Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prophecies of Mass Destruction

I've been meaning for a while to write more about "end-times" stuff, but it's such a big subject; the last time I sat down to write about what should be a simple topic (homosexuality and Christianity), I ended up with 500 or so typewritten pages. I learned a lot by doing that, so it was worth it. And really, this is a much smaller topic, but it lends itself to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

Still, I'm going to duck the main event for awhile longer. Today I'm reading Elaine Pagels's newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking Penguin, 2012). Pagels got her start as a student of the Nag Hammadi "library" of mostly Christian writings that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels established her as a popularizer of early Christianity, both orthodox and heterodox; it also made her a convenient target for reactionary Christians who wanted to stick with a medieval version of Christian history.

In the new book she tries to put the biblical Apocalypse of John (also known as the Book of Revelation; "apocalypse" means uncovering or revelation) into its historical context. I've written before about the Apocalypse and the way it makes many orthodox Christians uncomfortable even though it is in the canon; unlike the Nag Hammadi books and others, it's an official part of the Christian (though not the Jewish) Bible. Pagels isn't uncomfortable with the material, but I'm still not very happy with her account of it, though I admit that my displeasure comes down more to matters of interpretation than of major questions of fact.

For example, Pagels believes that Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:5) is authentic -- that is, the gospel writers didn't invent and put the prediction into his mouth, he actually made it himself. She summarizes her reasons for thinking so.
First, because other prophets had made similar predictions before its destruction, as did Jesus ben Ananias, in the early 60s; second, because Mark's account is contradictory, claiming that Jesus was accused of having threatened to destroy the temple -- an accusation Mark insists is entirely false (Mark 14:56-58); third, when Mark admits that Jesus did prophesy the temple's destruction (Mark 13:1-2), the account of his words does not accord with what had actually happened, as one would expect with retrojected prophecy (there are stones standing upon others -- quite a few of them, to this day) [184 note 31].
I don't find this persuasive. Her first point, about earlier predictions, could just as easily support an argument that Jesus' predictions were inauthentic, especially since the example she gives also is known only from a source written after the destruction of the Temple, namely Josephus' Jewish War. The story also contains some dubious details that I won't go into now; click through, read it and see what you think. (People are apt to invent after-the-fact omens; there are people, for instance, who believe that John Kennedy went to Dallas on November 22, 1963, knowing that he would be assassinated there.) Her second point is strange, though it's true that Mark's account is contradictory. Notice that Mark's 'admission' occurs before the accusation was made against Jesus; and that a prediction is not a threat, though people are prone to confuse the two. Numerous scholars have argued that someone might have overheard Jesus' prediction and mistaken it for a threat, but this is highly speculative, and the gospel writers seem to be as confused about the matter as Jesus' accusers would have been.

In her final point Pagels seems to shoot herself in the foot. If the prediction isn't accurate, then it's a false prediction, and we know what the Bible says about false prophets. But a lot of Christians, ranging from laypeople to scholars, have assumed that it was accurate: that the Temple was totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as Jesus foretold it. The authors of the gospels probably never saw the extent of the destruction -- Church tradition has all of them writing far from Jerusalem, so even the most orthodox Christian has no basis for assuming otherwise -- and Mark probably didn't know whether one stone was left standing upon another. And Mark put another false prediction into the same passage, namely that Jesus would return on clouds of glory at the right hand of Power before the generation of his original followers had died off. Was that one authentic, too?
Which brings me to the main reason why the presence of an accurate prediction in an apocalyptic discourse counts against its authenticity, and not in its favor: in a typical apocalypse, most of its predictions are "retrojected," because normally an apocalypse is written from the viewpoint of someone who lived long before -- centuries in the case of Daniel or Enoch, decades in the case of Jesus. The predictions begin from the past figure's own time, and are taken from history, not prediction, until the present time of the apocalyptic writer. Daniel, for example, is supposed to have lived during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE), but most scholars believe that the Book of Daniel was written in the mid-to-late 160s BCE. The "predictions" in the book stop being accurate at the time of its writing, so there's no reason to believe that Daniel accurately foresaw historical events from 538 to 165 BCE; the author of the book retrojected them. (The New Testament Revelation is an exception to this pattern; the writer who was granted the visions is avowedly writing not about the distant future but about recent events and events very soon to come. He was wrong too.) So, when you find accurate predictions in an apocalyptic work, the best presumption is that they were written after the fact. Even if Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple, he also evidently predicted his return immediately afterward; so either he got lucky, or Mark invented the prediction (or it was invented by someone Mark used as a source) and put it into Jesus' mouth.

We'll never know for certain because we don't know exactly when the gospels were written or what material their authors had to work with. Pagels agrees with many if not most other New Testament scholars that the gospels were written after the burning and desecration of the Temple in 70, which is another reason to conclude that Jesus' prediction was invented to fit the history.

A large part of the problem isn't Pagels's fault. Standard early Christian history is complicated by scholars' need to reconcile the confused and historically unreliable New Testament material with sound historical practice. So, for example, while discussing the Apocryphon (or Secret Book) of James from Nag Hammadi, she writes,
Here the author deliberately recalls -- and challenges -- what many Christians believe, having read the New Testament Book of Acts. For the Book of Acts says that after Jesus died, he appeared to his disciples in resurrected form and continued to speak with them for forty days, but that then he ascended bodily into heaven: "As they were watching ... a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going ... they were gazing upward toward heaven." Traditionally, Christians have taken this to mean that after that time, those seeking access to Jesus could find it only indirectly, through "apostolic tradition," as they called the oral and written accounts that the apostles were said to have handed down for the benefit of those born too late to ever speak directly with Jesus [87-88, italics and ellipsis in original].
Ay, what a mess. I'm not sure how much of this is Pagels's account of what "many Christians believe" and how much is what she thinks the New Testament actually says. Start with the Book of Acts, which was probably written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke. Although Acts does say that Jesus ascended to heaven after forty days, it also shows Jesus appearing to various people after that time. Not only did Jesus appear "in his resurrected form" to Paul (Acts 9:3ff), which is hardly obscure, but
10 ...there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
12And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
Even according to Acts, then, Jesus appeared to at least two people after he'd ascended into heaven, so what "many Christians believe, having read the New Testament Book of Acts" is not what the New Testament Book of Acts says. And that's only Acts. According to the gospel of Matthew, which doesn't mention an ascension into heaven, Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee, and told them, "... and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world" (28:20). If the author of Matthew had written his own Acts of the Apostles, it would probably have looked quite different from Luke's Acts. One reason Christians have been able to rely on Acts so much is that, unlike the gospels, it has no New Testament competitors for the period it covers. (Except for Paul's own writings, which are also inconsistent with Acts on numerous points.)

This is ironic, considering the wrath of orthodox Christians over scholarly and popular interest in non-canonical Christian writings like the Nag Hammadi material. They claim that they follow the New Testament writings, which are the only authoritative early Christian sources -- but in fact, much of what they believe is not what is written in the New Testament: they omit and add and reinterpret to suit their needs. Not that Pagels's account, or the non-canonical books she discusses, are authoritative either: they're just different.

(One minor, maybe technical point that keeps bugging me: strictly speaking, "revelation / apocalypse" isn't prophecy, and prophecy isn't apocalypse. Scholars usually distinguish between the two genres, and I'll try to write more about this before long. Maybe more important, as Pagels surely knows, prophecy doesn't necessarily involve prediction, especially not prediction of the far future. A prophet is a human being, not always male, through whom a god speaks. He or she may have visions, but his or her function is as a messenger from the god, and he or she usually makes threats and promises about the present or the immediate future. Jonah's announcement to Nineveh is typical: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Jeremiah's prediction that the exile in Babylon would end in seventy years is atypical, as well as arithmetically inaccurate. The Christian claim that Jesus' career was foretold by the prophets is based on some very wild misinterpretations of the prophets. Jesus himself was not a prophet, though the concept of what a prophet was had undergone some historical change since Isaiah and Jeremiah. And I concede, grumpily, that nowadays "predict" and "prophesy" are used interchangeably, even by scholars; but in a discussion of apocalyptic writings and beliefs, it seems to me that they should be distinguished.)