June 13, 2006


Caption: Historically, goats like Cornelius Agrippa influenced the popular image of the devil...with good reason.

Note: this is the second post in a series about America's current fascination with end times religion and the history of the apocalyptic tradition.

In general, end-of-the-world scenarios grow in popularity when the present moment and likely future prospects seem grim. That was certainly true of the rise of apocalyptic religion in the Jewish tradition.

In the covenant theology of the Torah, the Hebrew people believed that faithfulness to the God of justice would ensure the peace and well being of the people. Prophets arose periodically to call the people, and especially the elite, back to fidelity and righteousness. God was viewed as acting in and through normal history. The basic idea in the minds of many was that if the people did right, they would do well.

The problem was that it didn't work out that way. Particularly after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century before the common era, it seemed that the more the Jewish people tried to be faithful to the covenant, the more they were persecuted by conquering empires. This was the setting for the rise of apocalyptic religion, which many scholars trace to the 2nd century BCE (or BC).

In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom in Syria, attempted to impose pagan religion on the Jews. He banned traditional observance, mercilessly persecuted observant Jews, and even desecrated the Temple with a statue of the Greek god Zeus. Many scholars believe that the apocalyptic book of Daniel took its current form during that crisis.

Daniel is a wise and pious Jewish young man in the service of the king of Babylon. He and his friends resist the temptations of idolatry and survive ordeals. Toward the end of the book, Daniel is granted a vision of the last days when God would destroy all unjust empires after a series of cataclysms. In the end, God would raise and judge the dead and the righteous would be rewarded with everlasting happiness.

In other words, the end of history would make up for the evils of history.

For the next few hundred years, which were pretty grim for the faithful, apocalyptic literature like Daniel would become fairly common in the Jewish and later Christian communities. Often, this writing is full of strange images of symbolic animals, disasters, cosmic struggles, numerology and elaborate symbolism.

According to The Oxford Companion to the Bible, apocalyptic literature

is a record of divine disclosures made known through the agency of angels, dreams, and visions. These may take different forms: an otherworldy journey in which the "secrets" of the cosmos are made known (the so-called vertical apocalypses), or a survey of history often leading to an eschatological crisis in which the cosmic powers of evil are destroyed, the cosmos is restored, and Israel (or "the righteous") is redeemed (the so-called horizontal or historical apocalypses).

The basic purpose was to give the faithful the courage to endure persecution and resist the onslaughts of imperial violence.

These tendencies were strong in first century Judaism. According to the first three gospels, Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Scholars and believers (often the same people) have debated what he meant by this for 2000 years. After his crucifixion, Christian believers interpreted it as his second coming, when he would return in glory and judge "the quick and the dead." Early Christians expected this to happen at any moment.

The main apocalyptic book of the New Testament is Revelation, in which John has an encounter the risen Christ while on the island of Patmos. He describes his visions of a series of cataclysms that end in the return of Christ, the last judgment, and the coming of a New Heaven and a New Earth. There were other Christian apocalypses which didn't make it into the New Testament canon.

As in the case of Daniel, Revelation was written in the context of horrific persecution, in this case of Christians by Roman emperors, which began with Nero in the 60s and continued sporadically for more than 200 years.

To quote the Oxford Companion again, these works

were in many cases the product of their age and its political and economic climate. As tracts for the times, they were written to encourage those who were oppressed and saw little or no hope in terms of either politics or armed might. Their message was that God himself would intervene and reverse the situation in which they found themselves, delivering the godly from the hands of the wicked and establishing his rule for all to see.

Once the books of Daniel and Revelation were included in the biblical canon, which in the case of Christianity was not settled until the 4th century, they would prove to be a rich storehouse which fed the apocalyptic imagination of many people from then to now.

Often, in times of crisis, people would believe that the events described there were about to unfold. Next time, we'll look at some of those cases.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who sometimes wonders if W is indeed a deeply religios man who sees it as his responsibility to hasten the apocolyse and the second coming, or that he is at least willing to be a tool for those who think that would be a good thing. Gives one pause.