11 October 2015

The Little Apocalypse and the "abomination of desolation"

I learned a new Latin phrase recently, ‘Vaticinium ex eventu’, which signifies, ‘Prophecy from the event’.  Sometimes referred to as ‘retrodiction’ or ‘postdiction’, this is a literary vehicle in which a “prophet” predicts the occurrence of something that has already happened as a future event, only within the story the prediction takes place before the event.  It’s a sure-fire way of ensuring the accuracy of a prophecy.

Vaticinium ex eventu in the Bible

A good example of vaticinium ex eventu in the New Testament, other than the subject of this essay, is the number of times in the gospels that Jesus predicted his own crucifixion.  It makes good theater for literature, or actual theater, but the chances those actually happened are about the same as finding kosher or halal pork bacon.

The ‘vaticinium ex eventu’ is a major motif of prophecies in the Tanakh (aka “Old” Testament) as they were originally written; from the second century BCE onward, many were repurposed for the apocalyptic needs of various messianic cults of late Temple Judaism.  The prophecies in Second Isaiah (canonical Isaiah 40-55) about Cyrus the Great of Iran and in Zechariah and Haggai about Zerubbabel and Joshua are among the most notable.

The “prophecies” of Zerubbabel, the Davidic prince whom Darius made governor of the sub-province of Yehud (subordinate to the province of Samerina) and Joshua, the high priest, were later recast as prophecies of the Messiah ben David (or Messiah ben Judah) and the Righteous Priest (or Messiah ben Levi) from the second century BCE onward.  These eschatological figures were part of a four-person messianic team based on the Four Craftsmen in Zechariah 12:18-21 (the others being Elijah and the Messiah ben Joseph or Messiah ben Ephraim).

A note on the book of Isaiah

With regard to Isaiah, scholars have recognized for centuries that the single work as we have it is the composition of several writers over two or three centuries, maybe more. 

In addition to the above-mentioned Second Isaiah, First Isaiah is Isaiah 1-39 and Third Isaiah is Isaiah 56-66.  Much of First Isaiah was almost certainly written by eponymous prophet himself; Second Isaiah was written by an anonymous poet-prophet in the late Exilic and early post-Exilic period; Third Isaiah was the work of several writers over a broad period extending into the Hellenistic era.

Regarding First Isaiah, Isaiah 1-12, 15-23, and 28-33 are the passages probably written by Isaiah himself.  The oracles against Babylon in Isaiah 13-14, the “Apocalypse of Isaiah” in Isaiah 24-27, and the poems in Isaiah 34-35 were written by disciples of his or close associates.  The passages in Isaiah 36-39 were adapted entirely from 2 Kings 18-20.  In addition, the well-known passage about beating swords into plowshares and spear into pruning hooks in Isaiah 2:2-5 was copied from Micah 4:1-5 and interpolated nearly word-for-word.

The book of Daniel

Perhaps the premier example of vaticinium ex eventu in the Tanakh, the book of Daniel is a collection of ancient Canaanite tales of the wise prophet Danel reincarnated as the Jewish prophet Daniel in Babylonian captivity, with a collection of vaticinium ex eventu “prophecies” inserted into its second half.  These were clearly written by a Hasmonean propagandist, perhaps the same who wrote the “historical” 1 Maccabees, in which the events so “foretold” played out.

In this section of Daniel, we have another example of vaticinium ex eventu prophecies being repurposed, in this case twice, in situations two millennia apart.  Particularly in regard to Chapter 11, the prophecies of Daniel Part 2 have been appropriated since the twentieth century by evangelicals as warnings of the “Antichrist” and the End Times.  The earlier stage of recycling two millennia distant (actually, more like 1850 years) edited the original form of the Little Apocalypse in the Synoptic gospels into a coded reference to Hadrian’s “desecration” of the Temple Mount with pagan temples and shrines.

The book of Daniel includes sections written originally in three different languages.  While the book of Daniel in the Septuagint is, of course, all in Greek, its Palestinian edition, at least in the earliest copies, comes in both Aramaic and Hebrew in the same work.  The Aramaic original is composed of chapters 2-7; the Hebrew additions from the early Hasmonean era include chapters 1 and 8-12.  The Septuagint has further additions from the later second or early first century that were originally in Greek; these have been included as part of the canonical book by Roman Catholics and Eastern Christians, and as part of the Apocrypha by Protestants as Susannah, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Azariah, and the Song of the Three Young Men.

The “prophecies” in Daniel of the “abomination of desolation”

Rather than the entire set that “predicts” the rise and fall of empires, this discussion will focus solely on the part about the “abomination of desolation”.

 ‘And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and in their place set up an abomination of desolation, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.’ (Daniel 9:27)

‘Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt offering.  And they shall set up the abomination of desolation.’ (Daniel 11:31)

‘And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination of desolation set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.’ (Daniel 12:11)

The “fulfillment” of the Daniel “prophecies” in 1 & 2 Maccabees

The sequence of events laid out in 1 Maccabees, mistakes and all, demonstrate that if it and Daniel were not quilled by the same scribe, then the two were in the same camp.  The two verses most relevant to the “abomination of desolation” in it and in 2 Maccabees follow:

‘Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year (167 BCE), they erected an abomination of desolation upon the altar of burnt offering.’  (1 Maccabees 1:54a)

‘Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and call it the temple of Zeus Olympos, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus Xenia (the Friend of Strangers), as did the people who dwelt in that place.’ (2 Maccabees 6:1)

Historical background

You can find accounts of events leading up the so-called “abomination of desolation” and its consequences for the inhabitants of the province of Iudeia in 1 Maccabees 1; 2 Maccabees 4-6; Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 1; and Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, Chapter 5.  These clearly do not agree on every point.

At the end of the Wars of the Diadochi (the “Successors” to Alexander the Great) in 301 BCE, the province of Samareia (Samerina in Aramaic) with its sub-province of Iudeia (Yehud in Aramaic) lay in the hands of Ptolemy the Great of Egypt.  After a century of on-and-off fighting, the Seleucid rivals in Antioch of Syria took from the Ptolemies in Alexandria of Egypt Samareia in 219 BCE and Iudeia in 198 BCE.

Thirty years later (c. 168 BCE), the Seleucid king, 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 Iudeia, then a sub-province of Samareia.  There he stopped to restore the high priest Menelaus of the Oniad dynasty who had been desposed the previous incumbent, Jason, also of the Oniad dynasty and either brother or cousin to his rival.

Two years later, Antiochus IV felt it necessary to undertake a debt collection expedition to Jerusalem as Menelaus had neither paid in full for the seat of high priest the agreed upon bribe nor had he paid anything toward financially compensating his sponsor for his restoration.  To pay off his creditor, Menelaus plundered the temple treasury and took all of the golden objects from the Holy Place (the temple proper) and handed them over to the Seleucid monarch.

Shortly after his return to Antioch, the monarch dispatched an Athenian member of his court, one Geron, to abolish the Yahwist cults at Jerusalem and at Gerizim, and to replace them with Zeus Olympos at the first and Zeus Xenios (“Friend-of-Strangers”) at the second, complete with the appropriate statues/idols.  Some accounts tell of the sacrifice of pigs upon the altar, some of temple prostitutes being instituted.  THAT was the “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet”.

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 avarice and ambition that it actually was.

In the Little Apocalypse

In the three Synoptic gospels, as Jesus is leaving the temple with his disciples one day during Passion Week, one of them comments about how grand the place is and he responds by telling them that one day soon not one stone will remain standing upon another.  The gospels portray the disciples as amazed, asking when that will happen.  What then follows is often called the Little Apocalypse, or the Olivet Discourse, so named because of its literary setting on the Mount of Olives, the relevant passages being Mark 13:3-37, Matthew 24:3-50, and Luke 21:3-37.

This the discourse which includes, in the versions of all three Synoptics, the following well-known passage: ‘And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines; this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.’ (Mark 13:7-8, but more or less identical in all three).

In Mark and Matthew, the key event which will signal to the followers of the Way, or Nazoreans, or Chrestians/Christians that it is time to leave Jerusalem will be (keeping in mind this is a coded reference to more recent past events at the time it was written):

‘When you see the abomination of desolation set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away;  and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle.’ (Mark 13:14)

‘When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand),  then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house;  and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle.’  (Matthew 24:15)

Given that the “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” actually took place in 166 BCE and this speech was supposedly given in 27 CE, to be considered straight prophecy would make it a bit of an anachronism.

The signal event Luke provides through the mouth of his Jesus is more straightforward.

‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.’ (Luke 21:20-22)

In truth, it is not only more straightforward but refers to a separate event entirely, one separated by more than half a century from that in the other two.

Wars and rumors of wars

These past events “foretold” in the two versions of the Little Apocalypse really happened, so let’s take a look at what they are.

The “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” referred to the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE during the Great Jewish War of 66-73 CE.  The city fell in stages, and after seven months the Romans had full control of the city.  In the process of the reconquest, the temple burned to the ground.  After the siege ended, the entire city had burned, and Titus forced captives to dismantle everything remaining of the Temple Mount, including its surrounding wall.  Of the entire city, only three structures remained standing, the three towers built by Herod the Great on the Western Hill which had formed part of the praetorium. 

Titus also left standing the western wall on the opposite side of the city from the temple, to serve the garrison on site from the Legio X Fretensis, whose main body quartered in Caesarea.

Abomination of Desolation II

The new “abomination of desolation”, the one predicted in hindsight in the (current) Mark and Matthew versions, occurred after the Bar Kokhba War of 132-135.  Hadrian had decided to establish upon the ruins of Jerusalem, which remained uninhabited save for a small garrison from the above-mentioned legion, a colonia for army veterans, the Colonia Aelia Capitolina.  Though the revolt leading to the war did not start until 132, construction may have started up to ten years before, around 122.

After his armies had beaten the rebels, who probably never got near the city much less controlled it, Hadrian set about building a thoroughly pagan colony.  The main gate in the north, called the Damascus Gate today, opened to a triumphal arch and a bust of Hadrian just inside.  Where a small Asclepion (shrine to Asclepius, Greek god of healing) had stood since the days of Herod Agrippa I, Hadrian built a full temple to Serapis and Isis, which including shrines to Asclepius and Fortuna, and three sacred pools.  Just to the west of the temple lay a new forum, complete with statuary, i.e. “graven images”.

Atop the Temple Mount went a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus that was the largest in the entire empire.  Hadrian also constructed a temple to both Juno and Minerva, the other two members of the Capitoline triad, across the courtyard from the other.  An equestrian statue of Hadrian stood directly over the former site of the Holy of Holies of the former Jewish temple, and another of Antoninus Pius also graced the summit.

In the new civilian sector due north of the Western Hill, Hadrian placed another forum, and on its north side a temple to Venus, patron of Legio X Fretensis.  To the immediate east of that was a basilica housing a shrine to Jupiter.  From various inscription we know there were also shrines to Nemesis, Dionysus, Mars, the Gemini, Roma, Mercury, and Mithras.

Over the western gate, that used most by the legion, Hadrian placed a statue of one of their four symbols, a boar.

When Constantine’s mother Helena came to town, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus suddenly became the site of the Jewish temple; the temple to Juno-Minerva that of the Royal Stoa; the temple to Venus with its grotto the site of the Holy Sepulchre; its neighboring basilica with shrine to Jupiter the site of Gulgalta.  A few miles to the south, a cave up to that time held to be the birthplace of Mithras, and which had previously served that function for Adonis-Tammuz, was pronounced the scene of the Nativity of the new imperially favored deity.  In other words, they are all frauds.

A few more conclusions

First, the three versions of the Little Apocalypse opening with the protagonist of the gospels predicting the destruction of the temple tells us that the earlier version in Mark, preserved in Luke, was a vaticinium ex eventu of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, and probably composed no more than a decade afterwards along with the gospel written in Alexandria which contains it.

Second, the versions of Mark and Matthew “predicting” the past event of the most recent “abomination of desolation” show what we have today to be no earlier than around 140.

Third, Luke clearly borrowed from an earlier edition of Mark, and that and other signs lean toward the entire gospel being older than Matthew.


Below are the relevant passages from the works of Flavius Josephus covering the period of the so-called “abomination of desolation”, the original not the sequel.

Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 1, Paragraphs 1-2

1. AT the same time that Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes, had a quarrel with the sixth Ptolemy about his right to the whole country of Syria, a great sedition fell among the men of power in Judea, and they had a contention about obtaining the government; while each of those that were of dignity could not endure to be subject to their equals.  However, Onias, one of the high priests, got the better, and cast the sons of Tobias out of the city; who fled to Antiochus, and besought him to make use of them for his leaders, and to make an expedition into Judea.  The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.  But Onias, the high priest, fled to Ptolemy, and received a place from him in the Nomus of Heliopolis, where he built a city resembling Jerusalem, and a temple that was like its temple concerning which we shall speak more in its proper place hereafter.

2. Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar; against which they all opposed themselves, and the most approved among them were put to death.  Bacchides also, who was sent to keep the fortresses, having these wicked commands, joined to his own natural barbarity, indulged all sorts of the most extreme wickedness, and tormented the worthiest of the inhabitants, man by man, and threatened their city every day with open destruction, till at length he provoked the poor sufferers by the extremity of his wicked doings to avenge themselves.

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, Chapter 5

1. ABOUT this time, upon the death of Onias the high priest, they gave the high priesthood to Jesus his brother; for that son which Onias left [or Onias IV] was yet but an infant; and, in its proper place, we will inform the reader of all the circumstances that befell this child.  But this Jesus, who was the brother of Onias, was deprived of the high priesthood by the king, who was angry with him, and gave it to his younger brother, whose name also was Onias; for Simon had these three sons, to each of which the priesthood came, as we have already informed the reader.  This Jesus changed his name to Jason, but Onias was called Menelaus. Now as the former high priest, Jesus, raised a sedition against Menelaus, who was ordained after him, the multitude were divided between them both.  And the sons of Tobias took the part of Menelaus, but the greater part of the people assisted Jason; and by that means Menelaus and the sons of Tobias were distressed, and retired to Antiochus, and informed him that they were desirous to leave the laws of their country, and the Jewish way of living according to them, and to follow the king's laws, and the Grecian way of living.  Wherefore they desired his permission to build them a Gymnasium at Jerusalem.  And when he had given them leave, they also hid the circumcision of their genitals, that even when they were naked they might appear to be Greeks.  Accordingly, they left off all the customs that belonged to their own country, and imitated the practices of the other nations.

2. Now Antiochus, upon the agreeable situation of the affairs of his kingdom, resolved to make an expedition against Egypt, both because he had a desire to gain it, and because he contemned the son of Ptolemy, as now weak, and not yet of abilities to manage affairs of such consequence; so he came with great forces to Pelusium, and circumvented Ptolemy Philometor by treachery, and seized upon Egypt.  He then came to the places about Memphis; and when he had taken them, he made haste to Alexandria, in hopes of taking it by siege, and of subduing Ptolemy, who reigned there.  But he was driven not only from Alexandria, but out of all Egypt, by the declaration of the Romans, who charged him to let that country alone; according as I have elsewhere formerly declared.  I will now give a particular account of what concerns this king, how he subdued Judea and the temple; for in my former work I mentioned those things very briefly, and have therefore now thought it necessary to go over that history again, and that with great accuracy.

3. King Antiochus returning out of Egypt for fear of the Romans, made an expedition against the city Jerusalem; and when he was there, in the hundred and forty-third year of the kingdom of the Seleucidse, he took the city without fighting, those of his own party opening the gates to him.  And when he had gotten possession of Jerusalem, he slew many of the opposite party; and when he had plundered it of a great deal of money, he returned to Antioch.

4. Now it came to pass, after two years, in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of that month which is by us called Chasleu, and by the Macedonians Apelleus, in the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad, that the king came up to Jerusalem, and, pretending peace, he got possession of the city by treachery; at which time he spared not so much as those that admitted him into it, on account of the riches that lay in the temple; but, led by his covetous inclination, (for he saw there was in it a great deal of gold, and many ornaments that had been dedicated to it of very great value,) and in order to plunder its wealth, he ventured to break the league he had made.  So he left the temple bare, and took away the golden candlesticks, and the golden altar [of incense], and table [of shew-bread], and the altar [of burnt-offering]; and did not abstain from even the veils, which were made of fine linen and scarlet. He also emptied it of its secret treasures, and left nothing at all remaining; and by this means cast the Jews into great lamentation, for he forbade them to offer those daily sacrifices which they used to offer to God, according to the law.  And when he had pillaged the whole city, some of the inhabitants he slew, and some he carried captive, together with their wives and children, so that the multitude of those captives that were taken alive amounted to about ten thousand.  He also burnt down the finest buildings; and when he had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel in the lower part of the city, for the place was high, and overlooked the temple; on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers, and put into it a garrison of Macedonians.  However, in that citadel dwelt the impious and wicked part of the [Jewish] multitude, from whom it proved that the citizens suffered many and sore calamities.  And when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country.  He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day.  He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction.  He also appointed overseers, who should compel them to do what he commanded. And indeed many Jews there were who complied with the king’s commands, either voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty that was denounced. But the best men, and those of the noblest souls, did not regard him, but did pay a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torments; for they were whipped with rods, and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified, while they were still alive, and breathed.  They also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses.  And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.

5. When the Samaritans saw the Jews under these sufferings, they no longer confessed that they were of their kindred, nor that the temple on Mount Gerizim belonged to Almighty God.  This was according to their nature, as we have already shown.  And they now said that they were a colony of Medes and Persians; and indeed they were a colony of theirs.  So they sent ambassadors to Antiochus, and an epistle, whose contents are these: ‘To king Antiochus the god, Epiphanes, a memorial from the Sidonians, who live at Shechem. Our forefathers, upon certain frequent plagues, and as following a certain ancient superstition, had a custom of observing that day which by the Jews is called the Sabbath.  And when they had erected a temple at the mountain called Gerizim, though without a name, they offered upon it the proper sacrifices. Now, upon the just treatment of these wicked Jews, those that manage their affairs, supposing that we were of kin to them, and practiced as they do, make us liable to the same accusations, although we be originally Sidonians, as is evident from the public records.  We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and Savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation, and from their customs; but let our temple, which at present hath no name at all be named the Temple of Zeus Xenios.  If this were once done, we should be no longer disturbed, but should be more intent on our own occupation with quietness, and so bring in a greater revenue to thee.”  When the Samaritans had petitioned for this, the king sent them back the following answer, in an epistle: “King Antiochus to Nicanor.  The Sidonians, who live at Shechem, have sent me the memorial enclosed.  When therefore we were advising with our friends about it, the messengers sent by them represented to us that they are no way concerned with accusations which belong to the Jews, but choose to live after the customs of the Greeks.  Accordingly, we declare them free from such accusations, and order that, agreeable to their petition, their temple be named the Temple of Zeus Xenios.”  He also sent the like epistle to Apollonius, the governor of that part of the country, in the forty-sixth year, and the eighteenth day of the month Hecatorabeom

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