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PAUL BOYER

Did Christopher Columbus see himself on an apocalyptic mission?

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

We tend to think of Christopher Columbus as an explorer, a discoverer. ... In reality, while that is all true, Columbus was also a man of his day, which meant that he was a man who took apocalyptic teachings, who took biblical passages very, very literally. And in fact, we have in his own autobiographical writings, toward the end of his life, and in his messages to Ferdinand and Isabella, proposing yet another great enterprise. This time it will be ... to restore the Holy Land as a fulfillment of prophecies in the Book of Isaiah and elsewhere of the end time events. ... He believed that gold from the New World could be used to finance this great crusade to the Middle East to regain Jerusalem.

So in addition to everything else, Christopher Columbus is very much a prominent figure in the history of apocalyptic belief in Europe. ... I think Columbus very much did have a sense of millennial fulfillment, that from his voyages, from his discoveries, and ... what he saw as the capstone event of his career, which would be the final expedition to the Middle East, as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies that would lead to the millennium.


Bernard McGinn

Did Christopher Columbus see himself in apocalyptic terms?

McGinn is a professor of Historical Theology and the History of Christianity at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

(more about McGinn)

Christopher Columbus is often viewed as the hard headed navigator, a kind of modern man breaking with the past. But if we look at the history of Columbus and some of his writings, particularly his letters and in the Book of Prophecies that he put together, we can see that Columbus thought of himself very much in terms of the apocalyptic tradition. And he felt that his voyages of discovery were ushering in a millennial age, an age of a Last World Emperor, a Spanish Last World Emperor, who would recapture the holy apocalyptic city of Jerusalem and initiate a messianic period. And he had studied prophecies very, very carefully as he put together this Book of Prophecies, in order to sell his programme to Ferdinand and Isabella. And it's not that he was using this. He believed it. And he felt that they should believe it as well. ...

He was not an original apocalypticist. His Book of Prophecies is a compilation of a whole range of prophesies, texts from the Old and the New Testament, along with more current prophesies. What he's trying to do is to create a kind of handbook of prophesies that he can use in his attempts to get new funding from Ferdinand and Isabella. One of the prophesies that he fastens upon is a prophecy of a coming last emperor who will reconquer Jerusalem, who is very specifically a Spanish ruler. And we know that he ascribes this prophecy to Joachim of Fiore, but Joachim didn't write it. It ... was actually a Spanish prophecy from the early 14th century. But Joachim's reputation as the medieval prophet was so large that of course many later prophesies and visions were ascribed to him in pseudonymous fashion.

How does Jerusalem begin to figure into Columbus' discovery of the New World?

Well, Columbus felt that he was able to go around the world to get to Jerusalem, and that going around the world to get to Jerusalem would allow and facilitate the conquest of Jerusalem by a Spanish Last World Emperor. The way to Jerusalem had been blocked by the Turks and others. But the gold that he felt he would discover in the Indies was the money that would be needed to mount the military expedition that would reconquer Jerusalem and, as I said, issue in a universal messianic rule in which Christianity would triumph under the leadership of a Spanish last monarch. ...

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