Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Apocalypse, One of These Days

I had the good fortune of recently attending "The Enoch Seminar," which this year was devoted to study of the books of 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. These two books are both thought to originate in first or second century Palestine, written in Hebrew by Jews. Both contain a series of visions, given by the angels (or God) to the protagonist, in both cases a scribal seer. (Baruch is known from the Bible as Jeremiah's scribe, and in the biblical book named after him, Ezra too is described as a scribe. Neither, in their biblical context, receive visions.) Some of these visions, which the angel interprets, have to do with the end of time.

One session of the seminar was focused directly on apocalypticism in these books. The session took place at the Catholic University in Milan and was unlike any other academic session I had attended. It took me some minutes to figure out that the charge to the speakers was not only to recover the apocalyptic elements in the ancient texts, but also to reflect on apocalypticism as an ecumenical category. That is, could apocalypticism bridge Judaism and Christianity?

Now, my first reaction to this realization was disbelief. Leaving aside my discomfort at mixing ecumenical activities into academic contexts, it was hard for me to see apocalypticism as a unifying force. After all, wasn't apocalypticism all about last days of judgment and punishment for those who didn't accept the "true" deity during their lifetimes? Hasn't the primary difference between Jews and Christians been precisely in the closely related issue of redemption, in which Christians understand the world as already redeemed by Christ and Jews still await the world's redemption? Couldn't there be better places to look for theological dialogue between Jews and Christians?

Yet as the session progressed, I found my attitude shifting. Of course there are stark differences between Jewish and Christian notions of apocalypticism, and Lawrence Schiffman correctly warned against simply trying to find a broad, common rubric into which to collapse them both. But the speakers underscored that under both, maybe all, notions of apocalypticism is hope, perhaps with a healthy dose of fear. Apocalypticism is less a religious phenomenon than a human one, in which we all share a hope for a better future. While it was not discussed by the panel, I think that this extends beyond the namby pamby banal belief in progress and calls to act in bettering the world. There is something deeply psychological here. We can approach the future with hope, but there is no denying the trepidation that contemplation of the future also brings; apocalypticism is as much a feeling as an idea. In very human terms, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, these largely forgotten ancient texts, may be on to something big.

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