Jewish eschatology in the first century A.D. (Romans 6)

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Eschatology refers to the “study of the last things” and the ways in which particular religious communities conceive of the end or goal of history. The Bible does not use the abstract term “eschatology” but suggests this idea with phrases like “the coming days”, “the latter days”, “the end of time” or “the day of the Lord” and its abbreviated version “on the day” (Deuteronomy 4:30, Isaiah 11:11, Daniel 2:28, Joel 2:1). Within Judaism and early Christianity, eschatology was a necessary consequence of the dual conviction that one true and living God has created the universe and intends to redeem it.

Although Jewish eschatological beliefs in the first century A.D. were tremendously diverse, certain key concepts were held in common:

  • Israel awaited restoration and the divine reversal of all that was wrong in the world.
  • Pagan empires and their idols would be cast down and Jerusalem glorified.
  • Corrupt leadership within Israel would be removed and the true Davidic King installed.
  • Israel’s sins would be forgiven, and God would pour out His Spirit upon His people so that the nation would become obedient.
  • As a result, light would go forth from Jerusalem and summon all nations to worship the Lord of all the earth.

An important aspect of this general picture is the notion of a personal Redeemer, an authorized representative who mediates the relationship between God and His people. This Anointed One, or Messiah, is understood variously as a second Moses, a royal son, a suffering servant or a chosen high priest. All of these concepts are deeply indebted to the Old Testament prophets and reflect a general outlook common to the diverse groups that existed in Israel. Some Jewish parties actually expected two messiahs: a priestly messiah and a royal messiah.

Jewish eschatological belief was hardly a secret. Even the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus were aware of the Jewish hope for Messianic salvation. The synagogue liturgy also included daily prayers that focused on Israel’s hope.

Despite the broad unity of Jewish eschatology, a wide array of opinions existed regarding the exact timing and precise manner in which these great events would transpire (1 Peter 1:10-12). Individual authors articulated Israel’s hope for the future through a range of images and metaphors, the sum total of which can be difficult to reconcile. Different religious groups held widely divergent understandings as to the necessary precursors of the Messianic age, as well as unique perspectives on how their own movements stood in relation to it:

  • The Pharisees, who seem to have acknowledged the broadest eschatological scenario, understood faithfulness to the Torah as the divine prerequisite for Israel’s visitation (Acts 15:5).
  • The Sadducees denied the resurrection (Matthew 22:23), and their attitude toward eschatology in general remains uncertain.
  • The Essenes of Qumran believed that their own community was the beginning of the fulfillment of the age of redemption. The Essenes set themselves apart both from Gentile oppressors and from Jewish apostates, with whom they expected a final conflict.
  • Josephus considered the Zealots to be a fourth sect within Judaism. Its members thought of themselves as followers of Phineas, Elijah and the Maccabees in believing that active resistance was necessary antecedent for the eschatological age.

The diverse interpretations of prophecy in first century Judaism serve to instill caution in modern interpretations of prophecy. The primary message of the New Testament is that hope of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus (Mark 1:15, 1 Corinthians 10:11, Hebrews 9:26, 1 Peter 1:20), and it was precisely this critical point that many Jewish leaders, despite their close reading of prophecy, failed to recognize. Recent efforts to employ Biblical prophecy to describe with precision how and when the events of the world’s end will take place may well prove to be as misguided as those of first century interpreters.


 

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