Book Review

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn, Yale Nota Bene, New Haven, 2nd ed., 2001; 292 pages, ISBN 0300090889, paperback, $16.95.

The Millennium -- the destruction of the corrupt worldly order that ushers in a perfected world for the elect -- lies at the very roots of Christianity and continues to recur in various religious and political forms, even being a staple of science fiction. Norman Cohn began to wonder about the origins of this concept while researching The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1957). Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come embodies in clear and graceful prose fifty years of study on Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Vedic Indian, Zoroastrian, Canaanite, Jewish, and Christian beliefs about the origin and destiny of the world and human beings, and the relationship between deities, humanity, and the continued existence of the world order.

For ancient cultures the ordered world and its gods emerged from an eternal chaos which continually threatens to overwhelm it. Deities hold back the forces of destruction, aided by human beings, principally rulers and priests, sometimes also the elite of society. Each people saw its cultural imperatives as manifestations of divine order and viewed surrounding peoples as allies of the forces of chaos. Therefore, "For an ethnocentric society there was no stronger affirmation of order in the world than victory in war" (p. 16), which expanded and strengthened cosmos and manifested the patron god's power. Initially these cultures held that at death all souls descended to a shadowy underworld, though some later held that souls of the elite who fought the forces of chaos -- priests, rulers, warriors -- would have a beatific afterlife. These essentially conservative cultures all held a basically static view: that "cosmos has always been threatened by chaos and always will be, yet has always survived and always will" (p. 65).

As far as Dr. Cohn can discover, the first to break with this view were the followers of Zoroaster, a prophet who lived sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC. He taught that there was one supreme god, Ahura Mazda, who created and ordered the world. An evil twin deity, Angra Mainyu, led the forces of chaos and destruction which brought evil into the world, but he was fated to ultimate defeat by the forces of goodness. This radical dualism was a revolutionary concept:

What Ahura Mazda does goes far beyond anything known to the traditional [combat] myth. The war that he fights is a spiritual war, and its aim is not simply to ensure the fertility of the land and the military victory of his people, it is not even the mere maintenance of the ordered world. It is to remove every form of disorder from the world, wholly and for ever; to bring about a state in which cosmos will no longer be threatened by chaos. . . . In place of repeated but incomplete victories we are promised a final and total one. -- p. 114

This divine drama takes place in "bounded time," a period usually given as 12,000 years, which would be followed by a bodily resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, rewards and punishments for each soul, annihilation for the evil, and an eternity of bliss for the ever-youthful elect on a reformed and purified earth. These too seem to be original concepts in the ancient world, and they gained prominence with the rise of the Persian Empire.

In examining Jewish traditions and their patron god, Dr. Cohn begins with the Canaanite view typical of Near Eastern traditions: there "It was normal for a people to exalt its patron god to a position of unique dignity, setting him above all other gods. This happened to Yahweh too: he came to be identified with El," the supreme Canaanite god. "It was above all through ever new victories over ever new enemies that Yahweh was expected to do, now and in future, what he had done at the beginning: overcome chaos, re-establish cosmos" (p. 135). Polytheism continued as the norm in Israel even after the Yahweh-alone movement arose in the 8th century BC, a situation summed up in Micah 4:5: "All the peoples may walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of Yahweh our God for ever and ever."

When Judah faced its final defeat by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, a religious explanation was needed, and the Yahweh-alone proponents supplied a surprising but effective one:

What if the patron god Yahweh was punishing his people for failing to give him exclusive devotion? . . . The Kings of Assyria and Babylonia, who appeared so overwhelmingly powerful, were but instruments that he was using to punish the Israelites. Moreover, the Israelites deserved it all: no matter what disaster befell them, it was presented as further proof of Yahweh's righteousness as well as of his power. This was something new. Constantly repeated divine punishment inflicted, quite explicitly, for constantly recurring national apostasy -- such an interpretation of political events and of the course of history is without parallel in any other culture of the ancient world. -- p. 143

Among the exiled Israelite elite, prophets such as Ezekiel and the Second Isaiah predicted a glorious and imminent future when the Israelites would rule over a regenerated earth where the gentiles would be subjugated or destroyed. Monotheism in the modern sense first arose in the 6th century BC, and in the Hellenistic period many concepts new to the Hebrews began to appear in apocalyptic writings: angels instead of the direct intervention of Yahweh, a mass resurrection and judgment of the dead, a blissful afterlife for souls of the righteous, and the promise of a purified, perfected world in which generations of the righteous would live. "1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Community Rule from Qumran, the synoptic gospels, the Book of Revelation are very different works -- but an eschatological preoccupation is evident in all of them, while the world is viewed in ever more dualistic terms with the passing generations" (1st ed., p. 220). A few held that "The world is in fact divided into two hostile camps, one consisting of God's obedient angels and an elect minority of Jews, the other of demons -- themselves descended from disobedient angels -- and of the multitude of human beings who have fallen under their sway" (p. 185). However, only two small sects accepted the existence of an evil force opposed to God: the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Jesus sect which in time became the Christian Church. All these "new" concepts appeared earlier in Zoroastrianism, particularly in its Hellenistic variation, Zurvanism, with which the Jews came in close contact. Dr. Cohn concludes that this is the source of these beliefs which have been, and continue to be, so influential in Western thought. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

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