Consider zombie movies, the Mayan calendar’s Dec. 21 “end” date, a TV show called Doomsday Preppers and religious figures like Harold Camping making their own predictions.
While some find evidence of this in the Bible, a Millsaps religion professor’s new book offers a more hopeful interpretation of “apocalyptic” biblical texts.
Revelation, often read as a end-time prophecy, should be read in context, said professor Benjamin Reynolds.
He is the author of Between Symbolism and Realism: The Use of Symbolic and Non-Symbolic Language in Ancient Jewish Apocalypses 333-53 B.C.E.
“Often when people argue about the Bible, they accuse each other of taking this or that passage out of context,” he said. “My book is all about providing that context. It examines the language of ancient Jewish apocalypses like Daniel and Revelation in painstaking detail.”
Christians from the apostle Paul to Martin Luther have believed the apocalypse would take place in their lifetimes. Reynolds said evangelical Christians are not unique in that regard.
“But what is unique in modern America is the persistence of this thought in the face of several high-profile failed prophecies of the end over the last 100 years or so,” he said. “For a lot of people, I think the idea that the end times are near allows people to live with a sense of urgency and vitality.”
In the ancient world this helped people cope with marginalization and suffering, Reynolds said. But today, he thinks it’s a way of escaping “boredom and meaningless consumption.”
Reynolds grew up Southern Baptist. The South Carolina native earned a degree in religious studies from Wofford College in 1999 and a master of divinity degree from Duke.
There, he began training in Semitic languages and archaeology and was introduced to the Dead Sea Scrolls. He completed his doctorate in ancient Mediterranean religions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Millsaps religious studies professor James Bowley said Reynolds’ work brings new understanding.
“He makes full use of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an invaluable resource and collection that earlier scholars did not have,” he said. “Dr. Reynolds provides good ways to think about the origin of these religious ideas and to understand their modern appeal.”
Because these texts contain eccentric, symbolic language that is, at times, bizarre and otherworldly, Reynolds said people often look for otherworldly explanations of the texts.
“But by examining parallels from the very same time period, my book shows that in its own time, the language was not bizarre at all,” he said. “Once we overcome our modern confusion and discomfort with the language of apocalypses, we are able to use that language to reconstruct the religion, politics and history of the time periods in which they were actually produced.”
Reynolds said his book details how the symbolic language was part of a symbol system used in many ancient Jewish texts from the Hellenistic Period.
“So rather than seeing Daniel as a fantastic but opaque prediction about our own futures, one can see the text like its first readers most likely saw it – a text written in the second century B.C.E. (before the common era) for second century readers addressing second century concerns,” he said.
“Does this make the text irrelevant to modern readers? Not at all. But the anachronistic readings of Daniel must go because they distort the text.”
The writers were not exactly warning about the end of the world when writing about chaos, destruction and judgment, he said.
“They were convinced that behind the apparent chaos and suffering of this world, existed a perfect and orderly realm that functioned according to God’s perfect plan,” he said.
The book is not written for the layperson, but Reynolds hopes his research will help others stop imagining that Daniel is a series of end-time prophecies from 6th Century Babylonia, or that Revelation is a Nostradamus-esque prediction of events from our own lifetime.
“We can instead see that these texts address very real and very specific historical circumstances within ancient Jewish and Christian communities,” he said.
Despite the sometimes bleak and gory scenes in apocalypses, he emphasized, they are actually stories of hope.
Reynolds said there is a list of thousands of figures and events that Jews and Christians have imagined to represent fulfilled biblical prophecies in their lifetimes – all of which have turned out to be wrong. The same is true for other religions.
“The biblical apocalypses do not reveal how the world will end in our lifetimes,” he said. “We find in them compelling stories of faith in the face of terrible persecution and demoralizing occupation.
“We see in them the remarkable ability of humans to transform tragedy into art and thereby impart meaning to life in a way that is still entirely relevant for modern readers.”
–LaReeca Rucker, The Clarion-Ledger