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Apocalyptic for the Millennium.

I WAS TAUGHT BY HERMANN COHEN AND MARTIN BUBER, who did not otherwise always agree, that I should beware of Apocalypticism at all costs. Biblical Prophecy, they thought, issued in two streams: Jewish ethics and law on the one hand, and proto-gnostic heresies on the other. I should remember that while Judaism occasionally produced some strange dualistic (Persian?) texts, the canon limited itself to a knowledge of God's will for us in the form of mitzoot, especially, in ethical behavior

Gershom Scholem exploded my self-confidence. He uncovered messianic and mystical texts that were clearly apocalyptic or even worse. The Dead Sea Scrolls included strange and fascinating material that pointed to a much more various Judaism around the turn of the first millennium than I (we?) had expected or believed possible. Now comes a brilliant three-volume Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism (Continuum, 1998) to flesh out the many examples of Jewish, and, even more complex, Christian eschatology.

Edited by first-rate scholars and centered around the University of Chicago Divinity School, this work is certain to dominate its field for decades. It is rich, learned, fascinating, and unsettling. I wish the authors were basically wrong, but I fear they are nearly always right. Reading every essay in the three thick volumes, I am chastened, instructed, and, in a strange way, moved and even inspired.

Over the past thirty years, more scholarship has been devoted to apocalypticism than in the previous three hundred. This is true not only regarding the origins of apocalypticism in Judaism and early Christianity (the subject of volume 1), but also of the development of Christian apocalyptic traditions in Europe down to the modern era and the related apocalypticisms of medieval Judaism and early Islam (treated in volume 2). Even more recent has been the recognition of the importance of apocalypticism in the history of the New World and the continuing role that apocalyptic convictions, literal and revised, religious and secularized, play in contemporary society (the subject of volume 3). We believe that the time is ripe to produce a major account of apocalypticism's role in Western history and in the current world situation. (I, ix)

The editors have, indeed produced a major account; we are all in their debt. Even in its earliest formations, apocalyptic was not nearly as bizarre or mysterious as we have been taught to think. It was an essential part of religion from its very beginning. It remains essential to faith until our own time.

What can we learn about apocalyptic literature by studying its early antecedents? First of all they teach us that the imagery and themes of apocalyptic literature are not bizarre and obscurantist, as is sometimes claimed. For example, the combat myth was a customary ancient way of thinking about the world. Ancient Near Eastern "philosophical" thinking was normally done through narrative. Retelling one basic narrative in slightly different versions enabled ancients to reflect about the governance of the world and explain the course of history, especially the history of their own nation. Their era took for granted the existence and power of the gods and factored them into their reflection, as our era takes for granted and reckons with a different (and less ultimate) range of forces, for example, the power of ideas, of free trade, of energy resources. To do philosophy, theology, and political theory modern thinkers employ the genre of the discursive essay rather than the narrative of the combat myth. Despite the differences, one should not forget that ancients and moderns share an interest in ultimate causes and both are intent on explaining the cosmos, the nature of evil, and the validity and the functions of basic institutions. Apocalyptic literature at bottom is not bizarre and opaque, but is rather a narrative way of reflecting about theology, philosophy, and history, and of inculcating a way of life. (I, 34)

One of the central notions that most of us formerly imbibed was that the source of Jewish teaching about end-time and the violent transformation of the world, all this (nonsense?) came from the Persians. Well, as it turns out, yes and no.

How much does the Judeo-Christian tradition owe to Persian apocalypticism? There was not direct and general borrowing of the lranian apocalyptic eschatology as such by Judaism and Christianity. Instead, the influence exerted itself in an indirect way but was of no less importance. The encounter with Iranian religion produced the necessary stimulus for the full development of ideas that were slowly under way within Judaism The personification of evil in the form of figures like Satan, Belial, or the Devil, the increasing importance of the dual opposition between Good and Evil as well as their eschatological confrontations are ideas that are unlikely to have emerged without external influence. The doctrine of the two Spirits as professed by the Qumran community provides a striking example of Persian religious impact that had wider and long-lasting effects on Jewish and Christian traditions. This is also the case with the belief in the resurrection of the dead, which can be shown to have some Israelite anteceden ts in the exilic period but was not fully developed until Hellenistic-Roman times, and in addition was not accepted by all Jews. The Persian impact is also shown by many details in Jewish and Christian eschatology, both universal and individual, that appear to be Iranian borrowings. (I, 80)

"We do not know enough about the groups that transmitted eschatological expectations in Judaism in the Persian period" (I, 134), so we cannot say very much about its origins or early development. Nor are we certain how it all began.

One of the major modern debates about Jewish apocalypticism has concerned the origin of the phenomenon. The most influential schools of thought have seen it either as a child of prophecy (e.g., recently Hanson) or as a product of wisdom circles (von Rad). There is manifest influence of biblical prophecy in both Enoch and Daniel, especially in the crucial expectation of a day of judgment. It is also true that both Enoch and Daniel are depicted as wise men rather than as prophets. But this whole debate about the origins of apocalypticism is misplaced. In the books of Enoch and Daniel we are dealing with a new phenomenon in the history of Judaism, which was very much a product of the way in which "the world was changed" by the impact of Hellenism on the Near East. The apocalyptic visionaries drew on materials from many sources: ancient myths, biblical prophecies, Greek and Persian traditions. But what they produced was a new kind of literature that had its own coherence and should not be seen as a child or adapt ation of something else. The vision form as we find it in Daniel has prophetic precedents (e.g., Zechariab) but is also indebted to Babylonian dream interpretation. Neither prophetic oracles nor wisdom instructions can be said to play a major role in these books. (I. 145f.)

John Collins, perhaps the most able expositor of Jewish apocalyptic in Bible times, is very cautious about conclusions to be drawn from various and difficult texts:

Our rapid sketch of developments over a period of six hundred years allows us to draw some conclusions about the origins of apocalypticism in ancient Judaism. Apocalypticism is a worldview that is indebted to ancient Near Eastern myths and to Hebrew prophecy, but which arose in response to the new challenges of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The essential ingredients of this worldview were a reliance on supernatural revelation, over and above received tradition and human reasoning; a sense that human affairs are determined to agreat degree by supernatural agents; and the belief that human life is subject to divine judgment, culminating in reward or punishment after death. In the context of Israelite and Jewish tradition, this worldview was novel in the Hellenistic period, especially in its expectation of a final judgment, which had far-reaching implications for ethical values and attitudes in this life. The dominant form of Jewish apocalypticism, which we have traced in this essay, also anticipated a deno uement of history, culminating in divine intervention and a judgment of all nations on a cosmic scale. This judgment, however, would typically be followed by a resurrection of the dead, which allowed for retribution on an individual as well as a national scale. This worldview found its typical medium of expression in the rather loose macro-genre "apocalypse," which was a report of supernatural revelation, with an eschatological dimension. But the worldview could also come to expression in other genres, that were not directly reports of visions or otherworldly journeys.

The worldview that we have sketched here is fairly broad and could be embodied in different sociological formations and theological schools. The Enoch literature says little, at least explicitly, about the law of Moses. In contrast, the Torah is fundamental to the priestly apocalypticism of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The "proto-apocalyptic" prophecies of Isaiah 65-66 seem to question the importance of Temple and sacrifice. Even though the Dead Sea sect was evidently alienated from the Jerusalem Temple, it evidently still attached great importance to cultic worship. The origin of evil might be variously understood in terms of the myth of the Watchers, with an emphasis on the role of fallen angels, or in terms of the sin of Adam, underlining human responsibility. Finally, we should not think that apocalyptic ideas were confined to sectarians living apart from the rest of Judaism, on the model of the Qumran community. The book of Daniel was accepted as canonical scripture by all Jews and Christians. 4 Ezra and espec ially 2 Baruch have much in common with rabbinic theology and give no indication that they were produced in sectarian communities. Apocalypticism, then, was not the exclusive property of any one sect or movement, although it was characteristic of various movements from time to time. (I, 157f.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are still controversial among scholars; was Qumran the home of a quasi-Essene sect or the library for many escapees from Jerusalem under siege? Was the body of literature found near the Dead Sea canonical or sectarian? How shall we not only date but evaluate the Scrolls? In terms of apocalypticism, the great scholar of the Scrolls, Garcia Martinez carefully studied the Scrolls in a pan-Jewish perspective which implies that the Jewishly eschatological was neither idiosyncratic nor even unusual:

In the four topics examined we have seen that characteristic ideas of the apocalyptic tradition have not only contributed to the thought of the Qumran community but have undergone there equally characteristic developments. The idea of the origin of evil has been developed to a fully dualistic and deterministic view of the world; the apocalyptic division of history into periods and the expectation that God will intervene to bring an end to the evil in the world have profoundly marked the worldview of the community, which considers itself living in the last of these periods; the Scrolls add to the complexity and structured organization of the heavenly world of the apocalypses the idea that the angels are already living among the community, allowing its members to participate in the liturgy of the heavenly temple; the Scrolls also develop the apocalyptic idea of an eschatological war in which the heavenly forces help Israel to defeat the nations in a final war in which all evil will be destroyed.

We can thus conclude that the apocalypticism indicated by this cluster of ideas in the sectarian scrolls is something more than an umbrella term. It represents genuine continuity with the worldview of Daniel and I Enoch even while it adapted the tradition inherited from these earlier apocalypses in its own distinctive ways. (I, 190f.)

Nor are the more messianic texts among the Scrolls to be completely distinguished from those that describe a less than apocalyptic scenario:

The factors that determined the status assigned by the different authors to their Messiahs are not clear. It may be that the choice of which biblical passages to use in developing the picture of the Messiahs played a role, but that would leave unexplained why those passages were selected in the first place. Of all the texts surveyed, the Similitudes of Enoch presents the most exalted portrait of a Messiah; other apocalypses such as 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra also view him as a highly impressive individual but not one of the same heavenly status as the Messiah of the Simiitudes. It is difficult to define the status of the Messiahs in the Qumran texts, but they appear to be human leaders; the same is true for the great and righteous descendant of David in the Psalms of Solomon. Moreover, there is no reason for thinking that Simon bar Kosiba envisaged as superhuman. Consequently, while it may be the case that the apocalypses anticipate a somewhat more exalted messiah than the leaders one finds in the nonapocalyptic tex ts, the contrast is not a strong one in most cases. (I, 226)

So, too, the early hekhalot literature is a possible link in the long chain of apocalyptic Judaism, but the evidence there is still too uncertain.

What about Jesus, now seen by most scholars as a more or less authentic Jew of the first century. As a peasant revolutionary, a rabbi of the people or a mystic leader, how shall we evaluate the New Testament portrait of its Messiah?

What Jesus believed about the last things is a controversial topic. Throughout most of church history Christian readers of the New Testament have related Jesus' prophecies primarily to three things--to Pentecost and the life of the church, to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and God's supposed abandonment of the Jewish people, and to the resurrection of the dead and final judgment at the distant end of the world. Many modem scholars, however, now believe that Jesus had little if anything to say about the church, that he anticipated not God's abandonment of Israel but Israel's eschatological restoration, and that he spoke of the end not as distant but as near to hand. Indeed, many are convinced that much of Jesus' message can be fairly characterized as apocalyptic eschatology. (I, 267)

What Albert Schweitzer taught us at the turn of century, that Jesus preached a realized or an imminent eschatology, long rejected by many scholars, now seems to have been accurate. Jesus, a real Jew and a real preacher of the end time, fits into the history of Jewish apocalyptic as well as into the beginnings of Christianity.

In most respects the eschatology of Jesus must be regarded as conventional. The nearness of the consummation, the coming of judgment, and belief in the general resurrection were all things handed to him by his tradition. What was new was the connection he made with his own time and place. He probably interpreted John the Baptist as an eschatological prophet who suffered during the messianic woes. He interpreted his own ministry as a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 61. He foresaw judgment upon those who rejected his proclamation, and he associated his own teaching with the special revelation expected to be made known to the righteous in the latter days. In other words, Jesus, like the sectarians of the Qumran, construed what he saw around him terms of certain eschatological expectations.

Focus on matters eschatological and hope for a near end often arise out of suffering or dissatisfaction with the present It was almost surely the same with Jesus. Not only was Judea under the Roman thumb, but his words, as observed above, have much to say about difficult times. Moreover, the many polemical barbs against scribes and Pharisees and the stories of conflict with them tell us that Jesus was disillusioned with and alienated from many religious authorities. Beyond this, however, it may be impossible to go. There may have been some particular political or social crisis that fostered his eschatological enthusiasm and gave him a receptive audience, but, if so, the details sadly appear to be lost to history. (I, 299)

It was a key insight of Schweitzer that Paul's eschatology was not, as so often thought, "a kind of annex to the main edifice of Pauline doctrine." As Davies has summarized the point:

Schweitzer has criticized ... those writers who in their treatment of Pauline theology have assigned their discussion of Paul's eschatology to the last section of their work, as if eschatology were an aspect of the Apostle's thought which could be neatly isolated and treated as a kind of addendum, whereas in fact it is his eschatology that conditions Paul's theology throughout.

Schweitzer's insight has force to the extent that Paul's apocalyptic eschatology is not reduced to his understanding of the parousia and the end but also encompasses his understanding of Christ's advent, death, and resurrection. A full account of Paul's apocalyptic eschatology would thus have to be a full account of Paul's theology. (I 378f.)


What of specifically Jewish apocalypticism in the developing middle ages? What does a careful study of mystical texts and Messianic movements tell us? Moshe Idel, who has become both the successor and antagonist of Gershom Scholem leads us toward a conclusion:

If European philosophy can be described as a series of footnotes to Plato, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, Jewish apocalypticism, and substantially also Western apocalypticism, may be conceived of as footnotes to the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and the drama of redemption described in Exodus. The content of the enigmatic prophecies of Daniel, perhaps the most puzzling writing in the whole biblical corpus, has tantalized generations of Jewish and Christian authors who attempted to explore the "messages" alluded to by the prophet. To a great extent, Jewish apocalyptic writings were indebted to the various hints related to the future history of the Jews and of the Gentile nations spread throughout the obscure verses of this book. (II, 207)

During the Middle Ages regular and ordinary Jewish life had, to a great extent, acquired a new sense, rooted in the awareness that the Jews, more especially the Kabbalists, may and should perfect basic processes shaping reality in general and human nature in particular. This is most evident in the ecstatic-mystical Kabbalah, where the study of philosophy and the practice of mystical techniques were available and recommended tools for generating "messianic" experiences of individuals. Apocalypticism had been projected into the spiritual realm of the individual. (II. 235)

We are no longer surprised by the extent and power of these eschatological ideas, since all the authors in this massive work clearly believe that there can be no religion that does not reflect on the et kets, the time of the end. Faith pushes the boundaries of space and time beyond the normal. It, inevitably, if often also tragically, forces the end, itself visits Heaven, or predicts precisely the future of the world.


The third volume of the Encyclopedia is by far the most diffuse and, thus, inconsistent. It ranges very far and attempts to bring so many different versions of eschatology in both secular and religious garb from our own time that its focus is sometimes hard to discern. But included among some rather marginal chapters are pure gems of insight and relevance. For example, the attachment of fundamentalist Christianity to the Land of Israel and to right-wing Zionism comes in for scrutiny which should produce second thoughts among those Jews who seek to welcome evangelical Christianity:

Indeed, fundamentalist interpreters of the apocalyptic scriptures ranked among Israel's strongest supporters, particularly favoring the Jewish state's more hard-line and expansionist parties. Not only did they proclaim that the Jews' right to their ancient homeland had been sealed by God himself, but many taught that in the millennial future Israel would expand to the boundaries promised by God in his covenant with Abraham recorded in Genesis 15:18, from the Euphrates to the "river of Egypt." As John Walvoord proclaimed at a 1971 prophecy conference in Jerusalem: "Of the many aspects of prophecy relating to Israel, none is more pointed than the promise of the land."

In common with some ultra-orthodox Jewish sects, many fundamentalist prophecy writers also taught that the scriptures foretold the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple on its ancient foundations in Jerusalem--currently the site of the Dome of the Rock, the second most sacred Islamic shrine, after Mecca itself, the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Premillennialists who embraced this interpretation typically dismissed the protests of Palestinians or Arab leaders against the claims of Israeli hard-liners to full sovereignty in Jerusalem or to expansion into the West Bank or other disputed territories. What did mere human claims or grievances weigh against God's own prophetic plan for the Jews?

But the prophetic destiny of the Jews sketched by many postwar premillennialist writers had another, and far grimmer, dimension. The same writers and publicists who wrote eagerly of Israel's vast future expansion offered a harrowing prophetic interpretation of the fate of the Jewish people. The long history of antisemitic persecution, including the Nazi Holocaust, they explained (as always, with a flourish of biblical texts), was part of God's prophesied "chastisement" of his chosen people for their rejection of Jesus as the promised Messiah. (111, 171)

Aviezer Ravitzky, one of the most profound students of Orthodox Jewish versions of the apocalyptic, distinguishes between the powerful loyalty of the Habad community to its Rebbe, living or dead--which issues in a Messianic fervor that so far, not even the Rebbe's death has quenched--from another, far more politically activist and even militant version of Jewish apocalyptic in the late twentieth century, namely a religious Zionism that promotes Jewish settlements across the green line and has issued in violence against Jewish leaders considered inimical to the truly messianic task:

What about the competing redemptive movement, that of contemporary messianic Zionism? Here the messianic tension always flourished from an optimistic awareness of national renaissance and historical actualization. The movement's guides always championed a gradual, evolutionary process of redemption, which takes place entirely by means of natural law and is not conditioned upon a miraculous messianic revelation. They fixed the Zionist enterprise and the revival of the State of Israel at the heart of this development and exalted them to sublime heights ("Zionism is a Divine matter." "The State of Israel is a Divine entity"). Itis difficult to find a better example, either in Jewish history or in the histories of other nations, of a redemptive awakening that is so exclusively based on sensations of success and divine favor. Furthermore, in contrast to Habad Hasidism, the tension has been preserved and intensified over time, despite the absence of a live messianic leader. (III, 219)

Ultimately, these two versions of extreme imminentism are related by their theological penchant for pantheism. Hermann Cohen was right in this at least: pantheism leads to ethical behavior that normative Jewish standards must eschew. If God is already present and everywhere, indeed if all is already divine, then everything is permitted, even violence. If now is, indeed, the end time, then we are to be soldiers of God, throwing off all earthly constraints and required to fight for what God has decreed. Rav Kook, the gentle vegetarian who preached a benign immanent mysticism, leads inevitably to his son, Rav Tsvi Yehudah Kook's armed invasion of the occupied territories in the name of God.

How are we to construe the fact that the two contemporary Jewish redemptive movements have sprung up precisely in the heart of the theological conceptions leaning toward pantheism? Why did this messianic agitation flourish precisely among religious streams that believe in an immanent divine presence, of which no place is free? On the face of it, one would have anticipated the opposite development: if the whole world is full of divine glory, why should all the religious hopes focus on a future transcendent redemptive eruption, one that will penetrate "from the outside" inward? If the divine presence already dwells in every person and is constantly actualized in every time, is this not sufficient to neutralize the taut expectation for messianic fulfillment in present history?

This is admittedly the accepted logical conclusion. Yet the stated developments that have transpired among Jewish movements in the twentieth century demand our renewed attention to this question. They attest to the existence of another option, that of a messianic potential concealed within the heart of the religious concept of divine immanence. It is my understanding that such potential revealed itself in modem European thought as well in the transition from the static idea of pantheism (Spinoza) to the historical concept of pantheism (Hegel), and from them to the messianic application of pantheism (Moses Hess). At present, however, with regard to the movements in question, it has revealed its power in actual religious life as well. (III, 221)

Even the Holocaust is now reconfigured as a moment in which God's presence is revealed. Modern Jewish apocalyptic does not emerge from defeat, but from victory. It was not in Auschwitz that God appeared, though even that dark moment is now understood as a necessary prelude to salvation. It was in the military conquest by Israeli arms that we begin to perceive the millennium and its tasks. God is God of power, not powerless in the deathcamps but ready and eager to lead his awakened people to victory. "Messiah Now," "The Whole Land of Israel": these are slogans that bespeak a transvaluation of the holocaust and a mythologization of Zionist politics. Ravitzky is clear on what that implies:

If one adheres to the transcendent concept of God, one is likely to speak of a catastrophic fall from divine favor, of a God who has distanced himself for a time from the people, from humanity, and from history. Yet this possibility has been closed to pantheists. Their God is supposed to be present here and now, within the cosmic and historical order, and not outside. It is no accident, then, that precisely the Rebbe of Lubbavitch, M. M. Schneerson, on the one hand, and Rabbi Z. Y. Kook, on the other, were the two contemporary Torah sages who explained the Holocaust as a healing process, as divine "surgery" and "treatment" performed on the body of the nation in preparation for its salvation. (111, 223)

There are many other fine articles in the third volume of this significant work. I wish to close with a citation from one of the best of these, written by my friend and former student who has become the major expert on political apocalypticism in America. Michael Barkun of Syracuse University carefully distinguishes several varieties of millenarian enthusiasm and leaves us with the unmistakable feeling that however long ago apocalyptic began and however it is now threatened by rationalist criticism, it is here to stay. The effects of millenarian politics will undoubtedly shake our nation's stability and its moral standing for a long time to come:

I wish to argue the following: that until recently there were two main styles of millenarian expression, a traditional style rooted in religion, and a secular style tied to political ideologies; that within the past twenty-five years they have been joined by a third style, which I refer to here as "improvisational"; that each style carries a set of political implications; and that even as millenarian styles have multiplied, their various political implications have become more and more similar. In short, I see two forces at work, one dividing styles of millenarianism, the other drawing them together, based on increasingly similar ideas about politics. (III, 443)

From ancient sources the extremists draw strength and spiritual power. Can those of us who see the danger in activism of their kind find equal encouragement from traditions that edify and chasten? Can our transcendent God teach us how to resist the recurring temptation to close down our history and to turn from a human to a cosmic framework? Will our modest goodness be good enough to make us strong in the hour of passionate mythology? This fine work will help us find our way among the many forms and lures of all apocalypticisms, if we are patient enough to understand its inspirations, ancient and modern, Jewish, Christian, and Pagan, deeply religious and dangerously inhuman. Its history is our persistent challenge and our hope.

ARNOLD JACOB WOLF, a contributing editor, is Rabbi of K.A.M Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago. His Unfinished Rabbi: The Selected Writings of Arnold Jacob Wolf, published by Ivan Dee and Co., is reviewed in this issue. His article, "Brichto's Bible," app eared in the Fall 1998 issue.
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Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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