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Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. Yale University Press, 1993.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


For 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.

And 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.

One 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 in 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.

In 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.



Copyrightę2007 by Robert M Price
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