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Biblical Minimalism and "The History of Preterism"

Searching for "Shreds of Preterist Evidence"
An Answer to Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, The End Times Controversy

Part 2
(Click here for Part 1)

By Gary DeMar (of American Vision)

Thomas Ice does not understand why so little (he says "zero") is said about the destruction of Jerusalem in first-century documents. He wants to know why the temple's predicted destruction was not used by the early church to prove the Christian case against Judaism and vindicate Jesus as a prophet. As has already been pointed out, there is very little in terms of published documents that has survived through the centuries. In addition, prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, "Jewish Christianity, as well as Gentile, had by this time established its own identity. . . . During the war and in the ensuing three or four decades . . . the separation of the Jewish Christians from Judaism became complete."1 The earliest Christian documents were written to and for Christians who had some knowledge of the gospel through preaching and teaching (2 Thess. 2:5), letters that have been lost (1 Cor. 5:9), and/or copies of what we know today as the New Testament. Why repeat what was common knowledge? There’s a lot that these documents do not mention.

G. W. H. Lampe argues that "the main principles of the Christian position had been established against Judaism well before the first Jewish war ended," that "the decisive event which vindicated Jesus as the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, was not the destruction of his enemies but his resurrection from the dead and his exaltation to God's right hand."2 The New Testament focus was off the earthly Jerusalem and its temple and on the "heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22) and the temple above (Rev. 21:22). For forty years, from A.D. 30 to 70, the resurrection of Jesus was the center of controversy. Paul was on trial for the "resurrection of the dead" (Acts 23:6; 24:21). With the passage of forty years, the temple was no longer relevant. Lampe continues his argument:

From the letter to the Galatians Christians had learned that they were children of the Jerusalem which is ‘above’, the community which, because it enjoys the freedom of the Spirit, stands over against its antithesis, the earthly Jerusalem which is in servitude to the Law (Gal. 4:25–6, cp. Phil. 3:20). The foundations, once again, had been laid for the later development of the theme of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ in Hebrews (12:22), the ‘new’ or ‘holy’ Jerusalem which, according to the Revelation of John (3:12; 20:9; 21:2), is to descend from heaven and in which the presence of God will not be focussed or localised in any temple, and for the reinterpretation by the Fourth Evangelist of the idea of a holy place, established by God for worship, in terms of community which worships in the Spirit and truth (John 4:21–3). Paul had already taught that the holy temple of God, indwelt by the Spirit, is the congregation of Christian people, the temple of the living God in which his presence assures the fulfilment of the covenant promise, ‘I will be their God and they shall be my people’ (I Cor. 3:16–17; 2 Cor. 6:16); and Paul had also shown that in a secondary sense each individual believer is the temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19). In this ark of Christian theology, too, the foundations of later developments, such as the teaching of Eph. 2:21 and I Pet. 2:5, and, through a combination of the themes of the ‘temple of the Spirit’ and the ‘body of Christ’, of John 2:21, had been firmly laid in the years before the Jewish war.3

Ice gives the false impression to his readers that there is a large body of written material on the subject of eschatology composed by first-century writers. It's odd that Ice never quotes from one of these first-century documents to prove his point. In fact, he never tells us what first-century documents he has in mind or their subject matter. Of course, the reason Ice doesn't quote these documents is that they do not teach what he needs them to teach.

Contrary to what Ice claims, some dispensationalists are honest enough to admit that it's "not an easy task to piece together a picture of what early Christians thought about the end times. . . . [since] our sources for their thought in this area are relatively limited."4 In reality, there are only four first-century writings available for study today: The Didache, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Of the four, only 1 Clement and the Didache allude to Matthew 24. Ice demands that a "preterist has to prove that the early church writings interpreted passages such as Matthew 24:27, 30, 25:31, Acts 1:9–11, Revelation 1:7,5 and 19:11–21 as fulfilled in A.D. 70."6 Ice doesn't offer a shred a evidence that these passages were used by first-century writers to prove his unique brand of futurism. In fact, a study of the documents of the period will show that none of them quotes Matthew 25:31, Acts 1:9–11, or Revelation 1:7 and 19:11–21. In the end, Ice's argument from history is an argument from silence. "As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or undetailed did not exist."7

What follows is an analysis of first-century writings that address the topic of eschatology. Ice does not deal with any them in his chapter on "The History of Preterism."

A "Shred of Evidence" from the Didache

The Didache, also known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," is probably the oldest surviving extant piece of non-canonical literature. It claims to have been written by the twelve apostles, but this cannot be proved. While the full text of the Didache was not rediscovered until 1873, there are references to it in Clement of Alexandria's Miscellanies,8 Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History,9 and Athanasius’s Festal Letter.10 The Didache quotes five verses from Matthew 24 (4, 10, 11, 24, 30). The crucial time text of Matthew 24:34 ("this generation will not pass away") is not quoted, but Matthew 24:30 is: "The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven" (16.7–8). The verses are obviously used to describe future events. Of course, if the Didache was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then preterists have their "shred of evidence" that Ice says does not exist. Sure enough, a number of scholars believe that the Didache was composed before A.D. 70. In the authoritative work The Apostolic Fathers, we read the following:

A remarkably wide range of dates, extending from before A.D. 50 to the third century or later, has been proposed for this document. . . . The Didache may have been put into its present form as late as 150, though a date considerably closer to the end of the first century seems more plausible. The materials from which it was composed, however, reflect the state of the church at an even earlier time. The relative simplicity of the prayers, the continuing concern to differentiate Christian practice from Jewish rituals (8.1), and in particular the form of church structure--note the twofold structure of bishops and deacons (cf. Phil. 1:1) and the continued existence of traveling apostles and prophets alongside a resident ministry--reflect a time closer to that of Paul and James (who died in the 60s) than Ignatius (who died sometime after 110).11

The definitive work on the Didache was written by the French Canadian J.-P. Audet who concluded "that it was composed, almost certainly in Antioch, between 50 and 70."12 In an earlier edition of The Apostolic Fathers we read a similar conclusion: "In his very thorough commentary J.-P. Audet suggests about A.D. 70, and he is not likely to be off by more than a decade in either direction."13 Even liberal scholars, who tend to date all New Testament documents late, acknowledge the evidence for an early date for the Didache. For example, Stephen J. Patterson comments that the trend is to date the document early, "at least by the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, and in the case of Jean-P. Audet, as early as 50–70 C.E."14 So then, if the Didache was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as a number of scholars suggest, then its use of Matthew 24 to describe events that were yet to take place, including the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 24:30), makes perfect sense given a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. Ice has his "shred of evidence."

A "Shred of Evidence" from James the Brother of Jesus

In Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, written in the fourth century, we learn of an incident that lead to the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus. The original story comes from the second-century historian Hegesippus who wrote his notes on the history of the church between A.D. 165 and 175. When James was called on by a group of Scribes and Pharisees to set the what they believed was the truth of the claimed Messiahship of Jesus, Hegesippus reports James as stating that Jesus "is about to come on the clouds of heaven."15 Hegesippus is quoting what "James the Just" said to a group of Scribes and Pharisees who believed that people were "led astray after Jesus was crucified": "Why do you ask me respecting Jesus the Son of Man? He is now sitting in the heavens, on the right hand of great Power, and is about to come on the clouds of heaven."16

The Greek word mellow, "about to," "communicates a sense of immediacy."17 "If the author had not wished to stress the immediate aspect of Christ's coming, he could still have stressed the certainty of Christ's coming with erketai, thereby omitting the immediate factor."18 After hearing James' obvious allusion to Matthew 26:64, the officials of the temple cast him down from the "wing of the temple" and later stoned him and beat out his brains with a club. "Immediately after this," Hegesippus writes, "Vespasian invaded and took Judea."19 James the brother of Jesus believed that Jesus' coming was "about to take place." Hegessipus identifies the coming of Jesus "on the clouds of heaven" with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

A "Shred of Evidence" from 1 Clement

Clement (A.D. 30–100), also known as Clemens Romanus to distinguish him from Clement of Alexandria who died in the third century, is noted for his letter to the Corinthians (1 Clement). The letter is commonly dated around A.D. 96, but there is good reason to date it earlier. John A. T. Robinson is sympathetic to George Edmundson's evidence that 1 Clement "was written in the early months of 70."20 The strongest argument for an early A.D. 70 date is that Clement states that temple sacrifices were being offered in Jerusalem at the time of its writing. This means the temple, which was destroyed in late A.D. 70, was still standing when Clement wrote his letter:

Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings or the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high-priest and the aforesaid ministers (41.2).

To give further support for an early A.D. 70 date is Clement's comments about what was taking place in "our generation," specifically the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. Keep in mind that Clement was born around A.D. 30 and would have been forty years old in A.D. 70, making him a part of the "this generation" of Matthew 24:34:

But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience (5.1–17. Emphasis added.).

Remember Ice’s criterion for establishing preterism in the first century: All we need is "a shred of evidence." There are a couple of items in this section of Clement’s letter that point to a pre-A.D. 70 fulfillment. As opposed to "ancient examples" to make his case, Clement instead dwells on "the most recent spiritual heroes," in this case, Peter and Paul who "suffered martyrdom" during the Neronic persecutions in the 60s. These are "noble examples furnished in our own generation," Clement writes. Jesus predicted in the presence of Peter: "They will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you. . ." (Matt. 24:9; cf. John 21:18–19).

Of Paul, Clement writes, "After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west." It was Paul's plan to go to Spain (Rom. 14:24, 28). Compare this statement to what Jesus says in Matthew 24:14, a verse that LaHaye and Ice maintain has not been fulfilled.

"And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come."

Clement, following the language of Jesus and Paul, states that the "whole world" (kosmos) had been "taught righteousness." Paul writes to the Romans that their "faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world [kosmos]" (Rom. 1:8). At the end of Romans we read that the gospel "has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith" (16:26). To the Colossians we learn that, according to Paul, the gospel "was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister" (Col. 1:23; cf. 1:6 [kosmos]).


Ice and LaHaye get off on the wrong foot in their analysis of preterism. The historical argument is a death blow, or to use Mark Hitchcock's metaphor from his chapter on the dating of Revelation, "A Stake in the Heart" to their brand of futurism. The earliest historical sources, the Didache, the testimony of James, the brother of Jesus, and 1 Clement demonstrate that preterism's history is a first-century history.

As time and opportunity permit, I will deal with Ice's other claims on the history of preterism even though they are rather inconsequential to the debate. Ice leaves out so many outstanding preterists that one wonders if he's trying to hide something from his mostly dispensational audience.


1. G. W. H. Lampe, "A.D. 70 in Christian Reflection," Jesus and the Politics of His Day, eds. Ernst Bammel and C. F. D Moule (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 156.

2. Lampe, "A.D. 70 in Christian Reflection," 157.

3. Lampe, "A.D. 70 in Christian Reflection," 157–158.

4. John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NAVPRESS, 2001), 305. Hannah is department chairman and distinguished professor of historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Hannah still popularizes the canard that "the Fathers embraced a premillennial understanding" of future events (306). Apparently, Hannah is not aware of Boyd's study of the period. Contrary to Hannah's assertions on premillennialism, Louis Berkhof concludes after his study of the period, "But it is not correct to say, as Premillenarians do, that it was generally accepted in the first three centuries. The truth of the matter is that the adherents of this doctrine were a rather limited number. There is no trace of it in Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius, and other important Church Fathers." (Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines [London: The Banner of Truth Trust, (1937) 1969], 262).

5. LaHaye and Ice, End Times Controversy, 39. Revelation 1:7 is only quoted three times in the entire ante-Nicene corpus, none from first-century writings.

6. LaHaye and Ice, End Times Controversy, 39.

7. Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 14.

8. (Miscellanies, 1, 20, 100).

9. (Ecclesiastical History, 3.25).

10. (Festal Letter, 39).

11. Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, [1992] 1999), 247–248. Emphasis added.

12. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 323.

13. Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 247. Holmes references J.-P. Audet, La DidachP: Instructions des Apôtres (Paris: Gabalda, 1958), 187–206.

14. Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus: Thomas Christianity, Social Radicalism, and the Quest of the Historical Jesus (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1993), 173.

15. Boyd, A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers, 288. Boyd cites Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.33. The correct reference is 2:22. The account is also told in William Cave, Antiquitates Apostolicae: Or, the History of the Lives, Acts and Martyrdoms of the Holy Apostles or Our Saviour, and the Two Evangelists, SS. Mark and Luke, 2 vols. in 1 (London: R. Norton for R. Royston, Bookseller to His most Sacred Majesty, 1677), 1:193

16. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, "The martyrdom of James, who was called the brother of the Lord," 2.23 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1958), 77-78. The same account can be found in volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 763.

17. Boyd, 28.

18. Boyd, 28. See A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 4th rev. ed., s.v. mellow, I.c.a., 502. This understanding of mellow refutes Ice's claim time words are used "as qualitative indicators (not chronological indicators) describing how Christ will return." (End Times Controversy, 35).

19. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, "The martyrdom of James, who was called the brother of the Lord," 2.23 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1958), 77-78. The same account can be found in volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 763.

20. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 329.

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