In his seminal volume, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, Dale C. Allison argues (as I have here and here) that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed that a final judgment of humankind and a total reordering of the cosmos was imminent (that is, that it would happen within his lifetime or shortly thereafter). Millenarianism “is the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed. . . . Millenarian groups claim that the current society and its rulers are corrupt, unjust, or otherwise wrong. They therefore believe they will be destroyed soon by a powerful force. The harmful nature of the status quo is always considered intractable without the anticipated dramatic change.” 1 Millenarianism is not something that is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although it appears frequently in Western nations such as we see in dispensational premillennial cults, the early Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Millerites, etc., it is also found all over the world, historically and geographically, in many cases in places that have had no contact whatsoever with Judaism or Christianity. Millenarianism has been found among the Guarani of Brazil, among the Ceylonese, among Buddhists in Thailand, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, in some Islamic groups, in Judaism prior to the time of Christ, and in numerous other places.
A frequently common feature of millenarian groups is messianism, the belief in the coming of a powerful figure or a god who will instigate or impose the catastrophic transformation of society or the cosmos. Weston La Barre comments:
It is fatuously and absurdly ethnocentric to suppose that every native messiah is necessarily patterned on a European Christ, since many native messiahs have never heard of Jesus. The fact is not so much that all native messiahs derive historically from the only genuine Messiah as that Christ is an example of a very common figure in the world’s cultures.2
Rather than attributing the commonalities of millenarian groups to the influence of one group upon others (a common claim among Christians of an apologetic bent, which the evidence matter-of-factly refutes), Allison suggests that “human psychology is such that the same convictions sometimes crop up independently in different cultures.”3
But the parallels between millenarian groups across continents and epochs go well beyond messianic hope. Allison has done us the favor of highlighting 19 common features of millenarian groups, each of which fits the early Jesus movement quite like a glove. Millenarian groups:
- Address the disaffected or less fortunate in a period of social change that threatens traditional ways and symbolic universes; they emerge in a time of aspiration for national independence.
- See the present and near future as times of suffering and/or catastrophe.
- Are holistic, that is, envisage a comprehensive righting of wrongs and promised redemption through a reversal of current circumstances.
- Depict that reversal as imminent.
- Are both revivalistic and evangelistic.
- May promote egalitarianism.
- Divide the world into two camps, the saved and the unsaved.
- Break hallowed taboos associated with religious custom.
- Are at the same time nativistic and focused upon the salvation of the community. [Jesus saw himself as a prophet to “the lost tribes of Israel.”]
- Replace traditional familial and social bonds with fictive kin.
- Mediate the sacred through new channels.
- Demand intense commitment and unconditional loyalty.
- Focus upon a charismatic leader.
- Understand their beliefs to be the product of special revelation.
- Take a passive political stance in expectation of a divinely wrought deliverance. [Compare Matt. 5:38-42 and Rom 12:17-19 with this statement by a member of the Essene community at Qumran in a document called The Community Rule which is similar in function to the Sermon on the Mount and also predates it: “I will pay to no man the reward of evil; I will pursue him with goodness. For judgment of all the living is with God, and it is He who will render to man his reward. I will not envy in a spirit of wickedness, my soul shall not desire the riches of violence. I will not grapple with the men of perdition until the Day of Revenge.”]
- Expect a restored paradise that will return the ancestors.
- Insist on the possibility of experiencing that utopia as a present reality. [Hence the “already/not yet” tension we see in the Gospels and Acts.]
- Grow out of a precursor movement. [Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, preached the same message as John the Baptist, took disciples from John the Baptist’s group, and was seen by others as an extension of John’s movement.]
- Have to come to terms with disappointed expectations, since the mythic dream or end never comes. [Again, the Essenes at Qumran believed the final judgment would occur by approximately 60BCE, just as the Jesus movement believed it would occur sometime around 70CE. The Essenes in their commentary on Habakkuk used Hab 2:3 in order to make sense of the unexpected “delay” in Yahweh’s coming, just as 2 Pet 3:8 turns to Ps 90:4, for the same reason.]4
These features are shared in common by millenarian groups across continents and throughout epochs. What does this tell us? That there is an apocalyptic shaped whole in every oppressed group’s heart? I suppose some Christians could read this and decide that the fact that these features occur all over the world just verifies the particularity of the first century Christian version. They are the imperfect types to the antitype of the Jesus movement. C.S. Lewis would probably go that route, and that is one possibility. What is another possibility? What might it say, for instance, about the Jesus movement itself? Understood in sociological terms, is there anything surprising about the beliefs of these first century followers of the peasant from Nazareth? What might this suggest about the normativity of an apocalyptic paradigm for Christian doctrine and practice? Are we any more justified calling, Maranatha–our Lord, come–than the Korean Buddhist who awaits the arrival of Maitreya? If we believe they are deluded for waiting for Maitreya, what makes our hope any less so? Is it better to have waited for Godot and to have lost, than never to have waited at all?
- Source: Wikipedia [BACK]
- “Material for a History of Studies of Crisis Cults: A Bibliographic Essay,” Current Anthropology 12 (1971), p. 18. [BACK]
- Jesus of Nazareth, p. 79. [BACK]
- These 19 features are spelled out with relation to the Jesus movement in Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 61-64. They are spelled out with relation to other millenarian groups on pp. 78-94. [BACK]