The question of whether the early Christians were disappointed in their expectations regarding some calamitous end-of-the-world event crops up repeatedly both in academic and popular theologizing and continues to be a major factor in the modern discrediting of the New Testament. Sitting in Brussels airport the other day waiting for my friend Wes to arrive from Glasgow, I resumed my slow intermittent reading of Karen Armstrong’s book The Bible: The Biography (see also ‘A biography of the Bible and the loss of peace’) and arrived at this paragraph:
The Jesus movement was becoming controversial even before the disaster of 70. Christians, like all the other Jewish groups, were shocked to the core when they saw Herod’s magnificent shrine reduced to a pile of burnt, stinking masonry. They may have dreamed of replacing Herod’s temple but nobody had envisaged life without a temple at all. But the Christians also saw its destruction as an apokalypsis, a ‘revelation’ or ‘unveiling’ of a reality that had been there all along but had not been seen clearly before – namely that Judaism was finished. The temple ruins symbolized its tragic demise and were a sign that the end was approaching. God would now pull down the rest of the defunct world order and establish the kingdom. (64-65)
What she gets right – although she doesn’t provide any evidence for it – is that the early Christian movement would have seen the destruction of the temple as a sign that Judaism was finished. The significance of this world-shattering event in the theologically interpreted narrative of the New Testament is almost entirely overlooked by mainstream evangelicalism.
But there are a number of things, in my view, that Armstrong still gets wrong.
1. I doubt that the early Christians were so surprised by the war and its devastating outcome. I’m not sure what level of historical-critical confidence we may have in Jesus’ prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, but widespread use of prophetic texts throughout the New Testament must have consistently raised the possibility in people’s minds that recalcitrant, rebellious Israel was on a broad path leading to national disaster.
2. Some Jewish apocalypticists may have imagined – though the relationship between apocalyptic language and reality is always difficult to assess – that God was about to press the big red button that would initiate cosmic disintegration and the introduction of a wholly new order of things. But by no means all – and I certainly do not think that this was the outlook of the New Testament, which I would argue shares the geopolitical realism of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the prophets is the wrath of God, whether against Israel or against the nations, presented as an end-of-the-world event.1
3. In the light of Jesus’ discourse on the mount of Olives, the apocalyptic or revelatory significance of the destruction of Jerusalem was not simply that second temple Judaism was finished but that the Son of Man – both as Jesus and as the community that identified itself with him – was vindicated for pursuing an alternative strategy of extreme faithfulness in the face of opposition. This is the template that Daniel 7-12 provides: the humiliation of disloyal Israel, the vindication of the faithful suffering saints – and, of course, the defeat of the pagan aggressor, which brings us to a final point.
4. Insofar as the destruction of the temple was thought to portend a subsequent ‘judgment’ that would in some way affect the ‘world’, I think the focus has to be on the challenge that this vindicated Jesus movement presented to the oikoumenē or ‘world’ or empire or culture of Greek-Roman paganism. This was the ‘defunct world order’ that the creator God, who had been the God of Israel, would eventually pull down and over which he would reign through the one who had been appointed Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.
It was a long and at times very distressing wait for this ‘triumph’, and inevitably adjustments and developments took place that moved the church some considerable distance beyond the language and outlook of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. In the face of opposition and persecution the faith of many grew cold, many would have become disillusioned, disappointed. But I do not think that the imminent eschatological expectations of either Jesus or the early church were fundamentally frustrated. On the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus – and not by way of Torah observance – the descendants of Abraham came to inherit the mighty empire that had for so long oppressed the people of God.