From Nebuchadnezzar to Negroponte: Three Millennia of Millennialism
[Editor's Note: This text, save minor changes, is that of a talk delivered at the SCIENTIA Colloquium, organized by Rice University, Houston, Texas, November 14, 1995. David, my son, is Associate Professor of History at Rice.]
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung once noted that millennialism and apocalypticism are about reversals, extremes, discontinuities, and the passing into opposites, a phenomenon he termed enantodromia, borrowing a term Diogenes Laertius attributed to Heraclitus. It is therefore fitting that I should follow Bill Martin in this Scientia series on the millennium; that we should move from a speaker who is the recognized expert in his field to one who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Why am I here then, you might ask? Well, when Susan McIntosh first asked me to give a historical overview of millennialism as a background for the Scientia series, I didn’t know that I knew nothing about the topic. There’s only been one previous millennium, I told myself, and that was in the middle ages. Who better to talk about it than a medievalist?
The task seemed simple, the method clear. All I needed to do was study how people reacted to the approach of the year 1000, make a few comparisons to our own era, and end by invoking the "A Distant Mirror" claim about the past contributing to our self-understanding. I knew where to start. Who hasn’t heard (medievalists often say this: the answer is usually "almost everybody") the famous story of the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s square on the evening of December 31, 999, praying and crying, crying and praying, as they awaited the stroke of midnight, wondering if a new day would dawn?
So I went off in search of millennialism at the end of the first millennium. It wasn’t there. Unbeknownst to me, a century’s worth of scholarship had been devoted to proving that the year 1000 A.D. came and went nearly unnoticed. Stories to the contrary were a myth, and a myth built on astonishingly slender evidence: "seven lines on the first page of the eleventh volume of the Annales ecclesiastici of Cardinal Cesare Baronio," a Vatican Librarian and Church historian who was himself racing to complete his 16-volume work (one volume for each century) by January 1, 1600. He had closed the previous (10th) volume by commenting upon the surprising lack of evidence for any anxiety in the year 999, and opened this one with these lines concerning what little evidence he had found of contemporary fears that the world would end in 1000. But as the very shape of the good Cardinal’s project indicates, Renaissance and Reformation Europe was becoming increasingly interested in calendars (think of the Gregorian calendrical reform of 1582), and was attaching increasing importance to the end of centuries. The larger the fin-de-siècle loomed in the European imagination, the less scholars could imagine it had not always been so. Perhaps predictably then, it was not on the last page of Baronio’s volume 10 that early medievalists focused their attention, but on the first page of volume eleven. From here the story grew through editorial creativity such as that of the monks of St. Gall, who in the 1690s, full of fin-de-siècle anxieties, could be found preparing scholarly editions of texts like the Annales Hirsaugienses. For them, the fact that this chronicle’s entry for the year 1000 omitted any mention of millennial fears was evidence that the text was corrupt. In their edition they therefore supplied the necessary panic.
The truth is, I should immediately have suspected these accounts of medieval calendrical sensitivity, since they clearly project modern notions of calendar back on the Middle Ages. When the year we term 1000 CE came calling, very few people in Europe counted years the way we do. They were much more likely to think of that year in terms of some other dating system, such as Anno periodi graeco-romane 6493, or by regnal years, such as Ottonis III Reg. 18, Imp. 5 (subjects of other kings would obviously use different names and numbers); or by papal years, such as Silvestrii II Papae 2, than they were to call it Jesu Christi 1000. In short, there was nothing common about the "common era." Worse, even those who did date from Christ did not agree on how to do so. In Spain, for example, the year 1000 A.D. arrived 38 years earlier than anywhere else. And even if all of Europe had agreed to date from the same year AD, there would still have been disagreement as to when the year began. In Rome, the year started on the eve of the Nativity, December 25; in Venice on March 1st; in Florence on Annunciation Day, March 25; in France on Easter; in some parts of Spain on January 1st, the day of Circumcision; in England on a variety of dates including December 25, March 25, and January 1. And even had they agreed on that, they might still have differed on which year was the crucial one. Consider the fact that there is no year 0. Does the millennium occur at the end of 1000 full years, i.e. on January 1, 1001, or at the start of the year 1000 itself? That problem is still with us today: should we be worried about the year 2000, or the year 2001? I could go on with problems of medieval calendars and time-keeping for hours, indeed there are learned scholars who have lavished careers on it. But my point is simpler: if by millennialism we mean anything as narrow as a popular belief that the world will be transformed in a year ending in three zeros as dated from the birth of Jesus Christ, then not only is this not a job for a medievalist, but there’s no call for talks on historical background by specialists of any stripe. Such years as we understand them have never occurred before, in the sense that their previous occurrence was never recognized by contemporaries.
You can imagine that by now I was beginning to panic. No one wants to be remembered as having delivered the shortest Scientia ever (or does one?). But since I have no choice, I’ve decided to make a virtue out of necessity. I will therefore talk shamelessly about 3,000 years of history that I know little about. If any of the humanists in the audience are outraged by the butchery I make of their disciplines along the way, I hope they will take comfort in the knowledge that they are in good company, for the scientists are likely to be just as appalled at my conclusions. Since any apocalyptic ending worth its salt needs to be foretold, let me tell you now what those conclusions are: first, that we are now living in the most millennial age in history; and second, that this millennialism is wrought, not by prophets, clerics and other followers of religious revelation, but by the efforts of the disciples of the empirical: by doctors, engineers, scientists. The sciences, in short, are the evangels that are today proclaiming the millennium throughout the world.
If we define millennialism in the narrow, calendrical fashion that I did earlier, then I have already proven the first of these conclusions. But millennialism is more usefully defined a bit differently, as a sense that the world will undergo some sort of revolutionary transformation for the better at some point in time (not necessarily but sometimes measured in chronological units of, for example, 1000 years). Note how this differs from apocalypticism, which is about the end of the world, but not its transformation. With this definition in hand, we can embark on our brief history of end-time.
It has been commonly said (by western ethnocentrists) that millenarianism is a universal phenomenon, found amongst most peoples. It has also been said (by western anti-ethnocentrists, most recently the deconstructionist J. Hillis-Miller) that millenarianism is a purely western, Judeo-Christian, phenomenon. Both these views are wrong. It turns out that millennialism is a very ancient phenomenon, but it is also, in antiquity, a very rare one, as a quick tour of some ancient cosmologies will demonstrate. Many societies, like the Egyptian, the Caananite, the Israelite, the Sumerian, or the Vedic Indian, had myths about a primordial world of order hard won by combat from the forces of chaos and disorder (often represented as giant sea snakes, dragons or Leviathins, e.g., the Egyptian Apophis, the Hebrew Leviathin, etc.) For many of them as well, this combat with the forces of chaos was far from over. In Egypt, for example, the continued existence of order was in doubt every time the sun set and the Sun God Ra entered the underworld. Each night as the boat of the Sun God and his attendants sailed through the waters of the underworld, its passengers were forced to fight hard against Apophis the sea-snake. Only if they defeated him would the sun rise in the morning. With each sunrise, the Egyptian priests celebrated in their liturgies the victory of the sun-god, and every morning, noon, and night, as well as when clouds covered the sun, the priests helped the sun god in his battle by stomping on wax figures of Apophis, cutting him up with a flint knife, and burning him on a special fire.
Like the cosmic battles we westerners are better acquainted with, such as the battle between Christ and the dragon of the Apocalypse of St. John, this was a cosmic battle between good and evil, order and chaos. But unlike the clash between Christ and Antichrist, the Egyptian war between chaos and order had no victor. It was a battle that needed to be eternally refought. At most, victory consisted in the continued balance of forces. If chaos could be held at bay the Nile would continue to rise and fall, the sun would proceed in its circuit, and the kingdoms of men would endure. If not, human civilization, always fragile, would cease to exist. There was no sense that time was "moving toward a universal consummation." The created world of the living would never be transformed, not in one thousand or any other number of years. This last point is the one I would like to stress, and you will have to trust me when I tell you that it was shared by a great many of the peoples of the ancient Near East and beyond. Of course cosmology differed greatly among these peoples, but all of these cultures thought of the world as a place of war between order and disorder. And though some of them believed that the afterlife might be a more pleasant place, none of them ever imagined that the world could be perfected, that at some point in the future of the world life would be free from chaos.
For such a belief, we need to turn to a people distantly related to the Vedic Indians: the Iranians. It was among them that the prophet Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, first began preaching (ca. 1500-1200 BCE) that existence was the realization of a divine plan that would culminate in a glorious transformation and perfection of the earth. Zarathustra underwent a series of illuminations in which he saw the god Ahura Mazda, Lord Wisdom, and from that point onward he prophecied for a new religious faith, Zoroastrianism, which by the middle of the sixth century BCE, roughly during the reign of the Persian Monarch Cyrus the Great, had become the official religion of the royal dynasty. The timing of this rise to power is important. Cyrus is called "the great" because through his massive conquests he founded the first Iranian empire in 549 BC, and it is through his conquests of rival empires, particularly that of Nebuchadnezzar, that Zoroastrian millennialism spread to Judaism and thence to Christianity, a subject I’ll return to in a moment. But first, a brief description of Zoroastrianism and its millennialist flavor.
Zoroastrianism was like many other religions in that it saw in the created world a constant struggle between the forces of order, led by Ahura Mazda, and those of chaos, led by Angra Mainyu. But it was unlike these other religions in one very significant way: the battle would have an end. If humans did their part and joined Ahura Mazda in fighting against Angra Mainyu and his demons, then they would eventually defeat the forces of chaos. Evil and good coexisted in the world during this period that Zoroastrians called "the time of mixing," but the period had a purpose. It was progressive. Through the struggle of good and evil, evil would be defeated. Then there would be a universal resurrection. Finally, the world would be purified through fire: all the metal in the world would melt and cover the earth, forming a great stream that all the resurrected must walk through. For the righteous, the stream of molten metal would be like a warm milk bath. For the wicked.... The world too would be purified by this flood. Henceforth it would be flat, and a perfect environment. In it people would live forever, unaging, in perfect harmony. And, for those of you who are wondering, there will be sex—but no procreation of children. This transformation Zoroastrians called "the making wonderful" (and I agree!).
In that he was the first to prophecy a perfection of the world and a revolutionary transformation of human experience, Zarathustra is the first prophet we can call "millennial." Notice that Zarathustra was not millennial in a chronological sense. He expected the final battle to occur quickly, not in a thousand years, and to target the wicked and the oppressors of his own day, not those of a far off future. But Zarathustra died, the final battle did not come, and his religion became the religion of a powerful empire. How Zoroastrians reacted to these three facts is of crucial importance to all future millennialism. Just consider how familiar their solutions now sound. Since the final battle had not come in Zarathustra’s time, he would be followed by a successor, miraculously born of his seed, who would return just when things were at their darkest at the end of time. This savior would resurrect the dead and lead the armies of Ahura Mazda against the hosts of chaos. And to transform Zoroastrianism into a royal, rather than a revolutionary religion, end-time was pushed further and further into the future: 6000 years from the beginning of the world in the earliest versions, 9000 and 12000 in others. Note the abundance of zeros: chronological millennialism was born.
If millennialism was born among the Zoroastrians, it came of age among Jews and early Christians. The story of how this occurred is a complicated one. It is based on highly technical arguments about the composition, compilation and dating of the Hebrew Bible, and there is considerable disagreement about the issue even among experts. Not being an expert, I will take the liberty of adopting those views that best suit my narrative. It appears that before the sixth century BCE Israelite religion was not very different from some of the other Near Eastern religions I’ve described, nor was Yahweh so different from other gods, like Ba’al of the neighboring Canaanites. The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible present the Hebrew God as one god among many, though he might be the Father and creator God, conqueror of the water-dragon, defender of order against chaos and of His people against invasion. There were some (like the prophet Hosea, ca. 750 BCE) who advocated the worship of Yahweh as the only existing god, but they were a minority, though their views would eventually prevail. As in other semitic religions, there is little talk of a time when the present order will be transfigured, when chaos will be ended for eternity. Nor do these early texts provide a more optimistic a view of the afterlife than those of the Mesopotamians, Canaanites, or early Egyptians: Sheol (the destination of the dead) was a pit, a land of oblivion. Neither in this world or the next did pre-sixth century Israelites expect to encounter a glorious future. That this all changed is in large part due to Nebuchadnezzar.
Even before Nebuchadnezzar came to rule the Babylonian Empire, that empire had dramatically changed the shape of the Israelite religion. For decades, the Babylonians had inflicted defeat after defeat upon the Judeans, reducing them to tributary status. In the face of these defeats, some Israelites, particularly those of the "Yahweh alone" persuasion, asked themselves why their God did not protect them. Hitherto, Near Eastern peoples tended to react to such disasters by concluding that the conqueror’s god was stronger than their own, and transferring their allegiance to him. Many Israelites did follow this route. But a few others, in particular the followers of "Yahweh alone," drew a different conclusion. Rather than representing a defeat of their God, these calamities were a punishment from Him. If only the people would return to pure, monotheistic, observance, their God would restore them to their kingdom. [It was in this period that the Deuteronomic Histories began to be compiled (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). These books present each defeat as a divine punishment for transgression, each victory as a reward for fidelity and as a sign that God does not forget his covenant.]
This ideology would meet its harshest test under Nebuchadnezzar. In 597, he conquered Judah and deported the Judean upper-classes to Babylon. In 586, angered by rebellions, he reconquered Jerusalem, razed the city walls, and burned the Temple of Solomon to the ground. The fortunes of Yahweh and of his people seemed at their lowest ebb. But out of this darkness, revolutionary millennialism was born. It is in Babylon, in exile, and under the influence of Zoroastrianism, that the first Jewish millennial texts were produced, and these are the texts which continue to shape millennial thought to our own day.
The Book of Ezekiel, written by a priest exiled to Babylon in his youth, provides a good example of how the Deuteronomistic model became increasingly millenarian. His message is one of hope: if the deportees repent, then Yahweh will restore them to their land. He will transform them into a better people: "I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them...." Finally, he will transform nature on their behalf, from a chaotic world to one of plenty: "And I will make them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; and they shall be showers of blessing, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit...." It was Ezekiel, too, who founded what you might call geopolitical millennialism. In chapters 38-39 he told of Prince Gog of Magog, who would lead his armies in a final war against the Israelites and against their God, a war that would end when God in his rage flattened all the mountains of the earth, destroyed all the heathen nations, and vindicated his people [note the Zoroastrian flavor]. This text is still popular with modern apocalyptic television prophets, to such a point that Ronald Reagan is quoted as believing that the "godless communists" were Gog’s northern nations, and that their invasion of Israel would precipitate Armageddon.
Ezekiel is original in looking forward to this final and revolutionary transformation of Yahweh’s people and of their world. But prophets writing later in the exile, and especially those writing after King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Judea, go much further, probably because they were increasingly influenced by their Zoroastrian neighbors and rulers. It is to these writers, like the one that biblical scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (writing in Babylon some forty years after Ezekiel, circa 547-538 BCE) that we owe many of the most famous millennialist passages of the Hebrew Bible: passages like "For behold, I create new Heavens and a new earth" [Is 65:17]; and "Then the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,/ and the leopard lie down with the kid;/ and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,/ and a little child shall lead them.... / The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,/ and the weaned child shall put his hand in the adder’s den,/ They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;/ for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Yahweh/ as the waters cover the sea" [Is 11:6-9].
According to these prophecies, the coming time is of complete revolution: the earth shall be as new. In this new earth the conquered Israelites will gain back their dominions, chaos and the harshness of nature shall end, there will be neither hunter nor hunted. There’s more. Death shall be tamed (the average life span will be 100); diseases shall be cured ("Then shall blind men’s eyes be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout aloud" [Is. 65.20 and 35.5-6]). Here we see in place many of the attributes of later millennialism: (1) revolutionary: a weapon of the weak; (2) teleological: a scheme of time in which history is moving toward a clear manifestation of God’s power in a glorious consummation that will give meaning to all previous history; (3) utopian/paradisiacal: a transformation of the physical world into a land of peace, harmony, and plenty, where illness, hatred, poverty and want do not exist.
At this point in our narrative, circa 500 BCE, all the elements of millennialism as I defined it are in place, though Judaism is still missing two related concepts: (1) Apocalyptic (Gk. apokalypsis: unveiling): the idea that some prophets have been granted a vision of what the end of days will be like, visions that are preserved in texts we call apocalypses (Jubilees, I Enoch, Daniel, Revelation). (2) Messianism: the notion of a savior and redeemer that we saw was so important in Zoroastrianism. These would emerge some three hundred years later, in another Jewish text influenced by Zoroastrianism and written in a period of persecution: the Book of Daniel, the last to enter the Hebrew Bible.
Though the Book of Daniel claims to date from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, it was in fact compiled during the Antiochan persecution, which began in 169 BCE when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes razed the walls of Jerusalem and dedicated the Temple to Ba’al worship. The compiler of Daniel seems to have had his eye on these events, and his Book contributed a great deal to future millennialism: Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the four world empires, Daniel’s vision of the four beasts and the ten horns, the explanations of the wars that will mark the apocalypse; these clearly had an enormous impact on later authors like that of the Revelation of John, and remain favorite passages of tele-prophets. Further, Daniel is the first Hebrew text that can properly be called apocalyptic. Daniel’s vision of the "end of days" (8:17) comes from an angel (8:17, 10:6), and it is a fantastic, symbolic and terrifying vision: a format that would govern the apocalypse genre to the present day. Finally, Daniel is the only book of canonical Jewish scripture to contain something like a Zoroastrian savior figure (Daniel’s "one like a son of man") upon whom God will bestow everlasting kingship over the whole world (7:13-14). And Daniel 12:2 is the only place in the Hebrew bible where something like a Zoroastrian resurrection and last judgment appears: "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence."
The Book of Daniel was the last to make its way into the canonical Hebrew Bible, but it marks the beginning of Jewish apocalyptic literature, not the end. The period between 150 BCE and 150 AD witnessed an explosion in the popularity of such works. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, contain no less than 11 manuscripts of an astrological apocalyptic work called I Enoch. These texts were increasingly popular because apocalypticism was increasingly popular. Like the Essenes who produced the scrolls, there were many sects of Judaism that believed the transformation of the world was imminent, and that a savior was on his way. Christianity was one of these sects, and its millenarianism did not differ drastically from the model I’ve outlined. Early Christians believed that a war between chaos and order was being fought in the world (think of Mark 1:12, Jesus struggling against Satan in the desert, or Mark 1:24, where the demons complain that Jesus has come to destroy them.) They believed that when that war was at its darkest, the great consummation would begin (Mark 13.7-10, 24-5) with the return of their resurrected savior. Once he had come, the world would be purified through fire. All chaos would end, the wicked would be condemned, and the good would live like angels. Like other apocalyptic visions of oppressed peoples, this one too is revolutionary: "many who are first will be last, and the last, first"; "Blessed are you that hunger now..." (Mat. 19:30, Luke 6:20-21). As in Daniel and Isaiah, the world will be transformed into a land of ease and plenty (Papias, ca 110: "each vine ten thousand shoots, each shoot ten thousand twigs, each twig ten thousand stems, every stem ten thousand bunches, every bunch, ten thousand grapes, and every grape 25 metretes of wine,... all animals would live peaceably together...." Ireneius).
The "Jewishness" of Christian apocalypticism will be apparent to anyone who reads the Book of Revelation, perhaps the most famous and influential of all apocalyptic texts. The book, believed to have been written by a Jewish Christian circa 95-96 CE, cites Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and other Jewish apocalyptic texts more than 300 times. It is in many respects very much like Daniel, with its succession of world empires portrayed as beasts, except that in Revelation it is the Roman Empire, not the Seleucid, that rages against the servants of God and must be destroyed. But in one respect (at least) it was dramatically new: Revelation is the first Judeo-Christian text explicitly concerned with millennia.
Let me explain what I mean. Early Christians believed that Christ was returning very soon. As Jesus put it to his disciples: "I tell you this: there are some who are standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power." (Mark 9:1) The author of Revelation clearly agreed. His book opens: "This is the revelation given by God... so that he might show his servants what must shortly happen." But according to him, Christ’s immanent return will be accompanied by the defeat of Satan and his imprisonment for a period of 1,000 years. During this period the world will be ruled in bliss by Christ and his martyrs, who will be resurrected for the purpose. When the years are ended Satan will be freed, Gog and Magog will be unleashed for the final battle and the final judgment, and the material world will make way for "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 20, 21). It is through this innovation, this 1,000-year kingdom of Christ on earth, that chronological millennialism was born.
The Revelation of John was extraordinarily popular among early Christians, probably because, as a persecuted community, they found hope in its revolutionary message, which reviled the established powers as satanic and prophesied a new age when the oppressed would rule. But John’s revolutionary millennialism would soon become an embarrassment to the church, and by the fifth century orthodox Christianity would reject chronological millennialism for the next thousand years. There are two reasons for this embarrassment. The first is that the events John envisioned did not materialize: Christ took longer and longer to return. This problem was not insurmountable, and many Christians handled it much as the Zoroastrians had. Influenced by the psalmist’s wonderment that a thousand years are as one day in the eyes of the lord, early Christians adopted the idea of the world-week, or sabbatical millenarianism. This system was based on the notion that God had created the world in six days. The created world could thus be expected to last 6,000 years, with John’s 1,000 year reign of Christ the seventh, the Sabbath, day. As you can see, there were many different creation dates extant (this list is only partial), but most of them were conveniently some time in the future.
A second more difficult problem arose when Christianity changed from the religion of a persecuted minority to the religion of the empire. How could the empire be cast in the role of Satan’s beast, if the emperor himself was now the head of the church? John’s revelation could not now be understood literally without offending a great many people. St. Augustine provided the best solution to the problem: the world was converting to Christianity, therefore clearly we were already in the age of Christ’s kingdom. Rather than look for a coming revolution in which the world would be transformed for the better, we should realize that the revolution had already occurred. Further, the time span of 1,000 years that John had allotted to this kingdom was not to be taken literally. 1,000 was just a round number, standing for "an era." However long this era turns out to be (we’re still in it), it will conclude not with the transformation of the world but with its end. Augustine was explicitly addressing his sabbatical millenarian readers when he warned against getting "particularly excited about the number 1,000," and his opinion became orthodoxy. As St. Jerome had put it a few years earlier: "The saints will in no way have a terrestrial kingdom, but a celestial one. Let the myth of a thousand years therefore cease." Both saints cautioned Christians that attempting to calculate the date of end-time was not only futile, but against God’s wishes: Jesus had warned that he would come as a thief in the night. In this, Jesus was again a Jew. As Rabbi Jonathan put it, "Blasted be the bones of those who calculate the end." Or, in the words of one of his colleagues, "Three things come unawares: the Messiah, a found article, and a scorpion".
Augustine’s anti-millennial view held for about a thousand years in Western Europe, through the period we call the Middle Ages. Medieval culture was much more apocalyptic (looking for the end of the world) than millennial (expecting the world’s transformation). And for the most part, people looked for the approaching apocalypse not in calendars or multiples of thousands, but in political events. Islamic conquests and Viking raids provoked far more apocalyptic speculation than did the year 1000. One of the few examples of "Dark Age" apocalypticism that I have found to be informed by chronological considerations belongs to the "sabbatical millennialism" genre that Augustine condemned, and its fate is suggestive. One "hot" date was the year 800, the very year Charlemagne was crowned as a new Emperor of the Romans. An obscure Spanish monk named Beatus of Liébana did notice this, and in what became quite a popular commentary on the Apocalypse, he provided the calendrical calculations and predicted the imminent end of the world. But it is a testament to the completeness of Augustine’s victory that none of its readers seem to have picked up on this anxiety about the year 800. They were only interested in the commentary and its illustrations.
Though the official, orthodox Middle Ages were not millennial, there are two significant medieval contributions to millennialism. The first stems from the fact that in the Middle Ages, millennialism became once again the province of heretics (e.g., Bogomils, Albigensians, and eventually Protestants), or of the oppressed. It is in this period, particularly from 1200 on, that millennialism became what we might call the revolutionary instrument of the masses. When medieval peasants heard of the lion and the lamb, they thought of a "classless society." Hence the peasant slogan "when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" This revolutionary millennialism of the lower classes aimed to transform the world back into an Edenic classless utopia, a land of plenty for all. Late medieval English peasants called this land "Cockaygne." It would have rivers of wine, etc. Our American version is the "big rock candy mountain."
The orthodox in the Middle Ages, skeptical about the perfectibility of humans or of the world, dismissed such beliefs as "judaizing": just like the poor to think with their stomachs, and cleave to a material new age based on a literal reading of scripture. But let me take just a few minutes to show what an impact this revolutionary millennialism, marginal in the Middle Ages, has had on the revolutionary rhetorics of later ages. Remember the words of Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand...." After the American Revolution (1783) he enthused: "To see it in our power to make the world happy..." "To have, as it were, a new creation entrusted to our hands...." Indeed, this new creation is literally entrusted to our hands, since it is engraved on the currency of the United States (Great Seal: "Novus ordo seclorum": New order of the ages, or new world order.) The French expressed this notion at its starkest when they proclaimed the founding of the French Republic on 22 September, 1792, the first day of the first month of the year one.
One of the nicest examples of this linkage between revolutionary ideology and millennial faith comes from Joseph Priestley, the eminent scientist and discoverer of Oxygen. As he wrote concerning the American and French revolutions in his book-length commentary on Revelation: "some of the most interesting parts of this prophecy are, at this very time, receiving their accomplishment... it... affords us much consolation, that the great catastrophe is clearly announced, and such indications of happy times, as lead us to look forward with confidence and joy." Indeed, the weight of this medieval linkage between revolution and scriptural millenarianism can be seen in the prophetic discourse of modern revolutionaries across the political spectrum. Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Propaganda Minister) invokes it in a novel entitled Michael: A German Fate in the Pages of a Diary: Michael claims "I am a hero, a God, a Redeemer/ ... I arise, I have power/ To wake the dead... The ranks fill up, a host arises,/ A Volk, a community./ Purpose binds us./ We are united in the faith/ In the strong will... / And so we will form the New Reich." Compare Friedrich Engels: "This is our vocation: to become the Templars of this Grail, to gird the sword about our loins..., and joyfully to risk our lives in this last holy war that will be followed by the millennium of freedom." Or Michael Bakunin: "There will be a qualitative transformation, a new living, life-giving revelation, a new heaven and a new earth, a young and mighty world in which all our present dissonances will be resolved into one harmonious whole." It is only very recently that millennial political ideology has gone out of fashion, as witnessed by the cynical parody of revolutionary millennialism in Disney’s Lion King. There, just after the evil lion uncle Scar pulls off a palace coup by killing his brother with the help of the hyenas, the lions’ traditional social inferior (portrayed as black), he proclaims "Henceforth, the Lion and the Hyena shall live together in Harmony." The rest of the movie shows just how horrible Disney thinks such harmony would be, and ends in the restoration of the Leonine Monarchy.
The second important medieval contribution to millennialism was made by a monk known as Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202), today a darling of New Agers. Joachim invented (or perhaps more accurately re-invented) the notion of the Third Age. Writing his Concordance of the Old and New Testaments during an extraordinary period called by some historians "the twelfth-century renaissance," Joachim thought of the world as becoming increasingly perfect. He divided the history of the world into three ages, patterned on the Trinity. The first age had been that of the Father. It was an age of bondage, of fear, of slavery to the law, and it had ended with the coming of Christ. The second age was the age of the son, an age of faith and of obedience. This age was now coming to an end thanks to the actions of men (particularly monks), and would be ushered to a close when a new secular leader, a novus dux, arose to turn the people from the material to the spiritual and lead them in the fight against the Antichrist. A new, third, age would then dawn, the age of the Holy Spirit, an age of love, of freedom, of contemplation and of full knowledge.
Joachim was not condemned as a heretic in his own lifetime, though his work quickly came under suspicion and was frequently condemned in its later forms. His millennialism challenged orthodoxy in several ways. First, it was progressive: it claimed that the earth and its inhabitants were improving, even to the point of perfection, through human effort. Then too, its progression implied a hierarchy within the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) which was anathema to Catholicism. (Indeed some radicals drew the conclusion that it also implied a progressive hierarchy between Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam, and became Muslims!) Finally, it claimed to predict the future, and provided prophecies based on close readings of the Bible as well as on complex numerological and calendrical calculations. For example, Joachim predicted that the third age would begin in 1260, because Judith had waited in her widowhood for three years and six months = 42 months =1260 days, ergo the era of the New Testament will last 1260 years....
Norman Cohn, the father of millennial studies, has called Joachim "The inventor of a new prophetic system, which was to be the most influential one known to Europe until the appearance of Marxism." It is certainly true that Joachim’s notion of three successive ages has seen many reincarnations. The theories of historical evolution of certain German Idealist philosophers (Lessing, Fichte); August Comte’s historical evolution from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific stage; or Marx’s from primitive communism to class society to communism; Moeller van den Bruck’s "Third Reich" (coined in 1923); or Alvin Toeffler’s teleology from producer to consumer to prosumer, from agriculture to industry to the information age; all are relatives, however distant, of Joachim’s taxonomy. For all these thinkers, history is a three-stage evolution leading to glorious freedom. But note that none of these examples are medieval. The notion of a world improving by revolutionary stages, once so popular among early Christian historians like Eusebius, found few adherents among the orthodox in the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.
What happened in the Renaissance and after to change all this and make millennialism fashionable again? The answer, of course, is "many things," and at this point, I’m sure you are grateful that there isn’t time to discuss most of them. Just for the record, let me trot through a few. Advances in time keeping and in astronomy encouraged standardization of the calendar (recall the opening discussion), while a string of calamities (from the European point of view), such as the Turkish conquest of Constantinople (which came just before the Byzantine 7000 AM), fomented a new numerological apocalyptic interest. Thus, for example, 1499-1500 seems to be the first turn of the century to arouse much apocalyptic concern, as evidence by Dürer's "Four Horseman," engraved in 1498, or Boticelli's Nativity, painted in 1500 and bearing the inscription: "I Sandro painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture." Beginning of a genre, by the way, which was alive and well at the last fin-de-siècle, at least if Picasso’s 1901 Fin de numéro is any indication. The discoveries of Columbus and his successors, too, were apocalyptic, in that they unveiled lands and peoples hitherto unknown and unevangelized. The ushering of these people into the Church was sure, Columbus and many of his successors thought, to trigger the millennium. Then too, notions of the Church itself were radically transformed. The Reformation shattered old Augustinian certainties and opened up once more the issue of human agency in salvation history.
Obviously I can’t talk about all, or even one, of these in any detail. I hope you’ll forgive me if I brutally stuff them into one sack and describe them all crudely as an increase in the scope allowed human agency and a revalorization of the capacity of human knowledge. Here Frances Yates, speaking of a certain type of Renaissance thinker, puts it best:
...the real function of the Renaissance Magus in relation to the modern period (or so I see it) is that he changed the will. It was now dignified and important for man to operate; it was also religious and not contrary to the will of God that man, the great miracle, should exert his powers. It was this basic reorientation of the will which was neither Greek nor medieval in spirit, which made all the difference.Apocalypse, the uncovering of the world and its future, became a human business, and so did the perfecting of this world: remember that it was in 1516 that Thomas More coined the word "utopia."
There were many ways in which humans could, to use Yates’ term, exert their powers, but the most important of these extensions of the human will, at least insofar as millennialism is concerned, is the marriage of apocalypse and millennialism with science. And the most loving example of this marriage is that of Sir Isaac Newton. Because of his lifelong interest in alchemy and magic, John Maynard Keynes called him "the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage"; yet he was also a scientist whose brilliance even Einstein acknowledged. Finally, and most important for my purposes, he was a card-carrying millennialist who published extensively on the subject. He was even willing to make predictions himself. At an early stage in his numerological career, moved by Protestant zeal and (perhaps) a reading of Joachim of Fiore, he predicted that the age of Popery would run 1260 years, of which only sixty remained.
Protestants in Newton’s time (and after) did not see the same opposition that we do between science and religion. On the contrary, for Newton and many of his coreligionist colleagues, the study of nature was the study of God. Newton’s mathematics, for example, was in some sense a search for God, who is omnipresent in Newton’s Principia Mathematica. In a draft corollary for Proposition VI of the Principia Newton wrote that "there exists an infinite and omnipresent spirit in which matter is moved according to mathematical laws." Conversely, Newton’s conception of God also shaped his research in mathematics and natural philosophy. For instance, it was to give God a perpetual role in His creation that Newton insisted that the solar system needed ongoing divine help to avoid decay, an argument that led Leibniz, his opponent on this score as on so many others, to say that Newton’s God was like a bad watchmaker who needed to keep rewinding his mechanism.
It is common to refer to this world-view as that of the "two books," i.e., the belief that the book of nature and the book of scripture were both ways of getting to know God. We tend to think of the "two-books" model as a way of keeping science and religion separate, as indeed it was for some Renaissance and Enlightenment figures (especially Catholic ones). By insisting that their readings of the book of nature held no implications for the book of scripture, these scientists hoped to avoid the Church’s unpleasant attention. But many (often Protestant) scientists such as Newton, as well as Henry More, Richard Bentley, Robert Boyle and others, thought of both books as roads to the same truth. They spent a great deal of time finding God’s dignity in everything from the astro-physical world to the botanical. Newton’s friend William Derham even gave a Boyle Lecture in 1711-12 on the topic "Physico-Theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from his Works of Creation," a speech in which he felt obliged to apologize for the little evidence of true religion he had been able to gather from vegetables and fish. Such speeches make clear the apocalyptic element in these scientists’ work. They were seeking to uncover God, pursuing a scientific revelation. This is what the poet Alexander Pope meant in his famous epitaph for Newton: "Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night./ God said, let Newton be! and All was Light."
Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that Newton and other scientists insisted on reading the book of Scripture as well as that of Nature, and using many of the same techniques. Newton left extensive writings on scriptural interpretation, particularly on the subject of the millennium. He wrote four commentaries on Daniel and the Apocalypse, rules for reading prophetic books, a treatise on "predicting the years of Christ," etc. For Newton such work was of utmost importance. If God had become so angry at the Jews for not recognizing Christ through the prophecies given them, why should we think He would excuse us for not learning to recognize the Antichrist? So he set about providing rules for the reading of prophecy and scripture, rules that he claimed were derived from the same principles as his natural philosophy: "To choose those constructions which without straining reduce things to greatest simplicity." Scripture, he said, was like "an Engin made by an excellent Artificer": the most efficient arrangement, function, and meaning of its parts is clear and deducible.
For Newton, then, the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the study of sacred history and scripture were two aspects of the same teleology: a progression toward knowledge of God through science and toward a reunion with Him in the millennium. How much Newton thought the former affected the latter is uncertain. Did advances in human understanding hasten the millennium? Was it the scientist’s task to perfect the world and prepare it for Christ’s kingdom? As far as I know, Newton never addressed these questions explicitly, but some of his colleagues, such as Robert Boyle, did. Boyle saw the "Great discoveries" of new science as "pregnant hints" of "grounds of good hope, that God makes haste to finish some great work in a more glorious display," a "great renovation of the world", where "it is likely that our faculties will, in the future blessed state, be enlarged and heightened." This approach, which bound Enlightenment notions of scientific progress together with millennial notions of the perfectibility of the world, attracted many scientists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Let Joseph Priestly stand for them all, writing of the future as seen from 1792:
As a medievalist, my ignorance of the history of the Enlightenment is exceeded only by that of the history of America, so I won’t attempt to give an explanation of why this is so, except to point out the obvious. In the words of James Moorhead, "The Puritan colonists, nurtured in the providential assumptions of the English Reformation, brought to these shores an acute millennial consciousness." For these settlers, America was the New Jerusalem, and the millennium was taking shape before their eyes, as the titles of treatises like Thomas Goodwin’s "A glimpse of Sion’s Glory" (1641) or Edward Johnson’s "The wonder-working providence of sions savior in New England," (1650s) make clear. Well over a century later, Jonathan Edwards, writing of the "New Heaven and New Earth" promised in Isaiah, claimed to have "abundant reason to hope that what is now seen in America, and especially in New England, may prove the dawn of that glorious day." As late as 1909, no less a figure than Washington Gladden (founder of the Social Gospel movement) could announce of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:4-5: "That the prophecy is beginning to come true of America is not to many of us incredible. These words of the text, as we read them, sometimes sound like a current history of the United States." Nor was this idea confined to the religious. Many Americans thought that this vast new land, so free of the chains of feudalism and Popery that fettered the Old World, was waiting to be shaped by man into an earthly paradise, a utopia. As Emerson wrote in a famous letter of 1840 to Carlyle, there is "Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket."
Many of these utopian drafts explicitly united religious millennialism and scientific progress into what I would call religio-scientific millennialism. Samuel Hopkins’ prediction, in his 1793 A Treatise on the Millenium, is but a routine example: "And great advances will be made in all arts and sciences, and in every useful branch of knowledge, which tends to promote the spirit and eternal good of men, or their convenience and comfort in this life." My favorite example of this genre is a treatise printed in 1818 in Carmel, New York, entitled "Hawley’s Millennium; Declaring the Restoration of the Hebrews into the Holy Land; and Many infallible Proofs of the Prophetical Doctrine; and of the Divinity, Doctrine, and Passions of Jesus Christ the Mediator, and of the Apostles; and Containing the Principles of a Perpetual Self-Moving Engine." Hawley had received many visions of the impending apocalypse from God, who had also provided him with a vision of a perpetual wheel, a wheel Hawley had been commanded by God to engineer both because of its hydraulic power applications and because of its role in the advent of the "new dispensation, and of the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Mount Zion."
We can laugh at the Hawleys of religio-scientific millennialism, but we should recognize how deeply it has influenced our culture, and we can easily do so simply by taking up the works of Walt Whitman, and reading in them poems like "Thou Mother with thy Equal Brood," "Years of the Modern," "The United States to Old World Critics," or these lines from "Passage to India": "After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)/ After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their/ work,/ After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the/ geologist, ethnologist,/ Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,/ The true son of God shall come singing his songs" (ll. 101-105). No reader of Whitman can miss his sense that America is the land of the future, that this future is gloriously millennial, and that it is driven by science and technology. This is not so different from what Hegel meant when he wrote, in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History: "America is therefore the land of the future, where in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself."
This American religio-scientific vision of the millennium that I’ve been trying to trace was optimistic and post-millenarian, by which I mean that it expressed confidence that society was already in or entering the Kingdom, that things were getting better, that the world was being or was about to be transformed. Such millennialism was prevalent in American Protestantism until the late nineteenth century, which makes it all the more striking that it is nearly or completely absent from the contemporary religious movements that Bill Martin talked about. Today, American religious movements are for the most part pre-millenarian, that is, they believe that we are in the dark days before end-time, not in the dawn of the New Kingdom. Moreover, contemporary movements are pessimistic about the possibility of earthly paradise. They stress Armageddon and rapture, and look forward to the earth’s destruction, not its transformation. For this reason they are, according to my definition, apocalyptic but not millennial. Indeed millennialism as a belief in the transformation of the world seems to have disappeared from American religion almost as completely as it has disappeared from political ideology.
The reasons for these shifts in American religious notions of end-time are very complicated, and there are many in this room much better able to explain them than I. I merely want to ask, where then has millennialism gone, with all its hopes for a world new, improved, transformed? Several answers come to mind. There are millennial fringe groups, like New Agers with their Harmonic Convergences and Pyramid Power (Pyramids are an ancient millennial symbol, one use of which I’ve already mentioned: the Great Seal of the United States). Much more mainstream is the millennialism of marketing and Madison Avenue: you can wear a millennium watch (Bulova) and 21st Century (Foot-Joy) shoes, write with a Millenium (sic) pen, watch a movie from Millennium Productions, drink out of a Millennium decanter, drive a Mazda Millennia and have it repaired at Millennium Automotive (9125 Airport Blvd., Houston), cook in Millennium pots, and get away from it all at the Millennium Hotel. This use of the word "millennial" is neither religious nor scientific, but content-less, merely replacing the phrase "new and improved." But there is one important strand of religio-scientific millennialism still around, and that is the scientific strand. I submit that mainstream and meaningful millennialism in this country has been concentrated in the language of scientific and technological progress, a language so influential as to have spread millennialism further throughout the globe than religious versions ever did.
To avoid getting into too much trouble, let me stress that I am not going to talk about scientific practice as eschatological or millennial. Instead, I want to dwell only on popular techno-millennial attitudes, without asking to what extent scientists share in or contribute to these attitudes. First, what do I mean by techno-millennial? Simply the belief that technological revelation, that is, invention, innovation or technological discovery, will work a thorough and abiding transformation of human life and experience for the better; a belief often expressed in language echoing that of biblical millennial texts. (For the purposes of this talk I am ignoring what one might term technocalypse, the belief that this transformation will be for the worse.) Such beliefs are in no way new or uncommon, so I will limit myself to one example that seems apt given current debates at Rice over the future of books and libraries: the film director D.W. Griffith’s predictions about the impact of film. As one of his actresses put it: "Griffith told us that we were something new in the world, a great power that had been predicted in the Bible as the universal language. And it was going to end wars and bring about the millennium. Films were going to bring understanding among men—and peace to the world." [Some irony here, given that he directed Birth of a Nation?] This would occur because film represented an entirely new technology of cognition. Thus in 1915 Griffith prophesied: "The time will come, in less than ten years... when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read... again." He went on to describe something of an electronic studio, where students sat at a screen and summoned up images by pressing buttons, through which students would receive, for example, "a vivid and complete expression," "with no opinions expressed" of a historical event, without having to "consult authorities and wade through a host of books."
This type of technological prophecy has become the standard genre for millenarianism in the mass media. Newsweek’s cover story on the year 2000, for example, consisted primarily of technological futurism: what computing power will have achieved, what diseases will have been cured, what clean energy forms we will have discovered. I myself was very heartened to pick up the airline magazine last time I was flying and read that by the year 2050 cancer and heart disease will be cured, viruses and old age defeated, hunger eradicated. This type of prediction, so common in the mass media and in books like Megatrends 2000, seems pollyanish in an age of drug resistance, AIDS, and Somalia, but at least its optimism is constrained by a patina of probabilistic projection and extrapolation. Gradual and progressive rather than radical and swift, this is millennialism tamed by statistics. Much futurologist literature, however, is less restrained.
My favorite example, because of Rice’s prominence in the field, comes from K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Compare Drexler to any of the prophets and patriarchs I quoted in the first half of this talk:
With nanotechnology we’ll be able to make almost anything we want in any amount we want, and do it cheaply and cleanly. Poverty, homelessness, and starvation can be banished. Pollution can be eliminated. We can finally open up the space frontier. With the help of powerful AI systems, we’ll be able to tackle more complex applications of nanotechnology, including molecular surgery to repair human tissue. And that can eliminate aging and disease. People everywhere struggle for greater wealth and better health. With these advances, we can have them—for all of us. (Nanotechnologist as the Lord of Rev. 21:5 "making the whole of creation new...".)Lest I let the CITI folks off the hook, consider the field of computing technology, where Arno Penzias of Bell Labs tells us that we are on the threshold of an "Age of Information Transparency." Marcus Novak, in his book Liquid Archetypes in Cyberspace, is less jargony: "Cyberspace stands to thought as flight stands to crawling. The root of this fascination is the promise of control over the world by the power of the will. In other words, it is the ancient dream of magic that finally nears awakening into some kind of reality." Even the most respectable of gurus can sound like a Hebrew prophet. Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab and author of Being Digital, is fond of the phrase "in the next millennium," and though he may not be aware of it, his vision is millennial in quite traditional, even biblical, ways. Thus he tells us that computers will make all information universally accessible at virtually no cost (cf. Dan. 12:4: "Many shall run... to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." But has anyone told Bill Gates?). He believes that the line between work and play, love and duty, will be erased as computers bring people to "a more harmonious continuum in their lives." Harmony and the transcendence of polarities: Isaiah’s "lion and lamb." Like Isaiah, Negroponte invokes the image of children safe in a world no longer dangerous as the millennial climax of his book: "While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from their limitation of geographic proximity.... Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony." Newt Gingrich obviously agrees with Negroponte, for his suggestion that poverty could be ended by giving every poor family a laptop computer is equally millennial.
Harmony, plenty, children playing fearlessly with the asps of prejudice that so terrified their parents’ generation: in all these things the technological millennium parallels the biblical. But there is a more disturbing parallel which I would like to end with. As I mentioned at the start of this talk, millenarianism is about the passage from opposites: Heraclitus’ enantodromia. In biblical apocalypses, this is often represented by the bitter war that precedes the savior’s coming. In Isaiah, Daniel, and most notably Revelation, victory comes when the battle seems lost, when evil is almost triumphant. Yeats put it this way in his well-known poem "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." As you are no doubt aware, in the apocalyptic genre this bitter war is always viewed from the standpoint of the righteous, and their moral violence is extreme indeed. The violence of John’s hatred of his opponents, for example, is so obvious that it has led many commentators to worry, as D.H. Lawrence did in his final book, aptly entitled Apocalypse, that "John’s soul... was not ruled by love but by... dangerous psychic poison." The point, in short, is that millenarians are often confident of victory, and have little tolerance for those who are not believers.
I worry that some technological millennialists share this
attribute of their ancestors. Negroponte is again illuminating when he
writes: "The digital age cannot be denied or stopped. It has four very
powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing,
globalizing, harmonizing and empowering (229)." (More technocratic than
the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation, but just as effective.)
Negroponte dwells on the triumph of his vision, not on the violence that
his choice of words suggests, but others embrace that violence and heighten
it. Thus the first chapter of Alvin Toffler’s
The Third Wave is
revealingly entitled "Super-Struggle." It begins: "A new civilization is
emerging in our lives, and blind men everywhere are trying to suppress
it" (p. 9). It ends with a moral mandate that I think is alarming: "Once
we realize that a bitter struggle is now raging between those who seek
to preserve industrialism and those who seek to supplant it [with the third
wave], we have a powerful new key to understanding the world" (p. 18).
Here Revelation’s blind followers of the Antichrist have been replaced
by desperate adherents to a dying industrial order, the millennial kingdom
of Christ by the Third "information" Age, but the battle is the same: just
as polarized, just as morally charged, just as bloody. Confronted by such
angry and polarizing prophecy, I find myself wanting to end my own millennial
odyssey on a more convivial note: To our next millennium together. Thank
To Of(f)course home page To Index of this issue.