[RG #83] Millennial Pursuits - Apocalyptic Traditions and Expectations of the End among Medieval Jews and their Neighbors
November 2000 - February 2001
Jeremy Cohen (Tel Aviv University)
Ora Limor (The Open University of Israel)
Our group originated in the conviction that a community's expectations of the end constitute a vital sign -- perhaps one of its most potent agents of social change -- and that the continuing role of religious tradition in nourishing those beliefs warrants scholarly attention. We took our point of departure from the premise that the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from late antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages affords a singularly instructive context for the study of eschatology and its socio-cultural significance. This period is proverbially known as the "age of faith" in the annals of Western and Mediterranean civilization, when membership in society was defined first and foremost by one's religious affiliation, and when the prophetic ideals pervading the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran undergirded virtually all expressions of cultural creativity. Talmudic and medieval Jews, perennially obsessed with their displacement in galut, diaspora, cultivated numerous permutations of the messianic idea as a basis for persevering in Christian and Muslim societies; as Gershom Scholem aptly noted, they lived their lives largely "in deferment", finding fulfillment in hope for the future rather than in the realities of the present.
Eschatological creativity, however, was not limited to an alienated Jewish minority. Apocalyptic literature and spirituality flowered in patristic and medieval Christianity, among the empowered and the orthodox who identified with the prevailing establishments, as well as among the disenchanted who could not find a satisfying niche in prevailing social structures and institutions. Though often overlooked in recent scholarship, Muslim apocalyptic proved consequential, as well, and eschatological differences highlighted the rift between Sunni and Shi'ite communities. In the worldview shared by the Jews with the Christian and Muslim majorities around them, eschatology provided the basis for a comprehensive reading of history; in its longing for future, it imbued both past and present with significance. So deeply embedded was messianic expectation in the fabric of medieval experience that cultural historian Georges Duby, in his provocative book, An 1000, An 2000, 1995, has sought to unravel our modern premillennial predicament in the terms of its medieval precedents.
Our research will study the messianic expectations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Europe and the Middle East from the conversion of Constantine to the Sabbatean messianic movement (4th-17th centuries). While the modern study of eschatology and millennialism has progressed fruitfully within numerous academic disciplines, our group will provide a forum for historical research and conversation, incorporating historians of religion, ideas, and art.