New Heaven, New Earth

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith

by Norman Cohn
Yale University Press, 271 pp., $30.00


We live in an apocalyptic age. All around us, and not only in the West, groups of people are huddling together, rejecting the outside world, and awaiting an imminent Last Day, when the elect (themselves) shall be justified, rewarded, and avenged on their enemies and on unbelievers. A time of tribulation, usually imagined with a good deal of gusto—a time of wars and rumors of wars, false prophets, allegorical beasts, pestilences, and every form of nastiness—will be followed by the coming of a new heaven and new earth, the direct rule of God, and endless bliss for the devout minority (with tremendous sufferings for their enemies) in a world freed of all evil. Those who believe in such promises rarely make much study of earlier apocalyptic movements. Thus it is that each succeeding congregation of the elect is unfazed by their melancholy record of 100 percent failure to come true.

Professor Norman Cohn has done more than anyone else to illuminate these curious areas of human thought and history. The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) is only the best known of his studies; he says himself, “Those questions have been preoccupying me, on and off, for almost half a century.” He now turns to the question of the origins of this pattern of thought and belief. Is it possible to point to a particular time and place as having given birth to it? The chase takes him back to the very beginnings of Western thought, to Egypt and Mesopotamia and Vedic India, to Zoroaster and the Hebrew Bible. It turns out that there is a much more definite answer to the question of origins than we might have guessed.

In ancient Egypt, and in the many cities of Mesopotamia, a set of ideas held sway which had much in common. It can be found, less central but still important, in India in the days of the Rig Veda; the Norsemen show it in connection with the god Thor. The neighbors of the Hebrews in Palestine held it, too; and so, Cohn makes it pretty clear, did the early Hebrews themselves, with the result that traces of it can still be descried, despite all attempts at censorship, in the Old Testament. The people of all these early societies, menaced as they were both by the harshness of nature and by the hand of human enemies, imagined the gods themselves as engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the order of the world against unceasing attack. The best efforts of the human race, in addition, were necessary to assist the gods in their cosmic task. That was the great function of ritual. It also was a vital reason for morally right behavior, since that, too, strengthened the good order of the universe against its assailants.

The resemblance went considerably further. In Babylon we find a combat myth, which was recounted every New Year’s Day as part of the temple ritual: it told how the primeval sea monster Tiamat and her legions,…

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