By MICHAEL GAFFNEY
The Prophet Aggeus is a mysterious figure in the history of Christianity.
Among the frescoes scheduled for display during the Vatican Museums Exhibition in 2002 will be a fresco bearing the image of this Old Testament mystic.
Even the exact meaning of his name is uncertain.
Many scholars consider it an adjective signifying "the festive one" (or born on feast day), while others take it to be an abbreviated form of the noun Haggiyyah, "my feast is Yahweh," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. In Hebrew, Aggeus, the tenth among the minor prophets of the Old Testament, is called Haggay, and modern Catholics know him as Haggai.
The prophet's personal life is veiled in uncertainty. The book which bears his name is brief, and contains no detailed information about its author.
The few passages which speak of him refer simply to the occasion on which he delivered a divine message in Jerusalem, during the second year of the reign of the Persian King, Darius I (B.C. 520).
And Jewish tradition provides little, if any, historical basis for Aggeus' life.
He was born in Chaldea during the Babylonian captivity (B.C. 587-538), was a young man when he came to Jerusalem with returning exiles, and was buried in the Holy City among the priests, according to traditional tales.
He also has been represented as an angel in human form, as one of the men who were with Daniel when he saw the vision related in the Biblical story of Daniel, as a member of the so-called Great Synagogue, as surviving until the entry of Alexander the Great into Jerusalem (B.C. 331), and even until the time of Jesus Christ.
The historical record of the man is a vacuum, empty of insight.
The story of Aggeus relates that, upon returning from Babylon (B.C. 536) the Jews, full of religious zeal, promptly set up an altar to the God of Israel, and reorganized His sacrificial worship.
They next celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, and some time later laid the foundation of the second temple, also called the Temple of Zorobabel, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
But the Samaritans -- the mixed races which dwelt in Samaria -- prevented the Jewish people from proceeding with reconstructing the temple by appealing to the Persian authorities.
According to historical references, the work was interrupted for 16 years, during which circumstances, such as the Persian invasion of Egypt in B.C. 527, a succession of bad growing seasons marked by failing harvests, and the indulgence in luxury and self-seeking by the wealthier classes of Jerusalem, caused the Jews to neglect the restoration of the temple they knew as the House of the Lord.
Toward the end of the 16-year period, Aggeus realized that the political struggles besetting Persia would have made it impossible for its rulers to interfere with the work of reconstruction in Jerusalem, even if they wished to do so.
In the second year of the reign of Darius the son of Hystaspes (B.C. 520) Aggeus came forward in the name of God to rebuke the apathy of the Jewish peoples, and to convince them that the time had come to complete their national sanctuary, their outward symbol of the divine presence among them.
The book of Aggeus is made up of four prophetical utterances, each one headed by the date on which it was delivered, the encyclopedia states.
The first is ascribed to the first day of the sixth month (August) of the second year of Darius' reign. It urges the Jews to resume the work of building the Temple, and not to be turned aside from the duty by the enjoyment of their luxurious homes.
It also represents a recent drought as a divine punishment for their past neglect. This first utterance is followed by a brief account of its effect upon the listeners; three weeks later work was started on the Temple.
In his second utterance, dated the 20th day of August, Aggeus foretells that the new Temple, which then appears so poor in comparison with the former Temple of Solomon, will one day be incomparably more glorious.
The third utterance, referred to the 24th of the ninth month (November - December), and declares that as long as God's house is not rebuilt, the life of the Jews will be tainted and blasted, but that the divine blessing will "reward their renewed zeal," according to the encyclopedia.
The last utterance, ascribed to the same day as the third, tells of the divine favor which, in the approaching overthrow of the heathen nations, will be bestowed on Zorobabel, the leader and representative of the royal house of David.
The prophesies reveal a literary style that is rugged and unadorned, direct and, therefore, natural on the part of a prophet intent on convincing his listeners of their duty to rebuild the Temple.
The book of Aggeus offers data to confirm the traditional date and authorship of the writing. Each portion of the work is supplied with precise dates and ascribed expressly to Aggeus, so much so that each utterance bears the distinct mark of having been written soon after it was delivered.
It should also be remembered that, although the prophecies of Aggeus were directly meant to secure the immediate rearing of the Lord's house, they are not without a much higher import.
The meaning of the first two passages in the original Hebrew differs somewhat, but all three passages contain a reference to Messianic times.
The ancient text of the book of Aggeus has been well preserved. The few variations in the manuscripts are due transcribing errors, and do not affect materially the sense of the prophecy, according to the encyclopedia.
Construction of the Temple resumed soon after Aggeus' exhortations, and the second Temple was dedicated in Jerusalem in B.C. 515.