A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem
Not all historical fictions are created equal. Most valuable are those informed by years of study, research, and reflection which take seriously the history and context of ancient texts and their characters. In A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem, Ben Witherington III offers us just such a gem that presents lives of early Christians in a week of the immediate aftermath of the Jewish-Roman war of AD 70 when Jerusalem and the Temple fell to the Romans. What were those events like? What were the fears and struggles of Christians who witnessed or heard of the events of the fall, especially in the context of Jesus’s warnings that “the temple-centered world of the Jews was coming to the end” (29; Mark 13)? Where did they go? What was life like during those tense moments? How did Christians interact with fellow Christians, fellow Jews, and Romans and other Gentiles from the Greco-Roman world? What did they eat, wear, and do? How did they live, worship, work, and remain faithful to the teachings of their Master?
Witherington answers and addresses many such questions with fascinating tales and twists. To be sure, the major characters chosen were real historical personalities (including Joanna, Miryam of Migdal, Mary, Martha, Levi/Mattheos, Josephus, Roman officials, and Agabus), and their daily struggles and fears are presented in a well-informed fictional framework. All in all, A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem includes 22 fascinating tales and numerous instructive figures, images, and fruitful information in extracts that pertain to cultural and historical features of early Christianity. These tales are connected by a common plot of the trauma of the war and the destroyed Temple. Other connections between the tales are evident in numerous sub-plots like those of the early Christian women’s flight to Pella, Levi/Mattheos’s travels and interviews in an attempt to compose an account of Jesus’s life and teachings, and Roman officials’ (such as Titus) interactions with Jews like Josephus and some unnamed followers of Christ in the context of the fall of Jerusalem.
One of the noteworthy elements of many of Witherington’s tales is the focus on women. Often women’s personalities and roles in the early Christian movement are downplayed or simply forgotten. For example, take Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene), who in Witherington’s reconstruction ends up in Pella following Eusebius’s and Ephianius’s testimonies about Christians fleeing to that city because it could have been a relatively safe city in Decapolis due to its largely Greco-Roman character.1 In Pella, Witherington has Miryam providing help and hospitality to Jerusalem refugees. Mary, Martha, and Joanna (Junia, Paul’s coworker) are surviving the fall in Bethany and having brushes with death and danger. All of this highlights the emotional trauma of those who survived the events. As Witherington elaborates, “Perhaps not the end of the world, but certainly the end of a world, the world of her fellow Jews” (29). In Witherington’s tales, these women function not only as those who provide hospitality, but as those who remember, preserve, and retell Jesus’s teachings and who keep the movement alive in the face of challenges.
One may also note Witherington’s attempt to highlight the role of early Christian couples and family units. Consider, for example, Zaccheus and Ruth, who receive refugees in Jericho. While they provide lodging and hospitality, they receive Levi as well as Joanna (Junia), Miryam, and Martha. This story of the provision of hospitality and lodging in the context of crisis has some interesting sub-plots, as well. Witherington envisions Joanna to be Junia, the wife of Andronicus, both of whom were mentioned in Romans 16:7 as those who “were well regarded among the apostles.” Joanna was among those who supported Jesus during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3), while Andronicus was martyred during Neronian persecution. This gathering provided an opportunity for Joanna to share the story about her and Andronicus’s work with Paul, as well as to hear Levi’s plans to compile the story about Jesus. In the course of the conversation, Joanna begins to retell the story of Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). Levi pointed out the differences between her recollection and what he read in Mark’s account. Mark calls her “Syro-Phoenician” and “Gentile,” and he also omits the disciples in the story (Mark 7:24-30). This is a creative way to introduce Synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) differences. Also, this gives an opportunity to present the dynamics of an oral culture and some instructive implications for interpretation, especially as it relates to Jesus’s statement that implies that Gentiles are “dogs” and Jesus’s seemingly uncharacteristic treatment of a woman. The tone of Jesus’s voice in his conversation with this Canaanite woman does play a huge role, and Witherington does a masterful job illustrating that. In many places, Witherington highlights not only historical and social dynamics of early Christianity, but also literary and rhetorical insights in dealing with New Testament texts.
Any new student of the New Testament and early Christianity would soon realize that the writings of Josephus are absolutely integral for understanding the context of second Temple Judaism.2 Without Josephus, we would be left with very little in understanding the complexities of the context of early Christians. When it comes to the fall of Jerusalem, we owe much to Josephus, as well. Josephus’s interactions with Titus (the future emperor, son of Vespasian) are full of insights and would prove helpful in understanding Josephus’ predicament and the literary agenda of his works. Josephus was a Jewish commander in Galilee when the war began. After the surrender to the Romans, Josephus was enlisted to help the Romans to negotiate the surrender of the Zealots. Although he failed miserably, for his Roma-friendly actions, he was granted Roman citizenship by Titus, who was now in charge of finishing the Jewish-Roman war. What perspective should Josephus adopt in writing about the fall of Jerusalem? Josephus’s predicament was tricky. He needed to be pro-Roman, but he wanted to be pro-Jewish as well. Foremost though, Josephus desired to be pro-Josephus. Thus, he laid the blame on the Zealots and their sins and attributed the destruction of the Temple to its falling from God’s favor.3 Witherington allows us to enter Josephus’s mindset by presenting Josephus’ exposition of Danielic vision of four beasts (Daniel 7:1-8) to Titus, with the fourth beast as Roma. What Roman would not like that? Thus, whenever we read and/or use Josephus to help us in understanding the world of early Christians, we need to keep his pro-Roman, pro-Jewish, but mostly pro-Josephus agenda in mind.
While reading Witherington’s historical fiction, one cannot help but invoke one of the pioneering works of this kind, Gerd Thiessen’s The Shadow of the Galilean. Thiessen’s historical fiction about Jesus the social reformer has been read by many students in New Testament courses since its publication in 1986.4 While Thiessen’s work of historical fiction remains a formidable way to introduce students to the background of Jesus and the Gospels, Witherington’s work, although not a substitute, demonstrates a certain level of respect for traditional Christianity without rationalizing away the miracles and downplaying Jesus’ divine Messianic consciousness.
Witherington’s work likewise compliments another well-known work of historical fiction, Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from New Testament World.5 Both works portray the intricacies and complexities of the Greco-Roman world which early Christians had to navigate, and both highlight an amazing courage and faithfulness of early followers of Jesus. Whether one is in the context of a Roman imperial ideology that could lead to persecution (Longenecker) or in the context of the crisis of the fall of Jerusalem where your allegiances are challenged and examined (Witherington), the challenge is to live out the gospel faithfully and wholeheartedly.
The greatest value of Witherington’s work is to highlight the impact and trauma of the fall of Jerusalem. Outside of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the conversion and ministry of Paul, what other event would have had more impact on shaping the early Christian movement than the fall of Jerusalem? Our discussions of the impact of the fall usually revolve around some long-term consequences in areas and topics that pertain to Jewish-Gentile relationships, the Jewish-Christian anxieties about the absence of the Temple, reconstitution and reformulation of Judaism in the absence of the Temple, and the growth, shape, and make-up of Christianity, to name a few. Witherington draws our attention to immediate impacts of this world-changing event on the early followers of Jesus. While some may quibble with some of Witherington’s liberties and assertions (such as Lazarus as the “beloved disciple”), the work no doubt will prove instructive among those who wish to understand more about early Christianity through the prism of the fall of Jerusalem. The work could easily be incorporated as a supplementary textbook in upper-level courses on early Christianity in which the fall of Jerusalem is an often-discussed topic.
Cite this article
- Eusebius, Church History, 3.5.; Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures, 15.
- Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews; The Wars of the Jews; Against Apion; and Life.
- Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 20.8.5.
- Gerd Theissen, Der Schatten des Galiläers. Historische Jesusforschung in erzählender Form (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1986); Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galillean: The Quest for the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).
- Bruce W. Longenecker, The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). Incidentally, Longenecker’s work utilizes numerous helpful extracts pertaining to Greco-Roman context that come from Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).