The Messiah in 1492?
To most people in the U.S. 1492 means only one thing: the discovery of America. Actually, it was a momentous year for Spain and, no doubt, the departure of Columbus with three small ships on August third seemed to be one of the less important events. The year started with a great triumph; on January second Ferdinand and Isabella captured the last Moorish stronghold in the country The Moslems had invaded Spain in 711 and had soon conquered almost all of the peninsula, so their final defeat after all those centuries seemed very important to the Spanish.1 The Jews of Spain had their sights on an even greater triumph: the coming of their Messiah. Now why would they choose that time for His coming?
The reason that the Jews expected their Messiah2 to appear at any moment that year was that they were in serious trouble again. Ferdinand and Isabella, at least partly as a thank offering to God for His help in the reconquest, signed an edict in March ordering all Jews to accept Christian baptism or leave the country in four months. Most of them chose to leave and were cruelly tormented and robbed by their fanatical neighbors. In their despair they prayed that their Messiah would come to deliver them.
The survivors from this Exodus found refuge in Moslem lands, many of them settling in the Near East, then the Turkish Empire. Their conviction that their Messiah would quickly appear to deliver them from their troubles continued for a generation and more, but in the meantime they found ways to improve their own lot. Indeed, these deported Spanish Jews, the Sephardim as they were called, became an aristocracy of sorts among their own people, a group distinguished for their accomplishments. As strange as it may seem. these Jews, scattered as they were across the earth, were wont to keep their Spanish dialect, although they had no reason to love the people who had sent them into exile. It is no doubt worth noting that the Jews who came to our Thirteen Colonies long ago were mostly Sephardic. We should remember too that Spain lost a valuable asset when she drove out these capable people.
The reaction of the Jews to their crisis in 1492 was rather typical of their behavior under stress and not greatly different from what Christians have often done in similar circumstances. For instance, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, if we may borrow Gibbon's name for what happened, was an exceedingly painful experience for many people. Indeed, it is believed that the population of the Empire may have declined by about half during those years of turmoil. It is hard for us Americans to imagine a catastrophe of such magnitude. Needless to say, a lot of Romans were deeply concerned about the crisis and noted with unbelief the indifference of many Christians. As Gibbon tells us, the Christians didn't care what happened to Rome, because they believed that their Lord would return as the old and feeble Roman Empire5 was tottering to its fall. while it should be remembered that he had an anti-Christian bias, it may be well be true, as Gibbon insisted, that the political sins of omission of the saints contributed to the collapse of civilization. Are we doing the same today?
It should be obvious that over the ages many Christians and Jews have shared the belief that when their problems overwhelmed them their Messiah would appear to rescue them. Beyond this point our ideas differ, we believing that their Messiah did come but too many of them failed to recognize Him. It will be noted also that both believed they were powerless to remedy the situation themselves. A striking exception to this tendency was Saint Augustine;4 he saw much to encourage him when Rome was captured and sacked by the Goths in 410 A.D. When the pagans insisted that Rome had fallen because it had forsaken the gods which had made her great, he answered that the Lord had saved them from an awful fate, something their heathen deities never could have done. He reminded them that when Troy, for instance, was captured by the Greeks, it was destroyed utterly and everyone was killed who could not escape. This was what always happened in war, but the barbarians had shown unbelievable restraint in pillaging Rome. It was a miracle. War was still war, but the Gospel of Christ had even tamed the barbarians. This, Saint Augustine believed, was just a foretaste of the great changes for the better which he saw down in the future. He was convinced that the Church should replace the heathen and dying Roman Empire with a Christian civilization. One can allow that the good Saint was too optimistic and still insist that it should have happened.
Let us move a little closer to our own time and see what can be done, the Lord being our helper. In 1738 Bishop Berkeley wrote5 that morality and religion in Britain had collapsed "to a degree that has never been known in any Christian country. Our prospect is very terrible and the symptoms grow worse from day to day." That very year John Wesley had his "heart strangely warmed" at Aldersgate and he went out into the fields to call England to repentance. Slowly the tide began to turn. In addition to the great revival social reforms, once deemed impossible, now became very feasible. As one example, England freed her slaves in 1772 and went on to eradicate that ancient evil from the earth. Christian statesmen, led by William Wilberforce and loyally supported by John Wesley and multitudes of concerned Christians, accomplished much.6 Even secular historians7 concede that without the great revival England would no doubt have had the equivalent of the French Revolution. Like the writer of the Book of Hebrews, "the time would fail me to tell" of their many accomplishments" (Heb. 11:32). This was what Saint Augustine had in mind when he wrote The City of God; we should build a Christian civilization.
No doubt the Jews of Spain were helpless in 1492 and could only flee, if even that was possible. But too often we Christians have run away from our problems, when with the Lord's help we could have done something about them if we had had the courage to try. Then it might be said of us as it was of Paul and Silas: "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also." (Acts 17:6).
1 Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, third edition, 1968), pp. 69-79.
2 Gershotn Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 41.
3 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Foil of the Roman Empire (NewYork: Modern Library; original 1776-1788, reprint 1982), Vol. I, pp.416-417.
4 St. Augustine, The City of God, Book I, chapters 1 through 7.
5 A. Skevington wood, The inextinguishable Blaze (Grand Rapids, MI: Wtn. H. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), p.15.
6 Earle E. Cairns, Saints and Society (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 61-85.
7 J. Wesley Bready, Faith and Freedom (Winona Lake, IN: Light and Life Press, 1952), pp. 14-17.