Bible Question:

Did Flavius Josephus prove that Christ returned in A.D. 70? Preterists claim that Flavius Josephus proved that the second coming of Christ occurred in A.D. 70. Is that true?

Bible Answer:

Preterists teach the second coming of Jesus Christ occurred in A.D. 70 when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. They say Christ did not come in a literal sense but in a spiritual sense. They state that Flavius Josephus provides supporting evidence that Christ returned in A.D. 70.   So, is that true? Did Christ return in A.D. 70? Does Josephus provide supporting evidence in chapter 5  of book 6 of his book, War of the Jews, that the second coming of Christ occurred?

Did Josephus prove that Christ returned in A.D. 70?

Did Josephus prove that Christ returned in A.D. 70?

Before answering the question, “Did Josephus reveal Christ returned in A.D. 70?” a brief summary of key points of preterism is essential to understanding why Josephus’ statements are extremely important to preterists. They appeal to him to support their eschatological view.

First, we will begin with Matthew 24:34 which is an important verse in the development of preterism because they believe that Matthew 24:34 teaches the second coming of Christ would occur during the lifespan of the generation that lived when Jesus died. In this verse Jesus said,

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Matthew 24:34 (NASB)

Preterists conclude that a generation is about 40 years. Consequently, they reason the second coming of Christ must have occurred about A.D. 70. (approx. A.D. 33 + 40 years). This date corresponds with the time the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. The destruction of the temple is of great importance to preterism. They teach that Jesus’ prophecy in Luke 19:41-44 about the destruction of Jerusalem is about the second coming of Christ.

Thus, preterists consider all of Jesus’ prophecies about the second coming of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem to have occurred in A.D. 70 (Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:9-27; Luke 19:41-44; Luke 21:20-24). When preterists read Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:29-31, they correctly understand that He was describing the second coming of Christ. But they claim that it and all other Old and New Testament prophecies about the second coming of Christ were fulfilled in A.D. 70. They reach this conclusion by employing an inconsistent method of interpretation. They interpret Matthew 24:29-31 allegorically or symbolically. The result is the meaning is then left to the creativity of the interpreter, because they are not constrained by literal interpretation.

On one occasion an amillennialist accused a premillennialist of wooden literalism. Unfortunately, he did not understand that literal interpretation does not mean that symbols, figures of speech, and types are not recognized and interpreted accordingly. Literal interpretation is not wooden or blind literalism. It is like reading a letter, an email, or a text. The normal meaning of the words are assumed, unless it is obvious they should be understood otherwise. If the reader followed an allegorical method of understanding the sender’s message, the reader could conclude any number of different meanings. But sadly, allegorical interpretation and sensus plenior has been the practice of the rabbinic, Roman Catholic, and liberal theologians. This is a major source of many differing theological doctrines. Allegorical interpretation is the method employed by preterists.

For example, consider Matthew 24:29-30, which says,

“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory.  Matthew 24:29-30 (NASB)

It is important to note that preterists interpret “all of the tribes of earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky” as a local event. They do not believe the entire world saw Him come. To be specific, they believe that only Israel saw Him come, and that He came in a spiritual sense. So, how do they know that Jesus came in a spiritual sense? They appeal to Flavius Josephus’ writings in the War of the Jews. In addition, they believe Flavius Josephus’ statements explain “THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL” in verse 29. But a careful reading of Flavius Josephus’ statements reveal that he never says anything about the sun being darkened, the moon light being dimmed, or stars falling. When one uses an allegorical approach to interpretation, such inconsistent conclusions are accepted. So, they appeal to Flavius Josephus to support a spiritual occurrence of the second coming of Christ and the celestial phenomena. In addition, the allegorical interpretation of “all the tribes of the earth” is not explained by Flavius Josephus’ descriptions since they were local phenomena and not universally witnessed.

Second, we will now provide eight reasons why preterism has made a serious error in appealing to the statements of Flavius Josephus. His writings should not be accepted as proof that the events described in Matthew 24:29-30 occurred in A.D. 70.

First, book 3 and chapter 8 of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History quotes from Flavius Josephus’ War of the Jews, book 6, chapter 5, section 3. But we must notice that Eusebius did not report an eyewitness experience. He is quoting Flavius Josephus. Eusebius lived about A.D. 260 – 339.

Second, Josephus’ report in War of the Jews, book 6, chapter 5, and section 3 is impressive. He states that unusual phenomena occurred before the temple in Jerusalem was set on fire. So, Eusebius accurately summarized Josephus. The following statements are quoted from section 3.[1]

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year.

Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus,  [Nisan,] and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day-time; which light instead for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.

At the same feast also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.

Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner, [court of the temple,] which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night.

Now, those that kept watch in the temple came thereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies.

Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared ; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities.

It is important to note that all of the events described above are said to have occurred before the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. But preterists ignore the fact that the phenomena did not coincide with the destruction of the temple. Notice that the title on chapter 5 of book 6 of the “Wars of the Jews” states,

The Great Distress the Jews Were In Upon the Conflagration of the Holy Place Concerning A False Prophet, and the Signs That Preceded This Destruction.”[2]

It is important to not miss the statement “Signs That Preceded This Destruction”. That is, the above “signs” occurred before the temple was destroyed and not at the same time or after it was destroyed.

Third, Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, states that the populace was intrigued by unusual phenomena. He did not directly refute Flavius Josephus’ report, but he does reveal that phenomenal claims were not trustworthy. Tacitus wrote the following skeptical report,

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods [sic!] were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire a universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth.[3]

Fourth, when the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation in 95 A.D., he referred to the second coming of Christ in Revelation 19-20. We should notice that Revelation was written about A.D. 95 and not before or during the year of A.D. 70. That means Christ did not come in A.D. 70 since Revelation prophesies that the second coming is a future event. It is in our future. Preterists will reply that the book of Revelation is recorded history in order to make it support their view. Some preterists claim that all prophecy was fulfilled in A.D. 70. There are no prophecies left to be fulfilled. If so, then what is the value of the book of Revelation? We should also notice that Revelation is an apocalyptic book. Is it a prophecy written after the fact?

Fifth, extra-biblical references are not Scripture. It is an error to automatically trust non-biblical sources to be accurate. We should never base our interpretation of Scripture upon extra-biblical sources. The writings of Eusebius and Flavius Josephus are extra-biblical. They should not be used to validate one’s interpretation of Scripture.

Sixth, Flavius Josephus’ statements are fanciful in comparison to the statements of Scripture. Nor do they even come close to describing the sun being darkened, the moon light being dimmed, and the stars disappearing.

Seventh, it is obvious that if the sun had been darkened, the moon light dimmed, and the stars had disappeared, the entire world would have noticed. Then “all the tribes of the earth” would have noticed. It would not have been a local event. So, an allegorical approach does not solve some difficult verses and passages.

Eighth, full and partial preterism has only become popular in America since the 1970’s. Prior to this, it was only taught by Catholic and liberal theologians. This was not the historic view of the early church.

Conclusion

Currently, this doctrine is popular even though it has serious flaws and violates biblical principles of interpretation. Flavius Josephus’ writings only appear to give credibility to this unbiblical doctrine. Preterists believe their allegorical interpretation is bolstered by his writings. But in the process, they violate sound, established biblical hermeneutics.

Finally, preterism believes “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 refers to the people who were alive during the time of Jesus. But their conclusion cannot be supported by Luke 17:22-24 where Jesus told the disciples that they would not see His coming — “the days of the Son of Man.” For more information visit, “What does “this generation” mean in Matthew 24:34?

 

References:

1. Flavius Josephus. War of the Jews, book 6, chap. 5, sec. 3, William Whiston. Josephus. Kegel Publications. 1960. p. 582.
2. Ibid.
3. Cornelius Tacitus. The History. 5,13.  See Cornelius Tacitus, The History
Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Ed.

Suggested Links:

Did Jesus’ Second Coming occur in 70 A.D.?
What does “this generation” mean in Matthew 24:34?
Is Matthew 24:30-31 about the rapture or second coming?
What are the signs of Jesus’ Second Coming?