Were There Two Witnesses at the 70 CE Destruction of Jerusalem?
Updated: Apr 23
Engraving of the prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. The destruction happened on the same day of the Hebrew calendar as it did in 70 CE at the hands of the Romans.
Three blogs ago I put forward evidence that the Apocalypse envisioned by the Apostle John in the book of Revelation may have been seen and written down earlier than is often estimated. I suggested (as have others) that it was written not in the 90s CE but in the 60s, under the reign of Nero before his death in 68 CE. If this is the case, then we should consider that many parts of the apocalyptic vision might be foretelling the most catastrophic event in the Judeo-Christian culture that was about to happen—the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This blog is the third in a series to explore what aspects of the Apocalypse seem to have uncanny parallels to that destruction and the years leading up to it.
There is an important section of Revelation (Chapter 11) that describes two witnesses at the Temple testifying and warning of the coming tribulation. This passage has important ramifications today because many Christians hold this to be proof that a temple will once again stand in Jerusalem before the final days of tribulation. But in contrast, the passage could also be evidence that Revelation was referring to Herod's Temple, and so was written down at a time before it was destroyed. If the latter is the case, there is no need for a third temple to be built before the Messiah returns. The fact that there are currently sects who desire to rebuild a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount is the cause of much tension today in the Middle East.
If Revelation chapter 11 was referring to the 70 CE destruction of Herod’s Temple, then who might these two witnesses be referring to? Were there two such witnesses in Jerusalem in the last days before its destruction? Let’s look at the what is described about the witnesses: (1) They are giving warnings. (2) They are very much disliked by the public. (3) They accompany a measurement of the Temple. (4) They appear to be killed but then return to life. (5) They are accompanied by miracles. (6) Their public ministry lasts for three and half years.
There are, in fact, two figures from history that match these descriptions. Perhaps not in quite the sensational language of Revelation, but taken together the points mentioned above match fairly well. The first witness I wrote about in my blog of August 7th of this year. That was Yeshua ben Hananiah, the prophet of doom mentioned by Josephus. His arrival in Jerusalem actually occurred seven years before the final destruction, in 63 CE. At some point he was taken into Prison by the Roman authorities because the people very much disliked his message of doom, doom, doom! Woe to Jerusalem! Many must have thought the Romans had put him to death and were glad to be rid of him. But the Romans eventually just thought him mad, so they released him. And for another three and half years his wailing about the city continued: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride, a voice against all the people!”
The second witness was Josephus. He found himself playing the role that the prophet Jeremiah played centuries early when the city was under siege from the Babylonians. Jeremiah continually urged King Zedekiah to surrender the city so that it and the temple would be spared. The king hated Jeremiah’s prophecy. Josephus recorded his own speeches he made to the Jews from the walls of the Temple enclosure during the siege. He urged them to surrender and in turn the Romans would not destroy the city and Temple. Otherwise, both would be lost. Resistance was futile. Three years earlier Josephus had been captured by the Romans in Galilee. Many thought him dead. They had memorial parades for him in Jerusalem, honoring his brave sacrifice. When they discovered him alive and in Roman chains, they were furious at his cowardice. They had a second parade, burning his image in effigy. He was hated. After one of his speeches, he tripped and fell and was lunged upon by those nearby. The crowd cheered thinking Josephus would be killed. But he survived.
In Revelation the temple is measured upon their arrival. It is unclear why the author of Revelation is instructed to measure the Temple. Perhaps for posterity’s sake because the Temple would soon be destroyed. The only contemporary witness we have that recorded the dimensions of the Temple grounds was—Josephus. Similar but slightly different measurements that appear in the Talmud were recorded two centuries later by prominent rabbis.
What about miracles? Neither Yeshua ben Hananiah nor Josephus were recorded preforming miracles. But Josephus recorded many miracles that were witnessed during the years and months leading up to the siege. A comet was seen over the city, being likened to a sword ready to strike. A mysterious light appeared around the altar one night. A cow at the sacrificial ceremony gave birth to a lamb. Visions were seen of chariots with an army in the clouds at sunset. Priests in the temple heard noises of a crowd saying, “Let us remove hence”. The large brass Nicanor gate of the Temple was found to have opened one morning all by itself, when it took many men to move it. And Yeshua ben Hananiah’s final cry at the siege was “And Woe unto me”, upon which he was struck by a projectile in the head and died.
Although Josephus surely drew parallels between himself and Jeremiah, there were differences that meant Josephus would never be seen as a patriot. Jeremiah prophesied from Jerusalem. Josephus was speaking from the Roman camp. Jeremiah lived afterward with the exiles. Josephus lived with the Romans, at their expense, in a quite comfortable lifestyle. This last situation gave Josephus a very bad image in the mind of the surviving Jews, from which he never really recovered.
There have been many potential explanations for the two witnesses of Revelation, who they might represent, present day or future. But I find the parallels to the 70 CE events most interesting.