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The Antichrist Legend

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A review from The Academy, Volume 48:

This is a scholarly book, and one of great use and interest for the student of early Christian beliefs. Pages 1-75 area review of the sources of our knowledge of the belief in the Antichrist; compiled step by step from these sources. Useful indices close the book, of which the gist is as follows: certain passages in the New Testament (Matt, xxiv., Mark xiii., 2 Thess. ii., Apocal. xi.) are so many fragments of a pre-Christian and mainly Jewish myth or saga. This saga was taught orally, and was, on principle, not committed to writing. And this is one reason why the written records of it are so scarce in the first century, becoming more and more numerous in writers of the second, third, fourth, and succeeding centuries.

Can this saga be recovered in its early form, as Jesus, Paul, and John inherited it? Bousset argues—and I think proves his point —that in the writings of Commodian, Lactantius, Victorinus, Hippolytus, and Irenaeus, we have early Christian sources independent of the New Testament. In Ephrem and pseudo-Ephrem, in Methodius and other Fathers, we have further sources—later indeed, but still going back to the original tradition which lies behind the New Testament. Nor are we dependent on Christian writers alone; for 4 Esra, the Testament of Dan, Sibyll. iii. 46-91, the Baruch book, probably also parts of the Talmud, constitute Jewish sources to aid us in our reconstruction.

All these, as well as many medieval sources, are handled by Bousset with great skill and care. He shows how the older saga is already adapted to current events by the author of the Apocalypse, in the interpretation of which book two elements must therefore be carefully distinguished—namely, the traditional saga element, resting ultimately, as Fünkel (Schöpfung und Chaos) shows, on a Babylonian dragon-myth, and the properly historical allusions to contemporary events, especially to Nero. Bousset's entire book is, indeed, preliminary to the solution of this problem; for we must needs have recovered the saga as John inherited it before we can separate the two elements. Just as the author of the Apocalypse adjusted the saga to current events, so Bousset shows that later generations of Christians sought in its grandiose visions a key to the turmoil of events, past and present.

Thus it is no dry bones that Bousset presents to us, but the original tradition from which probably Jesus himself, and certainly Paul and the Evangelists, derived their doctrine of the last things, their eschatology. Like the teaching of the Second Coming, that of the Antichrist has been tacitly dropt by the educated orthodox of to-day. But for the early saints no two beliefs were so important as these, nor so closely bound up together. The Church has drifted whole seas asunder from its primitive moorings, yet divines of all shades assert that theirs is the faith which Jesus and his Apostles delivered to posterity. The mass of Christians, even late on into the Middle Ages, knew and cared more about the Antichrist than they did about the right understanding of the Trinity….

….In conclusion, I venture to subjoin a translation of an Armenian form of the saga from a Life of St. Nerses, published in 1853 at San Lazaro, Venice, from four MSS. of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This Life was compiled soon after the Frankish conquest of Jerusalem, but for the most part from materials as old as the fifth century. These predictions about the Antichrist are in it put into the mouth of the dying saint. For the temple at Jerusalem the compiler substitutes the Christian Church and introduces some other Christian touches; but on the whole, he presents us with a fairly primitive and complete form of the legend, so confirming what Bousset says as to the stability of the myth in its main outlines, no matter how fluctuating the events which men sought to explain by means of it.


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