For most evangelicals and many other Christians, especially Rapturists, one of the favorite gospel passages is that known as the Olivet Discourse. The passage is so named because in its occurrence in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 24) and in the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 13) takes place on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. Unfortunately for those using it as a horoscope of Earth’s future, it has already been fulfilled, at least the core prediction of its original form, found in the Lucan version.
The nearly identical, but less altered and closer to the original, exchange and discourse in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 21:5-37) happens within the temple compound. Its central prediction (in verses 20-24) is the siege of the city of Jerusalem ending in its complete destruction and subsequent deportation of its entire population. That is exactly what happened in 70 CE, at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt that began in 66 CE.
The Great Jewish Revolt was not the first uprising of the population of Palestine against the empire of Rome, of which it had been a part since Pompey’s conquest of the Levant in 63 BCE, after which the Hasmoneans continued as client-kings.
Earlier rebellions against Rome
Less than two decades after the conquest, Hezekiah ben Garon declared himself king of the Jews upon beginning a rising in Galilee in 47 BCE. This rebellion was put down by Galilee’s governor, Herod the Idumean, later known as Herod the Great. Herod overthrew the last Hasmonean in 37 BCE, to the great relief of everyone, and was recognized as king of the Jews by the Empire.
Hezekiah son Hananiah was a venerated sage contemporary with Hillel and Shammai.
Upon Herod’s death in 4 BCE, four risings broke out across his former kingdom in Idumea, Judea (with which Samaria had been merged since 110 BCE), Perea, and Galilee. The legate of Syria, Publius Quinctilius Varus, crushed the revolt rather easily, crucifying over two thousand of its leading members.
After the revolt was settled, Herod’s son Archaelaus inherited Judea (which indluded Samaria and Idumea); Herod’s son Antipater (aka Antipas) inherited Galilee, Perea, and the Decapolis; Herod’s son Philip inherited Iturea, Trachonitis, Batanea, Gaulanitis, and Panaeas; and Herod’s daughter Salome inherited Philistia. This settlement makes rather inconvenient the assertion in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew that after returning from Egypt Jesus’ parents, originally from Bethlehem, relocated to Galilee since Judea was ruled by “Herod’s son”; so was Galilee.
The census for tax purposes mentioned in the Gospel of Luke took place in 6 CE after Rome had removed Archaelaus and made Judea a province under direct Roman rule as a subprovince of the province of Syria. Quirinius, legate of Syria at the time, ordered the census for the new acquisition, which was the only area covered by the census, not the “whole world”. Judas the Galilean took advantage of the resentment to start another rising from his home base. After this was put down, the Romans moved the capital of the subprovince to Caesarea Palestinae.
In 36 CE, the Samaritan Prophet and his followers occupied the summit of Mt. Gerizim, upon which Herod the Great had rebuilt their temple destroyed by the Hasmonean ruler of Judea, John Hyrcanus, in 110 BCE. Though their only goal was a separate subprovince under Roman rule, the local prefect, Pontius Pilatus, crushed their benign demonstration with such brutality that Rome recalled him.
From 41 through 44 CE, Herod’s grandson Agrippa managed to cobble his grandfather’s kingdom back together with himself recognized as king of the Jews. Upon his death, the entirety reverted to direct Roman rule, but under a Jewish procurator from Alexandria named Tiberius Julius Alexander.
Around 45 CE, Theudas the prophet, probably of Judea, led his followers to the wilderness around the Jordan River, claiming to be the Messiah. The minor revolt was easily dispatched.
The sons of Judas the Galilean, Jacob and Simon, rose up against Roman rule in 46 CE, and carried out a guerrilla war for two years. At the end in 48 CE, they were both crucified.
The year after those crucifixions, 49 CE, rumors of impending destruction of the temple by Ventidius Cumanus, procurator of Judea, led to riots which caused the trampling deaths of thousands in the city for Passover.
In 52 CE, Galilean anti-Samaritan extremists led by brothers Alexander and Eleazar ben Dinaeus invaded Samaria, causing destruction, mayhem, murder, rape, and robbery. Basically, they were bandits mouthing political slogans.
A charismatic individual known to history only as the Egyptian Prophet led an uprising in 58 CE that ended in a climactic battle on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus ben Ananias
According to the renowned Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus, a commoner and farmer named Jesus ben Ananias appeared in Jerusalem during Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, in 62 CE preaching the coming destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Not content with disturbing temple-goers, he then paraded around all the streets of the city, preaching his message.
Though Josephus does not mention it, I can say without a doubt that people were waving palm branches and shouting Hosannas. How do I know this to state it so unequivocally? Because palm branches and Hosannas were always part of Sukkot, as they still are today. They are not part of Pesach, or Passover, and never have been. Palm branches and Hosannas for Passover are like Christmas trees and carols for Easter.
Well, the temple priests and elders of the Sanhedrin, along with the business leaders present, who were trying to conduct ceremonies and collect wagonloads of money from tourists, took exception to the gloom Jesus ben Ananias was spreading, arrested him and took him into the basilica at the south end of the temple compound, its meeting place at the time, where they interrogated and beat him, trying to goad him into either silence or an actionable outburst.
Failing, they sent him to the Roman procurator, Lucceius Albinus, accusing him of sedition and suspicion of rebellion. Hearing their case and hearing from the defendant nothing but more of the same, the procurator had him flogged. Jesus ben Ananias never cried out except to say “Woe to Jerusalem!” repeatedly. Albinus decided he was just crazy, and let him go.
Jesus ben Ananias continued preaching about the impending destruction of Jerusalem until his death during the Siege from a rock thrown by a Roman catapault.
The festival at which Jesus ben Ananias chose to appear, by the way, is the one at which Jews look forward to the coming of the Messiah. The name Ananias is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Hanina, and it is not beyond possibility that this Jesus, or Yeshua, was the son of the earlier sage Hanina ben Hezekiah ben Garon.
The Great Jewish Revolt
Despite unrest in the past decade, the Romans were unprepared for the violence of the uprising that began in 66 CE, at first centered in Judea, but then spreading to Galilee, Idumea, and even Samaria. The legions retook Samaria first, destroying its capital of Sebaste and burning the temple atop Mt. Gerizim (rebuilt by Herod in 19 BCE). Galilee fell in 69 CE, which left Judea and Idumea.
While the Romans had been reconquering their perimeter, six factions of rebels fought for supremacy among themselves, only uniting as the Romans closed their siege lines. These factions included the traditional Temple Guard and priests, the Galilean Zealots, Judean peasants, the Judean Zealots, the Sikarii, and the Idumeans. The members of the fledging cult then known as The Way or the Nazarenes fled the city to the Nabatean capital of Petra.
The siege lasted six months, with tens of thousands dying of starvation and disease, plus those caught when trying to escape whom the Romans crucified within sight of the walls, thousands of them. At the height of the Siege, the entire city was surrounded with crucified people. Until the accessible countryside ran out of wood, that is.
After the capitulation, captive rebels were forced to tear the city down to ground level, leaving only the western wall of the city and three towers, according to Josephus, who was there on site. The Romans crucified only a few of the survivors; one of the captive leaders, in fact, made it to Rome (John of Giscala). Many of the survivors of the siege and some captives from elsewhere in Palestine were deported to imperial territories in North Africa west of Egypt, where they became ancestors to the Jewish ethnic division known as the Maghrebim.
Note that above I stress “of the city” when referring to the western wall left standing. It was the western wall of the entire city, not the western wall of the temple mount, which was on the east side of the city. The mount and compound of the temple, which occupied the eastern extremity of the city, were dismantled even more completely than the rest of the city. During the siege, the Temple had caught fire and was utterly destroyed, with the fire burning hot enough to liquefy all the gold in its treasury. To get it all, the legionnaires forced the captives to reduce it thoroughly to ground level and sift through all the detritus.
In the second year of the Great Jewish Revolt, the Samaritans, previously quiet, joined the revolt, but their rebellion was swiftly ended by Sextus Vettulenus Cerealis, legate of Syria, who destroyed their temple atop Mount Gerizim near Neapolis (Nablus).
The Sikarii, many of them escapees from the Siege of Jerusalem, held out for three years in Herod's fortress at Masada. When the Roman finally breached the walls with laboriously constructed siege engines, they found all inhabitants dead by their own hands.
At the time of the revolt, there was not only the temple in Jerusalem and that atop Mount Gerizim, but another in Egypt, at Leontoplis in the "Land of Onias". After the capture of Masada, the prefect of Egypt, the same Tiberius Julius Alexander who had previously been procurator of Judea, destroyed the temple of Onias to prevent it becoming a staging ground for rebellion.
Of the eschatological discourse on the Mount of Olives
In the discourse, Jesus talks of other signs for the coming of the Son of Man, although he stresses after naming several that seeing them does not necessarily that the end is imminent. Then he tells the Parable of the Blossoming Fig Tree, which some quite mistakenly and on little basis say is a prophecy of the revival of a Jewish nation-state. In reality, when he talks of the fig tree blooming and knowing therefore that “spring is nigh”, it is the same as saying, “When you see the dogwoods blooming, you know you’re about to get a cold snap”, nothing more.
The version of the discourse in Matthew and Mark replaces the prophecy in Luke about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies with absurd anachronism about a future “abomination of desolation”. For Jesus of Nazareth to have issued such a prediction in the fourth decade of the Common Era (c. 33 CE) would have been as ridiculous as me predicting in the year 2015 that there will be a civil war in the United States when the southern states attempt to secede from the Union in order to preserve slavery.
The purported “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” took place even longer before Jesus’ day than the Civil War is from now. It would be more like me predicting the War of 1812.
Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Samerina (Samaria), Yehud (Judea), Phoenicia, Philistia, and Egypt from the Achaemenid Empire of Iran in 332 BCE. After he died in 323 BCE, war broke out among his generals over the spoils.
At the end of the Wars of the Diadochi (the successors) in 301 BCE, the province of Samareia with its sub-province of Judeia lay in the hands of the Ptolemys of Egypt. Their Seleucid rivals of Antioch in Syria took Samareia in 219 BCE and Judeia in 198 BCE.
Thirty years later (168 BCE), the Selucid king in Antioch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, invaded Ptolemaic Egypt to take that dynasty’s last bit of territory, but was forced out by the latter’s allies from the Roman Republic. On his return to his capital at Antioch, his army stopped in the vicinity of Jerusalem, seat of Judeia, then a sub-province of Samareia. This is when the “abomination of desolation” is supposed to have taken place.
The story in the Apocrypha book of 1 Maccabees (written by a pro-Hasmonean propagandist) is that Antiochus stormed the temple mount, breeched compound, invaded the inner sanctum, and erected a statue to Zeus in the Holy of Holies. Josephus’ account is mch more prosaic; according to him, Antiochus helped restore the high priest, Menelaus son of Simon of the Oniad dynasty, who had been deposed by the previous high priest, his brother Jason, while the Seleucid army was in Egypt. To pay off his benefactor, Menelaus plundered the temple treasury.
The story about an “abomination of desolation” made a better story for propagandists of the Hasmonean dynasty. The accuracy of this “prophecy” in the book of Daniel was greatly enhanced by the fact that it was probably written by the same author as the one who recorded its fulfillment in 1 Maccabees (among other commonalities, they make the same historical errors).
Whatever their actual nature, the events occurred a decade before that actual outbreak of the Second Judean Civil War, sometimes called the Maccabean Revolt, which happened over the question of succession after the death of high priest Alcimus in 159 BCE. Rising in noble answer to such an egregious offence sounds much better than the ignoble quest of greed and ambition that it actually was.
So, the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse? For the most part already fulfilled, and the remainder vague at best. Even James Ussher, to whose chronology of history so many are committed, knowingly or otherwise (he was the one who originated the date of 4004 BCE for Creation), explicitly stated this to be the case. He felt it so strongly that he ended his chronology with the events that led up to the temple’s destruction.