Sunday, November 13, 2011

linear views of history born 2

... One pattern that emerged in the first millennium before Christ is for a people group to divide their past history into stages, looking back to a Golden Age of some sort that deteriorated over time. [1] The Greek poet Hesiod in the 600's BC was already dividing the past up into successive stages of gold, silver, bronze, and so forth, and the Roman poet Ovid in the century before Christ would follow suit.  They looked to the earliest age of human history as an ideal time that had only deteriorated with successive periods. [2]

We find this same pattern in Daniel in a dream that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has.  In his dream, he sees a statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay (Daniel 1:31-35).  The head, Daniel interprets represents the king's own kingdom, that of the Babylonians.  However, after the head, interpreters disagree on what empires the rest of the metals represent.

In the traditional view, the silver represents the Medes and the Persians.  The bronze represents the Greeks.  The iron represents the Romans, with the mixed kingdom that follows being the divided kingdom of the Romans.  One might then equate the kingdom that will never be destroyed (2:44) as the church, which rose to become the dominant force in Europe during Rome's divided kingdom.  This view of course takes the statue as a prophecy about the future.

Outside evangelical circles, the dominant view is that the book of Daniel is largely a type of literature known as apocalyptic and that most writings in this genre write about the present by having important figures from the past predict events that were actually taking place in the present.  In other words, in this view, the statue mostly describes the past until we get to the feet, which were about the author's present.  In this view, Daniel was largely written to address a crisis in Israel in the years 167-64BC, the "Maccabean crisis." [3]

The silver would represent the Medes, the bronze the Persians.  The iron is thus the Greeks, with the division of the Greek empire between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria as the iron mixed with clay.  God would then set up an everlasting kingdom for Israel at the end of that time.  In this view, the unfolding ages of the past are still much like the pattern of Hesiod, only told in a creative way.

Regardless of the conclusion one reaches on Daniel, it is generally agreed that Jewish apocalyptic literature in general worked in this way, and we can make a good argument that linear thinking about history began to gain dominance through it in the centuries just before Christ.  The Apocalypse of Weeks, written just after 200BC, divides up history into 10 "weeks" and has Enoch from Genesis 5:24 lay out the whole of history from beginning to end (1 Enoch 93:1-10; 91:11-17).  Everyone agrees that most of these weeks were in the past for the author and that he was writing in what he hoped was the beginning of the eighth week.  The key is that this anonymous author mapped out three more epochs of human history until it reached finality.

It was during this time, the second century before Christ, that the idea of resurrection firmly rises within Judaism. [4]  Apocalyptic literature often was written in relation to times of crisis.  Accordingly, when such literature was written, the expectation of the "end of history," the resolution to the evils of the world, was hoped for in the very near future.  But after such crises were over, the literature remained and thus also hope that one day in the indefinite future God would indeed set the world straight.  A linear view of history was born that saw a trajectory not only for the near future but potentially for the distant future.

So it was arguably in this period that a linear view of history emerged within Judaism.  Christianity emerged from Judaism, and Islam later emerged from the matrix of both.  The three great monotheistic religions all thus share in common a linear view of history.  Because we can trace the origins of the view does not at all mean that it is an incorrect view.  We as Christians, for example, simply believe that this is the way in which God brought the idea forward.

The Christian view of history is thus a linear view.  It is not only the fundamental view of the New Testament--belief in a future resurrection of the dead and the return of Christ to judge the world.  It is also captured well in the fundamental creeds of Christianity.  The Apostle's Creed says, "I believe... he [Christ] ascended into heaven... from there he will come to judge the living and the dead... I believe... in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

[1] Many Christians today still have this tendency when they think of the early church as the ideal church and assume that a primary task for Christians is to "get back" to the way things were in the golden age of the disciples.

[2] An exception for Hesiod was what he called the "heroic" age of the Greeks who fought the Trojan War, the Greeks of legend and story.

[3] For example, Daniel 11 reads like a blow by blow account of the Maccabean crisis, but then Daniel 12 skips to the resurrection at the end of history in a very linear sense.

[4] The only passage that everyone agrees refers to resurrection in the Old Testament is Daniel 12:2-3.  There are other candidates (e.g., Ps. 73).  The bulk of the Old Testament is either silent on the topic or actually denies resurrection (Job 14:14) or a meaningful afterlife (Ecclesiastes 9:2-5).

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