Category: Jewish History
Rome and the Abomination of Desolation
Tags: abomination of desolation, chanukkah, Gaius Caligula, Jerusalem
D. Thomas Lancaster
During the days of the apostles, the Jewish people experienced a great miracle that must have reminded them of the miracles of Chanukkah. The wicked Roman emperor, Caligula, ordered his legions to erect an idol of himself in the Temple, in Jerusalem. The apostles and early believers wondered if this event might fulfill the Master’s predictions about an abomination of desolation standing in the Temple.
The new emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, was popularly known by the epithet Caligula, which meant, “little soldier’s boot.” His father’s soldiers had given him the name while the boy accompanied them in their campaigns. Gaius did not care for the nickname. After he became the emperor of Rome in 37 CE, he tried to shed the appellation.
He gained a reputation for lewd and indecent behavior. His insatiable appetites, lusts, and self-indulgences seemed limitless. Contemporary sources describe him as insane, self-absorbed, vicious, murderous, sexually deviant, incestuous, and bloodthirsty. He killed for amusement, committed adultery with impunity, and intentionally wasted money.
In the midst of his degeneration, he began to worship himself. The Roman Empire did practice an obligatory, ceremonial worship of emperors, but Gaius took the matter very seriously, and raised it to a new level. Gaius began appearing in public costumed as the gods. On one day he might appear dressed as Bacchus. The next time he appeared in public, he had put on the gear of Hercules. On another day, he made himself to look like Mercury, and on another, he wore the costume of Apollo. Stranger yet, he began to appear dressed as Venus and other goddesses. He began to associate himself with Jupiter, the father of the gods, claiming to be his brother, and then, eventually, claiming to be him, and signing public documents in his name. He established temples to himself in Rome and elsewhere, and he sent his images to be worshipped throughout the empire—even in synagogues.
Gaius was extremely capricious towards every one, and especially towards the nation of the Jews. He was bitterly hostile toward the Jews, and accordingly beginning in Alexandria he took from them all their synagogues there. In the other cities as well, he filled the synagogues with images and statues of himself. He was not concerned about any other statues, but he forced his own image to be set up. (Philo)
Abomination of Desolation
Prior to Gaius, the Roman emperors had allowed the Jewish Temple to remain untouched. The Jewish people showed their appreciation by offering a sacrifice on the emperor’s behalf every day. Gaius was not content. He objected, “But they do not sacrifice to me!”
The great Temple in the holy city had been left untouched because the Romans deemed it worthy of respect and preservation, but Gaius altered and transformed it into a temple of his own, so that he might call it “The Temple of the New Jupiter, the Illustrious Gaius.” (Philo)
Bad news travels fast. The entire Jewish world trembled. Whether they lived in the holy land or in the far-flung communities of the Diaspora, the Jewish people esteemed the sanctity of God’s house as inviolable. Jewish people everywhere raised a wail of distress and anguish. They committed themselves to fasting and prayer.
Meanwhile, the armies of Rome mobilized. In the early summer of 40 CE, word came to Jerusalem that Petronius, the Roman military governor of Syria, had taken several legions from the Parthian front and begun a march toward Jerusalem with the intention of erecting a statue of Gaius/Jupiter in the holy of holies.
Some did not believe the rumors of war, but those that did realized that they were not in any position to defend themselves. Terror spread throughout the city.
The Master’s Warning
The apostles in Jerusalem remembered the Master’s warning. Ten years earlier, in the last days before he suffered, the Master told his disciples that they would hear of wars and natural disasters and experience harsh persecution, but those things did not signify either the fall of Jerusalem or the coming of the Son of Man. Instead, they should watch for a definitive sign: “The abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be” (Mark 13:14), that is, “the abomination of desolation spoken of through the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15). He told them that when they saw the abomination of desolation, they would know that the final calamity before his coming was imminent, and they should flee from Jerusalem and from the cities and villages of Judea.
The disciples prepared to flee. Without a doubt, the final battle of Gog and Magog, as predicted by Ezekiel and Zechariah, loomed just ahead. Already the armies of Gog and Magog came marching from the north under the standards of Rome.
The Chanukkah Rebellion
More than a century and a half earlier (167 BCE), the wicked King Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes profaned the Temple of God and attempted to stomp out observance of the Torah. He put a stop to the daily sacrifices and defiled the Temple by setting up an idol of Zeus (Jupiter) in the holy place. According to legend, Antiochus had his own face carved onto the idol of Zeus. He ordered swine sacrificed to Zeus on the altar of the LORD. The writer of 1 Maccabees called the idol “the abomination of desolation,” a term he borrowed from Daniel 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11. Daniel had predicted it all:
Now the fifteenth day of the month Kislev, in the hundred forty and fifth year, he set up the Abomination of Desolation upon the altar, and built idol altars throughout the cities of Judea on every side. (1 Maccabees 1:54)
The author of the Gospel of Matthew makes the allusion to the book of Daniel explicit, adding a parenthetical exhortation to his readers, “Let the reader understand!” (Matthew 24:15). The prophet Daniel had foretold these calamites through his visions. He predicted that “forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate” (Daniel 11:31). He predicted that “from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days” (Daniel 12:11). Those predictions came to fruition in the days of the Chanukkah revolt.
Our Master Yeshua implied that these things would happen again. A second line of prophecy in the book of Daniel spoke of a second abomination of desolation. The prophecy of seventy weeks in Daniel 9 predicted that a series of calamities would culminate with the destruction of Jerusalem. The Messiah will be cut off, an enemy prince will come against Jerusalem and the Temple, the daily sacrifice will cease, and an abomination of desolation (i.e., an idol) will stand in the Temple:
An anointed one (Messiah) shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator. (Daniel 9:26-27)
When news of the march of Petronius and the Roman army reached the disciples, they knew that the remaining days were short. Everything was unfolding just as Yeshua had predicted. As the prophet Daniel declared, “The people of the prince who is to come (Gaius) will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined” (Daniel 9:26). Surely Gaius Caligula had revealed himself to be the anti-Christ, the man of lawlessness that apostolic eschatology anticipated as a precursor to the coming of Messiah:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4)
The apostles recognized that Gaius opposed and exalted himself above the so-called gods of Rome and intended on taking God’s place in his holy Temple.
James Prays in the Temple
With the imminent arrival of the Roman legions in view, the apostles might have been wise to leave Jerusalem and seek safety outside Judea, but they did not. They did not yet abandon the city, nor did they abandon the nation. The Master had told them not to flee until they saw the idol placed in the Temple. They prepared for the worst, but they prayed for the best.
The disciples of Yeshua loved God’s holy house. Though they longed for the coming of the day of the LORD, they did not long to see the holy Temple defiled. The disciples recognized Gaius as the servant of Satan on earth, and they trembled as a result. We may surmise that, along with the rest of the Jewish people, they threw themselves into prayer and supplication, beseeching God to spare his Temple, his holy city, and his holy people.
James the Righteous, the brother of the Master and the head of the Way, interceded on behalf of the city. The second-century church writer Hegesippus reports several traditions about James, the brother of the Master. James lived as a Nazirite and vegetarian from birth: “He drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food. No razor came near his head.” Like the Essenes, who refused to use olive oil for cosmetic or hygienic purposes, “He did not smear himself with oil.” He immersed himself daily in the mikvah, but he avoided the Roman-style bathhouses: “He took no baths.” Thanks to his exceptional piety and good reputation with influential men, James enjoyed unprecedented access to the Temple’s courts where he implored God on behalf of the nation:
And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. (Hegesippus)
James prayed every day in the Temple on behalf of the nation. How much more did the crisis under Gaius drive James and the other apostles to beseech God on behalf of the city, the Temple, and the Jewish people? They joined the rest of the nation in fasting, supplication, and lamentation as they saw the Master’s prophecies set in motion.
March on Akko
Petronius, the Roman governor of Syria, marched out of Antioch and proceeded toward Jerusalem ahead of the legions he had taken from the Parthian front. Caesar told him that if the Jews resisted, he was to declare war on them. He had already contracted craftsmen in the Phoenician city of Sidon to create the colossal statue, and his legions had already marched into Phoenicia. Petronius awaited the arrival of the legions at Acco (Ptolemais, modern Acre, Israel), a port city near Mount Carmel, not far from Nazareth, on the border of Galilee and Phoenicia.
The Judeans came streaming north to intercept the governor. Likewise, the Galileans rose up in mass, as one man, and journeyed to Acco. They left their cities, villages, and houses empty behind them and streamed into Phoenicia.
The Phoenicians were dismayed to see what appeared to be the entire Jewish population striding into their territory. The Roman officers warned Petronius that a vast army was approaching the city. It looked like a cloud spread over the whole horizon. They told the governor that they were in danger of being overrun.
Petronius saw what appeared to be a countless multitude of Jews approaching. He prepared for the first battle of what was sure to be a long and difficult war.
Many believers stood among the Jews that day. A community of disciples already lived in the Jewish community at Acco. The Galilean believers from the many towns where Yeshua of Nazareth had ministered also marched with the multitude of Jews. The believers may have had an influence on the strategy the multitude adopted as they approached Petronius: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39). They all went unarmed. Whole families joined in. They divided themselves into six companies: elderly men, young men, boys, elderly women, young women, and girls.
A delegation from the Jews entered the town and assured Petronius that they had come unarmed. Petronius rode out to meet the Jews, but he stayed at a safe distance. When he and his men came into view, the whole multitude of Jews fell to the ground, lamenting, wailing, and supplicating. The sound of their cries filled the plain in its entirety and echoed from the mountains.
The elders approached the Roman governor. They assured him that they had come unarmed, accompanied by their wives and children and daughters. They wanted no war with Rome. They offered the governor their homes, properties, and very lives if he would only spare the holy Temple. If he refused and insisted on making war against them, they offered their throats to his blades.
Petronius Stalls for Time
Petronius was an educated man, and he understood Judaism. He knew that Caesar’s orders could not be carried out without a terrible slaughter, but he knew Gaius well enough to know that he could not hope to change his mind on the matter. Petronius agreed to stall for time. He sent word to the craftsmen fashioning the idol, instructing them to take their time with the project. He made plans to winter the legions in Acco and to start the campaign in the spring. He wrote a letter to Caesar offering excuses for the delays.
Decision in Tiberias
The legions remained on the coast at Acco. The fall festivals passed, and the people of Galilee massed at Tiberias where Petronius was in the palace of Agrippa. Tens of thousands gathered to implore him to stop the installation of the idol. Petronius stood before the assembly and asked them if they wanted war with Rome. They replied, “We will not by any means make war with Caesar. But we will die before we see our laws transgressed.”
Petronius replied, “And am I not also obligated to keep the laws of my lord? If I transgress his command and spare you, it will be just for me to be put to death. Then he that sent me will commence to go to war with you, for I am a man under authority as you are. Will you make war with Rome?”
The people replied, “We offer sacrifices twice every day for Caesar, and for the Roman people. But if he places his images in our Temple, he must first sacrifice the whole nation.”
They threw themselves on their faces before Petronius, stretched out their throats, and declared that they were ready to die—they, their wives, their sons, and their daughters. They continued on in this manner for forty days.
Petronius was a decent man and noble-hearted. He called the Jews together to Tiberias and told them that he would send a letter to the emperor explaining that he could not carry out his orders. He resigned himself to the knowledge that Caesar would surely sentence him to death for defying his orders.
The Death Sentence
The mail service was not always reliable, especially in the winter months, when navigation on the Mediterranean was dangerous. It took several months for the letter from Petronius to reach Rome. By then, the craftsmen had completed the new idol. They prepared to ship it to Judea.
The contents of Petronius’ letter did not amuse the emperor. He reacted with his typical rage and immediately dispatched a reply commanding Petronius to kill himself.
Only a week or so after Gaius sent his suicide orders, a miracle occurred. Gaius had made so many bitter enemies that half the population of Rome itched to assassinate him. Members of his own Praetorian Guard conspired against him. They killed Gaius on the last day of the royal games, January 24, 41 CE. When the city of Rome realized that the tyrant was dead, the mob toppled his statues from their pedestals and destroyed them to vent their hatred and express their relief.
Messengers immediately dispatched news of the assassination to Syria. Due to winter storms on the sea, the ship carrying the suicide orders floundered at sea. As a result, the ship carrying the news of the assassination arrived at port first.
Petronius received two dispatches from Rome. The first one informed him that the tyrant was dead. The second dispatch carried the suicide orders from Gaius. The short delay in the delivery of the first dispatch miraculously saved Petronius’ life.
Reaction in Jerusalem
When news of Gaius’ death reached the holy city, all of Jerusalem rejoiced. For a single day, sectarian lines and divisions among the Jews vanished. Hellenist, Hebrew, Herodian, Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene, Zealot, and Nazarene alike all had cause to celebrate. Gaius, the servant of Satan, had been an enemy to all of the Jewish people. The apostles saw that, for the time being, the Master’s dire prediction of an abomination of desolation in the Temple had been forestalled. They offered thanks to God for his abundant mercies. A great miracle happened there.
Adapted from Messiah Magazine #1. Â© 2015 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.
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