The solar eclipse on August 11, 1999 led some people to expect the end of the world. According to one report, three people committed suicide, sure the end was near. Others shut themselves in their homes expecting extraordinary events to usher in the eschaton (“end times”). Since a simple eclipse could cause such panic, despite our considerable scientific knowledge, one wonders what the end of a millennium might do to people, individually and collectively.

In Israel/Palestine, the eclipse came and went without a fuss. The day was marked by a public holiday in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Most people stayed indoors, having been warned of the dangerous effects of solar rays on their eyes. In the end, it was just another day, perhaps a little hotter than usual.

How do people in the region view the end of the Millennium? Considering that most people in Israel and Palestine are Jews and Muslims, not much. According to the Jewish calendar, the present year is 5760. Muslims also have their own calendar, which they calculate from the hydra or flight of the Prophet Muhammad from the city of Mecca to Medina. For Muslims, the current year is 1420 A.H. Despite these calendrical differences, nearly everyone uses the Christian calendar, or, to be precise, the Gregorian calendar, to plan their social and economic lives. [1]

From a strictly religious perspective, and for most people in the Middle East — Muslims and Jews — the end of the Millennium has no meaning and will not be observed in any special way. Obviously, some Muslims and Jews will join in the celebrations for practical and commercial reasons. Most people, regardless of faith, welcome any opportunity to have fun and earn extra money.

The relatively small Christian community in Israel/Palestine will be celebrating the last Christmas of this century and the 2000th New Year of the Christian era. Palestinian Christians know that the year 2000 has been designated as “Bethlehem 2000” and “Nazareth 2000,” and that millions of Christians throughout the world will be celebrating the 2000th birthday of Christ. It is estimated that 15 million pilgrims will visit Rome next year, while only three or four million are expected to visit Bethlehem and Nazareth. For most people in “the Holy Land,” be they members of government (Israel or Palestinian Authority) or ordinary people, the year 2000 may mean good business and economic prosperity. When one considers the political, economic and emotional hardships Palestinian Christians and Muslims have endured during three decades of harsh military occupation, it is little wonder that their primary concerns center on the requirements of daily existence.

Palestinians do not entertain apocalyptic fears about the Millennium. It is not the end of the world that haunts them, but the possibility of their own national and communal end. Palestinians want to see Israel’s unjust and illegal occupation of their country ended so that they may establish their own sovereign Palestinian state. A common sentiment is “come what may cosmologically, nothing could be worse than our life today under occupation. In fact, if the world ends, it might put an end to our misery!” A popular Palestinian saying claims that “whatever comes from God is good,” so it is easier for people to accept natural disasters and divine intervention than it is to tolerate oppression and injustice imposed by their fellow human beings.

Cashing In on the Millennial Moment

In 1992, the Israeli government began preparing Nazareth, the country’s largest Palestinian Arab city, for the year 2000. Israel had anticipated the eventual return of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority and wanted to offer an alternative venue for Christian tourism in Israel. [2] The Labor Government of the late Yitzhak Rabin started pouring millions of shekels into Nazareth’s renovation and urban renewal. It is ironic that, after years of governmental neglect of the Arab sector, Nazareth finally began receiving needed funds not because the government had repented its discriminatory policies against its Palestinian Arab citizens, but because it wanted to improve Nazareth’s chances of competing with Bethlehem for pilgrims’ dollars.

Israel is making sure that the people of Nazareth and Bethlehem will not reap the maximum economic benefits of millennial tourism. A number of de luxe hotels have recently been completed in “Jewish” Jerusalem, and the attractive programs and itineraries currently being offered to foreign tourists and pilgrims by Israeli tour companies and government ministries will ensure that visitors spend most of their time — and money in Israel.

Millennial Meanings

A small segment of the Palestinian Christian community has been exposed to Western evangelical Christian thinking about the end times, either through contact with tourists, travel or study abroad. Relatively few actually believe that the end is near. Most Palestinian Christians belong to the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches and thus are not exposed to such apocalyptic views. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching is still influenced by St. Augustine, who held that the reference to a thousand years in the Book of Revelation to indicate the end times is symbolic.

Before pondering the actual and potential meanings of the Millennium for Palestinian Christians today, it is instructive to recall how Christians in Europe viewed the end of the first Millennium. For many years, the prevailing view was that Europeans had lived in fear of the First Millennium, believing the end of the world was near. This event supposedly marked 1000 years of Christianity and thus fulfilled what is written in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 20. Some historians say that thousands of people rushed to Jerusalem to await the Second Coming of Christ. [3]

Yet other historians now argue that most people in Europe were unaware of the significance of the 1000 years, since the Christian calendar was not universally observed at that time. Many scholars, however, insist that the Christian calendar was well-established in the monasteries of Western Europe in the tenth century. [4] Apparently, many contemporary events were interpreted with reference to the millennial anniversary. Apocalyptic fervor was running high: Plagues, disasters, heresies and corruption among clergy were all thought to presage the end of the world and the coming of the Antichrist. Occasionally, terrifying forecasts encourages a spirit of repentance and a return to God on the part of the public and acts of piety and a commitment to justice and peace on the part of the powerful. This was the picture presented by Ralph Glaber, who wrote his works at the beginning of the second Millennium. It is important to remember, however, that as far as the rest of the world (which was not Christian) was concerned, the end of the first Millennium was a non-event.

Glaber notes that after the 1000th anniversaries of Christ’s birth and death had passed peacefully, a meeting of bishops ended with hands raised to God and joyful shouts of “Peace! Peace!” [5] It was as if the bishops, acknowledging that the world had been spared, were signaling a popular readiness to continue afresh in the brand new Millennium.

So, what are the Palestinian Christian’ attitudes on the threshold of the third Millennium after Christ’s birth? Few expected the Second Coming of Christ in the global, apocalyptic and cosmic sense popularized by evangelical Christians in general and Christian Zionists in particular. In strictly theological terms, the Second Coming is an important tenet of the Christian faith. Christians proclaim an implicit belief in the Second Coming every time they recite the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.”

Many in the West are concerned about the end of the world and the “Second Coming” of Christ. Yet it is crucial to remember that the New Testament does not use the phrase the “Second Coming,” but refers simply to the “coming.” [6] The succinct message of the Book of Revelations is that victory belongs to God, not to humankind or any temporal state, such as Israel or the United States.

This is a powerful message for Christians struggling under oppressive political and economic systems. In times of despair and frustration, when God seems absent and justice unattainable, the writer of Revelations (who was himself living under the brutal Roman Empire) reminds his readers not to lose hope or assume that the existing political order is eternal. Revelations reminds the reader that God will ultimately vanquish all systems of unjust political domination and economic exploitation. [7] This message is relevant to any community living under occupation and oppression.

Envisioning humankind’s eventual fate, some prophets of the Old Testament spoke not of a cleansing by fire and brimstone, but of an idyllic era of justice and harmony when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…” [8] Similarly, Isaiah foresaw a time in which “the world shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…” [9]

Palestinian Christians do not hope for an Armageddon; they do not believe that God is a God of war and violence, but of justice, truth and peace. Evangelical Christian Zionists, so supportive and admiring of the State of Israel’s military prowess, [10] seem to have forgotten that during his adult life, Christ challenged his disciples to be peacemakers and to strive for a just social and political order. [11] If Western pilgrims spend more time in Nazareth and Bethlehem and less time in luxury hotels, if they take time to know the people — “the living stones” — as well as the holy sites, they will gain a very different understanding of the Millennium’s potential meanings.

Author’s Note: All Biblical references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.


[1] Eastern churches, however, still calculate their holy days according to the Julian calendar.

[2]See article by Lee Hockstader, “Pilgrims from Far and Wide ‘Come Home’ to Holy Land; Zionist Christians Gather in Jerusalem,” Washington Post, September 29, 1999.

[3] Damian Thompson, “The Mystery of the Year 1000,” in Malcolm Bull, ed., Apocalypse Theory and the End of the World (London: Blackwell, 1995), p. 50.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ralph Glaber, “Histories,” in Thompson, op. cit., p. 56.

[6] With the exception of Hebrews 9:28, the phrase “the Second Coming,” appears nowhere in the New Testament. See Matthew 24:3; I Thessalonians 2:19; James 5:7; II Peter 3:4.

[7] Revelations 19:6.

[8] Micah 4:3-4.

[9] Isaiah 11:6.

[10] See Phyllis Bennis and Khaled Mansour, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!’: the Changing Nature of Israel’s US Backers,” Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998), p. 16-19.

[11] “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Luke 2:14.

How to cite this article:

Naim Ateek "Faith, Money and the Millennium," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).

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