“The war of 70 is not a major issue” in the Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

Not too long ago I posted my thoughts on the gospel narratives placing the public ministry and death of Jesus in a round 40 years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Maybe I was trying to convince myself because the thing that has bugged me is the absence of any early recognition of this setting.

Surely a catastrophe as momentous as the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE had to be linked in the minds of the authors of the first gospels with the crucifixion of Jesus. Is that not what the “Olivet Prophecy” of Jesus (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was all, or in large part, about?

I have further suspected that the destruction of the temple and the mass crucifixions of the same period so chaotically upended Jewish life and beliefs that a new Jewish narrative emerged to help make sense of those events and that that narrative is what we read in the gospels.

Of course, if such a “new Judaism” did emerge and eventually morphed into “Christianity”, the first question that naturally comes to mind is: What of the letters of Paul? Other questions that arise from passages in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius have been covered many times and the various arguments relating to them cover well-worn tracks. One common factor running through Paul’s writings and relevant passages in Josephus and Tacitus and that makes any assessment of their origins and functions problematic is that they appear to exist in isolated islands without any acknowledgement of their existence by outsiders until a good century or more after their presumed creation.

Some of the tell-tale signs that Justin was not using the gospels for his sources: he speaks of Jesus being born “near”, not in, Bethlehem; Jesus’ Davidic descent is through Mary; no genealogy of Jesus; Jesus “sweat blood” before, not after, asking to be released from the coming torment; John the Baptist was sitting by Jordan; the Jordan was engulfed in flame or fiery light when Jesus entered it; Justin has no awareness of a Judas or betrayal narrative; the point of the eucharist was to remember that Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus sends out the twelve from Jerusalem to preach to the world from the day of his resurrection…

But the same is true of the four canonical gospels. There is little hint that anyone knew about them at least until the time Justin Martyr was writing (140-160) and I personally think a reasonable case can be made that even Justin’s apparent references to gospel episodes were derived from a pre-gospel source (or more than one).

Problem: the further away from 70 CE we get before the gospels were written, the harder it is to think that the events of 70 CE were as critical as I have long supposed them to be.

An idiot, or one who treated his audience as idiots, once said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we can’t assume that the first gospel was not written soon after 70 CE, but that goes without saying: we cannot justifiably rely upon mere (unsupported) assumptions at any time. But if there is no evidence to be found in the places we would most expect to see evidence, then questions do need to be answered.

Whilst in my moment of doubt Satan (who else?) led me to read a chapter that seemed to reassure me that a very late date for the gospels was not a completely lonely position to maintain. In “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma” Étienne Nodet lists three indicators that suggest a date far removed from 70 CE but it is the third one that I will quote here. All bolding is my own:

Another feature of the Gospels has puzzled many commentators: the war of 70 is not a major issue. In this respect, the evolution of Josephus himself is interesting. His first work was The War of the Jews, the original title being probably The Capture of Jerusalem; he gloomily states that “God now dwells in Italy” (J.W. 5:367). But some twenty years later, he hardly speaks of the war in his major work, The Antiquities of the Jews. He briefly states in Life § 422, summing up the war, that Titus has resolved the disturbances in Judah. In Ag. Ap. 1:33–36 he casually indicates that the priestly archives have been restored in Jerusalem, so that the priests may be fit to take part in divine worship.

In the Gospels, Jesus announces a ruin. In Lk 21:20–22, he sees an oncoming war, with Jerusalem surrounded by armies, but he explains that “all that Scripture says must be fulfilled” by allusion to Jer 25:15, who speaks of the destruction of Judah and the enslavement of the people “according to everything that is written in this book.” This may refer to the war of 70, but the main point is Biblical typology. In Mt 24:15–16 and Mk 13:14 he says, “When you see the appalling abomination set up in the holy place, then those in Judea must escape to the mountains.” This refers to Daniel’s prophecy, and behind it to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, after which Mattathias and his sons “fled into the mountains” (1 Macc 2:28). Indeed, the expression “set up” suggests a cultic device. The event alluded to can be either Caligula’s tentative plan in 40 to set up his statue in the Temple, or Hadrian’s politics aiming to transform Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city with a forum and a capitol, in 132, which triggered the rebellion of Bar Kokhba. The second circumstance is by far the most fitting one.30 On the contrary, the war in 70 corresponds poorly, because even if the Romans actually worshipped their standards in the holy enclosure (J.W. 6:316), this was after the Temple burnt, but not to impose anything to the Jews. Titus’ triumph shows that the Romans wanted to bring the Jewish cult to Rome. The Sibylline Oracles present a better picture of this war in a prophetic style (4:125–127):

A Roman governor will come from Syria. He will burn down the temple of Jerusalem, and while doing so he will kill many people and destroy the great land of the Jews with its wide roads.

30 As is shown by the detailed study in Hermann Detering, “The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mk 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kokhba,” JHC 7 (2000): 161–210. He notes that Mk seems to depend on Mt and not the reverse.

The entire article by Nodet is worth reading for its larger argument that the earliest theology about Jesus stressed his heavenly origin and spiritual nature and that the heavy focus on his humanity was a later development.

So many questions; so much yet to know.

Nodet, Etienne. “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma.” In : James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Research : New Methodologies and Perceptions (Princeton-Prague Symposium 2007), Eerdmans, 2014, pp. 753–68, https://www.academia.edu/6864927/The_Emphasis_on_Jesus_Humanity_in_the_Kerygma