In Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, that is, His foretelling to the Apostles while on the Mount of Olives about the destruction of Jerusalem and His Second Coming, He said, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mt. 24:34) Jesus was predicting to them that Jerusalem and the Temple were going to be destroyed in their lifetimes. He spoke of “the desolating abomination” in the Temple, prophesied by Daniel, a time of great tribulation, false prophets, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, and signs in the sky. Many regard that these prophecies concern the Second Coming of Christ. These are also all markedly similar to the prophecies found throughout the Book of Revelation. So, that raises the question, was Jesus wrong? Did He wrongly predict that these apocalyptic events were going to happen to His Apostles in the first century? Certainly, the first century Christians, the Apostles and disciples were expecting an imminent return of Christ. The Book of Revelation opens with John describing, “what must happen soon.” (Rev. 1:1) Yet, we know Christ did not return in His Second Coming in that generation, and even now, 2,000 years later Christ has not yet returned. So, again, was Jesus incorrect?
The definitive answer is no. As Jesus Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35) Jesus’ words were initially fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The Jewish world, as they knew it in 70 A.D., did, in fact, come to an end. It was an apocalyptic end, as executed by the Roman Empire, against Jerusalem, Israel and Jewish Temple life. This is the Preterist interpretation (Latin praeter meaning “past”) of Christ’s prophecy, and the Book of Revelation. These eschatological prophecies were fulfilled in the devastations of the first century. The Catholic Church holds that these were a microcosm of the events, a type and foreshadowing, of what will happen at the end of the world, just preceding the Second Coming of Christ. The ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies will happen at the end of time, but were initially fulfilled here. The future fulfillment is called the Futurist interpretation. The Catholic Church holds the prophetic words of Christ are to be interpreted together, on multiple levels, and with multiple fulfillments, in both a Preterist interpretation and a Futurist interpretation. The Roman Empire of 70 A.D. and the Roman Caesars, foreshadow as a type, the yet-to-be, future empire of the Antichrist and the final Antichrist himself before the climax of history. As the Catechism teaches, “Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.” (CCC 675)
Jesus was predicting the end of the Old Covenant and the removal of the central symbol of that Mosaic Covenant, the Temple. It was to be replaced by the Church, God’s New Covenant, and the New Jerusalem, made in the spiritual temples of Christian believers themselves. Christians, and the Church, the Body of Christ, is the New Temple, where the Holy Spirit dwells. Yet, Christ did not want the desolation of the Jews or Israel. He longed for them to believe in Him. As Jesus lamented over them, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate.” (Mt. 23:37-38) It is not hard to imagine the anguish Jesus felt with His foreknowledge of the destruction that lay ahead for Jerusalem. Jesus longed to save them, but many of them were unwilling to accept Him and His message. This rejection by the Jewish authorities, namely the Pharisees and Sadducees, reaches its climax when Jesus went on trial before the Sanhedrin and was condemned to death. As the Gospel plays out, the false prophets of the Jewish hierarchy, in collusion with the pagan Roman authorities, crucify and kill the Messiah. These are the same themes repeated throughout Scripture, especially in eschatology, concerning the false prophet, the pagan beast or empire, and the persecution of God’s people.
What we are interested in here now, however, is the initial fulfillment, not the final, of these prophecies, the Preterist apocalypse. Fortunately, history has been blessed with firsthand accounts and witnesses to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Flavius Josephus, was a first century Roman, Jewish historian. He wrote extensive, detailed books from the time period called The War of the Jews. It is fairly amazing that any of the passages he wrote offer historical confirmation, sometimes in excruciating detail, of Jesus’ predictions concerning the fall of Jerusalem. For example, Jesus begins His Olivet Discourse by pointing to the Temple saying, “Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” (Mt. 24:2) Josephus affirms the fulfillment of this prophecy writing, “Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple…. it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” (Bk 7.1.1) In fact, the Roman army, three legions, surrounded the walled city and lay siege to it for many months, while the Jews were trapped inside.
Many more parallel confirmations abound. St. Matthew writes that Jesus warns His Apostles to not be deceived by false Messiahs. He says, “See that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many.’” (Mt. 24:4-5) In the time period before the destruction of Jerusalem, in fact, many zealots and false prophets popped up misleading the people. Josephus records this too. He states, “Now, there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God: and this was in order to keep them from deserting…. Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers..” (Bk 6.5.2-3) Josephus wrote more about them saying “These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration… and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty..” (Bk.2.13.4) Moreover, Josephus spoke about a certain “Egyptian false prophet” that “got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place..” Eventually, the Romans confronted them, and “the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive.” (Bk.2.13.5) The false prophets are related to what Josephus termed the “seditious, “robbers” and “zealots.” These are the ones that took over the city in 66 A.D. provoking the Roman siege. These are the ones that mislead Jerusalem at its fateful hour. Jesus similarly spoke about the false prophets telling them they will hear of “wars and insurrections,” but that will not yet immediately be the end.
After this, St. Luke wrote that Jesus tells His Apostles “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place;” (Lk. 21:11) Similarly, the Book of Revelation records, “A loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, “It is done.” Then there were lightning flashes, rumblings, and peals of thunder, and a great earthquake.” (Rev. 16:17-18) Josephus confirms massive storms and earthquakes so large that they interpreted them as portending imminent disaster. Josephus writes, “..for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” (Bk.4.4.5) The Book of Revelation also speaks about a plague of “large hailstones.” It says, “and huge hailstones, each weighing about one talent (or, a hundred pounds), dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (Rev.16:21) Josephus offers a curiously matching description in his eyewitness account. He says, “Now the stones that were cast were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and further. The blow they gave was no way to be sustained, not only by those that stood first in the way, but by those that were beyond them for a great space. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them notice when the engine was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried out aloud, in their own country language, ‘The Son Cometh:’ so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves down upon the ground; by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone, who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow.” (Bk.5.6.3)
Famine and Pestilence
The miseries were piled one upon another as the Jews were trapped behind the walls of the city, as the Roman soldiers encamped outside. For one thing, their food supply was running out. In fact, at one point their supply of corn, a major staple, was destroyed. (Bk.5.10.2) The robbers and the zealots had risen up against their fellow Jews, stealing their food, and leaving them to die. Josephus describes that the encampment around the city and the siege led to a famine so bad “that it obliged them to chew everything, while they gathered such things as the most sordid animals would not touch, and endured to eat them; nor did they at length abstain from girdles and shoes; and the very leather which belonged to their shields they pulled off and gnawed: the very wisps of old hay became food to some;” (Bk.6.3.4) The famine was so terrible that, as Josephus bitterly reports, some turned to cannibalism. He tells the story of one desperate woman who ends up killing, cooking and eating her own baby. He reports the men who witnessed this horrible act, along with all of Jerusalem, “trembled.” Josephus states as a matter of fact that, “So those that were thus distressed by the famine were very desirous to die; and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not live long enough either to hear or see such miseries.” (Bk.6.3.4) The living envied the dead! Similarly, disease and pestilence spread through the city as it was held under siege. Josephus says, “And indeed the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another, was a horrible sight, and produced a pestilential stench..” (Bk.6.1.1)
Mighty Signs from the Sky
Jesus said there would also be “awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Lk. 21:11) An incredulous Josephus wrote down what was witnessed in regard to miraculous phenomenon in Jerusalem before its destruction. Here Josephus tells of an ominous star, resembling a sword, that stood over the city; similarly, a comet continued in the sky for a whole year. He mentions a great light shone in the Temple making it as bright as daytime. Moreover, a massive brass and iron door, that required twenty men to open and shut it, swung opened by its own accord. One of the more incredible things witnessed was a heavenly display of chariots and armored soldiers running amidst the clouds. Also, a great noise was heard that sounded like “a great multitude,” saying “Let us remove hence.” As way of speculation, this may have been the voice of God declaring to all He would no longer remain in the Temple, and thus, the end of the Old Covenant. With the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews, the Great Diaspora, the Old Covenant ended and the New Covenant began, officially with the establishment of the Church in Rome. Josephus’ writings on these incredible phenomena are worth quoting at length:
“..while they did not attend, nor give credit, to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them . Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eight day of the month Xanthicus, [Nisan,] and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day-time; which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.
Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner, [court of the temple,] which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now, those that kept watch in the temple came thereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared, that this signal forshewed the desolation that was coming upon them.
Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.” (Bk.6.5.3)
The Abomination of Desolation
Returning to the Olivet Discourse, Jesus spoke about the “desolating abomination” of the Temple. He said, “When you see the desolating abomination spoken through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains..” (Mt. 24:15-16) Here, Jesus is referring to the prophecies that Daniel made in the Old Testament concerning the desolation of the Temple, and the end of the world. Daniel prophesied, “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the horrible abomination is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days.” (Dn.12:11) This prophecy, as with other prophecies from the Bible, has multiple fulfillments over time. The initial fulfillment, and again a foreshadowing type of the Antichrist, the tyrannical Seleucid king, Antioches IV Epiphanes, who set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple in 167 B.C., thus desecrating it. Yet, Jesus refers to the prophecy again, applying it to the coming desecration of the Temple by the Romans. Even in the time of Jesus, the Temple had become a meeting place for evildoers, as Jesus had to drive them out of the Temple, saying they are making it a den of thieves. (Mt. 21:13) By the time 70 A.D. came around, Josephus makes a similar observation that the Temple had become filled with abominations. He wrote, “And now, when the multitude were gotten together to an assembly, and every one was in indignation at these men’s seizing upon the sanctuary, at their rapine and murders but had not yet begun their attacks upon them Agnus stood in the midst of them, and casting his eyes frequently at the temple, and having a flood of tears in his eyes he said, ‘Certainly, it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these bloodshedding villains.'” (Bk.4.3.10) And, just as Antiochus Epiphanes had erected the idol Zeus in the Temple, so did he put an end to the “daily sacrifice” (these were the lambs offered twice a day as proscribed in the Mosaic Law: Num. 28:3-4) in the Temple. Josephus records the same cessation with the Roman siege. He said, “..the sacrifice called ‘the Daily Sacrifice’ had failed, and had not been offered to God for want of men to offer it, and that the people were grievously troubled at it..” (Bk.6.2.1)
Now, a large part of the problems for Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire was its polytheism and imperial cult of emperor worship. Nero Caesar, who’s name in Hebrew adds up to 666, the mark of the beast from Revelation, reigned from 54 – 68 A.D., was a great persecutor of Christians, and is seen as a forerunner to and a type of the Antichrist. He also claimed to be divine. The refusal of Christians to participate in this imperial cult, of emperor worship of various Caesars, led to many of the early martyrdoms. St. Jerome, in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel, expressed this idea, “And so there are many of our viewpoint who think that Domitius Nero was the Antichrist because of his outstanding savagery and depravity.” This was no less true for the Roman soldiers, who participated in the imperial cultus, and even worshipped their own ensigns with the eagle. In the Jewish and Christian mind, this is all idolatry and blasphemy. Yet, Josephus wrote that the Roman soldiers brought their ensigns, especially the eagle emblem, and their idolatrous religion to Jerusalem. Then, upon entering and conquering the city, they set up their ensigns in the Temple and worshiped them, another fulfillment of the desolating abomination. Josephus wrote, “And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy.” (Bk.6.6.1)
The Siege of Jerusalem
Now, in the corresponding passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is at hand. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. Let those within the city escape from it, and let those in the countryside not enter the city, for these days are the time of punishment when all scriptures are fulfilled… They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken as captives to all the Gentiles; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk.21:20-24) Firstly, Josephus records that Vespasian had surrounded the city with his armies. He says, “And now Vespasian had fortified all the places round about Jerusalem..” (Bk.4.9.1) He says they camped initially at the Mount of Olives, and then, they built in three days, a wall in that “encompassed the city.” (Bk.5.12.3) Yet, we know that the Christians actually took heed to the warning of Christ, as there are no recorded deaths of Christians, miraculously perhaps, within the city. They saw the armies of Vespasian and Titus in Judea and fled towards Jordan. Similarly, when there was a break in the siege of Jerusalem, upon hearing of Nero’s death, they took that opportunity to escape the city. The early Christian scholar Eusebius recorded it this way, “The whole body, however, of the church at 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. To Pella those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem; and as if holy men had utterly abandoned the royal metropolis of the Jews and the entire Jewish land, the judgment of God at last overtook them for their abominable crimes against Christ and His apostles, completely blotting out that wicked generation from among men.” (Bk.3.5) The Christians had taken Jesus’ advice and fled to the mountains!
The Great Tribulation
The death and destruction visited upon Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is nearly unimaginable. Jesus Himself prophesied, “..for at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect they will be shortened.” (Mt. 24:21-22) Josephus, as an eyewitness to these calamities, was able to confirm Jesus’ prophecy. Josephus wrote, “Whereas the war which the Jews made with the Romans hath been the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but in a manner, of those that ever were heard of; both of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations.” (Preface.1) He continued, “Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were..” (Preface.4) Josephus related that the siege began during the feast of unleavened bread, or Passover, meaning Jews from all over Israel and beyond would have been visiting Jerusalem, swelling the number of people in the city. (Bk.5.3.1) Josephus speculated that the number of people killed during the siege is at least 1,100,000, and the number taken captive at 97,000. What a massive calamity! Over a million people killed and nearly a hundred thousand taken into bondage. He wrote, “Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the very first, occasioned so great a straitness among them that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.” (Bk.6.9.3) With that, the seven year tribulation from 63 A.D. to 70 A.D. came to an end, as Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and the Jewish people slaughtered and cast into a diaspora among the Gentile nations for the next two millennia. Therefore, Jesus’ warnings about the coming apocalypse, for that generation, were most definitely fulfilled. For its part, the early Church continued to suffer persecution and martyrdom under the Roman Empire, as Christians steadfastly refused to participate in imperial cults, emperor worship or sacrifice. This, just as Jesus had predicted, “you will be hated by all nations because of My name,” (Mt. 24:9) and a foreshadowing of the final fulfillment of Christ’s words.