The Skeptics' Effort to Dismiss Jesus' Prediction of the Destruction of the Temple

Over at Cold Case Christianity, the extremely informative website of J. Warner Wallace (who I would like to call a friend to our blog since he has tweeted several of our posts over the past few months, but I have never spoken to him in person), Mr. Wallace (hereinafter, JWW) posted an article entitled "Does the Temple Prediction Invalidate the Early Dating of the Gospels?" responding to challenges raised by skeptics arising from Jesus' prediction of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. What exactly is the problem with Jesus having predicted the fall of the Temple? Nothing actually, unless the people raising the challenge are wedded to a viewpoint that says that it is impossible for anyone to prophesy because that would mean that they know the future - which is impossible.

For those unfamiliar with Jesus' prophesy that the temple would be destroyed, it is repeated in three places in the Bible, Matthew 24:1-2, Luke 21:5-6 and Mark 13:1-2. All three of the predictions are basically the same, but they do contain minor differences. For brevity's sake, I quote below only Mark's version of the prophesy which reads:
As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
These verses from all three of the Synoptic Gospels have long been accepted as constituting a single prophesy that the massive Jerusalem temple - a source of national pride for the people of Judea as evidenced by the words of the unidentified disciple in the Mark text - would be destroyed. Of course, it was destroyed together with much of the rest of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. The only remnant of this Temple still standing today is the Wailing Wall, which is thought to be the Western Wall of the Second Temple.

The Wailing Wall testifies to the size of the Temple, as it is "57 meters tall, or 187 feet, built of thick, corroded limestone, and is close to 500 meters in length." (Wailing Wall or Western Wall) So, when Jesus predicts its destruction, it likely shocked the disciples. How could such a beautiful, substantial building be so utterly destroyed? Well, according to some of the current crop of anti-apologists, the reason that the disciples wouldn't have been shocked is because Jesus never made the prediction noted in the Synoptic Gospels at all. According to JWW,
Many have proposed that Jesus’s prediction related to the destruction was inserted to legitimize the text and make it appear that He had some prophetic power. If this was the case, the Gospels would clearly date to after the event (post AD 70), as the writers already knew the outcome before they cleverly inserted the prediction.
I have several problems with this "insertion theory," and JWW handles the first two quite capably. First, the "insertion theory" view presupposes that Jesus couldn't prophesy. Let's face it, the entire insertion theory has been constructed because of the viewpoint that Jesus wasn't really the Son of God who could prophesy because that would require the existence of the supernatural. Almost certainly, a significant number of the people proposing the "insertion theory" are atheists who reject any type of supernatural involvement exists at all. They are, after all, skeptics - but really only skeptical of things that they don't immediately find agreeable to their world view. JWW further writes:
But, this sort of skepticism is clearly rooted in the presupposition I describe on this website and in my book, Cold-Case Christianity. If we begin from a position of philosophical naturalism (the presumption that nothing supernatural is possible), we have no choice but to describe the supernatural elements we find in the Gospels as lies. From a naturalistic perspective, prophetic claims are impossible. The skeptic, therefore, must find another explanation for Jesus’s prediction related to the temple; critics typically move the date of authorship beyond the date when the prophecy was fulfilled to avoid the appearance of supernatural confirmation.
A great amount of the consternation felt by many from the inclusion of miracles in the Gospel accounts is understandable: miracles are outside of our ordinary experience (hence, the description of "miracle"). The Bible is full of miracles. The central pillar of the entire Bible is God's entering of the world through His Son, Jesus, and resurrecting from the dead to save people from their sins -- maybe not as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea, but the most important miracle of all. If a person has the naturalistic world view described by JWW, then these miraculous events simply cannot happen. There has to be a natural explanation for them, and so skeptics forever dream up natural alternatives to the miraculous accounts.

But simply because an event is unlikely to happen on the basis that it is outside of our ordinary experience doesn't mean it cannot happen. By limiting what is possible truth to those things that can be explained by science (the true "priests" of the naturalists, i.e., the people who hold knowledge of the truth), the Naturalists limit potential streams of knowledge. In fact, it is the Naturalists who have an anemic base of knowledge. By limiting their view of truth to only those things that can be explained by science creates a very limited understanding of the universe. As has often been pointed out, the proposition that "knowledge isn't knowledge unless it is confirmed by science" cannot itself be confirmed by science.

Still, people with this anemic viewpoint battle endlessly against the miracle accounts in the Bible because, in this limited world view, miracles are impossible. Yet, clearly Jesus prophesies about something that will happen around 40 years in the future (measured from the time he made the prophesy). So, what to do? Of course, it must be the case that the prophesy was inserted later -- after Jerusalem fell. But there are several problems with this view. The first is ably stated by JWW: If the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple, why didn't the authors of the Gospel include the fall of Jerusalem in the Gospels themselves? Because it would look like they created the prophesy (putting words in Jesus mouth) after the fact to make it look like he did prophesy? But if that's true, why would the writers be shy about inserting the fulfillment of this single prophesy when they have included other prophesies and their fulfillments in the Gospels?
In addition to this, on several occasions Jesus predicted His own resurrection. The gospel writers readily described the fulfillment of these predictions in the resurrection accounts. Why would they be willing to describe this aspect of fulfilled prophecy, but shy away from discussing the destruction of the temple?In addition, Luke freely admitted that he was not an eyewitness to the events in his gospel. He told us from the onset that he was writing at some point well after the events actually occurred, working as a careful historian. Why not include the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple?
In addition to the foregoing, I have some additional problems that I believe to be worthy of consideration. First, if the destruction of the temple prophesy was inserted after the fact, why isn't the prophesy more detailed? Bishop John A.T. Robinson makes this point in his book, Redating the New Testament, when he points out his reasons for believing all of the New Testament books were written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. His point is that the Fall of Jerusalem was a central point in the history of the Jewish people, and if it occurred prior to the writing of the Gospels or letters, it would have been included. He acknowledges that the Gospels prophesy that Jerusalem will fall, but he notes that the Gospels don't have the specificity one would expect if they were written after the fact.

The same holds true here for the fall of the Temple. Look at what Jesus says in all three accounts: "Not one stone will be left upon another..." and "Not one stone here will be left upon another..." and "There will not be left one stone upon another...." But obviously, there was multiple stones left one upon another -- the Wailing Wall. It is 187 feet tall and 500 feet long. That's obviously one "stone left upon another." If the writing were made after the Temple fell and was inserted to prove how prophetic Jesus had been, wouldn't the prophesies say instead, "Not one stone will be left upon another except the western wall which will be left standing..."? (BTW, I will leave it for another time to explain how the western wall can be left standing and the prophesy was still fulfilled.) In other words, this doesn't read like a report of what happened if reported "after the fact."

Also, if the destruction of the temple prophesy was inserted later, doesn't that imply the existence of something that existed prior to the fall of Jerusalem? In other words, isn't this an admission that the text of all three Gospels was primarily written prior to 70 AD? Doesn't that raise doubts about the old dates given to the books by scholars who date the books in the Second Century AD?

Additionally if the prophesy was inserted later, how come there is no early versions of the three Synoptics without the prophesies in them? In other words, I know of no early versions of any of the Synopitcs where this prophesied destruction of the Temple is missing. And moreover, notice that the people doing the inserting would have to insert the language into three separate Gospels that were sent to three separate communities. If they inserted it in just one of the Synoptic Gospels, how did it get spread to the others where each of the versions has variations on what was said yet still have the same core of information?

Sorry, but I don't believe that those advocating the insertion theory have done nearly enough to get this to be seriously considered as an alternative to the long held belief that Jesus made these prophesies. Merely doubting the existence of miracles does not allow the skeptics to free-form possible natural solutions without evidence.


Joe Hinman said…
Good article BK. Very interesting problem. My comment is an attack on the critics that is the people you are arguing agaisnt. That is to say the whole issue framed by then in the first place is in the old model of gospel authorship as a single individual. If they understood the modern concept of community as author they would not try to say that the redaction theory means late date for the Gospel. It means there' a Gospel in progress over several decades; one can no more say the Gospel has a late date than to say the community had a late date.

Anonymous said…
So Jesus predicted not one stone would be standing...

And here is a picture of western wall of the temple, where many stones still stand today.

Perhaps Jesus could see the writing on the wall, as it were, and guessed that soon the Jews would rebel, and the Romans would crush them and would destroy the temple. Perhaps it was not a prophecy, not in the mystical sense, but just a good guess.

That does allow you to date Mark earlier, but perhaps not much: "If the tradition of Markan authorship is accepted, Irenaeus implies that the Gospel of Mark was written after the death of Peter, traditionally set in Rome c. 65 CE." (from here).

Joe Hinman said…
It's now so well established that it is consensus that the Gospel story as we know it with empty tomb was circulating in writing by AD 55 at least, Mark was not the first written just the first of the canonical gospels. we went over all of this way back on that first theology web.

the wailing wall is not part of the temple complex it was part of the outside permiter, so it wasn't included in the prophesy, the rest of the complex is gone, Jesus died in 33 long before any of the conflicts that led to destruction. so it was fulfilled.
Anonymous said…
We certainly agreed there was a narrative by AD 55. Whether it was in writing was not established, though I am not bothered either way. More importantly, the claim that it included the empty tomb was not established. As I recall, this was based on the Gospel of Peter being early, but it is pretty well known that that work was heavily edited later, and you were unable to give any evidence that the empty tomb was in the original. It is entirely plausible (and likely in my opinion) that Mark invented the Empty Tomb, and the later editor of Peter then copied that into the other gospel.

When Jesus died is not really the issue. The question is, when was the "prophecy" written. If Mark was writing in 65 AD, prophesying that the temple would fall when conflict was imminent, then it was not so great.

Maybe Jesus made dozens of prophecies, and this one came true (or seemed likely to be about to come true), so stuck in the mind, and was therefore saved. Worth pointing out that some of his failures were also saved. Matthew 12:40 he said he would be buried three days and three nights; Bible says more like one day and two nights. And Matthew 16:28, when Jesus prophesised his return within the lifetime of some of his followers.

JBsptfn said…
Pix, Matthew 16:28 is talking about Jesus's resurrection and going up to Heaven to sit on the right hand of God, not his return.
Anonymous said…
Okay... So who saw that, whilst still alive?

And why, in the Lord's Prayer, do you hope for the kingdon to arrive here ("your kingdom come on eartyh as it is in heaven")?

JBsptfn said…
All the disciples saw that. The part where he ascends to heaven to be on the right hand of god in his kingdom is in Acts 1.
Anonymous said…
Acts 1:9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

They saw Jesus go into a cloud, and then he was lost to sight. Are you saying that the cloud was heaven?

Also, I am still curious why Christians routinely pray for God's kingdom to come here.
Joe Hinman said…
Acts 1:9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

They saw Jesus go into a cloud, and then he was lost to sight. Are you saying that the cloud was heaven?

of course not, it's just a literary seaway, because they didn't know about other dimensions,

Also, I am still curious why Christians routinely pray for God's kingdom to come here.

Kingdom is not a place it/s a sphere of influence, it's already here, The prayier is for peole to realize and acknkoweldge the truth of God.
Anonymous said…
Talk me through this, then Joe. What exactly was Jesus saying the disciples would see. Was he saying they would see a "sphere of influence"? If so, was there not already a "sphere of influence" when Jesus preached? Or was Jesus not influencing people?

A big problem with prophecy is that they get retrofitted. Jesus said one thing, but if we try really hard we can say that really he meant something else. Is that what is happening here? It surely looks like it.

With regards to the Lord's Prayer, why does it express a hope for God's Kingdom to come, when really it means a hope for people to realise it is here already? Again, it looks like Christians mangling the text to suit their beliefs.


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