Will the Stars Really Fall?

Alan Bandy describes the “real” nature of Jewish apocalyptic according to Wright:

“‘It is now high time, as the century draws towards its close, to state, against Schweitzer, what the apocalyptic matrix actually was and meant.’ Wright rejects the notion that apocalypticism anticipated the end of the space-time world. The Jews were not awaiting the complete destruction of the earth and their removal to some otherworldly state of bliss. Rather, he contends, apocalyptic language was a vivid and colorful way to use metaphors when describing major socio-political change occurring within human history.”

Actually it’s high time to bid Wright farewell. Jews most certainly did expect the complete destruction of the earth, and they had a “this-worldly” conception of what was to follow. The assumption that a complete destruction implied a “removal to some otherworldly state of bliss” is a straw man, and owes to modern fears of dualism. In The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, Edward Adams demonstrates — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that Jewish apocalyptic pointed to the universe’s literal destruction, followed by either its re-creation or miraculous transformation.

Bandy continues:

“Jewish eschatology is expressed through apocalyptic language, which is essentially metaphorical in nature. Wright sets the metaphorical in juxtaposition with the literal interpretation of apocalyptic language. A literal reading of apocalyptic writings results in a flattened out belief that the earth will come to a cataclysmic end. Following Caird, Wright asserts that the ‘metaphorical language of apocalyptic invests history with theological meaning’.”

It’s important to note the difference between Caird and Wright (footnoted by Bandy), which almost always goes unmentioned when the former is invoked to support the latter. Caird always maintained a view of the literal end. Even though he insisted that end-of-the-world language was metaphorical (referring to historical events before the apocalypse), he didn’t kill the patient. He thought prophets had “bifocal vision”, a near sight eyeballing events soon to occur, a far sight targeting the end of the cosmos. One image was imposed on the other so that prophecies had a double-reference, historical and apocalyptic. With Wright, the bifocal vision gets truncated into a short-sighted one, which renders the term “eschatology” meaningless by ancient standards.

I should say I think even Caird pushes the metaphorical envelope a bit far. Descriptions of cosmic disaster can be poetic and historically focused, but there’s usually little doubt that the collapse of the entire universe is soon to occur. Paul Raabe gets it best: prophecies point to destruction on a universal scale and then move to a localized focus, or, oppositely, refer to a particular target and then ground it in a universal calamity. That explains the conjunction of cosmic/universal and local judgment in places like Isa 13 & 34, Jer 4, Joel 1-2, Mic 1, Nah 1, Zeph 1.

For that matter, it perfectly explains the Markan Apocalypse. Jesus is portrayed as referring to local events in Judea (the destruction of the temple on account of zealot occupation; 13:2, 14-18), while grounding them in an over-arching cosmic upheaval (the tribulation; 13:5-17, 19-23). After the tribulation comes more cosmic disaster — the sun going out, the stars falling from heaven, and the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds (13:24-27) — all of which which depict the process of “heaven and earth passing away” (13:31). Wright’s argument that “the stars falling from heaven” refers only metaphorically to the local destruction of Jerusalem is far-fetched, and at odds with the usage of apocalyptic imagery seen in the OT and intertestamental literature.

What needs to be stressed (as Adams does in his book) is that Wright’s two claims — (1) that the idea of the created world coming to a literal end was foreign to mainline Jewish thinking, and (2) that the use of cosmic disaster language for purely socio-political events was a linguistic convention in Jewish apocalyptic writing — are not based on a careful assessment of literary evidence, but on Wright’s personal views of creational monotheism. That won’t do. Just because we know stars won’t fall doesn’t change the fact that ancient Christians thought they would.

22 thoughts on “Will the Stars Really Fall?

  1. What is creational monotheism? I thought it was just because he believed what Caird taught him and Oxford ivory towers and all that 😉

  2. ‘Just because we know stars won’t fall doesn’t change the fact that ancient Christians thought they would.’

    I wonder what people thought shooting stars were , if they had the idee fixe that stars could not fall from heaven.

  3. Hey, good post Loren and I pretty much agree with your criticisms. I think what Wright means by “creational monotheism” is that God is seen as a good creator and creation as good (as opposed to dualism or demiurgical texts), so Wright wants to emphasize that God does not want to end the space-time universe but restore it to its original good state. But I don’t think Wright has to abandon the idea that they expected a literal cataclysmic transformation to support creational monotheism.

  4. The NT writers did not think the world would end because it was ‘bad’.

    It had nothing to do with being good or bad. It was simply not eternal. God was eternal. The world was not.

    Wright explains < HREF="http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article26687.ece" REL="nofollow">here <> that Jewish writers of the time thought of the sea as evil, although Wright also claims that ancient Jewish writers thought creation was good.

    ”The ancient Jewish writers saw the sea as evil. It floods and destroys the world. It stands between the Israelites and freedom. It rages horribly; monsters come out of it. There is a hint that God had to overcome the dark primal waters in order to create the world in the first place’

    There is rather more than a ‘hint’ in 2 Peter. ‘But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water.’

    Wright might claim that the NT writers thought God would restore the world to its original state, but they clearly believed God would replace the world by a new world.

    Hebrews 1.

    In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
    They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.

    The heavens and earth are compared metaphorically to clothes that wear out, perish and are rolled up and then changed.

    What happens to perished, worn-out clothing? You roll them up, throw them away, and get new clothes.

    Anybody who has ever worn clothes will be able to understand the Biblical apocalyptic metaphor of getting new clothes to replace worn-out, perished clothing.

    This is a replacement metaphor, not a restoration metaphor.

  5. Yes Mike, you’re right on. For whatever reason, Wright misses the implications of re-creation and/or transformation that follow the world’s destruction.

    Hi there, Stevie. I see you’re all over the place, as usual. Nothing new under the sun. Gotta ride those hobby-horses, eh?

  6. Thanks Mike. That makes sense. And it fits with what Caird taught him. But it’s strange that they therefore abandon the idea that first century Jews expected a literal cataclysmic transformation.

  7. I see Loren still cannot show that I am wrong about anything.

    Which is why he throws names around and vague accusations that I am ‘all over the place’.

    But his lack of actual reasoning and argument convinces me that I am right.

    As it happens, Loren is also right about the fact that the NT clearly teaches the rebirth of the world.

    Although the Bible being what it is, there are probably passages contradicting that 🙂

  8. Mike wrote:

    “I think what Wright means by “creational monotheism” is that God is seen as a good creator and creation as good (as opposed to dualism or demiurgical texts), so Wright wants to emphasize that God does not want to end the space-time universe but restore it to its original good state.”

    Pretty much. This is what he says in <>The New Testament and the People of God<>: “The thought of the space-time world coming to an end belongs closely with the radical dualism which brings together, in a quite unJewish way…the distinction between the creator and the world, the distinction between the physical and the non-physical, and the distinction between good and evil. The result is a dualistic belief in the unredeemableness of the present physical world.” (p 285)

    But again, the idea isn’t so dualistic as Wright claims, since the destruction of the universe is followed by its regenesis.

  9. Loren, I’m not sure your analysis is quite so certain on this one, given the broader ancient Near Eastern context of much of this language. The language of creating heavens and earth seems to have originated at least in part in cultic New Year liturgy and temple foundation ceremonies, see e.g. Enuma Elish, Gudea Cylinders, Marduk Prophecy, Akitu, and so on. This evidence would suggest that Wright’s thesis isn’t so far off its mark, though I admit to not knowing the particulars/details of his opinion on the subject.

  10. Ken,
    it may well be true that ideas about the creation of a new heaven and earth may have originated in Enuma Elish etc. But what is of particular interest to me, Loren and a few others is what the idea of a new heaven and earth meant to Jews in the 1st century, and particulary to the sect that became Christianity. And as Adams shows with all clarity in his book Wright is talking pure nonsense. Even if the language about a new heaven and earth, stars falling, the cosmos shaking etc was once in a time taken metaphorically it doesn´t follow that other folks many centuries later took it metaphorically.

  11. While I´m talking about nonsense I can´t escape mentioning Andrew Perriman´s recent book “The coming of the Son of Man”. A more sophisticated way of explaining away the the apocalyptic beliefs of Jesus and the early Christians, than Wright´s feeble efforts – but still nonsense.

  12. Thanks Ken — I appreciate the word of caution, and would emphasize that I’m not trying to erase metaphorical dimensions to cosmic catastrophe language. Imagery like this isn’t always about “prosaic exactitude”, as Adams acknowledges.

    But to echo Antonio, it is evident that cosmic catastrophe language was used in the OT, Jewish apocalyptic, and NT to envision exactly that. Adams does a complete survey of all the relevant texts (unlike Wright), and his case is pretty conclusive. But don’t take my word for it. 🙂

  13. Hi Loren:

    I’ll take a look at the book. I can only speak to the literature I know and most of the “cosmic catastrophe language” of the OT is firmly rooted in the traditions I have mentioned, and does not envision complete and total cosmic destruction. Though discontinuity is evident, continuity is also evident in most of these texts (e.g. Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah). In most cases too, the imperial and the cultic contexts are quite apparent. Of course, I can not speak about intertestamental literature or the NT with the same degree of certainty and so would have to investigate that further. I have no real vested interest in the scholarship that you are citing one way or the other, unlike Antonio it seems; I only thought I’d add my insight from the ANE and OT context. What that means for the 1st century is, as Antonio points, another question.

  14. Ken,

    I see what you’re saying, and would agree that the local contexts figure heavily in the earliest (OT) usage, though would maintain that complete cosmological destruction is usually envisioned too. (And by complete I don’t mean “absolute” in the sense of vanishing into a permanent nothingness, just that the world breaks down into its barest elements before being reborn anew.)

    In the case of a classic text like Isa 13, I think we see the destruction of the cosmos being particularized and applied specifically to Babylon. That’s what Raabe says, while someone like Caird distances the local and worldly calamities into short- and long-term expectations. For him, the impending destruction of Babylon serves as a type or perhaps a beginning of the final destruction which will eventually overtake the cosmos (with Isaiah seeing both at the same time). Depending on the OT texts in question, I think Raabe usually has the right idea.

    By intertestamental and NT times, of course, the cosmological context is increasingly emphasized (and no surprise that Wright barely pays attention to Jewish apocalyptic literature in favor of the OT), but I would maintain this context was always there in the OT, even if not accorded the same emphasis — as it evidently wasn’t (if at all) in the ANE texts you rightly mention.

  15. RE: absolute vs. barest elements.

    I’m hard pressed to understand how, if there is some form of significant continuity that involves humanity and/or socio-political entities and governance, which it always does in the OT, one can talk about anything other than a metaphor or an earth-bound cataclysmic event (rather than a cosmological one). The cosmological signs are indicative of the widespread use of omens. Everything is foretold in the cosmos above.

  16. Hey Ken, your points are well taken. I think the main criticism of Wright’s view of the eschatological discourse is that he takes the imagery as purely symbolic and sees only a historical reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (the Son of Man coming on the clouds is only taken to mean his vindication, not a literal descent). I would agree with you that Jesus sees continuity and does not seem to envision the complete destruction of the cosmos, unlike maybe 2 Peter 3:10 does when he thinks the elements will be dissolved by fire (the latest book in the NT and maybe influenced by Stoic ideas?). But the Son of Man riding the clouds and gathering all the exiles seems to envision Jesus literal descent to usher in the eschaton (as 1 Thess understands it to be) and there is no reason why Mark would not take the language of darkness and stars falling any less literally than the omens of Josephus or Tacitus. And I like Wright, so my criticisms on this point are not an attack on his good scholarship (ps. Loren, I switched over to WordPress).

  17. SPEAKING OF THE APOCALYPTIC JESUS, see this new commentary on Mark 8-16, dedicated to DALE ALLISON. I’ve just read the portion of the commentary dealing with the “little apocalypse,” quite good:

    Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) (Hardcover)
    by Joel Marcus

    About the Author

    Joel Marcus is professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, Duke Divinity School, and the author of Mark 1–8, available from Yale University Press. He lives in
    Durham, NC.

    Product Details

    * Hardcover: 672 pages
    * Publisher: Yale University Press (May 5, 2009)

  18. While we cannot think they thought the moon will turn to blood or that Daniel’s beasts will be loosed, having read Edward Adams’s book he has more than sufficiently shown us that the early Jewish apocalyptists took a great deal of their language literally. They expected a cosmic conflagration in their generation.

    It did not happen. All millenarian movements have been wrong to date and they seem to be a dime a dozen. The Jesus cult was one of them.

  19. Hope you don't mind a visitor dropping in. I was not convinced by Adams, since he appeared to say 'Look, they use this cosmic language everywhere, so it must be literal.' But was is the *methodological* key to understanding whether this was literal or not?

    A huge amount of counter-evidence would be precisely the 'localised' use in e.g. Is 13 which you cite. In marked contrast to this is the universalising language at the end of Isaiah about a new heaven and a new earth, which is quite distinct.

    Recognising this helps to make sense of e.g. Mark 13, in which I follow R T France against both Wright and an Adams approach. http://www.psephizo.com/?p=1097

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