Early Christian Origins: Studies in Honor of Harold R. Willoughby

By Allen Wikgren | Go to book overview

V
THE HISTORICAL PAUL

Frederick C. Grant UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

One to the finest sonnets in English literature begins

Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour!
England hath need of thee.

So wrote William Wordsworth in London in 1802. How often in the past men have cried out for the return of great leaders, great teachers, great thinkers, to face present crises and solve deeply involved present problems! For several generations men believed that Frederick Barbarossa was asleep in a quiet cave and would return when Europe's need became most dire. Even the emperor Nero had those who longed for his return, as in the days of "Vespasin's brutal son," the emperor Domitian, who

Clear'd Rome of What most sham'd him.

The popular dream of Nero redivivus is the New Testament, in the Apocalypse of John (see Rev. 13:3; 17:8). Elsewhere in the New Testament we hear an echo of popular beliefs in Galilee that "one of the old prophets" had risen, that Jesus--or perhaps John--was Elijah come back to life again or risen from the dead, or that he was Jeremiah come again. The Elias redivivus hope has had a very long history, starting with the last verses of the prophet Malachi (4:5 f.), if not earlier, and surviving to this day in popular folklore, e.g., in Poland, where every Jewish child is taught to look for the coming of the prophet Elijah. Even the Messianic hope, the expectation of a return of King David or of his son or the rise of a king descended from David to liberate and rule the people of God-- this also belongs in the category we are considering.

Why is this? Why do people crave the return of great men from the past? Why is the world so completely conditioned to its own past

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