Visions of the End: Where did they come from? (End 1.1)

This term I am teaching a course on early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, including legacies for the medieval and modern eras. You can get a glimpse into this course on Visions of the End on my courses page. One of the key questions to start with in such a course is where did apocalypticism come from? By “apocalypticism” I mean, in part, the worldview that I have outlined in skeletal form in the post: It’s the end of the world as we know it: Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. I have also dealt with such issues in many previous posts collected together in my blog category apocalypticism, as well as my category on the history of Satan.

Like most questions of origin, the issue of the origins of the apocalyptic worldview is a slippery one to handle and there are no simple answers, despite my attempt at a sketchy but partial answer here. The first time that we witness what scholars often identify as the Jewish apocalyptic worldview in its “full-blown” sense is in writings such as 1 Enoch and Daniel around the turn of the second century BCE. Yet there are important pieces of the puzzle from various cultural spheres that preceded the Jewish apocalyptic worldview and that help us to make better sense of the full picture.

First of all, there is the importance of the Mesopotamian “combat myth” (on which see my earlier post here). Central to the later Jewish apocalyptic worldview is the combat between God and Satan which will come to a complete end in the certain defeat of Satan, who is sometimes identified with that age-old monster or dragon Leviathan (as in Revelation 12-13). As far back as the earliest written evidence of civilization we find a recurrent theme in the mythology of Mesopotamia and the Near East generally. This particular recurrent theme or plot which scholars have labeled “the combat myth” involves the following:

One among the many gods engages in activity that seriously threatens the very order of the society of the gods, and it seems that all may revert to chaos (i.e. almost literally all hell is breaking loose). None among the older generation of gods seems willing or able to stand up against this chaotic threat which may undo the cosmos. A young or up-and-coming god (e.g. Ninurta or Marduk) steps up after being offered kingship over all the gods if he succeeds in restoring order among the gods. That young god succeeds in slaying the chaotic god or monster and reigns supreme (at least until the next threat of chaos).

This pattern can be seen in the story of Ninurta vs. Anzu and in others such as Ba’al’s defeat of Yamm (personified Sea) and Marduk’s defeat of the chaotic sea-monster Tiamat, from whose body Marduk fashions the world as we know it (in the Babylonian Enuma elish).

This pattern is also reflected in the basic assumptions of some authors of the Hebrew Bible, who speak of Yahweh slaying Leviathan, Rahab, or Yam, sometimes in connection with his creation of the world (see Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:5-18; Isaiah 51:9-11). There is some truth in the claim that the apocalyptic worldview is the combat myth writ large: instead of simply being a recurrent theme in mythology, the ongoing combat between God and Satan (the ultimate adversary) is central to the overall apocalyptic worldview and now there is a vision of a future, final battle in which Satan will be put out of business permanently.

Second, there is the Persian case of Zoroastrian apocalypticism, about which I have posted in connection with Plutarch’s ethnographic summary (and, no, the actual Ahura Mazda was not interviewed on The Daily Show — yes, I had an email asking if he had been). The Zoroastrian material speaks of an ongoing battle between Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Evil Spirit) that will come to a complete end in the defeat of the power of darkness and all of its allies. An end-time figure (Saoshyant = “future benefactor”) will play some role in bringing about Lord Wisdom’s plans. There will be a resurrection of the dead and judgment will follow. The power of light will punish or destroy all evil and will “make things wonderful” by establishing a blissful existence for all humans who chose to live in accordance with Truth rather than the Lie.

Clearly there are many parallels between this Persian (Iranian) worldview and Jewish apocalypticism. Yet there are difficulties in assessing what is the relation between the two: We don’t know precisely when Zoroaster lived (either the sixth century BCE or the 12th century BCE!); it is difficult to know what aspects of later Zoroastrianism go back to Zoroaster himself; and all of our writings from Zoroastrians themselves (Avesta and Pahlavi) were only put into the written form we have from the fifth century CE on (i.e. either around seventeen or eleven centuries after Zoroaster lived). So there will always be debate on how the two influenced one another.

Third, there are other important traditions within Israelite religion (before the building of the second temple around 500 BCE) that provide a framework for the development of apocalypticism.

On the one hand there is the wisdom tradition, reflected in writings such as Proverbs. An assumption behind this tradition is that God has wisdom, and that he imparts this wisdom to very special human beings, to wise men. The apocalyptic worldview makes this same assumption and, in this case, the content of the wisdom relates to God’s plan for the coming final intervention to destroy evil and save the righteous (as well as how God runs the universe as a whole). The figure of Daniel, for instance, is presented as the ultimate wise man of Yahweh whose wisdom surpasses that of the Babylonian “wise men”, such that he (someone writing in his name) is the natural candidate to produce one of our earliest apocalyptic writings.

On the other hand, and closely related, is what we can call the prophetic tradition. The writings of the prophets preserved in the Hebrew Bible struggle to explain why God has allowed terrible things to happen to the people he chose (namely, to explain the fall of the Northern kingdom to Assyria in 721 BCE and then the fall of the Southern temple to Babylonia in 586 BCE). An assumption held by these prophets is that God has future plans for his people (namely to save them) and he reveals important aspects of this plan to the people through the prophet.

In the process of communicating what Yahweh tells them to tell the people (as they see it), many prophets look forward to “that day”, namely, the day when Israel would be freed from foreign domination and restored to its united glory. Quite often Yahweh’s communications take the form of visions, like Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones or the two sticks (Ezekiel 37). “That day” also often includes the “judgment” and/or subjugation of foreign nations. As we approach the (most likely) post-exilic era, a prophecy such as that in Isaiah 24-27 (the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse”) can say that on “that day” (which is imminent) Yahweh will “lay waste the earth and make it desolate” (24:1), that he “will punish the host of heaven in heaven [heavenly beings], and on earth the kings of the earth ” (24:21), and that this can be compared to Yahweh repeating in some more final manner the slaying of “Leviathan the twisting serpent” (27:1 [RSV]).

Although I would hesitate to call the material in Isaiah 24-27 the “full-blown apocalyptic worldview”, we are certainly well on our way towards its development. Many of the pieces of the puzzle were quite quickly coming together in the wake of exile and return, in the fifth century BCE. Soon “that day” would be the day on which Yahweh, God of Israel, did battle with Satan (or some other ultimate adversary) and all of Satan’s earthly allies (kings of other nations) in order to wipe out evil forever and establish an eternal kingdom for the righteous. By soon, I mean sometime before 1 Enoch and the book of Daniel were written (c. 225-160s BCE). By then, the apocalypse had arrived in various senses, although Satan was yet to develop fully as his completely evil self.

Much more could be said, but this will have to do for now (the post is too long!!). You can read more about such things in books by the likes of John J. Collins and Norman Cohn as listed in the outline for my course.

3 thoughts on “Visions of the End: Where did they come from? (End 1.1)

  1. Gary Greenberg

    You might want to consider an Egyptian source, Spell 175 from the Book of the Dead, in which Atum, the creator god, says that he will destroy all that exists and send it back into the deep, where only he and Osiris (Judge of the Dead) will survive.

  2. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Gary and Jane,

    Gary: You are right that there are many other such aspects of the Ancient Near Eastern traditions, including Egyptian ones, that help us to place Jewish apocalypticism in a broader context.

    Jane: As I approach the study of religion from an historical, academic perspective, I steer away as much as possible from making value judgments on whether this or that view is self-aggrandizing or right or wrong or stupid or wonderful, etc, etc. Instead, I try to understand the views and activities of specific historical groups or persons (in social contexts) without judging them on my own moral grounds. And this academic attempt to refrain from moral or value judgment would also hold for my approach to persons within modern religious contexts, be they Jew, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, or atheist.

    Thanks to both of you for commenting.

    Phil H.

  3. Seeker31

    It would seem that many of the religions of the ancient near east had very similar origins and characteristics. The ancient Israelites were apparently no different than their neighbors in many ways. It is fascinating to explore the forces and circumstances which lead these Israelites to become the later day Jews with a strong ethical monotheism and system of social justice. What forces were at work in early Israel that were absent in the Mesopotamian, Persian,Egyptian etc. histories that resulted in what we have today?

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