November 2, 2006
Books: It’s the end of the world as we know it—again
"A History of the End of the World" by Jonathan Kirsch (Harper San Francisco; $25.95)
To true believers, North Korea's recent nuclear test was just the latest in a series of signs that the end-time is near. In Jonathan Kirsch's compelling new book, "A History of the End of the World," he points out that false prophets and "numbers crunchers" have been calling for Armageddon for 2,000 years, despite the fact that the reputed author of the Book of Revelation, John, son of Zebedee, "teaches his readers and hearers to do nothing about the evil that surrounds them except to keep the faith and keep quiet."
Apparently, ours is not the only historically challenged era, because over the last two millennia, everyone from Savonarola to Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham and David Koresh has forgotten the past and has offered new predictions about the end-times. They've all been wrong. Still, each new generation brings a new seer or two and a new list of seemingly prophetic calamities like the Black Death, the Crusades, the Civil War, World War I (dubbed the "war to end all wars," a clear reference to Armageddon), World War II and now the War on Terror, all of which are supposed to foretell the apocalypse.
Yet Jesus, who some believe wrote Revelation, specifies in the Gospels that no one, not even he, will ever know when the world will end. Only God knows, apparently. And the final battle will take place not on Earth, but in Heaven, one clear indication that the Book of Revelation has been misread throughout history.
Kirsch, who has written 10 books, including five previous ones on the Bible, did prodigious research for his latest tome. He purchased obscure, out-of-print texts and took 1,000 pages of single-space notes. For Kirsch, a book critic and lawyer, who represents The Jewish Journal on a pro bono basis, reading and writing flow through his DNA. For 30 years, his father wrote six book reviews a week for the L.A. Times, a mere fraction of the 20 books he read each week. Kirsch's own son is also a book reviewer, and his daughter an accomplished reader.
Like literary critic Harold Bloom, author of "The Book of J," Kirsch has not only made a valiant effort at conquering the Western canon through voluminous reading (he has pored through the ancient works of Josephus and Augustine, the sermons of Cotton Mather and other Puritans, and "medieval bestsellers," to list just a few examples), he has also had a long-held interest in the authorship of the Bible.
Where Bloom speculated in "The Book of J" that the J writer, whose lyrical Torah passages feature a distinctive anthropomorphic God, was a woman, Kirsch suggests that the author of the Book of Revelation was not simply a man but a Jewish one at that.
Revelation, as Kirsch shows in his book, is infused with Jewish messianic tropes, such as the constant use of the totemic number seven, a figure of great significance to Jews going back to Genesis. Moreover, Revelation contains almost no references to the Trinity, Communion or the "love thy neighbor" ethos of the Christian Bible. Instead, it presents Jesus as a violent and sanguinary warrior, whose vengefulness calls to mind a monstrous version of the Torah's God.
Revelation's author, a killjoy in extremis, has a hatred for human sexuality, particularly that of women. That has not stopped women from being some of the most renowned interpreters of the scripture. Many of these mystics and visionary nuns, like Na Prous Boneta and Marguerite Porete, were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.
But women alone are not doomed. The only men certain of being saved are the 144,000 ones "who have not defiled themselves with women," which means that Mel Gibson will have to find another way to heaven. Gibson may indeed have more to worry about than Jews. Referring to Amos' apocalyptic writings in the Torah, Kirsch writes, "The prophet Amos, quite unlike the author of Revelation, does not predict that God will destroy and replace it with a celestial paradise in the clouds. Rather, as Amos sees it, God will spare the Israelites who have remained faithful to the divine law, and he will grant them nothing more exalted than a good life in the here and now."
Although Kirsch does not deny the bloodthirsty nature of Revelation, he notes that many readers have interpreted it as having a happy ending. There are true believers who anticipate the Rapture as the greatest day of their lives, and some fundamentalists over the years have decided to do good deeds by ending slavery and helping the poor. A few millennial cults have even conducted themselves with more than a degree of postmodern whimsy, like the House of David, a sect famous for its long beards and barnstorming baseball games.
Unfortunately, for every relatively benign outfit like the House of David, there have been multiple Branch Davidians, willing to kill themselves and others as a final act. And for every Jimmy Carter, a humane born-again, there have been more than a few charlatans among Christians and Jews, participating in what The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier calls a "grim comedy of mutual condescension."
As Kirsch says, "They gain political advantage by betraying themselves and playing cynically on someone else's values."