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.

Branch Davidians, Gallegher and Personal Testimony

Eugene Gallegher’s essay on the Branch Davidian sect explores the nuances of David Koresh’s interpretive system. Gallegher points out a triangle in which Koresh models his specific hermeneutic of biblical interpretation in the form of a triangle: Text, Interpreter and Context. Gallegher admits that this system, even though fundamentally flawed is quite ingenious. David Koresh, a cult leader to most of society, was a man a man that fundamentally interpreted the whole of Scripture (and life’s events for that matter) as completely centering on the book of Revelation. Furthermore, not only was his interpretation on Revelation generally, but chapters 4 and 5 particularly. He considered himself to be the Lamb of God, opening up the seven seals. The fundamental problem with Koresh’s hermeneutic is the fact that he looks at Scripture through this vacuum of Revelation. Gallegher implies that even with this problematic approach, it strengthened Koresh’s power over his students. In moving from the Text itself, he as the Interpreter found himself in it. In a sense, one could argue that he presuppositions about what the text said guided and lead him to his conclusions. Koresh lacked any sense of objectivity while engaging the Bible. He further vindicated his own interpretation of the Text and of himself (Interpreter) by viewing Revelation only in the Context of where he found himself in Waco, TX. Because Revelation repeatedly discusses and draws on images of the persecuted faithful, when the BATF and the FBI engaged in a standoff with him, it further supported Koresh’s claim to fame. At this point, even in hindsight, it’s hard to see a different outcome than the tragedy that took place at Waco. Koresh, by tickling the ears of his blindly faithful through endless manipulative and isogetical study of the Bible, must have known that a blood bath would undoubtedly ensue. The interactions between government agencies and the Branch Davidians were ridiculous on both sides. Perhaps the side of the government was even more ridiculous. In dealing with an extremist religious sect, the more they are persecuted, the more they hold to their beliefs. Why? There is no stronger element in the human psyche other than that of devotion. These people believed Koresh was the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Christ. The government knew they believed this. In trying to subvert Koresh’s authority, they were also trying to destroy the faith and lifestyle of people who devoted all of themselves to Koresh’s teaching. There is no way this event could have been solved with any amount of violence or the possibility of it. Even today, there are still Branch Davidians out there that are waiting for their Messiah to come back and rescue them. They are still (if not moreso) firmly committed to Koresh’s teachings. Why? Because the persecution spoken of in Revelation is something they truly believed happened to them. In undergoing “persecution” and enduring it, it is unlikely that a person would look back and change their minds, thinking instead that they (but more importantly their leader) caused this tragedy to take place. If they were to believe that all they endured was for nothing, it would shatter their understanding of God and their Messiah, Koresh. Gallegher and the stories of Waco survivors show just how dark life can get merely through one man who took a simple-minded narrow view of Scripture and twisted it to meet the desires of his own selfish and deceptive heart.