Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic
Faith. Yale University Press, 1993.
Reviewed by Robert M. Price.
anyone familiar with Dr. Cohn's classic work on Medieval apocalyptic
and revolutionary movements, The Pursuit of the Millennium (a
book which itself ought to be required adjacent reading for students
of the social world of the New Testament and what we might call
"Comparative Messianics"), this book is a dream come true. In it we
see Dr. Cohn's erudition applied to the history of Apocalyptic, not
just in a particular period, but in its initial stages. The origins of
Apocalyptic are almost as much a subject of debate as the kindred
question of the origins of Gnosticism, and Dr. Cohn would seem to be
an authoritative voice in the discussion. The reader of these pages
will at once find himself or herself absorbed in a survey of the world
views of many ancient civilizations, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Vedic
Indian, Zoroastrian, Israelite-Jewish, and Early Christian. In what
might almost count as an allegory of reading for the unique subject
matter, Dr. Cohn in the role of a revealing angel guiding the
spellbound reader on a synoptic tour of unsuspected worlds and their
secrets, Cohn manages to provide surveys which are introductory,
sketched in broad strokes, and yet filled with specific observations
likely to be new even to one already familiar with the subject. His
historical judgments, even when admittedly made as an outsider, are
balanced and apt.
yet for all that, this book, the result of some forty years of
research, is disappointing. One will learn much from it, but by no
means all one is led to hope one will learn. Essentially the book's
contention is that the Prophet Zoroaster was the first to attain unto
an apocalyptic world view and that Jews inherited it during the
Babylonian Exile. This is not implausible, but it is far from novel.
What one must expect in a new presentation of this case is a
significant engagement with Paul D. Hanson's theory (The
Dawn of Apocalyptic) which seeks to make the advent of apocalyptic
thinking intelligible without recourse to foreign sources and
seemingly does so quite well. But in fact Hanson's work is simply
dismissed in a couple of footnotes, in which Cohn merely notes that he
prefers a different reading of the evidence.
Another disappointment is the stance taken here toward gospel
criticism. To many it will seem hardly critical at all. Though Cohn
accepts recent thinking that the Q source is the deposit of wandering
charismatics, he parts company with many of the same scholars when
they suggest that the apocalyptic element in Q represents a subsequent
layer of the document and by no means goes back to Jesus. Cohn opts
instead for the apocalyptic preacher Jesus of Schweitzer, Bultmann,
and the generation of their followers. Again, like his rejection of
Hanson, Dr. Cohn may well be justified, and is certainly entitled to
his opinion, but the reader would be assisted in a greater
appreciation of Cohn's position, and far more likely to be convinced
of it if its superiority to competing theories were demonstrated
rather than simply affirmed almost by fiat.
point requiring greater development is that the apocalyptic world view
appealed to Jews in Babylon despite the fact that they were not doing
so badly there, all things considered. (Similarly, Cohn flatly rejects
the traditional opinion that the Book of Revelation is persecution
literature.) One might expect here an attempt to connect these guesses
up with Anthony Wallace's theory (itself hardly taken for granted
anymore) that millenarian movements are more the product of relative
deprivation than of absolute oppression. This perspective, seemingly
amenable to Cohn's reconstruction, might have made for a better case.
all, one may hazard the judgment that the greatest contribution of
Cohn's volume is its survey of the evidence for a ubiquitous ancient
"combat myth" in which a young virile god defeats a chaos monster and
receives kingship over the gods as a reward, either creating or
renewing the world as a result. Here he has some especially
interesting suggestions to make, uncovering previously ignored
evidence for a variant of such a myth in Zoroastrian lore.
short, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come may not be the book
it might have been, or even exactly the book it aims at being (a
surprising amount of text is taken up with expounding many
non-apocalyptic ancient world-views, as if to show that they were the
rule), but it is a fascinating work sure to repay study, and this for
scholars of various fields, not least Comparative Mythology and
Religions of the World.