Category Archives: Apocalypticism

Podcast 8.9: A Satanic Empire in John’s Apocalypse (ca. 80-100 CE)

Here I discuss Satan in John’s Apocalypse (Revelation), pointing out how this author pulls together many strands of the story of Satan and does so to demonize an external power: the Roman empire.

Podcast 8.9: A Satanic Empire in John’s Apocalypse (ca. 80-100 CE) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.8: Internal Functions of the Rhetoric of Satan in Paul and John (ca. 50-110 CE)

Here I introduce Paul’s apocalyptic worldview and go on to discuss the way in which some early Christian authors or leaders (e.g. Paul and the elder John) used the language or rhetoric of Satan or evil personified figures (e.g. Antichrist) to label and combat internal opponents within the Christian communities.

Podcast 8.8: Internal Functions of the Rhetoric of Satan in Paul and John (ca. 50-110 CE) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.7: The Devil and Beelzebub in Early Biographies of Jesus (70-100 CE)

Here I discuss how the authors of the synoptic gospels portray Jesus in conflict with demons and with the Devil.

Podcast 8.7: The Devil and Beelzebub in Early Biographies of Jesus (70-100 CE) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.6: Mastema in Jubilees and Beliar in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 100 BCE)

Here I continue to trace the development of evil personified figures in Judean literature around the turn of the first century BCE, focussing on Mastema (Enmity personified) and Beliar or Belial (Worthless One).  I also discuss the Prince of Darkness in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Podcast 8.6: Mastema in Jubilees and Beliar in the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 100 BCE) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.5: Fallen Angels in 1 Enoch (ca. 225 BCE)

Here I discuss 1 Enoch’s expanded story of the fallen angels headed by Azazel and Semyaz (based on an interpretation of Genesis 6), which came to play a crucial role in the emerging story of Satan.

Podcast 8.5: Fallen Angels in 1 Enoch (ca. 225 BCE) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.4: Other Predecessors of Satan from the Hebrew Bible

Here I explore other building blocks of Satan’s story from Israelite culture by looking at arrogant foreign kings and angels or messengers of God in the Hebrew Bible.

Podcast 8.4: Other Predecessors of Satan from the Hebrew Bible (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.3: Predecessors of Satan from Persia (Zoroastrianism)

Here I discuss the battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu in Persian Zoroastrianism in relation to the role of Satan within Judean apocalypticism.

Podcast 8.3: Predecessors of Satan from Persia (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.2: Predecessors of Satan from Canaan and Israel

This episode continues to consider the centrality of the “combat myth” for the subsequent origins of Satan, considering Ugaritic (Canaanite) and Israelite examples of a god slaying a chaos monster, such as Leviathan.

Podcast 8.2: Predecessors of Satan from Canaan and Israel (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 8.1: A Cultural History of Satan – Predecessors from Mesopotamia

This series of the podcast investigates the origins, history and functions of personified evil from ancient Judean (Jewish) and Christian culture to modern, Western culture.  We begin with what you might call the pre-history of Satan by exploring the building blocks of what ultimately became the story of Satan within Judean and Christian circles.  The first among the predecessors of Satan are monsters (who are also gods) found within Mesopotamian mythology in the second and first millenia BCE.  The so-called “combat myth” is a fundamental building block of Satan’s story.

Podcast 8.1: A Cultural History of Satan – Predecessors from Mesopotamia (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.8: Introduction to Daniel’s Historical Apocalypse

Here I introduce the “historical apocalypse” of Daniel, including a discussion of the kingdoms in king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (ch. 2) and the historical context of chapters 7-12 (the visionary apocalypse proper) during the time of the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (in the 160s BCE).

Podcast 7.8: Introduction to Daniel’s Historical Apocalypse (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.7: 1 Enoch – Fallen Angels in Early Apocalypticism

Here I examine the importance of the story of the fallen angels in 1 Enoch 1-36 for Judean apocalypticism, dealing with the literary genre of the otherworldly or cosmic journey apocalypse.

Podcast 7.7: 1 Enoch – Fallen Angels in Early Apocalypticism (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.6: 1 Enoch – An Introduction to the Earliest Apocalypse

Here I begin to introduce our earliest example of the Judean apocalyptic worldview and our first example of an otherworldly journey apocalypse as a type of literature, 1 Enoch (which most likely dates to about 225-200 BCE).  The next episode examines the so called “Book of Watchers” in 1 Enoch chapters 1-36 in more detail.

Podcast 7.6: 1 Enoch – An Introduction to the Earliest Apocalypse (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.5: Origins part 3b – Israelite Prophets 2

Here I continue to discuss the importance of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible for the subsequent development of apocalypticism, dealing with Zechariah and Isaiah 24-27 (sometimes known as the “Apocalypse of Isaiah”).

Podcast 7.5: Origins part 3b – Israelite Prophets 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.4: Origins part 3a – Israelite Prophets 1

Here I discuss the importance of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible for the subsequent development of apocalypticism, beginning with a survey of important events in the history of Israel and discussion of a passage in Ezekiel (chs. 37-39).

Podcast 7.4: Origins part 3a – Israelite Prophecy 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.3: Origins part 2 – Zoroastrian apocalypticism

Here I turn to Persia (Iran) in order to examine Zoroastrian apocalypticism and its relation to Judean apocalypticism.  This is part of series 6 (Visions of the End: Apocalypticism) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 7.3: Origins part 2 – Zoroastrian apocalypticism (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.2: Origins part 1 – Ancient Near Eastern Combat Myths

Here I go back to the earliest Mesopotamian mythologies (starting about 3000 BCE) about the gods in order to trace a recurring pattern — labelled the “combat myth” by scholars –  that later came to play a role in Judean (Jewish) apocalypticism.  This is part of series 7 (Visions of the End 1: Origins of Judean Apocalypticism) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 7.2: Origins part 1 – Ancient Near Eastern Combat Myths (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.1: Visions of the End – What is Apocalypticism?

In this first episode I begin to define apocalypticism with reference to (1) a worldview or ideology focused on an imminent end of the world, (2) social groups that live out that worldview, and (3) a type of writing or genre of literature (e.g. the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and John’s Revelation.in the New Testament).

This is the first of two series, with this one dealing with both the predecessors of apocalypticism and the period up to the writing of 1 Enoch and Daniel (ca. 160s BCE).  The second series will come later and deal with later Judean and Christian apocalypticism, beginning with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This is part of series 7 (Visions of the End 1: Origins of Judean Apocalypticism) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 7.1: Visions of the End – What is Apocalypticism? (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 7.9: Daniel’s Visions as Veiled History

Here I further explore the first-person visionary account in Daniel chapters 7-12, our earliest example of an historical apocalypse as veiled history.

Podcast 7.9: Daniel’s Visions as Veiled History (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians)

This second episode looks at the situation among followers of Jesus at Thessalonica in Macedonia in the mid-first century. Considering the ethnic and social makeup of the earliest Christians, this episode also discusses two main problems faced by these followers of Jesus: “afflictions” and the death of fellow-followers of Jesus. This prepares the way for episode three, which will look at how Paul responds to this situation in his letter, known as 1 Thessalonians in the New Testament (approx. 36 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Post-apocalyptic films: From Escape from New York to Twelve Monkeys and beyond

As I have mentioned in connection with the likes of Nosferatu (1922), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), elements of apocalypticism (often, though not always, without an explicit role for “God”) are widespread within modern popular culture in the West (see the other posts in my Religion and Popular Culture category). In some cases, a filmmaker’s focus is on elaborating one specific apocalyptic idea, such as the Antichrist, whose story is told in a new way in films like the Omen series. In other cases, there is a convergence of a number of apocalyptic ideas and assumptions. Numerous films have been created with a focus on the apocalypse as the end or potential end of all human civilization, including Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), which both viewed meteorites (rather than the previously “popular” nuclear bomb) as the final destructive weapon. A subgenre within these is the post-apocalyptic film.

Post-apocalyptic films are set after the end, or near-end. The apocalypse–the final intervention of some destructive power–has already taken place, and we, as viewers, witness the survivors in a horrible wasteland. Escape from New York (1981) is a good example. Twelve Monkeys is another.

The premise of the plot of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is an apocalyptic viral attack which wipes out the majority of humanity. Bruce Willis’s character, a convict, exists in the post-apocalyptic world (in 2035), where the precious (or not-so-precious) few survivors (1%) live a surreal existence underground. Oddball scientists are hard at work in this underworld seeking to reverse the apocalyptic clock. So Bruce Willis’s character, among others, is chosen to go back in time to find a way to stop the viral attack that decimated the population. The scientists have (mistaken) hints that a group known as the Army of Twelve Monkeys (which is led by Brad Pitt’s character) caused the massive slaughter. After showing up in several other time periods, Bruce Willis’s character finally arrives in the right time (1997) and place. But we the viewers, along with Willis and others, learn too late that it was not the Army of Twelve Monkeys but a disturbed red-headed man that released the virus and needed to be stopped. Perhaps the next time back crisis could be averted.

There is an online, academic article that deals with Twelve Monkeys alongside Waterworld: Conrad Ostwalt, “Visions of the End. Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film,” Journal of Religion and Film 2 (1998).

What better time is there to post this than after watching Live Free or Die Hard (2007), in which Bruce Willis averts an attempt to bring on the apocalypse (“fire sale”: “everything must go”), at least in United States of America (which is the world from the perspective of this and other Hollywood films).

Apocalyptic literature on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha blog (End 1.11)

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha course blog has now been going for a while and includes a number of entries on apocalyptic literature:

Apocalypse of Abraham: Online Translations of the Apocalypse of Abraham, Apocalypse of Abraham Abstract, Summary of The Apocalypse of Abraham Seminar

Apocalypse of Elijah: Elijah Materials Online, Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah Abstract, Summary of Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah Seminar

“The beginning of another world”: Apocalyptic expectations of re-creation (End 1.9)

An expectation of a perfect place or kingdom in which the righteous would live an eternal, blissful life is central to the apocalyptic worldview, as I have discussed in previous posts on apocalypticism. Sometimes this expectation of God’s future kingdom developed out of concrete expectations of a restored Israel as expressed by prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Prophets like Jeremiah or Ezekiel looked forward to a literal return of exiles and the re-establishment of an Israel under God’s rule in the land that God had given to them. In these cases the apocalyptic visionary of later years looked forward to a quite down-to-earth, though perfect, kingdom that God would establish when the nations recognized Israel’s God and the powers of evil were wiped out. The apocalypse of Daniel, for instance, speaks of four kingdoms (Babylonia, Persia, Media, Hellenistic) that will fall and the establishment of God’s kingdom under the direction of the warrior figure like a human being (the archangel Michael): “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever — forever and ever” (7:18).

Sometimes, however, the final blissful existence is conceived not as a return to physical Israel completely purified forever, but rather as a re-creation. I was just now reading the Epistle of Barnabas in connection with a tutorial and came across that author’s allegorical interpretation of the true meaning of Sabbath. According to this late-first-century (anti-Jewish) follower of Jesus, the six days of creation in Genesis were six thousand years, at which time “everything will be brought to an end” (15.4). The seventh day of rest would follow on the “Son’s” destruction of lawlessness and judgment of the ungodly (15.5). Finally, the author speaks of the true, final “Sabbath” when God would create an “eighth day, which is the beginning of another world” (15.8).

The author of the Jewish apocalypse known as 4 Ezra (2 Esdras 3-14 in your Apocrypha) likewise spoke of God’s final kingdom in terms of re-creation. This writing, like The Epistle of Barnabas, was written in the wake of the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which happened in 70 CE). The author of 4 Ezra speaks of two ages, the present one and the one to come, when “evil shall be blotted out” (6:27). Most interesting here is how he expresses what will happen in the end times, when God’s anointed brings to completion the present age:

For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it. . . (7:28-32 [RSV]).

Here in a Christian writing and a Jewish apocalypse we are witnessing similar conceptions of re-creation, on the model of Genesis, at the end of the age.

Spoofing the apocalypse, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (End 1.8)

One of the more interesting and entertaining films with apocalyptic themes is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (trailer here, official Kubrick site here, clips further below). The story goes that a psychotic general, Jack D. Ripper, has gone beyond his powers to initiate American planes dropping a nuclear bomb on a Russian city. Ripper’s psychosis manifests itself as a belief in a communist conspiracy to contaminate the bodily fluids of Americans through the fluoridation of water.

The meek and mild American president, who is played by Peter Sellers, then meets with the high command in the war room of the Pentagon in the hopes of recalling the plane–to no avail. Humourous phone-conversations between the American president and the Russian Premiere follow. One of the most hilarious episodes here is when the president stops an American general and a Soviet ambassador from fighting, saying something to the effect that “We can’t have fighting in the war-room”. Soon we hear that the American bomb is the least of their worries, since the Russians have developed a “doomsday machine” that will wipe out all living humans and animals in the event of an American strike. The end is near!

Slim Pickens rides the bomb

Photo: Slim Pickens excitedly rides the nuclear bomb, cowboy- (or is it phallic-)style, that sets in motion the end.

Now there is a surprising twist as one among the Pentagon high-command comes forward: the wheelchair bound Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers, and he’s hilarious). It becomes clear that this former German assistant of Hitler, now working for the Americans, had planned (“I have a plan!”) the entire scheme in the hopes of establishing a new superior race of people living, at first, far underground in the deepest mine-shafts. Strangelove’s arm has a mind of its own as it repeatedly attempts to give the “heil!” gesture; this hits its climax in one of the final lines of the film as Strangelove miraculously stands up from the wheelchair and shouts, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”. Immediately the viewer witnesses the apocalypse as innumerable nuclear bombs explode to the tune of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” Overall, the film is a spoof not only of Cold War politics but also of the genre of apocalyptic films which see nuclear war as the final apocalyptic battle.

There are several ways in which the film spoofs, twists, or inverts key elements in the apocalyptic worldview:

Dualism and the combat: Despite the fact that the viewer of the film, along with several characters, knows that the dualism is a false one, the good old Cold War dualism of righteous America versus evil Russia (which has more recently been replaced by a new, not-so-different opposition) is fundamental to the film. An aim of the film is to deconstruct precisely this simplified political dualism by spoofing it.

Final, cataclysmic intervention of god: Only towards the end of the film do we, as viewers, learn that Dr. Strangelove — the Hitler-loving distorted god of the film — has been instrumental in orchestrating the whole plan to set in motion the destruction of the world as we know it. It is he that has ensured the dropping of the fateful bomb that would bring civilization as we know it to a screeching halt. The mad doctor is behind it all.

Predetermined plan, elimination of the “less than desirable“, and kingdom of bliss for the chosen few: The “godly” Dr. Strangelove has a predetermined plan to create a Bizarro-heaven for the chosen — underground, that is, in the deepest mine-shafts. Seldom has the underworld been the kingdom of god. “Ten females to each male” is Dr. Strangelove’s answer to the eternal bliss of the chosen few. The judgment that will determine who will be saved is based on physical fitness and a list of other supposed superior qualities. They will be destined to repopulate the earth. Strangelove dismisses any suggestion by others that the “survivors” (including himself, of course) may not enjoy the mine-shaft plan as much as he expects. And the American general starts to worry about a “mine-shaft gap” (got to keep ahead of those “commies”).

In many ways, Dr. Strangelove is the apocalyptic film par excellence. The humour helps to lighten the burden of witnessing the end of virtually everything.

You should buy or rent the movie for yourself, but here are several short clips on You Tube:

Saviours or destroyers in space: Modern incarnations of ancient apocalyptic worldviews (End 1.7)

One thing that can be said of the apocalyptic worldview is it is flexible. The notion that we are living in an evil age and that the end is near, when evil will be wiped out by some heaven-sent powers who will destroy the hell-sent powers, has seen many variations. As has the notion that there will be a path of escape or kingdom of God for the righteous. Among the most interesting, and at times disturbing, are those variations where space, sci-fi, and religion meet.

In my post on Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate, I discussed the case of Heaven’s Gate. This group looked forward to the arrival of their saviours, a superior race of aliens who they expected to take them away to live in a blissful kingdom of god, the “Level Above Human”. There I also mentioned a breakthrough in the convergence of apocalyptic expectation and sci-fi which came to heavily influence all subsequent uses of space-races as end-time saviour and/or end-time demonic figures: the 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I commented that

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

Now I have just come across an online doctoral dissertation which explores other ways in which apocalyptic ideas may find a place in outer space.

Ryan Jeffrey McMillen, “Space Rapture: Extraterrestrial Millennialism and the Cultural Construction of Space Colonization.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Here is the summary of the dissertation:

The dream of space colonization possesses deep roots in the Christian apocalyptic fantasy of the Rapture of the elect to occur prior to the return of Christ. Space colonization, like its predecessor ascension fantasy, the Rapture, has always involved a tension between the liberation of a holy vanguard and the imminent destruction of the Earth. With the rise of modern technology, rocketry and space travel became, for fundamentalist Christians and technological determinists alike, the man-made tools and signs of an imminent apocalypse. In this dissertation, the 1970s space colonization proposal of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill is offered as a case study of these millennial roots of the space-bound dream. O’Neill’s colonies, offered as a way to avoid an irrevocable time of Earthly tribulation, were touted as the means of depopulating the Earth and ending terrestrial conflict. O’Neill’s dreams for rocketry were no different than the dreams of those men who pioneered rocketry before him, although earlier rocketeers and space enthusiasts held more explicitly Christian-inspired apocalyptic beliefs concerning the fate of the Earth and the destiny of humanity.

In addition to examining O’Neill’s colonial fantasy, this dissertation analyzes the religious and philosophical beliefs of the rocketeers to show how each of them was deeply influenced by apocalypse and Rapture fantasy. While O’Neill’s plan resembled earlier space colonization and Rapture imaginings, it also incorporated the more terrestrially benevolent dreams of the burgeoning environmental movement of the era. In attempting to unite the Space Age with a newly powerful “Earth Age,” O’Neill sought to resurrect the dream of space colonization for a new generation. However, O’Neill failed in this attempt. Instead of seeing humanity’s future in the stars, off of a doomed Earth, many in Western culture began in the late 1960s to imagine human destiny within a long and peaceful future on Earth. This perspective came about, paradoxically, as a result of perhaps the most epochal achievement of the space race: the first photographs of the planet from the distance of the moon (pp. 7-8).

Who said that doctoral studies couldn’t be fun.

Origins of an apocalyptic sect at Qumran: Teacher of Righteousness vs. Wicked Priest (End 1.6)

The difficulty in studying groups that lived two thousand or so years ago is that we often know very little about them, let alone knowing how they came to form in the first place. The discipline of “Christian origins” is a case in point regarding just how difficult it is to explain the origins of a movement. When it comes to the apocalyptic sect that left civilization to live out its life in the desert on the edge of the Dead Sea, we happen to get some hints as to the origins of this group at Qumran, which may or may not be a group of Essenes (see my earlier post on Josephus and the “sects” within Judaism).

The writing known as the Damascus Document (written around the early to mid first century BCE) begins precisely with a description, however loaded with metaphors, of the origins of a penitential group of Judeans, probably around the 190s BCE:

“[God] remembered the covenant of the very first, he saved a remnant for Israel and did not deliver them up to destruction. And at the moment of wrath, three hundred and ninety years after having delivered them up into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he visited them and caused to sprout from Israel and from Aaron a shoot of the planting, in order to possess his land and to become fat with the good things of the soil . And they realised their sin and knew that they were guilty men; but they were like blind persons and like those who grope for the path over twenty years. And God appraised their deeds, because they sought him with a perfect heart and raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness in order to direct them in the path of his heart” (Damascus Document = CD 1.4-11; italics mine).

This little passage tells us quite a bit, even though we need to be careful in how literally we approach this. It speaks of a particular group among the Judeans as the remnant and goes on to speak of a penitential movement that emerged as a “sprout” (with the years mentioned roughly lining up with the turn of the second century, around the 190s BCE). It speaks of a time when these men who recognized their “guilt” felt a lack of direction until a special leader emerged just decades later (20 years), the “Teacher of Righteousness”. So far so good: we have a penitential movement among the Judean population around the 190s BCE and a leader emerging perhaps around the 170s BCE.

We hear more of this “Teacher of Righteousness”, who was evidently a central figure of the past in the view of the group that lived at Qumran, from other biblical commentaries (pesharim) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (on pesher as a form of interpretation, see this post). In the commentary on Habbakuk we gain further glimpses into some aspects of the origins of this splinter group, as well as the centrality of apocalyptic expectation in connection with these origins. The author of this commentary interprets a passage in Habakkuk as referring to the Teacher of Righteousness himself:

Its interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God has disclosed all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets. For the vision has an appointed time, it will have an end and not fail [Hab. 2:3]. Its interpretation: the final age will be extended and go beyond all that the prophets say, because the mysteries of God are wonderful (1QpHab 7.1-8).

Here we see the centrality of the expectation of an apocalyptic end among these particular Judeans. The Teacher of Righteousness, it is thought, had special access to interpreting the mysteries of God concerning the prophets and the coming end. Through this teacher, the Qumranites believed, they alone had access to secrets about how to interpret scripture and about how and when the final intervention of God would come.

Added to this scenario is the “Wicked Priest”. It seems that disagreements between this priest, likely a Hasmonean (Maccabean) high-priest of the temple in Jerusalem (in the 150s BCE), and the Teacher, who was also a priest, led to a fall-out that inspired members of the penitential movement to leave “wicked” society altogether and to found the community at Qumran. The sort of tensions and conflicts that led to this foundation are evident when the author interprets a passage in Habakkuk in terms of the “Wicked Priest who pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the ferocity of his anger in the place of his banishment, in festival time, during the rest of the day of Atonement” (11.4-7). The language of consume here suggests violence, perhaps even an attempt to kill the “Teacher”. The Qumran group emerged out of contentions among priests in the temple of Jerusalem.

The negativity toward the Wicked Priest and the leadership of the temple generally which made these Judeans feel a need to abandon society altogether is further confirmed in the comment that the priest “did not circumcise the foreskin of his heart and has walked on paths of drunkenness to slake his thirst; but the cup of God’s anger will engulf him, heaping up [shame upon him]” (11.11-14).

Here we have, then, a sectarian group who felt the end of the world and the end of the evil leadership of the temple was coming soon. They went out to the desert to prepare and await the “visitation” of God that is spelled out most clearly in the “two spirits” material in the Community Rule. Soon, they thought, the “dominion of Belial” (Worthless one = Satan) or the Prince of Darkness would end with the destruction or eternal torment of evil and those who aligned themselves with the way of the wicked (“the sons of darkness”), including the current “wicked” leadership of the Jerusalem temple. The destiny of the “sons of light”, namely the members of the Qumran sect, was much better: “eternal enjoyment with endless life” (1QS 4.7).

For more on the Qumran community’s apocalyptic worldview, including their notions of where evil came from, see the post: Enter the serpent: Adam, Eve, and the Devil (Satan 8). For more on the sects within Judaism, including the Essenes, see the post: Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). Jim Davila’s blog on Qumranica provides useful links and discussion of various issues relating to Qumran. For photographs of Qumran and other information, including a tour of the caves, see the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature.

All translations in this post are from Florentino García Martínez, trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (2d ed.; trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson; Leiden/Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill/Eerdmans Publishing, 1996).

The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse (End 1.4)

Long before Dylan had any sort of conversion to Christianity (he was, for a time, “born again” in the late 1970s and early 80s), his songs were saturated with biblical imagery (and they still are now). Often in popular culture elements of apocalypticism are there simply as assumptions on how one is to express things in times of trouble or in situations perceived as crises. The cultural revolution of the 1960s in the United States was a time of crisis in the eyes of the youth at the centre of this revolution, and Dylan was often considered a spokesperson for this revolution (even though he himself did not accept this role).

Characteristic of the ancient apocalyptic worldview are notions that there is a sharp divide between evil and good people or beings (dualism), that current regimes or world-powers are under the control of evil powers, that some good power (God) is imminently or in the midst of intervening in a fundamental way to oust evil and restore good, and that that good power will establish a society in which good reigns forever and evil is forever caged or obliterated. These basic assumptions that undergird the apocalyptic worldview sometimes come to expression in popular music and film.

In his pure folk days (shortly before the introduction of the electric guitar which, initially, resulted in some tomato throwing and booing at Dylan concerts), Dylan wrote a song you may have heard of: The times they are a-changin’ (1964 on his third album of the same name — some low quality mp3s are available on bobdylan.com). (If you haven’t heard of it, then where have you been? It’s in bank commercials here in Canada now, after all–not what the 1960s youth had in mind.)

In this song Dylan casts the cultural revolution of 1960s America in terms of an apocalyptic prophecy. Here there is the righteous (youth) and the wicked (the older generation of senators and others); there is talk of a raging battle; there are warnings of an imminent cataclysmic change which is described in terms of a coming flood that will bring the old order to an end (very common imagery for final judgment in ancient apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch); there is a prophecy of a new arrangement in which the corrupt ways of the old regime will be left behind (“get out of the new one”); there is talk of a reversal that will accompany the new arrangement (the first will be last). This Dylan tune illustrates well the often unconscious presence of apocalypticism in the western imagination (even if God is left out of the equation and substituted by some other group or power).

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

(Bob Dylan; Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music)

(Do not emulate Dylan in using the term “prophesize”, which should be “prophesy”. You don’t know how many times I have corrected this in students’ papers!)

Tyler Williams on Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia (End 1.3)

In a recent post I have emphasized the importance of the Mesopotamian “combat myth” as a piece in the apocalyptic puzzle.  Tyler has the first of a series on Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.   He does a great job of outlining the nature of our sources and of mythology in part 1.  He promises part 2 on Babylonian notions of creation which will, no doubt, deal with the writing known as the Enuma elish (“When on high…”).  In that document, Marduk’s combat with, and slaying of, Tiamat (chaotic Sea-Water personified) and her allies is central to creation.  This has parallels in some Psalms’ notion of Yahweh creating through the defeat of Leviathan or Rahab.  So Tyler’s forthcoming post is likely to deal with the combat myth in some way.  Keep an eye on that.

Apocalypticism alive and well: Article on Bush and Hagee’s call for the apocalyptic war with Iran (End 1.2)

If you need convincing that the apocalyptic worldview is still alive and well, then read a recent article on Alternet concerning American fundamentalist John Hagee‘s attempts at garnering support for a war with Iran: War on Iraq: As Bush’s War Strategy Shifts to Iran, Christian Zionists Gear Up for the Apocalypse. I am far more comfortable reading about visions of the end by an apocalyptic writer from 2000 or so years ago, or even from the middle ages, than I am in finding apocalypticism used among contemporaries to inspire war in the present, I must admit.

Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992) traces the historical development of apocalypticism in the United States. Before Haggee suggested that Iran was to be the main evil force in the final Armageddon, other American fundamentalists suggested Iraq (which is now not a popular candidate without an evil leader). And, of course, during the Cold War many saw communist Russia and its allies as the forces of Gog, the evil army from the north.

Bush certainly does not hold back from using suggestive rhetoric (take the “axis of evil” for instance). Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was Hal Lindsey’s best-selling Late Great Planet Earth (predecessor to the Left Behind series) that inspired the likes of Ronald Reagan:

That [a coup in Libya] is a sign that the day of Armageddon isn’t far off . . . Everything is falling into place. It can’t be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God’s people. That must mean that they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons (Ronald Reagan in 1971 as cited by Boyer, p. 142).

Speaking to a lobbyist for Israel in 1983, Reagan says:

You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through (as cited in Boyer, p. 142).

For an apocalyptic thinker in any time period, the “prophecies” always “describe the times we’re going through“, whether it’s Judea in the second century BCE (see Daniel 7-12), Münster in the 1500s (also described here), or America in the 1980s or 2007. There are, of course, fundamentalist, apocalyptic websites devoted solely to explaining current events as signs of the end, such as Tribulation Watch. But I suppose that — leaving aside the likes of Hagee — one does not want the one in charge of pushing the button or sending out troups thinking along these lines or looking forward to the ultimate battle.

For more on Hal Lindsey, the Left Behind phenomenon, and the origins of the notion of a “rapture”, see my posts: “Left Below” / Left Behind: “Ha, ha, life goes on”, and Satanic conspiracies of the 1970s and 1980s.

(I came across a link to the article about Hagee on the blog of Jodi Dean, a political theorist).

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.