Chronology: the apocalyptic world view through the ages

1500 B.CE

Many historians trace the apocalyptic world view back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who spoke of a cosmic battle between good and evil ending in a new, perfect world for humanity. The Zoroastrian tradition survives today in Iran and as the basis of Parsiism in India.
592 BCE to 586 BCE The Book of Ezekiel, one of the major prophetical books of the Old Testament, is written in response to the invasion and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent exile of the Jews to Babylon. The Book of Ezekiel foretells the return of the Jews to their homeland and the violent destruction of future enemies. The book ends with God's admonition to the Jews reminding them that their suffering and exile resulted from their lack of faith and trespassing against Him, but foretells that after the return to the homeland, proper worship will resume and God will no longer turn away from them.
485 BCE Probably inspired by the sack of Babylon by Xerxes, the Book of Isaiah is a prime example of the pre-apocalyptic Jewish prophetic tradition. The prophets were professionals who spoke to contemporary problems through poetry, often including a small amount of future prediction to enhance their authority. With its cosmic symbolism and introduction of the resurrection of the dead, Isaiah reveals important elements of the apocalyptic world view falling into place.
250 BCE The series of books collectively called First Enoch, written during a period when the Jews were under the rule of the Greek Empire, see a further shift from the ancient prophetic tradition to a new apocalyptic tradition. The books take as their subject Enoch, the seventh patriarch of the Book of Genesis who, as a visionary, was reputed to have received secret knowledge from God. Many of the standard elements of the distinct literary genre of Jewish apocalyotic first emerge in these texts. The "Book of Watchers" provides the first example of the judgment of the dead in the Jewish tradition; the distinctively historical "Apocalypse of Weeks" is the first to envisage the end of the world in a literal sense. Within the series, the perspective shifts from the cosmic to the concretely historical.
167 BCE
The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel
The Book of Daniel is written as a product of the Jewish Maccabean revolt agaisnst persecution by the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids. After the New Testament Book of Revelation, it is the scripture most often studied and cited by contemporary prophecy believers. Daniel's dream holds that Israel will inherit "the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven" when God has overthrown the last of the four evil kingdoms, first represented by four metals, then by four beasts. In many ways, Daniel represents the emergence of revolutionary eschatology. In it, the world is dominated by an evil power, and the suffering of its victims--the intended audience--becomes increasingly intolerable. But at some appointed time the saints of God will rise up and overthrow the oppressor, and the sufferers will inherit the earth.
63 BCE
Romans capture Jerusalem

Romans capture Jerusalem
With the capture of Jerusalem, the Romans make Judea an outpost of their empire. Their oppressive rule makes Rome the locus of evil in apocalyptic literature until the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D.
Jesus Christ is born
Jesus Christ is born in the area of Nazareth.
30 CE Jesus is put to death by Roman officials. His followers--the first Christians--would use an apocalyptic framework to make sense of this unthinkable development, casting him in the role of Messiah and reasoning that he would return soon to finish his work.
70 CE A Jewish rebellion against Rome ends in failure with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written around this time. It includes the "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13), Jesus' eschatological discourse to his disciples, in which he both fueled expectations of an imminent end ("This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled") and cautioned against date speculation ("But of that day and hour knoweth no man ... but my Father only.").


first century

The Essene movement reaches its peak. The 1947 discovery of their sacred library, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, would reveal much about this highly apocalyptic Jewish sect. The Essenes called themselves the "sons of light," in opposition to the Jewish majority, or "sons of darkness." In texts like the so-called "War Scroll," they essentially recast the history of Israel in terms of a cosmic war between good and evil. Highly critical of all outsiders, the Essenes looked forward to the day of judgment, when they expected God to send an army to destroy their enemies. The Essenes demonstrate that the early Christians were but one of many Jewish sects animated by apocalyptic beliefs.
90 CE
The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation
Biblical scholars believe that around this time the Revelation of John, or the Book of Revelation was written. Destined to become the only apocalypse in the New Testament and the final Book of the Christian Bible, Revelation is the paramount source for Christian prophecy believers. Scholars are skeptical of the claim, made by those who argued for its inclusion in the canon, that the author is the same man who wrote the Gospel of John. Whatever its authorship, Revelation has had tremendous influence on our culture and history, not only motivating millions of believers but contributing vivid images and phrases to popular culture, from the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" to the "mark of the beast."

Borrowing much of its imagery from the Book of Daniel, Revelation is fairly typical of the revolutionary eschatology of the time. Addressing "the scattered Christians of Asia Minor in their hour of affliction," the author describes in vivid detail the means through which God will save his people from their suffering at the hands of Satan. "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."

135 A.D.
Relief showing the revolt against Rome

Relief showing the revolt against Rome
Failure of the second Jewish revolt against Rome. After this, Jewish leaders condemned the apocalyptic genre as futile and dangerous, and apocalypticism began to fade from mainstream Judaism. Although a few texts, like the Book of Daniel, remained popular, rabbis started shying away from openly apocalyptic readings and instead focused on interpreting and following the Torah.
156 A.D. A fiercely ascetic movement arises in Phrygia around a man named Montanus, who declares himself the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. Ecstatics gather around him, given to visionary experiences which they believe are of divine origin and signal the imminent coming of the God's Kingdom. They literally expect the New Jerusalem to descend from the heavens onto Phrygiam soil.

Early Christian fathers were alarmed to see Montanist sects spring up across Asia Minor, Africa, Rome and Gaul. Even Tertullian, the most famous theologian in the West at the time, joined the movement. Although they were eventually able to contain it, Montanism warned many in the Church of the dangers posed by apocalyptic expectations.

221Sextus Julius Africanus, a Roman official and early Christian scholar, writes his Chronografiai, the first universal chronology written from a Christian perspective. It calls for the Second Coming of Christ in the year 500, based on five thousand years of history from creation to the Jewish Babylonian exile, plus another thousand since. Placing "the End" six thousand years after creation--the date of which varied widely--became the most common form of end-time dating in the Christian west.
313Roman Emperor Constantine rescinds the persecution of Christians, and is eventually baptized himself before his death in 337. Under his reign, Christianity went from a persecuted minority to a favored cult within the Roman Empire. The end of persecution led to a temporary decrease in the appeal of apocalypticism, although continued alienation and disruptions would ensure its survival.
350Around this time, the first of the Christian Sibylline Oracles is written. The Christian Sybillines drew heavily on the earlier Jewish Sybillines, which were intended to convert pagans to Judaism through the inspired words of a prophetess. Written after the death of Constantine, the Christian Sybillines attached great eschatological significance to the figure of the Roman Emperor.

The great popularity of the Sybillines up to and through the Middle Ages demonstrated that popular millennialism continued to flourish at all levels of society, particularly among the poor. Although uncanonial and unorthodox, the Sybillines had enormous influence--after the Bible, they were among the most influential writings in Medieval Europe.

late 4th century Early councils of the Christian Church agree to include the Revelation to John in the canon, where it sits portentously as the final Book of the Bible. Key to its inclusion is the acceptance of John the Apostle as its author.
410Rome falls to the Visigoths. Because Church fathers had shifted away from apocalyptic thinking in the previous century, the fall of the now-Christianized Roman Empire did not inspire the wave of apocalypticism one might expect.
St. Augustine

St. Augustine
St. Augustine finishes his great work The City of God, which caps the Church's ongoing shift away from literal apocalypticism. Instead, Augustine approaches the Millennium allegorically, as a spiritual state collectively entered by the Church at Pentecost, and as a matter for individuals rather than all of mankind. Although preserving the concept of a communal last judgment in the distant future, he interprets the struggle depicted in Revelation as a metaphor for the struggle faced by individual souls here and now. Augustine moved the Catholic Church--now a powerful institution trying to maintain the status quo--essentially out of the apocalypse business, or at least away from literal readings of prophecy.
Dome of the Rock

the Dome of the Rock, Islamic mosque built 691 in Jerusalem
Death of the prophet Muhammad. Ever since he had received his first visions in 610, the new religion of Islam had grown remarkably quickly. By 622, Islam had so disturbed the authorities in Mecca that Muhammad and his followers were forced to flee in the Hijra to Medina. But they returned just seven years later and captured Mecca. Over the next 100 years, Muslim armies would conquer most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.

The apocalyptic significance of the rise of Islam is twofold. Growing partly out of Judeo-Christian monotheism, Islam quickly developed its own rich apocalyptic tradition. And its formidable empire--which included control of Jerusalem--put it on a collision course with Christianity, which would cast Muslims in the role of the Antichrist for centuries to come.

950Adso's "Letter on the Antichrist" written around this time. This French monk's description of the Antichrist is widely translated and disseminated throughout Europe, and would be influential for centuries. In particular, Adso helps establish the notion of the "Last World Emperor," one who would unite Christianity, defeat the Muslims, and lay down his crown in Jerusalem, paving the way for Christ's return.
999/1000End of first Christian Millennium. Pope Sylvester presides over a dramatic midnight mass at St. Peter's Basilica, as pilgrims tremble in anticipation of the end of the world. But was there a general millennial hysteria? Historians have long disagreed.
1054Schism splits Christianity in two, with the western Church based in Rome and the eastern or Byzantine Church in Constantinople. Across the divide, each side would use apocalyptic rhetoric against the other for centuries.
The First Crusade is launched by Pope Urban II. His goal is to aid Byzantine Christians in driving the Seldjuk Turks from Asia Minor, in the (futile) hope that the eastern Church would acknowledge the supremacy of Rome and Christendom would be united.

The poor were particularly susceptible to the Pope's call for an army. Most of those who joined the Crusade perished on the long journey across Europe. Those whose survived the trip were known as "Tafurs." Stories describe them as barefoot, wearing sackcloth, covered in sores and filth, living on roots and grass and sometimes the roasted corpses of their enemies. Too poor to afford swords, they fought with clubs, pointed stick, knives, shovels, and hoes. The Muslims were said to have been terrified of the Tafurs, and their own leaders unable to control them. As they move across Europe, they attack and kill Jews in large numbers, believing them enemies of Christianity.
More on the Crusades.

1099Three years into their quest, the Crusaders lay siege to Jerusalem, then overwhelm and slaughter the Muslims there. Word that the Holy Land has been recaptured spreads throughout western Europe, generating enthusiasm for further Crusades. Holding on to the weak crusader states they set up on the route to Jerusalem would prove difficult, however, over the coming decades.
Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen
Death of Hildegard of Bingen, an aristocratic German abbess who was one of the few women to make an important contribution to apocalyptic theology in the Middle Ages. In 1151 she completed her masterpiece, the Scivias, a beautifully illustrated volume which included a vision of the last times heavy with animal imagery and with a graphic description of the Antichrist.
Joachim of Fiore

Joachim's Three Circles
Italian monk Joachim of Fiore receives the inspiration for his eschatological teachings, which become among the most influential of the Middle Ages. Joachim makes an important departure from the Augustinian tradition by re-emphasizing the predictive value of scripture, particularly Revelation. Joachim sees history as an ascent through three successive stages: the Age of the Father or the Law; the Age of the Son or of the Gospel; and Age of the Spirit. He believed the world was at the end of the Age of Christ, and predicted that the wondrous Age of the Spirit would begin between 1200 and 1260.

Apart from his emphasis on spiritualism, Joachim's three-stage view of history would influence future thinkers such as Hegel, Marx and Hitler. Unfortunately, his casting of Jews as Antichrist also contributed to anti-semitism.

1190Devastated by the loss of Jerusalem to Muslims led by the Egyptian Saladin in 1187, Pope Gregory VIII launches the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionhearted stops in Messina to confer with the famous Joachim of Fiore, who wrongly predicts that he would drive the Antichrist Saladin from Jerusalem.
1260Due at least in part to Joachim's predictions, this is a year of heightened apocalyptic expectations throughout Europe. Stories of earthquakes and other calamities abound, and preparations for the end accelerate. As historian Norman Cohn has written, "millenarian expectations took on a more desperate and hysterical quality" in 1260. One expression of this is the self-flagellation movement which catches on in Europe, beginning in monastic communities and spreading rapidly throughout Latin Christiandom. Flagellants hope that if they punished themselves, God would forgo even greater punishment for their sins. Some had even higher aspirations--perhaps their bleeding bodies, much like that of Christ, could have redemptive value for all mankind.
1348The Black Death reaches western Europe, with horrible consequences. It's estimated that one-third of the population perishes. Jews are blamed for poisoning the wells and are killed in large numbers. The plague and ensuing chaos are commonly perceived as signs that the End is near, that Judgment is imminent.
1381The English Peasant's Revolt demonstrates the potential for religious apocalypticism to combine with social and economic unrest, with dramatic results. Led by lower clergymen and "irregulars" like John Ball, the Revolt is fueled by visions of the "Egalitarian Millennium." Historian Norman Cohn has commented that the Revolt was "directed solely towards limited aims of a social and political nature," but that it was seen by many as part of the "preordained convulsions of the Last Days."
1419-1434The Taborite rebellion offers a good example of the way that apocalyptic energies were often aimed at the Church itself, not just outsiders. The Taborites, a radical wing of the Hussite movement, set up a utopian community around Mt. Tabor in Bohemia. Taborite eschatology held that these were the Last Days, and that the Church of Rome was the Whore of Babylon and the Pope the Antichrist. The Taborites declined rapidly after their army was defeated by more moderate Hussites (Utraquists) in 1434.
1492The events of a single year in single country, Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain, offer ample evidence of the power of apocalypticism:

* The reconquest of Granada and expelling of the Moors marks the successful end of the long Christian holy war against the Muslims.

* Fueled by apocalyptic rhetoric, the ongoing Spanish Inquisition increases anti-semitism, leading to the mass expulsion of Jews from the country.

* Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, discovers the New World. A great believer in prophecy, Columbus was actually trying to find a "back door" to the Middle East through which Christians might recapture Jerusalem and usher in the Last Days.


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