I received a question from my last post on New Testament eschatology. Kevin asked:
Good discussion of the text. Many want to apply parts of this pericope to history and other parts to the future. While my leaning is much more in line with yours I do wonder concerning the end of the passage.
First of all, thanks for reading Kevin! I really appreciate it.
Now, to the question. The “end of the passage” Kevin’s asking about is Matthew 24.21-22:
There will be great suffering such as the world has never before seen and will never again see. If that time weren’t shortened, nobody would be rescued. But for the sake of the ones whom God chose, that time will be cut short.
There are some very important things to consider here. First, as we’ve noted previously, Jesus was addressing the disciples and their generation. Jesus has used the personal pronoun “you” over 20 times in this chapter—about half before this passage and half after it. And in verse 34, he stated, “I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen” (emphasis added; cf. Matthew 23.36). These verses, therefore, must fit within that context. So, let’s break it down a little bit.
First, “there will be great suffering…” is actually found in a couple of places in the Old Testament. Specifically, in Daniel 12.1, it states, “At that time, Michael the great leader who guards your people will take his stand. It will be a difficult time—nothing like it has ever happened since nations first appeared. But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued.”
For all intents and purposes, this is a parallel passage for Matthew 24.21-22. One could even say Jesus is alluding to this passage in Matthew 24, as many scholars do. All of the same elements are there—the “great suffering” or “difficult time” that’s “never been seen before” and the rescue of God’s people. But the question is how does this fit in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE? How can one say that 70 CE was the greatest suffering the world has ever seen?
Some would be quick to say this is hyperbole. And I may agree. But I think there’s more to it than this. The biggest indicator that 70 CE is the fulfillment of this passage is history.
Josephus, an eyewitness and general in the war, wrote a book about the it. In the preface he states:
“[Our] city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again. 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...”
And in 5.10.5, he wrote:
“[Neither] did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world.”
There are, I think, a couple of good reasons why Josephus would make these statements. First, the biggest one, is the complete and utter destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, view the fall of the city and Temple as the “end of biblical Judaism.” Josephus wrote in 6.1.1,
“And truly the very view itself of the country was a melancholy thing; for those places which were before adorned with trees and pleasant gardens were now become a desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down: nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change: for the war had laid all the signs of beauty quite waste: nor if any one that had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again; but though he were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it notwithstanding.”
That, in and of itself, is world crushing for a first-century Jew. The Temple was the very center of their world. For first-century Jews, it was the place where Yahweh dwelt. It was the place where Yahweh’s Realm and our realm overlapped and overlocked. For that place to be removed is almost beyond comprehension.
Second, the things that happened in that war are some of the most gruesome things I have ever read, and, quite possibly, the most gruesome in recorded history. For example, at one point the famine was so extreme, Josephus states (6.3.3):
“Moreover, their hunger was so intolerable, 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…”
And then, he tells a story that is ghastly beyond imagining. To prepare the reader, Josephus writes (6.3.3):
“But why do I describe the shameless impudence that the famine brought on men in their eating inanimate things, while I am going to relate a matter of fact, the like to which no history relates, either among the Greeks or Barbarians? It is horrible to speak of it, and incredible when heard.”
He then begins to tell a story of a very prominent women of family and wealth named “Mary.” She comes from Perea to Jerusalem for Passover and is caught in the besieged city. Her and her baby were ravaged by the famine. Josephus then relates the unthinkable (6.3.4):
“She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, ‘O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.’ As soon as she had said this, she slew her son, and then roasted him, and eat the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.”
Such atrocities are not unheard of, even in biblical times. In fact, Moses told Israel this would happen a long, long time ago. In Deuteronomy 28, it states:
“Even the most gentle and refined man among you will scowl at his brother or his own dear wife, or the last of his surviving children. He won’t want to give them any of his children’s flesh that he will be eating because he has no other food due to the desperate and dire circumstances that your enemy has brought on you in all your cities. Even the most gentle and refined woman among you, who is so refined and gentle she wouldn’t stomp her foot on the ground, will scowl at her own dear husband, her son, or her daughter—not wanting to give them any of the afterbirth she pushed out or the babies she bore, because she will be eating them secretly while starving due to the desperate and dire circumstances that your enemy will bring on you in your cities.”
Among some of the other fantastic things Josephus recorded (6.8.5), he stated that when the Romans entered Jerusalem, and went into the homes, “they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses.” The dead filled the streets to the point that the Romans had to climb over them just to move through the city. Furthermore, the blood ran so deep, “the fire of many of the houses was quenched.”
I could go on and on. But, in my opinion, the War of the Jews was, up to that time, the “great[est] suffering such as the world has never before seen and will never again see.” We will be looking again at Josephus’ work later on in this study.
Thanks again, Kevin, for the question! Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC