During the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, he gave several prophesies which were fulfilled forty years later. Although many Christians realize that Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, few know many details about that event, since the New Testament does not describe it except in prophecy. The history of the great tribulation that took place when Jerusalem was destroyed is recorded by Josephus in his writings entitled The Jewish War. It was a fitting punishment to those who at Christ’s trial had cried out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).
As one reads the account that Josephus has written about the destruction of Jerusalem and the events leading up to it, he is reminded of such scriptures as Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 24:2, 15-22, 34; Mark 13:2, 14-20, 30; Luke 21:6, 20-24, 32; Matthew 27:25; and Luke 23:28-31. Some, not realizing the horrors that took place then, have applied several of these scriptures to a supposedly future tribulation. I have heard remarks like, “The Romans only killed one million Jews, but Hitler killed over five million, thus the tribulation that Jesus talked about could not have taken place in the first century.” When I first heard this, I had no answer. But the more I read Josephus, the more I realized the extra horrors that took place then. Truly the blood of the crucified innocent Christ did come back on those who wanted him crucified and on their children. Not only did the Romans conquer them, destroying the city, but the Jews fought against each other, showing less mercy to their fellow countrymen than the Romans did. This is to say nothing of the widespread starvation (so great that it drove at least one mother to kill and eat her own baby) and disease which eventually took their tolls. Tribulation cannot be measured only by the numbers killed, but also in terms of human suffering, both physical and mental. With this in mind, I want to share with you a summary account of the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem as recorded by Josephus.
Having related how the armies of the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus had conquered Galilee and the coastal cities and then encamped at Caesarea for a brief rest in A.D. 68, Josephus states:
“Every city was now agitated by tumult and civil war, and the moment they had a respite from the Romans they turned their hands against each other. . . . The various cliques began by pillaging their neighbours, then banding together in companies they carried their depredations throughout the country; insomuch that in cruelty and lawlessness the sufferers found no difference between compatriots and Romans. . . . In the end, satiated with their pillage of the country, the brigand chiefs of all these scattered bands joined forces and, now merged into one pack of villainy, stole into poor Jerusalem. . . . Fresh brigands from the country entering the city and joining the yet more formidable gang within, abstained henceforth from no enormities. For, not restricting their audacity to raids and highway robberies, they now proceeded to murders. . . . Dire panic now seized the people, and as if the city had been captured by the enemy none cherished any thought but that of his personal security”. (IV, 131-142)
He goes on to record how they jailed several of the most influential persons in Jerusalem and then butchered them on the pretense that they had conferred with the Romans concerning the surrender of Jerusalem. When they were unopposed in this, they deposed the high priest, took over the temple as their fortress and turned the Holy Place into their headquarters. Then they chose a new high priest by casting lots. The lot fell to a man named Phanni, “who not only was not descended from high priests, but was such a clown that he scarcely knew what the high priesthood meant;” (IV, 155) he became a subject for jesting and sport to them. Such were the crimes committed by those who called themselves the Zealots (see Luke 6:15) which led to open civil war in Jerusalem.
Josephus goes on to relate: “This latest outrage was more than people could stand, and as if for the overthrow of a despotism one and all were now roused” (IV, 158). Incited by a speech of one of the chief priests, Ananus, the citizens tried to destroy the Zealots. The Zealots were outnumbered but better trained and armed, so that neither side could gain a clear cut victory. The citizens blockaded the Zealots in the temple and tried several plans to get them out and destroy them. But John of Gischala, who had the confidence of the leaders of the citizens, was divulging their plans to the Zealots. The leaders even sent him as their delegate to the Zealots to arrange a treaty. But instead of arranging a treaty, he lied and told the Zealots that the citizens were planning to invite the Romans to take over the city and urged the Zealots to send for help. The Zealots decided to send for the Idumaeans (or Edomites, as they are also called) for aid. They quickly responded by sending 20,000 men to Jerusalem. The citizens shut the gates of the city so that the Idumaeans had to camp outside. That night a terrific storm broke out. While most of the citizens were in their houses, the Zealots sneaked out of the temple and opened a gate to let the Idumaeans into the city. “The Idumaeans spared none. . . . and day dawned upon eight thousand five hundred dead. The fury of the Idumaeans being still unsatisfied, they now turned to the city, looting every house and killing all who fell in their way” (IV, 310,313-314). Ananus was killed, but this was providential justice, since he had had James the brother of Jesus killed some six years earlier. The “Zealots and the Idumaean hordes fell upon and butchered the people as though they had been a herd of unclean animals. Ordinary folk were slain on the spot where they were caught; but the young nobles they arrested and threw into prison,” (IV, 326-327) where “they were scourged and racked” (IV, 329) and then killed, 12,000 of them perishing like this.
Josephus then relates, “Having now come to loathe indiscriminate massacre, instituted mock trials and courts of justice. . . . The Idumaeans now began to regret that they had come, taking offence at these proceeding” (IV, 334,345). When one of the Zealots finally told them the truth about why they had been summoned to Jerusalem, the Idumaeans first liberated the citizens confined in prisons, numbering about two thousand (these immediately fled from the city and joined Simon, of whom we shall speak presently); they then left Jerusalem and returned home. . . . the Zealots . . . grew yet more insolent . . . They thirsted above all for the blood of the brave and the nobility, massacring the latter out of envy, the former from fear; . . . Those with whom any had ancient quarrels having been put to death, against those who had given them no umbrage in peace-time accusations suitable to the occasion were invented: the man who never approached them was suspected of pride; he who approached them with freedom, of treating them with contempt; the who courted them, of conspiracy. The one penalty for all charges of the gravest or the most trifling nature was death; and none escaped save those whose humble birth put them utterly beneath notice, unless by accident. (IV, 353-356,364-365)
Numbers began deserting daily, eluding the Zealots. But flight was difficult, because guards were posted at all the outlets and anyone caught there, on whatever business, was slain, on the assumption that he was going off to the Romans. . . . Along all the highways the dead were piled in heaps; . . . The Zealots . . . carried barbarity so far as to grant interment to none, . . . they left the dead putrefying in the sun. For burying a relative, as for desertion, the penalty was death, and one who granted this boon to another instantly stood in need of it himself. (IV, 378-383)
The situation in the rest of Judea was not much better. The Sicarii, or Assassins, mentioned in Acts 21:38, took possession of Masada, an almost impregnable fortress situated on a mesa near the Dead Sea. They began using it for a base for carrying out raids on the whole district. When they raided a village, they would massacre hundreds of women and children, plunder the houses, seize the ripest of crops, and carry off their spoil to Masada. Other predatory bands began pillaging their own villages and then making off into the wilderness, where they joined forces to fall upon larger cities. “There was, in fact, no portion of Judea which did not share in the ruin of the capital” (IV, 409).
Finally the Roman general Vespasian decided to march against Jerusalem. He began by subduing the surrounding countryside of Peraea, Judea, and Idumaea. In Peraea, Josephus relates, “Fifteen thousand perished by the enemy’s hands, while the number of those who were driven to fling themselves of their own accord into the Jordan was incalculable” (IV, 435). Further, when Vespasian had captured two villages right in the heart of Idumaea, “he put upwards of ten thousand of the inhabitants to death, made prisoners of over a thousand, expelled the remainder and stationed in the district a large division of his own troops. who overran and devastated the whole of the hill country” (IV, 447-448). Then in the summer when he was ready to attack Jerusalem, news reached him that the emperor Nero was dead. He consequently deferred his march against Jerusalem, but did ride with his cavalry up to the walls of Jerusalem, reducing the region around the city. He then retired to Caesarea to wait to see who would be made emperor. His own troops proclaimed him emperor and he left with them for Egypt to secure the empire.
The Roman Empire went through three new emperors in less than two years until Vespasian was finally successful in his bid to become emperor. While waiting, to see who would finally become emperor, Vespasian had suspended most of the warfare against the Jews. But with his assent to the throne, he sent his Titus to capture Jerusalem in the spring of A.D. 70.
During the lull in the war, hostilities again broke out among the Jews. A certain Simon, son of Gioras, had joined the Assassins at Masada, but later left them to gather his own army. He conquered the area north of Jerusalem and Idumaea south of Jerusalem and then marched to Jerusalem itself. The Zealots had captured his wife, and, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, “he vented his wrath upon all whom he met. Any who had ventured outside the gates to gather herbs or fuel, unarmed and aged individuals, he seized, tortured and killed…Many others he sent back into the city with their hands cut off” (IV, 540-542) with instructions to relay certain threats to the people. “These threats so terrified not only the people but even the Zealots, that they sent him back his wife. . . .” (IV, 544) Simon once again attacked Idumaea and drove multitudes to flee to Jerusalem. He followed them there, “and again surrounding the wall killed any of the labouring class whom he caught going out into the country” (IV, 557).
Civil strife once again broke out inside the city and the citizens invited Simon inside the walls to destroy the Zealots. Simon’s army drove them to the temple once again but was unable to destroy them. Thus the city cane under the control of Simon while the Zealots controlled the temple area.
As if this was not enough, the Zealots then split into two factions fighting one another. John of Gischala, who had earlier betrayed the citizens to the Zealots, gained control of the Zealot forces. Eleazar, one of the original leaders, seceded from the party with a considerable following of Zealots and took possession of the inner court of the temple. In spite of all this, the temple sacrifices continued, but many priests and worshipers were accidentally killed by John’s catapults. “The dead bodies of natives and aliens, of priests and laity, were mingled in a mass, and the blood of all manner of corpses formed pools in the courts of God” (V, 18). When not fighting Eleazar, John would sally out with more confidence and in (greater strength against Simon. And, to whatever part of the city he turned his steps, his invariable practice was to set light to the buildings stocked with corn and all kinds of provisions, and upon his retreat Simon advanced and did the same; as though they were purposely serving, the Romans by destroying what the city and provided against a siege and severing, the sinews of their own strength. . . . almost all the corn, which might have sufficed them for many years of siege, was burnt up. Through famine certainly the city fell, a fate which would have been practically impossible, had they not prepared the way for it themselves. (V, 23-26)
Such was the state of affairs in Jerusalem when Titus returned with four Roman legions. When Titus finally marched on Jerusalem in the spring of A.D. 70 with four Roman legions, the city was torn with civil war between three factions. During the Passover, the Zealots under the leadership of John of Gischala gained access to the inner temple defended by the Zealots under Eleazar and defeated them. Ihus the two Zealot factions reunited and the city was only split between two parties. But this did not slow down the pace of the civil war, for the Jewish historian Josephus relates, “For not even when the Romans were encamped beneath the walls, did the civil strife slacken within” (V, 255). Discussing the tribulations of the Jews, he remarks, “Certainly, they suffered nothing worse at the hands of the Romans than what they inflicted upon each other, nor after her experience of them did the city meet with any novel calamity; on the contrary, her more cruel disaster preceded her fall, and the relief which her captors brought her outweighed the loss” (V, 256). In other times of trouble. the Jews have stood together against the enemy, but here they fought against one another so that the prophecy spoken by Jesus might be fulfilled: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matthew 24:21).
Jesus also said, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20). Thus it was that the outer wall was breached by the Romans about May 25th and the second wall about May 30th. The inner wall proved more formidable and it was August before it was penetrated.
Meanwhile. the famine raged in the city. Josephus relates: “The recklessness of the insurgents kept pace with the famine, and both horrors daily burst out in more furious flame. For, as corn was nowhere to be seen, they would rush in and search the houses, and then if they found any they belaboured the inmates as having denied the possession of it; if they found none they tortured them for more carefully concealing it. . . . For, whenever they saw a house shut up, this was a signal that the inmate were taking food, and forthwith bursting open the doors they leapt in and forcing the morsels almost out of their very jaws brought them up again. Old men were beaten. clutching what was in their hands. There was no compassion for hoary hairs or infancy: children were actually lifted up with the fragments to which they clung and dashed to the ground. To those who had anticipated their raid and already swallowed their expected spoil they were yet more brutal, as defrauded of their due. (V, 424-425, 432-434)
The tortures they devised went so far as to drive sharp stakes up the bodies of their victims. And yet the tormentors were not famished; their cruelty was not due to hunger, but to sheer meanness. Rightly does Josephus comment, “no other city ever endured such miseries, nor since the world began has there been a generation more prolific in crime” (V, 442). Truly the blood of Christ did come back on the Jews.
Regarding those who were caught by the Romans sneaking outside the city in search of food, the Jewish historian Josephus states, “They were accordingly scourged and subjected to torture of every description, before being killed, and then crucified opposite the walls. . . . there were five hundred or sometimes more being captured daily. . . . The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies” (V, 449-451). How ironic that those who shouted “crucify him” regarding their Messiah should suffer the same fate! But then they also said, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).
In an effort to end the Jewish resistance by starving them out, the Romans built a siege wall around the part of the city which had not yet been captured. The famine became worse and as people became too weak to bury the dead, they at first burned the bodies and later flung them from the ramparts into the ravines. The stench was intolerable as the valleys became choked with the dead and the thick matter oozed from under the clammy carcasses. Inside the city, the rebels “issued a proclamation forbidding any throughout the city to confabulate or congregate in one spot—for fear of treason” (V, 533).
At this time many began to desert to the Romans. Some “arrived swollen from hunger, like persons afflicted with dropsy, and then, overcharging at a gulp their empty stomachs, burst asunder” (V, 549). Some others sold their possessions before they deserted and then swallowed the gold coins. Then “one of the refugees in the Syrian ranks was discovered picking gold coins from his excrement; . . . a rumour ran through the camps that the deserters had come full of gold, where upon the Arab rabble with the Syrians proceeded to cut open the suppliants and search their intestines. . . . actually in one night no less than two thousand were ripped up” (V, 550-552). Josephus notes, “God and no other had condemned His whole people and was turning every avenue of salvation to their destruction” (V, 559). When Caesar prohibited the practice, the Arabs and Syrians would go out to meet the deserters and disembowel them while the Romans were not looking. “In few only it was found: the bare hope of finding it caused the wanton destruction of most. This calamity in fact drove many of the deserters back” (V, 561).
Inside the city, the famine made death run rampant. It was “reported that the corpses of the lower classes thrown out through the gates amounted in all to 600,000. . . . a measure of corn had been sold for a talent, and…some were reduced to such straits that they searched the sewers and for old cow dung and ate the offal therefrom. . . .” (V, 569-571).
The picture that has been painted in this article of the horrors of that great tribulation are certainly not pretty but the worst is yet to come. And yet, these things did not have to happen; but they happened because the Jews did not know the time when their Messiah visited them (Luke 19:44).
The Jewish historian Josephus records that on July 24, A.D. 70 the Romans broke through the inner wall at the Antonia, a fortress northwest of the temple. From there they began to attack the temple. On August 5th or 6th, the daily continual sacrifice ceased to be offered in fulfillment of Daniel 9:27. To stop the Roman advance, the Jews began to burn the temple porticoes or porches.
In the meantime, the famine continued to worsen. Josephus reports that “the dearest of relatives fell to blows, snatching from each other the pitiful supports of life” (VI, 194). Even the brigands became crazed with hunger to the extent that they would burst into the same house two or three times within a single hour looking for food. Toward the end the people “abstained not from belts and shoes and stripped off and chewed the very leather of their bucklers. Other devoured tufts of withered grass” (VI, 197-198). But the most horrible effects of the famine were seen when Deuteronomy 28:53-57 was fulfilled. No tribulation could be called great tribulation in which that passage was not fulfilled. As verse 53 says, “And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you” (ESV).
So it was that a woman named Mary, daughter of Eleazar, from the village of Bethezuba in the region east of the Jordan River, who was eminent because of her family and fortune, became the fulfillment of this prophesy. As the famine inside Jerusalem progressed, whatever food she had managed to obtain was being carried off by the brigands in their daily raids. Regarding her response, the Jewish historian Josephus records the following:
Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, “Poor babe,” she cried, “amidst war, famine, and sedition, to what end should I preserve thee? With the Romans slavery awaits us, should we live till they come; but famine is forestalling slavery, and more cruel than both are the rebels. Come be thou food for me, to the rebels an avenging fury, and to the world a table such as alone is wanting to the calamities of the Jews.” With these words she slew her son, and then, having roasted the body and devoured half of it, she covered up and stored the remainder. At once the rebels were upon her and, scenting the unholy odour, threatened her with instant death unless she produced what she had prepared. Replying that she had reserved a goodly portion for them also, she disclosed the remnants of her child. Seized with instant horror and stupefaction, they stood paralyzed by the sight. She, however, said, “This is my own child, and this is my handiwork. Eat, for I too have eaten. Show not yourselves weaker than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother. But if you have pious scruples and shrink from my sacrifice, then let what I have eaten be your portion and the remainder also be left for me.” At that they departed trembling, in this one instance cowards, though scarcely yielding even this food to the mother. (VI, 205-212)
A few days later the temple was destroyed by the Romans. On August 27, A.D. 70, they set fire to the gates and porticoes around the temple. On August 30th, the sanctuary itself was set ablaze during a battle in front of it. Josephus says, “Most of the slain were civilians, weak and unarmed people, each butchered where he was caught. Around the altar a pile of corpses was accumulating; down the steps of the sanctuary flowed a stream of blood, and the bodies of the victims killed above went sliding to the bottom” (VI, 259). Since the sanctuary was burning, the soldiers set fire to the other temple buildings, including the treasury. “They then proceeded to the one remaining portico of the outer court, on which the poor women and children of the populace and a mixed multitude had taken refuge, numbering six thousand…the soldiers, carried away by rage, set fire to the portico from below, . . . and out of all that multitude not a soul escaped” (VI, 283-284). Regarding them, the Jewish historian Josephus records,
They owed their destruction to a false prophet, who had on that day proclaimed to the people in the city that God commanded them to go up to the temple court, to receive there the tokens of their deliverance. Numerous prophets, indeed, were at this period suborned by the tyrants to delude the people, by bidding them await help from God, . . . Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by charlatans and pretended messengers of the deity. (VI, 285-286, 288)
All of this is in accordance with Jesus’ prophecy about false prophets in Matthew 24:24: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (ESV).
Josephus further relates, “The Romans, now that the rebels had fled to the city, and the sanctuary itself and all around it were in flames, carried their standards into the temple court and, setting them up opposite the eastern gate, there sacrificed to them, and with rousing acclamation hailed Titus as imperator” (VI, 316). This is why Luke (in Luke 21:20) parallels Matthew’s “abomination of desolation . . . standing in the holy place” (in Matthew 24:15) with the armies surrounding Jerusalem; for it was the standards of those armies which were to become the abomination sacrificed to in that holy place when it was desolated.
From the temple area the Romans easily took the lower city, south of the temple, and set it on fire in late August or early September, A.D. 70. Although the rebels now held only the upper city, west of the temple, their cruelty did not end. They attacked Herod’s palace where many had fled for safety and killed 8,400 people there, looting their money. The Romans penetrated the walls to the upper city around September 25th. “Pouring into the alleys, sword in hand they massacred indiscriminately all who had taken refuge within … they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, . . . Toward evening they ceased slaughtering, but when night fell the fire gained mastery,” (VI, 404, 406-407). and the next day saw “Jerusalem in flames” (VI, 407).
Of those taken prisoner, the tallest and most handsome were reserved for the triumphal march; of the rest, those over seventeen were sent either to the mines of Egypt of to be destroyed in the provincial theaters by the sword or wild beasts, while those under seventeen were sold as slaves. Josephus reports, “The total number of prisoners taken throughout the entire war amounted to ninety seven thousand, and of those who perished during the siege, from first to last, to one million one hundred thousand” (VI, 420).
“The Romans now set fire to the outlying quarters of the town and razed the walls to the ground . . . Caesar ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground, leaving only the loftiest of the towers, . . . and the portion of the wall enclosing the city on the west” (VI, 434; VII, 1). Thus it was that Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:2 regarding the temple stones being thrown down was fulfilled. Truly Christ’s blood did come on the Jews who crucified him and on their children (Matthew 27:25) in accordance with his prediction. And if His predictions regarding the desolation of Jerusalem were fulfilled, should not we be watching for the fulfillment of His predictions about His second coming?
Quotations from Josephus taken from:
H. St. J. Thackeray, trans. Josephus III: The Jewish War: Books IV-VII. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928.