Jesus’ Mysterious Prophecy About the Temple
We have good evidence that the Gospels were written before the destruction of the Temple, not after.
Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman argues that the Gospels were written between A.D. 60 and 115.
I’d put the beginning of that range a little earlier and say they were written between 50 and 115, so he and I are in general agreement on the broad time frame in which they were composed.
Where we disagree is on the part of the range in which they were written.
I think they were written toward the first part of the range, between 50 and 70.
However, like many scholars, Ehrman thinks Mark was written around 70, Matthew and Luke around 80-85, and John around 90-95.
Why does he think that?
The Destruction of the Temple
A key event used—one way or another—by virtually all scholars when dating the Gospels is the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of its temple in A.D. 70.
The reason is that the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all report that Jesus repeatedly predicted this event.
Many scholars, including Ehrman, think that this suggests they were written after the event. He writes:
It is frequently noted that the earliest Gospels seem to presuppose the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and of the Jewish temple, as happened in 70 CE.
And so, for example, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus indicates that the nation of Israel will be destroyed (12:9) and that the temple will not be left standing (13:1-2).
Matthew is even more explicit: here Jesus tells a parable in which God is portrayed as burning the city and killing its inhabitants (22:8).
Luke has similar passages (e.g., 21:24).
All these passages seem to presuppose that by the time the books were written, the destruction had happened.
Is Ehrman right about this?
Ehrman considers an important objection:
Someone may respond by saying that in these passages Jesus is predicting the destruction of the [sic] Jerusalem, not looking back on it. Fair enough!
Good for Ehrman! He deserves props for acknowledging that not every prediction is made after the fact.
Jerusalem had been invaded an conquered multiple times, and its temple had already been destroyed once (by the Babylonians).
The fear of the nation’s holiest site being destroyed again—this time to the hated Romans—was real. Others worried about it (cf. John 11:48-50), and Jesus wasn’t the only person to predict that it would happen.
In fact, he wasn’t even the only person named Jesus to predict it would happen. The Jewish historian Josephus records that in A.D. 62 a man named Jesus son of Ananus began to prophesy exactly the same thing (Jewish War 6:5:3).
So the mere fact the Gospels record the prediction doesn’t mean they were written after the event.
To show that, you’d need more.
So how does Ehrman argue his case? He writes:
But when is a Christian author likely to record a prediction of Jesus in order to show that he predicted something accurately?
Obviously, in order to show that Jesus knew what he was talking about, an author would want to write about these predictions only after they had been fulfilled.
Otherwise the reader would be left hanging, not knowing if Jesus was a true prophet or not.
So even if we assume that Jesus did predict such things, the fact that they are written so confidently by later authors suggests that they did so after the events – that is, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE.
Ehrman’s argument is seriously flawed.
It is not true that “an author would want to write about these predictions only after they had been fulfilled.”
The authors of the Gospels were all Christians, and they believed Jesus was a true prophet.
The audiences for whom the Gospels were written were also composed of Christians who believed Jesus was a true prophet.
They therefore would want to know what this prophet foretold, and the authors would want to tell them.
Space limitations constrained the size of ancient books, so an author might not be able to record everything he knew a prophet said, but he would want to at least report the prophet’s most important predictions—even if they had not yet been fulfilled.
Thus the Evangelists—and other New Testament authors—also report that Jesus is going to come again in the future.
But we’d never accept the argument that the New Testament authors would want to report predictions of the Second Coming “only after they had been fulfilled”!
Like the Second Coming, the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple were important prophecies—important enough that they are mentioned explicitly and repeatedly in three of the Gospels (and reflected in the fourth).
They are precisely the kind of thing that the Evangelists would want to record to let Christians know what Jesus had said would be happening in the future.
A Pre-70 Evangelist’s Perspective
Suppose that you were a Christian writing a Gospel before the destruction of Jerusalem, for an audience that still has many, many Jewish Christians in it.
And suppose you know that Jesus prophesied the temple would be destroyed “in this generation.”
Do you say to yourself, “Should I record this? Nah! Nobody’s going to care about a national/religious cataclysm like that”?
Do you say, “Hmm. I better wait and see if this prophecy is fulfilled before I write about it”?
Of course not!
You tell your audience about this important, yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy, just like you tell them about the Second Coming.
Ehrman’s argument is without merit.
On the Other Hand . . .
The fact the Gospels contain the prediction also doesn’t mean that they were written before 70.
They contain many prophecies of Jesus which were already fulfilled when they were written (e.g., “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise”; Mark 9:31).
So, like Ehrman, I also need to offer something more if I want to argue that Jesus’ prophecy about the temple was not yet fulfilled when the Gospels were written.
It so happens I’ve recently been doing a detailed, multi-angle study on just that subject.
Space limitations constrain the size of blog posts, so I can’t share anything like the full results of that study, but let me give you just one argument, in capsule form.
The Second Coming
We’ve already noted that the Gospels contain an important prediction that almost everyone agrees has not yet been fulfilled—the Second Coming of Christ.
What we haven’t previously noted is that the passages in which Jesus most extensively discusses the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) also contain predictions of an event that looks very much like the Second Coming.
Either the Evangelists recorded prophecies of the Second Coming right next to prophecies of the destruction of the temple or they recorded prophecies of a different kind of coming in conjunction with those about the temple.
Either way, it would have been very easy for the first Gospel readers to think that Jesus predicted that the Second Coming would happen in proximity to the destruction of the temple.
That tells us something about when the Gospels were written, because if they were written after A.D. 70, the Evangelists would not want to give their audience the impression that the prophecy of the Second Coming had failed to occur on schedule, when the temple was destroyed.
Had they been writing after that event, they would have made it clear that the Second Coming was something distinct, that Jesus hadn’t said it would occur with the destruction of the temple.
We thus have good evidence that the Gospels—or at least those that explicitly contain the prophecy of the temple’s destruction (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)—were written before it was fulfilled, not after.