Saturday, 5 February 2011

John the Baptist, apocalyptic literature and the Day of Yahweh

From the information provided in the gospels and the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, we can identify a few basic facts about John the Baptist (see e.g. Mt. 3.7-12, Mk. 1.1-8):

•  He was an ascetic who exercised his ministry in the wilderness of the lower Jordan valley in the late 20s AD. He wore simple clothes and ate simple food.

•  He warned of the approach of God’s wrath, condemned his fellow Jews as a ‘brood of vipers’, and declared that repentance was required to avoid a fiery punishment.

•  He baptised people who believed in his message and repented of their sins.

•  He was waiting for a mysterious figure called ‘the One who is to come’ who would ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit’. He came to suspect, and very possibly to believe, that Jesus was the One.

•  He was executed by King Herod Agrippa, who was worried that a potentially subversive political movement was forming around him.

John the Baptist was by no means the first person in the Jewish religious tradition to preach about the terrible time of chastisement with which God would close history: the ‘Day of Yahweh’, as it was known.* The Day of Yahweh is mentioned in several passages in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, including the following:

* = The Day of Yahweh does not always refer to a future, end-of-time event: sometimes, it refers to events within history (as in Lamentations, 1.12, 2.1, 21-22; Ezekiel, 13.5, 34.12; Isaiah, 22.5; Jeremiah, 46.10). This, however, is beyond the scope of this article.

Alas for you who desire the day of Yahweh!
   Why do you want the day of Yahweh?
It is darkness, not light....

(Amos 5.18 - translation adapted from NRSV)

Yahweh Sabaoth has a day
   against all that is proud and lofty,
   against all that is lifted up and high....

Wail, for the day of Yahweh is near;
   it will come like destruction from the Almighty!

See, the day of Yahweh comes,
   cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the earth a desolation,
   and to destroy its sinners from it.

For Yahweh has a day of vengeance,
   a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.

(Is. 2.12, 13.6, 9, 34.8)

The great day of Yahweh is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of Yahweh is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against Yahweh, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of Yahweh's wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. 
(Zeph. 1.14-18)

For the day of Yahweh is near against all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
   your deeds shall return on your own head....
The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
   the house of Joseph a flame,
   and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
   and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;

for Yahweh has spoken. (Obad. 15-21)

For a day is near,
   the day of Yahweh is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
   a time of doom for the nations.
(Ezek. 30.3)

Alas for the day!
For the day of Yahweh is near,
   and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

Yahweh utters his voice
   at the head of his army;
how vast is his host!
   Numberless are those who obey his command.
Truly the day of Yahweh is great;
   terrible indeed—who can endure it?

(Joel 1.15, 2.11)

See, a day is coming for Yahweh, when the plunder taken from you will be divided in your midst.
(Zech. 14.1)

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says Yahweh Sabaoth, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
(Mal. 4.1)

Recurrent motifs in the prophets’ descriptions of the Day of Yahweh include darkness, fire, disarray in the natural order, destruction of people and desolation of the land.  To a large extent, the Hebrew Bible's depictions of the Day of Yahweh are violent in nature: there is a consistent portrayal of destruction, though there are also references to the salvation of the righteous.  Scholars have suggested that the "Day" was originally a day of battle in which Yahweh waged war against and vanquished Israel's enemies.

John the Baptist stood squarely in this uncompromising tradition.  His message was heavily pessimistic.  Jesus is reliably reported to have accepted baptism from him, but, though he was not shy of talking about fire and judgement on occasion, his own preaching struck a markedly less grim note, as did the writings of his earliest followers.  The fearful, dismal picture of the Day of Yahweh drawn in some passages of the Old Testament is hence absent from the books of the New Testament (excepting, of course, those sections that deal with John the Baptist).

The reason for this is that the New Testament conception of the end times drew primarily on a movement within Jewish thought known as apocalypticism.  This movement refined and re-thought earlier ideas about what would happen at the end of history.  Jewish writings with apocalyptic contents composed in the centuries immediately before and after the time of Jesus include 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Book of Jubilees, the Psalms of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah.

A single basic narrative of the end times seems to underlie most Jewish apocalyptic writing.  Firstly, a time of wickedness, immorality, disaster and natural unheaval arrives; sometimes, the writer states more specifically that mankind will become exceptionally wicked and that natural disasters will then be brought about by God as a punishment.  This time of tribulation ends with the decisive intervention of God, who comes to judge all humanity and passes sentence on the righteous and the sinful alike.  The latter are then punished with everlasting fire, while the former - the ‘elect’ or ‘chosen’, as they are sometimes called - are granted eternal happiness in a utopian world (on earth, it must be stressed - not in the heavens).  God’s intervention may be accompanied by the appearance of a messiah figure.

The narrative of the end times put forward in the apocalyptic literature is inextricably linked with that of the older Day of Yahweh tradition, and it is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between the two (indeed, some of the Old Testament Day of Yahweh passages may be classified as examples of apocalyptic literature).  However, the typical narrative of developed apocalyptic is perhaps less grim in its content than that of the Day of Yahweh tradition.  The emphasis is now as much on God’s act of judgement and its consequences as it is on his violent activity, and it is repeatedly affirmed that the consequences of God’s judgement will be positive as well as negative.  We must be careful not to over-simplify, but it could be said that the Day of Yahweh tradition characterised God’s activity in the end times as destructive while the apocalypticists characterised it as just.

Moving on to the early Christian writers, a number of New Testament passages deal with the end times (notably Mk. 13 and Rev. 19-20), and some make specific mention of the Day of the Lord.

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief....
(1 Thess. 5.4)

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless....
(Phil. 1.6, 9-10)

....the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.
(1 Cor. 3.13)

....on the day of the Lord Jesus we are your boast even as you are our boast.
(2 Cor. 1.14)

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.  For he will repay according to each one’s deeds....

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
(Rom. 2.5-6, 15-16)

Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
(Mt. 10.15)

From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
(2 Tim. 4.8)

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgement of the great day.
(Jude 6)

Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’
(Rev. 6.15-17)

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
(Jn .6.39)

But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?
(2 Pet. 3.7, 11-12)

As we have indicated, the New Testament is generally closer to the developed apocalyptic tradition than it is to the earlier Day of Yahweh tradition.  The emphasis is now on judgement rather than destruction and suffering.  The godless will, of course, be punished, but there is a strong conviction that true believers will be rewarded when the divine verdict is pronounced (though St Paul in 1 Cor. seems to teach an early form of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory).  These emphases are also evident in the most famous judgement scene in the gospels, chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew.