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 …)


PrincessMax said...

Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. Your narrative of how the need for a savior evolved in Christianity based on changing social status seems especially plausible.

You start the essay saying that the theology of a messiah is central to Judaism. Do you think this has been true throughout the history of Judaism? I ask because the vast majority of Jewish people that I know do not spend much time at all thinking about the messiah. It makes me wonder if the professional theologists have emphasized the fact that Jews still wait for the Messiah (maybe to differentiate themselves from the dominant Christianity in their environment) while the lay people, who don't need that kind of validation, have gone on to think about how kashrut and tzedakah and intermarriage and practice and continuity and tradition and hearth and home and Israel can be engaged as Jews. Being delivered from this world of oppression just doesn't seem to be central to the theology of the Jewish people I know.

Maybe you were going to get to that in Part II. If so, I'm sorry for jumping the gun. :-)

Izgad said...

I was writing about classical and medieval Judaism. You are correct, there has been a major change among modern day Jews (and this includes most Orthodox Jews) in that Messianism has taken a backseat. This fits into my argument about the vindication of history. Events like emancipation and the State of Israel have served as the needed real world political victory. Here is the key test; am I struggling and bothered as to what to respond to a Christian who tells me that the low status of the Jews is proof that God has rejected them for not accepting Jesus? If you read medieval Jewish polemical literature you will see that Jews have this incredible inferiority complex about this. From the Christians side, this is at the top of the list of arguments to use on Jews. If a Christian used this argument on me today I would just laugh.

PrincessMax said...

My guess is that a Christian who used this argument today would also have many other problems that interfered with their ability to socialize with anyone other than their little sect. I suspect a high degree of correlation.

They are special cases and we would all probably try to be kind while dismissing them and their highly developed xenophobia as "nothing personal."

Thanks for affirming what I suspected. The interesting thing for me about Christians and Jews discussing the Messiah is that it is high on the list for why intermarriage is bad. There are a lot of Jewish people who tell me that the ONLY reason I can't convert is that I believe the Messiah has come. It seems weird to me that while atheists can convert to a religion that values shared community norms and ritual spiritual practice, a person who believes the Messiah has come cannot. As I understand it, at least a couple of Jewish sects also believe the Messiah has come, they just do not believe it is Jesus of Nazareth. What's the difference?

Izgad said...

What you are describing is a good example of a common issue with Jews that they define their Judaism almost exclusively in not believing in Jesus. I think this is really sad. I would argue that, strictly speaking, as long as you accept that Jesus was not God and did not have the power to change Mosaic Law, you are free to believe that he was the Messiah and that he fulfilled Isaiah 7:14 and chapter 53.