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The Millennia-Old History of the Apocalypse

Hulton Archive/Getty

“The millennium is at once everywhere and nowhere in our culture,” writes Anthony Grafton in a 1999 essay on the history of apocalyptic thinking, from the Book of Revelation to the bestselling "Left Behind" books. Fourteen years after the turn of the millennium, stories of the apocalypse still fascinate. This summer, HBO is airing "The Leftovers," adapted from Tom Perrota's 2011 novel, showing the quiet aftermath of a Rapture-like event; it's an apocalypse that feels less than apocalyptic. And in October, a second movie adaption of the "Left Behind" series—which Grafton called "a grisly mixture of The Rapture and You've Got Mail"—will hit theaters, starring Nicholas Cage.

Albrecht Durer knew the end was coming as surely as any bearded sandwich man or pony-tailed television producer knows it now. True, he could not tell exactly when the skies would open, Antichrist would appear, stars would fall, mountains would collapse, or the Four Horsemen would ride. But the Revelation of Saint John—a text which he not only knew intimately, but illustrated with a magnificent and frightening series of woodcuts—taught him that this scarifying sequence of events would certainly unfold someday. History would reach its climax and its end.

Visions of the future transformation of the heavens and the earth haunted this master of the precise representation of the here and now. He saw them not only while he was awake and reading the Bible, but even when he slept, in a dream—as he recorded in a note—of "great waters" that "fell from heaven," first with "an equal slowness" and then "with such swiftness, with wind and roaring, and I was so sore afraid that when I awoke my whole body trembled. ... So when I arose in the morning I painted it above here as I saw it. God turns all things to the best."

Like most of his contemporaries, Durer did not confine himself to the New Testament when he looked for ways to predict the date of the celestial and terrestrial revolutions that he awaited. His dream of a flood was prompted not by the sermons of dour theologians on the Book of Revelation, but by the popular pamphlets known as almanacs and prognostications, which peddlers hawked in the streets and squares of every European city. The authors of these crudely illustrated little books on bad paper, the distant ancestors of the newspaper, noted that a dangerous conjunction of the planets would take place in Pisces in 1524. Theological and historical pessimists among them—then as now, the majority—naturally predicted that this celestial sign heralded a second Flood.

Dozens of booklets repeated the prediction, mingling precise details of planetary positions with a threatening, prophetic language of threat and hope. In parts of Italy, people fled the cities for high ground—only to return, sheepishly, when no flood took place. Durer not only read such books and broadsheets, he also helped to produce them: One of his most famous woodcuts illustrated the disastrous planetary conjunction which had, supposedly, brought the new disease of syphilis into being.

Durer's dream of the flood, in other words, reflected his fascination with what the Christian Scriptures foretold. But it also resulted from his involvement in the popular culture of his day. The flood of 1524 that never happened became the first media event of modern times; and in Durer's unconscious life it mingled easily with passages from the Bible. No wonder that he paid attention in 1503 to what he called "the greatest miracle that I have seen in all my days ... when crosses fell on many people, but more on children than other people," and sketched a record of what these miraculous images looked like: dark, vague, curiously modern silhouettes of Jesus on the cross, flanked by the Virgin and Mary Magdalene, mourning. The artist and his learned friends had many reasons to think that time itself might soon run out—even if most of them hesitated to fix the year and day when this would happen.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Durer's dreams—and the eschatological fears and hopes, the ancient astrological computations and celestial prodigies that inspired them—seemed very distant indeed. But new kinds of scholarly research were shedding light on their origins and their meanings. The historian Norman Cohn devoted a brilliant, frightening book, which appeared in 1957, to The Pursuit of the Millennium. He traced the development of Western visions of the end. He found their roots in Hebrew prophecy and Zoroastrian visions of the final combat, their immediate sources in the Book of Daniel and other prophetic texts composed in Hellenistic times by Jews and Chaldeans. And he treated the Book of Revelation, written for Christians in the time of Nero's persecution, as the decisive text—the point at which the intoxicating traditions fused and crystallized into something new and potentially explosive.

Cohn quoted from John's frightening vision of the Apocalypse, which he called "an eschatological prophecy of great poetic power." He confronted readers with the strange beasts and ravening creatures, natural catastrophes and dizzying omens that would ramp and rage across the earth before Christ returned to rule the world with his faithful for a thousand years—as well as the definitive struggle and victory that would take place after that. What mattered about them, he argued, was not only the details of their presentation, but also their shattering, galvanizing emotional impact. As early as the middle of the second century, Cohn explained, the "fiercely ascetic" Montanist movement, whose ecstatic, visionary followers thought the New Jerusalem would soon descend in Phyrgia, showed "how literally people could take this prophecy and with what feverish excitement they could expect its fulfillment." This vision of the vanquished conquered and changed its readers, and had done so from the early Christian centuries to the present.

Incorporated in the official Christian Scriptures, these lurid predictions proved as subversive in effect as they were canonical in standing. Again and again, they attracted the attention of two dangerous classes: rabid revolutionary intellectuals, mad haters of the existing order in search of an Archimedean social point from which they could move the world; and wretched social outcasts, the sturdy beggars and out-of-work artisans spawned by Europe's cities in times of rapid economic change.

Prophets and crowds—once they found each other—amounted to a kind of human critical mass. Preachers took John's reveries as the precise blueprints for a reconstruction of the world they lived in. They identified themselves as the martyrs, the witnesses whose sufferings on behalf of truth would realize the last phase of God's plan. The innocent blood that they lost sanctified them. More frightening, the guilty blood they shed, that of God's enemies, did the same. Thus the ruthless revolutionary, that terrifying and characteristic figure of modern times, was born. The "urban masses" became his natural constituency, his faithful, long-suffering, ineffective army, and—on the rare occasions when he was lucky enough, and those around him unlucky enough, that he took power—his wretchedly exploited subjects.

From the Crusades and the Flagellant Movement of the Middle Ages to the Anabaptist kingdom of God in Munster in 1534-1535 and beyond, Cohn traced the individuals and movements that tried to realize John's visions of the end. He emphasized their ability to spark bloodshed on a vast scale, as millenarian revolutionaries started quest after quest to purify the world. Scriptural metaphors mattered, because they were taken literally. God, cried John, would rid the grain of tares at harvest time—or, as a later prophet put it, he would trample out the vintage of the grapes of wrath.

This radical language divided the world. It distinguished the saved from the damned. And the inflammable revolutionary public took it not as a prediction of the distant future, but as a call for direct action. Peasants and artisans—so their prophets insisted—must harvest and glean the human race, ridding it of its chaff. The chaff were those who did not accept the divine plan.

For Cohn, in the end, all modern revolutionary movements—including the two central ones of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism—derived from this millennial Christian tradition of millenarian radicalism. Joachim of Fiore's speculations about world history, Cohn argued, echoed in "the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society and a final communism," and the phrase "the third Reich" "would have had but little emotional significance if the phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation had not, over the centuries, entered into the common stock of European social mythology."

The two major forms of totalitarianism both represented, in Cohn's account, the re-emergence into history of an ancient "subterranean revolutionary eschatology." When Marx and Lenin, Hitler and Goebbels announced the arrival of a new social order and demanded the extermination of all enemies, they spoke updated secularized versions of an ancient radical language. Baku Commissars and SS-men in the Generalgouvernement—and their rootless, wild followers—were the modern successors of the medieval Laborites and Reformation Anabaptists. This explained—as Cohn wrote in a characteristically eloquent foreword—why a historical enquiry into the roots of Millennialism that began in the ruins of Central Europe after World War II had taken him backwards through the entirety of European history. Cohn's work made a powerful case, though it was marred by his exaggerations of the radicalism of some of the medieval and early modern revolutions that he described.

Cohn recounted and deplored many sensational details about nudism, polygamy, and other forms of antinomian behavior in which radical prophets supposedly engaged, drawing mostly on sources written by their enemies. Yet the most striking feature of his work was the long-term continuity that he traced, or seemed to trace. He had apparently identified a coherent, interlocking set of images and social formations, which appeared and reappeared across the centuries and the millennia, and has charged with the same disastrous potential wherever and whenever it surfaced. Like the Oxford Arabist D.S. Margoliouth, who held that all funny stories descended from one of thirty Indo-European Ur-jokes, Cohn taught that a single Christian vision of the end could pass from culture to culture, from language to language, even from religious to secular discourse, without losing either its coherence or its unique ability to inspire the crazed masses to rise up once again. (In later years he would return to this theme, devoting a second study to the Near Eastern and Zoroastrian origins of Millennialism.)

Even as the paperback version of Cohn's book introduced hundreds of young students to the millennium and its impoverished, raving pursuers, other scholars were following different paths. They were moving along winding side roads, for the most part, instead of Cohn's highway, which made for slower progress but allowed richer, and more varied views. Even before Cohn wrote, historians of ideas such as Carl Becker, Ernest Tuveson, and Frank Manuel had shown that Millennialism took more than one form. "Pre-millennialist" readers of Revelation stressed the violent confrontations that must precede Christ's return. "Post millennialist" exegetes, by contrast, argued that Christ would rule in peace for a thousand years before the last battle took place. This view could easily be watered down into a secular doctrine of gradual change and amelioration—as it was in the American doctrine of progress that flourished in the later nineteenth century, or in the colorful doctrines of social evolution developed by Manuel's beloved "prophets of Paris," Comte, Saint-Simon, and Fourier, the last of whom predicted that the socialist millennium would see the oceans turn to lemonade. The latter's "erotic daydreams," his "sham battles of the sexes with captives of love as the reward to the victorious army," are just as genuine an offshoot of the ancient millennial tradition as the visions of final battles that have recently captured historians' attention.

The 1950s, among their many other virtues, saw little millennial activity. Such visions of the end as still existed—Arnold Toynbee's prophecy of the upcoming, irreversible decline of the West, or Nevil Shute's evocation of the upcoming, unavoidable irradiation of the world after nuclear war in his novel On the Beach—dropped entirely the imagery of the ancient ones, and also their call for radical change. Millennialism was at most a marginal phenomenon—the property of little-known flying saucer cultists such as those studied by the sociologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues. In a famous study called When Prophecy Fails, they showed that the failure of the millennium to arrive did not shatter, but reinforced, the convictions of the true believers. It was not eschatological hunger that fascinated these scholars, but eschatological disappointment.

As the fortunes of the millennium declined, however, the social sciences flowered, and particular instances of millenarian prophecy came in for detailed scrutiny. During the 1490s, for example, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola tried to persuade the Florentines, of all people, to erect a millennial kingdom of their own. His movement was enforced by youth groups who urged women to give up their vanities, their cosmetics, and their high-heeled shoes, and to pile them on Savonarola's bonfires next to lubricious works of art. And its motive force clearly lay above all in the visions of the millennium that Savonarola expounded to huge crowds in his sermons. Once more, the prophet and the masses collaborated to wreak havoc—or so it seemed.

Donald Weinstein, a meticulous and insightful student of archival documents and literary texts, steeped himself in the images and metaphors of Florentine political language. He showed that Savonarola had not only appealed to the poor boys who wandered the city streets. Many members of the political and social elite found his message plausible, and with good reason. His prophecies—which derived, like Durer's, from many sources—combined the universal Christian imagery of Revelation with traditional, local images of Florence as a godly city, the home of true religion, and the ally of the holy nation of France.

Eventually, Savonarola's movement collapsed, thanks to both external and internal pressures. A papal interdict stripped him of much of his elite support. The public trial by ordeal arranged to establish his holiness ended before it began, as rain fell and the participants bickered about whether they could carry relics with them across the hot coals. Captured and tortured, Savonarola confessed that his prophecies had been lies.

Still, many rich and well-educated Florentines continued to believe that he was a divinely appointed prophet. The government called an emergency meeting of power brokers to deal with the interdict, which threatened the property of Florentine merchants and bankers warehoused abroad with confiscation. One participant confessed that he thought Savonarola a holy man and eminently deserving of support. But "since we in Italy are as we are," he advised that the prophet be handed over to his enemies nonetheless, and indeed he was.

In Renaissance Florence, modernity's first home, the proverbial heartland of rational political calculation, the approach of the millennium formed as normal a part of political language as it did in Ronald Reagan's America. Even the rich and the powerful balanced its claims against those of interest, materially understood. Millennial prophecy, it seemed, varied radically in tone, texture, and implication, from place to place and from time to time. Prophets could mix and match the images that they drew from Revelation with other prophetic traditions. Their audiences, more remarkably, included not only crazed beggars who had nothing to lose, but the good and the great, who believed that the world would be transformed even though their material interests might have predisposed them to scoff.

The successes that Savonarola and other prophets of doom enjoyed puzzled even some of their contemporaries. The Neoplatonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino, whose dear friend Pico della Mirandola was buried in the robes of Savonarola's followers, could explain the Dominican's appeal only by arguing that he must have been a demon in human shape. Modern historians could make little more of a radicalism that seemed to lack a reasonable social explanation. And over time, even as they confirmed Norman Cohn's insights about the durability of John's visions, they qualified his social explanations.

Historians found traces of millennial thought in even more surprising places. Christopher Hill—who dedicated a brilliant set of lectures to Antichrist's roles in seventeenth-century England—has argued that leaders of the Puritan Revolution like Oliver Cromwell believed as firmly in the coming of the Lord as the radical Diggers, Ranters, and Fifth-Monarchy Men whom they relentlessly persecuted. "For many centuries," Hill explained, "Antichrist seemed an intensely real and very important person ... when we find that John Pym, Oliver Cromwell, John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, and the great Sir Isaac Newton himself were all interested in Antichrist, it is clear that there is something important here." More surprisingly still, in doing so the radicals joined hands with their enemies, the Stuart kings—or at least with James I, who in some moods saw himself as the Christian emperor of the last days.

Puritans and Anglicans disagreed with murderous intensity about whether a pious man should keep his hat on in church; but they agreed in their obsessive admiration for the historian of England's heretics and Protestants, John Foxe. And his Book of Martyrs—which appeared in 1563 and was chained, by royal decree, in every English church—portrayed England, as Savonarola had Florence, as an elect nation destined to play a special role in the final unfolding of God's plan.

Even the most elevated victims of Catholic persecution, such as Thomas Cranmer, could play the part of the martyrs who suffered for the truth, and whose sufferings gave drama to the final battle. Ideas and fantasies such as these flourished in the highest quarters. No thesis topic won more enthusiastic approval in Protestant universities than the argument that the Pope himself was Antichrist. After all, Joseph Scaliger, the greatest scholarly figure of the greatest university in Protestant Europe, Leiden, had learned as a young man at Rome that the pope's tiara bore the number 666, or the sign of the Beast.

Hill, himself an unrepentant radical to this day, sometimes went farther than his evidence would bear. In this case, however, the ground that he helped to open up proved incredibly fruitful. Medievalists such as Marjorie Reeves, Bernard McGinn, and Robert Lerner and Richard Emmerson filled in Cohn's outline with newly precise investigations, some of them so full of curious clues and surprising revelations that they read like detective stories. Detailed monographs traced the development of individual prophecies. These, it turned out, often mutated in tone, content, and imagery as they were copied, plagiarized, recycled and reframed to serve new needs.

No single millenarian pattern emerged as universally valid. Still, it seemed on the whole that most medieval prophets invoked the Apocalypse not to move the poor to social action, but to persuade all Christians to repent. As Augustine had influentially suggested, the real drama of the Apocalypse was personal, not collective. Debates about whether millenarian agitation took place, as historians once proclaimed, before and during the year 1000, may distract readers from a more central point. The medieval millennium was awaited far more widely on a moral and internal plane than as a social event to be brought about by collective action.

The urban plebes melted away under historical inspection like snow in the spring sunlight. Social historians such as Natalie Davis and R. Po-chia Hsia proved that the radical crowds of the Middle Ages and early modern period included a great many highly respectable citizens and drew on established traditions of collective action. More remarkable, the wild-eyed prophets of doom also turned out to belong to many different social and intellectual types. Historians of early modern England--William Haller, William Lamont, J.G.A. Pocock, Blair Worden--explored and debated the apocalyptic dimensions of political thought and action which Hill had brought into prominence. And historians of science such as Frank Manuel and Charles Webster found apocalyptic beliefs in very high quarters indeed.

For the conviction that the end would soon arrive also inspired Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton to create new ways of understanding the natural world. The pursuit of the millennium led to the material iron cage in which the bishop of Munster hung the body of Jan of Leiden, who had created a millennial kingdom in the bishop's rich northwest German city; but it also led to the spiritual iron cage of modern science. The laboratories, the observatories, and the museums that Bacon imagined for his New Atlantis, and that the Royal Society created, were designed to realize a prophecy made in the Book of Revelation's most important Old Testament source, the Book of Daniel: "Many shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."

Some radical philosophers combined social with intellectual revolution. In the years just before 1600, the Dominican Tommaso Campanella hoped to lead the miserable peasants of his native Calabria in creating a Utopian City of the Sun, and drew on the most up-to-date astrology and astronomy of his time to deconstruct what he saw as the myth of Christ's divinity. Others, Newton most importantly, confined their breaches of decorum to the sphere of the intellect.


By the early 1990s, in other words, the millennium was firmly established as a richly mutable object of historical research, one which rewarded study from many different points of view. Scholars realized that millennialists, in the west, were far too diverse to be characterized by simple formulas, and their goals and movements far too complex to be forced into a single analytical pigeonhole.

The university—in America, at least—is another country. Outside the tight little world of scholarly conferences and journals, the end of history, or the end of History, is more than an object of study. This is owed not least to a central fact of American popular culture, which is that in the course of the 1960s and 1970s the millennium came back into the collective consciousness, in a big way. Sometimes it took modernized forms: predictions of ecological disaster or devastating warfare inspired movies such as Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes, while economic catastrophe was evoked in The Coming Crash of '79. Sometimes it updated traditional predictive arts. Haight-Ashbury and a thousand road-company theatres echoed with the modernized astrological scenario for world history: It was the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

In the precincts of fundamentalist Christianity, at the evangelical compounds where earnest prophets deciphered computer bar codes as the Number of the Beast and identified the government's black helicopters as the engines of a secular authority as corrupt as Nero's, the old millennium also came vividly back to life. The Book of Revelation offers the members of such circles exactly what it provided a thousand years ago for the kind of Christian scholar whose folly Saint Augustine had tried to reveal: God's detailed, day-by-day plan for the scourging that the world deserves, and will receive, the encoded but precisely accurate history of the future which is about to come upon us.

Anyone who doubts this—and after Waco and Oklahoma City, few could doubt it—need only read the recent series of "Christian novels" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These books start with the Rapture—the disappearance of the truly faithful around the world, who rise, stripped of clothing and possessions, to meet the Lord. And they follow the adventures of the pilot Rayford Steele, and his daughter Chloe, and the Princeton graduate and journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, and the flight attendant Hattie Durham, and Nicolae Carpathia, the mysterious, charming Romanian leader whose knowledge of languages and passion to create a world government in New Babylon identify him, to readers in the know, as Antichrist. Immured in prose so dry that it is almost petrified, a language without qualities, these texts have the appeal not of fiction, but of secret society cryptography. They confirm the readers' long-held suspicions about Israel and the UN, the American communications elite and the Third World—not to mention the Freemasons and the Bavarian illuminati.

LaHaye and Jenkins show the Apocalypse taking place, seal by seal, with grim literal-mindedness, as the nature of the events and their connections to prophecy slowly become clear to the characters whose romantic adventures they narrate. As Horseman after Horseman spills the blood of humanity, the characters talk and mate, plot and counter-plot before up-to-date scenery made of the best cardboard: flight lounges, suburban houses, and television studios, where the props include bibles with commentary and the most modern forms of electronic technology. It is a grisly mixture of The Rapture and You've Got Mail, a bizarrely flat and monstrously distorted rendering of the life we live now:

Rayford was grateful that Chloe had begun getting to know Amanda better by E-mail. When Rayford and Amanda were dating, he had monopolized most of Amanda's time, and while the women seemed to like each other, they had not bonded other than as believers. Now, communicating (not in the technical sense, of course) daily, Amanda seemed to be growing in her knowledge of Scripture. Chloe was passing along everything she was studying. Between Bruce and Chloe, Rayford found his answers about the fifth and seventh seals. It was not pleasant news, but he hadn't expected any different.

But how was your day otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln? It would take a heart stonier than mine to read the death scene of the two witnesses of the Apocalypse, here named Moishe and Eli—two Jews who testify that Christ is the Messiah and work many miracles before being blown away dramatically by Carpathia—without snickering. Yet most readers don't snicker. These snazzily printed novels have reached far more readers than The Pursuit of the Millennium and the works of Cohn's successors taken together. Three and a half million copies—not to mention related chatchkes and Left Behind: The Kids—have been sold. The most recent volumes have hit the Times's best-seller list, and—which sets Left Behind at number 58 in sales—has received reviews from 805 readers for it from around the world, the vast majority of them raving about the qualities of this "must read for all believers and near Christians."

So out there, amid the ceaseless democratic buzz of the Web, on the evangelical call-in shows, in apocalyptic comic books and pamphlets, millennial visions flare and flicker. The most up to-date of practices offer admittance to the most atavistic of fantasies:

New World Order Concentration Camps and Guillotine Executions!

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And I saw thrones, and they that sat on them. And judgment was given to them...

The Internet appears to have been invented just in time. Maybe it, too, is a sign. ...

During the Reformation, Luther's close friends Philip Melanchthon and Caspar Peucer cast horoscopes and scanned Revelation with equal fascination, as Robin Briggs showed in his fine study of Prophecy and Gnosis, following a trail blazed long before by Aby Warburg. In the modern world of Christian prophecy, similarly, pagan and Christian prophecies, exegesis and astrology burgeon on the same websites. Next to quotations from the Bible, one finds a "Nostradamus Update." This sounds a little disappointing. The author admits that "Well, the Seventh Month of 1999 came and went without any Kings of Terror descending." But he has plenty of black helicopters, rebel angels, and freemasons to give us that chiliastic frisson—not to mention the "bizarre fibrous material" that fell on a city in Idaho.

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But is it the same everywhere? Do these images always perform the same functions? The images that no longer resound in mainstream churches do, to be sure, decorate our movie, television, and computer screens. Kitsch media such as science fiction, horror movies, and millennial television series present millennial threats and schemata, visions of destruction wrought by everything from aliens to angels, to a vast general public. In the realm of popular culture—now as in the Reformation—night visions and apparitions, celestial harbingers of wrath and plots against humans dedicated to evil flicker before rich and poor alike, as they did in Durer 's time.

Yet their impact is completely different. Mainstream consumers go to the movies and watch television to enjoy—from a safe cultural distance—threats of horrors to come couched in the cheerful form of noir murder mysteries about attractive FBI agents. A huge gap surely stretches between the dispensationalists who eagerly match headlines in USA Today to the sensational events described by LaHaye and Jenkins, and the secularists who kick back in their Barcaloungers, munching corn chips as blood is shed and plots thicken on "Millennium" or "The X Files." The Beast has become a mere pop star.

The educated know that the universe will eventually end, and appreciate that poisoned air and water, crazed microchips or a stray asteroid may take us out of the picture long before; but we no longer believe, deep in our being, that this will happen—or at least that it will happen soon enough to matter to us, to threaten our lives or well-being, or even to require that we change our lives. After all, as Jean Baudrillard observed almost a decade ago, "we have to get used to the idea that there is no longer any end, there will no longer be any end and that history itself has become interminable." No nuclear winter, no eco terrorist cataclysm, no froth-lipped horses bearing wild riders: All these once-vivid images, the old and the new, the fantastic and the eminently feasible, have become for us only the scraps of old cultural soap and dirt. We bathe ourselves in lukewarm fear in the hope of finding emotions we know we have lost. "Our Apocalypse is not real, it is virtual. ... From now on, this end will revolve and continue to revolve around us untiringly."

The Apocalypse is decidedly not now, not for us, not really. It is a curiosity, a script idea, a marketing strategy, something to generate magazine theme issues with relentlessly upbeat tones and mildly ironic stories about scholarly debates. And so the millennium is at once everywhere and nowhere in our culture. Members of the educated elite, even if they practice a mainline religion, often have no exposure in childhood to the millennium, any more than they do to other unpleasant aspects of Christian tradition (which is why a descendant of Lithuanian and Russian Jews such as myself has to introduce the doctrine of double predestination to my Presbyterian students, who have rarely heard of it).

We may avidly follow the adventures of attractive FBI agents through noir mysteries on television, or read all about the excitement that supposedly prevailed just before the year 1000, without ever realizing that large numbers of our fellow citizens take such matters very seriously. The language of Millennialism, like almost all the old language of religion, has become foreign to us--so much so that the federal agents at Waco who heard David Koresh refer to the Seven Seals thought he was talking about performing animals. The need for some sort of instruction seems great.

It is a challenging time for specialists in eschatology. The millennium confronts historians with both a problem and an opportunity. On the one hand, they must try to understand how, at a single moment and in a single civilization, the visions of John precipitated such sharply different kinds of mental weather in different cultural microclimates. And they have an ample heritage of excellent scholarly studies to draw on as they do so. On the other hand, they have to communicate their findings, intelligibly and attractively, to a wide readership—the educated, secular, or respectably religious readership that does not follow university scholarship or consume apocalyptic bodice-rippers, but does want to understand past and present in a deeper way. Finally, they have to explain how it is that these visions have dwindled to become the property of limited, if sizeable, groups, few of whose members hold much economic or political power.

It is a hard job—and one made more urgent, of course, by the arrival of the year 2000 itself. It is no wonder that new books about the history of the millennium are arriving in the bookstores (not the virtual bookstores, the real bookstores). Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus; ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus. Or, as we say nowadays, the time is up, folks, the exams are due. Let us see how the class has done.

Respectably, at least. None of the new books on the millennium attacks the story with the simple, brutal tools that Cohn wielded in his pioneering effort to clear this enormous swathe of historical country. Though wildly diverse in their origins, training, and other interests, Frederick Baumgartner, Eugene Weber, David Katz, and Richard Popkin all make clear that there has never been one millennium or one way to pursue it. Visions of the future—as Weber points out in his characteristically elegant essay, quoting Bernard McGinn—are really mirrors that reflect the present. They offer a distorted but powerful vision of the society that brings them into being. And they vary, accordingly, as much as those societies themselves.

That, no doubt, is why our millennial visions—unlike so many past ones—swarm with plots and plotters but lack anything resembling sacred politics. Some people still see Bill Clinton as a pretty good president. But after his recent misadventures, it is hard to think of him either as the righteous ruler of the last days or as the wild prophet who seeks salvation through sin. Nor does George W. "I was clean fifteen years ago" Bush seem to fill the bill as Ronald Reagan once (and somewhat falsely) did.

Katz and Popkin show, in their lively, well-written, and ironic survey of the field, how the study of Revelation has cut across social class and intellectual interests, from the Renaissance to the present. Baumgartner's short, simply written book resembles a textbook rather than an essay, and at times degenerates into a chronicle of one failed millennium after another, hard to distinguish except by dates and places. But he too makes these points clearly in general terms. The late Arthur Mendel's work, published many years after the death of that distinguished historian of the radical tradition, suffers from his anti-modernist animus. (He seems much more concerned to show that the ideas of what he calls "the modern radical intelligentsia" led only to "maximum violence" than to draw distinctions between, say, philosophies who killed in the name of their ideas—and there were some—and the philosophies—who also existed—who believed in protecting even their enemies.) His discussion of the Enlightenment replayed Carl Becker and J.L. Talmon, and his philosophies spawned only Jacobin and Stalinist reigns of terror, not Jeffersonian democracy. But he enriched his work by enquiring, far more systematically than any of the others, into Jewish traditions, which he compared and contrasted, enlighteningly, to Christian ones.

No one who consults any of these surveys will believe any longer in Cohn's purist genealogy of the apocalyptic idea. In particular, Weber and Katz and Popkin show that apocalyptic readings of the future seemed sensible, and even rigorous, to some of the most learned European thinkers of the fifth, fifteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Nor will any constant reader be surprised to learn that the failure of any given millennial prediction confirms, rather than undermines, the faith of most believers.

Once again, Katz and Popkin score by their patient tracing of the twisting genealogies of doctrines, which prove the tenacity of some outlandish beliefs. They have much to say about the British Israelites—the many Englishmen, including a good number of peers, bishops, and military officers, who believed that the English were the descendants of the tribe of Ephraim (the name Britain itself, after all, clearly derives from the Hebrew brit, "covenant"). These beliefs, which came into being in the mid-seventeenth century, could still pull in a crowd large enough to fill the Albert Hall in the 1920s, losing their appeal only in the late 1930s. The wonderful story is wonderfully told: Monty Python meets the eschaton.

Katz and Popkin also explain some really strange bed-fellowships (such as that of the extreme Christian right and some forms of Zionism). The government agents who deal with the more violent American fundamentalists could do worse than send out for any of these well-informed and happily brief maps to the roads that so long seemed to lead directly Back to the Future. Perhaps Auden was wrong when he wrote that not all the candidates pass. Certainly all of them seem to have triumphed on test Number Two, offering the public the sort of useful general instruction that historians provided in the happy centuries before we sprouted seminars, footnotes, and methodologies.


For all their authors' learning and sound common sense, however, these books also share a common problem—one that springs directly from the split described above. All of these writers, liberal or conservative, are rationalists in the very fiber of their being. Though more than one cautions, as we all do in this age when every historian would like nothing better than to be an anthropologist, against simply mocking eschatological beliefs and movements, all of them eventually succumb to this subtle but deadly temptation. As the movements multiply on their pages, as the players proliferate until no scorecard can help you remember whether you are reading about the Millerites or the Mormons, Johanna Southcott or Jim Jones, so do the disapproving adjectives and adverbs, the little hints of condescension or impatience. The rational historian, surveying this displeasing scene, still resembles Edward Gibbon more than Clifford Geertz.

A sympathetic and erudite contemporary noted that Gibbon's humanity never slept except when nuns were ravished or Christians were martyred. One might say the same of his modern successors, more than one of whom has a formidably ironic style of his own. Confronted with the wild excesses of the millenarian radicals then and now, the historian throws off the mask of empathy, to reveal the incredulous grin of a small child visiting a particularly well-stocked insect house at the zoo. Even the best of these books are sometimes reminiscent of Alex Heard's witty but superficial and terminally ironic survey of millennial cults in contemporary America, Apocalypse Pretty Soon.

Now, I am as skeptical, detached, committed to tolerance, and appalled by orthodoxy in action as the next man. There is a lot of nonsense in these millennial traditions, a lot of dangerous nonsense. (Nobody has yet figured out how history can end without somebody getting hurt.) But even I can see that attitudes like these hinder the historians who hold them from doing more than telling accurate stories and offering judicious comments. And so deep dimensions of apocalyptic thought, serious problems about the way it functions and the sources of its appeal, remain unexplored.

Consider just one of these unexplored questions: the vexing matter of why apocalyptic beliefs have entranced critical thinkers and radical opponents of the existing order, over the centuries and the millennia, even though they almost always turned out to be wrong. (Here, a tip of the old fedora, to one of the rare exceptions: Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly, a fifteenth-century French theologian and astrologer. He predicted, as a young medievalist named Laura Smoller has shown in a fine book, that history would end in 1789. In France, of course, history means French history. And in that special, Gallic sense, d'Ailly was right—though he died centuries too soon to know that reality had confirmed his prediction.) What makes some men and women spin, and others follow, these visions of the skies opening? What makes the visions themselves so pervasively attractive?

Though our authors caution against simple explanations, all of them, in the end, resort to one: the desire for change, and hopeless discontent with the existing world. This is true enough, in some very general sense—but only in a sense so general that it encompasses Isaac Newton's discontent with his inability to understand the cosmos as a whole and Thomas Muntzer's discontent with a world order that made strangers out of human brothers. An explanation that accounts for an unhappiness that inspired the writing of biblical commentary and an unhappiness that inspired the killing of innocents who did not agree on a revolutionary program is surely too broad.

Between the ancient world and the seventeenth century—to say nothing of the industrial world, in which secular millennial schemes such as those of Fourier, Saint-Simon and Marx have covered the world like pacasandra in New Jersey—everything has changed: in society, in assumptions, in beliefs, in everyday practices. How can discontent have remained the same? How can it account for the respectable millenarianism of Church Fathers and Protestant princes? Explanations such as this resemble the ubiquitous "rise of the middle classes" that historians once relied on like a crutch, until J.H. Hexter knocked it away with a cruelly witty essay. They save us the trouble of thinking. But they do not amount to critical reflection in themselves.

The protean nature of the apocalyptic was not discovered recently. A pioneering social historian named Sylvia Thrupp edited a collection of studies on Millennial Dreams in Action in 1962, not long after Norman Cohn hit the stands. She emphasized how normal, unrevolutionary, and firmly tied to the existing order many visions of the future turned out to be. So, almost forty years later, do many of the authors who appear in the online Journal of Millennial Studies edited by Richard Landes of Boston University. (An issue of the Journal traced the subtle but deadly connections that link apocalyptic movements and beliefs in America not to radicalism but to the great Beast, patriarchy.) A great many conventional print journals—such as the American Historical Review—have reinforced this point, or will soon do so, with issues devoted to the varieties of millennial pursuits. Yet the syntheses that have just appeared, for all their evocation of variety and their attention to context, seem to drop back into a reprise of Cohn's analysis—especially when they treat the Reformation and the last two centuries.

In these cases, I suspect, it is the culture in which we—and these historians—now live that determine their approach to the past. Cohn belonged to a generation that was horrified by the effects of radical ideologies, read apocalypses in their sinister key. But now the Berlin wall is down, and the bad news from Russia barely makes an impact, and even scare stories about the Chinese nuclear arsenal soon disappear from the front pages. Yet, curiously, we still read earlier eschatologies as Cohn did, though for very different reasons.

Members of an elite (which is how they see themselves, of course; the believers in these visions call them something else) that does not feel the terror and the beauty of the apocalypse, that knows the heavens will not open, contemporary historians see the pursuit of the millennium through history as what it has now become—an obsession of the have-nots, a delusion of the flyovers. And this anachronism is as hard to shed as it is destructive of historical empathy. It leads us to ignore the internalized, moralistic, quietist forms of Millennialism that dominated so much of the prophetic tradition, but make for dull copy. And it leads us to see past millennialists as culturally marginal, even though we know better.

It turns out that a paleontologist is more helpful than any of the professional historians on the roots of millennial belief. The essay in which Steven Jay Gould sets about Questioning the Millennium is not one of his major works, as he himself confesses. And his main point is not profound. But it certainly is clarifying. Gould wants to show that the millennium's end—like those of centuries, and the return of Halley's comet, and other dates to which prophets and historians have traditionally ascribed deep meaning—is purely arbitrary.

A long tradition of calendrical computation, which deals with the incommensurable revolutions of the moon and sun—has established the year 2000 as a marker of some sort. And even a brief historical survey shows that this is a wholly arbitrary marker. It does not stand at a neat interval of years from, say, the date given in the Hebrew Bible for the Creation of the World. (The next Jewish millennium, or the year 6000, will arrive in the Christian year 2240.) It does not even mark the real beginning of the next millennium. Indeed, as Gould elegantly shows, even the decision whether to make 2000 or 2001 the first year of the next millennium will be made, as was the decision about when the twentieth century started, not by public officials or scientists or scholars, but by the editors and the media barons who determine the rules of everyday language in the modern world.

Gould's essay directs a good deal of facile mockery at those who set special store by the three zeros that will soon roll up on the cosmic odometer—and fail to realize that in doing so, they are merely admiring an updated form of a medieval monk's effort, doomed like all others to only partial success, to create a neat cyclical calendar. "As a man of below average stature myself, I am delighted to report that the source of our infernal troubles about the end of centuries may be traced to a sixth century monk named Dionysius Exiguus, or (literally) Dionysius the Short." Gould's book has a shallow Enlightenment aspect in its consideration of these irrationalities; and yet Gould has the sense to prospect where the historians do not quite dare to go. Naturally, he knows that chronological schemes have possessed an extraordinary appeal—that millennial exegetes, astrologers, and many others have dedicated themselves with passion to the task of finding time's underlying order. And he sees this larger context -the whole world of speculation about the order and meaning of time—as a besetting preoccupation of most civilizations. Millennialism, he argues, is only one very dramatic version of the search for time's hidden patterns, one form of a larger enterprise.

Gould draws on a curious and massively erudite book by Nicholas Campion, The Great Year, which appeared in 1994 and which synthesized a vast amount of material about historical schemes. Campion moved rapidly from Mesopotamia to Margaret Thatcher, sometimes with uncritical rashness, but often with a boldness and a comparative zeal that put professional historians to shame. He tried to show that all chronological schemes that seek to find the future in the order of the past are organically related, descended from a single Mesopotamian form of political astrology that left rich traces in myth, ritual, and speculation. While he failed to prove this larger point, he did show just how many thinkers and how many cultures have believed that they could read time itself, inferring the future from the past and even using their predictive abilities to participate actively in the creation of the future that they saw coming.

Stimulated by Campion, Gould thinks as he writes. He even adds a footnote, in proof, to admit that his own account of the ways that western apocalyptic beliefs stirred non-western peoples (such as the late nineteenth-century Sioux followers of the Ghost Dance) to organize movements that proved disastrous sounds "parochial and condescending" in the light of the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult. (He could also have mentioned the Tai ping movement, the Christian roots of which Jonathan Spence recently analyzed in an extremely erudite book.) Gould doesn't free himself from all the historians' schemes—he still correlates apocalyptic beliefs with deprivation, though much evidence does not fit this argument. But he also suggests another way of looking at the pursuit of the millennium.

Humans, he points out, seem to have a propensity—one that appears in cultures and societies so disparate from one another, in time and in space, that it might even be natural—to look for an order in time. Time—or so humans wanted to believe for millennia, and many still do—is not a merely natural phenomenon. It embodies a deeper order. It has a direction—forwards or cyclical (or, more often, both at once). It is coded. And there is a key, which can take almost any form.

Astrologers identify the key as the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn which take place every 20 years: These explain the rise of world religions, the birth of the Savior, and the death of Warren Harding. Exegetes find the key in Scripture. They hold that history should have a structural resemblance to the first week of the world's existence. Creation took God six days, and so history should have six main divisions, each a thousand years long. Still others look outside Revelation for their scripts. And still others—in societies that range from ancient Israel and Rome to the Mayas of Yucatan—see individual days as marked, either by some celestially induced quality or by events that took place on them long ago, as good or bad.

The pursuit of the millennium—traditional or modern, short sides and back or long-haired and Aquarian—is, Gould suggests, only one element of this larger search for time's order and direction. This search has occupied the gravest of thinkers, from Abraham ibn Ezra in the twelfth century, who (like many other medieval believers in astrology) correlated the rise of new religions with the great conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, to Newton in the seventeenth century. It has yielded, in prose and poetry, spectacular evocations of the order of time and history. And it has stimulated prophets and radicals.

It is by understanding the roots and the variations of this phenomenon—a psychological phenomenon rather than a sociological one—that we may come to understand its millenarial subset. We may then realize that we have met the enemy, and he is us. The moderns, the rationalist elite, the secularist historians, who do not believe that time has a single coherent order and meaning, find Millennialism hard to grasp. This is true not because we have attained a state of enlightenment that our forefathers failed to attain. It is true because we have lost a sense of time's wonder and terror that all of them—premillennialists and postmillennialists, ameliorists and revolutionaries—possessed.

Pity the historian who lives in an age without qualities. Of what will his dreams consist?

This piece was originally published on November 8, 1999.