This summer I’ve been working through Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.” I’m a huge fan of Ehrman’s work; this is probably the fifth or sixth book of his that I’ve read. Toward the end of the book, I came upon a section that I found particularly fascinating, on pages 282-283, in the section titled “Jewish Apocalypticism.” Have a look, with highlights in bold:
The worldview that scholars call apocalypticism developed in Jewish history before the time of Jesus, and I have discussed the historical details elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that about a century and a half before Jesus was born, a number of Jews became radically distraught with the course of political and military affairs. The nation of Judea had been controlled by foreign powers for centuries—first the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Syrians. In resistance to Syrian atrocities, in 167 BCE an indigenous uprising occurred headed by a Jewish family known as the Maccabees. This Maccabean Revolt eventually led to an independent state of Judea, which lasted of nearly a century until the Romans conquered the land in 63 BCE.
Along with political woes before the revolt came a kind of theological crisis. For centuries certain Jewish prophets had declared that the nation was suffering because God was punishing it for turning away from him (thus prophets such as Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and—well, just about all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible). But in this period, under the Syrians, many Jews had turned back to God and were doing precisely what he instructed them to do in the Torah. And yet they were suffering worse than ever. How could that be?
Jewish apocalyptic thinking arose in [this] context. It came to be thought that the suffering of the people of God was not a punishment for sin inflicted by God himself. On the contrary, it was a punishment for righteousness, inflicted by forces of evil in the world, which were aligned against God. The first clear literary expression of such a view is found in the book of Daniel, the last book of the Hebrew Bible to be written (around 165 BCE?). The view eventually became widely popular among Jews, as their woes continued. In the days of Jesus it was a view held by Pharisees, Essenes, and prophetic groups such as the ones headed by John the Baptist.
I grew up in an evangelical home. I was taught that Christians in the U.S. are persecuted today by God’s enemies (particularly Satan himself). In some cases, I was taught, this persecution occurred in direct response to Christians’ righteousness, which Satan could not stand. But I never held this view up in contrast to that of the Jewish prophets, who wrote repeatedly during various exiles that the Jewish people was being punished for their sins.If you were to grant that Christians are being persecuted in the United States, which I do not, you could fashion an argument that, say, this persecution is happening because Christians in the U.S. have turned away from God’s command to love one another and have become so wedded to Republican Party politics that they have lost sight of the true meaning of the gospel, which is service to others, and breaking chains.
I suppose I never saw any contradiction between our belief that we were persecuted for our righteousness, on the one hand, and Old Testament prophets’ warnings that the Jewish people were persecuted for turning away from God, on the other, because I believed that the Jewish people of these prophets’ time had turned away from God, and that we had not. But that conclusion is not so obvious as one might think, and is based on one’s particular starting points.
After all, we weren’t perfect. My parents constantly berated my siblings and I for squabbling, and our pastor constantly talked about materialism, and about people talking a good talk but putting the things of this earth first in their day-t0-day lives. If we’d been starting with different assumptions, I see no reason why we might not have concluded that our persecution (even if it was only in our minds) was the result of our own failure to follow God wholeheartedly.
Knowing what I do know, I’m curious to know more about the context in which Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were written. I’d always taken it for granted that the Israelites had turned away from God, as these prophets claimed—but what if the writings of these prophets was a way to make sense of tragedy in the context of a religion that was centered around one God, and not dualistic in the way American Christianity is?
After all, as Ehrman adds on pages 283-284:
Most basically, apocalypticists were dualists. They believed there were two fundamental components of reality, the forces of good and the forces of evil. The ultimate source for all that was good, of course, was God. But God had a personal enemy, called by various names—the Devil, Satan, Beelzeboul. (Before the development of apocalyptic thought, Jews did not subscribe to the idea of a personal Devil as God’s archenemy. He is not found in Jewish scripture. Apocalypticists, by contrast very much believed he existed.)
None of this changes evangelical’s current love affair with being persecuted. It does, however, offer some background and context. It also reminds me of how important it is to learn more about the Bible from a scholarly, and not merely devotional, perspective. I couldn’t recommend Ehrman’s books more highly.
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