6.18.2009

"The End" with the Church Fathers

Contrary to what appears to be popular belief, the earliest church fathers (e.g., Papias, Polycarp) were premillennial, largely because of the teaching of a certain apostle named John. Eusebius claims he is differnt than the son of Zebedee, but most Fathers claim he, in fact, is the one who walked with Jesus in Galilee. Irenaeus, who essentially defines "orthodoxy," preserves the following saying from Jesus. I will provide his context, the saying, and a few comments:

The blessing thus foretold undoubtedly belongs to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall rise from those who are dead and reign, when creation, too, renewed and freed from bondage, shall produce an abundance of food all kinds from the dew of heaven and from the fertility of the earth, just as the elders, who saw John the disciple of the Lord, remembered having heard from him how the Lord used to teach about those times and say:

“Days shall come, when vines shall grow, each having ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand branches, and on each branch ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters, and in each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape when crushed shall yield twenty-five measures of wine. [3] And when one of the holy ones takes hold of a cluster, another cluster shall cry out: “I am better, take me, bless the Lord through me.” [4] Similarly, a grain of wheat will produce ten thousand heads, and every head will have ten thousand grains, and every grain ten pounds of fine flour, white and clean. [5] And the other fruits, seeds, and grass shall produce in similar proportions, and all the animals feeding on these fruits produced by the soil shall in turn become peaceful and harmonious toward one another, and fully subject to humankind.”

[6] Papias, a man of the early period, who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, bears witness to these things in writing in the fourth of his books, for there are five books composed by him. [7] And he goes on to say:

“These things are believable to those who believe.”

“And,” he says, “when Judas the traitor did not believe and asked:

‘How, then, will such growth be accomplished by the Lord?’

the Lord said:

‘Those who live until those times will see.’”

For the citation, see Against Heresies 5.33.3-4.

Comment: The language echoes Jesus’ canonical teaching (e.g., the parables throughout Matthew 13; see also 5:5). We find a similar yet less extravagant vision in 1 Enoch:

"Then all the earth will be tilled in righteousness, and all of it will be planted with trees and filled with blessing; [19] and all the trees of joy will be planted on it. They will plant vines on it, and every vine that will be planted on it will yield a thousand jugs of wine, and of every seed that is sown on it, each measure will yield a thousand measures, and each measure of olives will yield ten baths of oil." (10:18-19; tr. Nickelsburg and VanderKam)

The early church valued 1 Enoch, which eventually became canonical for the Ethiopic Church (Jude 14-15). As we noted already, the saying fits the theological vision of Revelation 20. These logia of Jesus also explain the millennialism of Papias, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victor, and others.

The two primary states are fecundity and peace. There is a surplus of food and wine, in anticipation of the Messianic Banquet. The earth will also produce food (fruits, seeds, and grass) that will create harmony among the animals, which previously ate another.

The Mosaic Law begins with the ideal setting of a garden, in which human beings and animals do not eat one another but live in peaceful harmony (Gen 2:19-20). God says:

"Look, I gave you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. [30] And to every creeper of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every grass for food." (Gen 1:29-30)

God also intends human beings to sow and harvest grain from the field:

And no plant of the field was yet on the land, and no (cultivated) grain of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land and there was no man to work the ground. (Gen 2:5)

Literary parallelism ties “cultivated grain” with “man” (Hebrew roots). God gave us hands with opposable thumbs to cut channels for irrigation, cast seed, cut the harvest, and separate the chaff from the head of grain (wheat, barley, etc.). God provides what we need for our daily bread. Only after the fall and subsequent flood does God allow the consumption of animal flesh (Gen 9:3-4).

Perhaps the central claim of the Gospels is that Jesus inaugurated a messianic era, the Kingdom of God, which is presented by the Prophets and Gospels, in part, as a return to Eden. Jesus reverses the curse (Gen 3:14-19).

The disciple may embrace vegetarianism as a prophetic act—“a witness to the world that God’s creation is not meant to be at war with itself,” as S. Hauerwas and J. Berkman put it (1993, 62). As Isaiah’s messiah, Jesus will one day bring peace between predator and prey (11:6-9). But this vision requires the physiological transformation (resurrection?) of a predator’s body. Animals still eat animals, and, more importantly, some animals must eat animals to thrive—“obligate carnivores,” such as lions.

We do not find an equivalent saying in the Fourth Gospel, but John or his circle of disciples claim to have been profoundly selective (21:25).

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