Wednesday, July 12, 2006

MIllenarian? Point/Counterpoint with Guest Poster Ryan Saunders

My good friend Ryan Saunders joins us again, for a quick look at Christianity as a Millenarian movement. In the interests of cohering to limitations on both of our time (coincidentally enough, we've both recently moved, and both have nurseries to put together for soon arriving daughters), we've agreed to look at individual arguments for Jesus as a prophet of the eschaton, rather than assemble lengthy posts on the matter. For the first posts in the series (which will probably occur with two or three day lapses between each) I will argue affirmative positions, to which Saunders will respond. After which, since in argument as in chess it's easier to attack than defend, we will do a switcheroo, with Ryan arguing for a non-eschatological Jesus, and I taking the role of critic.

Christianity as a Millenarian Movement

Malcolm B Hamilton helpfully cites Talmon's succinct definition of millenarian movements. They are "religious movements that expect imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation." (1) Hamilton goes on to note (drawing partially from Cohn) more specific characteristics of millenarian movements: Salvation generally means the coming about of a perfect world, it is collective rather than individual salvation, it is brought about by miraculous means. Other common, though not as universal, characteristics include a central role of a prophetic or messianic character, participants are frequently swept up by intense emotions to the point of zealousness, feelings of guilt and inadequacy are common, as is the abandonment of longstanding behavior and morals. Expectations are usually quite strong, thus it is not uncommon to see groups destroy property or livestock, since they will be useless when the new day dawns (2).

That Christianity is a millenarian movement, and that at least one strand has been since at least the apostle Paul is undeniable. We can, for all intents and purposes, take that as a hard fact. I'd suggest that one of the stronger arguments in favor of Jesus as an eschatological prophet is how neatly it fits into the general model of millenarian movements. This can, of course, be traced at least to the apostle Paul, and probably before (millenarian characteristics are seen in the confession of 1Cor.15, which Paul attributes not only to himself, but rather "I or they."). The question becomes, how far back can this go before the context is that of Jesus himself? Or at least, close enough to him to demand that it is Jesus' preaching behind it?

I'd suggest it doesn't need to go much earlier than 1Thess, where Paul is perhaps most fervent in his millenarian expectations. By c.50 CE, not only is Paul rabidly millenarian, preaching a millenarian message to an ostensibly millenarian church, but there is no hint that anybody was preaching anything different. The issues Paul deals with are the first inklings that perhaps the promised eschaton wasn't coming, not hints that the eschaton was ever denied, seems to point a unanimity among the earliest traditions: Jesus was coming back soon to usher in the eschaton.

Yet if this group includes not only Paul, but presumably those who had known (or at least heard) Jesus--which seems quite a safe assumption--then it seems most reasonable to assume that the level of continuity here is high.

This is, of course, a play on the old argument of context: Jesus is framed by Paul, Paul was eschatological, therefore Jesus was eschatological. But the elaborations made to it (owing, largely, to Dale C Allison), drive it home with greater force: It is a nice fit as a millenarian movement. It's most reasonable, thus to assume that it was one.

Ryan Responds

Thanks again to Rick for welcoming me to post to his blog. His argument, I'm afraid, carries with it more presupposition than premise, and seems to misstate the case against an eschatological Jesus. Nobody is denying that Paul's Christianity was Millenarian. For that matter, one need not even deny that most early strands of "Christianity" (a term used anachronistically here) were millenarian. What is denied is that this demands that Jesus was millenarian.

Stop a moment, and look at things from the perspective of Paul, or, for that matter, Paul's contemporaries who, as Rick noted above, are likely to have known Jesus. Imagine with me a Jesus who did not preach a millenarian message, but who nonetheless convinced his followers, by virture of the resurrection experiences (a phenomena I'm not sure we can fully explain on the present evidence) that he was the Messiah. Many if not most Messianic expectations involved the eschaton. Upon their conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, it is only natural that they presumed that the eschaton was imminent. Jesus is the "prophet or Messianic figure" Rick notes above in the minds of his followers, that does not imply that he was in his own mind. Or, for that matter, that anyone else was either.

To head off the obvious response to this--that one could be Messianic without expecting the eschaton--I'll point to the instance I would most readily expect: Josephus proclaimed Vespasian the Messiah, but was not Millenarian. There are two fundamental differences. Firstly, Josephus was saving himself by his proclamation, something Christian proclaimers were, if anything, antithetical to. Secondly, Josephus was operating from the side of the dominant in his writing--he was an elite Roman citizen. The "perfect world" is most likely to be expected from those on the wrong side of the class system--the oppressed, the disenfranchised. Josephus no longer fit that description, and as such, his conception of the Messiah could quite plausibly have been substantially altered.

Further confusing matters, if Jesus saw himself as the "prophet" of the millenarian movement founded in his name, why does Paul's justification never come from Jesus? Why must we, as Rick suggests, presume continuity? Surely if Jesus himself had millenarian conceptions, Paul would have shared them. Yet when Paul speaks of his millenarian vision--when he thoroughly details the "religious movements that expect imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation," it is not Jesus who he quotes, nor is it Jesus he attributes the message to. It is none other than God himself. Paul's information comes from God and from scripture--exactly where we should expect it to in the outline suggested above. When Paul (and other Christians) came to see Jesus as the Messiah, they scoured scripture, not Jesus' words, for what the implications of that Messianism was, and it was that scouring, and not Jesus' message, that birthed the millenarian movement that ultimately became what we now consider orthodoxy.


1) Y. Talmon, 'Millenial Movements,' Archives Europeennes de Sociologe, 7, 1966, p.166, as cited in 'Sociological Dimensions of Christian Millenarianism,' Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco, ed. Stephen J. Hunt, p.12

2) ibid, p.12-13

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