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SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/3
Apocalyptic (Pages 10 - 11)

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The Meaning and the Meaning of Jewish Apocalyptic - The Apocalyptic era
Armand Abecassis


Apocalyptic — Three Answers to One Question
Apocalyptic, which is essentially Jewish in origin, was born in a period of crisis when Israel had lost her political identity. The occupation of the Promised Land by the Greeks and then by Alexander's generals, made the liturgical and theological statement "God is our King" meaningless in the context of day-to-day living. Every sovereign has on the one hand people and subjects and on the other a territory. How then continue to proclaim the kingship of God when national independence was no more and the people either subject to colonial rule or dispersed? In the second century before the common era this challenging question gave rise to three spiritual answers; they were developed progressively until they reached full stature in the second century of the common era. The first answer is that of Halakhah (Law) as found in the first part of the Talmud and also in the systematic collections we call Mishnah (Repetition or Teaching). It affirms that God continues to be King of Israel within the tiny territory of the four cubits which a Jew must have if he is to obey the divine commandment and apply it in daily life. Wherever a Jew obeys a precept of the Law and thus shows himself to be subject to the author of that Law, there is the Kingdom of God. The second answer is that of the mystics, practically all of whom belong at the beginning of the Mishnah, between the second century BCE and the second century CE. They want to show God as King of the Universe but that Universe has lost its centre, the Holy Land and Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, Mount Zion and the Temple. They therefore look upon the Jewish people as the Temple of God and the earthly Jerusalem as desolate, called as it were to prepare herself to receive the heavenly Jerusalem. They add the need to respect differences in order to build true dialogue between nations and, faithful on this point to prophetic teaching, they believe that in messianic times each °spark of sanctity" contained within every culture will be harvested by Israel and become part of the monotheistic sheaf offered to God in Jerusalem.

The third answer is that of the apocalyptic writings. It is structured and built on the dualism which sets Olam Ha-zeb (this world) over against Olam Ha-ba (the world to come). But this famous opposition has to be well understood. It is not simply the same as that existing between Spirit/Matter or Morality/Politics. Nor can it be extended through time in such a way that the world to come is to be found at the end of the history of this world. In actual fact, this interpretation ended by taking over and everyone today knows that the world to come is for tomorrow and will one day replace this material and violent world through which we are passing. But this was not the case at the beginning of apocalyptic thought; unlike classical prophecy it did not simply see the end of the world in eschatological terms. It also enunciated the principle that the world to come would only appear at the moment this world disappeared. Nothing would appear without the negation of what already existed and as the result of a break with the space/time continuum which had given it birth. It is this understanding of history and of time which gave rise to the belief that the apocalyptic vision of the world is radically associated with catastrophe; in fact, catastrophe is only a secondary theme. The expression Apocalypse comes from the greek noun apokalypsis which quite simply means revelation, vision, discovery. The verb apokalyptein is the greek translation of the hebrew verb galoh (to reveal). After the time of Daniel this verb was given the very precise meaning of to reveal secrets. Apocalypse is thus a science concerned with the beginning and the end of the world. An apocalypse always contains visions of the beginning of the universe and of humanity, as well as of their end. It is built on the following triple affirmation: there is a hidden truth; God alone reveals it to his messenger; the content of this truth, revealed in a series of visions, is connected with the plan of God for the end of history. These are the visions which were written down between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

Three Midrashic Answers
At the level of methodology and the interpretation of the Writings and of events through which the Jews have lived, these three answers to the problem of the Kingdom of God correspond to the three categories of Midrashim (interpretations) elaborated by rabbinic tradition. The first category is Midrash Halakhah, the aim of which is the interpretation of the biblical text in order to extract from it a practical rule for living. Here we are in the domain of the Law, which also has an important place in the Apocalypses. The second category is Midrash Aggadah, the aim of which is the philosophical and mystical development of Jewish tradition, starting from the allegorical exegesis of Scripture. This is also to be found in apocalyptic literature. But this latter is characterized above all by the use one finds therein of Midrash Pesher, the aim of which is to show the concretization of the Writings and the Prophets in day-to-day events. The simplest example of Midrasb Pesher and therefore of an apocalyptic literature, is the Gospels, which try to show the fulfilment of the prophetic promises in the words and actions of Jesus. Their central theme is supremely apocalyptic: Jesus is present, therefore the Kingdom of God is present, fulfilled for those who have eyes to see, in Jerusalem. Most of the early Christian writings use the approach and structure of the apocalyptic books.

Thus — and it is this that makes the literary genre so interesting and relevant — apocalyptic is the source from which the Jews drew new strength at a time when they despaired of a political solution. At the same time, however, it is the place where Christianity took shape, where it was prepared in the century prior to the birth of Jesus and for the two following centuries when the New Testament was developed. The Christian Bible received its specific structure from the apocalyptic movement and the Midrash Pesher. This explains why the Rabbis excluded all apocalyptic texts from the Jewish Canon of Scripture, even though they were produced by masters of Jewish tradition. This rejection should be seen as a simple precautionary measure taken against a literature which had ended in Christianity and the break with Judaism. This divorce and, as it were, the tearing of one twin from the mother's womb, dearly illustrates the status of Jewish apocalyptic. It is in fact more than just another literary genre; it is the product of an authentic Jewish cultural movement, bearing all the marks of its social milieu and its particular concept of history. It is thought that this movement was born out of the struggle against the armed forces of Antiochus Epiphanes, a struggle led by the Maccabees in the second century BCE.

Armand Abecassis is Professor of Sociology and Philosophy at the Universities of Strasbourg and Bordeaux. He is well known for his articles and lectures which contribute greatly to making Jewish tradition known and appreciated in France.


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