At the purely geopolitical level, war in Israel is a highly significant and concerning matter. But if biblical prophecy is more than the fairy-tales the New Atheists loved to claim, without investigation, before their own demise as a movement, then war in Israel may be of cosmic significance. I have no intention here of going down the rabbit hole of placing the current situation of Israel in 2023 into the prophetic matrix of the Bible. Instead I want to take a look at the wider question of whether there is a basis for taking that matrix seriously, rather than airily dismissing it like the Gnus’ talk of “your imaginary friend,” or perhaps for the average Christian, simply shrugging it off as a dubious esoteric interest.
We’ve had two hundred years of the “critical scholarly consensus” arguing that belief in Jesus as God, and in his literal resurrection from the dead, must have developed gradually like all such legendary accretions to heroic figures. Those who haven’t studied it will be surprised at how many near-universal assumptions about Christianity arise from that very Victorian assumption.
For example originally it was assumed the the four Gospels must have been composed a century or more after the death of Jesus (if he existed) in order to encompass the miraculous. Manuscript and other discoveries pushed that dating back to the current “consensus” of 70-100AD, which is itself implausibly short for the development of such a web of wonder-working whilst hostile witnesses were still alive. I’m old enough to remember events accurately sixty or seventy years ago.
But most of us don’t realise that even these dates are largely derived from the Synoptic Gospels’ prophecy, from Jesus’s mouth, of the destruction of Jerusalem in 69-70AD. Since (it was argued) Jesus could not actually foretell the future, the Gospels’ composition must post-date Jerusalem’s fall. Only more recently has it been noticed that the Gospel accounts reflect Old Testament parallels such as Daniel, rather than the military reality that emerged under Vespasian, making their composition after the event the historical problem, rather than their foretelling of the future.
Be that as it may, the critical process has left the widespread impression than the four gospels are “known” to be unreliable sources, so the idea of a slowly evolving promotion of Jesus from some minor religious and/or political figure to the Divine Saviour of Christianity remains in the public consciousness. That means it’s recycled in everything from school RI lessons to TV documentaries. Within the last decade or two, it received new life from The Da Vinci Code and the “non-fiction” books that inspired it, arguing with absolutely no historical foundation that Christianity as we know it only appeared at the time of Constantine in the fourth century, when all the “real” evidence was supposedly suppressed.
That, however, is nonsense on stilts. For in recent years critical scholarship – that is, the heirs of those who first sold us the “legendary accretions” – has been forced to a radically new understanding of the actual history of Christianity. This is well explained by people like Dr Habermas on YouTube, but if you’ve missed it you really need to know it. The logical process is something like this:
- No serious scholar denies that Paul, a violent opponent of the new movement, was converted around three years after Jesus’s death (so either 33AD or 36AD, depending on the date preferred for the crucifixion).
- No serious scholar disputes the authenticity of a central body of Paul’s letters, dating from 48-50AD (for 1 Thessalonians) to no later than the early 60s, when Paul was executed in Rome, a maximum of thirty years.
- Ignoring the high Christology of Paul’s own letters (which could be put down to the fanaticism of the convert, I suppose), there are passages in them which are, on contextual, stylistic and linguistic grounds, indisputably quotations from early Christian wrings that Paul himself regarded as authoritative, but didn’t write himself. These are broadly speaking, “credal,” in the form of hymns (eg Ephesians 5:14, Philippians 2:6-11), or credal historical statements (eg 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), or simply statements of belief (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
- In order to cite them as authorities, believing his own authority as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles, Paul must have regarded these “creeds” as originating with sources at least as reliable, that is the original apostles we know he consulted in Jerusalem not too long after his conversion, within a few years of the events. In the case of 1 Cornthians 15, he overtly states his dependance on a creed he received himself when he was converted.
- These quoted credal statements all testify to three central truths of the new faith – that is the Divinity, the atoning Death, and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We may infer, then, that by the time Paul “checked out his faith” in Jerusalem, these credal statements had been composed, and were in use, by the original apostles and their church(es) in the very city where the contested events took place, and where the most concerted opposition from religious authorities with vested interests on all sides of the theological spectrum existed. That must have been within two or three years of the death of Jesus, and some scholars suggest they would have been composed within a few months: that certainly makes sense for the 1 Corinthians passage, as the first question inquirers would ask was “Who saw the risen Jesus, then?”
Consider this – the precursor event of Paul’s conversion, to which he was an eye-witness, was the stoning of Stephen for insisting on the Divinity, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Peter only escaped a similar fate by the skin of his teeth and, according to Acts, a miraculous intervention. The apostle James was executed for the same beliefs in Jerusalem a few years later (a fact confirmed by the historian Josephus). And, as people like Habermas also point out, it was to this radical faith, and not to some vaguely construed new Messianic sect of Judaism, that both the zealous Pharisee Paul, and James the sceptical brother of Jesus, turned (James, future leader of the Jerusalem, being a witness to the risen Christ, like Paul, according to the 1 Corinthians 15 statement).
At this point, one must admit that the Jerusalem Christians could have been stark staring mad, witnesses to a man who only “swooned” from crucifixion and a spear-thrust to the heart, fooled by a secret twin brother or any of the other rightly discredited hypotheses invented to explain the experience of the disciples. But whatever they experienced left them, immediately, with a faith we can now define as indistinguishable from historical Christianity. If it is seen to validate the resurrection of Jesus, then it is hard to deny that it also validates his life and teaching, that is to say it validates the Gospel accounts, and validates Jesus’s dependence on the Hebrew Scriptures and their prophetic tradition, including sayings about final battles involving Jerusalem. The Resurrection, if true, changes everything.
We can add more on that score. N. T. Wright has correctly pointed out that Jesus’s prophecies about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, made on the eve of his passion, were intended to provide a future vindication of his ministry to “that generation.” This was like a re-run of the ministries of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, also vindicated by an earlier fall of Jerusalem through Nebuchadnezzar. The Christian tradition testifies to this, recording how the Jerusalem church recalled his oracles, and in the light of a contemporary prophetic word, fled to the city of Pella and escaped the destruction.
But astonishingly, despite its crucial importance for Christian apologetics, there is not a single clear reference in the New Testament to the Roman razing of the city. The most reasonable explanation of this fact is that, contrary to the old critical scholarship, the New Testament was complete and in wide circulation by the time the city fell, giving no opportunity to point to it (except, arguably, in apocalyptic passages in the Revelation of John, which might post-date it, but equally might have been written as the events were unfolding in Judaea, predicting their fulfillment as a vindication of Jesus as Lord of history). That means historical Christianity was fully-formed within thirty five years.
Hmm – Lord of history. An ambitious claim, but one that follows quite naturally if the Resurrection is true, as it now appears certain was believed by the very first Christians from the outset, in the light of their own experience. And to me, that makes snorting at the possible prophetic significance of a war in Israel – especially after 3½ years of widely perceived international deception – less than rational.