For 2,000 years prominent Christian theologians such as John Chrysostom, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, and others have taught that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 was God’s doing.
One unfortunate fruit of this bad teaching has been a long history of Jewish massacres initiated by people who believed they were doing the Lord’s work, or at least following in his vengeful footsteps.
It’s bad fruit from a bad root. But why do so many believe that God was involved in the slaughter of the Jerusalem Jews? Because of this guy:
The long shadow of Josephus
Every Bible scholar has read Josephus’ account of the destruction of Jerusalem because it’s the only account. How do we know that a million Jews died or that the Romans built a barricade? Because Josephus tells us. It’s his version of the story that has been passed down through history, and according to Josephus the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s doing.
It was God who condemned the whole nation, and turned every course that was taken for their preservation to their destruction. (Wars, 5.13.5)
Why did Josephus point the finger at God? Because he was Jewish. As a Hebrew and a priest, Josephus was well acquainted with Jewish history. He knew all the old stories of how God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to besiege Jerusalem and punish the Jews for their sins. To his Jewish mind, the Romans were just another tool in the hands of an angry God.
Ignorant of all Christ accomplished on the cross, Josephus viewed God through an old covenant lens. If the Jews were being slaughtered, it was because God was angry with them. But why? Josephus had no answer beyond vague allusions to wickedness, unavenged deaths, and general impiety.
Enter the Christians.
I ask the Jews, whence came upon them so grievous wrath from heaven more woeful than all that had come upon them before? Plainly it was because of the desperate crime and the denial of the Cross.
According to John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople whose words these are, God was mad at the Jews because they killed his Son. Isn’t that what Peter had said on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:36)? And didn’t Paul say it too?
The Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets… (1 Thess 2:14-15)
Connect the dots and it made perfect sense: Kill the Son and you’ll anger the Father. This was the line taken by Eusebius in the third century, Chrysostom in the fourth, and the many who followed their lead. But although the teaching came from Christians, its root was undeniably Jewish. The vengeful God was more Josephus than Jesus.
The brighter light of Jesus
Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Josephus never saw the Son so he never saw the Father. He did not know that God had punished all sin on the cross so he concluded that God was punishing sin in Jerusalem. It was the wrong conclusion, but one that made sense to a priest raised on the old covenant.
Jesus was Jewish and he loved his countrymen. So did the apostles. They didn’t care for the Jews’ religion, but they certainly cared for the Jews.
“Brothers and fathers,” was how Paul addressed the Jews (Acts 22:1). They weren’t sinners but kin. Although Paul did say the Jews killed Jesus and the prophets, there wasn’t a vindictive bone in his body. His heart was for reconciliation not retribution. His countrymen were misguided for scorning grace, but rather than condemn them he wanted to trade places with them.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. (Rom 9:2-4)
Josephus abandoned his tribe and joined the enemy. In contrast, Paul wished he could be accursed so the Jews could be saved. Josephus had a racist theology that viewed the Jews as uniquely deserving of divine punishment, while Paul had a grace-based theology that saw the Jews in desperate need of salvation.
Brothers and fathers
Read the New Testament epistles and you sense a kinship between Christian and Jew. However, that began to change after AD70. The Christians fled, while the Jews stayed and from then on the distance between them only grew. This dissociation persists today in the way certain Christians speak about the fall of Jerusalem.
“The Jews had it coming.”
Only they didn’t. True, there had been a few who shouted at Christ’s trial, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). But just because they said it doesn’t mean God did it. It is unthinkable that the One who sits on the throne of grace would punish the descendants of Abraham in this way.
Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” If so, the Jews cannot be charged with murder. Even if they did kill the author of life, their sin was borne by Jesus.
Any case against the Jews runs smack into the cross. If God condemned all sin on the cross, he would be unjust in condemning the Jews forty years later. Not only would he be punishing the wrong generation, he would be insulting his own Son.
Grace greater than your worst
I realize I am going against 2,000 years of mainstream teaching, not to mention a handful of badly-translated Bibles, but I am one-hundred percent certain about this. The image of a vindictive Jew-killing God is wholly inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus. It’s like saying:
– The Lamb of God carried the sin of the world (John 1:29), except for the Jews
– Jesus is the propitiation of the world’s sins (1 John 2:2), except for the Jews
– The punishment that brought us peace was on him (Isaiah 53:5), except for the Jews
– God condemned all sin at the cross (Romans 8:3), except for the Jews
– God keeps no record of sin (2 Corinthians 5:19), except for the Jews
– The Holy Spirit forgives all sins (Hebrews 10:17), except for the Jews
– Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44), except for the Jews
“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). God did not punish the Jews and he never had any intention of doing so. So why did Jesus ask for their forgiveness? He did it for us. Jesus wanted us to know that God loves his enemies and forgives even the worst of us.
Look at those words again. “Father, forgive them.” Jesus is not talking about orphaned refugee children; he’s talking about self-righteous prigs who murder in the name of God. He’s talking about men who stove in Stephen’s head with rocks and threw Jesus’ half-brother James off the top of the temple.
Father, forgive them.
Don’t you see? If God can forgive them, he can surely forgive you. Whatever you’ve done, God’s grace is greater.
This is why Jesus said it. This is what the Son of God wants you to know.
Extracted from Paul’s forthcoming book AD70 and the End of the World.