Origin of the Millennial Hope
TODAY there is little to choose among the hopes and the fears of the average Catholic, Protestant or Jew. They nearly all believe in the inherent immortality of the human soul and in its related beliefs of heavenly bliss in an ethereal world, or eternal torment in some kind of “hell.”
Since the religions of Christendom claim kinship with the monotheism of the Jews and accept the Jewish Scriptures as inspired, it will be interesting to see if the present-day hopes of Jews and those of “Christians” correspond with the hope set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures and with the early beliefs of the Jews.
THE MESSIANIC HOPE
On the basis of such scriptures as Genesis 3:15; 22:15-18; 49:10 and Deuteronomy 18:18, to cite only four of the 456 Hebrew Bible texts considered by the ancient Jewish Synagogue to be Messianic, what exactly were the Jews expecting? What was their hope?
An authoritative Jewish reference work provides the following information: “ . . . the idea of a personal Messiah runs through the Old Testament. It is the natural outcome of the prophetic future hope. The first prophet to give a detailed picture of the future ideal king was Isaiah (ix. 1-6 [2-7 in non-Jewish Bibles], xi. 1-10, xxxii. 1-5). . . . The ideal king to whom Isaiah looks forward will be a scion [offspring] of the stock of Jesse, on whom will rest the spirit of God as a spirit of wisdom, valor, and religion, and who will rule in the fear of God, his loins girt with righteousness and faithfulness (xi. 1-3a, 5). He will not engage in war or in the conquest of nations; the paraphernalia of war will be destroyed (ix. 4 ); his sole concern will be to establish justice among his people (ix. 6b [7b]; xi. 3b, 4). The fruit of his righteous government will be peace and order throughout the land. The lamb will not dread the wolf, nor will the leopard harm the kid (xi. 8 ); that is, as the following verse explains, tyranny and violence will no longer be practised on God’s holy mountain, for the land will be full of the knowledge of God as the water covers the sea (comp. xxxii. 1, 2, 16). The people will not aspire to political greatness, but will lead a pastoral life (xxxii. 18, 20). Under such ideal conditions the country can not but prosper, nor need it fear attack from outside nations (ix. 6a [7a], xxxii. 15). The newly risen scion of Jesse will stand forth as a beacon to other nations, and they will come to him for guidance and arbitration (xi. 10). He will rightly be called ‘Wonderful Counselor,’ ‘Godlike Hero,’ ‘Constant Father,’ ‘Prince of Peace’ (ix. 5 ).
“This picture of the future fully accords with Isaiah’s view, that the judgment will lead to a spiritual regeneration and bring about a state of moral and religious perfection.”—The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 8 page 506.
So much for the Messianic hope given to the Jews in the Holy Scriptures. There was certainly nothing very “heavenly” about it! But what of the non-Biblical Jewish writings? The same reference work states a little farther on: “In the rabbinical apocalyptic literature the conception of an earthly Messiah is the prevailing one, and from the end of the first century of the common era it is also the one officially accepted by Judaism.”—Page 510.
AN EARTHLY HOPE
Thus, the original hope of the Jews was an earthly one. There is no Scriptural evidence that their faithful ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob hoped to go to heaven. The Law given through Moses offered no such hope. The same can be said of the poetical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Prophets.
To this effect, the authoritative Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique states: “Observe in the Old Testament all the temporal prosperity that the religious person hoped for, on the basis of God’s promises to him, his family and his country. In addition, he had the hope of spiritual and moral gifts, the hope of the coming of the Messiah and of his kingdom.” (Italics ours)
The Protestant Dictionnaire Encyclopédique de la Bible confirms this. We read: “The hopes set out in the O. T. [Old Testament] were developed gradually. They start with earthly benefits, political restoration and resettlement of the inhabitants. . . . That hope developed and became universal. Jehovah is the Master of the world. . . . The ‘Eternal’s Servant’ will come; by his suffering and his humiliation he will save his people. Isaiah 42:1-4 shows that the world hopes in his teaching. Then will come the glory of the Eternal’s Servant, the Messianic era and a renewed humankind.” (Italics ours)
This earthly hope of the Jews is nicely summed up in The Jewish Encyclopedia, as follows: “ . . . the Prophets developed the hope of an ideal Messianic future through the reign of a son of the house of David—the golden age of paradisiacal bliss . . . It would come in the form of a world of perfect peace and harmony among all creatures, the angelic state of man before his sin (Isa. xi. 1-10, lxv. 17-25: ‘new heavens and a new earth’). . . . ‘the conversion of all creatures to become one single band to do God’s will’ is the foremost object of Israel’s Messianic hope; only the removal of ‘the kingdom of violence’ must precede the establishment of God’s kingdom. . . . The Perso-Babylonian world-year of twelve millenniums, however, was transformed in Jewish eschatology [study of the ultimate destiny of mankind and the world] into a world-week of seven millenniums corresponding with the week of Creation, the verse ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday’ (Ps. xc. 5 [A.V.4]) having suggested the idea that the present world of toil (‘‘olam ha-zeh’) is to be followed by a Sabbatical millennium, ‘the world to come’ (‘‘olam ha-baʹ’ . . . ).”—Vol. 5, pages 209-211. (Italics ours)
RESURRECTION, NOT INHERENT IMMORTALITY
For centuries the Jews did not share the pagan belief in the immortality of the human soul. The Jews were an educated people, and any literate Jew could read scores of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that state in no uncertain terms that the “soul” (Hebrew, neʹphesh) can die. Here are just a few: Genesis 19:19, 20; Numbers 23:10; Joshua 2:13, 14; Psalm 22:29 (verse 30 in Jewish Bibles); Ezekiel 18:4, 20.
So the early Jewish hope of life on earth in a paradise restored by the Messiah rested on the belief in the resurrection, not in inherent immortality. The Jewish Encyclopedia confirms this, stating: “Resurrection formed part of the Messianic hope (Isa. xxvi. 19; Dan. xii. 2). . . . At first resurrection was regarded as a miraculous boon granted only to the righteous . . . , but afterward it was considered to be universal in application and connected with the Last Judgment . . . Whether the process of the formation of the body at the Resurrection is the same as at birth is a matter of dispute between the Hillelites and Shammaites.”—Vol. 5, page 216.
This same authoritative Jewish reference work states concerning “Gehenna” (Christendom’s “hell”): “There is no Scriptural basis for the belief in retribution for the soul after death; this was supplied by the Babylonians and Persians, and received a Jewish coloring from the word ‘Gehinnom’ (the valley of Hinnom), made detestable by the fires of the Moloch sacrifices of Manasseh (II Kings xxiii. 10).”—Ibid., page 217.
So how is it that today Jewish theologians generally teach the doctrines of inherent immortality and of eternal punishment? The Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible supplies us with the following information: “[For the Jews] Salvation was first thought of as being on earth . . . ; however bright the Messianic hope was and however long the future reign was due to be—some even appearing to believe that it would be everlasting—the national and earthly nature of that religious era was fundamental. Then a new prospect asserted itself: the ‘discovery’ of a happy existence after death.” (Italics ours)
How did the Jews “discover” that man has a “soul” that survives the death of the body? Once again, authoritative reference works provide conclusive information. The Jewish Encyclopedia admits: “Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism.” This is confirmed by the Dictionnaire Encyclopédique de la Bible, which states: “The concept of immortality is a product of Greek thinking, whereas the hope of a resurrection belongs to Jewish thought. . . . Following Alexander’s conquests Judaism gradually absorbed Greek concepts.”
If anyone doubts that the Jews did not originally believe in the immortality of the soul, suffice it to say that as late as the first century of the Common Era the question was still not settled in Jewish minds, as proved by the fact that the Pharisees believed in immortality, whereas the Sadducees did not.—See Josephus, Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 1, paragraphs 3, 4; Wars, Book 2, chapter 8, paragraph 14; compare Acts 23:8.
ORIGINAL MESSIANIC HOPE TRANSFORMED
Just as the Jews gradually abandoned their hope for a future life through the resurrection and adopted the pagan idea of inherent immortality of a separate “soul,” so their original Messianic hope became transformed. By the first century of the Common Era the Jewish Messianic hope had become a nationalistic political hope.
Confirming this, The Jewish Encyclopedia reads: “Not until after the fall of the Maccabean dynasty [second century B.C.E.], when the despotic government of Herod the Great and his family, and the increasing tyranny of the Roman empire had made their condition ever more unbearable, did the Jews seek refuge in the hope of a personal Messiah. They yearned for the promised deliverer of the house of David, who would free them from the yoke of the hated foreign usurper.”
In his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim wrote: “All that Israel hoped for was national restoration and glory. Everything else was but means to these ends; the Messiah Himself only the grand instrument in attaining them. . . . The Rabbinic ideal of the Messiah was not that of ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel’—the satisfaction of the wants of humanity.”
Edersheim further points out that, by the first century of the Common Era, the Jewish religious leaders no longer hoped in a Messiah-Redeemer. He states: “So far as their opinions can be gathered from their writings, the great doctrines of Original Sin, and of the sinfulness of our whole nature, were not held by the ancient Rabbis. . . . In the absence of felt need of deliverance from sin, we can understand how Rabbinic tradition found no place for the Priestly office of the Messiah, and how even His claims to be the Prophet of His people are almost entirely overshadowed by His appearance as their King and Deliverer. This, indeed, was the ever-present want, pressing the more heavily as Israel’s national sufferings seemed almost inexplicable.”
Thus, the original hope of the Jews was gradually lost to sight. The hope of a Messianic king who would not only rule over the Jews but also be “a beacon to other nations” gave way to the fanatical hope of a national leader who would lead them to victory over their political and religious enemies. The earthly hope of a “Sabbatical millennium” during which the Messiah would bring about a “golden age of paradisiacal bliss,” “a world of perfect peace and harmony among all creatures,” was replaced by a vague heavenly hope based on the concept of inherent immortality borrowed from the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks.
The years went by. No such political Messiah came to deliver the Jews or, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., to regather and resettle them. So even this transformed Messianic hope faded in Jewish hearts. As Edersheim put it: “Why are the redemption of Israel and the coming of the Messiah so unaccountably delayed? It is here that the Synagogue finds itself in presence of an insoluble mystery. The explanations attempted are, confessedly, guesses, or rather attempts to evade the issue. The only course left is authoritatively to impose silence on all such inquiries—the silence, as they would put it, of implicit, mournful submission to the inexplicable, . . . the silence of ever-recurring disappointment and despair. Thus the grand hope of the Synagogue is, as it were, written in an epitaph on a broken tombstone, to be repeated by the thousands who, for these long centuries, have washed the ruins of the Sanctuary with unavailing tears.”
Happily, the original hope of earthly Paradise restored under the rule of the Messiah is still available for sincere Jews, and some already have availed themselves of it and dried their tears. But for many others of our readers the question remains: How did the coming of Jesus Christ the Messiah affect the hope of a “Sabbatical millennium” of “peace and harmony among all creatures” on earth? And if Christ confirmed that hope, why is it that virtually all Protestant and Catholic “Christians” do not share that millennial hope?
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Communist “happy tomorrows”? Hindu or Buddhist Nirvana? Catholic or Protestant “heavenly bliss”? What hope does the Bible give?