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, which terrified the other gods, were defeated by the warrior god Marduk, who then split her in two and made heaven and earth out of the halves. He remained a mighty defender in the cosmic struggle, which constantly succeeded in upholding, against constant attack, the proper shape and running of the world. In Vedic India the role of divine warrior was played by the mighty god Indra (“he of the thousand testicles” from his inexhaustible potency), who defeated the fearful demons Vritra and Danu and brought the ordered world into existence, separating heaven and earth, fixing the primordial mountain in the cosmic waters, and dividing the existent from the non-existent. Both the great warrior gods Marduk and Indra were thus also creators.

In the north the mighty Thor with his hammer had to wage constant war on the giants, who from the boundaries never ceased to threaten the world. In Egypt there was the monster Apophis, who every day tried to ambush and stop the setting sun: should he once succeed, the world would be lost. There was also the dark god Set, lord of the desert and enemy of order, and countless minor demons that assailed all living people at every turn and could be repelled only by constant vigilance. Ra and Osiris fought on the side of order and civilization against its supernatural enemies, and the ceaseless cult ceremonies of the temples, centering on the divine figure of Pharaoh, played a vital role in strengthening the benevolent divinities.

We come closer to the modern world when the spotlight is turned on to ancient Palestine. The neighbors of the Hebrews are much better known to us nowadays, since the discovery and decipherment of the texts from the ancient city of Ugarit, which give a vivid insight into the beliefs of the people of the land of Canaan. The high god was El, but the fighting god was Ba’al, the only one to dare to accept the challenge of the sea monster Yam, a typical representative of chaos, and to do battle with Mot, the evil embodiment of the desert and of drought. Ba’al and his ferocious sister Anat fought constantly to keep off the ever present threat of chaos and destruction. All this is splendidly described in the Ugaritic texts, which date from the years c. 1400–1200 BCE. Less universally conceded, but in my opinion convincing, is the claim that just such a pattern can still be made out at places in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh was originally the tribal deity of the Hebrews, a warrior god who fought against monsters and against national enemies, but who was subordinate to the high god El. We find him praised in the same terms as a Marduk or a Ba’al, as the conqueror of the great monsters of the sea:


Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood…

(Psalm 74:13–15)

Other psalms, 29 and 93, also celebrate Yahweh as thundering in victory upon the waters, and the monstrous figure of leviathan recurs elsewhere. Like all such monsters who stand for cosmic disorder, of which the sea is a constant symbol, it is not enough to defeat it once: its menace is still there. Thus we find Isaiah prophesying the future:

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.

(Isaiah 27:1)

We even find a clear indication of the respective position of El and Yahweh:

When the most High [El Elyon] divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.

For the Lord [Yahweh]’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye…

So the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him.

(Deuteronomy 32:8–10, 12)

That is, in Cohn’s words, “when El Elyon, i.e., El the Most High, parcelled out the nations between his sons, Yahweh received Israel as his portion.” And it seems no less clear that “in other [Biblical] accounts of Yahweh’s warlike deeds the influence of the Ba’al myth is obvious.” Yahweh was to go on winning more victories and so confirming the world order and strengthening his own people. This stormy deity was in time merged with El, becoming himself Most High, supreme god, creator of the world, and protector of the oppressed.

For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also.

The sea is his, and he made it…

(Psalm 95:3–5)

He ruled on Mount Sion as Ba’al ruled on Mount Zaphon; and in the time of the kingdom his temple in Jerusalem and the rites performed there did not differ much from those of the neighboring peoples (“the building itself was constructed and decorated in the Canaanite mode”). The rituals of the Temple, which, like a Mesopotamian temple, symbolized the cosmos, made the usual animal and cereal offerings and aimed to strengthen Yahweh in his defense of the cosmic order.

So far, all seems essentially unsurprising. Common sense, after all, accepted that other nations had their gods, who no doubt did the best they could for their peoples. Even in the severely scrutinized and monotheistic Hebrew Bible we find the Hebrew leader Jephtha saying to the king of Ammon, “Wilt thou not possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God hath dispossessed before us, them will we possess” (Judges 11:24). No doubt, too, the order and goodness of the world, and one’s own place in it, was as much at risk on the cosmic as on the everyday level, in a world in which crops failed, floods and plagues came without warning, and cities and peoples regularly went down into slavery and destruction. It was reasonable to suppose that one’s own deity, hard at work on behalf of his people, could use such support as one could give him. But in fact the Hebrews were to develop their theology in new and original directions, unparalleled in the ancient world, and far less obviously sensible; and those ideas were to be of incalculable importance for the future. How did it happen?


For a few generations, c. 1000–925 BCE, the Jerusalem kingdom flourished. David and Solomon set a standard which none of their successors was able to match; and of course they left a haunting memory to later generations. The division of the kingdom, failures against neighboring peoples, the conquest by Assyria, the eventual destruction of the Temple, and the taking off of the most able people of the nation into Babylonian captivity: this dismal catalog of disappointments posed a problem on the theological level. How was it to be explained?

From about 750 BCE the prophets, from Hosea on, urged a new theology: Yahweh must be the only god acknowledged in any way by the Israelites; the key to the understanding of recent history was the recidivist tendency of the Israelites to polytheism and idolatry. That made possible a theory of the history of the people which stood the obvious explanation of things on its head: the disasters of Israel and Judah, so far from showing (as to common sense they clearly did) that their god was less powerful than those of other nations, were in fact planned by him as part of his own purposes. Nations like Assyria, which seemed to be in control, were merely acting out the designs of Yahweh, and the whole story was really about Israel and Judah, not about Assyria and Babylon at all. It followed that the people of Israel must have been both adept and pertinacious at enraging their patron.

The offense of Yahweh’s people was unfaithfulness to him. A jealous god, he met every act of idolatry or breach of his multifarious Law with severe punishment; and the whole of history became a record of events interpreted from that point of view. We read it to this day in Joshua, Judges, and the Books of Samuel and Kings. Successful rulers are those who stuck to the Law; disasters are caused by disobedience. This is of course an infallible system of explanation, as far as it goes. The Law was exigent, and these kings were in any case dead, and it was not hard to assume that they had been guilty of idolatry somewhere or other. The fact that King Solomon, too, worshiped other gods was fitted neatly into the story. In his old age his wives induced him to honor their gods:

Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab…and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.

And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods.

(1 Kings 11:7–8)

And it was precisely for this reason, we read in the First Book of Kings, that the kingdom did not endure: Yahweh was punishing Solomon’s impiety when the kingdom was later divided and impoverished. On these lines it was possible to explain the apparent contradiction between the tremendous privilege of election by Yahweh and a history of defeat and humiliation.

The real difficulty came when in 586 BCE the Babylonians put a final end to the royal line of David, carried off the educated Israelites to Mesopotamia, and destroyed the Temple. Yahweh had never been expected to go as far as that. The fall of the Temple meant the end of the divinely appointed correspondence of heaven and earth, the disappearance of order. The prophet Jeremiah, in exile, voiced bewilderment:

I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.

I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly….

I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.

(Jeremiah 4:23–24, 26)

Chaos had triumphed; life had ceased to make sense.

The devout thus were driven into a corner. How, now, to save the Israelites’ conception of God and their own special destiny? From Ezekiel onward we find the response being worked out. Such shattering defeat on the worldly and visible plane called forth an opposite and even more than equal reaction on another plane: a victory of unimagined completeness, just round the corner, not without annihilating vengeance on the apparently invincible enemy and all those who under pressure apostatized or dissociated themselves from the elect. The Second Isaiah predicts a return from exile, brought about by an omnipotent God, which shall be far more than a happy homecoming. The Temple will of course be rebuilt; all Israelites shall be unswervingly devout (this seems to apply only to the returning exiles: the peasants who were left behind are to get very short shrift, extermination being apparently the doom held out for them by Ezekiel).

For the deutero-Isaiah a revived nation state, however splendid, is no longer enough. Babylon is to be destroyed, and that will be an example of the vengeance of Yahweh on all the enemies of his people. He is invoked in the most Ba’al-like imagery as conqueror of the monsters of the deep:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab [Egypt] in pieces, and wounded the dragon?

Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep…

(Isaiah 51:9–10)

Yahweh is no longer the tribal god of Israel but the only God of the whole world. The Israelites in their present desperation could not be satisfied with a god who was merely very powerful. Omnipotence alone could now suffice. All the nations of the earth were to be subservient to a reunited and glorified Israel, presided over by Yahweh manifest, to the astonishment of the heathen. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low;

The mountains and hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree….

(Isaiah 55:12–13)

Nonhuman nature, that is, will also be transformed in the super Israel of the future. We are moving into the apocalyptic realm.

Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon in 538 and allowed, even encouraged, the Hebrews to go home. The prophecies were fulfilled: now for the triumph of Yahweh’s people! But again things did not go as they should. All too many of the Israelites declined to return; the diaspora had begun. The restored Jewish state was small and poor, disappointing to the devout and not impressive to its neighbors. Supernatural graces were not in evidence. Again: What were the faithful to make of this state of affairs?

There was no longer any point in hoping for the return of a king of the house of David. Earthly prospects looked uniformly dark. The prophets of that age—Joel and Zechariah and the authors of the passages interpolated at this time into the text of older prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah and others—turned away from this unsatisfactory scene to the frankly supernatural. No human agent but Yahweh himself will intervene directly and immediately in history, and to smashing effect. The human adversaries and conquerors of the Jews will suffer a hideous comeuppance:

Strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee…

The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.

The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet…. (Isaiah 60:10, 12, 14: the last verse in particular a touchingly transparent piece of wish-fulfilment.)

As for particular foes, many of them are singled out for special treatment, described with infectious gusto: Edom, for instance, a traditional thorn in the flesh, shall have its streams turned to pitch, and its dust into brimstone; it shall be desolate and uninhabitable for ever; pelicans and porcupines, jackals and ostriches shall possess it; there the arrow-snake shall make her nest, and there shall the kites be gathered; and the people shall be exterminated (Isaiah 34:6–17). Yahweh in person shall lead his irresistible armies to destroy the forces of Gog (that is, all the heathen) in a battle of superhuman ferocity and cosmic impact (Ezekiel 37–38).

But for the elect there shall be marvelous rewards. There shall be new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17)—words that have rung in the ears of many subsequent apocalyptists—in which all life will be blessed. All shall live to the age of a hundred; the voice of weeping shall be no more heard, nor the voice of crying; human and animal nature will be changed, so that

the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.

(Isaiah 65:25)

The blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, the lame shall run; all the curses of nature shall be undone.

Here we have the two sides of the apocalyptic vision as it was to develop in the enormously influential Book of Daniel, and in many prophetic books produced in the intertestamental period, in the scrolls of the community of Qumran, and in Christian apocalypse. On the one hand, visions of transformed and innocent life, sometimes of piercing beauty; on the other, blood-curdling fantasies of violence and destruction, vengeance on enemies, suffering inflicted and gloated over. The two cannot be separated without force. I once at a memorial service for a dead colleague had to read as a lesson the first seven verses of the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation. It is that beautiful passage describing the new heaven and new earth, and the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband. But you must be careful not to go on and read out verse 8, which suddenly strikes the other note:

But for the fearful, and unbelieving and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

That combination of two strains of thought, vengeance on our enemies and bliss for our own party, shows with touching clarity that this is literature of the powerless and the resentful. It is the complete absence of rational political hope which turns the mind to these super-rational fantasies: because events seem to be going on in cruel disregard of us and our aspirations, therefore we need the perspective in which we occupy the center of the cosmic stage.

Apocalypse in the strict sense, revelation of secrets known in heaven but concealed on earth, assumes its characteristic form in the third and second centuries BCE. Apocalyptic books are regularly given special authority by being ascribed to holy men long dead: the Book of Daniel, purporting to contain the visions and prophecies of a venerated teacher of four hundred years before, is in this as in other respects typical. Soon it was possible to read such choice pieces as the Revelation of Enoch (the father of Methuselah, who lived before the Flood), and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, surprisingly verbose old gentlemen. These works indeed are still extant, and they can be found in English, along with much other curious material, in the two massive volumes of R. H. Charles’s Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 1913), where they are fitted out by the editors with rather prim Christian commentaries in the style of the period.

“Daniel” makes his predictions in true apocalyptic style, heavily symbolic and allusive; dreams and visions form the main contents of the book. He sees the great idol with the feet of clay, and in traditional fashion also four great beasts which will come up from the sea (chapter 7), true chaos monsters, each worse than the last. The fourth and final one stands for the conquest of Alexander the Great and for the oppressor of the moment, Antiochus, king of Hellenistic Syria: who for reasons which are obscure to us had embarked on a policy of desecrating the rebuilt Temple and forbidding and persecuting all observance of the Jewish Law. On the political level the response was the nationalist and fundamentalist revolt of the Maccabees. On another plane there was prediction of a new age, in which after terrible wars God would deliver the devout: religious and purified Jews, including (by an extraordinary reversal of traditional Jewish notions) some raised from the dead, would rule the world forever. Again it is difficult and oppressive earthly conditions that produce this mentality.


Apocalyptic books were written in considerable numbers, but with the exception of the Book of Daniel they did not achieve acceptance into the Hebrew Bible, in which their tradition is most strikingly represented by Second Isaiah and passages, often nowadays thought to be interpolated, in some of the other prophets. They were more successful with certain movements outside the mainstream of orthodox Judaism: the Qumran sect and what Cohn calls the Jesus sect. It is at this period that a very important development takes place: the intrusion into a Jewish context of dualism, the idea of a superhuman entity of enormous power opposed to the purposes of God.

Daniel goes no further in this direction than speaking of the angel, or prince, of Israel fighting against those of Persia and of Greece, their battles in heaven accompanying and deciding those which are fought out between their peoples on earth (Daniel, chapters 10 and 11). We approach dualism proper, which will be so central to Revelation and hence to Christian apocalyptic, in a work like the Book of Jubilees, composed in the second century BCE. This lengthy book develops the rather passing reference in Genesis to certain angels having had sexual relations with women and engendered giants. The evil of this world, for the Book of Jubilees, is the work of Satan, or Beliar, or Mastema (“hostility”), and his host of demons, fallen angels. The final battle against their forces will be followed, for this book and others like it, by a transfigured world, the home of the elect in long and blessed lives, with God ruling them from his holy mountain, and human nature reformed to undo Adam’s sin.

The Dead Sea scrolls show us an exclusive and self-confident sect, anticipating an imminent struggle with the forces of Satan, prominent among them the Romans. Their extraordinary strength came from their belief in apocalyptic interpretations of Biblical prophecy. Their inspiration, the “Teacher of Righteousness,” expounded Isaiah and Hosea in that sense, prophesying that soon time would have an end, and those ruled by the Prince of Light would prevail, after a long war with many reversals of fortune, over the armies of the Angel of Darkness (dualistic ideas are strong here too): the latter, including ungodly Jews, hostile neighbors, and of course the Romans, would be finally annihilated by the intervention of God, and the world would be given over to the rule of the Messiah in endless glory, while the sinners were plunged into “eternal torment and endless disgrace.” Such were the beliefs of the community of Qumran, featuring predestination; dualism; constant struggle between the righteous and the wicked, each side with its supernatural counterpart and champion; preparedness for martyrdom in the great cause; and confidence in the imminence of the last battle and the last judgment, to be followed by the triumphant rule of the elect.

Such a description is inescapably reminiscent of the Jesus sect. Jesus “was Jewish through and through,” Cohn writes, and he began, as Mark describes him, as a charismatic preacher of the imminent Kingdom of God; a dualist, he had much to say of the constant activity of demons, the rule of Satan, and the struggle with him for the world. The apocalypse which Jesus expounds in Mark, chapter 13, has all the regular features: wars and tribulations, false prophets, the stars falling from the heaven, the gathering of the elect, the appearance on the clouds of the Son of Man (a mysterious title from Daniel and the Book of Enoch). “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” meant the restoration on earth of the harmony with heaven and the divine will which had been there in the beginning; the restoration, in fact, of the Garden of Eden. God was about to reveal his power by defeating Satan and bringing to the people the blessings promised by Isaiah. Many early Christians looked forward to an age of boundless fertility and plenty, a world delivered from demons, sin, age, and death, under the rule of a loving God. These benefits were apparently envisaged by Jesus as being for Jews: there is very little indication in his own words that he looked beyond them to the Gentiles.

Nothing is more difficult or more risky than reconstructing the original message of Jesus. If the approach of Cohn is anywhere near the truth—and a plausible case can certainly be made for it—then it will also follow that something happened to transform it and its impact on the world, from being one more Jewish sect to a potentially universal religion. That can be nothing other than the resurrection, whether as a true fact (and Paul is emphatic that “if Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, then is your faith also vain”), or as something which was at least believed by the early Church. An apparently defeated sect, its charismatic leader put to a humiliating death, demoralized and bewildered, found a way to turn defeat into undreamed of victory. One sees a family resemblance to the way in which an earlier generation of Jews had coped with another apparently crushing defeat, the destruction of the Temple. Recorded sayings of Jesus, whatever they originally meant, were now taken as claiming that he was divine, that he would return in glory to judge the world.

This emphasis on the triumph of the crucified Messiah was the crucial move away from Judaism; but the apocalyptic tradition within Judaism held out to the first Christians, all of course Jews, the prospect of being an elite who would be rewarded as other Jewish sects had promised to reward their elites. The mood of the early Church was one of eschatological excitement: the Judgment was about to take place, the devout would be transformed into immortal and transfigured beings, while their enemies would be consigned to the most horrid torments that a fertile imagination could devise.

The Revelation of Saint John the Divine—another work falsely fathered on a famous author—seems to have been composed toward the end of the first century CE. It has all the familiar features—vision in heaven, battles in heaven and on earth, wars and tribulations, monsters emerging from the sea, stars falling, transfigured existence (here depicted in technicolor splendor) for the saints, even grislier torments than usual for opponents, human and superhuman. Very Jewish, but also very Christian, it was written for a congregation of elite Jewish Christians, to whom it was for example important that 12,000 should be saved out of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Rome is demonized, and most of the members of the cast—human, bestial, and angelic—finish up in eternal fire. It makes an interesting comparison that the narrator of the Jewish apocalypse known as Fourth Ezra tries to remonstrate with God over this question, asking if it can really be that a compassionate God will condemn so many to eternal punishment; getting from God the answer that “the new age is not for many but for few…I saw, and spared some with very great difficulty, and saved me a grape out of a cluster, and a plant out of a great forest. Perish then the multitude which has been born in vain, but let my grape be preserved, and my plant, which with much labor I have perfected!” (4 Ezra 7:132). Few apocalyptists were at all bothered by such considerations.

We come now to a crucial question: Can we find a source for the Jewish apocalyptic, so clearly the ancestor of the Christian tradition? Cohn starts from the combat myths of the other ancient societies, with a heroic god battling in defense of cosmic order and of the prosperity and fertility of the world. From this we see a change, with the emphasis coming to be put much more on spiritual warfare against impurity and sin, and on rewards primarily for the poor and the oppressed. A definite source presents itself: the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, in its later stages. The prophet Zoroaster, whose activity, it now seems, should be dated as early as c. 1300 BCE, taught that the benign Ahura Mazda was opposed by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu; their struggle will end with the victory of the good side. This dualist picture, so different from traditional Judaism, so important an ingredient of the apocalyptic writings, was another Iranian import that was taken up by Jews. It was vital that men should assist and strengthen the good by virtuous actions, sacrifices, and obedience to the rules of purity. All men, not just priests, must keep these rules: the Persians, like the Jews, were to be a people apart.

Another great difference between Jewish and Christian apocalypses on the one side, and the combat myths on the other, is that the Egyptians and the Babylonians thought of a constant struggle, in which order is assailed and defended but never lost and never changing: rather like the unending struggle, which we all know, to stay alive. The Persians by contrast envisaged a final resolution, the defeat and disappearance of the evil principle. Again, the resemblance between Persian beliefs and those adopted by the Jews is striking. The Zoroastrians expected a last judgment, after which the good would be lavishly rewarded, the wicked agonizingly annihilated. The world would then be full of devout Zoroastrians. A supernatural figure, the Soashyant, would appear (like the Messiah) to bring all this about. It was from the Persians, Cohn argues, that the Jews, in exile in Babylon, picked up these crucial ideas, and also, later, that of posthumous judgment, reward, and punishment; that came into Judaism about the time of the birth of Christ.

The argument is bold and will surely be controversial. It may be a little overstated: for instance, the idea that moral behavior was an important part of the struggle is not uniquely Iranian, being visible also in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. But the connections are at least extremely suggestive, and the main argument looks convincing. This is an exciting as well as a learned book, not only for students of ancient religion but for those with any interest in modern apocalyptic faith.

It is also a good example of the tendency now in the best academic study to jump over the dividing walls between fields of knowledge: Iranian influence on Judaism and Christianity can stand, for instance, beside the important work of recent years on the influence on archaic Greece of the Near East (not, however, in anything but externals, of Egypt). The real world does not come divided up into departmental closed shops: peoples, no less than people, are influenced by their neighbors.

That said, the reader cannot fail to be struck by the extraordinary tenacity of the Jews, ancient and modern. It would have been so much easier in the sixth century BCE, when their country was overrun and the Temple destroyed, to accept the apparent verdict of history, write off the Mosaic Laws and the god who had been defeated, and be like everybody else. It would have been easy again, four hundred years later, to melt into the international culture of Hellenistic Greece; in fact, there was already a Greek style gymnasium in Jerusalem, the young men were taking up the Greek dress, and there was a High Priest with a Greek name. But each time the hard choice was the one they made, accepting the need to invent increasingly idiosyncratic theories of history and of theology. Apocalypse was to be a vital weapon; as it was yet again, when the first followers of Jesus refused to be defeated by his crucifixion.

Greeks and Romans were not strangers to the apocalyptic; they associated it always with the East (though not with the Hebrews, of whose literature they were cheerfully ignorant). The Fourth Eclogue of Virgil is an accessible instance, and it offers some very familiar traits. Lions are no longer to be carnivorous, there shall be no poisonous creatures, the earth will spontaneously bear every crop, gods and men shall mingle in peace. But for a Pagan such a vision would lack magic if it did not feature the great figures of heroic myth; and Virgil cannot be content without telling us that there shall be another expedition of the Argonauts, and another Achilles sent to another Troy, before the world enjoys peace.

That can be seen as the classical counterpart of the time of tribulation so enjoyably evoked by the Jewish tradition, and the difference is more important than the resemblance: it is not a matter of universal suffering and disaster, but rather a showy spectacle of heroic jousting. Nor does Virgil have anything lip-smacking to say about the torments in store for any set of enemies or sinners; that subject is not touched on. It is in fact more of a Golden Age than a true Judaeo-Christian apocalypse. The emphasis is not upon sin, or upon righteousness, or upon revenge. It was cruel of Dante to make Virgil guide him through the tortures of the damned but not to allow him to see the delights of heaven.

Professor Cohn preserves a generous and urbane tone, however unattractive the fantasies of which he writes. That seems the right approach; and yet there is a perspective in which the invention of the tradition of apocalyptic, and still more its canonization by reception in the Old and New Testaments, has been a disaster for the world. The Book of Revelation, the most important and influential of such works, is written in the most violent spirit of anger and vengeance, and it also is exclusive, dwelling lovingly on the small number of the elect and the savageries in store for everybody else. To say of it only that it is “a splendidly imaginative prose-poem, full of arresting imagery” really is, I think, to let it off much too lightly. Many people have been the worse for reading and learning it: more intolerant, more sectarian, more bloodthirsty. After all, we know what sort of people are most attracted to it even nowadays. It is a dismal fact that this book is more often cited than any other of the New Testament by Christian writers of the second century.

A contemporary Christian scholar, writing of the Revelation in the Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1970), says, with becoming regret: “There is a certain fitness in the position of Revelation in the Canon, despite the intense antipathy it aroused for long periods in certain quarters, and the melancholy history of its use and interpretation in the Church.” That note seems more appropriate; and, what is more, Revelation’s description of the decor of heaven is in execrable taste.

This Issue

December 22, 1994