Eschatology – Part 5

Eschatology – Part 5


In the last issue on eschatology, we saw that a belief in the imminent return of Christ on the part of the apostles necessitated a belief in His return before the millennium. Obviously they were incorrect regarding His any-moment return, but by inference we see that they interpreted Jesus as teaching that He would return before the beginning of the millennium, whatever the millennium entailed.

Furthermore, it was the anti-Semitic bias of the early Church that robbed Israel of its future in the program of God; the Church appropriated the Old Testament promises to herself. For this reason, the millennium of Revelation 20 was interpreted as a Church rather than a Jewish event.

The conclusion of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 heightened the antipathy between the early Church and Judaism, with the declaration that Gentiles need not become circumcised in order to be joined to the Church. Immediately a gulf between Jew and Gentile was established, because circumcision was the sign of adherence to the Law.

As the Roman Catholic theologian Dom Gregory Dix notes, this decision by the Jerusalem Council to consider as optional the practice of circumcision by the Jewish-Christian Church, was “a desertion of the national cause in its hour of danger, by the whole Christian movement as such.” Unconverted Jews began persecuting Christian Jews, “prejudic(ing) the vast majority of Jews against the ‘Gospel’ and the claim of Jesus to be the Messiah, and so put an end to the dearest hope of the Jewish-Christian Church, that of seeing all Israel acknowledge its Messiah…” They saw Gentile circumcision as a “reasonable minimum suggestion” in giving the Gospel any chance to succeed among the Jews.

“How difficult this question must be for any Jewish Christian is illustrated by S. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy in Asia Minor ‘because of the local Jews…for they all knew that his father was a Greek'[1].” Paul realized that failure to circumcise Timothy would block all access to non-Christian Jews.[2]

This animosity increased as a result of the Jew’s rejection of Christ and the Church’s embracing the millennium as a sacred empire, or a “Christian imperium sacrum,” to quote Jurgen Moltmann.[3] Hostility gained momentum as the Church grew stronger and more Gentile in its membership.

In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against Rome in the Bar-Cochab rebellion. The Jerusalem Church fled in mass to Pella, a Gentile city in Transjordan, where Jewish elements massacred as many Jewish Christians as they could. Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, refers to the martyrdom of Jewish Christians in Palestine by noting that hostile Jews killed them “whenever they had the power.”[4]


Dix continues by pointing out that “the breach between the Jewish Christians and their own countrymen was complete after AD 66. When Roman rule was restored, Jewish nationalism entrenched itself bitterly in the only sphere left to it – the worship of the synagogues and a rigorous observance of the Law.” Jews saw those of their brethren who converted to Christ as traitors to the national cause. A solemn curse upon them was introduced into the central prayer of the synagogue liturgy. Debarred from evangelizing their own countrymen, “the Jewish-Christian Church of Palestine becomes after AD 70 a small closed body of hereditary Jewish believers in the Messiah Jesus.

“Outside Palestine, Jewish Christianity virtually withers away during the next generation.” Many, discouraged, became secularized. Those who became part of the Gentile Church did not try to maintain their observance of the Law. “There are no traces whatsoever of Jewish Christian influence as such on Gentile Christianity in the sub-Apostolic Church….Unsettled and adrift between two worlds, the Jewish Christians of the Dispersion were not in any position to lead the Gentile Churches….In Palestine, Jewish Christianity continued as a corporate body and managed to reconstitute itself, with a pathetic loyalty, in the ruins of Jerusalem after AD 70 for another fifty years.”[5]


Tracing Judaism in the years following the destruction of the temple (AD 70), Barnard (whom we met in an earlier issue), calls attention to the turmoil within the Greek world. “Strife between Jew and Greek, between Jew and Jew, and Jew and Christian, often accompanied by violent massacres and upheavals, formed the political background of the age.” Philo[6] sought to bridge the gap between Hellenism and Judaism, but failed due to the upheaval.

The Jews did not seek to preserve the influence of Philo in their communities. “The main reason for the eclipse of Philo was the resurgence of Pharisaic Judaism, which began at Jamnia[7] after AD 70 and continued unabated, in its literary activity, until about AD 600.” Philo linked philosophy with the first five books of the Bible through the use of allegory, a method widely used in the Greek world for giving relevance to mythology. This method of interpretation was picked up by some of the Patristics, especially Origen.[8]

The Yale church historian K.S. Latourette continues, noting that by the time the Patristics began writing, it was evident that any effort to win the majority of Jews to Christianity had failed. Most Christians were converted Gentiles, and it was in their direction that the Christian missionary effort was mainly directed. Not only so, but the principle opposition to the Gospel shifted from the Jews to the pagans, as seen in the persecution of Roman emperors such as Nero.[9]


The Roman Catholic theologian, J.P. Kirsch, illustrates how the Church embraced an allegorical method of interpretation. He readily concedes that the Old Testament prophets promised “a temporal Messiah” who would free Israel from their oppressors and restore “the former splendor” of the nation. This included “the arrival of the Messiah, the defeat of the nations hostile to Israel, and the union of all the Israelites in the messianic kingdom followed by the renovation of the world and the universal resurrection.”[10]

As we saw earlier with Moltmann, an objective analysis of the historical documents reveal that the Jews (and in the next issue we will see also the Patristics) believed in a literal, temporal kingdom in which Messiah would sit on the throne of David. Note how Kirsch accommodates an a-millennial interpretation of Scripture via a figurative interpretation.

“Though it is difficult to focus sharply the pictures used in the apocalypse and the things expressed by them, yet there can be no doubt that the whole description refers to the spiritual combat between Christ and the Church on the one hand and the malignant powers of hell and the world on the other.[11] Nevertheless, a large number of Christians of the post-Apostolic era, particularly in Asia Minor, yielded so far to Jewish apocalyptic as to put a literal meaning into these descriptions of St. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation); the result was that millenarianism spread and gained staunch advocates not only among the heretics but among the Catholic Christians as well…”[12]

As we will note again and again in our study of eschatology, the differences in the Church flow from hermeneutics; do we interpret Scripture literally or figuratively? Those who advocate the figurative approach argue that no one interprets the Bible literally. In a sense this is true, but a figurative hermeneutic is warranted only when the context demands it.

For example, we read in Revelation 1:20: “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” It is obvious that the “seven stars” and the “seven candlesticks” are figurative, for John tells us this is so.

Whenever you take it upon yourself to render a passage figurative on any other basis than the context demanding it, you open yourself to heresy. Although this may be construed as an emotional prejudicing of the case, note that most deviation from evangelical doctrine takes place in an environment in which an a-millennial hermeneutic is applied. German Rationalism of the last century was born in this ethos, and Bultmann’s Demythologizing is merely taking the figurative interpretation of the Bible to an extreme.


You may wonder why I have used so many quotes in this and other issues on eschatology. First, eschatology is a controversial and emotional issue among Christians. It would be easy for you to conclude that I have launched a polemic to “beat my own drum.” I want you to see that I have not distorted the information available on this subject.

Second, men like Dix, Moltmann, Harnack, Latourette, and Barnard, do not write from an eschatological, but historical perspective. They don’t express their own bias regarding the millennium or the practical difference a person’s views make. All of them are acknowledged scholars in the field of early Church history, writing without seeking to prove anything.

Third, although these scholars come from a varied assortment of backgrounds, they all agree as to what happened in the early centuries of the Church when the Church turned anti-Semitic and as a result twisted their interpretation of Scripture.

In this issue we have looked at how the antipathy between the early Church and Judaism developed. Looking in retrospect, much of it was predictable; the repercussions of Acts 15 when the Church decided that circumcision was not necessary, the closing of synagogues to the Gospel, the destruction of the Temple with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, complete with the confiscation of Israel’s Old Testament promises by the Church. Before exploring fully how all of this impacted the Church, in the next issue I want to look at how this set of historical events biased the interpretation of the Patristics.

Yours in the bonds of Christ,

[1] Acts xvi. 3.

[2] Dix, Gregory, Jew and Greek – A Study in the Primitive Church, Dacre Press, Westminster, 1953, pp. 34-35.

[3] op. cit., Moltmann, pp. 1021-1024.

[4] The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Roberts & Donaldson, editors, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids,1981,Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter CXXXIII, p.266.

[5] op. cit., Dix, pp. 62-63.

[6] Philo was born about the time of Christ and lived in Alexandria, Egypt. A Jewish philosopher, he sought to marry the worlds of Jew and Greek by the use of “Word” (logos) in creation. In this he anticipated the writings of John (cf. Jn 1:1).

[7] A small city in Palestine noted for its being the origen of the Birkathha-Minim, a circular letter to the synagogues denouncing Christianity.

[8] op.cit. Barnard, pp. 44-45.

[9] Latourette, K.S., A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol 1, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1939, pp. 121,137.

[10] Herbermann, Charles G., editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 Vol & Index, vol X, Kirsch, J.P., Millennium, New York, The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1911, p.307.

[11] It is interesting to observe that those who hold to a figurative interpretation of the first half of Revelation 20 interpret the second half of the chapter literally.

[12] ibid., p.308.