It is no secret that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple is the driving force of the dating of the Gospels. There may be other factors that scholars consider, but this one data point seems to be the rudder guiding the ship.
The argument goes, more or less, that the author of Mark (assuming Mark wrote first) recorded Jesus prophesying the destruction of the Temple because Mark (or whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark) was looking back on an event that had already occurred by the time of his writing. Hence, the Gospel had to be written after 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
While this is one way of explaining the text, some things should be pointed out.
The first is that this argument rests on not a small assumption, namely that Jesus was incapable of making such a prediction.
Now, before the skeptic remarks, “You would have to assume that he was divine in order to believe that he could make such a prediction, and historians don’t make such assumptions,” hear me out.
I do not mean that historians are assuming that Jesus wasn’t divine, and therefore not capable of making such a prediction.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that Jesus was merely a man. For my Christian audience, let me reiterate that this is simply for the sake of argument.
Is a mere man incapable of making such a prediction?
Imagine for a moment that the political lines in the United States become more and more polarized, that tensions rise and rise, and that a wave of violence sweeps the country. Unfortunately, that isn’t too hard to imagine. Though, I am more optimistic.
Imagine that for the next 20 years such a pattern continues. Now, imagine that a certain political pundit were to write an undated article that said, “The United States is headed for a second civil war.” Probably, somebody has already said so. (If they have, sorry, I don’t keep up much).
Now imagine, that this prophecy were to come true some ten years after the pundit’s article. Would a future historian, some 100 years in the future, be forced to conclude that the pundit was divine? Would the future historian be forced to conclude that the pundit had to have been writing after the fact?
Surely, not. Mere men (and women) can make predictions.
“But the details of a siege and famine are too exact. This was no mere general prediction.”
While there is still a bit of assumption here, the objector is forgetting an elephant in the room.
The Old Testament.
Let us look at Mark 13 briefly:
And as he was going out of the temple courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What great stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here on another stone that will not be thrown down!”Mark 13:1-2 | Lexham English Bible
Jesus’ prediction here is actually quite vague. It is in his “signs of the end of the age” that add more detail.
For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. But all these things are the beginning of birth pains.Matthew 24:7-8 | Lexham English Bible
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside it must depart, and those in the fields must not enter into it, because these are days of vengeance, so that all the things that are written can be fulfilled.Luke 21:20-22 | Lexham English Bible
But these details can be found in the Old Testament. In fact, Luke explicitly says that these things will fulfill “the things that are written.”
The “famines” reference can be found in 2 Kings 25:3, a passage about the destruction of Jerusalem, and hence the Temple. Also, there is mention in this passage of an “encampment” or “siege” against Jerusalem.
The “earthquakes” is likewise found in Zechariah 14:5, a passage that also mentions “all the nations” rising up against Jerusalem, as well as the “fleeing by the valley of my mountains.”
The “birth pains” reference is found in Isaiah 13:8, a passage that, you guessed it, is also about the destruction of the Temple.
Every single detail of Jesus’ prediction can be found in Old Testament passages that predict the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
As C.H. Dodd said, “There is no single trait of the forecast which cannot be documented directly out of the Old Testament.”
Is Mark looking back on the event of 70 CE and putting words into Jesus’ mouth to make him look prophetic, or is Jesus simply aware of his surroundings and his Old Testament?
Out of the Ordinary
What is truly out of the ordinary here is that none of the Gospel writers say something to the effect of “And this came true when Titus destroyed the Temple.”
Lest you think this an argument from silence, the Gospel writers did in fact record prophecies that had come true by the time of their writing (Acts 11:27-28; Matthew records countless Old Testament prophecies fulfilled).
If Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, and the Gospel writers knew that it had come true because they had seen it happen, wouldn’t they record it? If they made up Jesus’ prediction because they were writing after the fact, wouldn’t they include a parenthetical statement that it came true, like they do elsewhere? Maybe not, but the fact that they don’t is certainly suspicious.
Jesus wasn’t alone
What’s more is that we know Jesus wasn’t alone in his expectation, or even prediction, that Jerusalem would fall.
We know from Josephus that others were predicting the same thing, reportedly before the events (Josephus, Jewish War, 6.301).
Based on the first century understanding of the prophet Daniel, we know that there was an expectation that such events would take place during the rule of the Romans (see Brant Pitre on the first-century understanding of Daniel, 2, 7, and 9 in The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence, Chapter 8).
Given this understanding, should we not reassess the dating of the Gospels? Perhaps they were written after 70 CE, but surely not because of Jesus’ prediction here.
This way of dating the Gospels, as far as I can tell, makes an unfounded philosophical assumption, and completely ignores the first-century understanding of the Old Testament, as well as the fact that Jesus is simply quoting the Old Testament in his detailing of the destruction.
For the Christian audience, yes, I believe Jesus was the divine Son of God, and in retrospect of His Resurrection I believe He was perfectly capable of predicting a future event in exact detail.
The point here is simply that even from a skeptical view point, the assumption that Jesus could not have, or would not have made such a prediction is completely unfounded.