocalyptic thought was up to this point pregnant with meanings and nuances, all soaked in the prophets and psalmists of the Old Testament as the primary source point. Jesus gave a discourse to first century Jew's concerning events that would befall them very soon in prophetic and apocalyptic hyperbole that they would be intimately familiar with3. The import that is carried concerning the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem is often missed today as we read of these events after the fact, two thousand years later in a Christian era. However to the original hearers and audiences of the first century, namely the Jews this would be a cataclysmic event that is hard to compare in our day. It is the end of a religious order, a destruction of the very headquarters or icon of the faith. I suppose a modern comparison would be the foretelling of the destruction (and its subsequent taking place) of the Vatican in Rome for Catholics, the White House for Americans or Mecca for Muslims. However for the ancient Jews it would be even more astounding and traumatizing than these modern examples. In Judaism the Temple had a political and economic role that religion no longer plays in modern government. Hence it is the prediction of the completion of a way of life not just an ideological-structure.
The entire discourse is framed with words of immediacy, "πρωτον" (Luke 21:9), "ηγγικεν" (Luke 21:9, 20), "Προ" (Luke 21:12), "εγγιζει" (Luke 21:28), "εγγυς" (Luke 21:30), which underscore the temporal association of the events that are to unfold; the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman army4. The time window of these events are to occur very near, "επι θυραις", (Matt 24:33; Mk 13:29). Jesus gives his promise in unmistakable language, all of the things in the discourse are to be fulfilled before the generation of his hearers on the Mount of Olivet pass away (Matt 24:34; Mk 13:30).
And so, with these short but critical preface's we move to a succinct examination of the Discourse itself. (Translation my own and for the purpose of exegesis painfully literal).
-"Coming out of the temple and as he went Jesus approached his disciples who showed him the buildings of the temple" (Matt 24:1).
-"Coming out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Teacher, look what magnificent stones and what magnificent buildings!" (Mk 13:1).
-"And as some were speaking about the temple that with magnificent stones and with sacred gifts it has been decorated, he said" (Lk 21:5)
All three of the synoptics are in agreement, the setting for the discourse has the temple of Jerusalem in the backdrop5. And while Matthew and Mark are silent concerning the "αναθημασιν" Luke speaks of them and the importance of bringing these to the temple in Judaic life (cf. 2 Mac 3:2-7; Josephus, Antiquities. 15, 2, 3).
1. Naturally the secondary literature related to the Olivet Discourse is immense. My exegesis of the texts barely touch the tip of the literary iceberg's (due to space restraint). A very brief outline of the trends in the secondary literature is as follows; those that have been severely critical of this material and have either relegated it as an original Jewish apocalyptic writing taken over by the composers of the gospels and then attributed to Jesus; T. Colani, Jesus-Christ et les croyances messianiques de son temps, (Strasbourg: Truettel et Wurtz, 1864); Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972). This view has been subject to a detailed refutation by many scholars such as; C. E. B. Cranfield, "St. Mark Crucis: A Critical Analysis of Mark 13" Int 24, 1970. Others have held that the Discourse is an example of the genre of Jewish farewell discourse, F. Busch, Zum Verstandnis der synoptischen Eschatologie: Markus 13 neu untersucht, (Gutersloh: Bertelsmann, 1938). C. H. Weisse (followed by many others) was apparently the first to give a full length presentation that the Discourse constitutes not a single lecture but a number of loosely related eschatological sayings that were then pasted together by the writers of the gospels, Die evangelische Geschichte: Kritisch und philosophisch bearbeitet, (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1838). David Aune has argued that the Discourse follows the Greco-Roman peripatetic temple dialogue, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983). Conservative works however that see the Discourse in its natural setting and taking it as face value as a single response lecture from Jesus to his disciples are not hard to find, (see especially) L. Gaston, No Stone on Another: Studies in the Significance of the Fall of Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels. (NovTSup 23. Leiden: Brill, 1970); David Wenham, The Rediscovery of Jesus' Eschatological Discourse. (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984); G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days: The Interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993); Ken Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation, (American Vision, 1998).
2. E.g., Book of Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, Assumption of Moses, Book of Jubilees, Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Baruch, Book of the Secrets of Enoch, etc., which have the arrival of the Messiah always in literal, earthly and political conquests, raiding the kingdoms of earth (such as the Roman Empire) inviting the descendants of Abraham to sit at the perpetual Messianic banquet, at the exclusion of the dirty gentiles. Important to note that Jesus' Discourse as found in the Synoptics is strikingly different from these extra-biblical apocalypses (and even from some biblical apocalyptic genre's such as John's Revelation). Gone are the heavenly journeys, numerology, symbolic imagery, animal imagery, battles among divine figures, (see K. Grayston, BJRL 56, 1973, for an important article showing the differences between the Discourse and apocalyptic writings).
3. Jesus' first century readers as well would be immediately struck by the OT motif's and imagery that placed him squarely in line with that of the prophetic terminology of the prophets of the Old Testament (who spoke in the same hypberbolic tones on the exact same point as Jesus, namely judgement on Israel for its unfaithfulness to the Lord). The Old Testament prophets were the forerunners of announcements of destruction falling on the Temple of Jerusalem for disobedience, (1 Ki 9:6-8; Micah 3:12; Jer 7:12-15, 22:5, 26:6, et al). Even non-biblical examples can be found of the foretelling of the destruction in A.D. 70, such as that by another Jesus, Jesus son of Hananiah (he pronounced shortly after the death of Jesus Christ and was put on trial for his "threats", b. Yoma. 39b) and that found in 1 Enoch 90:28-29, cf. T. Levi. 16:4; T. Jud. 23:3; Sib. Or. 3, 665; et al. It is a marvel that popular "end time" sensationalist commentaries either miss this most obvious literary background to the discourse, or even worse knowingly distort Sacred Scripture to prey on the ignorant masses for monetary gain. This discourse was given to a particular people concerning particular events. To imagine that Jesus spoke (mainly) of things thousands of years into the future makes a mockery of the historical setting and context of the gospels in particular and Sacred Scripture in general.
4. Most New Testament exegetes of all traditions are agreed on this point of the discourse, that it pertains to the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 by Titus. The fierce debates have to do with where does the discourse stop relating to the fall of Jerusalem and start on the events surrounding the second advent of Jesus Christ. The fall of Jerusalem was so accurately portrayed by Jesus that a host of critics have charged the composers of the gospels of writing after the events occurred since they imagine, Jesus did not have predictive powers. Perhaps now the best defense that the Discourse en toto deals with the destruction of Jerusalem is N. T. Wright's, Jesus and the Victory of God. (London: SPCK, 1996), see also J. Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948); R. V. G. Tasker, St. Matthew. (TNTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964). Representatives of those scholars which see most of the Discourse as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem with a small portion (at the end of the discourse) dedicated to the second advent, R. T. France, Mark. (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002). Others see the Discourse as being split in half more or less, with the first part relating to the destruction of Jerusalem and the latter half the second advent, so. G. R. Beasley-Murray. Still others have held that the majority of the events described pertain to events post the destruction of Jerusalem up to and including the second advent and only a small portion of the beginning of the discourse deals with the fall of Jerusalem (with a noticeable feature among these scholars on holding the concept of double-fulfillment, or that the events that occurred in the destruction of Jerusalem will mirror end-time events as well); Craig Blomberg, Matthew. (NACNT. Nashville: Broadman, 1992); D. A. Carson, Matthew. (EBC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); D. A. Hagner, Matthew. (WBC. Dallas: Word, 1995); W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison, Matthew. (ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997); David Turner, Matthew. (BECNT. Grand Rapids, 2008). The particular view which espouses that the Discourse deals solely with futurists events (future to our stand-point) is usually built on a Dispensational eschatological system and can be found in the works of; J. F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come. (Chicago: Moody, 1974).
5. For extra-biblical references to the beauty of the temple at this time see Josephus, Antiquities. 15, 11; Jewish Wars. 5, 5; Tacitus, History. 5, 8. See any of the commentaries for full reports on the massive size and the grandeur of the temple (and thus the silliness of some Jewish rebel rouser announcing the fall of such a monument of human architecture and devotion).