Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith

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This is a study of the origins of the idea of "the world to come". Cohn takes the reader back 2000 years to look at the beliefs of ancient religions and civilizations and their view of the future of man. The millennarian view that the world is moving towards an ideal and perfect future is fundamental to most societies today, but it has not always been so. Cohn shows how the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians and pre-exilic Israelites, among others, believed in a static world in which a divinely pre-ordained order existed, despite the threats of evil, destructive forces like drought, famine or plague. Around 1500 BC, Zoroaster broke with this secure but anxious world-view, arguing that man was moving, through incessant conflict, towards an absolute, safe and divinely-appointed order. That view has dominated religious vision every since, as well as idealist ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism, and remains fundamental to man's philosophy. Cohn's book is therefore an investigation into probably the greatest turning-point in the history of human consciousness.

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About the Author:

Norman Cohn is professor emeritus at the University of Sussex and author of Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, also published by Yale University Press.

From Kirkus Reviews:

An incisive study of ancient religion and the rise of belief in an impending apocalypse, by the author of the classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium. Cohn (Emeritus/University of Sussex) has puzzled for nearly a half century over where and when the idea first emerged of a ``marvelous consummation, when good will be finally victorious over evil'' and human beings will enjoy a new life on a purified earth. As he demonstrates through a sequence of succinct histories of ancient religious cultures, neither the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, nor Vedic Indians possessed the notion of apocalypse. Instead, each of these peoples imagined the world as a vastly ancient creation in which the guardians of order, or cosmos, are locked in an eternal stalemate with the agents of chaos. Typically, as in ancient Egypt, the principle of order became embodied in the state and its monarchy (Cohn tends to see tight parallels between religious and political developments). The great break came around 1200 B.C. with Zoroaster, who developed ``a totally new perception of time'' in which the combat between cosmos and chaos (or, on the moral plane, between good and evil) will culminate in the triumph of cosmos--a transformation termed ``the making wonderful,'' including the bodily resurrection of the elect. As Cohn shows, Zoroastrian thinking wound its way into Palestine, where it united with the monotheism of the Israelite prophet Second Isaiah--an event Cohn describes as ``a particularly ingenious response to a situation of permanent insecurity.'' The result was a huge corpus of Jewish apocalyptic literature that led eventually to Christian ideas of a transcendent Messiah and a Final Judgment, encoded most strikingly in the Book of Revelation. Cohn's tendency to see religion as disguised politics (he likens theologians to ``political propagandists'') stays largely in the background here: a tight, intelligent study. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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