This is a summary of a paper I gave yesterday on the origins of the apocalyptic mind and literature (Enoch, Daniel, right up to Revelation). It was a standard historical paper, with ethical and political considerations regarding the modern situation not buried too deeply down.
The paper starts by saying that apocalyptic literature—a three-century-something long development initiated in the third century B.C.E.—is the continuation of the sixth-to-fifth century monotheistic reframing of the Yahweh divinity, itself an explanation of, and resistance to, a succession of three empires. Belief in a single, only divinity was at the same time a listening beyond the fury and chaos of history. This listening to and obeying an inscrutable divine will had been revealed to an interstitial Moses, the story went, not to a king. Listening (in the sense of paying attention as well as a more problematic obeying) remained or became the driving metaphor, rather than seeing and its related political forms. The Mosaic story and law took their present shape together with the new temple in the late sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E.
Apocalyptic takes its cue from the central role played in Judahite society by this new temple and torah. For its own purposes, Achaemenid rule had allowed or encouraged limited, local, non-royal, control for peoples still reeling from the collapse of their monarchy and loss of political center. In this new situation, an original, divinely inspired, constitution had been created—as well as a historical narrative of origins, an explanation of failures, and reasons for hope. And together with the reframing of a catastrophic political history as being the expression of long-revealed divine will, the eventual rebuilding of the divinity’s house proceeded. Both Torah and temple became the sources of renewed strength for a small, beaten, partly dispersed, endangered people.
The lay and soon-dominant priestly elites in Judah, however, were in a paradoxical situation. The authority of both of these groups, in regard to Achaemenid and later Ptolemaic kings, depended on their ability to ensure order and tribute. But from the Judahites’ point of view, it depended on their contiguity or nearness to temple and torah. It was precisely their religious authority (including their eventual creation and placing of the torah at the center), their attached rights to religious tithing, and consequently their local integration and intimate knowledge of economic resources and social situations that enabled them to play an effective role as disguised tax-farmers for the Persian kings. Leaders or protectors of the people and facilitators of a tributary empire at the same time.
This uneasy equilibrium lasted for some time. Two centuries something later, however, two combined pressures came about that could not be managed anymore. One was a particularly oppressive external imperial assault that, in its combination of Hellenistic and eventual Roman competing claims, made overt as well as implicit linguistic, economic, and cultural-religious demands that the people and many among the elites found impossible to meet. The second was a more complicated, local development, marked by the end of the authoritative and uneasy role of the Judahite leadership that was summarized above, of lay elites and priesthood. Part of it was the hardening of the temple as institution, and the torah as canon. The latter was not hermetically closed until long after, but prophetic voices and eschatological thinking were discouraged. The elites’ splits and abandonment of their responsibilities have left traces in some of the later layers of the Hebrew Bible.
This is the situation that apocalyptic responded to and tried to transcend. So, the core of apocalyptic was not otherworldly or devoid of ethical concerns, on the contrary. In the re-mythicized forms it adopted, evil was politically and socially rooted and the writers projected the unseemly and incomprehensible victory of unrighteousness as part of a divine plan revealed to visionaries: the ineluctable and inescapable triumph of an “enthroned glory.” Yet, this enthroned glory was still an absent male patriarch, the absent father of daily life as well as the absent and formidable head of state, the Ancient of Days, a glory before which one could only prostrate oneself.
I concluded the paper with a discussion of Jesus. Was he an apocalyptic thinker (dreamer?) or an anti-Roman peasant revolutionary? I tried to show there is no either/or. Jesus folded the apocalyptic worldview unto the here and now. That is, the grandiose cosmic waiting and near-coming featured in apocalyptic, he took to be the waiting and expectation of the paralytic, the hungry, the woman with a blood flow, disciples, hearers, or those waiting (in the parables) for the master, the landowner, the king, the groom. This announcement that the waiting was over (is permanently over?), however, went directly against the notion of a structured absence we see at the center of the Temple and Torah as well as in much of the apocalyptic literature. Directly against the Roman and Judaean managerial politics surrounding this convenient absence. Jesus continued something long at work in his society since the transformation of the Maccabean revolution into another kingdom yet. He radicalized the logic of those large movements (especially the Pharisees but also the Essenes) and claimed a life in which real bodies and souls could live here and now the promises and hopes of a decentered or dislocated temple and torah.
I did not play a coda that could have gone as follows. The story of this collapse of a cosmic wait onto the mundane here-and-now led to a refocussing of history, on a much larger scale than before, around the vanishing point of a returning Christic figure. It lasted aeons, right up to our seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and it lives in large groups still around us). Then it transmogrified into the steely and brave-new-worldly dream of the advent of reason, and that too, at the hands of national entities, liberal and/or fascistic, became apocalyptic. Exhausted, we look over our shoulders, deconstruct all of that, and find ourselves at the mercy again of managerial politics, with floating chunks of rationality here and there, though thankfully without mediation of any kind: no temple, church, state, vectorized Hegelian history. The ethics and rationalizations of our managers seem very thin and narrow. Greed and sheer stupidity are well matched. So, here and now we are, pilgrims and explorers again and again.
From TS Eliot, Four quartets, end of East Coker:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.