מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה
וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה
וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ׃
What happened before will happen again,
what was done before will be done once more,
there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)
Hazarah Eschatology is not really new. First, about eschatology… While some people are preoccupied and captivated by biblical prophecy others seem not share their passion. For some Christian eschatology (the study of last days) has little to do with how they practice their faith and live their lives, while the theology and daily practice of others is directly tied to their beliefs about the end times. There are sharp and very divisive disagreements on these issues among Christians. There are pre-millenialists, pre-wrath rapture pre-millenianists, post-milenialists, amilenialists, and countless many who are simply tired of the plethora of end-time speculations and arguments. They call themselves pan-millenialists and say that it will all “pan out” in the end.
Many Christians are tired of bold end of the world predictions and say it does not matter what we think about end-times, whether we are incorrect or accurate about the future. They have a point. God will do what he will do regardless of the theological books men chose to write. He is sovereign. But to brush off end-times ideas entirely would be to move away from hopeful Jewish outlook of life that nurtured Christianity to form. Hazarah Eschatology may help put things in perspective, but first, some history…
While all the end-time scenarios are truly theological constructs, hypotheticals and speculative it does not mean it is wrong to have convictions and views about prophecy and future. Though these matters are divisive it is not wrong to have a particular view and to know why exactly one holds such a particular view. As with any theological view, though, people have to allow the possibility that they do not possess the whole truth, that their understanding is incomplete, some pieces of the puzzle are missing and that they can be mistaken. To adopt a belief that one’s theology is infallible is simply arrogant. It is also ignorant and intellectually dishonest to claim absolute objectivity, completeness of knowledge and superiority in making conclusions on what is publicly known. There are so many things we do not know. When it comes to the future we know but glimpses. That’s a very stubborn fact that any thinking believer has to accept this and live with that. God did not reveal these things to us in full measure, perhaps for a reason.
Preterism and Futurism
Two major paradigms through which Christians of the world interpret the end-times is Preterism and Futurism. Preterism is a term full of meaning for theologians. As a Christian movement of interpretation of biblical prophecy, New Testament and especially the book of Revelation Preterism has offered many theories. In a nutshell, Preterism believes that many prophecies in Revelation (and Bible at large) have already been fulfilled in history. The biggest issue, of course, is New Testament and the book of Revelation. Preterists believe that the beast, the prophet, tribulation and mark of the beast are all veiled references to Rome and historical events of those days. Some Preterists believe that all of Revelation prophetic material even the description of resurrections, judgment and even the New Jerusalem are all in fact fulfilled. Others do not go this far.
All this is of course in opposition to many Futurists who believe that the whore of Babylon is the Roman Catholic church and in the end days it will persecute the true church (non-Catholics) together with Antichrist (whoever he is). The Futurists typically believe the opposite of Preterists, that most of the prophetic content of Revelation is yet to come. Among the Futurists, there are many theories and versions with various details of how and when exactly the events of Revelation will unfold, but the consensus it is that the beast, the prophet, the tribulation are all things yet to come in the future. This is completely opposite of Preterists.
The futurists believe in the imminent return of Jesus, in the Rapture of the church, in a literal one-thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth. Though there are many disagreements about all this the book of Revelation is understood to be mostly about future, not past by a Futurist. Little is spoken of John and his day in a Futurist’s interpretations as if the book was not even addressed to a tangible ancient audience, but to a modern one.
Just like Futurism is very fractured, Preterism is also not monolithic and there are schools and divisions within the greater idea of preteristic thinking. What defines the exact type of Preterism one embraces is whether one affirms the rulings of historical Christian Councils or denies them. Those Preterists who affirm the proclamations of the Councils are called Orthodox Preterists or Partial Preterists. It is a fact that historical creeds of the church all speak of Christ’s return, resurrection, and judgment – all as future events. The early church clearly believed some things were yet to come and indicated so it the historic creeds.
The second school of preteristic thought, are Full Preterists who cannot accept these ideas. They maintain that the judgment, the tribulation and all apocalyptic events of Revelation have already been fulfilled in John’s days. There is nothing left to be fulfilled in Revelation. The Orthodox Preterists or Partial Preterists believe that some prophetic events New Testament describes have been fulfilled and some, as historical churches believed are yet to come in the future.
Both Futurism and Preterism, as systems of interpretation draw on the church tradition and nascent theology associated with it for their parameters and criteria of interpretation. Partial aspects of both interpretive paradigms are present in the past traditions of the church. But sadly both systems refuse to venture far outside the church fences. If one was to think broader, however, the interpretation of prophecy and beliefs about end times did not really begin in New Testament. It is not a first or a second-century phenomenon. This idea was not started by Christians. Prophecies were interpreted for many centuries in the Jewish community as Greeks and Romans were busy bringing sacrifices to their favorite Olympian deities. Their roots of eschatology go much deeper than the historic predominantly non-Jewish church, into the ancient Jewish thought. But church fathers would rarely venture there and neither did their followers.
Prior to Christian Eschatology
Both preteristic and futuristic patterns of thought, though they were never called as such, have been around in ancient Jewish thinking for millennia before Christianity emerged. The only reason anyone calls these theological positions Futurism and Preterism today is because Christian theologians created these names and then popularized their use. In reality, the modes of understanding of prophetic messages, their fulfillment and their interpretations are as old as Israel and her prophets. But why would anyone interested in prophecy not look further back to see how the prophecy was interpreted long before them? Sometimes people do, but maybe they do not far enough.
Through a very unique and personal interaction with God, Jewish people were given a special revelation, which contained promises for the future and included in this was foretelling of various future events. These promises and prophecies were interpreted even then (when given) in distant antiquity. Of course, even then Israel did not have a full knowledge and had only a limited perspective of God’s plans for them and the world around them. Still, that ancient wisdom is best not to be forgotten. God revealed a lot to this world through Jesus and some gaps in understanding were filed, while others remained.
The Beginnings of Christian Theology
As Christians created their theology through the ages, they created a brand new system for understanding the ancient revelation they procured, borrowed, or inherited from Israel. Unfortunately, with their drive for self-definition, quite early in its history, the Christian tradition developed antagonism towards anything Jewish. The Jewish roots of early Christians became an inconvenient truth. Some critical and foundational Jewish beliefs were considered in error for purely polemical reasons and all of the Jewish wisdom was suspect to fallacy. After all, Israel was so blind to reject their Messiah. No one seems to remember that this was exactly as God planned and foretold in Is 53. It is ironic, but with Christian marginalization of their Jewish roots and origins, the only living reference system to understanding the biblical background faded into obscurity.
Thus so much of Christian theology emerged not from pre-existing Jewish understanding of ancient Israelite texts, but from new and novel interpretations of those texts, at times deliberately different from the established Jewish views. Of course, some interaction with existing Jewish interpretations was unavoidable. Not everything is new. After all the writings of the apostolic era are full of Jewish theological thinking that cannot be completely avoided. Still, even that material was later further de-judiazed and re-interpreted in a new light.
It is a fact that most early church leaders were trained in Greek philosophical tradition. In their thinking, they were Greeks and had a hard time wrapping their minds around the Semitic logic of the Hebrew Bible. Some marginalized the Hebrew Bible as old and outdated revelation (thus the traditional designation Old Testament), inferior to the words of Christ, not realizing that it is the only reference point they had for understanding the teachings of Jesus. It is typical of Western thinking to create a dichotomy. The tendency of such thought is “either this or that” categorization. The Eastern thinking seeks harmony. In many ways it is “both and” way of seeing the world. One truth does not eliminate another as they coexist.
In reality, New Testament is filled with Semitic thought, pre-rabbinic Jewish ideas, concepts, and teachings that were later articulated and further developed in rabbinic Jewish literature. Yet Christian leaders did not study in synagogues with rabbis and traditions of Jewish sages were foreign, heretical and even forbidden to them. Later Christians interpreted the Hebrew Bible the way their pagan and philosophical worldview allowed them to see it and historical formulations of Christian theology are actually the outcome of that bracketed and segregated process.
Revisiting Old Ideas
Fortunately, Christians are no longer burning synagogues. It is no longer forbidden to most Christians to explore the connections of Christianity to ancient Judaism. Christians can choose to rebuild the connections they severed long ago and reconnect to Jewish thinking which was lost to them for so long. In fact, for some time now, this has become a deliberate trajectory for many scholars and it is gaining popularity outside of the scholarly circles as well.
And Jewish voices are no longer silenced in the church. Even within the church, unlike centuries before, Jews who embrace Jesus are not forced to conform to be Gentiles and eat ham sandwiches on Sunday and denounce all things Jewish. Some Jews chose to attend churches are free to retain their Jewish identity and even to contribute their ethnic wisdom to fellow worshipers.
Other Jews who believe in Jesus form their own gatherings choosing to worship in traditional ways Jewish people have practiced for centuries. Crowds of non-Jews attend these Messianic congregations, curious, hungry to revisit the origins of their Christian faith. Messianic Jews may be a minority movement in the grand scheme of things, but they are making an impact on the greater Christian community and their voices find resonance in many Christian fellowships with increasing frequency.
It appears that Jews and Christians are entering a new era of theological thinking. It is not done through ecumenical platforms or some inter-religious dialogue. In the end, traditional structures have little interest in change but are in fact supremely interested in protecting their own turf and that means maintaining the status quo. No, the new ideas are fostered somewhere else.
Today, people can study and research as deep as they wish, re-read ancient holy texts from the perspective of ancient Jews, their original audience. In a digital age, information is available to people without boundaries. Not all of it is true or accurate of course. But Christians can access Jewish literary treasures without barriers and now without stigma. The Internet provides privacy for seekers of forbidden knowledge from the other side. The popularity of non-denominational churches and independent fellowships in the USA allows unprecedented freedom and even experimentation with all things Jewish. There are even churches that choose to abandon Christian holy calendar. Christians who worship in such churches often learn Hebrew, celebrate Jewish holidays, adopt elements of Jewish liturgical worship and even some Jewish worship attire.
Whether one thinks all this is wonderful or finds it troubling, this brings the church closer than even in modern time to exploring the Jewish context, the Semitic thinking and Jewish methods of interpretation. There is a lot of theological rethinking on many levels among Christians. Not all of it is balanced or well-researched, a lot of pseudo-Jewish ideas continue to be taught on the popular level because few Christians are ever in touch with Jews directly. But all this is happening quickly and it is rapidly changing how Christians feel about Jewish background of their Scriptures.
In light of this new trajectory, returning to the topic of prophecy, to Revelation, to Futurism and Preterism we have to consider the starting points of theological interpretation. So gettign back to Hazarah Eschatology… The words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) capture a very simple theological idea understood by ancient Jews. “What happened before will happen again, what was done before will be done once more…” (Ecc 1:9).
The basic idea behind this statement is that events repeat themselves, sometimes multiple times. A statement made by God is not true just once, it is true perpetually. That is why the notion that God’s commandments or teachings can be set aside or discarded as outdated or useless is nonsensical to most Jews. God’s wisdom is permanent and can serve us in perpetuity. The fact is that the words we have in the Bible are God’s, ideas spoken through a prophet, the principles, all create an ongoing resonance like waves on the puddle. Historical events sometimes have parallels. Sometimes what happened once will happen again and again and potentially many more times and it is hard to determine when exactly the pattern will stop.
This can be characterized with Hebrew word חֲזָרָה (chazarah) “repetition”. The idea presupposes not a finality of something, but a continuation. As if the previous event was a rehearsal or just a partial fulfillment of the prophetic words. The opportunity of further fulfillment or other ways of fulfillment remains opened. The door on the prophecy is not completely shut and expectation of God moving in history occurs in recognizable patterns and parallels.
This is a feature of Jewish prophecy interpretation that Christian Preterists for the most part missed. To them, events of prophecies come true and their fulfillment is final. It is finished… Why did they miss it? The linear sequential thinking typical to western thought forces one to move to the “next in line” event. But historically Jewish thinking was never truly linear; it tends to be repetitive, full of reoccurring parallels and analogical.
The Futurists admit the existence of this חֲזָרָה (chazarah) “repetition” phenomenon, calling it a “near-far fulfillment”. That is promising, but the pattern is recognized only in those instances where it is obvious and cannot be dismissed or denied no matter how much it is pressed. In other places, the linear perception of time and history takes over and once the prophecy is fulfilled, and no one expects is to keep resurfacing over and over.
Can there be another view of end times built on this principle? What if this חֲזָרָה (chazarah), the “repetition principle” is not some oddity, but actually should be a pervasive and normal pattern of interpretation? Of course if one allows this possibility than there are serious theological implications. If fulfillment is not final but repetitive many things in theology might require re-interpretation. And the choice between considering an option and dismissing it because of previous loyalty becomes the issue of character, strength and intellectual honesty. Unfortunately the Hazarah Eschatology forces one to consider it and reinterpret many ideas embraced by the status quo, or ignore it.
Are Christians ready to embrace the “both and” thinking and consider that the prophets of Israel have been interpreted long before them? Can the linear and sequential thinking be put aside? Or is too much invested into the status quo opinions? The time will show.