What Happens When Jesus Doesn’t Come in 2000? Reflections of the History and Future of Jewish and Christian Millennial Expectations
France, winter AD 1010, the news arrives that al-Hakim has destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The news shocks everyone: the perpetrator is a madman, driven by the starry apparition, four years earlier (nova of 1006), to believe that he was God incarnate and then further driven by the advent of the year 400 Year of the Hegira (1009) to destroy the principal Christian shrine in Jerusalem – the tomb of the Lord -- and to force the conversion of all Christians to Islam. Apocalyptic stuff at any time, but especially so for the Latin Christians, especially the Franks.
Why the Franks? For one thing, they, unlike the Greek Christians, dated Anno Domini, and had just passed the year 1000, a long-anticipated and now failed date for the Apocalypse. On that date, however, the King of Hungary had converted to Christianity, thus opening up the land route to Jerusalem. Ever since the millennium, then, those roads were increasingly filled with pilgrims going to the city for the return of Jesus. The millennial meaning of Jerusalem grew yearly, and already people were announcing that the Apocalypse would come in 1033, the millennium of the Passion, the millennium of the Church, indeed, the millennium of Revelation 20:7 according to Augustine. Jerusalem was the ardent focus of European spirituality, and the news could not have been more devastating. The Pope called for an armed expedition – but unlike his successor some 85 years later, got no response. France, in particular, was a site of major cultural activity, but not yet ready to go abroad. Whatever rage and indignation the Christians of the day may have felt, they were helpless to act on so distant parts.
But they did strike out at the enemy "at hand," the Jews. Reports of slaughters, of attempted forced conversions, of Jews slitting their own throats, come from both Jewish and Christian sources. Rodulfus Glaber, the most astute and honest of the chroniclers of the day, reports that all Christendom rose, as one, to destroy the Jews, and they almost succeeded. This behavior, so similar to the orgy of violence that accompanied the eventual response to the papal call to crusade in 1096, broke with all earlier reports of European Jews, who until that time had had a reasonably privileged place in a society more tribal than Christian.
Ironically, the worst violence came precisely where the best relations between Christians and Jews predominated – France and Germany, at the very moment and in the very birthplace of both Ashkenazic Jewry and "modern" Europe. Here we find the accusations that the Jews had sent secret messages to al-Hakim urging him to destroy the Sepulchre; here in his capital at Orleans, the king executed a runaway serf for carrying the message to the East as a pilgrim. Here we have the first accusation in Christian history, not of deicide, but of international conspiracy to destroy Christianity, not an ancient crime against Christ, but a contemporary crime against all Christians. Nor are these accusations merely the fulminations of impotent intellectuals (as they had been in Charlemagne’s day in the early 9th century). This time they rode on powerful and, above all, popular apocalyptic currents. The first major step on the path to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion had been taken; and, in the coming generations, especially that of the first Crusades (1095-1102), this conspiracist apocalyptic model would find orgiastic moments of sacred violence.
Why, the historian must ask, just then and there? Why, where things were going so well? For some eight centuries, Latin Christianity in Europe had not seen violence between Jews and Christians exceed the norms of rival societies in cultures of judicial "self help" (i.e., vendetta and revenge). Why did this explosion of sacred violence, which would shape the next millennium and climax in the ecumenical antisemitism of the Holocaust, occur at this particular moment? What relationship might it have had with the passage of the year 1000 – apocalyptic date par excellence – or with the unprecedented burning, a decade later, of Christian heretics (execution ordered by the same king, and carried out in the same city)?
[Warning to the reader. The following reconstruction and analysis of 1010 represents a mixture of familiarity with the sources and conjecture that many professional historians feel represents too much of the latter. Granted, it is hard to become more familiar with so few sources on the issues at hand. But they seem to prefer not conjecturing about issues with too few sources, and would more generally argue that very little of immediate relevance to modern life can come from the history of this period. I think that we can use what we know of modern apocalyptic dynamics to better understand what happened at the millennial cusp of 1000; and then, armed with these insights, we can then return and draw some important lessons about 2000. This particular example illuminates some important dynamics between Jews and Christians in apocalyptic time.]
The two strains of Millennialism in Christianity:
Christian millennialism has two major strains, the dramatic progressive, and the catastrophic regressive. The former case, best illustrated by the vision of Micah-Isaiah which culminates in "swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks", views a massive and transforming shift of all people – the nations of the world – towards a new social paradigm of peace, fellowship, justice (fairness), and abundance reign undisturbed. "And each shall sit under his vine or his fig tree, undisturbed." Thus the inevitable catastrophes that come at the end are intended to "shake" the obdurate soul and soften it for the coming kingdom, to prepare it for the yolk of heaven. This brand of millennialism tends to emphasize moral eschatology – you are saved by, and the messianic age comes through, moral excellence.
The latter strain believes that before this realm of peace, this "thousand year kingdom" can come, the evil that so pervades this world must be destroyed, and that only after devastating destruction could the "kingdom" come about. The former is called post-millennialism (i.e. Jesus comes after the millennium has been established by divinely inspired humans), and the latter pre-millennialism (i.e. Jesus comes before the millennium, bringing first the catastrophic destruction of Armageddon. This latter millennial scenario tends strongly towards visions of world-wide conspiracies led by that cosmic villain, the Antichrist, and the apocalyptic wars of Armageddon where rivers of blood flow in the final battle of good over evil. This brand of millennialism tends to emphasize credal eschatology – only God’s chosen remnant will be saved because they believed in him, the endtime is a time of warfare against the identifiable enemies – the infidels – of the Lord.
These two positions – pre- and post-millennial – only become formally identified in the modern period, but we can already see them at work around 1000.
The former, catastrophic one, was preferred by most clerics and formally taught in the schools. It viewed the coming apocalyptic moment as the period when, the Church’s millennium having been fulfilled, the Antichrist would, one last time, be released from his pit and allowed to rage, unimpaired, against the faithful, appearing as a messianic figure himself, declaring himself God, deceiving most men into following him, and tempting even the saints. He would be, in other words, a tremendously successful messianic prophet. This period of terrible catastrophes and catastrophic losses would continue for several years until Christ, on a white horse with an angelic host, would destroy the Antichrist and his minions at Armageddon. Then, depending upon whether one was a millennial believer or not, came either the Last Judgment (Augustine’s and the official church’s position), or the millennial kingdom here on earth.
Despite having virtually no role in the New Testament, Antichrist had a long and lurid mythical tradition in Christianity, drawn initially from the cosmic villains of Revelation, the most important apocalyptic text in the Christian canon. In keeping with the cosmic villains of Daniel (7-12), the earliest candidates for Antichrist were obviously the evil emperors, in this case the persecuting Roman emperors (Nero, perhaps, first). But within less than two centuries, the apocalyptic scenario had shifted, and Antichrist had become a Jew, born of the tribe of Dan (a serpent in the path). His ministry will involve forcing everyone to convert by circumcision The identity of Antichrist moved from evil tyrant to Jewish messiah. Both strains of apocalyptic expectation continued to hold sway, although the clerical leadership, especially after the "conversion" of Rome to Christianity, preferred the Jewish Antichrist. This offers the modern historian an unconscious acknowledgment, that these early Christians were more worried about Judaism than they were about what they contemptuously called "paganism" (rustic superstition).
The Antichrist tradition seems to have served primarily to discourage anyone from wanting to live in apocalyptic times – better to die now and sleep till judgment day than endure the trials and temptations of Antichrist’s day and almost surely be damned. After all, if even the saints will be tempted by the deceptions of Antichrist in the final days, then what chance do we ordinary mortals have? And in the meantime, as Augustine insisted, before the unknowable end, we must live with this gray, even somber universe: we must tolerate evil whether it comes from unjust rulers, or infidels – heretics, Jews, scoffers. Especially, Christians must tolerate the rulers – just or unjust – who assure order and keep the Antichrist at bay. The Antichrist tradition operates as a counterpoint to the millennial tradition: those not so eager to see the millennium arrive tended to emphasize the Antichrist’s coming, those longing for the millennium preferred to believe that the worst had already happened.
The real danger of the Antichrist tradition came when people became apocalyptic. At that point the same traits that had discouraged apocalyptic thought under normal circumstances, gave the apocalyptic moment a nightmarishly paranoid twist – destruction loomed everywhere, eternal damnation knocked at the door, nothing and no one could be trusted. Alone one could trust a savior who had not yet – and would not – come.
While we can document the Antichrist tradition in great detail, because it is so popular with an anti-apocalyptic clergy, we have more trouble following what Protestant theologians now call the "post-millennial" strain, that which anticipated a great transformation of the world through a transformation of the hearts of people. Let us call it the Jubilaic strain of millennialism, one based on the idea of a great moment of liberation, of social egalitarianism, of sharing – the commoner’s millennium. This belief views the catastrophes at the onset of the Apocalypse as calls to repentance, calls to live as if the millennial kingdom of peace and fellowship had already come, calls to greet the bridegroom in joy.
Such beliefs are quite evident in the origins of Christianity. Jesus’ career and "sermon on the Mount" are classics of progressive millennial ethics: prepare for the judgment of God and enter the [millennial] kingdom by repenting, forgiving, and loving the other – neighbor, stranger, even enemy. But the inherently anti-authoritarian aspects of any millennialism, even the most pacific and a-political such as Christianity, produced an anti-Roman vituperation that rapidly grew unwelcome in a Church accommodating itself to the repeated failure of prophecy to predict Jesus’ return, and to the demands of living in the Roman empire. By Augustine’s day, millennialism – the expectation that God’s rewards at the end of days would be in this world – had been banned from Christian theology. When we run across a millennial movement in the period from Augustine’s day (5th century) until that of the Pax Dei, it appears in the sources as a dangerous popular movement that must be wiped out. This attitude on the part of the authorities is essentially identical to that in earlier imperial periods when, for example, the Roman procurators that we find in Josephus and the Gospels wiped out any sign of millennial activity as soon as it surfaced. As a result of this hostility, we can only find traces of the very existence of popular, enthusiastic millennial hope in the documentation of the clerical elite. Those traces indicate not, I think, a peripheral and inconsequential idea, but a vigorous and perduring if periodic presence among the populace and even in the clergy throughout the first Christian millennium.
Thus subterranean tradition suddenly bursts to the surface in the decade before the millennium, in the form of a mass religious peace movement – the first ever recorded in global history that I know of – known as the Peace of God. This wave of peace activity swept through parts of France in the 990s, especially through Aquitaine and Burgundy – precisely in the two regions were we get the most detailed reports of the anti-Jewish outbreaks of 1010. The assemblies were most often a response to a local or regional catastrophe – famine, plague, outbreak of the "holy fire" (psychedelic ergot poisoning), mafioso warriors taking over whole regions and fighting it out among themselves wreaking havoc wherever they went. They assembled large crowds of people of all classes, ages, including women, in huge throngs around extraordinary, open-air displays of relics brought from a hundred or more kilometers of the round. Here, in a revivalist atmosphere filled with miracles and music and dancing, encouraged especially by the monks of the new reforming houses like Cluny, we find the warriors of the society take oaths restricting their use of violence, forbidding its use against unarmed people – peasants, priests, pilgrims, women, travelers.
We might call this an anti-terrorist oath or an oath of commitment to respect civil society even when one does not wish to play by those rules. It is not difficult to identify places in today’s world where such an oath would be as welcome to the inhabitants of the land as it apparently was to those of Gaul and France at that time. But such concessions came no more easily then than they do now, and we must ask what possibly could have driven these castellans and their mounted warriors to take such an oath just when their brand of violence seemed so successfully usurped the royal ban, the right to constrain? What mafioso agrees not to kill any little people, even defiant ones?
One scenario, which I find persuasive, holds that they sincerely and willingly took these oaths because they feared the Day of Judgment and repented for the evil they had done. And the reaction of those assembled masses to whom they made this promise, was to believe that they lived in the days of the promise, when sword was beat into plowshare and spear into pruning hook. These people of 1000 saw this moment as one where they made a covenant with God and fellow man, thus inaugurating a new age, the final establishment of God’s peace on earth. At their height – around 994 and 1033 – peace movements could sustain year upon year of adherence to the oaths, and, in the ensuing peace, years of abundance. As Rodulfus Glaber, the great chronicler of the age put it, year after year like the "Jubilee of yore."
This movement must have had powerful relations with the Jews of the regions where it occurred. Jews were, in those days, weapons bearers; and any social contract that involved traders and travel, would obviously influence, if not include, the Jews. Our sources do not inform us of this connection directly, although the broader, indirect evidence, suggests exceptional culture contact – economic, social, intellectual – between Jews and Christians during the next centuries. Given the centrality of the saints’ relics at the peace assemblies, Jews were probably not present (unless summoned). But the pact, which was often administered after the councils to those not there, would obviously suit the Jews. A conciliar decree unhappy with these developments reads: On not kissing Jews. The kiss involved here was the kiss of peace, the sealing of a compact of peace.
Nor was the link between Jews and Christians merely pragmatic. This Jubilaic Christian tradition corresponds closely to that of the Jewish millennial tradition, and historically speaking, millennial Christians, as they become more apocalyptic, tend to become distinctly more philo-Judaic, adopting Jewish beliefs and practices, enthusiastically seeking out Jewish contacts. Indeed, from the patristic period on, millennialism was often denounced as "Judaizing" by clerics who liked neither Jews nor millennialism. Thus, with an outbreak of progressive millennialism on the scale of the Peace movement, we can imagine a fairly enthusiastic encounter between Christians who believed they were putting war behind them and Jews who thought that they finally were dealing with gentiles who respected law and justice. For these "post-millennial" Christians, giving Jews the kiss of peace was part of living in the millennial kingdom.
The Peace may indeed mark the beginning of "post-millennial" trends within Christianity. It certainly marks the first time on any significant scale that the elite encouraged Jubilaic millennial behavior rather than repressing it, and constitutes a sea-change to a more activist vision of humanity’s role in bringing on the millennium, and how such beliefs played out in history over the next 1000 years. Such Jubilaic millennial activity uniting elites and commoners stimulates popular activity at all levels. Understandably. These people believe that they live in that great generation that brings on the millennium through its own "turning" to "walk in the ways of the Lord." And they walk hand in hand with the elites. Today we would call it empowerment. And part of what made that empowerment work was the willingness of some of the elites to accept and encourage and cooperate with these popular initiatives. Times of abundance, but also times of abundant change.
The movement obviously had its enemies. The first, of course, was time. Since God has shown, over the last three thousand years, that infuriating reluctance to show up according to the prophetic promises and apocalyptic calculations of humans, we know – although they surely could not – that this was not the millennium, not the Last Judgment, Apocalypse not now. And indeed, according to Rodulfus Glaber, after about four years from the great wave of councils at the millennium of the passion, things fell apart. (Augustine predicted it. Man is fallen and cannot live justly; the millennium cannot happen in this world.) With rare candor for a monastic historian, Glaber names the culprits: the aristocracy, lay and clerical, who like dogs returning to their vomit, reneged on their oaths and returned to their violent plunder. The middling people followed, and the covenant was broken. Little remained of the enthusiastic resolve that, at the edge of Apocalypse, had led the warriors to circumcise their violence.
Put another way, time gave the enemies of the Peace movement the chance to make their opposition work. These enemies were primarily the aristocrats who resented their own humiliating concessions to the commoners. They were the enthusiastic descendents of those aristocrats who, when the commoners self-organized a defense against the Vikings in their absence, slaughtered them for their temerity upon return. Their hero was the duke of Normandy who, in the late 990s, found himself dealing with the delegates of associations of commoners demanding their rights. At their meetings they sang songs about their equality with the aristocracy – "we are men as they are, we have hearts as great as theirs, we can suffer as much as they…" He cut off their hands and feet, and sent them home.
Such rulers had their allies within the Church, among that "old-boy" network that normally handed out the episcopal benefits to the next in line. These clerics, who came from the same families, shared their aristocratic view: in 859 they considered those who slaughtered the commoners, "our more powerful ones," and wrote approvingly of the assassination and torture of "false" Christs and prophetesses. For these men, millennialism was a menace, the peace a disastrous loss of power, and the changes it brought, the onset of anarchy. For a brief but powerful moment, however, they seemed helpless to stem a popular tide that swept bishops and counts, archbishops and dukes and even king Robert along, sponsoring assemblies that no aristocrat should ever contemplate. Did they not understand that such ideas led – at least in the minds of commoners – to the end of the aristocracy? That in the end, the bishop would walk naked behind the plow, singing the song of the first ancestor ("When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?).
Eventually the wave passed, and matters returned to more normal conditions. Peace councils, especially the ones with mobs, were a thing of the past. The aristocracy was now firmly in the saddle, perhaps even more in the saddle since, as part of the peace deal, peasants had disarmed. But things were never the same. There were new and effective actors on the scene now, above all the commoners, but also their allies and inciters among the elite. The 11th and 12th centuries see the extraordinary emergence of aristocrats, both clerical and lay, willing to work with the commoners, urging their enthusiastic participation in church reforms, allowing them to clear forest land, to establish autonomous communities (rural and urban communes), to use the roads unmolested, willing to invest in new technology like water mills. And of course, all these advances for civil society and its accompanying prosperity, meant the Jews became ever more powerful. Wherever the peace "worked," even momentarily, social and economic change quickened. Europe would never be the same.
But it would also have growing pains. The struggle had been joined between the forces pushing for civil society – substitution of discourse and law for violence, equal rights before the law – and those fighting for aristocratic domination. It is in this context that we should return to the issue of 1010.
We are in a period of great difficulty. Obviously the Last Judgment had not occurred in 1000, and neither had the Peace succeeded. The wave of assemblies in the decade before 1000 had already subsided, by messianic standards, it had failed. Fewer assemblies are reported, and those that are, seem to play down popular participation. Oathtaking had returned to aristocratic circles. Worse, there had been widespread famines in the middle of the decade, punctuated by the appearance of a new star in the heavens, visible to all. That same heavenly sign, that drove al-Hakim to his millennial self-deification (for a Muslim, even for a Shiite, that was a bit much), drove the Christians of Europe to other conclusions. One of them, the Emperor’s chaplain, converted to Judaism and fled to Spain. Catastrophic apocalypticism became the discourse of the day.
Thus, when the news that al-Hakim arrived, it provoked an apocalyptic crisis to rival that of 1000. All could agree. This was the Antichrist. Whatever earlier candidate one had believed in (the king, the archbishop Ascelin, the local castellan), this one trumped them all. No need for allegorical interpretation here: he had taken the holy city; he had trampled the Temple (okay, a little fudging); he had set himself up as God and demanded that all bow down to him; and, he was circumcised and demanded circumcision (surprise, not a Jew, but a Muslim). Daniel, Revelation, all the apocalyptic lore of the ages had reached its promised climax. These were now officially the three and a half years before the apocalyptic judgment. The same intensity of open, public expectation of the end that had animated the Peace was now responsible for another wave.
Above all, there was a sense of impotence. Antichrist raged in Jerusalem and Europe failed to respond. At the height of the apocalyptic crisis in Limoges, where various natural and celestial disturbances had further intensified the fears, the monk Ademar of Chabannes left his sleeping mat in the middle of a tempestuous night and looked up in the heavens. There he saw not the apocalyptic vision of Christ returning on the clouds in power and glory, but Christ still on the cross, a cosmic cross planted in the heavens, weeping rivers of tears, the color of fire and blood. One cannot imagine a more powerful symbol of disappointed horror and catastophic foreboding.
But this time, the apocalyptic crisis did not lead to peace assemblies as it had in the 990s. We do not hear of either the penitential processions or the relic assmblies that led from catastrophes to Jubilaic rejoicing. One can imagine why. The peace assemblies had failed, and the dangerous consequences of "jumping the gun" had become apparent. Radical religious ideas were spreading among the populace, whose aggressive behavior on pilgrimage, at shrines, in public discourse, led to intolerable actions. There were even some who, citing Psalm 115 ("Idols of the Gentiles…"), refused to bow down before the Crucifix. Equally worrisome, the prospering Jews encouraged these millennial Christians in their effrontery. While both sides might agree that this was, indeed the apocalyptic finale, they disagreed on what that meant.
The viri populares the popular leaders, might argue that the advent of Antichrist called on clerics to make the moral apocalyptic choice and abandon their support of unjust power. If Jesus wept over Limoges it was because of the city’s sins, the failure of its ruling class to maintain the convenant. The time had come for the meek to inherit the earth, for another, more glorious round of peace assemblies that, this time, not only circumcised the warrior class, it did away with them. But if they so argued, they lost.
The opponents of millennialism, especially of popular Jubilaic millennialism, returned in strength. And their argument took an aggressive pre-millennial turn. Yes, they agreed, the time had come for final choices, but those choices were not moral but credal. The people who must choose were not the aristocrats, lay and clerical, but the infidels, Jews and heretics. And in order to shift attention from issues of social justice to issues of credal warfare, the elites produced a shocking accusation. The Jews had, through a runaway serf disguised as pilgrim, sent secret messages to Al-Hakim instructing him to destroy the Holy Sepulcher. This treacherous people who had betrayed Jesus 1000 yearss ago, now they betrayed the millennial generation. The king of France cooperated: he had the serf executed; he may even have instructed his dukes, Achashveros-style, to wipe out any Jew who would not convert.
The apocalyptic reasoning here is clear: the peace had failed, the millennium had not arrived, not from moral failings of the nobles (let no one say such a thing!), but the credal failure of the Jews to convert. And now that the final battle was engaged, the Jews, with their false peace and treacherous scheming, had openly sided with Antichrist – they were his principle minions, his instigators. The apocalyptic choice was to the Jews, who must at the end of time, either convert or die in the battle of Armageddon by the side of the defeated Antichrist.
A perfect myth of apocalyptic scapegoating for an unhappy and disoriented time. The lay aristocracy, unhappy with the restrictions the peace put on its freewheeling use of violence, were enrolled in a sacred battle. The clergy, of late so optimistic about the peace, could return to a more authoritarian mother Church by debating these Jews publicly, giving them one last chance to convert before loosing the violence of the warriors upon them. And the populace could find solace in the knowledge that they, unlike the Jews, would be spared both the temporal sword and the credal judgment of God. Here we find all the elements of the future demonizing of the Jews which would so mark the next millennium of European history – an international Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christendom, an defenseless apocalyptic enemy to be slaughtered, a scapegoating solution to apocalyptic anxiety and disappointment which, once the fever had passed, left initiating the elite firmly in control of the political scene.
What did all this mean for Jewish-Christian relations at the time and in succeeding generations? A good question that historians are still debating. We might say, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Ashkenazic Jewry flourished over the next century, becoming a major locus of scholarly activity, transforming Europe from a backwater of Jewish life to an international center of Jewish culture – from Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz to Rashi of Troyes and his schools. And the same thing happened to the Christians. Europe, and especially France, went from a culture constantly invaded, incapable of production (their major export had been primary products including human beings), scarcely able to maintain clerical literacy, to a center of cultural and economic activity which would transform first Europe, and then the world.
And unquestionably – although historians of both camps tend to play this down, there were significant exchanges between the two religions. The German Chassidei Ashkenaz show clear signs of adopting aspects of Christian spirituality. The scholars at the newly emerging universities learned much from the rabbis with whom they engaged in wide-ranging and intense discussions, resulting, by the 13th century, in a new page for each religion, laying out clearly both the sacred text and its commentary. In the world of social exchange, new towns grew up, old towns grew larger, and new forms of communal government, forms that looked a lot like the legal autonomy of the Jews, succeeded in wresting self-rule from the aristocracy. Markets, trade, credit, travel – all activities that necessitated trust – flourished. Europe had begun its first wave of modernization. For the Christian in this world, the crucifixion that neither 1000 nor 1033 had undone, became a meditation on humility. Just as Jesus had allowed himself to be crucified without protest on the cross, so the true Christian accepted humbly the cruel reality of an unredeemed world. Only through such humility and acceptance could he or she discover the redemptive meaning of the sacrifice.
But it was also the worst of worlds. Those commoners who thought, as they watched the Jews served up as an apocalyptic holocaust, that they would be spared, were wrong. Twelve years later, the king burned over a dozen heretics, again in Orleans; this was the first such executions in Latin Christianity. With this, he, and the churchmen who instigated it, declared war on popular heresy and opened the path to a widespread and long-term violence that seems to have taken up where the attacks on the Jews had left off. In the words of one German bishop trying to argue for Augustine’s non-apocalyptic tolerance of heresy, the Franks were so enraged over heretics, that they would kill peasants just because they were pale (i.e., they had been fasting).
These slaughters of the enemies of Christendom – Jews and heretics (i.e., uppity commoners) – were the beginnings of a redirection the violence of the warriors. Although the peace may have failed to bring the millennial age, it had made the daily recourse to violence by the aristocracy problematic. If one wanted a jolly good slaughter, one had better go outside Christendom. As the Peace of God at Narbonne put it: to kill a Christian is to shed the blood of Christ. Enemies, credal enemies, became legitimate targets. And so we find Frankish warriors everywhere on the borders of Christendom – Spain, England, the Easter frontier – fighting the enemies of the faith with great lust. For these people, the meaning of the enduring Crucifixion was not a call to humility, but a call to vengeance. In classic tribal fashion, they viewed the humiliation of the Lord as their shame, and their thoughts were for vengeance; they believed the Jews crucified him, and they believed that the best way to avenge "Him" was to kill the deicides.
When, in 1096, the new waves of apocalyptic expectation swept through Europe and the pope again called for crusade, an immense response of both commoners and warriors arose to the cry "God wants it!" and set off with violent enthusiasm. They ended up paving the way, from Europe to Jerusalem, with the blood of their enemies – men, women, children, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. Nine centuries later, this tradition produced the most horrific act of technological millennial violence ever witnessed, the Holocaust. Men raised as Christians, believing that Hitler was their messiah (Führer), sought to exterminate the Jews and enslave all mankind on their path to the millennial kingdom (tausendjähriger Reich).
The end of the second Christian millennium: Philo-Judaic ascent
Let us return to 2000. We now face similar dynamics, but in a different configuration. We are now in the single most enduring and intense wave of philo-Judaism in the history of Christianity and possibly of the history of Judaism. Never before have Jews at all levels of society had the freedom, the respect, and the access to channels of expression and power that we now do. Whence such extraordinary behavior? Three major causes present themselves.
1) The workings of civil society:Jews and women regularly benefit from the workings of civil society, or the substitution of discourse for violence. Professional meritocracies based on learning, obviously favors a tradition with so developed a tradition of mental learning. The steadily more consistent application of the egalitarian rules of civil society (something the 50s and 60s tried to extend to African-Americans) has gone on in fits and starts for Jews since the advent of civil society in the 19th century, and most notably in the Weimar republic of inter-war Germany. Nor has this been merely a practical advantage Jews have taken advantage of: Jews permeate academia, generating paradigmatic shifts, pushing the envelope
2) The impact of the Holocaust: Once the news of what the Germans had done spread, a revulsion against the culture of anti-semitism occurred, especially among those most committed to civil society. In such circles, any public anti-semitism was taboo, and no one would dream of circulating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and expect to be taken seriously. Jews were given a voice, and they have taken the opportunity. Some Christians have seriously rethought their relationship to Jews and Judaism, most often with a burst of admiration for Judaism and a warm desire to dialogue with Jews.
3) The apocalyptic wave of the last fifty years: With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, a broad population of Christians in America saw this as the single greatest event in the fulfillment of the apocalyptic scenario. They believed firmly that they lived in the final generation of mankind. This belief has strengthened over the last fifty years, spectacularly affirmed by the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and spreading along with Rapture ideology from the early 1970s. And in addition to this push from history comes the pull of the approaching year 2000.
This third component of our day’s philo-judaism constitutes the wild card. We don’t know how strong it is, how widespread, and we don’t know how to interpret it’s philo-judaism. We can, however, safely say that it constitutes the most sustained and unusually philo-judaic apocalyptic manifestation in the history of Christianity. The clerics of 1000 believed in a Jewish Antichrist, and that meant that any Jewish messianic activity – aliyah, for example – could trigger violent abreactions. In a sense, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion represent just such a Christian response to Jewish messianism.
But today, on the contrary, Christian Zionists greet the Jewish messianic desire to rebuild the Temple with immense fervor and excitement. Christian farmers want to grow the Red Heifer needed for Temple sacrifice; Christian archeologists want to find the ashes of the last one; Christian prospectors want to find a huge oil deposit that will make it all possible. And, with Jewish messianic believers like Gershon Solomon, riding high on the immense enthusiasm of Christian well-wishers, we have the first recorded time that a genuinely and halachically Jewish messianic movement has found so much inspiration in Christian millennialism.
All of this may seem somewhat quaint, an anthropologist’s field day in the midst of the modern world. But there are tens of millions of highly motivated people involved, and they have achieved considerable political prominence. Right now, Christian Zionists are the mainstay of the movement. Their money and unstinting support has been welcomed not only by Likud and other Zionist hawks, but also by the liberal Jewish organizations to whom they have offered their assistance. And everyone knew about the apocalyptic program that lay behind these kind offers. "When Jesus comes, we’ll deal with it."
The millennial dangers: When Jesus does not Come
The problem is not when the messiah comes – when that happens we can ask if it’s the first or second visit – but when the Jesus does not come. How long can an apocalyptic wave continue? What will be the timing and dynamics of disappointment? Does all this apocalyptic philo-Judaism of the upswing imply a coming wave of equally intense anti-Judaism in the wake of (inevitable) disappointment?
At the crux of all these issues lies the most delicate and explosive of all – conversion. Among the most decisive elements in determining which way a Christian millennial movement will "land" from disappointed apocalyptic expectations into "normal time," the importance of converting the Jews stands out. The more vital that element, the more bitter, disappointed, and rejected the millennial Christian feels in the aftermath. Luther stands as the classic example of this attitude, beginning in his early, optimistic apocalyptic years with favorable words and overtures – now that he had the truth, of course the Jews, who rightly resisted Rome, would convert – and finishing his bitter late apocalyptic years with vituperation that outdid the Catholics. Ironically, therefore, those who "love" Jews most beforehand, are most at risk afterwards.
And, of course, there are other directions for Christians to take than Judeophilia. There exists an active community of people for whom modernity is a plot by the Jews to destroy Christianity and enslave mankind. These people cultivate a conspiracist world-view in which they are beset on all sides by the forces of evil, forces they teach themselves to hate with a self-protective and self-righteousness hatred. This culture of conspiracy covers a wide range of people, some just the enthusiastic watchers of the X-Files, others the avid readers of books like the Illuminati and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, stockpilers of survivalist gear and weapons, revilers of the US governement, the ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government). How big a community is this fringe world? Small, unquestionably, by both numbers and influence. But also alive, active, growing, imbued with a sense of the imminent surfacing of the conspiracy, the apocalyptic sense that the day for the apocalyptic battle has begun.
Several items have given it a great deal of vigor in these closing years of the millennium.
Fringe it may still be, but vigorous fringe. And we have seen the tip of the ice berg in the recent, sometimes suicidal, slaughters which have, among others, targeted Jews directly. Will the rest emerge? Or will American social forces work against them, turning the tide away from such actions. The returns are yet to come, and we are part of them.
In the meantime, we need to note that some of the most philo-Judaic Christians at the moment are not that far distant from the culture of world-conspiracy, militia, and hate groups. There is a whole range of racist Christian ideology, known loosely as the "Christian Identity" movement, that lies at the core of some of the most energetic manifestations of this world. Politically, the two are relatively close: they may disagree, but some of the Christian apocalyptic preachers address the same audience of Americans as the racists: those who feel that ethnic mixing and godless modernity threaten their way of life. The eschatological link is direct: the dictatorial "one world government" that every member of this world view believes is imminent, is, in Christian apocalyptic mythology, the Beast; the dictator who will bring it, the Antichrist; and the conspiracy, a Jewish one. We even have clear evidence for this link in the rather mainstream figure of Jerry Falwell, a man with a large audience in the pre-millennial Christian community. In ways he may not be aware, Pat Robertson’s New World Order is a restatement of the theme of the Protocols – modernity is a trick to enslave mankind – for the philo-Judaic period of the post-Holocaust. The Jews are not explicitly identified as the plotters. Can Jews rely upon such discretion permanently?
Right now Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their fellow pre-millennial dispensationalist believers abjure any connection to this world of Christian identity, and point to their love of Zion as their guarantee. And many are not only sincere, but honest. How many, however, are only sincere? Five years from now, the Rapture not come, the Middle East engaged in political compromise rather than the millennial politics of temple building, their hopes for sweeping Jewish conversions crushed – how many, leaders and followers, will find the lure of conspiracy and hate irresistible? How many will turn to those who can recharge their apocalyptic energies with a war to convert or destroy the enemies of God, among whom we find, traditionally, the Jews? And how many others, not enraged but nonetheless angry and hurt, will allow these people a public voice they should never have?
The last thousand years of Jewish-Christian relations have been poisoned by the Christian need to convert Jews (and, one might add, their fear of being converted by them). The Holocaust was only the most recent wave of millennial fervor around a catastrophic and violent apocalyptic scenario, one in which fear of an international conspiracy headed by Jews, led to an orgy of sacred violence aimed at wiping them out. This is the terrible pattern we see with such unusual clarity take hold in the apocalyptic wake of 1000, in the massacres of 1010. And each succeeding wave derived from a particular response to apocalyptic disappointment: the disappointed believers channeled their immense frustration into sacred rage, into a credal war. The need to convert produced the initial warmth, the frustration and the sense of rejection. Post-apocalyptic rage offered the perfect solution – God did not come because he wants us to prepare the way, us to convert the Jews, to free Jerusalem, to eliminate the heretics. A love intended as ravishing, now spurned, became a rape. The statues of the synagogue, with her broken staff and downcast eyes, depicted of this victim, the medieval Jew. At the heart of religious violence in European history – inquisitorial, crusading, civil – lies the need to convert the other, the need to turn all mankind into oneself.
It is reasonable for Jews to look at this Christian ardor askance. Like a wife whose husband regularly gets amorous when he starts drinking and, drunk and rebuffed, turns to wife-beating, Jews must feel immensely suspicious when their Christian colleagues assure them that the millennial brew they are drinking and the amorous intentions they are expressing, are not like earlier ones. This time, the Jews are assured, it really will be different. But how can a millennium of repetition compulsion change in a generation, even the generation after the Holocaust?
Of course, it is also reasonable for a modern American Jew to think that this time it really is different. That even if Christians want to "wife-beat," the restraints of civil society will prevent them from so doing. And were it not for incidents like those of Smith in Chicago and Furrow in Los Angeles, one might dismiss the issue out of hand. Is this a vestigial remnant of a world we can safely ignore (or leave to the workings of our police forces), or is it the tip of an iceberg that, in one way or another, involves, engages, and appeals to some of our neighbors, indeed to some Jews? (One can find "cleaned-up" conspiracy literature with deep roots in antisemitism sold in bookstores of the Temple-Mount groups.) The answer, I submit, depends on us, all of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, members of civil society.
A millennial moment is a protean moment in a culture, a moment where change "is in the air." This creates both great dangers and great opportunities. Indeed, we are told, the Chinese ideogram for crisis is a combination of "danger" and "opportunity." The Greek root of the word crisis is from "to decide," or that moment at which we must stop procrastinating. We procrastinate because we fear action, and hope that the need to act will somehow disappear. That gave us Y2K, the computer problem. At millennial moments, procrastination only feeds the dangerous forces. The best way to avoid that, is to take advantage of the opportunity. Think of a millennial cusp as a time to "decide." And chose life.
Return to Richard Landes' Home Page
Return to People of the CMS Page