What constitutes history? Even historians artfully argue about the meaning of history and historical data. In a brilliant analysis of Jewish and Christian thought in the century or so post-Constantine, Jacob Neusner argues from this rather idea: Jews and Christians, using the same set of facts and the same analytical approach reached dramatically different conclusions. The outcome depended on how each protagonist understood the ultimate teleological meaning contained within the facts themselves. Christian authors chose to explain the series of events from Biblical Genesis to their own present day as the perfection of the teleological promise of redemption and salvation; that the past predicts the future. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, understood the past from Biblical Genesis to the present day as another in a never-ending series of retributions, punishments meted out by God for the failure to deliver what God seemingly wanted. On this view the events of the past held no particular sway over the teleological promise of salvation to come when the Messhah finally arrives, rather, the events of the past are merely mini-cycles of relative redemption and relative punishment getting people ready for the ultimate salvation offered by the Messiah who is yet to come.
Christian scholars saw the conversion of Constantine and the political triumph of Christianity as absolute proof that God delivered on God’s promise. They understood the triumph as everlasting and unchanging. God finally revealed his Messiah to the people and now all prophesies have come to fruition. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, saw the world quite differently. They saw the world in terms of epochs that were anything but permanent. Whatever the political conditions extant in the world today are certainly not the conditions that will be present in the future. Each epoch is thought to be a permanent, powerful solution to the political world but, in the final analysis, falls and is replaced by another overarching politic. With this in mind, Jewish Sages saw the political conversion of the Roman Empire as nothing more that the beginning of a new epoch, one with lessons to offer for the true coming of God’s Messiah. Both Christian and Jewish scholars understood the world in the same teleological and eschatological terms; history presents itself as a linear progression to the end of days in which salvation is the reward for all of human kind. Christian eschatology argues that this very opportunity opened itself to fruition with the advent of Jesus with true salvation coming somewhere down the road waiting for the Messiah to return to finish his work. Jews, on their part, rejected that very idea in favor of one that merely predicts that sometime in the future, but not now, salvation is guaranteed by the advent of the Messiah.
Making use of the same proof texts from the Pentateuch and other biblical writings and writing under quite similar teleological structures, Christian and Jewish scholars came to different conclusions regarding the meaning of the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Their conclusions were, of course, structured to fit the overarching teleology that understood the historical as proceeding in a straight line from creation to the end of days. How they understood that line, however, influenced how they chose to examine the data they both had to work with. Both, according to Neusner, chose to see Genesis as prima facia evidence, factual documentation of God’s creation, relying heavily on that story as well as other Biblical stories to ‘prove’ their case. Christian scholars rigorously examined these stories as a linear progression from which flowed the entire history of mankind to the end of days culminating with the advent of the Messiah. No less rigorously, Jewish Sages, using precisely the same historical database found a very different, cyclical reading of the text. What happened in one epoch is bound to happen in another and the cycle will continue until such time as the Messiah appears.
So which side is right? Well, perhaps neither. Both arguments are based upon the single notion that history unfolds as a meaningful teleological story, a line that may be connected from the beginning of creation to the end of days. On the Christian side, that line appears to be linear, expressing the very idea that at each step along the way a progressive line is drawn to bring humanity closer to the salvation offered by the Messiah. On the Jewish side, that line appears to be cyclical, turning over and over, like a wagon wheel in the sand, presenting a slightly different political solution along the way to prepare humanity for promised salvation. But, what if history, the flow of independent events, most meaningless, are not connected to a teleological purpose? What if those events are simply random anomalies that, while perhaps occurring in bunches to look meaningful, are simply random groupings of insignificant long-term meaning? On this view, the world and its history appears to be more or less Jewish minus the teleology of the Jews. Governments rise and fall, what seems important at the moment is nothing more than the elevation of random ideas and events into immediately weighty issues of the day soon to be forgotten for the next weighty idea. The difference between the Jewish Sages cyclical view and this rather austere existential view is that for the Sages a teleological purpose is attached to the cyclical randomness of the unfolding of events while I suggest there is no teleological purpose at all to the randomness that materializes as meaningful history.
- From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)