We begin our dissection of the Olivet Discourse with the last two of the four questions put to Jesus by his disciples, after he prophesied to them that the huge and magnificent Temple in which they had just been would be torn down one day, "with not one of these stones left upon another." Jesus had referred to the Temple complex as "all these things" (in Greek, ταῦτα πάντα [tauta panta]), and the disciples used the same phrase when (according to the Gospels of Mark and Luke -- see page 3 of the downloaded handout) they asked him two questions (Mk 13:4, Lk 21:7):
1. "Tell us, when will these things happen?"
2. "And what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled"?
Neither of these questions, however, is the one to which Jesus responds when he starts his discourse. As shown by the color-coding in the handout, he did not get around to addressing the specifics of when the Temple would be torn down until page 7 (Mt 24:15-16, Mk 13:14, Lk 21:20-21). He first warned them that there would be a distinctive sign as a precursor to the Temple's destruction: in Matthew and Mark's versions, it is what He called "the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing in the holy place/where it should not be".
This was an explicit reference to the earlier desecration of the Temple that Daniel had foretold, and that took place at the hands of King Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC, just before the time of the Maccabees. Antiochus had gone so far as to slaughter a pig on the high altar. So to just what event was Jesus referring that occurred before the Romans finally stormed, burned and tore down the Temple in AD 70?
For answer, we have to consult The Jewish Wars of Josephus, the first-century historian of the events culminating in the Temple's destruction. He describes the desecrations that occurred when a band of Zealots and brigands took over the rulership of the Temple, and dislodged the priests who had been in charge before:
(147) Now, the people were come to that degree of meanness and fear, and these robbers to that degree of madness, that these last took upon them to appoint high priests. (148) So when they had disannulled the succession, according to those families out of whom the high priests used to be made, they ordained certain unknown and ignoble persons for that office, that they might have their assistance in their wicked undertakings; (149) for such as obtained this highest of all honors, without any desert, were forced to comply with those that bestowed it on them. (150) They also set the principal men at variance one with another, by several sorts of contrivances and tricks, and gained the opportunity of doing what they pleased, by the mutual quarrels of those who might have obstructed their measures; till at length, when they were satiated with the unjust actions they had done towards men, they transferred their contumelious behavior to God himself, and came into the sanctuary with polluted feet.
(151) ... Those men made the temple of God a stronghold for them, and a place whither they might resort, in order to avoid the troubles they feared from the people; the sanctuary was now become a refuge, and a shop of tyranny. (152) They also mixed jesting among the miseries they introduced, which was more intolerable than what they did; (153) for, in order to try what surprise the people would be under, and how far their own power extended, they undertook to dispose of the high priesthood by casting lots for it, whereas, as we have said already, it was to descend by succession in a family. ...
(155) Hereupon they sent for one of the pontifical tribes, which is called Eniachim, and cast lots which of it should be the high priest. By fortune, the lot so fell as to demonstrate their iniquity after the plainest manner, for it fell upon one whose name was Phannias, the son of Samuel, of the village Aphtha. He was a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but that did not well know what the high priesthood was; such a mere rustic was he! (156) Yet did they hale this man, without his own consent, out of the country, as if they were acting a play upon the stage, and adorned him with a counterfeit face; they also put upon him the sacred garments, and upon every occasion instructed him what he was to do. (157) This horrid piece of wickedness was sport and pastime with them, but occasioned the other priests, who at a distance saw their law made a jest of, to shed tears, and sorely lament the dissolution of such a sacred dignity.This defilement of the Temple by Zealots and brigands took place in AD 67, even before Titus and his soldiers began their siege of Jerusalem. When Jesus warned of a desecration of the Temple, he was a Jew, speaking to fellow Jews. The readers of Matthew and of Mark would have understood the significance of the events described by Josephus, because only fully qualified priests were ever allowed to perform the sacrifices at the high altar of the Temple, and to serve there. Replacing those priests with fools and buffoons chosen by lot, and having them "perform" the priestly functions as untrained as they were would have been seen by Jews in Jerusalem as being on a par with Antiochus' "abomination of desolation."
It is also the consensus of most scholars that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew were most likely the first to be written, around AD 60 -- before the Romans sent a retaliatory force into Israel. So those authors did nothing more than report Jesus' prophecy, along with His account of what would happen to the Temple just before its destruction, but they most likely did not have the advantage of hindsight.
When Luke wrote his Gospel, however, the siege and destruction of the Temple was most probably already an event in the past. Moreover, his audience was not so much Jews as it was educated Greeks -- with the events of AD 67-70, the Jews had been driven out of Jerusalem, and had begun the process of separating themselves from Jewish Christians. (They of course had nothing in common with Christians who were Gentiles, like the people for whom Luke probably wrote.)
What corroborates these statements is how Luke changes the words of Jesus in describing what precursors would be a sign of the impending destruction of the Temple (and, by implication, Jerusalem). He has Jesus say (Lk 21:20): "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near." The feats of Titus and his soldiers in taking first the citadel of Jerusalem and then also of Masada were, by the time Luke was writing, known around the civilized world.
Another clue to the timing of Luke's Gospel is in the details he adds to Jesus' warning to Jews to flee the city once the sign foretelling her destruction appeared. Matthew and Mark have Jesus saying "then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains." (It should be noted, again in corroboration of the early date of the composition of their Gospels, that Josephus does not record the presence of any Christians remaining in Jerusalem when Titus' armies surround the city. And the early Christians have no stories that have come down to us about any trials or tribulations they endured in its siege.) Luke then adds these words to those in the other two Gospels (21:21-24):
... "and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written shall be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."This wording almost certainly draws upon Luke's knowledge that after putting to the sword all the defenders of the city and its Temple, the Romans exiled from Jerusalem all the Jews who survived the siege, and scattered them to other lands. After Titus did this, only Gentiles could occupy Jerusalem. Even if Jews had been allowed back, they would no longer have had a Temple in which to make sacrifices. Their rabbis declared a halt to the sacrifice of animals -- which, since there still is no Temple in Jerusalem, continues to this day.
There is one final passage in the Olivet Discourse which I believe pertains to Jesus' remarks about the future destruction of the Temple. It is found in all three synoptic Gospels, and has been the occasion of much prophetic speculation. I refer to Jesus' words at Mt 24:34, Mk 13:30, and Lk 21:32 (page 12 of the downloaded handout, with my bold emphasis added):
"Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."
There is that tell-tale phrase of Jesus again: tauta panta, or "all these things." As we saw above, when he first used it he was referring to his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple. Thus, even though this passage comes much later in the three Gospels, and comes in the midst of Jesus' discussion about the eskaton or End Times, it must be taken to refer back to his original prophecy. In direct answer to their first question quoted above, Jesus was telling his disciples that some of them would still be alive when the Temple was destroyed.
Those who take the passage to apply to when the End Times will occur are, due to the lapse of nearly 2,000 years since Jesus first said those words, forced to invent elaborate theories like the whole structure of Dispensationalism -- with its "Church age" acting as a kind of comma between the time of Jesus' prophecy and the start of the final period before His second coming. I do not propose to go into any detail on that subject, because I think that such an application of the passage is misguided, given what we have in the original Greek ("tauta panta").
I also am mindful of the fact that many of the prophecies in the Old Testament had a double significance -- they would apply not only to the time when the prophet made them, but also to the time of Jesus. An example is the famous verse in Isaiah 7:14 -- "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son ..." Thus many students of eschatology (or End Times) believe that Jesus' prophecy about a destruction of the Temple will recur during the fighting leading up to the Battle of Armageddon.
For that to happen, of course, the Temple would first have to be rebuilt upon Temple Mount, and the Islamic structures now occupying that site would have to disappear. We are obviously not there yet, although the Middle East remains a powder keg that could ignite a full-scale war between Israel and its Arab neighbors at any time. If war breaks out, we well could see Israel take full control of Temple Mount, and the religious pressure on the government to remove the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, to allow the rebuilding of the Temple to occur, would be simply enormous.
This completes my exegesis of the parts of the Olivet Discourse that deal with Jesus' words about the fate of Herod's Temple. In the next few posts, we will look closely at the main subject of that Discourse, namely the Second Coming of Jesus, and the harbingers which lead up to that momentous day.