The Mount Olivet Discourse and Vaticinium Ex Eventu

“Vaticinium ex eventu” — Latin: literally, “prophecy after the event”; or a prediction made after the predicted event is fulfilled.

No one in their right mind writes a false prophecy after the fact. That is, no one writes a verifiably false prediction and then delivers it to a people who are in a position to know with certainty that it is a false prophecy.

And yet this is exactly how the liberal Higher Critics interpret the Mount Olivet Discourse. They assume the Temple Destruction prophecy of Jesus (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) is a tradition that developed after the Roman-Jewish War of 67 to 70 AD. The liberal critics assume that this tradition provided the source material for the three so-called “synoptic” Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk). The synoptic writers then composed a narrative of predictive words that Jesus did not actually say, which nevertheless relate to events that already had happened by the time the accounts were composed.

On one extreme, there are atheist writers, such as Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not A Christian, who have myopically proposed that the Mount Olivet Discourse is a failed prophecy. This was also the view of the neo-orthodox Albert Schweitzer, that Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the end of the world. When Jesus’ prophecies failed to come to pass, His followers formed a new religion. Still others have made the amazingly inconsistent charge that the Mount Olivet Discourse is vaticinium ex eventu and yet contains the prediction of Christ’s near return!

There are several problems with both of these views.

Two Liberal Extremes

First, at one end of the spectrum we find a common method of dealing with New Testament eschatology – to assume that the disciples expected a soon return of Jesus.

The eschatology of liberals since the mid-19th century onward has been hyper-preterist. They interpret the Mount Olivet prophecy as entailing events to be fulfilled in the first century including the Second Coming of Jesus. They assume that the prophecy speaks of the Jewish War with the Romans, the succession of plagues and atrocities that struck the city of Jerusalem from 67 to 70 AD leading up to the destruction of the Temple.

This interpretation is used by liberals to date the first written Gospel (usually thought to be Mark) no earlier than 68 AD by which time the Roman-Jewish War had begun. Most conservatives, on the other hand, date the three synoptics anywhere from 40 to 67 AD. Early dating is the logical position if we assume that Jesus’ predictions had yet to be fulfilled.

They claim that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD as an example of vaticinium ex eventu. But oddly, many also hold that part of the prophecy dealt with the Second Coming of the Lord as a supposed first century event, and yet the Messiah did not appear in order to redeem his people. If this was a prophecy delivered after 70, then the pseudonymous, non-eyewitness authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke delivered a “faked” false prophecy.

The obvious question arises: Why would anyone write such an account in the first place?

Imagine a writer in 2010 forging a book by an early 20th century writer claiming Jesus would return by 1988. We’d expect a false prophet in the 1970s or ‘80s to do that, but not a writer in the 21st century! Even more bizarre would be to find a Christian church in the 21st century that would immediately accept this as an inspired, prophetic book and even allude to it in their own teaching materials.

The vaticinium ex eventu advocates take the entire passage containing the Mount Olivet Discourse out of the context in which it was framed – the disciples’ question pertaining to the timing of the Messiah’s victory over Israel’s oppressors, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).

Second, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who simply call into question the possibility of fulfilled prophecy – especially prophecy as detailed and specific as described in Matthew 24. The writer of the account has Jesus making several predictive claims, “You will see … You will hear … they will deliver you up …” and finally predicting the exact date and manner of the destruction of the Temple, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down … this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.”

If we assume that Jesus made this prophecy in the spring of 30 AD, then the destruction of the Temple in 70 fits the prophecy. If we take a generation to mean its usual biblical sense of 40 years, then this is remarkable. It indicates a supernatural revelation concerning a future event.

We could compare it to a Southerner in 1825 correctly predicting the general signs of strife between North and South that would lead to a Civil War. That prediction in itself would not be remarkable in that many people predicted that a “house divided against itself shall not stand.” But it would be fascinating to find a prediction of a 40 year time period and specifically that the city of Atlanta would be burned by Northern troops so that no wooden structure would be left standing. Although it is possible that someone could have made such a prediction as a wise individual with an unusual gift for foretelling, most would consider it a supernatural ability to prophesy.

In fact, Jesus in Matthew 24 applies the prophecy of Daniel to first century Judea in no less than four places. He speaks of the abomination of desolation (Mt. 24:17; Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11), a great tribulation (Mt. 24:21; Dan. 12:1), the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky (Mt. 24:30; Dan 7:13) and perhaps a few other allusions. That Jesus is quoting Daniel and applying it to first century Judea is not at all unusual. What is notable is that it is the prophecy is applied in such a way as to correctly predict the manner and timing of the Temple’s destruction. What is ironic here is that even if we place Daniel as being written after 167 BC, as nearly all liberals do, the stark fact remains that Jesus and the Gospel writers took the prophecy of Daniel as yet unfulfilled on these points. We cannot simply explain away the prophecy of Daniel as vaticinium ex eventu. Even if we make the argument that it was not the prophet’s intention, it certainly was applied that way by Jesus and the Gospel writers. The writing of Daniel was centuries prior to 70 AD. In fact, four copies of Daniel are found among the Dead Sea scrolls.

When the prophecy of Daniel is applied to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the Mount Olivet Discourse, we are left with no logical objection for a pre-70 AD writing of the account in any of its three forms. The logical solution to this critical paradox can be found in looking at the shortcomings of each end of the liberal interpretive spectrum.

Two Liberal Paradoxes

Option #1:— The vaticinium ex eventu position leaves us with the paradox that the Gospels could not have been written too early or too late. Otherwise, one is left to wonder exactly how first century Christians could possibly have accepted a Gospel with the Mount Olivet Discourse that appeared suddenly after 70 AD without any prior knowledge by the hearers.

In other words, they would have to ask: “If Jesus really did say these wondrous things, then why did no one know about it prior to 70 AD?”

One could counter that the versions of the Gospels with the Mount Olivet Discourse appeared in the second century long after the first century witnesses to the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles had passed away. However, that only exacerbates the problem. If this were the case then t is even more unlikely that no one would have noticed the novelty of the passage. Furthermore, by this late date the author would have more clearly separated the Second Coming of Jesus from the events surrounding the calamity that came on Jerusalem in 70 AD.

As JAT Robinson has demonstrated in his masterful book, Redating the New Testament, none of the New Testament books ever once mention the destruction of the Temple in the past tense or as an event that has already occurred. If one wishes to see what a pseudonymous vaticinium ex eventu prophecy really looks like, one should read the Epistle of Barnabas, c. 125 AD, a later work that specifically mentions the destruction of the Temple as the judgment of God that came on the Jews for their rejection of Christ.

Moreover I will tell you likewise concerning the temple, how these wretched men being led astray set their hope on the building, and not on their God that made them, as being a house of God … So it came to pass; for because they went to war it, was pulled down by their enemies (Barnabas 16:1,4).

Option #2:— The “unfulfilled false prophecy” position claims that the Mount Olivet Discourse was in fact written prior to 70 AD, but it was in error in predicting Christ’s soon return. Bertrand Russell wrote in Why I Am Not A Christian:

For one thing, [Jesus] certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time.

This position ignores a couple of points.

First, it fails to recognize the great detail in which the Mount Olivet prophecy was fulfilled. Jesus predicts the exact time to the Temple’s destruction (40 years); the wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, false Christs, riots and persecutions that would increase in intensity just prior to the destruction (as chronicled by the Jewish historian Josephus); the manner in which the Temple would be destroyed (Jerusalem surrounded by armies); the Temple would be desecrated (by the Titus and his Roman legions entering the Holy Place and carrying off the consecrated furniture); and even the thoroughness of the destruction (not one stone would be left upon another as evidenced by the archaeological remains of the Temple).

Second, this view neglects the entire context of the disciples’ question about Jesus’ Second Coming.

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).

The disciples were not asking when Jesus would return after His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. He had not gone anywhere yet! Luke even tells us that after the resurrection the disciples were still concerned over whether Jesus would come “at this time” to Jerusalem to restore the kingdom to Israel by resting it from the Romans.

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

The disciples meant exactly what they said. Even after Jesus rose from the dead as He predicted, they were still not understanding that Jesus was going anywhere. They were still wondering if Jesus was coming in triumph to Jerusalem “at this time.”

The “unfulfilled false prophecy” position has Jesus’ Second Coming predicted in the disciples’ generation even before they understood that Jesus was going anywhere. The paradox here is that the Gospel writer is for some strange reason portraying both a misunderstanding on behalf of the disciples, and then fabricating Jesus’ wrong answers to their questions.

On the contrary, only a genuine misunderstanding on the part of the disciples could have produced a discourse in which Jesus refutes the disciples’ expectation of the Messiah’s soon coming to Jerusalem as a revolutionary deliverer of Jerusalem with the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction within “this generation.” Therefore, the fact that the Second Coming did not occur by 70 AD is not a “failed prophecy.”

Paradox Resolved

Liberals stumble over these two extremes even while my evangelical brethren still get tangled up in yet another paradox – that of dispensationalism. This popular “end-times” theory suggests that Jesus is referring mainly to a rebuilt Temple’s destruction in our own generation even while ignoring that “this generation” in Jesus day meant the generation prior to 70 AD.

Partial Preterism is resolution to each paradox presented here. That is, while the Second Coming did not occur by 70 AD Jesus referred to that event as occurring at a time no one could know. On the other hand the fulfillment of “all these things” was to occur within one generation after the Sermon on the Mount in 30 AD.

The Mount Olivet Discourse is neither prophecy after the event that failed to come to pass – nor is it prophecy prior to the event that failed to come to pass – nor is it a passage that wrenches the plain context of audience relevance to twist the meaning of “this generation” to mean a generation in the far off future “end times.”

Jesus does, in fact, refer to eschatological events, the fulfillment of the Great Commission and His eventual Second Coming in later portions of the Mount Olivet Discourse. However, these “last things” (i.e., matters of eschatology) are not in the same context of “these things” referred to in the disciples questions or in Jesus’ answer, “when you see these things,” all of which occurred in the first century prior to 70 AD.

If the three synoptic Gospels were written prior to 70 AD, one must admit that neither the authors nor the audience at that time fully understood the fulfillment of the passage given here by Jesus. Prior to 70 AD audience relevance is even more stark. The immediate audience of Jesus’ discourse is His disciples who asked a complex question riddled with common view a militant heroic Messiah held by many Jews in 30 AD. The secondary audience is the first century Christian hearing the Gospel preached by one of the early apostles or evangelists. It is possible that many hearers and readers prior to 70 AD still misunderstood the meaning of Jesus’ predictions. However, there is no reason for us, as a tertiary audience, to assume that either Jesus or any of the New Testament writers meant to predict an imminent Second Coming.

In fact, two warnings against predicting the time are specifically given. The destruction of Jerusalem would be attended by numerous signs of the times that Jesus’ hearers would discern. It would occur in a time of strife and war. However, the Second Coming would occur at an hour that no man could know. It would occur in a time of “peace and safety” when the Lord would appear as “a thief in the night.”

In short, whether or not some early Christians believed Jesus would return in their day is irrelevant and immaterial. If they did interpret the passage that way, they were obviously wrong. Understanding that principle, we must interpret the Mount Olivet Discourse today its literary context in view of audience relevance on three different levels: Jesus’ hearers, the Gospel writers’ audience, and Christians today.

A big change is coming!

Conservatives and liberals alike fail to understand the full importance of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD. Without a historical background of this catastrophic event and what it meant to the worldview of a first century Jew, the New Testament is not properly understood. Entire books of the New Testament are impossible to understand unless we first accept the authors’ warnings to those who would forsake Christ’s sacrifice and cling to the condemned system of Temple worship.

When scholars and students of the New Testament begin to understand the paradigm shift that occurred in 70 AD, our interpretation of these books will be radically altered. Right now, scholars ignore the importance of the seven year tribulation period (64 to 70 AD) that served as a catalyst to accelerate the shift from the shadows and types of bloody sacrifice in an earthly Temple to a right-of-passage through the veil into the Holiest of all which is in heaven.

The key to understanding the Gospels is to accept that they were written before Caesar Nero’s persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire and prior to the onset of Nero’s military campaign against the Jews. The key to understanding passages contained in 2 Timothy, Jude, 2 Peter and the entire book of Hebrews and Revelation is to accept the idea that they were written with an impending sense of prophetic fulfillment — not of the Second Coming — but of the consummation of the New Covenant that would forever change all of human history. This consummation began at Calvary and was underscored with a giant exclamation point by the destruction of the Jewish Temple. This is also the reason why the canon was considered closed to all writings that appeared after this period. When we understand this, our worldview, eschatology and ability to demonstrate the reality of the supernatural Word of God will be revolutionized and greatly energized.

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