Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Now, Again

A year and a half ago, we somehow survived the appocalypse of May 20 as predicted by Herald Camping; and I believe we will also survive the Mayan apocalypse-that-never-was.  If t-shirts do not yet exist that say, "I survived the [insert apocalyptic date here] apocalypse," I would like to begin making them to cash in on this apparently annual tradition.  Since the world's eye remains transfixed on the end-of-the-world, I would like to take a moment to write a bit in general about ancient apocalyptic prophecy and the groups that produced them.

To begin, "apocalypse" is a cognate of the Greek verb apokalypto, meaning, "to reveal" and "to make known."  We may understand the phrase apocalyptic literature then as literature that makes known that which is unknown.  As a side note, because it has been in the media, the word "Armageddon" is a rendering of the Hebrew phrase har megiddo, meaning Mount Megiddo.  The author of Revelation names the valley below har megiddo as the location of the penultimate battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  The Book of Revelation, however, is not the only apocalyptic book in Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

A few examples of other texts with apocalyptic messages are Zechariah, Mark, and 2 Thessalonians.  Each text, though produced by different people in different times, shares a common origin:  production amidst a rapidly shifting cultural landscape.  Below we will examine each of these texts briefly to see the historical contexts out of which they arose.

The prophet Zechariah writes to a group of people who returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile.  The exiled people of Israel were able to return to their homeland through a bizarrely bloodless shift of power, wherein the Persian Empire told the empire of Babylonian that Persia now ruled.  Whereas Bablyon's policy was to move the aristocracy of conquered peoples to within the confines of the empire proper, Persia's policy was self-autonomy with regional Persian governors.  When Persia took control, many of those who had been in exile were given the option to return home.  Those who chose to return came back to a changed Israel.  Jerusalem's temple remained destroyed and those who had avoided exile had expanded their cultural influence.  Imagine going on an extended vacation (say...50 years)  and coming home to find others squatting in your house.  How would you respond?  Further, those raised in Bablyon were likely told stories of a future time in which Israel would return home, followed by the rest of the nations and peoples of the earth, to bow before their god.  How would this come to be if a foreign leader who served foreign gods ruled your land?  It is from this context in which Zechariah proclaims an age in which the davidic monarchy will be fully restored and all foreign nations and people will draw to Israel--either peacefully or through war.

In Mark, we read about Jesus of Nazareth teaching his followers about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.  This Greek word euthus, meaning "soon" or "imminent" occurs 41 times in the Gospel of Mark. (Compare that to the 14 times it appears throughout the other three canonical gospels!)  The reason for Mark's emphasis on the temporal reality of God's coming kingdom becomes clear when examined through a historical lens.  The Gospel of Mark exists as the earliest gospel, likely authored in or shortly after the year 70 CE--the same year Rome destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  Nearly 2,000 years later modern Judaism continues to mourn the loss of this temple on Yom Kippur.  There was no simple moving on after this calamitous event.  Judaism forever changed and every form of ancient Judaism responded slightly differently.  The Qumran community, who likely authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, responded by further separating themselves from the evil world and maintaining worship through reflecting in their community the manner of worship they believed to occur in the heavenly realm amongst the angelic hosts.  Rabbinic Judaism also began around this time in response to the cessation of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The author of Mark followed a similar path as those at Qumran, believing that the present world was finished and God's kingdom would soon be ushered in through the return of their messiah.

Paul, in 2 Thessalonians, writes to a community in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, concerning the return of Jesus Christ.  According to Paul's letter, another person or group had visited the city telling Paul's audience that their messiah had returned but that they had missed out on the festivities.  Pauls tells his audience not be deceived and gives them an eschatological message similar to one we find in revelations:  
"Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God." (2 Thes. 2:3-4)
That's a bit of weight off of the chest of Paul's audience, right?  Wrong. A few verses later, Paul tells his audience that this man of lawlessness is already at work:  "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way." (2 Thes. 2:7).  The end-of-times is not a future reality but a present one.

Who could be Paul's man of lawlessness?  This prestigious title goes to Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) who ordered a statue of himself to be placed in Jerusalem's temple.  This single act would have brought the utmost offense to any Jew who fostered the slightest bit of anti-Roman sentiment (and likely engendered hate where it had not before existed).  In attempting to place this statue in the temple, Caligula was asserting Roman Imperial religion--in other words, the Jewish God was being exchanged for Roman emperor worship.

The purpose of these brief surveys is to show that apocalyptic literature originates from the context of a shifting cultural landscape.  In the case of Zechariah, it was not a violent shift but a societal one.  For the author of Mark and Paul, the cultural shift was one surrounded by violence.  Those who herald apocalyptic predictions today fail to grasp the historical and sociological context through which religious texts developed.  In the above discussed texts, the end of the world is not met in destruction--as often proclaimed--but in restitution.  The author of Revelation says that God "will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the firs things have passed away."  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." (Rev. 21:4-5).  The end-of-times as expressed in biblical text then is not a calamitous end but a new beginning in which violence, pain, and suffering exist only in memory.

To wrap up this post, we must not use apocalyptic literature primarily to understand the past or to predict the future, but we must use apocalyptic literature to understand the present.  For the past is more an ingredient of apocalyptic literature than a foundation; and all future predictions made within such texts are the expectations of how God will draw history to its end.  The present is the only reality in which the authors of apocalyptic literature lived, and it is what drew these authors to reveal God's work in history and in their expectations for the-world-to-come.  If reading apocalyptic literature from the perspective of the authorial present is the hermeneutic key to understanding such texts, how might this lens of interpretation impact how we read apocalyptic literature today?