The “Four Blood Moons” Nonsense: Why It Means Absolutely Nothing

Segments of the evangelical Christian and so-called “messianic” Jewish worlds are getting all stirred up by the “Four Blood Moons” nonsense being peddled by John Hagee in his latest bestselling book by that name–which he ripped off from Mark Blitz of “El Shaddai Ministries.” Given Hagee’s notoriety the idea has gone “viral” among these various groups. Hagee has even recently appeared on FOX News with, you guessed it, Lauren Green, who seems to buy into his nonsense after checking it with “NASA” herself. Since I will be viewed by some as the skeptical academic “historian” I won’t bother to offer my own refutation but pass along here the critique of Chris White, a Christian believer with an interest in Bible Prophecy (“Bible Prophecy Talk), who thoroughly “debunks” the whole theory and tells you what its advocates either don’t know or are not telling you–with web links to the articles he cites and further documentation.

At Last: A Perceptive Mainstream Piece on What Went Wrong at Waco

We are coming up to the 21st anniversary of the tragic Branch Davidian Waco disaster. In all those 21 years I have yet to see a perceptive mainstream analysis of what was really going on in April 1993, what went wrong, and what could have been done right with just a minimal bit of understanding of the dynamics of biblical “messianic” apocalypticism.

Why Waco Cover

This week in the New Yorker that has changed. Malcolm Gladwell’s most perceptive analytical piece, “Sacred and Profane: How Not to Negotiate with Believers” breaks new ground.

Koresh needed another way to make sense of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation, so that a violent end was not preordained. Tabor and Arnold made a tape—a long, technical discussion of an alternative reading of Revelation—aired it on the radio, and sent it to Koresh. Koresh listened and was persuaded. He had been called a liar, a child molester, a con man, and a phony messiah. He had been invited to treat his children like bargaining chips and his followers like hostages. But now someone was taking his beliefs seriously. “I am presently being permitted to document in structured form the decoded messages of the seven seals,” he wrote back. “Upon the completion of this task, I will be freed of my waiting period. . . . As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.”

Finally we get a treatment of the Branch Davidian community that explains why they followed David Koresh as “Messiah,” what they meant by that term, and how the BATF and FBI so woe-fully misunderstood all that was going on with such tragic results. The point is not so much to blame as to understand. I have written extensively on the subject, including my co-authored book with Gene Gallagher, Why Waco: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), the first chapter of which you can read on-line here. I also have touched on Waco a number of times on my blog, see here and here.

A Sad Footnote to the Whole Tragedy: In fact the first chapter of the “Seven Seals” manuscript David Koresh was writing during Passover of 1993 survived the fire. Dr. Philip Arnold and I presented it at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November meeting in Washington, D.C. that year, as we had promised Koresh. Despite FBI doubts and subsequent denials, David was indeed working on his manuscript. What the FBI failed to realize is that the most important thing to a “prophet” is that his or her message go forth. Koresh saw in us a change for his “revelation” regarding the Seven Seals to reach biblical scholars worldwide–and that is what he wanted more than life itself. Unfortunately, Attorney General Janet Reno, who reluctantly approved the April 19th attack on the Branch Davidian Center, was never told about the manuscript or the agreement Arnold and I had made with Koresh through attorney Dick DeGuerin. She kept asking through the weekend–Is there any reason for waiting? Any hope for a peaceful resolution? She was not even shown Koresh’s April 14th letter quoted above where he promises to give us his manuscript. Those inside, including Clive Doyle and David Thibodeau, have verified to us that David’s decision to write the manuscript and deliver it to us, then exit and even face jail, was joyfully received throughout the group as a solution to the standoff. They were all convinced they were coming out peacefully in a matter of days. The Koresh manuscript is published as an appendix to our book, Why Waco, with a commentary and exposition as to its meaning.

Vanderbilt Lecture: Was Paul the Jew the Founder of Emerging Christianity?

I am giving the 2014 Forrest Reed Lecture sponsored by Disciples Historical Society/Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Monday at 10AM. My topic is both controversial and provocative:

Was Paul the Jew the Founder of Emerging Christianity? Details below and linked here. I hope to meet some of my blog readers at this event.

Vanderbilt JDT March 2014

 

The Destruction of Pompeii: Why Jews and Christians Rejoiced!

Paul W. S. Anderson’s $100 million big budget film “Pompeii” opened in US theaters last weekend with less than blockbuster sales–falling third behind “The Lego Movie” and Kevin Costner’s “Three Days to Kill” with receipts of “only” $10.3 million. The German company Constantin, that produced the film, was prepared for the possibility that the film would not do as well in the US and the film was fully financed by international pre-sales before its production.

I have not seen the film but as a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity I believe the destruction of Pompeii in the summer of 79 CE was of vital interest to Jews and Christians scattered throughout the Roman world who interpreted it as a fulfillment of prophecy and a sign of God’s imminent apocalyptic vengeance on the Roman empire, whom they viewed as the “Beast” of Daniel 7 and Revelation 17. The Romans had not only destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from their homeland in 70 CE, but Nero (54-68 CE), who was given the number 666 as the “Mark of the Beast” had slaughtered thousands of Christians in Rome in the summer of 64 CE–including most likely the apostles Peter and Paul.[1]

Nine years, almost to the day, after Roman legionaries destroyed God’s house in Jerusalem, God destroyed the luxurious watering holes of the Roman elite. Was this God’s revenge? That’s not exactly the question I want to raise, however. Rather, did anyone at the time see it that way? Did anyone connect the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70? Hershel Shanks, “The Destruction of Pompeii–God’s Revenge?”[2]

mount-vesuvius-eruption-pompeiiEditor Hershel Shanks raises a most provocative question in this 2010 feature cover article in Biblical Archaeology Review. Did Jews living in the Roman empire associate the sudden volcanic incineration of the Naples port city of Pompeii in 79 CE with God’s payback punishment upon Rome for destroying Jerusalem? As Shanks shows, there is good evidence that such is the case. He points to some amazing archaeological remains, such as a charcoal graffiti that seems to reference “Sodom and Gomorrah,” as well as a Christian apocalyptic text, book 4 of the Sibylline Oracles, that parallels the two events and refers to the latter as “the wrath of the heavenly God.”

photo-1I have become convinced there is much more. In 2010 I spent several months studying the archaeological records related to ancient Pompeii, including significant time at the site working with Simcha Jacobovici and his research team who were filming his international television special, “Vesuvius and the Fear of God.” The film documents some of the major discoveries we made including some “behind-the-scenes” interviews with several Italian experts and curators who presented evidence that had never appeared on camera before. I came away convinced, based on the material/archaeological evidence, that Jews as well as Jewish and non-Jewish Christians understood Pompeii’s destruction as divine retribution. The thesis of the film is a bold one–not only that Jews and Christians saw the destruction of Pompeii as a sign of God’s apocalyptic wrath but that the utter destruction of the city served as a huge boon to the spread of Christianity in the Roman world:

Long ignored archaeological evidence – found beneath the ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum – seems to suggest that what put the fear of God into pagan Romans was not Jesus, Peter or Paul. It now seems that the event most responsible for Christianity’s conquest of the Roman Empire was…the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The film is an impressive piece of work and you can watch it free of charge, courtesy of Simchajtv.com here.

IMG_0914 2

However, in the course of my own textual research I made another discovery–one that was new for me at least. I became convinced that chapter 18 of the New Testament book of Revelation is an eyewitness account, very much parallel to that of Pliny the Younger, of the August 79 CE destruction of Pompeii–but understood by the writer as signaling the fall of Babylon the Great–namely, the demise of the Roman Empire itself! Most scholars agree that the prophecies of the book of Revelation can be dated variously  from the end of the reign of Nero through the Flavians (68-80s CE). The author of chapter 18 of Revelation provides us with a poetic oracle against the “great city” pictured as a “whore” riding the seven-headed beast of the Roman Empire–drunk with the blood of the martyrs and the saints. Her destruction comes with fire–in one hour–while those in ships watch her burning from afar, lamenting the loss of her wealth and the splendor of her trade and commerce. The Naples/Pompeii port was the gateway to ancient Rome. As such its destruction signaled that of the expected apocalyptic FALL of Rome itself–both as a city and an empire.

Whore BabylonHere is a translation (Revised Standard Version) of the oracle itself without commentary. I think my readers will agree that one could hardly imagine a more accurate description of the destruction of Pompeii/Rome down to its every detail:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. And he called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul and hateful bird;
For all nations have drunkthe wine of her impure passion,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Render to her as she herself has rendered,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and played the wanton,
so give her a like measure of torment and mourning.
Since in her heart she says, ‘A queen I sit,
I am no widow, mourning I shall never see,’
so shall her plagues come in a single day,
pestilence and mourning and famine,
and she shall be burned with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas! alas! thou great city,
thou mighty city, Babylon!
In one hour has thy judgment come.”

11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble,13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.

14 “The fruit for which thy soul longed has gone from thee,
and all thy dainties and thy splendor are lost to thee, never to be found again!”

15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

16 “Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet,
bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!
17 In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”

And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?”

19 And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!
In one hour she has been laid waste.
20 Rejoice over her, O heaven,
O saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her!”

21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and shall be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpers and minstrels, of flute players and trumpeters,
shall be heard in thee no more;
and a craftsman of any craft
shall be found in thee no more;
and the sound of the millstone
shall be heard in thee no more;
23 and the light of a lamp
shall shine in thee no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
shall be heard in thee no more;
for thy merchants were the great men of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery.
24 And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slain on earth.”

Although the New Testament book of Revelation is now clearly a “Christian” book I have argued elsewhere that at its core is a thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic prophetic work that was subsequently “Christianized,” very possibly in reaction to the horrors of the reign of Nero. See my article, “Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?”

  1. I analyze this period in several publications that are on-line for those who want to delve a bit deeper into this topic. Most recently see my article “Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Millennialism,” In Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, ed., Cathy Wessinger. At the turn of the millennium–remember the Y2K panic?–I published Why 2K?: The Biblical Roots of Millennialism in Bible Review, which offers an overview of Christian apocalypticism through the ages. There is also “Apocayptic Schemes and Dreams: How An Ancient Jewish Vision of the Future Came to Dominate the Modern World,” in The End of Days?: Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon and Ronald A. Simkins (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 2003), pp. 49-61. []
  2. Shanks, Hershel. “The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge?.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 2010, 60-67, 77. Available on-line to BAS Library members who have access to this and the entire archive of BAS for a modest annual fee:  http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=36&Issue=4&ArticleID=6 []

Resurrection of the Dead is Not the Resuscitation of a Corpse

Perhaps you read about the Mississippi man who recently was pronounced “dead,” put in a body bag and even taken to a funeral home for embalming–when he suddenly revived, just as the procedure was beginning. You can read the Reuters story here, which is understandably being picked up by newspapers and media outlets all of the country this morning. It is just that human interest kind of story that all of us find fascinating. Technically this kind of “revivial” of a corpse is called resuscitation.

Light BeingFear of being “buried alive” is as ancient as human burial culture. In the 17th and 18th centuries bells were sometimes attached to coffins by a string so the deceased could sound an alarm and thus to be “saved by the bell” in case the deceased revived.[1] Some also trace the origin of the “wake” to this idea–with the living sitting around the corpse through the night to make sure the person did not come back to life having been pronounced dead. George Washington supposedly asked that his body not be put in a vault until at least two days had passed. In antiquity and until more recent times lead poisoning was common from drinking alchohol from lead or pewter cups–and such poisoning can include catatonic symptoms that could be mistaken for death.

I have argued that the earliest view of Jesus’ followers of resurrection of the dead was not corpse revival or resuscitation but rather the “re-clothing” of the spirit or soul of with a new “spiritual” body. This is clearly Paul’s view as he contrasts the “body of dust” that decays and is left behind with the “life-giving spirit” that is immortal and glorious–though nonetheless embodied (1 Corinthians 15:42-54). Paul’s analogy of putting off the old clothing of the physical body, entering a “naked” state, but then being “reclothed” with a transformed but embodied existence at the “resurrection” of the dead makes his view quite clear. This is in contrast then to Greek idea of the “immortality” in which the soul is merely released “naked” from the body–which is seen also as a prison–and “flies away.”

That is why finding the decayed bones of Jesus in an ossuary, as might well be the case Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem, as I have argued here on this blog and extensively in our book, The Jesus Discovery, does not contradict the earliest faith in Jesus’ resurrection by his first followers. What has happened is that people have conflated the later accounts in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, where Jesus clearly appears as a “revived corpse” and even asks for food to eat–declaring himself to be “flesh and blood,” with the much earlier views the gospel of Mark (with no appearances of Jesus), the fragment ending of the Gospel of Peter, and Matthew–that are much more compatible with Paul’s earlier view (50s CE) of “seeing” Jesus’ spiritual body. The idea those who “sleep in the dust” awakening, or the sea “giving up” the dead that are in it, makes it crystal clear that resurrection of the dead has to do with a transformed “heavenly” existence, not a revival of the scant remains of those long ago turned to “dust and ashes” as the phrase goes (Daniel 12:2-3; Revelation 20:13). One might also recall that, according to Jesus, those who experience the “age to come” and the resurrection of the dead, are transformed into an “angelic” state, no longer male or female with physical bodies (Luke 20:34-38).

I have laid out all the arguments in detail with all the relevant texts in chronological order in my post titled “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.” I invite you to review the evidence and see if you agree that this major area of confusion has led to a completely irrational defense of faith in Jesus’ physical or bodily resurrection–that is, the revival of his male corpse intact with its functioning organs–as the cornerstone of early Christian resurrection faith. Millions of Christians who find such a view untenable have been made to feel that their “resurrection faith” is somehow deficient because they have no “proof” without the physical corpse being resuscitated, that Jesus really rose from the dead.

  1. Some have argued that the phrase “saved by the bell” is a boxing term and has nothing to do with this practice of burial, but we do know that such “safety” coffins were manufactured into the 19th century. []