Biblical Prophecy and Christian Zionism
The Christian right, generally speaking, embraces religious Zionism—not simply support for the modern Jewish state, but a certain view of the past, present and future based on a Bible-centered understanding of history and a prophetic vision of the future. That entails, in bare outline, the following narrative.
Prophecy and the Basic Bible Story
God, who created everything, chose a man named Abraham about 4000 years ago to bless the world through his descendents. Those descendents include the progeny of his eldest son Ishmael (regarded by many Jews, Christians and Muslims as the Arabs), and those of his second son Isaac, the Jews. The latter hold a special status in the universe. God has spoken with many of them, through angels, in dreams or directly, and provided them with the Ten Commandments, directly in writing. He has sent them prophets to inform humankind about the future. The Jewish scriptures comprising the Old Testament of the Bible are God’s Holy Writ, originally in Hebrew.
God’s covenant with Abraham involved a promise of a homeland. His descendents were to possess all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. (One can interpret this to mean it all goes to the Jews, or that it is shared by the descendents of both Ishmael and Isaac.) Isaac’s grandson Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, became a great man in Egypt and ultimately forgiving his brothers arranged for them and his father Jacob to settle in that country. There, over generations, they became numerous. But becoming enslaved they yearned for deliverance, and were miraculously led out of Egypt by Moses.
After 40 years wandering in the Sinai Desert, in the course of which they received the Ten Commandments, they were (minus Moses) able to enter the Promised Land (Canaan), slaughter its inhabitants in fulfillment of God’s command, and settle it. After many years of leadership by "judges" they set up a kingdom (Judea) under King Saul, who was followed by King David. After the death of David’s son Solomon, the nation split into Judah and Israel. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, as punishment for the sins of the Jewish kings and their subjects, foretold by their prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, God had the Babylonians defeat both kingdoms, destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and carry many of their inhabitants off to Babylon. (This is called the "Babylonian Captivity.") But in fulfillment of prophecies, the Jews were able to return to the Promised Land in the fifth century, rebuild the Temple, and flourish although subject to Persian, then Hellenistic and Roman domination. Under foreign rule, they longed for the messiah or "anointed one" foretold by the prophets and for the rebirth of an independent Jewish kingdom.
Here’s where the narrative of religious Jewish Zionists and the Christian Zionists diverges. The latter of course believe that God became incarnate among the Jews, born of a Jewish virgin descended from King David. God’s son Jesus was the messiah, or (in Greek) the christ. Suffering for the sins of the entire world (not only those of the Jews but those of Gentiles too), the messiah was crucified but rose from the dead, offering all those who believe that he is the messiah, and God, eternal life. This is what the Apostle Paul, who specialized in proselytizing among the Gentiles, called the "new covenant" involving God and Christians (2 Corinthians 3:6 and elsewhere).
Some Christians believe that since the majority of Jews didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah and son of God (or in extreme cases, because "They killed Jesus!") God punished them by allowing the Romans to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and to disperse them once again. Thousands were sold into slavery. After the rebellion in the 130s Jews were banned from Jerusalem, and Emperor Hadrian took measures to eliminate Judaism by banning the Jewish calendar, circumcision, and the teaching of Judaism. Many Jews believe all this was divine punishment as well, God’s chastisement of his people through history being a recurring Biblical theme.
Both Christians and Jews can explain the subsequent trials of the Jewish people by reference to Biblical prophecy, such as the prophecy in Deuteronomy which states that as punishment for their disobedience God will "scatter [them] among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other." "Among those nations there will be no repose for you, no rest for the sole of your foot; Yahweh will give you a quaking heart, weary eyes, halting breath. Your life from the outset will be a burden to you: night and day you will go in fear, uncertain of your life" (28:64-67). However, Jeremiah 16:14-16 tells us that God "will restore [the Jews] to the land [he] gave their forefathers." One might say from the context that the prophet is only referring to the return from Babylonian exile, but religious Zionists, Jewish or Christian, apply this to the "miraculous" reestablishment of Israel after the terrors of exile in the twentieth century.
New Testament prophecy, supplemented by Old Testament prophecy, allows for a various future scenarios, by the Christian right is inclined to believe that the reestablishment of Israel was foretold in the Book of Revelation and as a prelude to apocalyptic events, including a horrific war centering around Jerusalem, global rule by the Antichrist, Jesus’ return as a merciless judge, a "rapture" rewarding the upright (i.e., themselves) and the end of the world.
Critique of the "History"
Now, I don’t know that belief in this exciting narrative is confined to the politically active, dangerous religious right bent on obtaining "dominion" over the United States. There might be some—especially young people— inclined to accept it, or much of it, but still open-minded enough to consider some questions about it. In fact I’m sure there are, since I myself once believed but gradually became unable to, being a restlessly inquiring youth. I won’t burden the reader with how I came to reject the fundamental theistic premise, but only question the Biblical history and role of prophecy in it.
Abraham, whose story is so crucial to the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is supposed to have lived about 2000 BCE. (I use BCE, or "before the Common Era" as opposed to BC, so as not to privilege the Christian faith. Sorry it if this, and my lower-case h’s—him not Him—annoy some readers.) The Biblical chronology is difficult, but however one reads it he’s located between 2100 and 1900. However, the earliest Hebrew writing dates back only to the 11th or 10th century BCE. The Hebrew alphabet was derived from Phoenician, which evolved out of the proto-Canaan alphabet (18th or 17th century BCE).
The Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible, including much of the above storyline) was written and edited from the 9th century at the earliest and probably not completed until the fifth. Deuteronomy is probably a seventh-century work. In other words, at least a millennium goes by before the stories of Abraham and his sons gets set down on papyrus. These tales are replete with references to lengthy age spans (Abraham’s supposed to have lived 175 years), miraculous pregnancies (Abraham’s wife Sarah bears Isaac at age 90), encounters with God and with angels, etc.
Of course none of this proves that it didn’t all happen, just as the Good Book says. The creator of the universe—provided there is one—could have planted in some Jews’ minds an oral tradition (including interminable lists of who begat whom and how long they lived, along with a massive compendium of law and sometimes contradictory accounts of events), up until the time that, having acquired writing from other people, they could set it all down as scripture.
Or, alternatively, we might say that the material is so inherently implausible, requiring us to imagine an earth so different from ours today, and the events so far-removed from the time the texts were composed that we should consider it a mix of legend, myth and history. As we do, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The standard version of this text was written in Akkadian between 1300 and 1000 BCE, but the original Sumerian was set down around 2000, or about 400 years after the reign of King Gilgamesh. Included in the Sumerian King List (what I consider to be the oldest historical document in any language), Gilgamesh was probably a real person. The epic includes reference to real places and describes real habits and customs. But it is, after all, mostly fiction.
In this work predating Genesis by centuries, there is a tale about a great flood. Floods being common in Mesopotamia, they figure prominently in mythology. This particular flood, at least in one version, results from the gods’ irritation at all the noise humans were making. They decide to wipe out humankind, but a god warns the upright man Utnapishtim, who collects all life forms in a huge boat thereby saving them. The waters recede after either seven (in some versions, forty) days and nights. Sound familiar? Some want to believe the Sumerians got the story from the Jews but became confused about the "real" details. More likely, the Jews borrowed a Mesopotamian tale and rewrote it to reflect their own moralistic and monotheistic outlook. It’s an issue to think about, anyway, although there are people who fear that very thought process.
Abraham is a more plausible figure than say, Noah (who died at age 955, while Abraham was still alive, having lived through the near-total destruction of all life on earth) or Utnapishtim. Perhaps Abraham was a great patriarch with large herds who had migrated from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia (Genesis 11:31) to the Levant some time in the second millennium BCE. Perhaps his descendents, influenced by neighboring peoples (the practice of circumcision from Egypt, the seven-day week from Mesopotamia), developed a belief system that featured monotheism, and belief in a special nexus between God (Yahweh) and Abraham and themselves as a special people. The Biblical narrative suggests that the Jews from "the beginning" always possessed knowledge of the One God, even though they sometimes opted for paganism and idolatry bringing down his wrath. An alternative possibility would be that they originally worshipped a tribal deity, but acknowledged the existence of other gods, and gradually (by the time of the Babylonian Exile, exposure to Zoroastrian monotheism, and the practice of worshipping Yahweh in a foreign land) came to see their deity as a more universal one. The only one.
Between Abraham and the Babylonian Captivity the most dramatic Biblical Event is the Exodus. But there is precious little historical evidence to support the presence of Jewish slaves (or Jews at all) in Egypt before 1000 BCE. Nor is their evidence of a dramatic departure, or sudden invasion of Canaan. As Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles declared a few years ago: "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." Archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery." And why would those who had crossed the Red Sea after God paved the way by parting the waters wander around in such a tiny peninsula for 40 whole years?
The Exodus is supposed to have occurred, if it occurred, sometime between the sixteenth and thirteenth centuries. So between it and the first written record of it pass at least three and more likely five centuries. The Egyptian sources are silent on an event that supposedly the pharaoh (which one is completely unclear) fought tooth and nail to prevent and which involved all kinds of horrible divine punishments on Egypt. There may be one or two references to Jews in Egyptian texts before the thirteenth century, but there’s no scholarly consensus even on that. It’s quite likely that some event such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, a Semitic people from Arabia driven out of Egypt in the sixteenth century, or an influx of Bedouin into Canaan became integrated into an evolving account of Jewish origins as the Pentateuch was compiled centuries later.
In a society just acquiring literacy, a welter of legends can quickly take the form of a more or less coherent narrative. The oldest surviving Japanese text (712 CE), for example, probably integrates sacred oral histories from rival groups cobbled together not long before the acquisition of written language. It includes highly implausible information about the relationship between Japan and Korea, and may, for example, confuse a proto-historic Japanese invasion of Korea for the opposite. In representing the Japanese as descended from the gods, hence different from all other humans, it may obscure much about the ethnic origins of the Japanese, whom modern science suggests have strong affinities with Koreans and other northeast Asian and Siberian peoples, and connection to Malays and the Ainu as well. The Shinto religious tradition stressing only divine origins ignores all that.
We read in the Old Testament of intermarriages between Jews and Moabites, Amorites, Hittites, Egyptians, Canaanites and others (Nehemiah 9:1). Is it not possible that the gene pool of those composing their collective history coalesced long after the supposed flight from Egypt? That God never gave Canaan to invading Jews, or miraculously brought down the walls of Jericho, but that different tribes in Canaan merely unified over time and produced a fanciful tale about their primeval roots? There are Israeli scholars who believe that.
When we come to the Babylonian Captivity, we are on more solid ground. Ancient empires did uproot whole peoples; the Persians for example had uprooted Ionian Greeks from the Aegean coast and sent them way off to Afghanistan. Jews, or least many of them, were relocated to Babylon. They did return, according to the Bible because God had worked through Persia’s (Zoroastrian) king Cyrus to free them from their exile. They rebuilt the Temple, believing that God had given them and them alone the land of Israel. But during Hellenistic and Roman times, the land acquired a more mixed population and culture. In the large city of Sepphoris, literally within sight of Nazareth in Jesus’ day (but mentioned nowhere in the Bible), there were a Roman theater and bath.
Greek was widely spoken throughout the Roman east. Meanwhile by the first century Jews lived in cities throughout the Roman world, and were indeed even "scattered" as far away as India. About one quarter of the population of Alexandria, Egypt was Jewish. That is, even before the Diaspora Jews were dispersed and the population of Roman Palestine highly mixed. Surely the Roman Diaspora was horrible, but its impact on the already dispersed Jews, who often prospered outside their ancestral homeland is questionable. The tide for global Jewry turned in the fourth century, when the triumph of Christianity in Rome and its alliance with a state demanding a uniform orthodoxy placed all non-believers and heretics in jeopardy.
Surely there were many Jews who remained in the vicinity of Roman Palestine after the 130s. At the time of Muhammed, the tribes of Arabia were exposed to Christianity and Judaism due to their commercial activities up and down the Hejaz. Presumably many Jews and Christians converted to Islam after the seventh-century conquests, voluntarily responding to incentives or as a result of duress. In any case by the modern period, Palestine was Muslim and Arab Christian, for explicable historical reasons, while Jews comprised large communities in Europe and resided in tens of thousands in such Arab cities as Baghdad, Casablanca and Cairo.
Such Jews in exile, think our religious Zionists, were fated to reestablish a Jewish state in Israel, in order to fulfill the prophecy and to end the horrors that had dogged them through centuries of exile, culminating in the Shoah. Having done so, their state deserves absolute support, as a religious duty and expression of faith in prophecy.
Critique of the Prophecies
So here we must proceed from a critique of the record of the past to a critique of such prophecy in general. I won’t just say that it’s utterly irrational to imagine that we can know the future for certain, as some think one can do through astrology or parapsychology or joss sticks. I know that if one believes there is a God in charge of all time and space, that premise alone leads to the assumption that there is a Plan and that some people chosen by God can be made privy to it. There are many serious people who read the Bible and believe that, and come away convinced that its books have been amazingly accurate in their prophecies. I’m not persuaded.
Let’s look at prophecies supposed by believers to relate to the life of Jesus. Below is a listing of 10 Old Testament prophecies about Jesus listed on the fundamentalist website "Jesus Plus Nothing: Christ Centered Bible Study" along with their "New Testament fulfillments." The list ends with the impressive statement:
"Statisticians have calculated that for all of the above prophecies to be fulfilled in one person it is a combined probability of One chance in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000! And this is limiting ourselves to just these 10 prophecies! Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies, and now we have seen that His life and death did accurately fulfill these prophecies made hundreds of years before."
How calculated to impress the impressionable mind! I’d really like the names and credentials of those statisticians, and their academic and religious affiliations. Anyway, here are the Big 10 with my humbly questioning comments following each. I just want to suggest an approach to this sort of material. As an historian I ask (leaving aside for the moment the validity of prophecy generally): When were texts written? What influenced them? What does the Old Testament text actually say? Does the writer cited really intend to "prophesize"? What does the New Testament writer want to do with the "prophecy"?
1. [Jesus to] Be Born in Bethlehem
OT Prophecy: Micah 5:2 ‘But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old.’
NT Fulfillment: Matt 2:1 ‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…’
The Old Testament passage was probably written about 730, predicting that a future ruler from the line of King David will be born in Bethlehem, which according to I Samuel was David’s home town. The Book of Ruth reports that Ruth, a Moabite who settled with her Jewish mother-in-law in Bethlehem and married the Jew Boaz, was an ancestor of King David. This explains Matthew’s inclusion of Ruth among Jesus’ ancestors (1:5), a detail found nowhere else in the New Testament.
(a) Only Matthew and Luke suggest that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, with Luke explaining it was necessary to go there from Nazareth in order to register for the empire-wide census.
(b) The two accounts differ, the one mentioning the Magi and the flight into Egypt, the other mentioning the shepherds’ visit.
(c) Matthew’s account of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is highly improbable; in it, the Magi (Persian Zoroastrian astrologers following the Star of Bethlehem) tell evil King Herod that "the king of the Jews" will be born in Bethlehem. So Herod has all boys under two years old systematically slaughtered in that district, an atrocity unnoted in any record outside of scripture, in a Roman Empire inclined to note such things. Joseph is warned in a dream to escape with mother and child to Egypt, in fulfillment of the scripture. Which scripture? Hosea 11:1, which is obviously not intended as a messianic prophecy at all but is a reference to the Exodus and is here misquoted at that. Matthew 2:18 cites more prophecy (Jeremiah 31:15) about women weeping for their children to allude to the mothers grieved by Herod’s action.
(d) Some commentators explain plausibly that the Bethlehem story is included specifically to incorporate a "fulfilled prophecy,"
(e) the Book of Ruth set generations before King David (10th century) is almost surely imaginative fiction written after the return from the Babylonian Captivity, and thought by many to have been intended to validate Jewish-Gentile intermarriage at a time when it was under attack.
2. Preceded by a messenger
OT Prophecy: Isaiah 40:3 ‘The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 3:1-2 ‘In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
This passage supposedly composed during Hezekiah’s reign speaks poetically and vaguely of future consolation when Yahweh will forgive the sins of Jerusalem. The voice is not attributed to a future prophet preparing the way for a messiah. Again Matthew is attempting to weave in Old Testament allusions as though they were specifically foretelling events in the life of Jesus.
3. Enter Jerusalem on a colt
OT Prophecy: Zech 9:9 ‘Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King comes to you… humble riding on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey’
NT Fulfillment Luke 19:35 ‘They bought it to Jesus, and they threw their coats on the colt and they put Jesus on it.’
This does refer to a prophecy about the messiah. But it goes on immediately to say that the messiah will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the war bow will be banned; he will proclaim peace for the nations, extend his empire from sea to sea. The author of Luke left this material, which would seem wholly inapplicable to Jesus’ career, out.
4. Be Betrayed by a friend
OT Prophecy: Psalm 41:9 ‘Yes, my own friend in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 26:47-50 ‘And while he spoke, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords… Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whosoever I shall kiss, that same is he; hold him fast… and Jesus said unto him, Friend, why have you come?’
This "prophecy" is from a psalm, attributed (questionably) to David, expressing the point of view of a sick, lonely man. Read in context, it would seem to have nothing to do with a future messiah. Nor do the psalms in general seem designed to predict specific future events.
5. Have his hands and feet pierced
OT Prophecy: Psalm 22:16 ‘The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me. They have pierced my hands and my feet.’
NT Fulfillment Luke 23:33 ‘And when they came to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.’
Same as above. This really requires a stretch. Many of the psalms convey existential anguish and extreme situations, then conclude with statements of faith in God’s mercy. This one includes the passage quoted above, rendered by the Jerusalem Bible as "a gang of villains closes me in; they tie me hand and foot, and leave me lying in the dust of death." There is no "piercing," and it doesn’t sound like a crucifixion scene. The psalm does begin with the familiar, "My God, my God, why have you deserted me!" which Matthew imputes to Jesus on the cross, and perhaps that inspired Luke to invoke the psalm as prophecy.
6. Be wounded and whipped by his enemies
OT Prophecy: Isaiah 53:5 ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his stripes we are healed.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 27:26 ‘Then they released Barabbas unto them and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.’
This is from one of the ‘suffering servant" songs in Isaiah, interspersed with passages rejoicing at the return of the exiles from Babylon and praising Cyrus. He is endowed with God’s spirit, but does not cry out or should aloud. He makes no resistance (to some unspecified attack). He speaks in the past tense, saying he had "offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle." (50:5-6). He was called by God from the womb, "to bring Jacob back to him, to gather Israel to him."
Here he is described as healing "our wounds" through "his stripes" which dovetails nicely enough with the doctrine of Jesus as redeemer. Taken by force of law, torn away from the land of the living, given a grave with the wicked, he nevertheless "shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life" (53:8-10) This is the most seemingly relevant "prophesies" to the gospel account of Jesus’ life and meaning. But it also sounds a lot like the Tammuz literature that praises that Babylonian god, who supposedly died a terrible death, is associated with the cross, and rose from the dead on the third day, resurrecting dead souls with him The Jews knew of this story (see Ezekiel 8:14).
7. Be sold for thirty pieces of silver
OT Prophecy: Zech 11:12 ‘And I said to him, If you think it is good in your sight, give me my wages… So they weighed out thirty pieces of silver for my price.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 26:15 ‘What will you give me if I deliver him unto you? And they agreed with him for thirty pieces of silver.’
Mark and Luke say Judas was given money; only Matthew mentions 30 pieces of silver. The passage in Zechariah is a complicated parable in which the prophet is likened to a shepherd offered an insultingly small wage (the price of a slave, 30 shekels, specified in the Laws of Moses) by his employer. The point is that the Jewish rulers are insulting Zechariah and therefore Yahweh. How this points towards Judas receiving that sum for betraying Jesus is not, to put it mildly, crystal clear.
8. Be spit upon and beaten
OT Prophecy: Isaiah 50:6 ‘I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked out my hair: I did not hide my face from the shame and spitting.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 26:67 ‘Then did they spit in his face, and hit him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands.’
Another citation of the "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah, alluding to forms of abuse that may occur in many contexts.
9. The betrayal money thrown in the temple and used for a potters field
OT Prophecy: Zech 11:13 ‘And the Lord said unto me, Cast it unto the potter that magnificent price at which I was valued by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the Lord.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 27:5-7 ‘And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple… And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s field as a burial place for strangers.’ This is a remarkable prophecy [comments the website editor] for it is God who says ‘Cast it to the potter that magnificent (sarcasm!) price at which they valued me…’ How could man put a price on God? It doesn’t make sense until God Himself, Jesus Christ, came to earth and was valued and betrayed for exactly 30 pieces of silver!"
The elided passage here actually misquotes Zechariah, adding a passage about the purchase of a field from the book of Jeremiah (32:6-15). It’s another of those appearing only in Matthew, who seems to want to show how the Old Testament has anticipated all his details.
10. Cast lots for Jesus’ clothing
OT Prophecy: Psalm 22:18 ‘They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.’
NT Fulfillment Matt 27:35 ‘And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots.’
This division of the clothes appears in all the gospels. So the psalm (not some passage from a prophet) miraculously describes Roman legionnaires’ dice game while God dies. Remarkable indeed.
Interestingly this website doesn’t mention a significant detail mentioned in Matthew and Luke (although not the other two): the virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:33-36). Only Matthew shows how this fulfills prophecy, citing Isaiah 7:14. But he misquotes it, saying that "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son" whereas Isaiah really says, "the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son" in a context more related to the future of King Ahaz’s house than to messianic prophecy. This "fulfilled prophecy" so central to Christian doctrine turns out to be due to a misunderstanding of the Hebrew word almah.
The End Times
What’s true of prophecies pertaining to Jesus is true of prophecies pertaining to the present and future. Just as the gospel writers fit squares into round holes to "prove" that Jesus was the long expected messiah, so the religious fundamentalists today insist that it’s clear as day that Israel’s modern resurrection fulfills Old Testament prophecy. But those prophecies pertain mainly to the return after the Babylonian Captivity. Daniel predicts a revival of Israel after Hellenistic rule. But this is an historical novelette, written after the events it purports to predict. I find no Old Testament prophecy about Roman occupation, the Roman Diaspora, 2000 years of trials and tribulations, particularly in Europe, followed by a Zionist state displacing hundreds of thousands of Arabs. I suspect those who do find it because they want to so badly.
But there are Orthodox rabbis, who have a right to their opinions, who opine that the Jewish covenant with God involving a Jewish homeland in the original venue no longer pertains. As someone who doesn’t believe in prophecy, period, I’d just like to call them to the Christian Zionists’ attention. I’d also suggest one wonder why all this prophecy so excludes important events throughout the world. If one grants that normal fallible Jewish people wrote all of this stuff, it would make sense that the focus, past present and future, is on this relatively minor piece of real estate. (Not that the Jews weren’t among the more cosmopolitan of ancient peoples, as their trade relationships from Spain to India attest, and as the presence of plausibly Jewish-descended peoples from Ethiopia to Burma also affirms.) But the focus is always on the land flowing with milk and honey, far from China or the Americas or places of otherwise greater interest. Why did the God who chose the Jews as his people not supply greater advance intelligence about events outside the world known to the chosen, and those who as Christians came to revere the Jewish scriptures? Is it not possible that "End Times" cheerleaders, fixated on Bush moves in the "Greater Middle East" will find themselves thrown for a loop when events in East Asia or elsewhere wholly unanticipated by Isaiah or Jeremiah produce a scenario inexplicable by Biblical references?
Puzzled, such people may consult the main text of specifically Christian Zionist millenarianism, the Book of Revelation. This is filled with enough vague symbology that those who seek will find at least some answers there. You can find all kinds of answers by learned idiots with websites claiming the Beast of that book (identified with the Antichrist) is some specific contemporary character, or that a place name therein refers to a particular contemporary nation. It is a strange book, unlike anything else in the New Testament, depicting Jesus as an avenger, ignoring the doctrine of the Trinity, so puzzling that Martin Luther seriously considered leaving it out of the German Bible. But basically what that book says, relevant to our topic, is that the tribes of Israel will be amassed in Jerusalem and that the select number who embrace Jesus Christ as their savior will be saved.
This is key. For the Christian fundamentalist’s hope of hopes to be realized—to live through the Rapture—requires a Jewish state, which (thank you, Jesus!) we’ve had since 1948. And it requires a whole lot of horrific bloodshed before the peace that transcends all understanding descends on the earth.
Those seduced by this "End Times" scenario might at least, if inclined towards some critical reflection on the issue, ask the following:
1. Is it true that there was a lot of "apocalypse" literature written between 300 BCE and 200 CE by Jews and Christians, most of which nobody reads anymore?
2. Is it true that the author of the Book of Revelation is almost certainly not John the disciple of Jesus in the gospels?
3. Is it true that it’s really mostly an expression of great hatred for the Roman Empire, persecuting Christians under Nero?
4. Is it true it was written at a time when Christians thought the Second Coming was right around the corner?
5. Is it true that it was written at a time when Christianity was in flux, without a center, a cluster of cults rather than a well-organized church with a clear unified theology?
6. Is it true that it almost didn’t make it into the Bible, the composition of which wasn’t settled until the fourth century by the Catholic Church and remained questionable in parts of the "Christian world" for centuries thereafter?
7. Is it true that the New Testament’s "Antichrist" has been identified with dozens of people over the centuries, and that New and Old Testament prophecy has often been used politically, to rally people behind causes, and get them to hate and fear specific targets?
8. If the answer to most of the above is "yes" does it weaken your inclination to take the text literally, or support the political uses that the "End Times" religious publishing industry and propaganda machine want to promote? Specifically, an expanded war involving Syria and Iran with End Times believers in unquestioning support?
True enthusiasts find in scriptural prophecy what they want to see happen, and redouble their efforts to make it happen, to be on God’s side. Or they justify contemporary realities as God’s stated will. They often do so in defiance of common sense, to say nothing of historical perspective or critical reasoning. Inhabiting a closed mental world resistant to and frightened of science, they boast of their special arcane insight into unfolding events. Why bother with real issues (terror links, weapons of mass destruction, and lies about such things) when regime change in the Middle East under any pretext, pursued by a godly Christian man, will facilitate the great war in Israel that will usher in the Rapture?
Belief in Biblical prophecy surely provides hope and comfort for the believer, and I take no pleasure in attempting to subvert humble faith. But the belief in prophecy that justifies imperialist aggression, especially when joined to bull-headed support for an ignorant president who pompously fancies himself a "religious scholar" is frightening. More frightening than the beliefs that led Japanese religious fanatics to try to usher in the End Times by releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway ten years ago. One can’t just shrug these off as the eccentric beliefs of a few gullible fools. They are powerful delusions wielded—as weapons of mass, apocalyptic destruction—by growing movements of highly motivated people. They have to be challenged, among other ways, by patient logic.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org