Sunday, January 1, 2012

Predicting the End of the World is Nothing New

by Bill Lazarus
The cornerstone of any messianic movement contains a belief that the world will be brought to an end.  The messiah will herald that event.  The concept of a final Armageddon is so overwhelming that it needs a divine being, a messiah, to bring it about.  Eventually, he was expected to bring about a Kingdom of God.  As the kingdom took on more fantastic aspects, so did the individual who would rule it.  Designated by God, in time, he became divine in his own right.
The concepts began as separate theories, but were merged around the time of Jesus.  The Essenes, waiting for God to act, relied on the story of the Flood to explain what would happen when Yahweh tired of human iniquity.  Only those who followed God’s law, as explained in the holy texts, would survive.  Christian dogma then linked this horrific scene to Jesus.  Those that believed in him would be saved; those who did not would suffer eternal punishment.
Initially, such a claim would not have garnered much enthusiasm.  However, the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, an event absolutely cataclysmic in the Jewish world and seemingly predicted by Jesus, seemed to presage the end of the world.  The event galvanized Christian missionaries who hurried through the Empire, trying to “save” as many people as possible before the end arrived.
The end-of-the-world concept has been part of Western civilization ever since.
Prophets of doom did not have to search for the end of the world idea; it had long been a popular motif in the culture of many cultures, including Jewish, even though it runs contrary to biblical teachings.  In the story of Noah (Gen. 6-9), God destroys the earth's inhabitants with a massive flood.  When the waters abate, God offers a rainbow as proof that such an event would never happen again: "Neither will I smite any more every living thing as I have done." (Gen. 9:12-16)
Nevertheless, Jews joined with other peoples to accept the idea of an ending to the world.  Persians, for example, predicted a battle between the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness," a theme that foreshadows Christianity. (Shaw, pg. 4)  The Hindu view of cyclical creations may have been merged with the Persian concept to generate the basic doomsday theme in Judaism and, later, Christianity.
Floods provided the main method of destruction: In Greece, Zeus creates the high tide in which only the Titan Prometheus and his son, Deucalion, survived; in Burmese, Indian and other legends, there's always one survivor who sails to safety in some kind of vessel.
In the Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic containing this kind of apocalyptic disaster, a great hero of that name seeks out Utnapishtim, the survivor of the great flood that destroyed humanity.  In an account written more than 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh hopes to learn the secret of immortality; he gets that along with a detailed account of a massive flood.  Utnapishtim tells of being forewarned, building a great boat and sailing for days until reaching safety while explaining how he achieved immortality.  That story is believed by some historians to be the model for the Noah account because of similarities in the description of the boat, use of birds to discover dry land and related aspects.  Jews would have heard the tale, which was well known throughout the Middle East and especially in Babylon, site of the Jewish exile after 586 B.C.
Emannuel Velikovsky, the late Russian physicist turned historian, once suggested in his controversial book, Worlds in Collision, that all the flood accounts were connected to a single event about 3,500 years ago when a comet created watery chaos. 
No evidence of such a world-wide flood has ever been found, although residue from a large flood in the Tigris-Euphrates valley uncovered by archaeologists this century is thought to be the source of the proto-Noah accounts.  Archaeological evidence, however, has demonstrated that settlements above and below the flood are identical.  Moreover, evidence of various floods are separated by centuries, indicating there was no one flood of immense portions as described in the Bible.
Fortunately for those who support the concept of total destruction, water has never been the only medium for disaster. The Romans and Greeks believed in a succession of ages, each containing men made of gold, silver, bronze or flesh.  In early Greek thinking, the end of the world was a topic for philosophical discussion, not religious debate.  Stoicism taught that the end would come with fire and would be reborn in a series of cycles.  Famed Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle thought a series of natural events would initiate a destruction-rebirth cycle.  Plato said that there were three ages; the third and present one was perfect and eternal.  Both men were idolized in the Middle Ages, so it's not surprising Joachim of Fiore, a celebrated monk asked by the Pope to create an apocalyptic calendar, picked up on that cyclical theme.  In the late 1100s, he labeled each age thought to have elapsed since Jesus with a different religious theme.  He felt the final age, Armageddon, would occur in the mid-1200s.
The Romans, who absorbed a welter of ideas from various cultures, also accepted the concept of a recycled world, with destruction and then the periodic return of the same people and the same world.  The poet Virgil, for example, predicted a second voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, a second Trojan War and a second Achilles.  Other Romans also imagined a return to the golden age when Saturn supposedly ruled.
For Jews, the Noah story failed to provide a system of revenge against those who oppressed them.  Jewish prophets still envisioned a time when they would again be a holy people following God's laws and when sinners would be eliminated.  The prophet Joel noted that on that day, the unrighteous and the gentiles would be annihilated: "... let all the inhabitants of the Land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand." (Joel: 2:1)
Ezekiel, whose writings date from the time of Babylonian Exile, said that after the world was destroyed, a prince of the House of David would humble the gentiles and redeem Israel. (Ez:. 34:23)
The author of Daniel, writing hundreds of years later, decided that God delayed inaugurating his kingdom because the Jewish sins had not abated yet.  The writer then reinterpreted the prophetic writings: the 70 years promised by Jeremiah for the return to the holy state of Israel after the Babylonian conquest really meant 70 weeks of years (Dan 9:2, 24).  That works out to 490 years — or about 100 years after the lifetime of the author dating from the setting of the book in the Babylonian conquest.
The book also introduced a theory of resurrection (12:2) — possibly also mentioned by Isaiah in a late apocalyptic addition to an earlier book (26:19) — and the only mention of the word "messiah" in the Old Testament.  Angels, too, make an appearance, possibly borrowed from the Persians.
Resurrection was important psychologically because of the circumstances.  Antiochus IV, the Syrian leader, attempted to wipe out Judaism with a series of persecutions, including the deaths of prominent, pious Jews.  Mothers who permitted circumcision were hanged with their babies dangling from their necks.  Those who refused to renounce Judaism were butchered, exiled or sold into slavery. 
Angels seemed an ideal way for God to manifest himself. After all, in the book of Exodus, an angel of death had passed over the houses of the children of Israel during the 10th plague.  Daniel supplies names for the important angels (e.g. Michael,12:1), replacing the anonymous "messengers" who in Genesis walked slowly up and down Jacob's ladder (Gen. 28:12) or visited Abraham. (Gen: 18:2)  Michael has been understood as "the one like a son of man" (Dan 7), taking the place of Baal in the Canaanite myth of a supernatural being who overcomes the beasts of the sea.
Daniel did far more than simply suggest a new date; the author supplied a name to the being who would inaugurate it — the messiah.  For the first time ever, Jews had someone to focus on, an image of a person who would quickly be incarnated.
The widespread circulation of Daniel led to a belief that the end was near.  "The whole area, from Lake of Genasseret (Sea of Galilee) down to the Dead Sea itself was alive with holy eccentrics," said historian Paul Johnson.
To augment scripture, Jewish writers also developed separate predictions.  Forged Sibylline oracles — the Sibyl supposedly foresaw the history of Rome and was consulted by Roman authorities in times of trouble — claimed that a great man would rise from the East as the world disintegrated.
Romans were aware of the predictions.  Roman historian Seutonius wrote, "There had been spread all over the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that for men coming from Judea to rule the world."  The Jewish historian Josephus, writing for Roman readers, said a man from Judea would soon "become monarch of the whole world." When Augustus became Pontifex Maximus, he ordered many of the fake oracles destroyed.  Tiberius, his successor, also purified the Sybilline collection because of a popular prediction that "the end of the empire was at hand."
Those predictions, and related prophecies, were widespread.  Tacitus (55-c.117) wrote a history of Rome that included a section on the Jewish-Roman war of 66 to 70 A.D.  He said, "The majority (of Jews) were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judea would go forth men destined to rule the world."  Tacitus was not impressed, saying that Vespasian and his son Titus were the actually prophesied individuals, "but the common people, true to the selfish ambitions of mankind, thought this exalted destiny was reserved for them, and not even their calamities opened their eyes to the truth." (The Histories: book 5, pg. 13.)
Jews believed the predictions, because a host of writers assured them the ancient prophets were right.  For example, the Psalms of Solomon, cited in Chapter 1, foresaw the coming Kingdom of God.
Ezra IV, written late in the first century A.D., asked the basic question: "If the world has been created for us, why don't we possess it as an inheritance now?"  Many other works duplicated this query and emphasized the growing sense of Jewish frustration at the long-delayed “Last Times.”
The idea was not monolithic: some writers built the End of Time around a concept of a Davidic leader who would restore the old kingdom; others preferred a "new and perfect world" that would arise after the destruction of the "present, evil world," the Anchor Bible Dictionary reported (Vol. 11, pg. 597)
The belief in the coming Kingdom of God was also widespread throughout the Roman Empire, carried by Jews and their supporters.  An estimated 10 percent of the population was Jewish or God-fearers — individuals who, as noted earlier, liked everything about Judaism, supported synagogues and holidays, but declined to be circumcised.  Other people followed Jewish rules without accepting Judaism.  Caught up in the religious enthusiasm of the era, Jewish missionaries were busy proselytizing.  Their efforts paid off.  Even emperors knew Jewish concepts.  For example, Augustus wrote his adopted son and eventual successor, "There is no Jew, my dear Tiberius, who keeps his fast on the Sabbath as I kept it today." (Seutonius, Augustus, pg. 76)
Other factors were also at work, building the momentum for a messiah to herald the end of days.
When Jesus started preaching, amid the cry of other prophets that the final days were upon the inhabitants, the people of his era, unlike any before this, were ready to greet a messiah.
Jews may not have accepted Jesus as the messiah, but the concept of earthly destruction never faded from Jewish thinking.  In Jewish legend, the antichrist was named Armilus and was to be countered by the messiah.  Ideas about Armageddon varied as did the years when it would occur.  In early Jewish thinking, 1096 was one of the years when the end might come, based on a numerological interpretation of Leviticus 25:24, "Ye shall grant a redemption for the land."
That year passed; eyes -- and hopes -- turned to alternatives.  Various interpreters suggested the line in Job 38:7, "when the morning stars sang together," pointed to 1492.  That year, however, Jews were expelled from Spain.  Reportedly, about one-third left in exile; one-third converted; and one-third, the ones derisively labeled marranos ("pigs"), hid their Jewish status under a Catholic cover.  Several sailed with Columbus.  Jewish settlements in the United States eventually result from the Spanish expulsion, but no messiah appeared to chastise Christians who caused it.
Also in 1492, Duke Abravanel, the leader of the Spanish Jewish community, predicted the coming of the messiah and the resulting punishment of gentiles.  He picked the early 1500s as his target date.  Abravanel had been a minister in King Ferdinand's court and claimed descent through the exilarchs of Babylon to the House of David.  Author of commentaries on the biblical books of Joshua, Judges and Chronicles, he did his own calculations to arrive at the magical date.  He hoped publishing his research would encourage disheartened Spanish Jews.  It may have.  It also helped foster the strong belief in a messiah that aided the spread of Sevi's movement.
The Last Days hope lingered on despite repeated failures. The dejected, mistreated Jews, longing for evidence that they had returned to God's good graces, never gave up the idea that one day God would redeem his people.  In one instance, Polish scholar Nathan Shapira in the early 1600s described the final scene this way: on the day the messiah comes, "the dead in Palestine will arise and the walls of fire will depart Jerusalem."
Quoting Psalm 90:15, medieval rabbis argued that the messianic era should be of equal length as the period of suffering and exile.
As earlier forecasts of a coming Armageddon faded after the 1492 expulsion from Spain, key years for the predicted end of the world grew sharper into focus: 1575, 1648 and 1666.
Under the circumstances, the old idea of two separate messiahs revived: the messiah of the House of Joseph would die battling the infidels at the gates of Jerusalem, while the messiah of the House of David would initiate the expected utopia.
Jewish speculation were based on numerological and spiritualistic interpretations of the Bible.  The Kabala, a collection of mystical ideas that existed in a Jewish undercurrent beginning in the Middle Ages, served as a guide. 
The Zohar, one of two core Kabala books, pointed to the 1300s as the time when the messiah would come.  When the century passed with the hope unfulfilled, the idea hung on until the 1500s when the basic kabalistic system, reformulated by Jewish scholar Isaac Luria in the mid-1550s, assumed that the final stage had arrived and that salvation was very close, as noted earlier in this book.  To achieve speed, the current generation had to be righteous: that matched a Talmudic saying that the son of David would appear only in a generation which was "wholly sinful or wholly righteous."
Luria aimed for the Day of the Lord in the year 1575.  His disciples claimed their master was the messiah from the House of Joseph.  Luria's unexpected death in 1572 indicated to them that the world was not "worthy" yet. They settled down to wait for the necessary purity to be achieved.
At the same time, the antichrist — who in Jewish and Christian speculation would precede the messiah — was reported on his way.  "In the year 1599, a rumor circulated with prodigious rapidity through Europe that the antichrist had been born in Babylon, and that already the Jews of that part were hurrying to receive and recognize him as their messiah,” an historian noted.
A year later, people were talking about an antichrist supposedly born near Paris to a Jewess named Blanchefleure ("white flower") and conceived by Satan.  The child was baptized.  A "witch" who was tortured to learn the truth, confessed that she had rocked the infant antichrist on her knee and that he had "claws on his feet, wore no shoes, and spoke all languages."
When the world continued unaffected by such claims, conversation about the antichrist naturally grew muted.
In 1623, the tales started again.  This time, brothers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, residing on Malta, claimed that their spies in Babylon had seen the infant antichrist born there on May 1.  The birth was marked by an eclipse of the sun, swarms of flying serpents and a shower of precious stones.
While all this was happening, economic and social conditions were causing increasing concern.  Jews had been prosperous in some communities, but the major had descended into abject poverty, particularly in Poland, where a large percentage of the Jewish population lived.  The kabalistic teachings, newly revived, took on added meaning among Jews, increasingly tense while struggling amidst a hostile Christian society. 
Luria's philosophical ruminations, which were predicated on a coming messiah, were first printed in 1636, some 64 years after his death.  By 1650, all of the kabalistic ideas had spread through the diaspora.  Several renowned scholars were thought of as the messiah of the House of Joseph — Samson ben Oesha of Ostropol, Poland, for one.
That selection process eventually focused specifically on one year — 1648 because the end of days is called “this,” whose numerical value is 408. The number 408 in Hebrew corresponds to 1648.  In addition, the numerical value of the Hebrew words for "the messianic woes" equals 408.  As a result, that specific year became the focus of the "most enthusiastic hopes for redemption."
Religious leaders did not hesitate to broadcast the good news.  The Bible was scoured to support that belief.  Rabbi Yehiel Michel of Nemirov (Poland), for example, said the massacres planned by Haman (in the canonical book of Esther) had been postponed to the year 1648.
Not only did Jews focus their messianic hopes on the middle of the 1600s, so did Christians.  Paul believed firmly that Jesus presaged the coming end of the world.  His epistles are filled with such claims of an immediate end.
Pauline thinking dominated early Christianity.  The Revelation of St. John, attempted to explain why there had been a delay in the Parousia and to offer a view of the Kingdom due to arrive shortly.  The text has served as a guide to the coming Kingdom of God since its writing somewhere late in the first century A.D. Several times on the verge of being left out of the New Testament, it finally won the support of bishops when the canon was codified in the fourth century A.D.  In the book, the Parousia became a final battle between the risen Christ and his heavenly hosts against Satan, who would be leading both earthly and supernatural foes.
The continued delay of the Parousia naturally heightened speculation.  Since Revelation mentioned a 1,000-year reign (20:5), chiliasts (from the Greek for "one-thousand") thought the end of the first millennium would initiate the end.
The only other year to attract widespread support was 1666.
In part of the lengthy, often confusing text, John says the mark of this demonic antichrist is 666.  "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six." (Rev. 13:18)
As mentioned earlier, the numbers actually refer to deposed Emperor Nero, whose name numerologically works out to 666.  While Nero had committed suicide in 68 A.D., he was rumored to be alive and to return, a non-messianic belief that survived well into the Middle Ages.  However, later readers, left in the dark about that explanation, decided it referred to the year 666 or 1666. 
The chiliastic movement, condemned by the Church in 431 A.D., continued to survive despite the official denunciations.  By the 1500s, a sect of Christians who decried baptism, called Anabaptists, seized control of Munster, Germany and declared the arrival of a new kingdom of Zion.  The residents endured a three-year siege by Papal forces before the town was captured.  The debacle, and the accompanying failure of a messiah to appear, led to a dampening of the chiliastic spirit until the 1600s.
In that century, it enjoyed a rebirth of interest beginning in England.  Quakerism, for example, owns its beginning to chiliastic thought In 1656, a peasant named James Nyler rode into Bristol, welcomed by the same cries that Luke described as greeting Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem. 
The failure of the world to end in 1666 hardly deterred believers.  The claims of an apocalyptic event have continued into modern times. 
I’ll include a second posting later with information on more-recent claims.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian whose books on the subject include Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on line via, Kindle and via his website  This information is excerpted from his book The Messiah.

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