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5.4 Religion Before Christ

Up to the nineteenth century it was generally accepted that the Old testament was closed in the fifth century BC, and that from that date to the time of Christ no Divine voice nor Divine message was received by the men of Israel. It is now obvious that some parts of it, such as Daniel and the Maccabean Psalms, were written in the second century BC. The period of silence was narrowed to two centuries. Recent research has shown that even this is not correct and that spiritual progress was made during that period. Many documents of this period are to be found in the Apocrypha and in the Pseudepigrapha under the names of old Prophets who lived before Ezra. Ezra and his successors, due to their authority, were able to convince that the Law, as they saw it, was complete and the last word of God to his people. Later on no man, even Divinely inspired, could expect to add something to the Law under his own name. As a result they published their work under the name of Ezra or even some predecessors such as Baruch, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Moses, Enoch, … These later writings were to inspire the authors of the New Testaments who were acquainted with them. In fact all the books of the Old Testament underwent some modification and development during the last centuries before Christ. The advent of Christianity changed everything again as the work of these Jewish religious writers of the last two centuries BC influenced the authors of the New Testament. Even the meaning of a word or a phrase is not the same in the New Testament as it was in the Old. Growth in religion is due to the communion of a man with God who reveals the Divine Truth to less inspired men. This truth revealed by one man then possesses a divine authority for all men. Among the faithful we find those who assimilate and verify the truths of the past and, in some ways, preserve the tradition.

However a few men do more in adding new truths perceived through their special relation with God and built on the old ones. As communication between nations was difficult at that time, continuous progress could only occur within one nation or in a given region. In this respect Israel proved to be the chosen nation in the sense that the religious continuity required lasted thousand of years in the Jewish nation living mainly in Palestine. The coming of the Greek and Roman Empires facilitated communication and exchange of ideas between nations and allowed Christianity to go outside the borders of Israel to become the religion of the world. Prophets were the more important agents of the religious development of Israel together with biblical students and apocalyptists, but at a smaller extend. Apocalyptists have had a large influence on Christianity even if their work has been, and is still, viewed with some apprehension. Some scholars go as far as saying that prophecy and apocalyptic are two theologies, almost two religions, even if the Old Testament shows that they have a common basis and that they have many points in common:

– The prophet and the apocalyptist’s knowledge come from visions, trances and communion with God.

– Prophecy and apocalyptic have each it own eschatology (that is the doctrine of the last thing such as judgement, the Messianic Kingdom, the resurrection, …).

– The eschatology of the Prophets dealt only with the destiny of Israel, as a nation, and the destiny of the Gentile nations. It had no message of light or confort to the individual beyond the grave that was the final and everlasting habitation.

The belief in a future life comes from apocalyptic. It is stated as a truth in the apocalyptic writings incorporated in the Old Testament and believed by all the Jews at the time of Christ, with the exception of the Sadducees. In the same way, the expectation by the Christians of a new heaven and a new earth is derived from apocalyptic. The prophets of the Old Testament expected an eternal Messianic Kingdom on this material earth after the final judgement whereas the apocalyptists were expecting a more spiritual Kingdom in heaven. This changes of hope from a materialistic future to a spiritual one took place at about 100 BC. This change led the faithful to detach themselves from this world from which they were not part.

In the Kingdom of God according to the Old Prophets there was a large part of materialism and the important element was the community, and not the individual. Only the faithful who survived till the final judgement, and only them, would enjoy the Kingdom. Moreover if the Kingdom was everlasting there was no such certainty for the individual who reached it. Here again material “things” are more important than souls. However with the advent of the belief in blessed immortality for the faithful, and in a Kingdom of spiritual blessedness, the emphasis pass from the material to the spiritual, from things to souls that are now worth more.

– Another doctrine from apocalyptic, adopted by late Judaism and the New Testament, is that the end of the present world will be catastrophic.

– Prophesy, although dealing mainly with the present and the future, sometimes took account of the past to show its real nature. This, too, is characteristic of apocalyptic.

Whilst prophecy and apocalyptic deal with the same problem, the scope of apocalyptic is greater. Whereas prophecy incidentally deals with the past but devotes itself mainly to the present and the future, apocalyptic is mainly interested in the future. While the ordinary man sees only the outside of things, the apocalyptists try to see inside things to discover their real significance. Apocalyptists were interested in the world, the Gentiles, the Jews, Israel and the individual. Apocalyptists saw that all history is an unity proceeding from the unity of God as preached by the Prophets. Whereas the prophets could promise a blessed future for Israel as a nation, it could not be optimist for the individual after death. Since reflection and study of the old books of Israel were their main occupation, the apocalyptists came across the unfulfilled prophecy. This was a real difficulty for the prophets who could only renew them again later on. The biggest unfulfilled prophecy was the advent of the Jewish Messianic Kingdom that many prophets made at different times and that has not yet happened.

Prophecy has always been recognised as the greatest ethical force in the ancient world together with apocalyptic. Modern researchers have tried to separate prophecy from apocalyptic on the base that the last one is not ethical, and that it was put aside by Christianity when it was not needed anymore. Apocalyptic was ethical as St. Paul himself said and as it is recorded in many documents. Apocalyptic is far ahead of the Old Testament in ethics and forms the indispensable link between the Old and the New Testament. It can be said the prophecy and apocalyptic are mainly concerned with the same objects, that they use the same methods, but that the scope of prophecy was limited in time and space whereas apocalyptic was not. Moreover prophecy died long before the Christian area and its place was taken by apocalyptic from which Christianity was born.

There were two forms of Pharisianism in pre-Christian Judaism, that is the apocalyptic and the legalistic from which followed respectively Christianity and Talmudic Judaism. Legalistic Pharisianism drove out, in time, most of its apocalyptic content and became the Talmudic Judaism whereas apocalyptic Judaism stressed the importance of apocalyptic and arrived to the conclusion that the Law was inadequate for the salvation of Israel. Both religions own their spiritual perception of the future to apocalyptic. These two aspects of early Judaism were not in opposition since both had the same base, that is the Law. However when apocalyptic became Christianity it abandoned the Law and became, in a way, anti-legalistic. The Law is, in fact, never mentioned in the New Testament Apocalypse. In conclusion, the Judaism that survived the destruction of the Temple was not the same as the previous one.

It is strange but true that whereas Prophesy generally bears the name of its author, apocalyptic is generally anonymous or pseudonymous. It is a fact that the Hebrew writers of the Old Testament were not interested in seeing their work recognised to their names; they were not looking for fame, their aim was to serve God and to work for the well-being of the Jewish nation. They also adopted and modified freely the work of previous writers and adapted it to the new needs of their time, but the name of the original writer was kept. It is to this process that we own their preservation.

Jewish prophecy before the Exile was first spoken and then written under the name of their authors (Isaiah, Hosea, or Amos) whereas after Exile it was first written anonymously. The final chapters of Isaiah and Zechariah are apocalyptic. Isaiah deals with the final destinies of the world, the angels and the men and proclaims, for the first time in Jewish literature the resurrection of righteous Jews. This shows that apocalyptic has its roots and early growth in the Old Testament.

At this time we have a new type of prophecy, still based on vision and personal revelation, but with a literary character. Afterwards, in post-exile time, any new Prophet preaching in the old way was readily considered as an impostor as, God having already spoken his last and final words, the Law had already been written and was valid for eternity. Any new prophets could only talk about ritual, priestly succession or legal interpretation in accordance with the Law. From the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the Law as described by the pre-Exile prophets was considered as final and changes by new prophets were now impossible. This explains why, from that time, prophets could not write anything new under their own name or anonymously, and were obliged to write under the name of a pre-Exile predecessor. The collection of the writings of the Prophets existed already in more or less the present form in 200 BC. Pseudonymous modifications to the Hagiographa were introduced until 100 BC when it too, acquired its final form. This use of pseudonym (using the name of old prophets) allowed to introduce some change in the Law while keeping the appearance that the Law was final and could not be modified, that the canon was closed. In the same way all the great Jewish apocalypses written before 10 AD that dealt with the mythical and spiritual side of the religion (as opposed to the legalistic) were dropped and banned by Judaism after its breach with Christianity in the same way as it dropped and banned the Greek translation of the Old testament. Legalism became absolute and determined the character of Judaism while apocalyptic was banned, or put into the background. As a result all Jewish apocalypses written after 200 BC are pseudonymous, or banned.

With the advent of Christ, prophets and apocalypses were at work again. Living persons were not obliged to hide behind the name of old prophets but could talk again and be heard. For many generations no exclusive Canon of Christian writings was established. The reason for using pseudonym had disappeared within Christianity of the first century and there are no reason to believe that the authors of the New Testament Apocalypse are pseudonymous. Later on, however, history repeated itself and Apocalypse, again, become anonymous. Some are Christian edition of Jewish apocalypses, other are of Christian composition. The belief in prophecy disappeared and the Canon was closed again. (24)