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End-Timers: Three Thousand Years of Waiting for Judgment Day
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While German scholars had taken an interest in medieval sects for decades, this work opened up millennial studies to English readers. But Cohn was aiming for more. Born into a mixed Jewish and Catholic family, he had lost relatives to the Holocaust and, in the immediate postwar years, served in the British army in Vienna, where he was surrounded by evidence of Nazi and Stalinist oppression.
When he came to concentrate on medieval history, he made a link between twentieth-century suffering and the persecution of heretics, witches, and Jews during those early troubled centuries. Medieval historians, in particular, question the way he presents a stark dichotomy between apocalyptic sects and the Augustinian Catholic mainstream.
They insist that terror of the apocalypse and descent into hell pervade all areas of medieval society. This can be illustrated by literary works from Dante and Chaucer, from passion plays, and from the doom paintings that loomed down from so many church walls. In common with Cohn, I find the evidence for Zoroastrian influence very compelling. It has long been accepted that no sharp distinction can be drawn between political and ecclesiastical history of Europe before the time of the European vi Preface Enlightenment.
Then, in about after even Norman Cohn has lost interest in the subject , the secular and sacred narratives sharply diverge.
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While works by twelfth-century abbot Joachim of Fiore have been closely scrutinized by major scholars, nineteenth-century John Nelson Darby awaits an interpreter. Again, it is Norman Cohn who delivers the warning: There are times, when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility.
And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.
It attempts provide an overview of an intimidating mass of historical and theological scholarship, most of which which lies outside the scope of students and general reader. Cohn interpreted apocalayptic patterns in the light of events that dominated the mid twentieth century; I am alarmed by the challenges that face humanity in the early twenty first. Without offering solutions, the later chapter seek to disentangle some of the stubborn issues that currently threaten peace across the Middle East and beyond. As a theological discipline, it starts from no assumption over how the end will come or what characteristics it may have.
While some Old Testament scholars insist that this word should never be used outside the context of a direct revelation of heaven, it is more generally used to describe any sudden eruption of the Last Things. Interpreted more broadly, the term can also encompass the practice of dividing time into eras or dispensations. Millennial periods can be variable and need not last a literal thousand years. While eschatology and chiliasm remain technical terms, the others have escaped from theological jargon into general speech, where scholars lose control Preface vii of usage.
Picking up a wide range of meanings and overtones, the words can describe any kind of final, violent, or doom-laden event. In practice, apocalyptic and millennial are often used as synonyms.
Since sources like the Book of Revelation move freely between different visions of the end-time, even scholars can find it impossible to keep language precise. More abstruse Christian terminology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be explained, where necessary, within the text.
It is a privilege to live within range of the magnificent research resources provided by the Cambridge University Library, along with departmental and college libraries and special collections. However, over the sound of grinding axes, the Internet now offers access to much otherwise unavailable information. This resource provides easy access to analytical articles which may or may not be as tightly researched as those in learned journals , to exchanges of argument—or even abuse—and a mass of information on the most improbable subjects.
Many valuable primary sources can now be accessed at a the click of a mouse and internet references provide the necessary link for the majority of readers, who do not live within range of a Deposit Library. Acknowledgments My thanks are due to librarian and mission expert Terry Barringer, who has now supported me through many years and two books; also for helpful contributions and advice of my Arabist grandson Ed Ballard.
Also to my wife Eva and daughter Alison for their endless patience, good humor, advice, and support.
Beyond these early centers of civilization, bronze-working skills had already been widely mastered, while pastoralists had tamed horses and knew how to support mobile communities on the products of living as well as dead animals. Soon, the earliest trading contact for the exchange of products and natural resources had been opened between different centers of that elusive condition that would become known as civilization Progress brought problems.
The hunter-gatherer life style might have been a struggle, but it is thought that communities generally lived in some kind of peace1 and a measure of social equality. With growing prosperity, urban dwellers now needed to protect their produce in granaries and their houses behind stone city walls, and even nomadic communities became exposed to attack by marauding bands of animal thieves.
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In this new world, communities needed to recruit powerful fighters who could be relied on to protect their hard-won property. Holding a near monopoly of advanced weapons, these warriors lost no time in establishing their position as a privileged and wealthy ruling class. Still, human protection was not enough. Out of the multitude of available deities, city-states would select one as their own and lavish whatever wealth they could afford on temples, ceremonies, and sacrifices designed to ensure that this special guardian remained on their side.
Since any failure in ritual could bring disaster on the whole community, these rites needed to be preformed by a specialist class of priests, who then allied themselves with the rulers and assumed 2 END-TIMERS responsibility for upholding the unequal social order. Under their supervision, craft-workers, pastoralists and farm laborers, women and men, slave and free, were kept in their divinely ordered place within the hierarchal structure.
By this time the ruler—be it king, queen, or pharaoh—had acquired responsibility for keeping chaos in its place and making the rain fall. With food sources and boundaries secure, the more privileged members of society could now indulge in cosmic speculation. Whether arrived at independently or through interchange of ideas, proto-philosophers in the two ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer reached similar conclusions about the world in which they lived. Since fresh and salt waters needed to be kept apart, the underworld could only be seen as a place of endless conflict.
Priests from both civilizations told how powerful gods struggled to keep chaos at bay. According to Babylonian legend, warrior deity Marduk Ashur in Assyria descended into the nether world to fight the dragon of chaos. For their part, Egyptians told how the sun god Ra drove his chariot across the heavens by day before plunging into the underworld to wage a nightly a battle with an equally evil serpent. Since sickness and death were also caused by demon possession, it was a matter of the greatest urgency for every individual that pharaoh and priests should perform their sacred duties with the greatest possible diligence.
Both Sumerians and Egyptians believed that the gods lived in the heavens, while evil spirits inhabited the lower world. Israelites and Greeks would later share this vision of a land of sorrows, which they respectively called Sheol and Hades. Behind the Greek fable that told how Persephone descended into the underworld in autumn and reappeared in spring lies the Sumerian myth of how the goddess Inanna Ishtar visited her sister Ereshkegal, who was queen of the underworld.
Both stories tell of death and rebirth—of winter, spring, and fertility.