Sunday, May 22, 2022
Today I have a special guest piece by Samuel Breckenridge, which was inspired by our Impossible Faith material.
An overlooked piece of evidence for Partial Preterism specifically, but also Christianity as a whole even for a Futurist, are a series of overt displays of divine power shortly preceding the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Such signs had been promised by Christ in Luke 21, demonstrating that it was this destruction of the Temple that he was speaking of rather than that of a yet-to-be Third Temple. (Barring a "double-fulfillment" scenario, as J.P noted in his excellent introduction to Preterism.)
These overt displays of divine power, attested to as they are by every historical source that discusses the Jewish-Roman War at length, including our most esteemed contemporary non-Christian sources Tacitus and Josephus, provides us with an argument for Christianity itself as well. In a way, a mirror to the Impossible Faith argument. As The Impossible Faith demonstrates God's vindication of Christ and his chosen through the resurrection, this can be used to demonstrate His associated shaming of those who reject Him through the stripping of their honor.
Christ famously, in Luke 21, predicts for the Temple that "the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another". When asked "when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?", he replies that preceding it will be "fearful events and great signs from heaven".
This particular part of his prophecy was fulfilled in a much more dramatic fashion than many realize, and we have the reports of our very best non-Christian sources for this period to prove that.
Firstly, Tacitus. J.P. has already covered Tacitus' absolutely stellar reputation for accuracy in his article on Tacitus against Christ-mythers, so the man needs no further introduction here. In Book 5, chapter 13 of his Histories, when discussing what took place in the leadup to the Jewish-Roman War that would see the Temple destroyed, Tacitus reports:
"Omens had indeed occurred…armies were seen running about up in the skies, their weapons shining red. The temple was illuminated with light from the sky. Out of nowhere, the gates of the temple suddenly opened. A greater than mortal voice cried 'The gods are departing', and at that same moment there was a mighty disturbance, as if something was going out. Some few interpreted these omens as fearful, but in most there was a firm persuasion… [that these signs meant that they] were to acquire a worldwide empire".
Josephus and his significance, similarly, needs no introduction for a regular Tekton reader. In Book 6, chapter 5, section 3 of his History of the Jewish War, he goes into detail on these signs, writing:
"They neither heeded nor credited the manifest signs that foretold the coming destruction, but, as if thunderstruck and bereft of eyes and mind, disregarded the plain warnings of God. So it was when there was a star in the shape of a sword which stood over the city...
So it was again when, before the Jews' rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, at the time when the people had come in great crowds to Jerusalem for Passover, on the eighth day of the month Nisan, at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone around the altar and the Temple that it appeared to be bright daytime; which lasted for half an hour…
At the same Passover also a sacrificial cow, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the Temple. And the gate of the Temple, which was of brass and vastly heavy...which rested upon a base reinforced with iron and had bolts fastened very deep into the stone foundation, was seen to open of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night.
A few days after this Passover festival, on the twenty-first day of the month of Iyar, a 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…for, before sunset, throughout the whole country chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding the cities.
Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner court of the temple as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that…they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a voice like that of a great multitude saying 'Let us depart from here.'".
Having Josephus report these events is incredible enough, and there are several factors that add even more weight to this already tremendous report. Firstly, his report here is extremely early, written less than a decade following the Jewish-Roman War. We know this because Vespasian is noted as having read the work, and Vespasian died less than ten years after the conflict ended. In Book 1, section 9 of Against Apion Josephus writes: "I have composed a true history of that whole war, and of all the particulars that occurred therein...those that had the supreme command in that war, Vespasian and Titus...to them I presented those books first of all". The Jewish-Roman War ended in 73 AD and Vespasian died in 79 AD, meaning Josephus must have written the work less than a decade after the war.
Josephus informs us in this same passage that a number of other notables attested to the accuracy of his work on the Jewish-Roman War, and the list reads as if it were taken from Who's Who That Would Know What Was Going On In First-Century Israel. In full, he writes:
"I have composed a true history of that whole war, and of all the particulars that occurred therein ...I was so well assured of the truth of what I related, that I first of all appealed to those that had the supreme command in that war, Vespasian and Titus, as witnesses for me, for to them I presented those books first of all, and after them to many of the Romans who had been in the war. I also sold them to many of our own men...among whom were Julius Archelaus, Herod, a person of great gravity, and king Agrippa himself, a person that deserved the greatest admiration. Now all these men bore their testimony to me, that I had the strictest regard to truth; who yet would not have dissembled the matter, nor been silent, if I, out of ignorance, or out of favor to any side, either had given false colors to actions, or omitted any of them".
From Agrippa, the sitting king of Israel himself, to Julius Archelaus, king of the nearby country of Commagene, to Titus, who himself lead the siege and destroyed the Temple, those who attested to the accuracy of the report are all the absolute best-informed individuals on this war and its surrounding events. This is in addition to the hefty credentials that Josephus himself brings to the table. Josephus was a general on the Jewish side of the war as he he tells us in Book 2, chapter 20, section 4 of his History of the Jewish War. He also himself lived in Jerusalem at the time the signs were taking place as his autobiography makes clear and so would have personally been an eyewitness to the major signs such as the armies in the sky. Even if he had, say, slept through the light from heaven shining down on the Temple in the middle of the night lighting it up bright as day for half an hour, the very next morning it would have been all the town was talking about and a historian of his caliber could not have failed to gather the facts.
This factor is what allows us to definitively refute the most common counter-argument you will hear: that these events are fabricated, simply legends or lies. Our sources make clear that the largest of these signs were seen by everyone in the city and throughout the country, it is not possible for them to have been simply invented accounts when we have contemporary sources who are as early as Josephus and as skeptical as Tacitus. Unless everyone in Israel and Jerusalem got together and said "let's pull a fast one on the world by saying we saw all these things", the notion that these are simply lies does not work. Entire nations cannot get away with fabricating stories about what they've seen. For those familiar with the argument for Jesus' resurrection, we have here the case from the witnesses multiplied by a hundred thousand.
Those who would deny that these events occurred find themselves in a conundrum. If we cannot use multiple contemporary sources coming from opposite sides of a recent war with the accuracy and vigorous research of Tacitus, the esteem and connections of Josephus, the veracity of which were attested to by a laundry list of everybody involved with the events, which report events of a scale that should render them among the easiest things in all of history to check out...then how can any truth in history be established? Any consistent standard for determining historical truth must either accept the occurrence of these events, or else throw out any claims about even the possibility of learning historical truths from the time before HD video. (And as video editing software gets more and more effective at a lower and lower price, not even that will be tenable for long.)
So anyone hearing through the Impossible Faith argument about how God vindicated Christ and restored his honor through the resurrection should pay attention: as surely as The Impossible Faith proves that those obedient to God's promises will be vindicated and honored, the Jerusalem signs show that those who disregard His warnings will be condemned and shamed.
Samuel M. Breckenridge is a database manager with a lifelong passion for historical apologetics that started with Tekton. He is the writer of The Christian’s Arsenal.