Apocalyptic Dualism in Second Temple Judaism.


Apocalyptic dualism, a Second Temple Judaism concept, divides the entire cosmos into two categories, namely that of good and evil, light and dark. Those who choose to be on the side of light have given their full allegiance to God while everyone else, consciously or not, have given their allegiance to Satan (1). C.S. Lewis creatively captured this conflict when he wrote that “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan” (2).

Much of this thought can be found in Jesus’ own teachings. Jesus’ conviction that he was the last prophet before the imminent end of the world enabled him to equate allegiance to himself with allegiance to God. Similarly, much like other apocalyptic sects of his day (such as the Qumran community), Jesus believed that his brand of Judaism was the only brand that could save the people of Yahweh from the coming destruction and judgment. It was a war between the forces of good and evil that was reflected on Earth as a battle between Israel and the gentile nations.

Christian scholar Stark believes that this “black and white perspective is understandable given the character of the times. Apocalyptic Jews considered themselves to be soldiers (some violent, others nonviolent) in a time of war” (3). God’s agents in combat with Satan reflected the political-economic situation in which the people’s lives were out of their own control and under hostile and/or alien control (4).

As expected during war it would be necessary to draw sharp dividing lines between the sides in the conflict, which was the logic behind apocalyptic sects’ claim that failure to join their particular cause was synonymous with treason. Essentially, only the narrow road led to life whereas the wide road led to destruction. This conviction was clearly espoused by Jesus, thus why he called his followers to celibacy (Matt. 19:12), and expected them to leave their families behind (Matt. 19:29). Stark continues:

“Those who were unwilling to abandon the concerns of everyday existence were unfit for engagement in the final battle before the end. In the mindset that predominates in wartime, those unwilling to make such severe sacrifices are cowards at best, collaborators at worst. Moreover, the consequences for cowards and collaborators are the same. To be “ashamed” of Jesus and his demand to carry the cross – the demand to participate in the revolution even if it meant a revolutionary’s death – is to be stand condemned when the Son of Man comes (Mark 8:34-38)” (5).


1. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong (and why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). Location 7293 (Amazon Kindle)

2. C.S. Lewis quoted by Vaughn Allen in The War is Real (1994). p. 30.

3. Stark, T. ibid. Location 7299 (Amazon Kindle)

4. Horsley, R. 1989. Sociology and the Jesus Movement. p. 98.

5. Stark, T. ibid. Location 7309 (Amazon Kindle)

3 responses to “Apocalyptic Dualism in Second Temple Judaism.

  1. So when did satan get upgraded to prince of the power of the air, and also able to offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world? It happened during the Inter-testamental period of writings, which most Evangelicals don’t know or care about. Scholars also point out the influence that the Persian religion with one big good god and one big evil god fighting, had on the Jews, who were also freed from their Babylonian captivity by a Persian king, the only non-Jew in the Bible whom the Jews called a “messiah.”

    (In Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2) Satan is depicted as a member of God’s court whose basic duty it was to “accuse” human beings before God. He is clearly not at this point an enemy of God and the leader of the demonic forces of evil, as he becomes later… It should be noted that ‘the serpent’ of Genesis 3 is never in the O[ld] T[estament] identified as Satan.

    It is during the late postexilic period (after ca. 200 B.C.) and in the intertestamental literature that one first finds the development of the idea of Satan that is assumed in the New Testament writings. Probably under the influence of Persian ideology, there developed in Hebrew thought the idea of a dualism rampant in the created order–a dualism of good versus evil. There existed already the idea that God had a heavenly host, a group of messengers to carry out his work and orders. The Persians also believed in a ruler over the powers of evil, who had many servants in this realm known as demons. The Hebrews could easily understand and assimilate such thinking into their already existing ideas, but they had not yet developed any idea of a major being as a leader of the forces of evil…

    Satan and his cohorts then came to represent the powers of evil in the universe and were even known in Jesus’ time as the Kingdom of Satan, against which Jesus had come to fight and to establish the Kingdom of God…

  2. If you study the N.T. and look up the use of words like Satan, Antichrist, demon, unclean spirit, and power (as in “prince of the power of the air”), you see that the Gospel is about being saved from “evil powers/forces” of all sorts by the “power of God.” According to the N.T. we are all involved in a literal power struggle, an apocalyptic battle between supernatural evil and God’s power.

    This idea inspired the early Church. Read not only all the passages that come up in the N.T. using the search words I mentioned above, but read what Augustine said about the power of baptism moving infants from Satan’s kingdom to God’s. And read the quotations from historians below… Christianity gave us the premier means and methods to demonize other people and their beliefs.

    Paganism was reclassified as a demonic system. . . . If Satan was the source of error and evil, false teaching and wrongdoing were not merely mistaken: they were diabolic. The division between a Christian “community of goodness” and an “outer world of evil” could easily become too pronounced. The idea of Satan magnified the difference between “true” and “false” Christians and between Christian sinners and saints. . . .

    Like Satan, the Last Judgment was a force that Christians exaggerated and then claimed to be able to defeat…This teaching was reinforced by an equally powerful ally, the Christian idea of sin. Sin was not just the sin of an action, or even an intention, but also the sin of a thought, even a passing interest in an appealing man or woman. This combination of rarefied sin and eternal punishment was supported, as we shall see, by books of vision and revelation that were probably more widely read than modern contempt for “pseudepigraphic” forgeries allows: acquaintance with the Apocalypse of “Peter” would make anyone think twice before leaving the Church (we happen to know that “Peter’s vision of hell” was still read as a holy text in the churches in Palestine on Good Friday during the fifth century). If fears for Eternity brought converts to the faith, one suspects that they did even more to keep existing converts in it.

    Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1987), p.326-327, 330-331, 412

    Another factor that arose specifically out of the ongoing conversion of the empire was the doctrine of demonic causation. The belief in the operation of maleficent forces on a large scale had to await Christianity; and it was of course Christianity that was to form the medieval and Byzantine world.

    Satanic agents were to be seen as the cause not only of wars and rebellions, persecution and heresy, storms at sea and earthquakes on land, but of a host of minor or major personal afflictions. So, in consequence, Christians were forever crossing themselves, whatever new action they set about, and painted crosses on their foreheads too, responding to their leaders’ urging them to do so. It would protect them against all evil.

    Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries

    The Christian elites–the educated or the anointed–placed far more faith in the supernatural (God) than did their pagan predecessors, who viewed the reliance on superstition (gods) as a crutch for the lower, especially rural, classes. This difference ironically gave Christianity an advantage: believers at both ends of the social spectrum, from bishops to peasants, looked to the supernatural for explanations of everyday occurrences, from the weather to illness to death. Thus, many pagan rituals provided the basis for Christian traditions: offerings to the gods became cults of the saints, pagan feasts became Christian festivals, etc. As Jerome acknowledged, in MacMullen’s paraphrase: “better, worship of the saints in the pagan manner than none at all.”
    – D. C. Smith Amazon Review of MacMullen’s book

    In this book we hear how the emperor Justinian was moved to raptures on hearing of how a Jewish boy convert survived being thrown into a furnace by his father. Justinian learned how angels prevented the boy from being burned, and then he had the father crucified.

    Persecution: MacMullen challenges those who argue that Christianity was an improvement for women and slaves. Women did play some role in leading Pagan cults, none at all in Christianity, and he tells how while a pagan governor demanded the compensation for the family of a murdered prostitute, Saint Jerome supported beheading for extramarital fornication. He discusses how exorcisms, resurrections, and healings played a greater role in conversions than sermons or reasoned argument. He discusses the increasingly bloodthirsty demands of bishops, monks and imperial decrees as well as pointing out the weaknesses of the bureaucratic machinery.

    Cost to the Persecuted: He discusses the joyous pagan festivals, including feasts, dancing, poetry orations and their long persistence despite the opposition of the bishops (Augustine tried to argue that giving friends presents was wicked). MacMullen also gives accounts of pagans who thought idols had actual magical powers. He discusses the destruction of pagan temples and shrines, as well as the cutting down of sacred trees.

    Superstition: MacMullen discusses the shifting attitude from the rational world view of Pliny, Seneca and Plotinus and the increase in credulity throughout the third and fourth centuries. MacMullen argues that this was a result of changes in the elite as more vulgar and less literate people increased their predominance. Whatever the merits of this thesis, MacMullen points out the contempt prominent Christians such as Tertullian, Augustine, Lactantius, Ambrose and John Chrysostom had for ancient philosophy. They denounced Plato and Aristotle by name, and mocked the idea of skeptical study and the scientific attitude. Nor did they stop there. They told stories about apparitions over the battlefield, miraculous cures, the ever present existence of demons, people raised to life by Christians, and dragons turned to dust by the sign of the cross.

    Assimilation: MacMullen provides much information about the assimilation of dancing, festival meals for the dead, and the growth about the cult of martyrs. He tells how angels and martyrs took the place of minor deities who heard the wishes that would have been apparently too petty to relate to God. Christianity also assimilated practices like valorizing the dust around certain shrines and the plants that grew there, as well as amulets and ankhs used to ward off disasters, while images of Jesus and other Christian figures spread throughout the world. “The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation,” concludes MacMullen, and it is the weakness of Christian efforts which mitigates an otherwise brutal history.
    – pnotley, Amazon Review of MacMullin’s book

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