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Tuesday, March 21, 2006 

The Task of Reinterpretation

Throughout time there have always been so-called millenarian movements. Though we should be careful not to indulge in the formulation of broad sweeping generalizations, millenarian movements across the world and across time do tend to exhibit similar characteristics. Some of these include the expectation of an imminent end, a great reversal (the humble will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled,etc), the ultimate vanquishing of evil, great suffering preceding the end, and the vindication and salvation of an elect group.

Of course this is an obviously crude generalization and each movement tends to contain its own idiosyncracies. Nevertheless, the characteristics listed above are a good general index of what constitutes a millenarian movement. Furthermore, what is striking is that these are characteristics that are not geographically isolated to one section of the globe, but are manifested worldwide. It would seem that millenarianism is hardwired into human nature. However, upon further reflection this is not as phenomenal as first thought since when you strip these movements of their various particularities what you find is the simple human hope for vindication, for justice, for the righting of wrongs. This is, so to speak, the kerygma of millenarian belief.

But there is one other common characteristic that is worth discussing. What happens when the 'end' does not come as expected? Amazingly, for most of these movements when the end does not come as expected or predicted they continue on. Why? The answer is that they engage in the task of reinterpretation. You see hope is a rather hard thing to extinguish. And if it's not eliminated completely it will break through failure. They will convince themselves that they could not have initially been in total error. Somewhere along the way they must have just misinterpreted a detail, perhaps a minor one or maybe even a major one. Then they will reinterpret and adjust their praxis accordingly.

History readily illustrates plenty of examples of this 'task of reinterpretation.' Three examples, going chronologically backwards, should suffice. First is the well known Millerite movement. This was begun by a man named William Miller who managed to gather a following due to his precise calucations concerning the imminent return of Christ. Through use of a literalist reading of the Genesis narrative, the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, and James Ussher's chronology Miller calculated the Parousia to occur in the year of 1844, sometime around October. Needless to say 1844 rolled around but Jesus did not. But instead of the movement subsequently dying out, the followers reinterpretated, with some redoing Miller's calculations to arrive at other dates while others affirmed that Jesus did return but in a spiritual manner. There were many other reinterpretations which led to the birth of several denominations that exist today such as the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah Witnesses (though I might fall short of calling this a genuine Christian movement, thus 'denomination' might be a category mistake).

Our second example comes from the Middle Ages and centers ar0und the Jewish figure of Sabbatai Zevi. He was a Jewish mystic who proclaimed himself the long awaited Messiah of the Jews, and so predicted the soon end of the age. Sabbatai through various means gained a substantial following, even among many notable Rabbis. The end of course did not come and Sabbatai apostasized to Islam, claiming that God had commanded him to do so. But this did not deal a death blow to Zevi's followers. Instead, they reinterpreted their prophecies and then accepted Zevi's apostasy as part of God's plan. After his death, they proclaimed that he would one day return. Strikingly, a group of his followers known as the Donmehs exists to this very day.

The third example is similar to the previous one since it too began as a Messianic movement. But it soon ceased to be a Jewish sect, gained a momentous Gentile following and became what we know as Christianity. That the primitive believers were millenaristic (or apocalyptic) is usually not disputed. Many, scholars, however, have attempted to show that even if his own followers expected an immiment end this was not originally part of Jesus' teaching. Rather, passages such as Mark 13 are redactional creations by those early believers who were convinced that the end was nigh. For myself I follow Dale C. Allison and others that apocalypticism was a major aspect of Jesus' teaching. Regardless, my point does not depend on the founder of the movement holding these views. What is not in doubt is that our earliest records indicate a fervent belief in the early communities that Jesus was about to return and usher in the end.

But the delay of the Parousia caused considerable problems for the early believers. Indeed, by the time the synoptics were taking written form the church was beginning to interpret Jesus' death and resurrection as "inaugurated eschatology" (see Allison's End of the Ages Has Come). By the time we get to the end of the first century any of thought of apocalypticism or future eschatology is significantly downplayed in the Gospel of John. Though John still sees salvation as something future, the stress is on the presentness of salvation and individual eschatology.

As we get into the second century some of the church fathers begin shifting the Parousia from being imminent to being sudden (see 1 Clement 23:5) as well as, following John, stressing individual eschatology, thus ultimately relativising expectation of the end. However, there were some who continued to expect an imminent end. The early church historian Eusebius informs us of an amusing tale concerning the early church bishop Hippolytus. This bishop wrote a commentary on the Book of Daniel in order to stymy a recent wave of fervent eschatological hope aroused by a man in his parish. This charismatic figure convinced many people to follow him out into the wilderness to wait on the Parousia. Eventually, Hippolytus had to order a resuce operation to save these people, thus prompting him to write this commentary to prevent this kind of thing from every occuring again.

The point is that the church, faced with the problem of the delay of the Parousia, found itself constantly engaging in reintepretation.

Before we condemn these movements for their reinterpretations and sometimes, inventions, we must remember that this is something we all do. Such is the stubborness of hope. It refues to give in so easily and will fight to hang on as long as possible. Is this foolishness, to allow hope to convince us that we were not completely wrong? Perhaps. The Greeks would have thought so. Though many have heard of Pandora's Box most do no know what it contained. It contained many of the world's most destructive forces such as crime, plagues, poverty, etc. However, the last force in the box was 'hope.' Why? Because hope can be a deceiver. It builds expectation and when that expectation is not forthcoming, great devesation is caused. Hope can make fools out of us all by causing us to hold on to things when we no longer should.

However, humanity needs hope. Because the anithesis of hope is despair. And despair can be far more crippling in the long run than failed hope. Despair is to reach the very pit of Sheol where you can no longer experience God's presence. Despair destroys both body and soul. Despair is death. We need hope because it can bring life! Indeed, my, i.e. the believer's faith is built on this potential deceiver. "Do not grieve as one who does not have hope," so says Paul (1 Thess. 4:13). So hope may be foolishness, but so is the cross, nay, so is the resurrection.

Nice post, Christopher. As a species, humans do need the hope reinterpretation can provide, however real or delusory.

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