from jesus to christ - the first christians

Apocalypticism

Hope that divine intervention would vanquish the enemies of Israel and establish a new age fueled political tensions with Rome.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

Jews had a special way of shaping reality. And that way of shaping reality was the Bible. The Bible contoured time. History had a beginning. God creates the world... and God has a certain moral relationship to the world. God creates things and sees that it's good. God is defined morally within Judaism, and therefore, God has a stake in social justice. A lot of what the laws of the Torah are about is social justice. In the period between -- again these are approximations, the periods are the creations of historians, not of the people who live in the ancient world. But in the period, roughly, from minus 200 to plus 200, there is a growing sensibility, which we as historians can track in different types of writings, that pronounces the expectation that God will intervene in history or make sure that good triumphs over evil.

You get different types of descriptions of what this triumph will be. You have descriptions, for example, of a battle between good and evil. Sometimes it's led by angels, sometimes there's a figure designated the Messiah who leads the forces of good. Often, God himself, or maybe a chief angel, does the fighting. In some of these writings you get a description of the resurrection of the dead. Some of them talk about Jerusalem being rebuilt and refurbished, or the Temple being made splendid and beautiful. Some of the prophets who were in the Jewish canon or, the for Christians, the Old Testament, are read apocalyptically in this period so that passages in Isaiah are seen as describing the end of time. I think what this means is that people who have this conviction believed that God, as being all good and all powerful, would intervene definitively in history. And sometimes the idiom used is that God would establish his kingdom. And that would be the end of evil. Sometimes you have a resurrection of the dead,...[or] an in-gathering of Israel

which has been scattered in exile. And also in some traditions, you have discussions of gentiles; once the God of Israel reveals himself in glory, gentiles bury their idols and they turn and they all go up together with Israel and there's a great big party at the Temple. But the pressure is taken off the Priests, because according, I think, to Isaiah 25, God himself does the cooking, and he serves the meal for Jews and gentiles to eat together at the Temple, once his kingdom is established.

How am I to know, as Jew living in the first century, when all of this is going to happen. It's going to happen soon?

The interesting thing about an apocalyptic sensibility is that we find it scattered throughout the Diaspora writings. We have it in writings done in Greek, we have it in Semitic language writings. It's something that's not specific to a locale. Although, with the Qumran library, and with certain writings that show up in the New Testament, it's clear that there were pressures brought to bear. If one was living in the land of Israel, that would make a religious interpretation of current politics lean in the direction of an apocalyptic resolution.

Caligula's statue; sit-down strike

For example, Caligula, the Roman Emperor in the year 40 ...wanted to put his own statue in the Temple. He wanted to be worshipped as a god in his own lifetime. This made any right thinking Roman blanch, and ultimately Caligula was assassinated by Romans. But it was an unthinkable thought for Israel. And... in the effort to have his statue rolled down from Syria Jews, basically the entire country has a sit-down strike. Jews just go and sit in the way of the statue and they refuse to move... trying to make themselves understood that it is absolutely unacceptable. They cannot have a statue in their Temple, which makes them odd in their Mediterranean cultures. But, if you had that kind of temperament, [such an episode] might trigger apocalyptic expectation. [I]t's something that would be so unthinkable that you'd think that things couldn't get any worse.

And therefore, a political episode interpreted religiously would give you a hint that you might know what time it was on God's clock. The worst things got, the better they were about to be. And this kind of response to different kinds of political episodes is something that characterizes a certain stream within Jewish religious sensibility from minus 200 to plus 200. That's why we begin to get the development of traditions about a Messiah who's going to come, or prayers and synagogues that talk about the resurrection the dead. Because of the conviction that since God is good, he won't allow evil to triumph indefinitely.

Read the apocalyptic vision of the Essenes' War Scroll, a description of the final battle between good and evil.

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published april 1998

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