Historical Background of Matthew 24:20
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“Pray that your flight not take place in winter neither on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:20).
Across the Sabbath community, I have seen a few perspectives on the importance of Mathew 24:20. There are two common viewpoints. The first is that this verse illustrates the importance of Sabbath observance among the first disciples of Christ. After all, they were the immediate audience of the verse. The second view is that the Sabbath would still be observed by the disciples of Christ at the time just before the end of the age.
While these perspectives are true, there is also an overlooked historical background to Matthew 24:20. As a major city at the crossroads between continents and Empires, Jerusalem was periodically besieged in ancient times. The Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were among the first people groups to conquer it. Ancient records and some modern calculations reveal that the Sabbath seemed to be a preferred day for invading armies to attack the city.
The first complete conquest of Jerusalem occurred in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (597 and 586). In the mid twentieth century, John Alger did thorough calculations to determine the dates upon which these sieges occurred (see Works Cited). Using careful chronology, he asserts that the first siege under Jehoiachin was completed on March 16, 597, which was the Sabbath. While Zedekiah was put on the throne as his replacement, but he later rebelled. This resulted in another siege, which he gauges to have occurred on January 15, 588 BC. This was also the Sabbath. The final capture of Jerusalem took place on July 29, 587. This date also turns out to be the Sabbath.
Ancient historians reveal that other sieges definitively took place on the Sabbath. We have listed these events below with the appropriate historical quotes.
Sometime between 320 and 305 BC, Ptolemy Soter, who was the ruler of the Greco-Egyptian Kingdom, seized Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Josephus recorded this event:
“…insomuch that all Syria, by the means of Ptolemy the son of Lagus, underwent the reverse of that denomination of Saviour, which he then had. He also seized upon Jerusalem: and for that end made use of deceit and treachery. For as he came into the city on a sabbath day, as if he would offer sacrifice, he, without any trouble, gained the city: while the Jews did not oppose him. For they did not suspect him to be their enemy: and he gained it thus, because they were free from suspicion of him; and because on that day they were at rest and quietness: and when he had gained it, he ruled over it in a cruel manner” (Antiquities of the Jews, 12.1).
While there isn’t a record that the troops of Antiochus Epiphanes captured Jerusalem on the Sabbath, his soldiers attacked the Jewish people on the Sabbath (event occurred about 165 BC).
“…they fought against them on the sabbath day, and they burnt them as they were in the caves, without resistance, and without so much as stopping up the entrances of the caves. And they avoided to defend themselves on that day, because they were not willing to break in upon the honor they owed the sabbath, even in such distresses; for our law requires that we rest upon that day. There were about a thousand, with their wives and children, who were smothered and died in these caves…” (idem, 12.6).
In the 60s BC, a civil war erupted in Judea. The Roman general Pompey intervened in this conflict and captured Jerusalem (about 64/63 BC). Josephus recorded that the Romans made major progress on their siege ramps during the Sabbath (ibid, 14.4; Wars of the Jews, 1.7). We have two quotes from Roman authors that discuss this siege. Note that the Romans called Saturday the ‘day of Kronos’ or ‘day of Saturn’.
“Pompey seized the city, it is said, after watching for the day of fasting, when the Judeans were abstaining from all work…” (Strabo, Geography, 16.2.40) Note: Some writers consider the “day of fasting” to be the Day of Atonement, which is an Annual Sabbath, and others consider it to be a reference to the weekly Sabbath, which some Romans/Greeks thought the Jewish people fasted upon every week.
“Most of the city, to be sure, he took without any trouble, as he was received by the party of Hyrcanus; but the temple itself, which the other party had occupied, he captured only with difficulty. For it was on high ground and was fortified by a wall of its own, and if they had continued defending it on all days alike, he could not have got possession of it. As it was, they made an exception of what are called the days of Saturn, and by doing no work at all on those days afforded the Romans an opportunity in this interval to batter down the wall. The latter, on learning of this superstitious awe of theirs, made no serious attempts the rest of the time, but on those days, when they came round in succession, assaulted most vigorously. Thus the defenders were captured on the day of Saturn, without making any defence, and all the wealth was plundered…” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 37.16.1-4).
In the 30s BC, Herod (called the great) conspired with the Romans to be made king of Judea. As part of this plan, he besieged Jerusalem. One Roman source said that the city was attacked on Sabbath.
“The Jews, indeed, had done much injury to the Romans, for the race is very bitter when aroused to anger, but they suffered far more themselves. The first of them to be captured were those who were fighting for the precinct of their god, and then the rest on the day even then called the day of Saturn…” (ibid, 49.22.4-6).
The ancient writer Plutarch (46-119 AD) described the Jewish people resting while Jerusalem was being besieged (likely referring to either Pompey’s siege in 63 BC or Antony in 38 BC). “But the Jews, because it was the Sabbath day (Sabbaton), sat in their places immovable, while the enemy were planting ladders against the walls and capturing the defences, and they did not get up, but remained there, fast bound in the toils of superstition as in one great net” (Supterstition, 8; Plutarch wrote in Greek).
Just 40 years after Jesus’ life and prophetic discussion in Matthew 24, Jerusalem was conquered again by the Romans in 70 AD. Again, the Romans attacked and defeated the people on the Sabbath.
“The deified Vespasian Augustus attacked the Jews on their Sabbath (Iudaeos Saturni die), a day on which it is sinful for them to do any business, and so defeated them” (Frontinus, Strategems, 2.1.17).
“Thus was Jerusalem destroyed on the very day of Saturn, the day which even now the Jews reverence most…” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 65.7.2).
Why might these attacks over the centuries occur on the Sabbath? Because it was the day of rest and the most likely time to catch the people off guard.
In 70 AD, Jesus’ disciples heeded his words and fled to the mountains before the Romans besieged the city. These early Christians were called Nazarenes; they also kept the seventh-day Sabbath. To read an article about them, click this link: The Nazarenes.
With this historical background, we can better understand Jesus’ warning about a Sabbath flight. Historically, it was a day that the Jewish people and Jerusalem were attacked. An invading army might begin a siege or seizure of the city on that day of the week. This may indicate that a future invasion of Jerusalem, such as that described in Zechariah 14:1-3, could take place on Sabbath and thus connect to the future fulfillment of Matthew 24:20.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org
Cassius Dio. Roman History, 37.16; 49.22; 65.7. Dio’s Roman History. Translation by Earnest Cary. vol. 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. pp 124-131; vol. 5. 1955. pp 386-389. Vol. 7. 1925. pp 268-271.
Frontinus. Strategems, 2.1.1. The Strategems and the Aqueducts of Rome. Translation by Charles E Bennett. New York, 1925. pp 98-99.
Johns, Alger F. “The Military Strategy of Sabbath Attacks on the Jews.” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 13, no. 4, 1963, pp. 482–486. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1516866. Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, 12.1, 12.6, 14.4; Wars of the Jews, 1.7. The Genuine Works of Flavius Jossephus the Jewish Historian. Translated by William Whitson. London, 1737.
Parker, Richard and Dubberstein, Waldo. Babylonian Chronology: 626 B.C. – A.D. 75. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1956. pp 25-28.
Plutarch. On Superstition. Plutarch’s Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Vol 2. Harvard University Press: 1962. pp480-481.
Strabo. Geography, 16.2.40. The Geography of Strabo. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones. vol. 7. Cambridge, 1954. pp 290-291.