A discussion with Dr. James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Charlesworth has written and edited over 30 books on the New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Jewish literature. He is currently chief editor of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project, a multiple volume translation of all the published Dead Sea Scrolls from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English.
PLANET NEWS: Is the apocalypse of John in his Book of Revelation the most referred to apocalypse?
CHARLESWORTH: There are numerous apocalypses, most of them are Jewish, but we have quite a few Christian ones. But the only one that's really been known for the last 2000 years and been highly influential in our culture has been the apocalypse of John. It is by looking at the apocalypse of John that most scholars have a definition of what is an apocalypse, and then we turn to other writings and say is this an apocalypse, which means is it like the writing we call the apocalypse of John -- do they have the same genre.
PN: And can you tell me what that apocalypse is, according to the Book of John?
CHARLESWORTH: What is an apocalypse? Well, it is a writing that claims to disclose hidden secrets either by taking an individual literally into the heavens above or into the future and then to bring the person back and to explain what is seen or experienced. The function, then, is to explain the meaning of the present and the meaning of suffering by going to another world or another time and then coming back and explaining it.
An apocalypse must have an invitation and it also has to have a means. So in the apocalypse of John, you have the invitation, "Come up hither," and then you have the explanation of how the individual goes to the various heavens and sees things that are about to happen on Earth. In the book we call the Book of Enoch, the individual has a dream and then goes up in a dream state. And then in another apocalypse called the Second Book of Enoch, the individual is awakened and then taken by hand by angels into the various heavens. So you need en the trip is into another world or into another time zone and then the portent is what is seen and what is about to happen. It explains the meaning of life in the here and now on this Earth.
PN: Where is that written in the Book of Revelation?
PN: And when it comes to the millennium and the upcoming apocalypse people are talking about, how do we know when it's going to happen?
CHARLESWORTH: Well, of course, that's the big problem. Let me turn back to the apocalypse at 4:1: "After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door," so you have a means. "And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, 'Come up hither' -- an invitation is clarified -- 'and I will show you what must take place after this.'" And of course that's your question: What is the meaning of what takes place after this?
You have [David] Koresh who was building not on his own imagination, but on over 150 years of exegesis of the apocalypse of John, going back to the Shakers and going back to the Millerites and coming through the 19th century to the present. He was claiming that he was the one anointed by God to explain the meaning of Revelation. That is, he felt Revelation was written for the 1990s.
Now this is the great danger. What was Revelation written for? In the minds of the critical scholars teaching in Roman Catholic institutions around the world, Protestant institutions around the world, and when it's mentioned in the Jewish academies, the emphasis is quite different. What did this offer and author intend to say and to whom? And the answer is around the world unanimous, whether it's Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, the author is writing to a community at the end of the first century, and he's trying to give them meaning for their lives.
It is a community that's either suffered or is afraid it's about to suffer martyrism. For example, [paraphrasing] there's a man named Antipas, 'My faithful servant who has died for his witness,' and then you have later on in the apocalypse of John, 'only those who have been beheaded' -- that is clearly martyred because of their witness, that is, their witness to Jesus -- 'only those will reign with him for a 1000 years.' Now that's quite remarkable. That means to me, you have a community that's suffering martyrdom or very much afraid of martyrdom, and the message must then be, what do you say to a community that's suffering in the end of the 90s?
PN: So then if you say that it applies to the end of the first century, then how does it follow that we're coming to the end of our second century?
CHARLESWORTH: Second millennium.
PN: Second millennium, excuse me.
CHARLESWORTH: Well, there are two answers to that. Well, there are three answers to it. One is that it doesn't refer to the first century only but primarily to this century, and that's Koresh and the people that we consider untrained and unsophisticated. Secondly, you have those who are intensive critical scholars who say it refers only to the first century, so forget it, it has no meaning for today. But most exegetes who look to the New Testament see it as a combination of messages for the first century or the early part of the second century and also has a very powerful message for us today. And so, for example, when Jesus says, "Come follow me," in the gospels, it's not a message only to first century people, but is a message for all those who believe in him and commit to him. And so when we get to the Revelation of John and what are we left with, we're left with [quite a bit]. That is God is before us, the answer has not yet been given, God is not finished with his creation, and the future may be glorious and beautifu will know it to be the case because of the message. And exactly how it will happen will be according to God's message and maybe not according to the description of the first century text.
PN: Can you tell a little about the background of Book [of Revelation]?
CHARLESWORTH: Yes. That's easy to do. Let me stress first of all that we can date it approximately to the [A.D.] 90s because everybody knows about the wicked beast who has a number on his forehead of six hundred and sixty-six, and the author goes on to say this is indeed a human. Well, it must be someone who is threatening the community. Well, if the community is facing martyrdom, it would be from Rome. So the most logical would be to look at the emperors -- and remember the number six hundred and sixty-six, there's also many text that have the number as six hundred and sixteen. So it would be helpful if our explanation would clarify that and how we can have differences.
Well, Nero according to Hebrew -- when you put it into Hebrew letters -- now Hebrew letters have numerical value. When you put it into Hebrew, it's six hundred sixteen. But we have a text among the Dead Sea Scrolls that writes -- spells -- the name Nero a little differently, so that the full numeration would be six hundred and sixty-six. So I am convinced anyway that the wicked beast is Nero. That's our best explanation.
Secondly, you were talking about how to contextualize it. Beginning, just after the conquest of the Holy Land by Alexander the Great, you have the writings of what we call the great apocalypses. You have the apocalypse of Enoch, then you have the apocalypse of Daniel, then you have the apocalypse of Moses, and so forth. In the latter part of the first century -- the time that the apocalypse of John was being written -- the great apocalypses were being written. That is the apocalypse of Ezra, the apocalypse of Abraham, as well as another apocalypse we call the second apocalypse of Enoch.
PN: And these were Jewish apocalypses?
CHARLESWORTH: All of these are Jewish with the proviso or the caveat that some of them, especially for Ezra -- the apocalypse of Ezra -- has received Christian expansions as it has passed on by the Greek scribes working in monasteries copying it. So you do have Christian additions to these clearly Jewish writings. These are clearly Jewish apocalypses -- the apocalypse of Ezra, the apocalypse of Baruch, the apocalypse of Abraham, and the apocalypse of Enoch.
PN: It's interesting. Just as the author back then was inspired by the Jewish apocalypses being written, today's individuals are perceiving themselves to be persecuted.
CHARLESWORTH: Definitely. There are so many parallels between our time and that time. For example, poverty, the problem with money, the excessive aggrandizement of the rich. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and so this is a very important parallel between the present century and the end of the first century. Also you have the idea of the pollution of the Earth and ecology, which is very much in our minds but also goes back to the concerns of the early apocalypses. Finally, you have the concern of the suffering in the world. How do you explain suffering? And the apocalypse, most of us today are very much convinced that it will come from God's action. Maybe we're not so apocalypsically oriented, some of us, that it will have to be exactly as the apocalyptist said, but that God has not given up with us and with his creation, and that God is ahead of us is a very powerful message that I think we all inherited from the great apocalypses.
PN: Why is the idea of an apocalypse so appealing?
CHARLESWORTH: Well, remember apocalypse means revelation of secrets. Now, if there's anything that's typical of our culture it's the movement of many people from the Roman Catholic church, from a religious institution, into a world of spirituality. And one of the reasons many people are so excited about these ancient documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls is because the alleged secrets or understanding of human life and destiny that are found in them. So the disclosure or the apocalypse, the revelation, of what these mysteries are will always be of great excitement to anybody.
PN: So the association with impending doom is our creation as opposed to what's written? The book is much more optimistic.
CHARLESWORTH: The Book of Revelation, to me, is a very positive book. It talks about how there is going to be a new heaven and a new Earth. It talks about how the present world which is evil and corrupt will be destroyed and purified by fire, and then replaced with another one. The message is very clearly a positive one, but most people see it as very negative because of the fighting going on. But if you could see how dangerous that world was for the author, you can understand the need for warfare and struggle.
PN: As we're getting closer to the end of a millennium, do you find that more people are turning to you for an answer for clarification out of true concern?
CHARLESWORTH: Well, in many, many ways. The churches are turning this way and a lot of people in the academy are turning this way and a lot of laymen or laywomen are very, very interested in the apocalypses. Yes, there's not going to be any question about it, the Koresh phenomenon is not going to be the last one we will see in our generation.
PN: And do you think the end of the millennium is at 2000 or 2001?
CHARLESWORTH: Well, I think it's when there's a tick of a clock from one date to another -- whatever time you set that dateation that a new millennium has begun. Remember there are certain movements that are astronomically verified, like the beginning of the day and the night, but the movement of week to week is the most artificial.
You can understand that in antiquity, they were very concerned about being very precise about the beginning of a year and that would be the beginning of a decade of course and the beginning of a millennium. And that's what Stonehenge and most of those ancient monuments are about. They're ancient calendrical clocks. So to me, what distinguishes one millennium from another is literally one second tick of a clock.
PN: In looking through the Book of Revelation, I see so many references to numbers. Lot and lots of numbers.
CHARLESWORTH: Yes. Well, numerology is a part of esoteric speculation. And numbers have meaning. But in Hebrew, there is a very deep concern for numbers. And we have that also in early Christianity. It doesn't come into our culture too much, but in superstition it does with 13, for example.
PN: And finally, the last question I'm curious about in a very lighthearted sort of way is what do you that you will be doing at the end of the year 1999?
CHARLESWORTH: I have no idea. I hope I'll be enjoying life and be healthy. That's my hope. Let's all hope that the next millennium will be one that we learn from the absolute horrors of this century. In my experience, there's never been, in my reading also, there's never been a century quite so horrible with barbed wires and concentration camps and genocide and a Holocaust. And the other one I would think about would be the horrible things that happened with the destruction of Jerusalem just 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. So let's hope that the future is going to be better.
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