New Novel About Politics and the Fall of Ancient Jerusalem
Ben Witherington III’s new novel unfolds entirely within one week, the week in which ancient Jerusalem fell to Roman forces in 70 AD. It follows an elderly female refugee as she escapes the occupying forces and works her way towards the ancient city of Pella for safety.
What’s special about this novel is that it is a scholarly historical novella, which is not the same thing as historical fiction. Historical fiction is written by novelists. They get interested in some particular period of history and do a crash course in that era so they know enough to write the novel, then they’re off to their next era and a brand-new research project. There is seldom real historical depth in the genre.
But the scholarly historical novels (and novellas) are written by scholars with a deep bench of knowledge, who decide to convey that knowledge via fiction. The archaeologist Paul Maier’s full-length novels, Pontius Pilate and Flames of Rome, would be among my favorite examples. Witherington and InterVarsity Press have invented a short version of the genre, and A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem is their latest offering.
The book has a clearly discernible theological arc, moving people towards seeing many passages from the Gospels as being focused not on the end of the world, but on the geopolitical situation of their time. For Witherington, this is intentional and a corrective to the strong bias many modern Christians have towards reading texts about the near future of Jerusalem as referring to the end of history.
As I write this column, I note that the lectionary reading for this coming Sunday includes Matthew 16:28 in which Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” References such as this about judgements and disasters and signs occurring before ‘this generation’ passes away have wreaked havoc among interpreters. Did he mean some eventual, later generation of 2 millennia hence? Was He wrong, genuinely thinking the world would end within 40 years? One particularly clever, and richly literary solution, was the creation of the legend of Prester John. Prester is a contraction of ‘presbyter,’ the Greek work for the ‘elder,’ i.e. pastor, of a church. A slightly more compressed contraction gives us the word, ‘priest’. Prester John is the Apostle John who ‘will not taste death’ until the second coming, with a miraculously long life. He shows up from time to time in the novels of Charles Williams. Fun and inventive, yes. But there’s a simpler solution: the generational language is indeed generational, and refers to the time period in which it is uttered, but the events described did occur in that generation. It indeed refers to some cataclysmic event other than the end of the world. That cataclysmic event is the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction and plundering of the Temple. As one character in the novella muses, “It might not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world.”
As Witherington told me,
“The end times began 2,00 years ago. Many of the predictions of earliest Christians, including Jesus, have to do with events that are on the near horizon, not the far horizon. The only things which are clearly on the far horizon are the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, final judgment, new creation. Otherwise the earliest Christians believed that prophecies were being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Modern Christians have syncretized all of this into one package. Jesus said the Temple was going to fall within a Biblical generation and guess what, he died in 30 AD and it fell in 70 AD.”
It may not have been the main point of the book, but one of the welcome effects might be to cool eschatological fever tied up in a long chain of rapture predictions which did not come true. According to Witherington:
“One shall be taken and the other left is not about a pre-tribulations rapture; it’s about people being dragged off to be judged and the one left wipes his brow and says ‘whew’ I’m glad that it wasn’t me. That’s why Jesus said that if those days had not been cut short even the elect would not survive. This is not escapist theology at all. They had to go through it. Why should we think that our generation is special and exempt from all that?”
For the author, there were two main messages intended: “Answering two questions: Where did the Christians go when Jerusalem was falling. According the early Church historian, Eusebius, the answer is that many of them fled to Pella. And where in the world did the Jesus movement go?” The answer to the first is that they did indeed leave Jerusalem. They did it because Jesus warned them to do so 40 years in advance. He provided for their needs, otherwise it is likely that they would have gotten caught up in the nationalist fervor of the time and stayed through to the bitter end. Jesus warned them to look and when they ‘see Jerusalem surrounded by armies’ to know to flee. Interestingly, Jerusalem was surrounded by armies who then withdrew as Vespasian, the Roman General, was recalled to Rome to become Emperor. This fueled a wave of triumphalism by the revolutionaries inside the city. It was proof that God was on their side, that victory was certain, et cetera. But in reality, it was a temporary reprieve before Vespasian’s son Titus came back with greater force and unleashed one of the greatest horrors of the ancient world. Jesus’ followers were warned in advance, so they saw in the withdrawal of Vespasian a confirmation of their Master’s warning, and fled.
Regarding the second question, “What happened to the Jesus movement?” we see that it depended upon literate people. Witherington asks “Who are literate people. The literate people happened to be the tax collectors and the scribes.” Folks like that, particularly the tax collector Matthew, he surmises, were able to keep the movement going after the dispersion of the people out of Jerusalem by creating a literary legacy, especially the Gospels, through which “Christianity survived the fall of Jerusalem quite nicely.” The composition of documents was a highly specialized craft. A lot of people could read snippets, but few could create documents. Even the Pharisees had their own scribes, which is why ‘scribes’ are listed as a separate category in the Gospels and in Josephus. Literate people used scribes because Scribe-craft was a specialized skill, not just reading and writing, but clarity of handwriting, economy of use of papyrus, copyist skills, careful accuracy, care of documents, et cetera. Not everyone who can read a book can write a book, but few people who can write a book can typeset and print one. Scribes knew the whole process. Even Paul used scribes, but in his case, it was likely because of poor eyesight.
I suggested to Witherington that there were two categories of literate persons in ancient Judea. He said, “There are definitely two classes.” When critics of the Apostles complain that the Apostles are agrammatoi, un-lettered, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t read, it’s more like they “haven’t studied at Jerusalem seminary.” They weren’t part of the theological class. There appears to be an authority conflict between Jesus (and later, His disciples) and the theology guild. It wasn’t over literacy, but over something more akin to academic qualifications. Christianity and rabinnical Judaism have this in common. They both survived partly by being able to be severed from stone and soil to live again through page and ink.
But what struck me as I read this book was how much it reminds me of our own days wherein clashing purity cults are outdoing one another in virtue signaling. Both eras share a madness in which everyone is at war with everyone else about who is the most pure. Both eras are awash in illusion about the invulnerability of our nation or our cause: as Withering puts it, “The willingness to believe lies in order to keep going the way you want to do. The thing that’s going on with the zealots is that they think that God would not allow the temple to be destroyed.”
For the tribe in which Witherington and I find ourselves, the evangelical tribe, we both see a march away from set Biblical principles towards nationalism, identity politics, and civic religion. Whether we mouth the creed on Sunday mornings or not, increasingly our creed seems to be a politicized nationalism. “Whenever you get in a crisis, you find out what people’s real religion is. Is it civic religion? Even the Church is largely Biblically illiterate. We find that people’s religion is really the civic religion.” I would say that this civic religion observation is part of the story. But that there is another part of the story playing out on the Left, which is alienist rather than nationalist, which can only see America’s sins, though this group shows up mostly in mainline churches rather than evangelical ones. Either way, there is a loss of a distinct Christian vision as the two sides of a split church merge increasingly into left/progressive vs. right/nationalist secular camps.
According to Witherington “We are in dark times…”, and I don’t disagree. But I suppose dark times are opportune times. And books such as A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem can shed light. The warning which Jesus gave about how cultural and religious camps can turn towards hateful thoughts, then hateful words, then acts of violence which can eventually set the city aflame, were not specific to Jerusalem. They are universal warnings. As I look at mobs of alt-righties fighting for the Confederate statues or white identity (no doubt some confused Christians mingled among them) and Antifa lefties fighting for socialism and the eradication of historical landmarks (no doubt confused Christians among them), where ”ignorant armies clash by night,” I see opportunity for improvement, lots and lots of opportunity for improvement.
Click here to listen to my Skype with Ben Witherington. The audio has been edited for clarity.
Originally published on Forbes.
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