The end of time : faith and fear in the shadow of the millennium /
Damian Thompson.
University Press of New England ed.
Hanover, N.H. : University Press of New England, 1997, c1996.
xiv, 373 p. ; 24 cm.
0874518490 (cloth)
More Details
Hanover, N.H. : University Press of New England, 1997, c1996.
0874518490 (cloth)
general note
"Originally published in 1996 by Sinclair-Stevenson, London"--T.p. verso.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 343-[354]) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Damian Thompson was educated at Presentation College, Reading, and Oxford University. He was religious affairs correspondent for The Daily Telegraph
First Chapter



A Brief History of End-Time


The Roots of Apocalypse

The measurement of time is inextricably bound up with belief in the supernatural. We need look no further for proof of this than the currents of revival and anxiety which are flowing through the world's religious communities as the year 2000 approaches. The American evangelicals whose frenzied scriptural arithmetic points to the Second Coming of Christ 2,000 years after his birth are engaged in an activity which has been threatening the stability of the Christian Church since the second century: they are trying to align God's calendar with man's. Liberal commentators who write them off as fundamentalist crazies are puzzled and sometimes frightened by the insidious appeal of their ideas. This is because they do not understand them.

The process of decoding scripture to unveil the date of the Second Coming, which invariably strikes Western cynics as deeply comic, is an expression of an urge far older than Christianity. The existence of a divine plan for humanity which can be glimpsed by arranging man's experience into epochs has been taken for granted in every society which has recorded history. Indeed, it explains why they recorded it in the first place. But the connection between time and belief goes deeper than that. In prehistoric times, and in primitive societies until well into this century, the supernatural and the passage of time as represented by the yearly cycle were so closely linked that they were virtually indistinguishable. And this fact, which modern man finds so difficult to grasp, is the proper starting point for a study of the millennium.

Almost everywhere, priests were the first specialists in timing. Freed from the necessity of growing their own food, they were able to keep a close watch on the sky's changing lights, and find the `right time' for food planting, for lifting the taboo on the new harvest and for ceremonies associated with the agricultural year. But it would be wrong to imagine that this primitive liturgy consisted of no more than a string of harvest festivals. In every such society, ceremonial also registered the effect of the passing year on the human psyche: there was invariably a point on the annual cycle at which demons, diseases and sins were expelled through fasting, purifications, ritual expulsions or the extinguishing and rekindling of fire. In many cases these ceremonies coincided with the celebration with the New Year, thus establishing a link between the regeneration of time and of the human spirit. And, even when they did not coincide, the fact that the purification occurred on an annual basis illustrates a vital point: that a vast range of cultures naturally reserved certain intense spiritual experiences to a specific moment in the year. The point of these experiences, however, was perhaps not so much to celebrate time as to escape from it. Mircea Eliade, this century's most influential anthropologist of religion, saw in the confessional ceremonies `primitive man's need to free himself from the recollection of sin, of a succession of personal events that, taken together, constitute history'.

If religion offered an escape from time, it also performed the very necessary function of moving it on. In the absence of a written calendar, the source of the priest's authority was often his right to identify the new moon, without which the agricultural year could not proceed and the people would starve. Just such a situation is described in Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God, set in a Nigerian Ibo village in the early colonial era. In the book, it is the special responsibility of the Chief Priest, Ezeulu, to spot the new moon in the sky -- not easy during the rainy season -- and to announce the time for such feasts as the pumpkin festival, at which his ritual dance cleanses the people from their sins. It is also his privilege, after hearing the voice of his god, to initiate the yam harvest, the equivalent of the New Year. But the story is set at a time when the old way of life is beginning to disintegrate. Ezeulu's authority is under threat from rivals, and he responds by failing to hear his god, Ulu, telling him that the time for the harvest has come; as a result, food stocks run low and the community suffers a time of great stress. It is `locked in the old year'.

Achebe's novel describes a society in which the coming of the moon is not yet seen as a natural, mechanical event but as a something that requires the intervention of a priest. Even in more sophisticated societies which had some knowledge of astronomy, and whose calendar had become one of the state's most powerful instruments of social control, the art of timing was still the preserve of the priesthood. This is not surprising: calendars were closely connected with people's religious beliefs and with the collective psyche. Wherever they appeared, they had the ability to change people's moods. The Maya of Central America, for example, felt an overwhelming sense of dread at the end of every twenty-day month, the last five days of which were believed to be a time of bad luck; and these feelings were magnified at the end of longer calendar periods. Calendars and time had to be treated with respect and great caution. In Assyria, priests in observatories informed the king of the sighting of the new moon; Julius Caesar had to consult the Pontifex Maximus when he wanted to improve the calendar. The word itself comes from the Latin verb calendare, meaning to call out, and is a memento of the Roman practice of sending officials through the streets to proclaim the start of the month after the priests had identified the new moon. To this day, in the Catholic Church, the dates of the movable feasts for the coming year are proclaimed from the pulpit, to a special chant on the feast of the Epiphany.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the cycle of the year in determining the structure, and to a large extent the theology, of all the ancient Near Eastern religions. The idea that Hebrew religion was sharply distinguished from neighbouring beliefs by its unwavering monotheism and a `linear' rather than cyclical view of history is no longer universally accepted. Anthropologists have even disposed of the notion that the Hebrews had a unique self-image as the `chosen people': there is a school of thought which says it was no different from other neighbouring peoples' sense of destiny. According to one recent authority, the Hebrew, Babylonians and Assyrians `shared a perspective concerning time and history that was so close as to be almost identical'. All three states were closely organised round the ritual observance of the cycles of the sun and moon. The division of the Hebrew state into twelve tribes, for example, is now thought to have been a deliberate replication of the months of the year.

Furthermore, all were strongly influenced by the Chaldean concept of the Great Year, which takes the movement of the sun as a model for the whole of human history and which spread throughout the entire Hellenised world. In the third century BC, the Babylonian astrologer Berossus popularised a version of the doctrine in which the universe is eternal but periodically destroyed and recreated every Great Year. He taught that when the seven planets assemble in Cancer, or the Great Winter, there will be a deluge; when they meet in Capricorn, at the Great Summer solstice, the entire cosmos will be consumed by fire.

The Babylonians and the Greeks, in common with many civilisations throughout history, believed that historical cycles would be endlessly repeated. The Hebrews were unusual (though again not unique) in believing in a single cycle. But they shared the assumption of the vast majority of societies that history moves through a predetermined process of birth and decay, with a flood taking place towards the beginning of the cycle and fire towards the end. Quite why flood and fire should occur in this order is a mystery; but the fact that they occur at all is evidence of the powerful effect of catastrophe upon the collective memory. Disaster, whether in the form of war, flood, exile or total cosmic destruction, appears to perform a vital function for societies which believe in a divine sequence of world history, repeatable or otherwise. These catastrophes are markers which help them to divide that sequence into phases, and to discover their own place in the eternal scheme. The concept of successive epochs punctuated by disaster is not, however, incompatible with the notion of world history as an infinitely expanded year. The division of history into four eras is found in apparently unrelated civilisations in Greece, Mesopotamia and India and includes both the classical series of `metallic' ages (the age of gold, silver, bronze and iron) and the Hindu system of four yugas. All are probably inspired by the four seasons of the year, and may have a common origin in a neolithic creation ceremony: we can never know for sure.

There is no mystery, however, about the inspiration for the Great Week, a hugely influential theory which divided history into seven phases based on the seven-day week. This was Jewish in origin, but was taken up by the classical world and accepted by both the early Christian millenarians and their opponents; its influence can still be felt today in the activities of some born-again Christians who are expecting Christ to initiate the final `day' in human history. The Great Week is, of course, based on a man-made unit of time rather than naturally observed phenomena such as the movement of the sun or the moon. But one should not read too much into this: the roots of the Jewish obsession with the number seven lie in Sumer, often considered to be the first civilised society, where seven became the number of days in the week precisely because it was divinely inspired. Divide a lunar month of twenty-eight days by the sacred number four, and one arrives at seven, which for the Sumerians was the number of the known planets, of the gates between the overworld and the underworld, and of the winds which represent time rushing by.

Although, as far as we know, the Sumerians thought in terms of a fourfold division of history and had no concept of a Great Week, they were entirely familiar with the notion that history progresses in phases consisting of a specific number of years. Their most important unit of time was the sar of 3,600 years, which was used as early as the third millennium BC in the Sumerian king list. No fewer than six of its eight monarchs are said to have ruled for multiples of 3,600 years, a record which is preposterous even by the generous standards of biblical longevity; but it is important to bear in mind that such calculations were central to Sumerian theology. The notion that one could date historical events with reference to a king's reign lay far in the future. The sar was the ultimate expression of the number six, whose connection with time in ancient Mesopotamia has given us our sixty seconds and sixty minutes; 3,600, being six squared times one hundred, seems to have been the number of the universe itself. It was also ten times 360, the number of days in an ideal year, a fact which has been described as `the first evidence we have that the Sumerian city-states of the third millennium BC, the very beginning of the literate period, were organised according to a cosmic law of recurrent seasonal cycles'.

The ornate number-mysticism which gave birth to the sar survived well into medieval times through the influence of Plato, for whom its components -- the solar number twelve and the lunar number thirty -- were proof of its compatibility with the dimensions of the ideal society. The medieval world believed that Plato had proposed a literal Great Year of 36,000 years, and for centuries a belief in historical cycles of this length coexisted uneasily with Great Week mythology. It still figures prominently in Islamic tradition and modern astrology: the New Age belief that the world is moving inexorably through a precession of the equinoxes towards the Age of Aquarius is built on the concept of the Platonic year.

In fact, it is unlikely that Plato believed in the literal truth of his numerology: such calculations expressed an ideal which reflected a higher level of truth than historical reality. We need to remember this when considering the maze of historiographical theories devised by the ancient world. Virtually every numerical figure possesses a hidden significance which subverts any attempt to take it at face value. The purpose of these historical schemes is to align human behaviour with the divine plan, not the other way round. This is the context in which we should see the ancient world's periodic anniversary celebrations, such as the Hebrew jubilees. Held after seven sets of seven-year `weeks', these were a response to a law set out in Leviticus which allowed anyone forced to sell ancestral lands to reclaim them every fiftieth year. This, in principle, would have restored the structure as it had been divinely ordained in ancient days. In practice, historians are not sure that this was ever put into effect; the point is, however, that the jubilee -- a concept with which we are still familiar, and which was arguably a forerunner of our system of centuries -- was designed to bring society back into line with the just cosmic order. In our own day, it has become the inspiration for the Roman Catholic Church's celebration of the year 2000.

The fact that this sort of realignment was regarded as urgently necessary by all the ancient Near Eastern societies brings us to the question of where, exactly, they placed themselves in their respective cycles of birth and decay. For the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks and early Christians, as well as for the main Indian religions, the answer was roughly the same. Mankind had, through failure to observe divine law, reached a late stage in a sequence which would culminate in the destruction of the world, usually by fire. It is true, of course, that in some of these cultures an endless succession of repetitive cycles means that there is no true eschatology (concept of the end): in Hinduism and Buddhistm, there is only an individual escape from the wheel of death and rebirth. But their belief in a downward spiral of world epochs, often separated from each other by individual catastrophes, to be followed by fire and a new beginning, is strikingly similar to Babylonian, Iranian and some Greek theories (to which some authorities believe they may be related). And if we overlook for the moment the distinction between single and multiple cycles, the theme of epochs brought to an end by human wickedness, and of closeness to the End, emerges as the common denominator of the world's historic religions.

Belief in moral decline is an inevitable accompaniment to the nearly universal belief in an original paradise. The primordial paradise, characterised by perfection, abundance and purity, appears in all religions originating in the Middle East and in most of the world's tribal mythologies. Often this happy state has been lost through some tragic aberration on the part of mankind. The oldest surviving description of paradise comes from the Sumerians, who around 4000 BC described a magical land of Dilmun: `That place was pure, that place was clean. In Dilmun the raven croaked not. The kite shrieked not kite-like. The lion mangled not. The wolf ravaged not the lambs... None caused the doves to fly away.' All this happened a long time ago, `when there was no fear, no terror' and `man had no rival'. According to linguists, the Sumerians gave the Hebrews the name for their paradise, the Garden of Eden. But no other connection between the two myths has been discovered; indeed, all the ancient paradise stories are apparently independent of each other, despite such recurring themes as the primordial garden. If they have a common ancestor, it may well lie so far back in prehistory that it also gave birth to African, Aboriginal Australian and American Indian myths. These conceive of paradise as a time before a moral fall, in which man did not need to work and lived in harmony with the animals. The primitive belief in the moral superiority of ancestors may have its roots in a single preliterate tradition; or it may be an intrinsic feature of human psychology. As with the fourfold division of history, we shall never know for sure.

Nor is it clear why so many civilisations believed in a progressive decline. But having developed that concept it is not surprising that they should have placed themselves towards the end of the process. It might seem an obvious point to make, but it is easier to imagine the past than the future. A detailed scheme of future phases in world history can never hope to carry the weight of a retrospective analysis which explains the dire state of the world. And, in any case, a theory which envisages moral deterioration over a long period starting from now, as it were, devalues the images of current depravity on which religious belief inevitably feeds. Even Indian traditions which present the grim possibility that the present wickedness will endure for thousands of years emphasise that this age, the Kali yuga, is the final one before the renewal of creation. At any rate, the sense of debasement, of accumulated moral failure which can be remedied, if at all, only by correct behaviour, is a poignant feature of many ancient texts.

`I wish I were not of this race, that I had died before or had not yet been born,' wrote Hesiod, a Greek farmer from the eighth century BC whose epic Works and Days is our earliest account of successive races of gold, silver, bronze and iron. `This is the age of iron,' he lamented. `Now, by day, men work and grieve unceasingly; by night they waste away and die. The gods will give harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good; Zeus will destroy this mortal race of men.' Hesiod's historical scheme is either four- or five-fold, depending on whether one counts the age of gold as history or paradise. According to Hesiod, the gods on Olympus made a golden race of men who lived when Zeus' predecessor Cronos was king in heaven. `Like gods they lived with hearts free from sorrow and remote from toil and grief; nor was miserable age their lot but always unwearied in feet and hands they made merry in feasting, beyond the reach of all evils. And when they died, it was as if they were given over to sleep.' The golden race disappeared when Zeus came to power in heaven, and were succeeded by a silver race who, while heroic, were morally flawed. From then on, each epoch ends in disaster. The silver race's violent behaviour and neglect of their religious duties led Zeus to replace them with men of the bronze race, who soon exterminated each other. They were succeeded by the heroes of antiquity, who represented an improvement in the quality of human stock. But they perished in war and adventures and were succeeded by the age of iron.

The metallic metaphor also crops up in Iran, in a Mazdean book, the Sudar-nask, which refers to ages of gold, silver, steel and iron. Here the theme is also moral deterioration, but leading to a final cleansing fire. Hesiod, in contrast, seems to offer the possibility of some sort of salvation through correct behaviour. Works and Days can be read as a manual for surviving the misery of the iron age by acting in conformity with the divine will. It contains advice on such mundane matters as when to plant and harvest, when to set sail and when to urinate. (`Do not make water standing towards the Sun, unless he has risen or set,' advises Hesiod.) The implication is that, if enough people live in harmony with the cosmic order, mankind may yet succeed in breaking out of the cycle of decline. This possibility is also present in later Greek and Roman treatments of the myth and may help to explain its enduring appeal. Plato, for example, was profoundly depressed by the thought that he had been born into the latter stages of the iron age, but did not rule out the prospect of escape. `We must do all we can to imitate the life which is said to have existed in the days of Cronos; and, in so far as the immortal element dwells within us, to that we must hearken, both in public and private life.'

In its wish to recapture the golden age, Greek thought is not unlike the Hindu and Buddhist vision of an impending return to the first age. This may be no coincidence, since Indian and Greek religions also share a belief in a four-fold historical division. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata describes the Krita yuga, the perfect first age, in which men were so saintly that they were not required to perform religious ceremonies: `The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening of the years; there was no hatred, or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear.' This is followed by the Treta, Dvapara and Kali yugas, the last being the current age of decadence. As in other traditions, the end of each age is hastened by individual catastrophes. In Hinduism and Buddhism, however, there is a distinctive understanding of moral decline as a process of forgetting one's true identity and purpose as a result of distraction by the physical world.

The similarities between classical and Eastern visions of the historical cycle have been seized on eagerly by proponents of the theory that the Judaeo-Christian `linear' conception of time is unrelated to other time-systems. The fact that this claim is often made by those who believe that only Judaism and Christianity are divinely inspired is, in a way, a perfect illustration of the intertwining of religious belief and systems of measuring time. But the linear/cyclical distinction is a crude one, to say the least. It often makes more sense to talk of single and repeatable cycles, though even here Judaism and Christianity do not stand on their own. The Persian Zoroastrian religion also envisages a final end to history after a cosmic struggle between good and evil souls.

The Hebrews' sense of history has more in common with cyclical pagan religions than Jewish and Christian propagandists would have us believe. Nicholas Campion, in his monumental study of historical schemes, The Great Year (1994), sees the Hebrew conception of history as a wave alternating between successive renewals of God's covenant (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David) and divine punishments for disobedience (the Flood, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, exile in Egypt, Philistine oppression and Babylonian exile). This is not a history of progressive moral decay, it is true; but for the Hebrews, as much as for any other ancient people, the driving force behind history was catastrophe brought about by immoral behaviour.

Yet by the second century BC there was something new in the air. Put very simply, the Jews started thinking in terms of a glorious new world rather than a return to their ancient ideal, the Kingdom of David. It was a shift of emphasis which was to change the course of human history. Christianity would not have been possible without it.

As we have seen, the early religion of the Hebrews saw moral behaviour -- that is, obedience to God -- as the key to the restoration of the Kingdom. In this, it strongly resembled the Greek faith in rules of behaviour which would bring about a return to the golden age. There is even a parallel with Eastern writers who proposed ways in which the end of the Kali yuga could be hastened, bringing about the return of the Krita yuga -- return being the operative word. But the radical Judaism of the last centuries BC, and subsequently Christianity, offered a more exciting prospect. If we think in terms of Eliade's idea of a universal longing to escape from time itself, we can say that they opened up a new escape route, leading forwards rather than backwards. It was mapped out in a new literary genre called apocalypse, from the Greek Apo-calyptein, meaning `to un-veil'. Apocalyptic literature takes the form of a revelation of the end of history. Violent and grotesque images are juxtaposed with glimpses of a world transformed; the underlying theme is usually a titanic struggle between good and evil, though the narrative tends to be obscured by complex allegories rooted in number-mysticism. Apocalypticism has been described as a genre born out of crisis, designed to stiffen the resolve of an embattled community by dangling in front of it the vision of a sudden and permanent release from its captivity. It is underground literature, the consolation of the persecuted.

This certainly applied to the Jews, whose history up to the destruction of the temple in AD 69 was one of a series of trials and disappointments: collapse of the Davidic kingdom, Babylonian exile, Seleucid oppression and Roman invasion. And it was in response to this sense of repeated failure that the vision of the future in the Hebrew scriptures gradually shifted from prophecy to apocalypse. Apocalypticism differed in vital respects from the earlier Jewish prophetic tradition. The old Hebrew prophets were chiefly concerned with the triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies. The apocalyptic texts put the struggle firmly in the context of good versus evil, light versus dark. Furthermore, they carry this battle into the realm of the supernatural. The Book of Daniel, the only full-scale apocalypse in the Hebrew bible, was written around 168 BC, during the Greek Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem. It includes the revolutionary concept of resurrection of the dead: this must have been a powerful inducement to continued resistance at a time when Jews were being martyred for their faith. And, crucially, it even hints at the date of the final establishment of God's kingdom. (This feature explains both its dubious standing in rabbinic Jewish tradition, which tends to be anti-apocalyptic, and its hold over generations of literal-minded Christians.)

What lay behind this astonishing shift in approach? It is important to know the answer to this question, for what we are effectively talking about is the origin of the modern notion of the End of the World. The answer, according to an influential school of thought led by Professor Norman Cohn, is that apocalyptic faith -- that is, belief in a new world occupied by the just after a period of crisis and judgement -- was not invented by the Jews, but borrowed by them from the Persians. In Cohn's view, apocalypticism was first manifested in the teachings of Zoroaster, a prophet from Central Asia who probably lived around 1400 BC, whose teachings of a coming battle between good and evil became the official religion of the Persian Empire. Zoroaster, originally a priest of the traditional religion, spoke of a coming transformation known as `the making wonderful', in which there would be a universal bodily resurrection. This would be followed by a great assembly, in which all people would be judged. The wicked would be destroyed, while the righteous would become immortal. In the new world, young people are forever fifteen years old, and the mature remain at the age of forty. But this is not a reversion to the original paradise; nothing in the past approaches its perfection. It is the End of Time.

Since we know so little about Zoroaster, we cannot know exactly why he developed the world's first eschatological faith. It may well have been a response to profound change in the world in which he lived, from one of peaceful herdsmen to a restless and warlike society in which military prowess was valued above all. Zoroaster, says Cohn,

is the earliest known example of a particular type of prophet -- the kind commonly called millenarian -- and the experiences that determined the content of his teaching seem also to have been typical. Prophets who promise a total transformation of existence, a total perfecting of the world, often draw their original inspiration from the spectacle not simply of suffering, but of one particular type of suffering: that engendered by the destruction of an ancient way of life, with its familiar certainties and safeguards.

The End of Time, in other words, appeals most to people who are disorientated, whose identity is under threat: people such as the Jews. Zoroastrian visions of resurrection, judgement and reward, with which the Jews would certainly have been familiar, must have offered a thrilling prospect to a nation whose self-image was at once so strong and so frequently challenged. It is little wonder that these visions were slowly appropriated, to emerge in dramatic form during a period of unique stress and excitement.

The Book of Daniel was written at a time of terrible humiliation for the Jewish people. The Greek Seleucid monarch Antiochus Epiphanes had brutally suppressed the traditional worship of the temple, stripping it of its gold and setting up a statue of Baal. Observance of the sabbath and circumcision were forbidden. Such persecution strongly reminded the Jews of the Babylonian captivity; so much so, in fact, that the Book of Daniel purports to have been written during that period, that is, 400 years before the actual date of its composition. Its `prophecies' are therefore history -- a cheap trick, perhaps, but an effective one, for it is employed by most apocalyptic writers. In the first section of the book, Daniel, a Jewish youth, is called to decipher a dream, which has been troubling King Nebuchadnezzar. The dream is of a great statue whose head is made of fine gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and feet of mixed iron and clay. The feet of this statue shatter when it is struck by a stone, and the iron, clay, bronze, silver and gold become `like the chaff of the summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away'. The stone, meanwhile, becomes a great mountain and fills the whole earth. The statue's gold, silver, bronze and iron are reminiscent of Hesiod, and Daniel's explanation of the dream makes this explicit. The gold, silver, bronze and mixed iron and clay are four kingdoms, the first being Nebuchadnezzar's, the next an `inferior' kingdom, the third a bronze kingdom and the last a kingdom which is initially as strong as iron but, because it is mixed with clay, is divided against itself and is vanquished by the final, eternal kingdom represented by the stone. Later, the transient kingdoms are identified as those of Babylon, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks, which gets them in the wrong historical order. The point is, however, that Daniel has borrowed the Babylonian concept of four successive kingdoms and turned them into `evil empires'; when Ronald Reagan used this phrase to describe the Soviet Union, the audience of born-again Christians for whom it was intended would immediately have thought of Daniel. But there is nothing evil about the fifth empire, which is the kingdom of God on earth. Eighteen hundred years later, this vision inspired the radical English millenarians of the Commonwealth, who called themselves `Fifth Monarchy Men'.

It is easy to see why Daniel's vision of the events leading up to the establishment of God's kingdom should appeal to political radicals. After a complex series of dynastic struggles, an evil `King of the North' emerges who pollutes the temple and sets up `the abomination that makes desolate'. But his fate is sealed: at `the time of the end', there is a cataclysmic battle in which the tyrant is destroyed. Then a great prince called Michael appears on the scene, ushering in `a time of trouble such as never has been since there was a nation till that time: but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever' (Dan. 12: 1-3).

For Daniel's first audiences, and subsequently for biblical scholars, there was no mystery about the true identity of the King of the North: he was Antiochus Epiphanes. The `abomination of desolation' was the statue of Zeus which he set up in the temple. We can date the composition of this section of Daniel to within a year or two, since it was clearly written in the interval between the start of the Maccabean revolt against Greek rule and its successful conclusion. But it is far more than propaganda. The extraordinary passage which holds out the hope of eternal life to faithful Jews overturns the grim doctrine of Sheol, a shadowy place where all the dead gather irrespective of their behaviour. The new order will be ruled by Jews but entirely transcends the restored kingdom envisaged by the prophets. It covers the whole world, and is peopled by the resurrected dead as well as the living.

And it is imminent. It is crucial to the book's morale-boosting function that it should present the destruction of Greek power as something which lies just around the corner. But, not content with this, its author or authors throw in a number of teasing and apparently contradictory indications of when this will occur. The period from `the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem' until the time of everlasting righteousness will last seventy weeks. However, a text from Jeremiah is also recalled in which `seventy days' means seventy years, which means that seventy weeks (490 days) must mean 490 years. And to further complicate matters, at the end of the book Daniel asks how long it will be until `the end of these wonders' and receives the cryptic reply `a time, two times, and half a time'. There will be 1,290 days after the desecration of the temple; but `blessed is he who waits' for the end of 1,395 days.

These clues have kept Christian believers in the End-time busy for over 2,000 years, and as the year 2000 approaches the Book of Daniel is being scrutinised more closely than ever. But this need not detain us for the moment. Seen in the context of its own time, Daniel is highly innovative. It is evidence that by the second century BC Judaism had been transformed by its contact with the mystical dualism of Persian religion, and by the dynamics of oppression and revolt. The ancient, perhaps neolithic, rhythm of four-fold history can still be detected, but the beat has quickened: an age is fast approaching which will pluck the righteous from present captivity and even from their graves. `Blessed is he who waits' for such a day, but he may not have to wait long. And, as if this mixture were not explosive enough, Daniel provides some mysterious numerical clues which, if applied correctly, will part the veil and reveal that which is hidden, the apocalypse.

Daniel's preoccupation with a new order was not confined to Jewish activists. By the first century BC the Roman republic was torn between feelings of apprehension and confidence. Belief in the imperishability of Rome could be found alongside the Stoic doctrine of recurring historical cycles, which dictated that the city must perish. According to Mircea Eliade, during every crisis Rome became obsessed with the idea that the life of the city was limited to a certain number of years, a `mystic number' revealed to Romulus by twelve eagles, and that this had now been reached; it was even possible that the Great Year itself was over. So when Rome was 120 years old, there were fears that the eagles had each represented a decade in the city's life, and when it was 365 years old the worry was that Rome had reached the end of its own Great Year, in which every year was equivalent to a day.

If all this is true (which is by no means certain), then these are the first examples of mass anxiety triggered by the approach of a specific date. There is certainly no denying the surge of prophetic activity in Roman and Jewish circles in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, all of it conjuring up images of transformation through destruction and/or the birth of a new world. The eruption of Pompeii was widely thought to herald the fire that would consume the world. Virgil's so-called Messianic Eclogue, composed in 42 BC, startled later Christian readers with its prediction that with the `birth of a child' a golden race would spring up throughout the earth. In fact, Virgil was not so much predicting the coming of a Messiah as demonstrating that the time in which he lived was unusually receptive to new religious ideas. This was particularly true of the Jewish world, in which apocalyptic theology was fast developing the messianic and millenarian features with which it has been associated ever since. The prospect of a new world of peace and justice is usually inseparable from the charismatic leader who promises to deliver it; which comes first is not always clear, but in first-century Judaism we catch glimpses of a familiar sequence of events. In around AD 55 an Egyptian Jew led a crowd of up to 30,000 into the desert, intending to march on Jerusalem; he claimed that at his command the walls of the city would collapse. We do not know what happened to them, but according to Josephus it was quite common for `imposters and deceivers' to lead mobs into the desert under the presence that God would deliver them. These were classic millenarian movements whose understanding of history was apocalyptic and eschatological. They lived in daily expectation of a divine intervention, as did the desert community at Qumran who assembled the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the preacher known as John the Baptist. Rarely, if ever, had so many Jews sensed that they were living in the Last Days.

This preoccupation with the approaching End was fully shared by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little doubt that the early Christians -- and possibly Jesus himself -- lived in daily expectation of the End of the World. Before Jesus' death, many of his supporters expected history to be brought to a conclusion by his glorious coming to power in Jerusalem. After his execution, when stories of his mysterious reappearance were circulating, their attention shifted to the `second coming' which Jesus himself had frequently hinted would occur within their lifetimes. Conventional translations of the Lord's Prayer obscure its eschatological character. Most modern Christians have no idea that when they say it they are praying for the End of the World. The plea to be delivered from `temptation', many scholars believe, should read `and keep us from the Ordeal'. It is evidence of the Christian community's fear of the final world crisis, but also reflects its belief that it can be spared this terrible experience. Seen in this light, early Christianity presents a radical new twist to the belief in the imminence of the End of the World which permeated the first-century Middle East. It is the first religion to offer its adherents the possibility of escaping the flames in which the rest of the world will perish. And, since initially this Second Coming of Christ was to happen during the lifetime of the believer, the new faith established a highly ambiguous relationship with the secular state. St Paul's writings often emphasise the importance of living within the worldly order; yet, as Nicholas Campion has pointed out, their implications were not always conservative. `If the individual could, by an act of loyalty to God rather than emperor, advance to the next stage of history, the consequences were profound, for normal political authority then became irrelevant.'

This ambiguity is typical of early Christianity. The internal contradictions of New Testament texts frustrate any attempt to arrive at a coherent vision of the end of history. We cannot, for example, define the relationship between the new age ushered in by Christ and his Second Coming. Which comes first? Is release from what Paul calls the `present evil age' immediately attainable by Christians, or must they wait for the returning Christ? The failure of the Gospels and epistles to clarify this point eventually created tensions within the Christian community which continue to this day. Yet for Paul the question would have been rendered almost irrelevant by the certainty that Christ would return very soon. The repeated injunction in the Gospels not to try to calculate the time and the hour of this event testifies to the intense curiosity this naturally aroused among the first Christians. Before long, however, it seems that this curiosity was replaced by disappointment and the need for an explanation for Christ's non-appearance.

It has been suggested that the Book of Revelation, written by one John on the Isle of Patmos towards the end of the first century, is an attempt to fill this gap. At first glance, there is something ludicrous about the notion that this surrealistic text is designed to make anything clearer. Its visions of creatures with many wings and eyes, of angels, dragons, glass seas and `foul spirits like frogs', have an authentically psychedelic quality in that they are by turns breathtaking, tedious and frightening. Even as allegory, they verge on the incomprehensible. As with the Book of Daniel, Revelation's clues to the time of the End really leave us none the wiser; yet it clearly suggests that the End-time sequence has already begun, and subtly invites its readers to interpret its images in the light of their own times. One wonders whether the author intended to keep successive generations of Christians in a state of apocalyptic expectation, and therefore created images with a certain reusable quality. If so, he succeeded brilliantly, as the history of his most enduring creation, `the Beast whose number is 666', demonstrates. The Beast, a devil in human form who will rule the world just before Armageddon and the Second Coming, has had an astonishing career, being identified at various times as Nero, George III, Napoleon, Hitler and Henry Kissinger. Comic as this seems, we should not underestimate the enduring power of Revelation's depiction of the Antichrist (as the Beast became known). Its message is that the personification of evil will arise in our midst as a commanding figure with an international following. Millions will yield to his persuasive charm, only to discover that they have thereby condemned themselves to an agonising death and everlasting punishment.

The Book of Revelation was excluded from the bible by the Eastern Church for several centuries, and one can understand why: no other scriptural text has its potential for turning a political drama into an End-time crisis by revealing the hand of the Antichrist in everyday events. But in the second century AD it was a far more important Christian text than the Gospels. To Christians undergoing Roman persecution it offered a stunning vision of the reward that awaited them in the heavenly city, where `God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away' (Rev. 21: 4). At the same time, it went some way to explaining the delay in Christ's Second Coming by revealing the full horror of the confrontation between good and evil that must precede it. In doing so, however, it introduced an inherently unstable, even dangerous, element into the life of the Christian community.

The key passage in Revelation comes after the destruction of Babylon when Christ appears on horseback, with eyes like flames of fire and wearing a robe dipped in blood. Behind him are the armies of heaven `arrayed in fine linen, white and pure' to make war with the Beast and his army. Satan's earthly followers are put to the sword, while he is cast alive into a lake of fire and brimstone and falls into a bottomless pit. He stays there for a thousand years while Christ and his saints reign on earth. Then he is released for a final battle with the forces of God, after which, in one of the most beautiful passages in the bible, history yields to eternity. A new heaven and a new earth replace the old order, and a new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, `prepared as a bride adorned for her husband'.

The thousand-year reign of Christ and his saints, the Millennium, is one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. For 2,000 years, millenarians named after it have invoked it in support of their own visions of the imminent kingdom of God on earth. In the process, they have had to display great ingenuity. The sequence of events in Revelation is convoluted enough in itself, but it must also be reconciled with apocalyptic passages in Daniel, the Gospels and St Paul, who in the letter to the Thessalonians suggests that right at the start of the End-time all believing Christians will be carried up to heaven in what has become known as the Rapture. But we need not worry for the moment about the intricacies of rival timetables such as pre- and postmilleniarian dispensationialism: it is most useful to focus on the origins of the thousand-year reign, and the way in which it has affected the Western conception of history.

For a start, why a thousand years? The obvious answer is that the author of Revelation was thinking of Psalm 90: `For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.' But Revelation was not written in a vacuum: it is a product of an empire in which other Eastern religions were competing with Christianity and indeed Judaism for converts. It has been suggested that John may well have been aware of the Zoroastrian belief (developed long after Zoroaster) that Zurvan, the god of time, reigned for a thousand years before the creation. This Persian eschatology is in places reminiscent of Revelation: at one stage the evil spirit Ahriman lies prostrate for 3,000 years. It is, however, part of a much more tightly organised overarching structure, in which each successive historical epoch lasts either 1,000 or 3,000 years. We are back in the realm of numerology, in which certain numbers of years, such as the Mesopotamian sar of 3,600, are revealed as the components of a divinely sanctioned pattern of history. In the case of the sar, part of the explanation is that the Sumerians observed a 360-day year. The figure of a thousand, in contrast, is a straightforward product of the decimal system of counting. But of course the origins of that system also lie in a naturally occurring phenomenon -- the ten fingers and thumbs of the human hands, which are actually pictured in Roman numerals. If we had been born with twelve digits instead of ten, we would not think in terms of centuries or millennia.

That is not to say that civilisations up to and including the Roman Empire automatically divided history into consecutive eras of a hundred years each. We must beware of imposing an anachronistic interpretation of decades, centuries or millennia on societies which, although familiar with the concepts of ten, a hundred or a thousand years, did not use them to measure time in the way that we do. In the Hebrew bible, for example, the figure of a thousand is wielded mostly for effect: there are references in Daniel and Enoch to a thousand thousand, ten thousand thousands and even ten thousand times ten thousand, but it seems unlikely that they were meant to be taken literally. By the time of the Jewish apocalypses which followed Daniel, however, the figure of a thousand or its multiples had acquired a strongly eschatological flavour: the coming messianic age was variously calculated by scribes at 2,000 and 7,000 years, but the most common figure was 1,000. This is a point which should perhaps be borne in mind by modern commentators who refer incredulously to the illogical way in which `the mere presence of three noughts in a date', as they often put it, concentrates men's minds on the End. Illogical it may be, but the association of thousands and the Last Things goes back a long way.

There is no way of telling whether the thousand-year reign of the saints in Revelation is intended purely as allegory; but we can be sure that the author could not have envisaged the techniques employed in subsequent attempts to work out the date at which it was due to begin. Apart from anything else, he might not have recognised the concept of the `date' as we understand it. We must step back for a moment from the overheated visions of apocalyptic writers to consider the way early societies used the calendar to define chronology. The Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks and Iranians constructed elaborate successions of world epochs; they even assigned symbolic numbers of years to these stages. But if at any stage one had asked two inhabitants of neighbouring cities what year it was, the chances of obtaining the same answer would have been slim indeed. Throughout the ancient world, there was a tendency for individual communities to date years from a great event in their own history, such as their liberation from an oppressor (or, alternatively, the beginning of an occupation). Even within a community, there was often no agreement about when the historical year began, or even about how long it lasted: historical years (that is, units of time which were strung together to date a specific event) were not the same as seasonal years. The truth is that the ancient world was not greatly concerned with establishing the timing of one historical event vis-a-vis another. On the occasions when historians needed to do so, the absence of a universally accepted system is often glaringly obvious: the Greek chronicler Polybius, recording the sack of Rome by Gauls in 387 BC, notes laboriously that it was contemporaneous with the peace of Antalcidas and the siege of Rhegium by Dionysius, and that it happened nineteen years after the battle of Aegospotami and sixteen years before the battle of Leuctra.

Even the Romans, who invented the system of dating ab urbe condita (from the founding of their city), used it only for the narrow purpose of measuring time from that event to some subsequent event; and in any case they could not agree on precisely when Rome was founded, estimates varying from 759 to 729 BC. But it is safe to assume that no one lost any sleep over it. The practice of dating by consulships, or imperial regnal years, seems to have served the empire perfectly well. Calendrical innovations are invariably a response to pressing need, and there was no real need for a universal dating system; compare this, however, with the eternal problem of adjusting the calendar to the solar year, which did have major ramifications for Roman life and was therefore one of Julius Caesar's highest priorities.

The lack of an agreed starting point for a chronological system means, of course, that there is no consensus about which decade or century has been reached; indeed, the whole concept of living `in' a period of ten or a hundred years belongs to a much later era. But in a society which uses a decimal system of counting it is inevitable that groups of ten, a hundred or a thousand years should possess a certain abstract force. In the case of a hundred years, furthermore, the fact that this approaches the upper limit of human life expectancy adds an extra nuance. The Romans appear to have borrowed the concept of centuries from the Etruscans, who thought in terms of eras which came to an end on the death of the oldest living member of a generation. At the end of each generation -- that is, roughly every century -- diviners would create its epitaph, and these eras may have been linked to form a world week. In 44 BC, an Etruscan diviner in Rome announced a ninth era, which he predicted would be succeeded by a tenth era, and this final era would witness the disappearance of all Etruscans except the diviners themselves.

The Etruscan era could well have been the inspiration for the Roman saecula, an era in the life of Rome which lasted, depending on the whim of the emperor, either 100 or 110 years. The saecula gave its name to the Secular Games, the first events in history which regularly summoned up the conflicting emotions we associate with the end of a century: sorrow or relief at the end of one era, optimism and apprehension at the beginning of another. There is something familiar about the way in which the Roman authorities used the games to bolster their own image, though they had the added luxury of being able to bring an era to a premature conclusion. The first large-scale Secular Games were held in 17 BC by Augustus, who had consulted the sibylline books to ascertain that a saecula lasted 110 years and that his were the fifth since Rome was founded. This did not, however, stop Claudius from staging the next games in AD 47, thus making a nonsense of the stipulation that the preceding games should not have taken place within living memory. But Claudius was playing by different rules: invoking the concept of 100-year eras, his Secular Games commemorated the 800th anniversary of Rome.

The Secular Games of AD 248 were held to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of Rome. Like the Claudian games, they accepted Varro's date of 753 BC for the founding of Rome, though as we have seen there were other candidates. (So it is possible that the games took place to the accompaniment of grumbling from the sort of pedant who, in our own time, delights in pointing out that Christ was not born in AD 1, and that, in any case, the millennium begins in 2001.) In fact, the festivities were a year late, because in 247 the emperor had not yet returned from fighting off the barbarians, which gives us a clue to the rather desperate tone of the event. The games had always been used by emperors as a way of renewing the confidence of the Roman people in the future of their city. By 248, this was no mean task. For many years, Romans had viewed the past with a nostalgia born out of an acute awareness of decline. The empire, weakened by the massing of enemy armies on most of its borders and by spectacular inflation, was at the mercy of the ever-growing army needed to protect it. Roman citizenship had become as debased as the currency: it was now available to any free man of the empire. The emperor himself was an Arab, Philip, chosen by the army rather than the senate. Even the Roman gods were out of fashion, sidelined by the passion for Near Eastern `mystery' religions.

Yet an observer at the Secular Games might not have guessed any of this. They seem to have been a brilliantly stage-managed exercise in restoring the self-esteem not only of the city but of its traditional religion. Rome's sacred college, keeper of the sibylline books, presided over ceremonies lasting several days and nights. The emperor, vested as high priest, carried out age-old rituals at the altars:

Along the fiber he burned lambs and black she-goats to the Fates, who caused men to prosper or fail. He sacrificed white bulls to Jupiter the Best and the Greatest, king of gods and patron of Rome; a pregnant sow to Mother Earth, who gave the empire food in abundance or held it back and made men starve. He offered cakes and burned incense to Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, without whose assistance the empire's population dropped. Matrons knelt to Juno in supplication for blessings. Twenty-seven aristocratic youths and twenty-seven highborn young virgins, their lives unpolluted by the death of either parent, chanted ancient hymns to Apollo and his chaste sister Diana.

For a few days at least, the population of Rome seem to have responded appropriately. Wheat, barley and beans were handed out, and the crowd danced and drank. Thousands held torches as pageants were performed on the Campius Martius. There may well have been a sense, however transitory, of `pure thrill at being alive for the thousandth year of the greatest city on earth'. There was certainly a longing in some quarters for a new age of stability and devotion to old gods, and for these traditionalists the millennial celebrations were an obvious focal point. We might argue that the nostalgic tone of the festivities seems to signify the end, rather than the beginning, of an era: but this is to judge them with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps the millennium triggered a certain anxiety that, with the passage of a thousand years, the city had reached the end of its allotted span; but, if so, there is no record of it. What we do know is that, within a year or two of the celebrations, Philip's successor Decius launched the first empire-wide persecution of Christians, in which those who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods were `whipped till their skin hung down like rags, clubbed into senselessness, or stretched slowly on the rack until their joints came apart'. This campaign was of a different order to the local persecutions in which the first Christian martyrs perished. Its comprehensiveness and intensity point to a new sense of resolution on the part of the authorities: one that may well be influenced by the experience of passing into a new millennium.

The Christians, by this stage, had evolved into a Church with sufficient resources to survive even an intense campaign of persecution. There was still curiosity about the timing of Christ's reappearance, but there was also a network of bishops intent on maintaining uniformity of belief. For a long time these two things were not incompatible, since no one in the Church, from the Pope downwards, believed that the Second Coming would be long delayed. But by the second century the disruptive potential of End-time speculation was already painfully evident. A heresy called Montanism, which taught that the new Jerusalem was about to descend, literally, on to an obscure region of Phrygia, briefly threatened to supplant orthodox Christianity. Montanism was millenarian and led to the frenzied behaviour we associate today with End-time cults. Its founder, Montanus, and a priestess called Maximilla may have undergone voluntary martyrdom when the Millennium did not materialise; thereafter, apocalyptic disappointment and suicide became linked in the public mind, as they are today. And apocalypticism itself, which had been a vital resource for the first Christians, began to be regarded by the Church authorities with understandable mistrust.

The basic framework of Christian End-time belief was brilliantly simple. Some Jewish radicals of the first century AD believed in a Great Week which would be brought to an end by the arrival of the Messiah 5,000 or 6,000 years after the Creation. The early Christians slotted the Millennium of Revelation neatly into a seven-day Great Week. The Epistle of Barnabas, written around AD 120, puts it succinctly. `Listen carefully, my children, to these words: "God finished his work in six days..." That means that in 6000 years God will bring all things to completion, because for Him "a day of the Lord is as 1000 years ..." Therefore, my children, in six days, that is in 6000 years, the universe will be brought to its end. "And on the seventh day he rested ..."' Here, in a nutshell, is the idea that over the centuries was to launch a thousand different theories about the date of the Second Coming. Note that the Epistle leaves out one crucial ingredient. Although it is the first Christian document to mention the age of the world, it does not say what that age might be. For once that detail is known, so is the date of Christ's return and the dawn of the seventh and final millennium.

A curious feature of the Christian Great Week theory is that it could be invoked by supporters and opponents of apocalypticism alike. For millenarians, the world was perpetually on the verge of its 6,000th birthday; for conservatives, that anniversary was always beyond the life expectancy of the current generation. The most conservative perspective of all was that of St Augustine of Hippo, who ridiculed attempts to calculate the time of the End. `In vain therefore do we try to reckon and set limits to the years that remain to this world, when we hear from the Mouth of Truth that it is not ours to know this. Yet some have said that 400, some 500, others even a thousand years must be reached between the Lord's ascension and his last coming.' He reserved his most withering tone, however, for those who were for ever discerning an End-time significance in current affairs. He warned against falling into a panic over present happenings `as if they were the ultimate and extreme of all things, so that we may not be laughed at by those who have read of more and worse things in the history of the world'.

The Bishop of Hippo's advice to End-time mathematicians, echoed by Church authorities ever since, was to relax their busy fingers. But there is little sign that this advice was heeded. Augustine recorded an outbreak of panic in Constantinople in AD 398, a year which he believed marked the completion of 365 years from the Crucifixion. But this scare had nothing to do with the Second Coming: on the contrary, said Augustine, there was a wicked pagan legend circulating which claimed that St Peter had done a deal with the devil that Christianity would last only 365 years. Then an earthquake struck, sending people fleeing to church. `Everyone, almost with violence, demanded baptism from whom he could,' reports Augustine. `Not only in church, but also in their homes and through the streets and squares there was a cry for the saving sacrament, that they might escape wrath...' A more conventional panic arose from the sack of Rome in 410, when Augustine reported that some exclaimed: `Behold, from Adam all the years have passed, and behold, the 6,000 years are completed.' This linking of the sack of Rome to the fateful year must have been a purely instinctive reaction to events. And it is, for this reason, a useful insight into the way people at the time responded to violence and devastation. They did not just conclude, as anyone might have, that the End of the World had come. With the aid of an old-established tradition, they created an instant chronology which explained why it was ending. They were exhibiting a basic human urge to align great events -- even terrible ones -- with the numerical configuration of a divine plan.

Although the End-time significance of the sixth millennium was well established, there was no widely accepted calendar which placed the year 410 at the end of it. There was, however, already an important Christian chronology which maintained that the world had been created 5,500 years before the birth of Christ. The end of the world was therefore scheduled for around the year we know as AD 500. Hippolytus of Rome, a third-century theologian, supported this claim with a mass of scriptural evidence beginning with the dimensions of the ark of the covenant (five and a half cubits). Known to historians as AM I, this era mundi was not generally used to record the date: the Roman system of dating by consulships survived well into the Christian era. It was, however, widely accepted, though few writers were as bold as Hippolytus in spelling out its implications: `From the birth of the Christ one must count another 500 years, and only then the end will come.' But the mere fact of acknowledging this does not make Hippolytus an apocalyptic writer. On the contrary, he was pointing out that the End lay nearly zoo years in the future. AM I, in other words, was a weapon that could be used against millenarians who expected the year 6000 to occur in their lifetimes. But it was a weapon with built-in obsolescence. By the fifth century -- the 5900s AM I -- a delay tactic had become a millennial countdown.

As it turned out, AM I did not survive to celebrate its 6,000th year, in Western Europe at any rate. For as the American medieval historian Richard Landes has demonstrated, just before that date arrived it was mysteriously replaced by a new era mundi, AM II, which placed the Incarnation 5,200 years after the Creation and thus rejuvenated the world by 300 years. By the year 500 there is no document recognising the arrival of the year 6000 and no history dating by AM I. There is also no evidence of apocalyptic panic, though there are intriguing traces of unusual activity. According to one text, the 490s were twice disturbed by `ignorant' and `delirious' prophets announcing the arrival of the Antichrist: that is all we know. Landes has suggested that the earlier, dangerous chronology was suppressed

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1997-12:
Thompson offers an overview of the history of millenarianism from Zoroaster through the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997. Part 1 reviews such subjects as Daniel, Revelation, millenarianism around 1000, the Peasant's Revolt of 1525, and the Millerites of the 19th century. Part 2 focuses on selected recent topics including the Toronto Blessing of 1994, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Branch Davidians. Thompson is a nonspecialist in religious studies. He relies on others for most of the original research and deals too briefly with some issues (e.g., definitions) to satisfy specialists. Also, he states as fact his opinion about what would have been Branch Davidian conduct had the US Government not intervened. Thompson's main strength, however, is his sympathetic interpretation of the importance of millennial thinking over time, showing that events he discusses provide windows into the thinking of people often dismissed by other historians. Also, he reduces issues to their crux. For example, he summarizes chapter 3 with the observation that while Christian apocalypticists claim to adhere strictly to biblical prophecy, scripture was often little more than a base for "wild improvisations on the theme of the End." General; undergraduate. P. L. Redditt; Georgetown College
Appeared in Library Journal on 1997-07:
In another valuable title about the approaching millennium, British journalist Thompson focuses on human obsession with calendars and time. He traces the roots of millenarians from the first societies, which were influenced by the seasons, to the practitioners of early Near East religions, to Christianity. He later tackles this century's growth of evangelical Christianity and revivalism and predictions about Christ's return and subsequent 1000-year reign. Thompson also discusses New Age religions and their obsession with prophecy, crises, and good vs. evil and takes on both the Japanese Armageddon cult Aum Shinrikyo and David Koresh and the Branch Davidian standoff. He ends with a timely epilog devoted to Heaven's Gate and the recent suicides. In contrast to Philip Lamy's Millennium Rage (LJ 12/96), which focused on the political aspects of end-of-the-century cults, Thompson concentrates on theology and history. Well written, well researched, and entertaining, this is highly recommended for all libraries.‘Cynthia L. Peterson, Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Ctr. at Dallas (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, July 1997
Library Journal, July 1997
Choice, December 1997
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Unpaid Annotation
The complete history of millennialism from Zoroaster to David Koresh & Heaven's Gate.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgementsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
A Brief History of End-Time
The Roots of Apocalypsep. 3
The Mystery of the Year 1000p. 35
Pursuing the Millenniump. 56
A New Jerusalemp. 83
Fin de Sieclep. 103
The Apocalyptic Centuryp. 127
The New Millennium
Thy Kingdom Comep. 139
The Great Jubileep. 167
A New Agep. 191
Seoul: The Apocalyptic Cityp. 226
'A Doom Is Nearing the Land of the Rising Sun'p. 246
Waco and the Culture Warsp. 278
The End of Time?p. 322
Epiloguep. 335
Notesp. 343
Indexp. 355
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem