I cannot prove that the gospel narratives are deliberately set in the time of Pilate so that the death of Jesus occurs a generation of forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but I do think there are several reasons for suspecting that this setting was a conscious decision for theological reasons.
The first question that arises is this: How can we think that the gospels set the time of Jesus’ crucifixion forty years before the destruction of the Temple given that there is no explicit claim in the gospels to lead us to this conclusion?
I’ll begin by noting the existence of two implied prophetic timetables that are easily overlooked because the texts do not explicitly draw our attention to them.
- Adam / Year 1
- . . . .
- Exodus from Egypt / Year 2666 (= two thirds point)
- . . . .
- Rededication of temple / Year 4000 (164 b.c.e)
One: Nowhere in the Old Testament books do we read that the Temple was to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt 4000 years after the creation of Adam. Yet scribes appear to have edited the chronologies of the books in order to make the beginning of the new Israel in 164 CE to occur a neat 4000 years after God began his project with the creation of Adam. For some reason those editors did not feel a need to explicitly advertise the presence of this remarkable chronology but there it is. (For an explanation of this chronology which is taken from Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past see The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel — or if you are pressed for time there is a shorter earlier version, The Meaning of Biblical Chronology).
Two: Josephus in Antiquities indicates that he believed that the 70 weeks of the prophecy in Daniel 9 ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Antiquities X, 11, 7 — Beckwith, 533 ff). However, when we read in his earlier work about the Jewish War about the death of a high priest being responsible for the fall of the city, we find no explicit direction to suspect that either of these events had any connection with Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus writes about the death of a high priest without an explicit link to Daniel, but once we know from the later work what he believed about Daniel’s prophecy, then we are compelled to read the death of the high priest as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the “anointed one” who was “cut off” and whose death led to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as the culmination of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Josephus doesn’t spell out the connection for readers. He is so quiet about it that one can say “only those in the know will know” the prophetic significance (the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks) of what he has described.
“I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city [= 70 CE] began with the death of Ananus [= 66 CE]; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their [anointed] high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that he thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection” (War IV, v, 2, 318. 323 — Beckwith, 535 f).
So there is no rule that requires that a fulfilled prophetic time can only be validly found in a text if an author spells it out directly. Do the gospels contain inferences that their setting in the time of Pilate has been fabricated to make the Jesus event happen forty years prior to the fall of Jerusalem?
The Book of Jubilees pre-dates the gospels. In the view of a good number of scholars (although challenged by Davies and Chilton) Jubilees 17:15-18:19 associates the (“would-be”) sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. The Jubilees passage speaks of the twelfth day as the day on which the episode of testing Abraham’s loyalty to God begins, and “the third day” after that being the time of his offering of Isaac, that is, the 15th Nisan. The objection of Davies and Chilton appears to have been refuted on the evidence of Qumran texts according to Geza Vermes:
These views [associating the Binding of Isaac with Passover as early as the second century BCE] have found general favour among scholars during the last three decades, with the exception of Philip Davies and Bruce Chilton, who set out in an article published in 1978 to substitute for them ‘a revised tradition history’. I believe that in the light of the evidence from 4Q225 their counter-argument can be finally refuted. (Vermes, 144)
The Gospels do not always draw attention to their allusions to “Old Testament” themes and motifs and for most part rely on the knowledge of readers to make the connections. So the significance of Christ enduring 40 days in the wilderness is only recognized by a reader who is familiar with the story of the generation of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness.
The remainder of this post is based heavily on an article that I have had in my collection for quite some years now but unfortunately the name of the author is missing from my copy. The title is Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism? The last words are only Trondheim, November 2008, M. W. N. If any reader knows who the author is and where the article was published please do get in touch. From the article (p.2):
And yet there are indications within the NT that the time of Jesus’ entrance into public activity may have been pinpointed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, so as to reaffirm the central doctrines of Christian beliefs. Forty is, after all, a symbolic number that appears several times in the HB and NT. One could hypothesize tentatively that the number forty had symbolic significance in the gospel chronology, too. But this is not what is meant here. In Mark 8.38 the following words are attributed to Jesus: ‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation [έν τη γενεά ταύτη τη μοιχαλίδι και άμαρτωλφ], of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. The designation ‘this generation’ and related phrases allude to Deuteronomy, where Moses relates how God eventually swore that not a man of ‘this evil generation’ would look upon the Promised Land (Deut. 1.35; see also Deut. 32.5, 20; Num. 14.11, 27, 35; Ps. 95.10).6 This language, according to J. N. Rhodes, is ‘an important rhetorical vehicle for evoking the history of Israel as one of disobedience and failure’.7 Since God had condemned the wilderness generation to wander in the desert for forty years, the associations inherent to the phrases, as used in the Synoptics, are strengthened by the chronological claim that Jesus made his appearance forty years before the disastrous events of 70 CE. The underlying premise seems to be that, by rejecting Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem provoked God’s anger in a similar way as the wilderness generation had done in ancient times.
6 See U. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963).
7 J. N. Rhodes, The Epistle of Barnabas and the Deuteronomic Tradition (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 162- 163, n. 86.
All of that may be suggestive but is there more? Our unknown author makes some interesting observations about Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I highlight what I take to be the key sentence:
In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (123; 135), Christians are said to be ‘the true Israelite race [γένος]’. This commitment to Christian supercessionism is scarcely justified by the vague argument that, in the gospels, the authority of Jesus replaces the guidance of the, Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests (cf. Matthew 5-7). However, the idea that the Church supplants the Jews is expressed more explicitly in the gospels than might be supposed at first sight. This conclusion presupposes the position that Jesus’ harsh words on ‘this generation’ would not have been intelligible in a pre-destruction context.
The parable presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem was the result of the killing of Jesus. As a direct consequence God slew that generation and replaced them with a new people, a new Israel.
If read allegorically, the parable presupposes that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE came as a Divine reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The parable may therefore be taken as an indication that early Christians adopted and expanded on an already established idea, namely, that the fall of Jerusalem came as a Divine reaction to sin. This idea, variants of which can be found in several contexts outside the NT, has a scriptural foundation in Deuteronomy, which states that disobedience to the commandments will bring war, famine, pestilence, and exile (cf. Deut. 28.15-68). Josephus, for instance, held that the fall of Jerusalem started in 68 CE, when the high priest Ananus was killed by zealots (War 4.5.2).
If the parable alludes to the Fall of Jerusalem as a consequence of rejecting Jesus then “this generation” likewise . . .
The parable alludes to the fall of Jerusalem, as if Jesus is foreseeing it. Hence, the versions found in the gospels demand a post-destruction date. The same must be true for the phrase ‘this generation’, as used in the Synoptics, because it, too, seems to conceal a prophetic prediction about the year 70 CE. It may be assumed that even if ‘this generation’, in the literal sense, can include only those individuals who lived in Jerusalem between 30 CE and 70 CE, the phrase was meant to have a trans-generational impact. The bloody events of 70 CE, during which the inhabitants of Jerusalem were driven into exile and had their properties confiscated, are used as a warning that those who reject Jesus will perish outside the Promised Land.
Jesus is made to identify himself with the sign of Jonah in the gospels. Jonah, in rabbinic tradition, took on messianic qualities. (I would note that this development of Jonah was unlikely to have originated in Christian times given that the gospels link him with Jesus.)
[T]he adventures of Jonah evoke associations with salvation and resurrection. The motif of destruction, too, must have appealed to early Christians. Jonah and Jesus are both from Galilee (cf. 2 Kings 14.25), but apart from this the differences between the two characters are more revealing than the similarities. Jonah falls into the category of the sinners Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God and had to flee, or Moses striking the rock. Jesus is free of sin. In the midrashic literature, Jonah is transformed from a sinful character, fleeing from God, into a harbinger of the Messiah.30 Jesus is not a harbinger of the Messiah; he is the Messiah. Jonah warns the people of Nineveh that in forty days the city will be destroyed, hoping that the people will not repent. But the Ninevites do repent, and God saves them. Jesus, on the other hand, hopes that ‘this generation’ will repent and live, but the opposite happens. After forty years, Jerusalem is destroyed. In both cases, forty is the number of probation and trial.
30. Jonah may even take on a messianic quality. For rabbinic references, see B. Narkiss, ‘The Sign of Jonah’, Gesta 18 (1979): 63-76.
Turning to the Narkiss article we read (pp. 64, 72),
The first associations of Jonah with the redemption are in conjunction with the prophet Elijah, the immediate forerunner of the Messiah according to the Jewish tradition. Jonah is said to be the son of the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:17-23), who was resuscitated by Elijah and who is therefore a symbol of resurrection.7 Like Elijah, the midrash thinks of Jonah as one of the people who did not die, but were taken up bodily into heaven.8 One of his tasks in the Messianic Age is to bind and bring Leviathan, God’s playful creature (Psalm 104:26), to be feasted upon by the “righteous in Paradise”, and according to the “printed version” of Midrash Jonah, his agreement to do so saved him from drowning at sea.9 . . .
7 Ginzberg, Legends, 4: 197; 6: 318; Midrash Tehillim, ch. 26, (ed Buber, Wilna 1891, p 220); Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah, 5, 55a; Pirkei de Rabbi Eleizer, 33 (English trans., p. 240); Genesis Rabbah, 98:11. These associations are probably based on some similarities between the life of Jonah and that of Elijah. According to the Bible, Elijah was the first to lie under a tree in the desert wishing that he might die, after his victory over the prophets of Baal (I Kings 19:4-8). The number of days, forty, is also mentioned there which Elijah spent travelling to Horeb sustained by the food given to him by an angel. The midrash Seder Eliaku Rabbah 18:97-98 considers the widow’s resuscitated son, the “Messiah of the Tribe of Joseph”, to be different from Ellijah, the forerunner of the Messiah of the Tribe of Judah. However, Ginzberg Legends, 6: 351, thinks that this must have been a Christian influence. Otherwise Jonah is also thought in the midrash to be one of the 2,200 disciples of the prophet Elisha, the one whose task was to anoint Jehu. See Genesis Rabbah, 21:5, cf. Ginzberg, Legends, 4: 246; 6: 34 8.
The Book of Jeremiah might add significance to the argument:
Traditional scholarship would argue that when it comes to the forty-year interval between Jesus’ ministry and the destruction of the Second Temple, matters are very different, because the number forty is not mentioned explicitly in the gospels. However, in this respect, there is a noteworthy parallel with Jeremiah’s ministry. The chronological statement of Jer. 1.2, repeated in 25.3, implies that Jeremiah’s ministry extended from 627 BCE until after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, a period of roughly forty years. The number forty is not mentioned explicitly; and yet, in rabbinic literature, Jeremiah is compared with Moses because, among other things, they both prophesied ‘for forty years’ (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 13.6). In one tradition, Jeremiah’s role during the destruction of the First Temple is projected onto Yohanan ben Zakkai,31 the legendary founder of the academy at Yavneh. Some texts claim that, similarly to Jeremiah, Yohanan ben Zakkai foresaw the destruction of the Second Temple. The following section from the Babylonian Talmud refers to four terrifying miracles, said to have occurred on a regular basis between 30 CE and 70 CE:
During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the western-most light shine; and the doors of the Hekhal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan ben Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekhal, Hekhal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy Doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars (b. Yoma 39b). 2
J. Neusner writes: ‘Sages assembled in the documents of Rabbinic Judaism, from the Mishnah forward, all recognized the destruction of the Second Temple and all took for granted that the event was to be understood by reference to the model of the destruction of the first’.33 According to the HB, the last forty years before the destruction of the First Temple had witnessed the ministry of Jeremiah. For forty years Jeremiah had suffered rejection for his warnings of coming judgment (cf. Jer. 22.5-9). This may partly explain why terrifying miracles were thought to have occurred between 30 CE and 70 CE, and why Yohanan ben Zakkai was said to have understood their meaning. The destruction of the First Temple took on paradigmatic significance in rabbinic literature.34 Hence the forty years prior to the events of 70 CE may have come to be thought of as a period of probation and trial. If there was a widespread belief among second-century Jews that the last forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple had been abnormal, it would have been but a short stretch for early Christians to postulate that the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus had initiated this ominous period. A brief reference to Pontius Pilate would have sufficed to make the point. It is in any case true that, similarly to Jeremiah and Yohanan ben Zakkai, Jesus is said to have foreseen the destruction of the Temple forty years before it occurred. (pp. 9 f)
Meanwhile, when we turn to the epistles we find no chronological setting for Jesus’ adventures (apart from one reference to Pilate in one of the Pastoral epistles). Yet in 1 Corinthians 10:5-6 and Hebrews 3:17 the idea the Sinai wilderness generation is related to the first century time of the “church”. The gospels tied the idea of a generation of trial to the time of Pilate, forty years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.
In Christian thought these notions were gradually woven into a large picture, in which the redemptive crucifixion of Jesus parallels the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the Exodus from Egypt; and the non-Christian Jews parallel the wilderness generation which, instead of accompanying Moses’ successor, Joshua, into the Promised Land, perished outside. Symbolism and chronology merge to become virtually inseparable. If the proposal is accepted that the chronology is essentially artificial, it seems reasonable that this intense symbolism must have developed simultaneously with the speculations that led early Christians to connect Jesus’ death with Pilate and Herod. (p. 10)
I might also add that part of the setting was the embrace of symbolic geography, Galilee, the “land of the gentiles.” Symbolic chronology is planted on a symbolic geography.
Other chronological possibilities did exist. Both Jewish and Jewish-Christian traditions include a scenario where Jesus was executed in the first century BCE under Alexander Jannaeus. The Church Father Epiphanius interpreted Psalm 132:11 and Genesis 49:10 to mean that Jewish “kingly and high-priestly offices were transferred immediately from Jannai to Jesus so that there should be no break in the succession.” In Origen’s writings we learn that the Jew Celsus knew of a tradition that Jesus had been stoned and then hung up for display with no knowledge of the time of Pilate.
So yes, it is true that the gospels do not advertise a theologically symbolic forty year period between the death of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet, we do have to wonder, given that such things are often not made explicit (e.g. in Jeremiah’s forty years prior to the destruction of the First Temple; Josephus’s 70 weeks culmination in the death of a high priest and destruction of the Second Temple…), but then again many allusions to OT images are left for readers to discern (e.g. the significance of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness; the association of his death with Isaac’s sacrifice; his mimesis of Moses…). I cannot help but strongly suspect that both the geographical and chronological settings of the canonical gospel narratives were constructed with theological meanings.
Note: It should go without saying that the references we read in Josephus and Tacitus to Jesus/Christ being crucified in the time of Pilate are derived from Christian claims post 70 CE.
“Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism?,” 2008. [Author unknown. If you know the author please notify us.]
Beckwith, Roger T. “Daniel 9 and the Date of Messiah’s Coming in Essene, Hellenistic, Pharisaic, Zealot and Early Christian Computation.” Revue de Qumrân 10, no. 4 (40) (1981): 521–42.
Narkiss, Bezalel. “The Sign of Jonah.” Gesta 18, no. 1 (1979): 63–76. https://doi.org/10.2307/766792.
Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Vermes, Geza. “New Light on the Sacrifice of Isaac from 4Q225.” Journal of Jewish Studies 47, no. 1 (April 1, 1996): 140–46. https://doi.org/10.18647/1859/JJS-1996.
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