Continuing in this series about the early Christian Church and their views about prophetic fulfillment in the first century, I want to cover some statements by four important theologians, and the implications which arise from what they believed. The four theologians who I am referring to are St. Ambrose, Titus of Bostra, Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Augustine.
As will be shown briefly below, St Ambrose and Titus comment on Luke 21:5-8, and Cyril of Alexandria comments on Luke 21:9-19, whereas St. Augustine comments on Luke 21:20-24. Yet notice carefully that they all are commenting on the same chapter in Luke's Gospel. Notice also, in connection with the remainder of this series, that Luke chapter 21 is the same "Olivet Discourse" offered in Matthew chapter 24 and Mark chapter 13. Therefore, it can deduced with great certainty that many Christians of the early Church were made aware of what these men taught and believed, namely that Jesus prophesied about the first century Jewish wars and its end in the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.).
Beginning with Luke's Gospel, in 21:5-8 we are told:
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
Commenting on those verses, Saint Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan (A.D. 374) shows us that he was familiar with Jesus' predictions about the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. St Ambrose writes:
“It was spoken then of the temple made with hands, that it should be overthrown.”
After this, he makes note of what Matthew's Gospel records about these prophetic statements by Jesus:
Matthew adds a third question, that both the time of the destruction of the temple, and the sign of His coming, and the end of the world, might be inquired into by the disciples. But our Lord being asked when the destruction of the temple should be, and what the sign of His coming, instructs them as to the signs, but does not mind to inform them as to the time. It follows, Take heed that ye be not deceived.1
Commenting on those same verses, Titus of Bostra (theologian and Bishop of Bostra in 363 A.D.) clearly implies that he, too, was aware of other theologians who interpreted Luke 21:5-8 as having first century fulfillment. He wrote:
…perhaps He [i.e. Jesus] does not speak of false Christs coming before the end of the world, but of those who existed in the Apostles’ time.”2
Continuing in Luke's Gospel (21:9-19) Jesus adds:
And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.
Then he said to them, Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.
Commenting on these verses, Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria (376-444 A.D.) shows that he, too, was well aware that the New Testament Scriptures address the Jewish wars and persecutions which culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Cyril of Alexandria wrote:
He says this, because before that Jerusalem should be taken by the Romans, the disciples, having suffered persecution from the Jews, were imprisoned and brought before rulers; Paul was sent to Rome to Cæsar, and stood before Festus and Agrippa.3
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then 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, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
St. Augustine comments on these verses from Luke's Gospel:
These words of our Lord, Luke has here related to shew, that the abomination of desolation which was prophesied by Daniel, and of which Matthew and Mark had spoken, (i.e. Mat. 24, Mark 13) was fulfilled at the siege of Jerusalem. …But where Matthew and Mark have written, Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes, Luke adds more clearly, And let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto, for these be the days of vengeance, that all the things which are written may be fulfilled. …Then Luke follows in words similar to those of the other two; But woe to them that are with child, and them that give suck in those days; and thus has made plain what might otherwise have been doubtful, namely, that what was said of the abomination of desolation belonged not to the end of the world, but the taking of Jerusalem.4
Moreover, in case anyone thinks that St. Augustine didn't explain his own view clearly enough, his comments on the corresponding prophecy in Mark's Gospel are helpful. Referring to Mark 13:14-20, St. Augustine said this:
But Luke, in order to shew that the abomination of desolation happened when Jerusalem was taken, in this same place,5 gives the words of our Lord, And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. (c.f. Luke 21:20) It goes on: Then let them that be in Judæa flee to the mountains. …For Josephus, who has written the history of the Jews, relates that such things were suffered by this people…6
What I find most interesting about all of these comments by famous early church fathers is not what they said per se (although that, too, is interesting), but who it was recording those comments. I'm guessing that most Christians today don't know which world famous theologian studied and hand-picked the comments posted above, placing them within his own commentary. That theologian I'm referring to is St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most famous and influential "Doctor of the Church."
The quotations listed above come from Aquinas' Catena Aurea, a commentary on the four gospels comprised of fragments from existing commentaries in his day. Aquinas was commissioned by Pope Urban IV to compile the Catena Aurea in hopes that it would aid the Catholic Church to gain a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as revealed in the Gospels.
With that in mind, consider how important the literal first century fulfillment of Jesus' prophecies were in the mind of great leaders throughout the Christian Church. Not only is the belief in first century "fulfillment" found among great Christian leaders such as St. James, Hegessipus, Eusebius, Hilary, Jerome, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Cyril, and Augustine--which I have been showing clearly in this series of posts--but among all the great Christian leaders of Church history, Thomas Aquinas believed it too. Out of all the commentaries available to Aquinas, and out of all the statements in those ancient commentaries, Aquinas selected the quotations I have shared with you above. He is the one who selected them for the Church, and for Pope Urban IV.
In the next post, I plan on sharing more from Aquinas' Catena Aurea, in order to show that the early Church fathers were not the only ones who held to this view. Aquinas also wanted the Church in his own day to appreciate the legacy of gospel interpretation throughout the ages as well.
3. Ibid. p. 678
4. Ibid. pp. 681-682
5. The same place where Mark records Jesus' "Olivet Discourse" (Mark 13)
6. Cited in Thomas Aquinas. (1842). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Mark. (J. H. Newman, Ed.) (Vol. 2, p. 260-261). Oxford: John Henry Parker. Notice carefully that St. Augustine was familiar with the history recorded by Josephus.