The Issue of History Events Patterns Proofs

The scriptural record of Israel, shared by both parties to the dispute, took as its premise a single fact. When God wished to lay down a judgment, God did so through the medium of events. History, composed of singular events, therefore spoke God's message. Prophets found vindication through their power to enunciate and even (in the case of Moses) to make, and change, history. Revealing God's will, history moreover consisted of a line of one-time events, all of them heading in a single direction, a line that began at creation and will end with salvation.

No stoic indifference, no policy of patient endurance could shelter Israel, the Jewish people, from the storm of doubt that swept over them. For if Con-stantine had become a Christian, if Julian's promise of rebuilding the Temple had produced nothing, if Christian emperors had secured control of the empire for Christ and even abridged long-standing rights and immunities of Israel, as they did, then what hope could remain for Israel? Of greater consequence, was not history vindicating the Christian claim that God had saved humanity through the suffering people of God, the Church? Christians believed that the conversion of Constantine and the Roman government proved beyond a doubt that Christ was King-Messiah. For Israel the interpretation of the political happenings of the day required deep thought about the long-term history of humanity. Conceptions of history carried with them the most profound judgments on the character of the competing nations: the old people, Israel, and the Christians, a third race, a no-people—as some called themselves—now become the regnant nation, the Church. We do not know that the conversion of Constantine and events in its aftermath provoked sages to devote thought to the issues of history and its meaning. We know only that they compiled documents rich in thought on the subject. What they said, moreover, bore remarkable pertinence to the issues generated by the history of the period.

We turn to the substance of sages' and theologians' doctrine of history as expressed in Genesis Rabbah and in the histories of Eusebius. The program of the two parties was essentially uniform, and we can therefore presume that a confrontation of ideas on the same issue took place. When sages and theologians debated history, three separate matters came under discussion. The first involved the identification of important events, things that had happened that made a difference. The second required discerning the patterns of events, thus raising questions of the meaning and end of history. The third range of discourse, of course, focused upon the difference history made; what mattered in history or, in other words, what history proved.

Christian theologians joined the issue with the claim that what had happened proved that Jesus was Christ. The empire that had persecuted Christians now had fallen into their hands. What better proof than that. Eusebius, for example, started his account of the age of Constantine with the simple statement: "Rejoicing in these things which have been clearly fulfilled in our day, let us proceed to the account. . . . And finally a bright and splendid day, overshadowed by no cloud, illuminated with beams of heavenly light the churches of Christ throughout the entire world" (Eusebius 1961, 1:369). Christians entered the new age, as Eusebius says, with the sense that they personally witnessed God's kingdom come: not "by hearsay merely or report, but [we] observe ... in very deed and with our own eyes that the declarations recorded long ago are faithful and true ... 'as we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God.' And in what city but in this newly built and god-constructed one, which is a 'church of the living God'. ..." The events that mattered at the time were those pointing toward the end-result, the one at hand. The pattern of events presented a more complex exercise, since a great many matters had to fit into one large picture.

The Judaic sages, for their part, constructed their own position, which implicitly denied the Christian one. They worked out a view of history that consisted of a rereading of the book of Genesis in light of the entire history of Israel, read under the aspect of eternity. Genesis then provided a complete, profoundly typological interpretation of everything that had happened as well as a reliable picture of what, following the rules of history laid down in Genesis, was going to happen in the future. Typological in what sense? The events of Genesis served as types, prefiguring what would happen to Israel in the future. Just as the Christians read stories of the Old Testament as types of the life of Christ, so the sages understood the tales of Genesis in a similarly typological manner. For neither party can history have retained that singular and one-dimensional, linear quality that it had had in Scripture itself.

Eusebius for his part also began his history of humanity from Genesis. He undertook to describe the history of the world from its very beginnings to its climactic moment, in which he lived. Sages in Genesis Rabbah did the same thing. Sages in fact had inherited two conflicting ways of sorting out events and declaring some of them to add up to history, to meaning. From the biblical prophets they learned that God made God's will known through what happened, using pagan empires to carry out a plan. So some events formed a pattern and proved a proposition. The sages did not propose to deny this. They inherited, also from Scripture, a congruent scheme for dealing with history. This scheme involved differentiating one period from another, one empire from another, assigning to each a symbol, e.g., an animal, and imputing to each animal traits characteristic of the empire, and of the age. This apocalyptic approach to history did not contradict the basic principles of the prophetic view of events but expressed that view in somewhat different, more concrete terms. But, as we shall see, there was a separate, conflicting theory of events and how to discern their meaning, and that was the Mishnah's. In due course we shall take up this other approach to deciding which events make history, determining the pattern of history, and, finally, undertaking to express the proposition or principle that history proved. For the moment, however, it suffices to make a simple point. Both parties—Judaic sages, Christian theologians—did propose to answer one and the same question: What does it all mean? Specifically, for the age of Constantine, how shall we interpret the momentous events of the day? Which events matter? What patterns do we discern in them? And what, finally, do they prove?

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