Gallagher: Syncretic and Cultist Forms

The closed system of interpretation identified by Gallagher consists of the text of Revelation, the interpreter, and the context. While the text remains fixed, the interpreter and the context are more fluid. The Branch Davidians formulated their concept of the divine around the image of a “majestic God seated on a throne and holding a scroll sealed with seven seals (199). “ This fixed text was the cornerstone of the community at Mt. Carmel, and provided a basis for Koresh’s “highly coherent [and] closed system of interpretation” (200). For David Koresh, Revelation encompassed all books of the Bible, and contained a singular message or truth. Koresh viewed the Bible as teaching through repetition, which is in turn how he encouraged his students to form a relationship with Revelation: through repetitive, marathon Bible Studies. Koresh’s message was surprisingly non-inclusive; it required an audience that was deeply familiar with the Bible and that was convinced of an imminent last judgment. Though this differentiates Koresh from most prophets, he did follow other millenarians in “renovating tradition. . . [and] so phrasing the new that it emerges as a more appropriate expression of what has always been agreed to be true (202).”

Though in reality it is the text itself that remains fixed, Koresh was able to cement his interpretation as the authoritative interpretation in the Mt. Carmel community. Koresh’s interpretive authority derived from his belief that he was destined to be a prophet and messiah; he viewed his role as not just a teacher of Revelation but one who would bring its prophecies to fruition. As such, he posited himself not just as interpreter but also as a key player in in the apocalypse. Koresh consistently championed the authority of the text over his interpretation, which only served to bolster his credibility. More important than his brushes with the divine (like his ascent into Heaven) were his Bible Studies that continually reinforced the “truth” of his interpretation.

The community of Mt. Carmel was steeped in the belief that significant transformation was on the horizon: they believed that for the first time the Bible was being interpreted correctly, and that judgment was imminent. This imbued the community with a sense of urgency and intense conviction. When the raid by the BATF occurred, this challenged the order of climactic events Koresh had expected to unfold. Thus, as the context of the Mt. Carmel community changed, Koresh adjusted his interpretation to accommodate the unexpected circumstances. Revelation’s message of ultimate vindication provided Koresh with a sense of comfort and certainty, and allowed him to read the deaths of his community members as martyrdom. The dichotomy of good vs. evil presented in Revelation provided Koresh and his community with a framework through which to view themselves as the persecuted churches, and thus created a situation in which Mt. Carmel viewed itself as engaged with the forces of Babylon. As Elaine Pagels has noted, this reductive and archaic view of the world renders negotiation effectively useless, much like the failed negotiations at Waco.