O’Kane’s Response to My Review of Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World

Author Kevin Timothy O’Kane sent me a response to my review of Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World.  I wrote a review of O’Kane’s Instigators of the Apocalypse last month, and O’Kane’s book engages with Kirsch’s book.  See here, here, and here for background information.

O’Kane has given me permission to post his response to my review.  Here it is:

James, I found your take on Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World worth considering. But let me expand a little on what you wrote about it in relation to my book.

First, let’s look at the discussion around literal and symbolic approaches to Revelation.
You wrote: “That raises questions in my mind about what is a literal and what is a symbolic or allegorical approach, and how that fits into O’Kane’s thesis. While O’Kane does have problems with the allegorical approach to Revelation and does well to argue that it contributed to the idea of a church triumphant (with the persecutions that would accompany that), not all of the eschatological views that O’Kane critiques are necessarily allegorical, for they believe in a literal Antichrist. They may not be entirely literal, either, for they do not appear to take what Revelation says about the millennium at face value, at least not entirely.”

Actually, none of the interpretations I define as Hyper-symbolic are completely symbolic, just as literal interpretations are never completely literal. Postmillennialism, for example expects a literal return of Christ in the flesh, but only after a symbolic reading of the millennium which places Christ’s return at the end of the millennium. Amillennialism expects a literal, physical day of the resurrection of the body. Historicism accepts the notion of a literal Antichrist, but symbolizes the reign of the Antichrist to last 1260 years and further symbolizes that whoever sits on the papal throne is the Antichrist at any given moment. While I believe historicism is a false interpretation, it was historicism coupled with symbolic views of the millennium that initiated a great deal of violence. As I indicated in my book, it was the symbolizing of the millennium which is most at fault in leading the church to embrace physical force against its enemies.

Next, in discussing Kirsch, I define his overall thesis by this one statement:

“When they cautioned good Christians to engage in a spiritual rather than carnal reading of Revelation, they were struggling to make it safe for human consumption-and thus began the long, ardent, but failed enterprise that one scholar calls the ‘taming’ of the apocalyptic tradition,” A History of the End of the World, p.118.

In context, Kirsch was referring to the allegorist fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, for he follows the statement with discussions of Tychonius and Augustine. This implied that the literalists (futurist premillennialists) of the first three centuries made the Revelation “unsafe” for human consumption and inspired the church down the road to violence. You will notice, however, that Kirsch can give no primary sources from the early literalists that advocate violence. In fact, it’s just the opposite; the documents we possess, including what we know of the Montanists, advocate pacifism in relation to persecution. However, what I find most astonishing in Kirsch is that he completely ignored the fourth century allegorist, Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius, along with Augustine, was, perhaps, the biggest culprit in pushing the church to accept the notion of Christian holy war when he wrote that Constantine won his civil wars by having the symbol of the cross painted on his army’s shields before going into battle. One can only surmise that Kirsch’s failure to engage Eusebius in any discussion at all is because he didn’t do the proper research, or worse, he purposely left Eusebius out because the allegorist contradicts his thesis. This brings me to my final point and complaint about Kirsch’s book.

You wrote: “I appreciated how Kirsch interacted with critical scholarship about the distinction between eschatology and apocalypticism, and also the Book of Revelation itself: John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and J. Massyngberde Ford are scholars with whom Kirsch interacts.”

In reality, this is one of the glaring weaknesses of Kirsch’s book. Kirsch relies too heavily on secondary sources and spends too little time in the primary. This leads him into a number of errors on history that are less than correct. An example of this is in his treatment of the Fifth Monarchists, where the author insinuated that the Monarchists expected a return of Christ in the flesh to lead them into battle: “Church and government alike . . . would be replaced once and for all by a biblical theocracy under King Jesus himself” (p. 176). Sharan Newman, who followed up on Kirsch’s book with her own in The Real History of the End of the World, was even more direct: “While most who take part in a rebellion think God must be on their side, few expect him to bodily lead an army. The Fifth Monarchists did.” (p. 169) The fact is, most of the secondary sources on this subject got it wrong. If either of these authors bothered to read the actual sources written by Fifth Monarchy members, they would have understood that the Monarchists’ eschatology was in line with postmillennial theology where Christ returns in the flesh only after the spirit of “King Jesus’ had indwelt the monarchists and given them the ability to conquer all Catholic monarchies.

Within the weakness of relying mainly on secondary sources, Kirsch painted the Book of Revelation’s influence in history with a broad brush. While he mentions the existence of various interpretations, he failed to show what interpretation led to what war or revolution. This leaves the reader with misperceptions and portrays the book itself as the villain of western civilization rather than the interpreters. I assume this was in keeping with his agenda and why readers should take new theories about history with a certain grain of salt: always look for the primary sources and look them up on your own when feasible. And half-quotes of the primary taken out of secondary sources should also be looked upon with suspicion, which are prevalent in Kirsch’s book. This is part of what I set out to correct in writing my own book. I placed an emphasis on the primary whenever possible, and in some cases, gave fuller quotes than Kirsch.

Regards, Kevin Timothy O’Kane

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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