Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come

Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come

Norman Cohn
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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    Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come
    Book Description:

    All over the world people look forward to a perfect future, when the forces of good will be finally victorious over the forces of evil. Once this was a radically new way of imagining the destiny of the world and of mankind. How did it originate, and what kind of world-view preceded it? In this engrossing book, the author of the classic workThe Pursuit of the Millenniumtakes us on a journey of exploration, through the world-views of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, through the innovations of Iranian and Jewish prophets and sages, to the earliest Christian imaginings of heaven on earth.Until around 1500 B.C., it was generally believed that once the world had been set in order by the gods, it was in essence immutable. However, it was always a troubled world. By means of flood and drought, famine and plague, defeat in war, and death itself, demonic forces threatened and impaired it. Various combat myths told how a divine warrior kept the forces of chaos at bay and enabled the world to survive. Sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C., the Iranian prophet Zoroaster broke from that static yet anxious world-view, reinterpreting the Iranian version of the combat myth. For Zoroaster, the world was moving, through incessant conflict, toward a conflictless state-"cosmos without chaos." The time would come when, in a prodigious battle, the supreme god would utterly defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies and eliminate them forever, and so bring an absolutely good world into being. Cohn reveals how this vision of the future was taken over by certain Jewish groups, notably the Jesus sect, with incalculable consequences.Deeply informed yet highly readable, this magisterial book illumines a major turning-point in the history of human consciousness. It will be mandatory reading for all who appreciated ThePursuit of the Millennium.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17719-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Foreword to the New Edition
    (pp. viii-viii)

    When this book was first published, in 1993, some even of its best-disposed critics found Chapter 13, ‘Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians’, too brief to be convincing — a friend even called it ‘rather a small tail for such a very large dog’. On reflection, I agreed. I trust that the new Chapter 13, with accompanying Notes, will put the matter right.

    The Appendix, which is also new, tells how theAvestafirst became known in Europe and how the question of Zoroastrians influence on Jews and Christians was first raised.

    Finally, a further acknowledgement is due. The above changes could...

  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-ix)

    This book investigates the deepest roots and first emergence of an expectation which is still flourishing today. That there will shortly be a marvellous consummation, when good will be finally victorious over evil and for ever reduce it to nullity; that the human agents of evil will be either physically annihilated or otherwise disposed of; that the elect will thereafter live as a collectivity, unanimous and without conflict, on a transformed and purified earth — this expectation has had a long history in our civilisation. In overtly Christian guise it has exercised a powerful fascination down the centuries, and continues...

  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
  6. PART ONE: The Ancient Near East and Beyond
    • CHAPTER 1 Egyptians
      (pp. 3-30)

      Cosmos, in the sense of all-embracing, all-pervading order, was taken for granted in the Ancient Near East: everything in heaven and earth, in nature and in society, had been established and set in order by the gods and was still watched over by the gods.

      Not that cosmos was undisturbed. There were chaotic forces, restless and threatening. And here too gods were at work. If some gods were benign, others were not — and some gods could be now benign, now destructive. Every Near Eastern world-view showed an awareness not only of order in the world but of the instability...

    • CHAPTER 2 Mesopotamians
      (pp. 31-56)

      The Sumerian-speaking peoples, who predominated in the extreme south of Mesopotamia, had their own notion of world order already at the beginning of historical times, around 3000 BC. And that notion was adopted and adapted by Akkadian-speaking peoples who lived partly alongside the Sumerian-speakers but mostly further north: Babylonians and Assyrians still adhered to it when they ruled over Mesopotamia in the second and first millennia.¹

      Like developed Egyptian civilisation, developed Mesopotamian civilisation lasted for almost three thousand years and remained remarkably uniform throughout that enormous span. Whether predominantly Sumerian or predominantly Semitic, whether radiating from Ur or Uruk or...

    • CHAPTER 3 Vedic Indians
      (pp. 57-76)

      It was not only the technologically developed civilisations of the Fertile Crescent that produced world-views centred on a divinely appointed order that was basically timeless and unchanging, yet was never wholly tranquil. The proto-Indo-Iranian tribes who in the second half of the third millennium were living on the vast open steppes of southern Russia did the same.¹

      By 2000 BC, if not earlier, these tribes had split into two peoples, the Indo-Aryans and the Iranians. In the course of the second millennium the greater part of both peoples left the steppes. For whatever reason — maybe loss of pasturage through...

    • CHAPTER 4 Zoroastrians
      (pp. 77-104)

      At a time when the Vedic Indians were still imagining the world as held in timeless equilibrium, a totally new perception of time and of the prospects for mankind was emerging amongst the Iranians. The Iranian prophet Zarathustra — more generally known under a later, Greek form of his name, Zoroaster — came to see all existence as the gradual realisation of a divine plan.¹ He also foretold the ultimate fulfilment of that plan, a glorious consummation when all things would be made perfect once and for all.

      When was all this achieved? There are two opinions, which cannot be...

    • CHAPTER 5 From Combat Myth to Apocalyptic Faith
      (pp. 105-116)

      At the heart of Zoroaster’s teaching is a sense of cosmic war: a conviction that a mighty spiritual power intent on maintaining and furthering life in an ordered world is locked in struggle with a spiritual power, scarcely less mighty, intent on destroying life and reducing the ordered world to chaos. Had this world-view a prehistory amongst the Iranians? Is it perhaps a novel version — thoroughly intellectualised and spiritualised — of the combat myth? Unfortunately, no god comparable with Indra figures in theAvesta, nor any combat comparable with Indra’s fight with Vritra; and this silence has led even...

  7. PART TWO: Syro-Palestinian Crucible
    • CHAPTER 6 Ugarit
      (pp. 119-128)

      Between those two great centres of civilisation, Egypt and Mesopotamia, lay the cultural-geographical entity that in the Bible is called the land of Canaan and now is known to historians as Syria-Palestine. Embracing approximately the area of modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and coastal-central Syria, it was inhabited by a mixture of Semitic peoples whom it is customary to call, down toc. 1200, Canaanites.¹ Fromc.1200 onwards it was inhabited also by the people we know as Israelites.

      In this land too people lived for centuries in what they perceived as a divinely appointed order that was essentially changeless, yet...

    • CHAPTER 7 Yahweh and the Jerusalem Monarchy
      (pp. 129-140)

      It might be thought that the history of the Israelites would be easy to summarise, and their world-view easy to define and to describe, since these things are documented in the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament. Unfortunately that is by no means the case, for the relevant parts of the Bible were collected and edited very late, between 600 and 100 BC — and edited, moreover, to fit in with the beliefs and experiences of the redactors. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to disentangle what may have been experienced and expressed in earlier times from later...

    • CHAPTER 8 Exile and After
      (pp. 141-162)

      If there had been no more to the Israelite world-view than what has been described in the previous chapter it would now be as dead as the world-views of the other small peoples of Syria-Palestine — or, for that matter, as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian world-views. But in fact there was more: there was the tradition known to historians as ‘Yahweh alone’.¹

      On the evidence both of the Bible and of archaeology, polytheism must have been widespread at every level of Israelite society, from peasant hut to royal palace and to the Temple itself. Of course all were agreed that...

    • CHAPTER 9 Jewish Apocalypses (I)
      (pp. 163-175)

      Some two centuries after the overthrow of the Babylonian empire by the Persians the Persian empire was overthrown by Alexander. Alexander’s victories over the Persian armies, between 334 and 331, effectively brought the history of the Ancient Near East to a close and inaugurated the Hellenistic period in the eastern Mediterranean world. Where Alexander’s armies penetrated, Greek colonists followed, new, purely Greek cities were founded, old cities acquired Greek inhabitants. And after Alexander’s death the vast empire he had founded was divided amongst dynasties of Greek descent. In the third century Palestine — or rather, that part of Palestine which...

    • CHAPTER 10 Jewish Apocalypses (II)
      (pp. 176-193)

      Two apocalyptic works,I Enochand theBook of Jubilees, deal explicitly with the divinely appointed order and the forces that threaten it.

      AlthoughI Enochdoes not figure in the Bible, not even in the Apocrypha, in the centuries immediately before and after Jesus it was widely known and enjoyed great prestige. During the second and first centuries BC no less than eleven manuscripts of it were produced for the Qumran community alone, and it was certainly known in far wider circles than that: the authors of later apocalypses were still familiar with it at the close of the...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Jesus Sect
      (pp. 194-211)

      Although for hundreds of years Jews had been united in their devotion to Yahweh and in their acceptance of the obligations enshrined in the Torah, there the unity ended. Until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the ensuing council at Yavneh there was no Jewish orthodoxy: Judaism embraced a number of groups and sects. Christians constituted one of these, alongside Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, ‘Zealots’ (resistance fighters), and other less well known. Christians, including Gentile converts, regarded themselves as Jews — and until well into the second century other Jews also regarded them as Jews, albeit Jews with strange...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Book of Revelation
      (pp. 212-219)

      The many millions of Christians who today regard the Book of Revelation as uniquely important can claim a notable precedent: in second-century writings the book is frequently cited than any other book in the New Testament.¹

      The work was probably composed towards the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, around 95-96 AD. The author was clearly a Christian of Jewish and Palestinian origin; moreover, his strange and ungrammatical Greek suggests that he normally thought in Hebrew or Aramaic. He calls himself John, and traditionally he has been identified with the apostle John, son of Zebedee. This attribution, which...

    • CHAPTER 13 Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians
      (pp. 220-231)

      It has often been objected — and continues to be objected right down to the present day — that in antiquity Jews cannot have known much about Zoroastrianism, as theAvestawas not written down before the sixth century AD. However, the argument is not valid: in fact Jews had ample opportunity to familiarise themselves with the essentials of Zoroastrianism.¹

      For some two centuries Judaea formed part of the vast Achaemenian empire, while the large Jewish diaspora also lived within the bounds of the empire. Achaemenian rule was relatively benign, and was recognised by Jews to be so: whereas there...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 232-233)

    This book is concerned with a major turning-point in the history of human consciousness: it tries to describe how the destiny of the world and of human beings came to be imagined in a new way, and how these new expectations began to spread abroad. A brief recapitulation of the main argument may not come amiss.

    Until around 1500 BC peoples as diverse as Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians and their Indian and Iranian descendants, Canaanites, pre-exilic Israelites were all agreed that in the beginning the world had been organised, set in order, by a god or by several gods, and...

  9. Appendix
    (pp. 234-239)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 240-276)
  11. Index
    (pp. 277-282)