Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Turn toward Messianism (Part I)
One of the central elements of Jewish theology is the concept of a Messiah; that at the End of Days God would send a descendent from the house of King David to redeem the nation of Israel. This Messiah would restore the Jews to the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and inaugurate an era of peace and justice for all mankind. This belief is usually connected to an apocalyptic view of history that places history as a set drama organized by God, working toward a specific climax, which will bring about the manifested rule of God on earth. This view, in effect, postulates an end to history, where the natural order of the physical world shall forever be overturned and remade in the image of the spiritual world.
Messianism is particularly important to Judaism, because of Judaism's historical failures. Judaism failed to maintain itself as a political state. The Babylonians destroyed the first Jewish Commonwealth in 586 BCE and the Romans destroyed in the Second Commonwealth in 70 CE. Jews suffered not only physically under Christian and Islamic rule, but also existentially: how was it possible that God would allow his chosen people to undergo such humiliation. The only thing that could save the situation is a Messiah. Having a Messiah come would not only save the Jewish people from physical suffering, but it would also save Jewish history. No longer would Jews be a relic cast aside by history, they would finally be recognized, by all the world, as the chosen people of God, who kept the faith even when, to all appearances, the cause seemed lost. This would the entire narrative of Jewish suffering into one of triumph.
The contrast to Christianity and Islam is useful. Early Christianity arouse precisely as an apocalyptic Jewish messianic movement in the first century. Jesus and his followers, as Jews, stood against the Roman Empire. Jesus' crucifixion made Christianity both more and less apocalyptic. On the one hand, in classic apocalyptic fashion, Jesus dying made a second coming necessary in order to vindicate his first coming and prove that he did not die in vain. This can be most readily seen in the apocalyptic narrative of the Book of Revelation. On the other hand Christianity took an anti-apocalyptic turn particularly with Paul and the Gospel of John, which reinterpreted the Jewish tradition, in both its ritual content and messianic narrative, along "spiritual" other worldly lines. Jesus is no longer the physical redeemer of the Jewish people, but the Son of God coming to redeem the entire world from Sin. Physical redemption, like ritual law, becomes an object of polemical attack. Jews are the people of the flesh with a physical ritual law, who yearn after a redeemer of the flesh, while Christians are people of the spirit with a spiritual law, living safe in the knowledge that they have been spiritually redeemed.
This move away from apocalypticism is only strengthened in the fourth century by Christianity's takeover of the Roman Empire. Christianity changed from a religion of failed and persecuted political rebels to the established religion of an empire spanning much of the civilized world. Christianity thus, having gained its political victory, had no more need for a political redeemer. This can be seen in the historical narratives of Orosius and Augustine. The historian Orosius saw Christianity's victory over the Roman Empire as the vindication of Christianity and Christianity's ultimate victory over history. With a Christian Roman Empire, the point of all human history, both religious and secular, had been achieved. Augustine, living through the collapse of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century, took a less optimistic attitude toward the Roman Empire. He still, though, put forth one of the great anti-apocalyptic acts of Christian thought by reinterpreting Revelation as a non-apocalyptic text (An act that may be compared to Maimonides' systematic attempt to reinterpret all references in the Bible to God's physicality). Revelation was now to refer to the history of the Church. For Augustine, human history had also reached its end point. There was the political earthly city, with its rising and falling empires, and there was the city of God now established in the body of the Church. Now all that was left was to wait out the time until the second coming and the final judgment and destruction of the earth.
(To be continued …)