The Olivet Discourse and Preterist Interpretation
Matt. 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Mark 9:1)
Matt. 24:34 At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
2 Peter 3:4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.

We have been taught time and time again by popular works, ranging from The Late Great Planet Earth to the Left Behind series, and now also in books like John MacArthur's The Second Coming, that the quotes from Matthew and parallels concern a Temple yet built, a coming yet made, and a tribulation yet suffered.

But is it? And is preterist eschatology just an "excuse" to cover up an error by Jesus?

The charge implies that the interpretation is somehow "new," a construction invented by modern believers who are resisting the past. Actually, dispensationalism and it's own idea of a Rapture are the new kids on the block; preterism, and the idea that the Olivet Discourse and other passages refer to 70 AD events, has a much longer pedigree. Commentators such as Lightfoot (1859), Newton (1754), and Gill (1809) predated dispensationlism and agreed that 70 AD was in view in these passages. [Dem.LDM, 59]

To be sure, some in the early church held a view that what was recounted in places like the Olivet Discourse was a reference to a far-flung future event (though their views didn't match exactly with dispensationlism); but others held views akin to preterism as well, so the preterist view is not a new view, but an older one revived.

Research has confirmed to me that the preterist standpoint of eschatology -- the idea that much of the prophecy of the Bible was fulfilled in 70 AD -- is the correct one, although I am still looking into finer details. (I am distinguishing this view from a view Seraiah calls pantelism -- and others, "full preterism" -- the idea that all Bible prophecy is now fulfilled, including prophecies of the resurrection; this in particular I do not agree with, for example.)

A critical text in these matters is Matthew 24, and we'll use it as our basis, providing parallels in Mark and Luke where they differ significantly. If the differences are minimal, we will simply note them after the cite.

Matthew 24:1-2

And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

Our first verses of Matthew 24 set the stage and establish context. There is no controversy of interpretation here; most agree, regardless of stance, that Jesus predicts here a destruction of the Jerusalem temple standing in his own time, and will agree that this was literally fulfilled, to the point that critics use this as evidence that the Gospels were written after 70 AD. This merely sets the stage for the question of the disciples:

Matthew 24:3

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
Mark 13:4 Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?
Luke 21:7 And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?

All of what is recorded here is inarguably related to the statement of Jesus in the previous verse concerning the Temple's destruction -- with the exception of one argument. Mark and Luke provide no distraction, but Matthew, so it seems from the KJV, records Jesus as referring to the "thy coming" and to the "end of the world." Isn't this clear evidence of the dispensational view?

No, it isn't. These considerations, first, about "the end of the world":

But what, then, of Jesus answering regarding his "coming"? The word Matthew uses is parousia, and Matthew alone among the Gospels uses this word. The word means presence or arrival. Here is how it is used in an "everyday" sense:

2 Cor. 10:10 For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
1 Cor. 16:17 I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied.

Some observations on this word:

In our examination of the Pauline use of this word, we will be tying together some issues and Paul's own use of parousia to refer to the time of the resurrection. For now, it should be remembered that parousia has several shades of meaning (including an "everyday" meaning whose "everyday" use by Paul suggests that it is not a technical term referring to one event), and is also clearly a word choice of Matthew. I believe that these word choices were made independently and may have caused the confusion referred to by Paul in the Thessalonian church.

But we will reserve that commentary for the other article, and will return to the word parousia in Matthew 24:27 and following, where it is next used, and discuss in that context what it means and how Jesus' "coming" could have occurred in 70 AD. It is enough for now to observe that the disciples are asking about Jesus' parousia in terms of expecting Jesus to take the throne of David as the Messiah.

Matthew 24:4-5

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.(cf. Mark 13:5-6)
Luke 21:8 And he said, Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them.

In order to show that the Olivet Discourse found fulfillment in 70 AD, it has to be shown or suggested that these events came to pass in that time. Did we see many coming and claiming to be Christ?

I have noted in other contexts that until the time of Bar Kochba, there is no evidence of any person actually coming forth and saying, "I am Messiah" or any person being identified as such, and I have argued that to make such a clear identification of one's "Messianic self" was likely not permitted socially. We do of course have people who took some putative military action against Rome, and failed miserably; one suggests that they might well have made a claim had their little schemes succeeded -- Theudas and Judas are two examples (Acts 5:36-37), as perhaps was the Egyptian Paul was mistaken for; Simon Magus has been cited as one who claimed to be God, in a non-Jewish Messianic context; a Samaritan named Dositheus claimed to be the lawgiver prophesied of by Moses [Dem.LDM, 73-4].

That's five for sure (enough to qualify for "many" in the context of pretenders), and there may have been more who were spectacular failures not worthy of the record. Josephus in his Antiquities 20.8.5 says, "Now, as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually; for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude." Pretenders of various types undoubtedly abounded -- yet does this contradict that we have no evidence of these claimants saying, "I am Messiah"?

Not at all -- here is an important point: Only in Matthew is the word "Christ" actually used in the text -- Mark and Luke leave it implied, and the KJV and other versions add it in for clarity in Mark and Luke. Matthew's addition of "Christ" is redactional, his own addition for clarity; the claimants, in line with the restraint of Messianic self-identification, will mirror the claim to divine power by saying, "I AM" (ego eimi, as in John's Gospel, as from Exodus; "name" here is used in the sense of authority) and leaving the rest to be worked out.

There were indeed false prophets claiming to represent God in plenty [Josephus War 6.5.2 refers to a "great number of false prophets" who gave false hope to the people]; these tried to initiate various signs to "activate God's eschatological salvation" [Keener, 567-8], and they did indeed deceive many. Though there do continue to be pretenders around, this word was fulfilled between 30-70 AD.

(And of course there is more to this: While some may have made "messianic" overtures, you won't find anyone other than Jesus who claimed to be God's Wisdom, a much stronger and clearer claim to divinity in context than "I am Messiah" would have been at any rate.)

Matthew 24:6

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.(Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9)

Wars and rumors of wars have always been part of human history, and the time between 30-70 AD was no exception. The Jews suffered tumult under a series of incompetent and insensitive Roman leaders, who did not hesitate to kill people.

Skeptics have often said, in this light, "What's the big deal about these predictions, then?" In a sense they are right -- the key here is not Jesus' predictions of such things, but his admonition, "the end is not yet" -- in other words, he is in a sense giving the same advice, "Don't read too much into the times." But of course we need to show that such events did happen in the time specific, and here is a list of such events in this period [DeM.LDM, 78-9; Keener, 569]:

Matthew 24:7-8

For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.(Mark 13:8)
Luke 21:11 And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.

As in our previous verse, these are things that (except for signs) have continued to happen, but again, we should provide evidence of such between 30-70 [DeM.LDM, 79ff]. Acts 11:27-9 alludes to the famine in the time of Claudius. Tacitus speaks of signs in the form of "repeated earthquakes," a shortage of grain resulting in famine (at one point Rome had only 15 days' worth of food); Josephus reports of famine during the siege of Jerusalem; the earthquake in Philippi (Acts 16); Pompeii suffered quakes as a preliminary to the eruption of Vesuvius; Josephus reports a severe earthquake in Judea, and quakes were reported by secular historians as occurring throughout the Greco-Roman world.

Again, none of this is surprising; much of the Roman Empire was subject to quakes (see map here), and famine was extremely common in the ancient world. Pestilence was also common; indeed, it was more normal to be sick than healthy! The point again, though, is that these are not signs to look for as signs of the end (as is often supposed in dispensational treatments); rather, Jesus is warning his disciples to not give them undue significance.

What about Luke's signs from heaven? Tacitus reports a comet during the reign of Nero in 60 AD, and Halley's Comet came for a visit in 66. Josephus also records a third astronomical phenomena, a "star resembling a sword" which stood over Jerusalem, and a comet that "continued a whole year."

Matthew 24:9-10

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
Mark 13:9 But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.
Luke 21:12-19 But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name's sake. And it shall turn to you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer: For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist. And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake. But there shall not an hair of your head perish. In your patience possess ye your souls.

There can be little doubt that such events as alluded to here took place between 30 and 70, and of course, such things do continue even today. Paul was himself a persecutor, and took the stripes from the synagogue himself (2 Cor. 11:24); we may doubt that it had anything uniquely to do with him or his preaching.

Peter and John were flogged; Peter was thrown in jail; James the brother of Jesus was martyred -- Acts reports regular harassment and persecution at intervals. Tacitus and Josephus confirm persecution of Christians, and the social background data provided by Meeks' The First Urban Christians tells us enough about why. Such events of course lay enough of a background for enmity between and betrayal by family.

Matthew 24:11-13

And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

Little needs be said here, again -- we have already referred to false prophets; iniquity is a commonality, though Caligula and Nero between 30 and 70 took pains to exemplify poor morals. Paul and John also refer to false prophets within the church (Acts 13:16, 2 Tim. 2:16-17, 1 John 4:1). In context of course the "end" here must refer to the end of the age alluded to earlier.

Matthew 24:14

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
Mark 13:10 And the gospel must first be published among all nations.(no Lucan parallel)

Most everything so far, few would dispute happened between 30 and 70, but what about this one? Surely, the critics and dispensationalists say, the gospel wasn't preached to the entire world by 70; it hasn't even reached some people now!

But we need to look behind a key word: world -- this time, it isn't aion, and it also isn't kosmos, the word which indicates the broadest possible connotations, as we noted earlier -- this time, it is oikoumene, a word used to express only the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 11:28, Luke 2:1).

It is significant that this is the only place Matthew uses this word; he has selected it carefully as a geographical delimitation; it is also significant that he has used this word rather than kosmos as he did with reference to the spreading of the Gospel correspondent with the separation of the justified and the wicked. The gospel had to be preached to the Roman Empire as a whole before the end of the age.

Was this fulfilled? According to the NT, it was (Rom. 10:18, 16:25-7; cf. 2 Tim. 4:17; see also Rom. 1:8 and Col. 1:6, which uses kosmos hyperbolically). Secular history would agree that there were churches as far away from Judea as Italy; evidence of evangelism in places like Britain and Germany are based only on tradition. Nevertheless, with a church in Rome by the 50s, it could hardly be argued that evangelism in Britain, the farthest-flung part of Rome's Empire with respect to Judea, was not likely by 70.

Matthew 24:15

When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Mark 13:14 But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,)

Dispensationlists tell us that this refers to a yet future Temple, and to the actions of one called Antichrist with a capital A. But here for the first time, Luke offers a very interesting divergence:

Luke 21:20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.

Luke as a Gentile writer has a propensity to explain peculiar Jewish twists to his Gentile readership; "faced with a cryptic allusion to Daniel, they would not be in a position to obey the command" to read and understand [Wr.JVG, 359]. It seems clear -- especially since the Greek word for "desolation" is the same in all three Gospels -- that he thinks that the "abomination of desolation" has to do with Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.

A few observations, now that we have looked at Daniel and its own fulfillment in 70 AD.

First, it is worth noting that Josephus, not at all having the Olivet Discourse in mind, saw the Daniel prophecy as fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple in 70 and regarded the shedding of priestly blood in the sanctuary as the desecration or abomination that caused the 70 desolation [Keener, Matthew commentary, 576]. Josephus called the Temple "no longer a place fit for God" [War 5.1.19] and said that God was the author of its destruction.

Second, Luke's indication is that the coming of the armies signifies that the "abomination" is soon to take place, and that the desolation will occur soon thereafter. So do we have a pre-70 event that fits the bill?

We do indeed -- it happened when the Jewish Zealots, those ancient terrorists, occupied the Temple and committed various acts of sacrilege, including using sacred materials for war and crowning a "high priest" in a farcical ceremony. The retired priest Ananus himself used the word "abominations" to describe what happened. They committed bloodshed in the temple sanctuary, thereby profaning it by killing the innocent [Keener, ibid. -- and it was exactly three and a half years after this "desecration" that the Temple was destroyed; for the relevance of this, see our Daniel article].

As an added note, some have brought this verse against Daniel 11:31, which is interpreted as fulfilled by Antiochus. The argument is that Jesus clearly regarded 11:31 as yet unfulfilled. This argument fails on two counts: First, the abomination alluded to in Daniel would be that of 9:24-7, not 11:31. Second, commentatators overwhelmingly agree that the details match the career of Antichous, other than some controversy over 11:44-45.

Matthew 24:16-20

Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: (Mark 13:14-18; Luke 21:21-23)

This passage is transitional and offers us some clues of a 70 AD intention. The coming down from the housetop is in line with the Ancient Near Eastern practice of living and working on a flat roof. Other aspects here are more flexible and may refer to any given time; though as N. T. Wright notes, quoting Caird, the advice here is "more useful to a refugee from military invasion than to a man caught unawares by the last trumpet." [Wr.JVG, 359] The passage also alludes to Ezekiel's warning to flee from the destruction by Babylon (7:12-16) and to 1 Maccabees 2:28 and the warning to "flee to the hills."

The latter allusion is especially interesting. Wright [Wr.JVG, 511] notes that the Maccabees reference describes the flight of Matthias and his sons to the hills, "as the necessary prelude to their eventual victory...and the establishment of their royal house." We will argue that a "royal house" has already been established with the events and 70. We will see the relevance of this later in the discourse with our analysis of the "kingdom of heaven" phrase (Matt. 25:1).

As an added note, we might ask how one could flee from a city surrounded by armies. One might surrender to the Romans, of course -- Josephus records examples of people doing this (War 5.10.1); but of more relevance, he records that early in the war the Roman commander Cestius withdrew his troops from around Jerusalem, "without any reason in the world." (War 2.19.7) The Jews took this chance to harry the Roman troops; alert Christians would use the time to flee the city.

[A reader also passed me this note: In A.D. 68 generals Vespasian and Titus "had fortified all the places round about Jerusalem ... encompassing the city round about on all sides" (Josephus, Wars 4.9.1). But when Vespasian and Titus are "informed that Nero was dead" (4.9.2), they "did not go on with their expedition against the Jews" (4.9.2; cf. 4.10.2) until after Vespasian became emperor in 69. Then "Vespasian turned his thoughts to what remained unsubdued in Judea" (4.10.5)]

Matthew 24:21

For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.(Mark 13:19)

Dispensationalists identify this as a tribulation with a capital T -- associated with a seven-year period headed by an Antichrist figure. According to one leading proponent of this idea, this cannot have been a 70 AD fulfillment, because there have been greater tribulations; the 70 AD tribulation, while bad, "has been superseded by scores of far-worse calamities and holocausts" [Mac.SC, 78] such as the extermination of Jews in World War II.

Certainly no one would minimize those later tribulations -- but a couple of clues work against such an argument. First of all, note Luke's "translation" of this verse:

Luke 21:24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

Our proponent offers no comment at all on this verse, which clearly shows that Luke anticipated a fulfillment in terms of Jerusalem only -- the final Diaspora, and the trodding down of Jerusalem by the Gentiles.

Added July 2012: I was pointed to a rather strained explanation recently which claimed that Matthew 24 and Luke 21 "are clearly not the same teaching by Jesus." The manifest idiocy of this argument is made plain by a simple comparison of the two passages in terms of the content: Luke 21:7/Matthew 24:3; 21:8/24:5; 21:9/24:6; 21:10-1/24:7; etc, as well as by their respective timing during Passion Week. It is also claimed that the teachings are in different locations, but even if true -- Luke is far from clear on the precise location -- this is entirely irrelevant: even if they were, the content is so clearly matching that is is obviously the same "lecture".

Finally, the incoherence of making Matt 24 and Luke 21 two different discourses is made clear by these contexts:

Now here is the clincher. Those who try to divorce Luke 21 from Matt 24 will also say that Mark 13 is the same as Matthew 24. So in essence, they must hold to the following idiotic chronology: