Messianic Revolution : Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 1999-04-01
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux

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The idea for writing this book took shape on April 19, 1993, when at least seventy-four people lost their lives in the conflagration near Waco, Texas, and it became clear that the followers of David Koresh and the federal agents outside his compound inhabited two different conceptual worlds. Indeed, neither journalists nor law-enforcement experts nor the public seemed aware that there is a rich tradition of messianic, revolutionary politics behind groups like Koresh's, a history that stretches back unbroken to the Middle Ages. In this fascinating study, two historians explore and explain that tradition, showing how the beliefs of many fringe, distressed, disenfranchised, or purely mystical Christians have been transmitted across a millennium. Messianic Revolution offers a strong and lucid explanation of why and how this apocalyptic strain found especially fertile ground in the New World, and it throws new light on the many strands of biblical interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, that are woven into this complex, fascinating history.

Table of Contents

NOTES 255(34)


Chapter One

Renaissance Messianism

We usually think of the Renaissance as a time of revival of ancient learning, an era when the humanistic values of the modern world were created and Europe became a place which a person from our own time might recognize. People like Leonardo da Vinci or even Machiavelli seem to have goals and motivations that are understandable to us. The familiar aspects of their lives and work, however, often obscure the truth that in many ways they were very different from us indeed, and they understood the world and made choices on the basis of that knowledge in ways and patterns that are wholly foreign to us. Some of the major figures of the Renaissance thought they understood the secrets of the universe, not only its construction but its very purpose in existing. Since they were Christians, they knew the universe would come to an end with the Second Coming of Christ, and their research helped them to calculate when that might take place and under what conditions.

    The Renaissance men who chanced on views still held by modern scholars are often seen as scientists while those who meticulously mapped blind alleys are reduced to deluded alchemists and magicians. Nevertheless, the key methodological concept that united all these Renaissance intellectuals was eclecticism--that is, the idea that no one has a monopoly of truth but that it must be sought among all peoples and cultures. Thinkers in the Renaissance thought nothing of mixing Christian theology with Jewish philosophy and Arabic geography.

    At the end of the fifteenth century, there was a keen desire to implement the new ideas coming in fast to Italy, some brought by Eastern Christian scholars who fled the fall of Constantinople in 1453, bringing with them whole treasure houses of Greek manuscripts never before seen in western Europe, others disseminated by way of the new communications revolution. This revolution was not only an effect of the invention of printing but also its cause, since increased demand for texts created the need to find a quick and efficient method of reproducing them.


The most important new idea that paved the way for a reconstructed and improved messianism was the body of knowledge that is usually called hermeticism. The hermetic tradition, in brief, was an attempt to return to a source of knowledge believed to be older than that of Rome, Greece, or even Israel--ancient Egypt. Egypt's was thought to be the most ancient philosophy, and the ancient Egyptians' intellectual and scientific achievements were held to predate those of any other civilization. The Renaissance understanding of this hermetic tradition was based on a collection of writings attributed to a certain Hermes Trismegistus, the "Thrice-Great Hermes," said to have been an Egyptian priest reporting on traditions and lore current in the Egyptian temples of his time. The Corpus Hermeticum had something for everyone: astrology, alchemy, texts about the secret powers of plants and stones, guides to the making of talismans, and proper philosophical treatises. It is easy to imagine the excitement generated by the first reading of such secret lore.

    This bulk of hermetic writings was first brought to Florence, the epicenter of the Renaissance, by a monk from Macedonia in 1453 who was one of the agents employed by Cosimo de' Medici to scour the East for manuscripts. Believing these Greek documents to be the work of an Egyptian priest who lived long before Plato, Cosimo ordered his scholars to drop everything, including their translation of Plato's Republic , and devote themselves to translating the Corpus Hermeticum into more readable Latin.

    It hardly affects our argument that the hermetic texts were not nearly so old as Cosimo thought. Indeed, far from having been written before Plato, they were in fact produced in the first and second centuries of the Christian era. Needless to say, the Corpus Hermeticum may well contain in it older oral traditions, and the Jewish and perhaps Persian influences are readily apparent; for all we can tell, it may also contain the remains of secret Egyptian lore handed down over the generations. And there seems to be a bit about Genesis in it as well, which some people believed might predate Moses's account of creation in the Bible, and a "son of God" also appears. By the seventeenth century, when the hermetic writings were revealed as post-Christian, they were too entrenched in European culture to be discarded.

    The implications of hermeticism for the messianic idea were profound, for the chief message of its writings was that humankind not only can understand the world but can actually control it, at the very least by identifying the path that nature will take. In one sense at least, hermeticism did emerge from Egyptian religion, in that its basic tenets developed in Alexandria in those first centuries of the Christian era when the direction that the organized religion would take was still unclear. Out of that cauldron also came Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, philosophies that stressed that knowledge was twofold: superstition for the masses and knowledge ( gnosis ) for the élite. Neoplatonism developed from the philosophy of Plotinus in the third century A.D., and especially emphasized the single ultimate source from which all things emanate and with which the soul seeks mystical union. The Gnostics, who considered themselves Christians, believed in a supreme God who not only was totally remote from our world but had no part in Creation, that job having been the bungled job of a lesser, perhaps evil, deity. This belief system was set out in their own texts, some of which were discovered in Egypt at Nag Hammadi in 1945, mostly written in Coptic, translated from the Greek. Within our gross physical bodies, they argued, is a divine spark, the soul, trapped and searching for salvation and reunion with God. This can be achieved through gnosis , which enables the soul to ascend into the celestial realms controlled by the stars and planets. If we add to the Gnostics the activity of Sextus Empiricus in second-century Alexandria and the development of skepticism as a philosophical school, then certainly it can be said that hermeticism's pedigree was hardly less grand for not having come directly from ancient Egypt.

    In this Renaissance period of intellectual fervor, then, everything was possible, and someone interested in one aspect of the supernatural tradition was likely as not to be fascinated by another. Admittedly, not all of this was completely new: the Asclepius , for example, one of the most important hermetic treatises, had been known in Latin translation in the Middle Ages from the second century, and had a smaller revival during the twelfth century. But the extraordinary rehabilitation of the hermetic writings in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries provided a high-quality complex text which could be studied and cited.


The most important bridge between hermeticism and the biblical scholarship from which Christian millenarianism drew its strength was the introduction to hermeticism, very early on, of the key component of Jewish mysticism, the Cabala. The Cabala entered European Christian intellectual life as part of these supernatural and esoteric interests during the Renaissance, and it never left. Its methods became an essential tool for biblical exegesis, and they have had enormous effects on messianism, because the Cabala, it was believed, could be used for calculating when the Messiah would come. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) was the first to use the Jewish mystical tradition as a Christian tool for biblical analysis. Pico, the youngest son of the count of Mirandola and Concordia, a small territory near Ferrara, began to study canon law at Bologna at the age of fourteen, and two years later went to Ferrara, then Padua. In Paris he encountered scholastic theologians, and back in Italy he studied Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic with several Jewish teachers. It was then that he developed an interest in the Cabala.

    Pico chose the most public way of introducing a serious consideration of the Cabala into Christian theological debate. Having settled in Rome in 1486, he proposed 900 theses and challenged any scholar to confute them, agreeing to pay his expenses. As it happened, the pope refused to allow the debate to take place, since of the 900 theses, 47 came directly from cabalistic sources, and a further 72 were Pico's own conclusions from cabalistic research. The most controversial of these theses proclaimed, "No science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Cabala." Indeed, the cabalistic techniques of gematria (whereby each letter stands for a significant numerical value) and notarikon (whereby words are seen as abbreviations) efficiently served Christian needs. The first three letters of the Hebrew Bible (beth-resh-aleph) , for example, could easily be seen as an abbreviation for son-spirit-father (ben-ruach-av) ; and the placing of the Hebrew letter shin in the median position of the tetragrammaton produced an approximation of the name "Jesus." As this unspeakable word becomes pronounceable, so too is the ineffable made tangible, the spirit made flesh. Even the vertical arrangement of the four letters of the Hebrew name of God seemed to produce the stick figure of a man.

    Pico's determination to use the Cabala in Christian theological discussion promoted the first genuine scholarly interest in this important Jewish tradition, and at exactly the same time that the Jews were being expelled from Spain. Iberian Jews were instrumental in raising the study of the Cabala to new heights in Italy, for one of the intellectual effects of their expulsion from Spain was to turn the entire mystical tradition around from being focused on the origins of the world to its eventual apocalyptic destruction, a new pessimistic orientation in an era of holocaust. Pico and his spiritual descendants, then, were latching on to a Jewish philosophy in the process of rapid development. Since the Cabala was fundamentally biblical, it was spared the suspicious skepticism that might be connected with the parallel interest in the hermetic Egyptian tradition.

    Through Pico's influence, Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) was led to cabalistic and Hebraic wisdom, which he studied in Italy under Jacob ben Jehiel Loans, the Jewish court physician of Frederick III. Reuchlin produced in 1506 the first Hebrew grammar in Latin, and wrote the first full treatises on the Cabala by a gentile. Pico and Reuchlin's fascination with Hebrew and the Cabala was certainly part of Renaissance eclecticism, the notion that the truth could be found scattered in a wide variety of sources. Yet, more importantly, they reinforced the belief that the Cabala was part of the original divine message God gave Moses on Mount Sinai, and that it had remained pure, untainted by the intervention of the rabbis and their obfuscating Talmud. Many Jewish rabbis and even medical doctors now found themselves in demand among their intellectual Christian neighbors as purveyors of whatever Hebrew knowledge they might have, no matter how haphazardly acquired. Eventually, their monopoly was weakened by both the printing of cabalistic works and the rise of Lurianic Cabala, a new variety of the mystical tradition which was being developed at Safed in Palestine, but for nearly a century these Jewish teachers were very popular. Rabbi Elijah Menahem Halfan described the newfound popularity of Jewish scholars as somewhat exasperating:

In the last twenty years, knowledge has increased, and people have been seeking everywhere for instruction in Hebrew. Especially after the rise of the sect of Luther, many of the nobles and scholars of the land sought to have thorough knowledge of this glorious science [Cabala]. They have exhausted themselves in this search, because among our people there are but a small number of men learned in this wisdom, for after the great number of troubles and expulsions, but a few remain. So seven learned men grasp a Jewish man by the hem of his garment and say: "Be our master in this science!”

    Pico had a rabbi as well, Yohanan Isaac Allemanno, whom he met in Florence in 1488 and engaged as his teacher. But more importantly, there was Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada, a.k.a. Flavius Mithridates (c. 1450-fl. 1489), who was born in Sicily, where his father was a rabbi. At some point he was baptized and took the name of the count of Aderno, becoming a priest soon afterward. He studied at the University of Naples, and picked up a few benefices, one from the pope and another from the king of Aragon; by about 1477 he was in Rome, well connected at the papal court and a professor of theology at the Sapienza. A high point of his career took place on Good Friday 1481, when he preached on the suffering of Jesus Christ before Pope Sixtus IV and the College of Cardinals in the Vatican. He introduced quotations from cabalistic sources, the so-called secret Jewish doctrines, into his preaching, and even if some of them were made up, the effect was impressive. But for some reason he fell from favor in 1483, was deprived of his benefices, and was forced to flee to Germany, where he taught in Cologne and Tübingen. Two years later he was on his way back to Italy, via Basel, where he taught Rodolphus Agricola, the Dutch humanist, and Sebastian Brant, the poet.

    Back in Italy, and now calling himself Flavius Mithridates, he taught Pico Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and the Cabala; went with him to various places in Italy; but prudently decided to stay away from Rome in 1486, when his pupil attempted to present his cabalistic theses for public debate. Instead, he went to Viterbo, meeting the young future Pope Paul III, but perhaps someone recognized him, since he was imprisoned there on the order of his former patron Pope Innocent VIII. Nothing more is heard of Flavius Mithridates after that date.

    Indeed, the point has been made that the entire direction of translation was altered by the careers of these rabbis and priests. Before the Renaissance, many philosophical treatises were translated into Hebrew by Jews for the use of other Jews. But now, Jews and converts from Judaism were translating Hebrew works into Latin or Italian and writing themselves in these languages.


Copyright © 1998 David S. Katz and Richard H. Popkin. All rights reserved.

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