Monday, August 6, 2012

In This Life You're on Your Own

Back to 2012 and the End of the World for a moment: the authors, Matthew Restall and Amara Solari, continued to get their facts about "Western" eschatology wrong as they proceeded.
According to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, human history will last a mere 6,000 years. These six millennia are divided into three periods of 2,000 years each. The first period was one of tohu (“void” or “chaos”); the second 2,000-year period began with the life of Abraham; the third era is that of the messiah, who will come at the start (or during) of that final period. Jewish eschatology – a branch of theology that studies the end of the world – concerns the appearance of the messiah, who will usher in a new era of human history [53].
There's nothing about this in the Tanakh as far as I know.  What Restall and Solari describe here sounds more like some very post-biblical Jewish speculations about the course of history, but I think they've garbled even that.  (I can't trace their sources, because the book has no notes, just some brief bibliographical essays at the end where they gesture at several recent popular books on eschatology.)  As they recount this schema, it makes no sense: the period before Abraham was hardly "void" (it sounds like someone was thinking of Genesis 1:2, which says that at the time of creation "the earth was without form, and void").  The second era would have ended around the time the Second Temple was destroyed (around 70 CE), and if we're in the messianic age now, he's running out of time to "appear."  But as I say, this is probably a medieval speculation, no more biblical than Dante's account of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, or the contemporary evangelical Rapture theology.

The Hebrew Bible doesn't in fact have a doctrine about the Messiah.  The word "messiah" means "anointed."  Anointing with oil was part of the ritual of office for kings, priests, and prophets in Israel, so there are many messiahs in the Tanakh.  Yahweh even refers to the Persian (and definitely not Jewish) king Cyrus, who conquered Babylon and ended the Israelite exile there as "my anointed" (Isaiah 45:1).  Cyrus' ascendancy didn't bring about the Messianic age, however.  The same mixture of beliefs and teachings turns up in other biblical and non-biblical writings.  In a 1959 article, the historian Morton Smith summed these up, showing that conflicting doctrines often appear within the same document.  It's pretty clear that in first-century Judaism there was widespread belief in a Messiah, but that belief didn't come from the Tanakh.

The authors continue:
Unlike Christianity, which deems Jesus Christ as a living incarnate of God [sic] and thus a divine being, those of the Jewish faith believe that their messiah will not be divine. Instead, the Jewish messiah will be completely human, born of two parents (and thus not of an immaculate conception) and be a descendent [sic] of King David. Nonetheless, this human messiah will be capable of uniting humankind; this two-thousand year Messianic era will be a time of global peace [53-54].
To begin pedantically, it wasn't Jesus but his mother Mary who was born "of an immaculate conception" according to later Christian mythology.  Post-biblical Jewish beliefs about the Messiah are as authoritative as their Christian parallels, however: both are the result of yanking proof texts out of their context in the Tanakh to support a doctrine that the interpreters believed in for other reasons.  Some of these passages refer to kings, others to prophets; some, like the "Suffering Servant" material in Isaiah 40-55 or the "Son of Man" in the book of Daniel, are symbolic or allegorical figures who weren't people to begin with, let alone messiahs.  Even Jesus' divine status is a post-biblical doctrine.  The New Testament contains a variety of statements about who or what Jesus was, some indicating divinity and others contradicting the idea.

These mistakes could be brushed aside as matters outside the authors' expertise and topic, but they're not really a separate subject. As Restall and Solari proceed, they go on confusing millennialism with other eschatological notions.  They claim that Catholic missionaries in Mexico frightened their Maya congregations with horrific imagery of judgement and punishment after death, which they call "millennial."  But not all judgment of the dead is tied to beliefs about the end of the world, not even in Christianity.  Partly because of conflicting New Testament evidence, it's not clear whether the dead will be judged at the end of time, or immediately after they die.  In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from the gospel of Luke, for example, the Rich Man is sent straight to Hell when he dies, as the poor Lazarus goes straight to Heaven and the bosom of Abraham.  Christian scholars sometimes explain this as a borrowing from ancient Egyptian lore, but it's not clear what it's doing in the teaching of Jesus.  In any case, as in Egypt, the eschatology refers to what happens after death, not when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Earth.  And what teachings did the Maya have about the afterlife, if any, before the Spanish conquest?   Restall and Solari say nothing about that.  Maybe we don't know.  But their discussion is disturbingly unreliable in the areas I know anything about.