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Norman Cohn


The ancient roots of apocalyptic faith

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Norman Cohn is the author of one of the most important studies of apocalyptic ideas, The Pursuit of the Millennium, which was published in 1957. That book looked at the history of these ideas in the mediaeval West, but their origin goes much further back in time.

Some people suppose that all ancient societies conceived of time as "revolving in long, repetitive cycles, punctuated by periodic destructions and recreations of the world and/or of mankind." But Cohn has long doubted this and here he presents his conclusions after twenty years' study of the question.

The book starts by looking in some detail at three ancient civilizations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Vedic India. All these differed from one another in numerous ways, but none thought of time as cyclical. (That idea does figure in later Indian religion but it was not there at this early period.)

Until about 1500 BC all these peoples, together with others including Canaanites and pre-exilic Israelites, held that in the beginning the world had been organized and set in order by one or more gods and that it was now essentially immutable. But this order was not guaranteed; it was always under threat from the forces of disorder, and a young hero god, or divine warrior, was charged with keeping the forces of chaos at bay. In return he was rewarded with kingship over the world.

This essentially static view was changed by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the Iranian reformer, at some time between 1500 and 1200 BC. (Cohn follows the modern chronology which places Zoroaster much earlier than was thought to be the case previously.) Zoroaster replaced the traditional account with the idea that the conflict between order and disorder would eventually be resolved; the supreme god and his allies would finally defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies to bring about a state of perpetual perfect harmony and happiness.

This mythology became influential in post-exilic Judaism. After the defeat of the Persians by Alexander the Jews were subject to waves of foreign occupation and domination, and this period saw the appearance of writings known as "Jewish apocalypses". These purported to unveil to human beings secrets that were previously known only in heaven. The essential notion was that God was about to set matters right and usher in a time of peace and harmony in which all wrongs would be righted. Such ideas were very important for certain Jewish groups, such as those who produced the Qumran texts, and above all for what Cohn calls the Jesus sect.

Cohn follows many though not all modern scholars in regarding Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist (see Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, by Bart D. Ehrman.) He finds that Jesus expected a total transformation of the world in the very near future. This did not occur, but early in the first century AD certain groups were regarding Jesus as the Messiah, who would very soon bring about such a transformation.

Originally, the Messiah was thought of as a human being, but now he mutated into a transcendent supernatural being. Applied to Jesus, this represented him as a divine figure, an idea that would resolve the paradox of his humiliating death. This could now be understood as the precondition for an exaltation far beyond any known to mere mortals.

The early Christians did not think of themselves as launching a new religion. Rather, they thought they were living in the last days, and all their activities took place in a context of eschatological expectation. "What the early Church offered was not simply membership of a divinely chosen élite, it was the assurance of belonging, in the very near future, to a community of immortal, transfigured beings."

This outlook reaches its culmination in the last book of the canonical New Testament, the Book of Revelation (known to Roman Catholics as the Apocalypse). Cohn devotes a chapter to it, which, in view of its importance for many Christians in the USA today, is understandable. It is the only full-length apocalypse to have been accepted into the canon. None of its specific prophecies came to pass, but no matter; it was reintrepreted again and again to fit ever-changing circumstances. a process that is still going on today.

The ultimate source of all this millennial speculation among both Jews and Christians is, Cohn believes, Zoroastrianism. The Pharisees were the mainstream group in post-exilic Judaism who adopted the greatest amount of Zoroastrian ideas; for example, the notion that after death all souls would be punished or rewarded in heaven or hell and would be reunited with their bodies at the end of time for a final judgement. But they did not accept the belief in the Devil as a serious challenger to God. The groups who did accept this belief include the Qumran sect and the Jesus sect. Christianity continued to maintain this modified form of dualism down to our own time. It also preserves the Pharisaic eschatology.

Of course, before long Christianity changed radically, to become quite different from both Judaism and Zorastrianism. The doctrine that Jesus's death on the cross was a redemptive act by which God offered mankind the possibility of salvation from the consequences of sin has no parallel in these earlier belief systems. But the Zoroastrian element also persists. "Who can tell what fantasies, religious or secular, it may generate in the unforeseeable future?"

This is an important book that should be read by anyone who is interested in the history of Christianity and in the origin of those ideas that are so influential in modern American biblical fundamentalism. Cohn does not touch on Islam here except in one passing reference, but the relevance of Zoroastrianism for Islam, especially in modern Shi'ite Iran, is obvious.

13 July 2007

%T Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come
%S The ancient roots of apocalyptic faith
%A Cohn, Norman
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 1993
%G ISBN 0-300-05598-6
%P 271pp
%K history, religion

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