Decisive Moments: The Fall of Jerusalem

5 March 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

Today I’m starting a new church history series.  Taking my inspiration from Mark Noll’s Turning Points, we’ll be looking at some of the key events of the last 2000 years.  Some of these might be well-known to you, but others maybe not so much. 

We’re starting today in the first century, not long after the time our Lord Jesus walked on the earth.  During this period, the Romans occupied Judea.  There’s evidence of that throughout the New Testament.  We hear of centurions, governors, garrisons, coinage, and much more. 

Understandably, the Roman occupation of Judea was not something the Jews readily accepted.  In fact, there were both passive and active forms of resistance to the occupation.  But resistance was on a relatively slow boil until the late 60s. 

In AD 66 there were tensions over taxes.  The Romans demanded more from the residents of Judea.  When they weren’t willing to pay up, the occupiers took drastic action.  Governor Gessius Florus plundered the temple treasury in Jerusalem to make up for the shortfalls. 

That created an uproar in Jerusalem and beyond.  It was one of the catalysts for the Jewish Revolt, a stretch of seven years of bloody fighting.  The Jewish Revolt got off to a promising start, giving hope to the Jews that finally the Romans would be sent packing.  But in AD 67, the Jewish Revolt started circling the drain.  That year Roman General Vespasian showed up with four legions of soldiers – that’s about 20,000 infantry and 1200 cavalry.

The following year the Roman Emperor Nero died and Vespasian returned to Rome.  Eventually, in AD 69, Vespasian became Roman Emperor.  He continued the campaign against the Jewish rebels. 

Vespasian’s son Titus became the Roman commander in the field.  In April of AD 70, Titus besieged Jerusalem, causing horrific suffering in the city due to famine.  Those Jews who were caught sneaking out of the city were crucified on the ridges surrounding, being made a public example and warning.  Much of what we know from this time comes from the Jewish historian Josephus.  In The Wars of the Jews, he writes about a woman named Mary who had fled to Jerusalem and then found herself starving to death.  She had an infant son and she turned to him for food.  Josephus wrote:

…she slew her son; and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed.  Upon this the seditious [revolutionaries] came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her, that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show what food she had gotten ready.  She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them; and withal uncovered what was left of her son.  Hereupon they were seized with horror and amazement of mind, and stood astonished at the sight; when she said to them, “This is mine own so; and what hath been done was mine own doing!  Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself!  Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother; but if you be so scrupulous and do abominate this my sacrifice, as I have eaten the one half, let the rest be reserved for me also.  After which, those men went out trembling, being never so much affrighted at anything as they were at this, and with some difficulty they left the rest of that meat to the mother.  (The Wars of the Jews 6.3.208-212).

That was just one tragic story among many.  This period was characterized by horrific human suffering.  Josephus tells us that a million Jews perished.    

But for the Jews the greatest tragedy of all happened in September of AD 70.  The Romans got into Jerusalem and they destroyed and desecrated the temple.  In fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:2, not one stone was upon another.  The entire temple complex was razed to the ground, never to be rebuilt.  According to our Lord Jesus in Matthew 24, this was the definitive earthly expression of God’s covenant wrath against the unbelief of the majority of the Jewish people. 

What happened to the church in Jerusalem?  Christ had warned his followers about these events.  He warned believers to flee Jerusalem in Luke 21:20-21.  So they did.  The Christians in Jerusalem fled across the Jordan River to a place called Pella.  There they established a church and found refuge.

Mark Noll, in Turning Points, adduces three reasons why this event was so momentous for church history.  First, it marked the end of Jerusalem as a centre for the Christian church.  Second, it meant that the church was well on its way to becoming less Jewish.  Finally, the fall of Jerusalem pushed the church ever more outwards into the Roman Empire.  I would add that it continues to stand as a grim warning about what happens when covenant people reject Christ and the gospel.