The Abomination of Desolation Set Up: 66 C.E.
Revised: 2012 May 27
The prophet, Daniel, foresaw an “abomination that makes desolate.” It would be “set up” at the “time of the end” (Dan. 12:9, 11, ESV throughout unless otherwise noted). Many claim this means an antichrist must soon place an idolatrous image in a temple in modern-day Jerusalem. A brief, systematic investigation of scripture and the historical record exposes such speculation as completely unnecessary.
First-century fulfillment predicted by Christ
Jesus Christ explained the meaning of Daniel’s prophecy in the Olivet Discourse:
“15…when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matt. 24:15–16).
Notice three important clues here:
- Jesus indicated the very people he was speaking to would witness the event;
- The abomination would stand, or be “set up,” in something called the “holy place”;
- It was the sign for first-century Christians to flee.
Christ’s contemporaries, i.e., his disciples, or at least, some of them, would live to see the fulfillment of the abomination of desolation. This clearly establishes it as an event in the past. So, any suggestion of a future fulfillment must be dismissed at the outset.
The “holy place” not a temple
It is usually assumed “holy place” implies a temple. Granted, the Temple at Jerusalem was referred to as “this holy place” twice in Acts. (See ch. 6:13-14; 21:28.) However, the term had a much broader scope in the ancient Jewish mindset as revealed by the author of 2 Maccabees:
“[God] As he promised in the law, will shortly have mercy upon us, and gather us together out of every land under heaven into the holy place” (2 Macc. 2:18, KJV).
This is referring to numerous Israelites returning to the Promised Land. The “holy place” mentioned here could not be something as small as a temple. It is described as an area that could contain God’s people “out of every land under heaven.” Therefore, Christ’s reference to a holy place in Matthew 24 should not necessarily be limited to a temple. Jesus could have meant the entire Holy Land, or more likely, the city of Jerusalem where the population would swell to over three million when visitors from “every nation” gathered for annual holy days. (See Acts 2:5; Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 126.96.36.1990.)
Abomination of desolation = Roman armies
The appearance of the abomination of desolation was the signal to flee, but from Matthew’s account, the nature of the event is far from clear. Fortunately, Luke illuminates the issue by referring to the sign more specifically:
“20…when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written” (Luke 21:20-22).
What Matthew refers to as the “abomination of desolation,” Luke calls “armies.” What Matthew refers to as the “holy place,” Luke calls “Jerusalem.”
We can now conclude the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel refers to armies surrounding Jerusalem in the first century. This occurred in the fall of 66 C.E. under the command of the Roman General, Cestius Gallus.
“This army stood where it ought not, in and about the holy city, which the heathen ought not to have approached, nor would have been suffered to approach, if Jerusalem had not first profaned the crown of their holiness.”
But how could Christians be expected to flee when the city was surrounded by thousands of Roman soldiers? As it turned out, just when Roman success was virtually guaranteed, Cestius withdrew his army for no apparent reason, providing an opportunity for escape. Josephus describes the episode: “Cestius…had he but continued the siege a little longer, had certainly taken the city” (Josephus, 188.8.131.528-539). But then, a most remarkable thing occurred: “…he retired from the city without any reason in the world” (v. 540). This gave the defenders temporary confidence to give chase. They killed 5,680 Roman soldiers before Cestius and the rest escaped. (See v. 555.)
“After this calamity had befallen Cestius, many of the most eminent…swam away from the city, as if from a ship when it was going to sink” (v. 556).
This was the time for Christians to heed Christ’s warning to flee. Eusebius says they fled to the city of Pella in Perea across the Jordan River (Eusebius, The Church History 3.5). After Jerusalem was finally surrounded by forces under Titus in the spring of 70 C.E., no further opportunity to escape was afforded. Those not recognizing the fulfillment of the abomination of desolation in the autumn of 66 C.E. were destined to suffer starvation, death and most significantly, the destruction of the Temple and the end of Old Covenant sacrifices forever. This was the fulfillment of Daniel’s “time of the end”: the dramatic close of the Old Covenant era.
Objection: Your interpretation can’t be right. The book of Daniel in the NASB says the abomination of desolation would occur at “the end of time” (Dan. 12:4). Obviously, we have not reached that point.
Answer: This is an unfortunate rendering. Evidently, the translators allowed their flawed eschatological beliefs to corrupt their translation. Furthermore, they were inconsistent. Only five verses later, they refer to “the end time.” No other Bible in common use translates the phrase in Dan. 12:4 as “the end of time.” The more common translation is “the end time” or “the time of the end.”
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Mk 13:14–23 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996).
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