The Role of Biblical Scholarship at Waco:

One Attempt to Avert Disaster


by James D. Tabor
Professor in the Dept. of Religious Studies
UNC-Charlotte, NC
 

It was 7:25 p.m. on Sunday, February 28, 1993. My attention was suddenly riveted to an unfamiliar voice, edged with an appealing intensity, coming over CNN on the television in the next room. Anchorman David French had someone on a phone hookup who was quoting Biblical passages in a steady stream. A photo of a young man with glasses and long wavy hair, which was later to become familiar around the world, was on the TV screen against a backdrop of a map of Texas with a place marked as "Mt. Carmel," near Waco. Regular CNN programming had been interrupted. It was obvious that some emergency situation was unfolding. I had not yet heard of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau raid on Mt. Carmel that very morning at 9:55 a.m. which resulted in a two hour gun battle with the Branch Davidians, the religious group which lived there, leaving four AFT agents dead and 15 wounded. For the moment my attention was drawn to two things which fascinated me. The young man from Texas called himself David Koresh, and he was talking about the "Seven Seals" of the book of Revelation. As a Biblical scholar I knew that Koresh was the Hebrew word for Cyrus, the ancient Persian King who destroyed the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C.E. I was intrigued that anyone would have such a last name. Also, I was quite familiar with the mysterious Seven Seals in the last book of the Bible, and how they unfolded in an apocalyptic sequence leading to the Judgment Day and the End of the World. Like any good newsperson, CNN anchorman French kept trying to get David Koresh to talk about the morning raid, how many had been killed or wounded from his group, and whether he planned to surrender. Koresh admitted he was wounded badly, that his two year old daughter had been killed, and some others were killed and wounded from his group. But it was clear that he mainly wanted to quote scriptures, mostly from the book of Revelation. He said he was the Lamb, chosen to open the Seven Seals. He challenged religious leaders and Biblical scholars from around the world to come to Texas and engage in debate with him on the Bible, and particularly to try and match his understanding in unlocking the mystery of the Seven Seals.

The phone conversation over CNN went on for about 45 minutes. I was utterly taken with this whole scene. Here we were in the year 1993 and this young Cyrus, would-be challenger of modern Babylon, was actually delving into the details of the book of Revelation at prime time, over a worldwide television network. I pulled out a Bible and turned to Isaiah 45, where I recalled that the ancient Persian king Cyrus was addressed by God Himself:

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus (Koresh),
whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him.
Here Cyrus is actually called "messiah," that is, one who is anointed. The Greek translation of this Hebrew word, mashiach, is "Christos," from which we get our term "Christ." So, one could accurately say that this ancient Persian king was called Christ. David Koresh also claimed to be such a "Christ." This biblical terminology led to endless confusion and miscommunication between the secular media and the FBI on the one hand, and the followers of Koresh who lived and breathed these ancient texts. It was widely but incorrectly reported, even by the most responsible media, that David Koresh claimed to be Jesus Christ, or even God himself. This confusion resulted from a lack of understanding of the biblical use of the term "anointed." In Biblical times both the high priests and the kings of Israel were anointed in a ceremony in which oil was poured over the head and beard (see Psalm 133). In other words, in this general sense of the term the Bible speaks of many "christs" or messiahs, not one. Theo word comes to refer to one who is especially selected by God for a mission, as was the Persian king Cyrus.

It was in this sense that David Koresh took the label "Christ" or messiah. He believed he was the chosen one who was to open the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation and bring on the downfall of "Babylon." The early Christians were quite fond of the same kind of coded language. They routinely referred to the Roman empire as "Babylon." The letter of 1 Peter closes with such a reference: "She who is at Babylon (i.e. Rome), who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings" (1 Peter 5:13). The book of Revelation is essentially a cryptic account of the destruction of "Babylon," which was understood to be Rome (Revelation 19). I was later to learn that the children of the Branch Davidians routinely referred to the FBI and any other "outsiders," as Babylonians.

Over the next few days, as the FBI took over control of the siege of the Mt. Carmel complex, it became clear to me that neither the officials in charge, nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh, had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited. Their entire frame of reference came from the Bible, especially from the book of Revelation and the ancient Hebrew prophets. I knew realized that in order to deal with David Koresh, and to have any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Waco situation, one would have to understand and make use of these biblical texts. In other words, one would need to enter into the apocalyptic world of David Koresh and his dedicated followers. It was obvious that they were willing to die for what they believed, and they would not surrender under threat of force. I decided to contact the FBI and offer my services.

I called my friend Phillip Arnold, director of Reunion Institute in Houston, Texas. Dr. Arnold, like me, is a specialist in biblical studies and we share a special interest in both ancient and modern forms of apocalypticism. The term comes from the Greek word apocalypsis, which means "to uncover, to reveal." The book of Revelation is often called the Apocalypse. An apocalyptic group is one which believes that the end of history is near and that the signs and secrets of the final scenario have been revealed to them. The followers of Jesus are properly understood as an apocalyptic movement within ancient Judaism, as was the group which produced the Dead Sea scrolls. Since the 3rd century B.C.E. many such groups, first Jewish and later Christian, have proclaimed the imminent "end of the world" on the basis of their understanding of biblical prophetic texts. Dr. Arnold agreed with me that it was urgent and vital that someone who understood the biblical texts become involved in the situation.

The first FBI agent Dr. Arnold contacted in Waco admitted that they were hopelessly confused when David Koresh went into one of his lengthy expositions of scripture, which occurred regularly in their daily telephone negotiations. In later interviews with survivors of the Waco tragedy the one point that they made repeatedly and consistently was that the source of their attraction to David Koresh was his knowledge of the Scriptures, particularly the book of Revelation. The FBI does not routinely pack Bibles when facing what they had categorized as a hostage situation. This FBI agent told us how they had been frantically reading through the book of Revelation in the Gideon Bibles in their hotel rooms. This image struck me as almost comical, but at the same time frightening. The agent also told us they found the book of Revelation and David Koresh's extended biblical monologues, wholly incomprehensible. He asked, "What is this about the Seven Seals?" We began to explain to him this reference to a mysterious scroll mentioned in the book of Revelation, which was sealed with wax stamps, and could only be opened by a figure variously referred to as the Lamb, the anointed one (i.e., Christ),or the Branch of David. David Koresh claimed to be this person, sent to the world before the end of the age and empowered to finally open this scroll. He saw himself as the "sinful messiah" mentioned in Psalm 45. This Psalm, which was vital to his whole self understanding, speaks of one riding a white horse and conquering, marrying many daughters of Israel, and raising up descendants on the earth. David understood this Psalm to be the key to interpreting the first Seal which pictures a mysterious rider on a white horse (Revelation 6:1-2). He felt he had literally fulfilled this prophecy, and that the first four Seals had already unfolded. He interpreted these Seals by the use of the Psalms, which he called the "key of David" (Revelation 3:7).

Over the next few weeks Dr. Arnold and I spent many hours in technical and lengthy discussions with Livingston Fagan, an articulate member of the Branch Davidians who had been sent out of the compound by David Koresh as a spokesperson and was being held in jail. With our knowledge of the prophetic texts of the Bible, and especially the book of Revelation, we slowly began to attain some understanding of David Koresh's interpretation.

It became obvious to us that the Branch Davidian group understood itself to be actually living through the events of the Seven Seals, found primarily in chapter six of the book of Revelation. We became persuaded that they understood themselves to be "in the fifth seal." The text reads:
 

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge an avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?" They were each given a white robe and told to wait a little season, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed (Rev 6:9-11).


We discussed the chilling implications of these verses with the FBI. For the Koresh group the book of Revelation was like a script, setting forth in vivid detail what would transpire, and instructing them as to what they should do. The reason they refused to come out of their compound was that they felt God was telling them in these verses to wait "a little season." But the verse goes on to predict that they, like the others in the February 28th ATF raid, would then be killed. David Koresh once told the federal agents, "I knew you were coming before you knew you were coming." On the morning of that initial raid David had said to an undercover ATF man who was spying on the group, with whom David had studied the Bible even though he knew the man was a federal agent, "What thou doest, do quickly" (John 13:27). It was as if the entire situation in Waco was locked into a predetermined pattern, set forth in a book written around 96 C.E., during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. What worried us all was the very real possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Koresh group found itself living "in the fifth seal" did that mean it was inevitable that the remaining eighty-seven men, women, and children in the Mt. Carmel compound must also die? Might they not provoke a violent end to things simply because they felt it was the predetermined will of God, moving things along to the sixth seal, which was the great Judgment Day of God? We were fascinated by the way in which the literal words of this text dominated the entire situation. David Koresh insisted to the FBI that God had told him to "wait" an unspecified time, and the FBI constantly pushed him, asking "how long?" The entire drama was being played out according to a biblical script.

The book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, does provide just such a script. Parts of the text seem to date before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., although scholars date the book as a whole in the time of emperor Domitian (81-96 C.E.). The author, whose name is John (Revelation 1:1 and 22:8), is imprisoned on the island of Patmos when he receives the vision which he is told to write in a book. Scholars doubt that this particular John is the same as John the son of Zebedee, brother of James, the fisherman who becomes one of the twelve apostles of Jesus (Mark 1:16-20). He is apparently another John, known to us in later church traditions, associated with the area around Ephesus in Asia Minor. The book claims to reveal "what must soon take place" and declares that the "time is near" (Revelation 1:1,3).

The core of the book, chapters 6-19, presents an unfolding drama of end-time events, leading to a final Judgment Day and the millennial reign of Christ which is to follow. These events are shrouded in mysterious and symbolic language which is purposely cryptic. Like other apocalyptic works of that general time, such as the book of Enoch or 2 Esdras, only the "wise" are said to be able to understand the hidden meanings (Daniel 12:9-10). Nonetheless, it is clear that the scenario of the end progresses in three sequential stages: the opening of the Seven Seals (chapters 6-7), the blowing of Seven Trumpets (chapters 8-11), and the pouring out of Seven Bowls of Wrath (chapters 15-16). The utter destruction and fall of "Babylon" is detailed in chapters 18 and 19. There are eight major "characters" in the end-time drama of the book of Revelation: a seven-headed Beast; a two horned Beast, also called the False Prophet; a Dragon who is identified as Satan; a Woman clothed with the stars; two prophets who are called the two Witnesses; a Harlot who rides the first Beast; and a Rider on a White Horse. The Beasts in the author's time clearly represent the Roman empire, led by the emperor, and identified with the cryptic number 666. Based on the ancient Jewish code called gematria, in which words are given numbers based on the sum of the values of their letters, the reference is most likely to Neron Kasar, or Nero Caesar, spelled in Hebrew. The terror filled and turbulent years from Nero's reign (54-68 C.E.) through the reign of Domitian form the backdrop of the book of Revelation. Not only were Christians at Rome being killed, but the bloody Jewish revolt (66-73 C.E.) in Palestine fueled apocalyptic speculation. Indeed, Josephus, the contemporary Jewish historian, says that the primary inspiration for the revolt was based on speculations drawn from the apocalyptic book of Daniel, upon which Revelation is largely based (War 6.310-14). Clearly, the David Koresh situation in Waco, Texas was only the latest in a long sequence, stretching back over 2000 years, in which Jewish and Christian groups received inspiration and direction from such apocalyptic texts.

The book of Revelation presented problems for the Christian church from the earliest times. When the New Testament was canonized in the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E., there were disputes as to whether it should even be included in the list of inspired writings. It presents two major difficulties. First, since it is written in veiled and symbolic language, it lends itself to countless interpretations, often wild and uncontrolled by the normal tenets of biblical exegesis. Second, it contains unequivocal statements about the impending end of the age which were never literally fulfilled and thus demanded constant revised interpretation. Ironically, these two problems fit hand in glove to allow the book inclusion in the canon, preservation, and even perpetual popularity. The imprecise symbolic language of the book actually made possible the process of ongoing revisions of interpretation and ingenious reapplications to the events of subsequent periods and situations. In other words, the book of Revelation became a timeless "script" of the end-time scenario, ever flexible and mobile through time and place. It has provided countless movements and groups with interpretations of their own situations and has fueled the hopes, dreams, and schemes of a perpetually revised apocalyptic agenda.

Once it was safely included in the canon of the New Testament, the Christian church provided three major types of interpretation. The one which has received the most official sanction has been the "spiritual" or allegorical method. According to this approach the book is not to be taken literally at all, and should never be applied to any precise historical setting. It was seen as a symbolic, timeless, allegory of the ongoing battle between good and evil, with the triumph of Christ assured at some unspecified period in the future. For example, the "Beast" power of Revelation 17 would be understood to refer to any and all secular governments throughout history which oppose the ways of God. In the past two hundred years, since the rise of biblical criticism, a second method, the historical, has been prevalent, particularly among the more scholarly inclined. This approach understands the book as thoroughly tied to the first century C.E., with all direct applicability restricted to that period. In other words, the book says nothing about any subsequent march of history and would be worthless at providing an end-time scenario. According to this view, the "Beast" power refers to the Roman empire in the time of Nero and Domitian, and to those specific times and events, but to no successive time.

However, with many groups and individuals who give the book a simple, straightforward reading, the futurist method has had great appeal. This approach understands the book as a sure guide and "map" of the last days of history. Its referents, though symbolic, are applied to the most concrete situations and events, inevitably in the life and world of the latest interpreter. In other words, the book of Revelation becomes a manual for an immediate end-time scenario. The power and appeal of this futurist view of the book has been extraordinary. The book has served as a catalyst for a specific apocalyptic dynamic. Developments in history, and in the life of the interpreters, are understood to be directly mentioned in the book. The interpreter looks constantly at the book, comparing it with the outside world, seeking to find a "fit" between symbol and event. More often than not interpreters have found themselves, or their movement, playing a key role as predicted in the book. It was obvious to Dr. Arnold and me that David Koresh was just such an interpreter. Through hours of conversations with Branch Davidian members who were outside the Mt. Carmel compound we slowly began to map out the apocalyptic scenario or "script" that David Koresh and his followers were expecting. We were absolutely convinced that David would never surrender from pressure or harassment. Given his understanding of himself as the messenger, or "anointed one," who had been given the secret of the Seven Seals, he would only act as he felt God was leading him. And the text of the book of Revelation was his primary guide. According to his reading of the Seven Seals, five had now been fulfilled and God was telling him to wait. Given such a view, he simply would not come out and surrender as the FBI demanded. To Koresh and his followers such a move, before the proper time, would have been inconceivable. They would have seen it as disobedience to God. Slowly we formulated a plan to approach David Koresh with an alternative scenario, seeking to meet him within his own interpretive world.

Our first step was a radio broadcast over KGBS, the Dallas radio station which Koresh and his followers tuned to each morning on their battery operated transistor radios. It was April 1st, 33 days since the siege had begun. The talk show host, Ron Engelman, who had been critical of the federal authorities since the February 28th ATF raid, allowed us full use of air time to begin a dialogue with Koresh. Dick DeGuerin, Koresh's attorney who had been meeting with him for the past four days, was clued into our plan. He assured us that Koresh and his followers would be listening to our discussion. What we presented, in give and take dialogue form, was a rather technical discussion of an alternative interpretation of the book of Revelation, which we thought David Koresh might accept. As academics, we were not presenting this interpretation as our own personal view. Rather, our approach was hypothetical--given Koresh's general world view, and the interpretation he was following of the Seven Seals, what about an alternative understanding? Three days later, on Sunday, April 4th, Dick DeGuerin also took a cassette tape we had made of our discussion of the book of Revelation into the Mt. Carmel compound so that David Koresh and his followers would have it to listen to and study. Passover was approaching, an eight day holiday which the Branch Davidians observed. Koresh had announced that following the Passover festival he would announce his plan for surrender.

On Wednesday, April 14th, just five days before the fire that consumed the compound, David Koresh released a letter through his lawyer. It was to be his last. He said that at long last his wait was over; that he had been instructed by God to write an exposition expounding the secrets of the Seven Seals of Revelation. He wrote:
 

I am presently being permitted to document in structured form the decoded messages of the Seven Seals. Upon the completion of this task, I will be freed of my waiting period. I hope to finish this as soon as possible and stand before man and answer any and all questions regarding my activities. . . I have been praying for so long for this opportunity to put the Seals in written form. I want the people of this generation to be saved. I am working night and day to complete my final work of writing out these seals. I thank my Father, He has finally granted me this chance to do this. It will bring new light and hope for many and they won't have to deal with me the person. . . As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.


Dr. Arnold and I were elated. We felt we had been successful at last. In our tapes to David Koresh we had argued this very point. We had tried to convince him that he was not necessarily "in the 5th Seal" of Revelation chapter six, which would mandate the death of the group. We also argued that the "little season" mentioned in Revelation 6:11 could be an extended period. It was logically correlated with the "delay" of Revelation 7:1-3, which we maintained, given such a literal interpretation, could last several years. Further, on the basis of chapter ten we had stressed the idea of a message written in a "little book" which would be given to the world (Revelation 10:11). We had pointed out to David Koresh that although he had appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and People magazines all in the same week, and was being mentioned hourly on CNN and daily on the network news reports, no one remotely had a clue as to his message. We told him that most people had the idea that he was an insane sex pervert who molested children and claimed to be Jesus Christ, or even God. He had apparently accepted our arguments. We, along with the attorneys, were absolutely convinced he would come out and that this writing of the Seven Seals, in his mind, was the answer from God he had been talking about for the past six weeks. This has to do with the dynamics of apocalypticism. It always operates through a complex play between the fixed text or "script," the shifting circumstances of outside events, and the imaginative casting of the interpreter. We had not been trying to manipulate David, but we did honestly feel that given his literalist view of the text, there were other viable alternatives.

The FBI had a different reaction. Following Passover week they had stepped up their pressure tactics, demanding once for all that Koresh and his people surrender. They took this latest move on David's part as one more in a long series of delay tactics. In their daily press briefings over the next few days they belittled Koresh as a grade school drop-out who would hardly be capable of writing a book. They said he was a manipulating madman who thought he was God, who interpreted the Bible through the barrel of a gun. Nonetheless they did allow writing supplies to be delivered to the Mt. Carmel compound on Sunday evening, April 18th, the every evening before the tear gas assault. The authorities had clearly lost all patience. At 5:50 a.m., Monday morning they called the compound and informed the group that if they did not surrender the place would be gassed. What took place in the Mt. Carmel compound from that point on is uncertain. One survivor of the fire with whom I talked told me that the last time he saw David Koresh was about 5 a.m. that morning. David had come down from his room and looked very tired. He said he had been working most of the night on his manuscript on the Seven Seals.

When the FBI began their tear gas assault that Monday morning David must have been profoundly disappointed and confused. He had become convinced that God not only was going to graciously allow him to write this most important explanation of the Seven Seals for the world, but that this was part of the apocalyptic script. In a split second, as the buildings shook, the walls were punched with holes, and the tear gas was injected, he must have thought to himself, "Well, I guess I was right all along. We are in the Fifth Seal after all, and we must die like the others." It is obvious that one does not write a manuscript if the walls of ones home are being broken down. The actions of the FBI forced David to revise his apocalyptic understanding. Any fulfillment of Revelation 10:11, which he had become convinced would now take place, became impossible. There was not a chance in the world that he or is followers would "come out and surrender to proper authority" as the FBI loudspeakers urged them that morning. To them the only proper authority was God, not the forces of the wicked Babylonians. In their minds, based on Revelation 6:11, they saw their deaths as a necessary martyrdom, a self sacrifice which would lead to the final collapse of the enemy and the coming of Jesus Christ.

There is a final bit of historical irony in the Waco tragedy. The defenders of Masada had also died at precisely the same time of year, a few days after Passover in the year 73 C.E., after a lengthy siege by the Roman military forces. Like David Koresh they were serious students of the prophecies of Daniel, the text upon which the book of Revelation is mainly based. Daniel 11:33 says that in the final battle the remnant of God's true people would die "by sword and by flame." David knew about Masada. He also said he was familiar with the newly released Dead Sea scrolls and had been following the debates surrounding them. It is worth noting that one of the most disputed texts, by one possible translation, speaks of a "Branch of David" being wounded and killed by the authorities.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that David Koresh would have surrendered peacefully when he finished his manuscript. After the fire some federal agents said they doubted that he was even working on such a project. They took David's talk about being allowed by God to finally write the interpretation of the Seven Seals as a ploy to further delay things. We now know this was not the case. Ruth Riddle, one of the survivors of the fire, had a computer disk in the right pocket of her jacket. She had been typing David's handwritten manuscript the day before the fire. On that disk was his exposition of the first Seal. The disk is in the possession of the federal authorities.

PostScript: The disk was later turned over to lawyers for Ruth Riddle and subsequently given to Profs. Tabor and Arnold, as David Koresh had requested. They released it to the public and formally presented it to the American Academy of Religion Annual meeting in Washington D.C., November, 1993. It is now available with commentary on this Web site and was officially published in an appendix in James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (U. California Press, 1995).

Back To Why Waco


Back to "Research Center" Salvage

Back to WACO CULT Home Page

The "Why Waco" site was once part of the University of California Press site, then moved to the defunct "Waco Never Again/Research Center" site. For further explanation, see my "Research Center" Salvage page.