1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Antichrist
ANTICHRIST (ἀντίχριστος). The earliest mention of the name Antichrist, which was probably first coined in Christian eschatological literature, is in the Epistles of St John (I. ii. 18, 22, iv. 3; II. 7), and it has since come into universal use. The conception, paraphrased in this word, of a mighty ruler who will appear at the end of time, and whose essence will be enmity to God (Dan. xi. 36; cf. 2 Thess. ii. 4; ὀ ἀντικείμενος), is older, and traceable to Jewish eschatology. Its origin is to be sought in the first place in the prophecy of Daniel, written at the beginning of the Maccabean period. The historical figure who served as a model for the “Antichrist” was Antiochus IV. Epiphanes, the persecutor of the Jews, and he has impressed indelible traits upon the conception. Since then ever-recurring characteristics of this figure (cf. especially Dan xi. 40, &c.) are, that he would appear as a mighty ruler at the head of gigantic armies, that he would destroy three rulers (the three horns, Dan. vii. 8, 24), persecute the saints (vii. 25), rule for three and a half years (vii. 25, &c.), and subject the temple of God to a horrible devastation (βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημὠσεως). When the end of the world foretold by Daniel did not take place, but the book of Daniel retained its validity as a sacred scripture which foretold future things, the personality of the tyrant who was God’s enemy disengaged itself from that of Antiochus IV., and became merely a figure of prophecy, which was applied now to one and now to another historical phenomenon. Thus for the author of the Psalms of Solomon (c. 60 b.c.), Pompey, who destroyed the independent rule of the Maccabees and stormed Jerusalem, was the Adversary of God (cf. ii. 26, &c.); so too the tyrant whom the Ascension of Moses (c. a.d. 30) expects at the end of all things, possesses, besides the traits of Antiochus IV., those of Herod the Great. A further influence on the development of the eschatological imagination of the Jews was exercised by such a figure as that of the emperor Caligula (a.d. 37–41), who is known to have given the order, never carried out, to erect his statue in the temple of Jerusalem. In the little Jewish Apocalypse, the existence of which is assumed by many scholars, which in Mark xiii. and Matt. xxiv. is combined with the words of Christ to form the great eschatological discourse, the prophecy of the “abomination of desolation” (Mark xiii. 14 et seq.) may have originated in this episode of Jewish history. Later Jewish and Christian writers of Apocalypses saw in Nero the tyrant of the end of time. The author of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (or his source), cap. 36-40, speaks in quite general terms of the last ruler of the end of time. In 4 Ezra v. 6 also is found the allusion: regnabit quem non sperant.
The roots of this eschatological fancy are to be sought perhaps still deeper in a purely mythological and speculative expectation of a battle at the end of days between God and the devil, which has no reference whatever to historical occurrences. This idea has its original source in the apocalypses of Iran, for these are based upon the conflict between Ahura-Mazda (Auramazda, Ormazd) and Angrō-Mainyush (Ahriman) and its consummation at the end of the world. This Iranian dualism is proved to have penetrated into the late Jewish eschatology from the beginning of the 1st century before Christ, and did so probably still earlier. Thus the opposition between God and the devil already plays a part in the Jewish groundwork of the Testaments of the Patriarchs, which was perhaps composed at the end of the period of the Maccabees. In this the name of the devil appears, besides the usual form (σατανᾶς, διάβολος), especially as Belial (Beliar, probably, from Ps. xviii. 4, where the rivers of Belial are spoken of, originally a god of the underworld), a name which also plays a part in the Antichrist tradition. In the Ascension of Moses we already hear, at the beginning of the description of the latter time (x. 1): “And then will God’s rule be made manifest over all his creatures, then will the devil have an end” (cf. Matt. xii. 28; Luke xi. 20; John xii. 31, xiv. 30, xvi. 11). This conception of the strife of God with the devil was further interwoven, before its introduction into the Antichrist myth, with another idea of different origin, namely, the myth derived from the Babylonian religion, of the battle of the supreme God (Marduk) with the dragon of chaos (Tiamāt), originally a myth of the origin of things which, later perhaps, was changed into an eschatological one, again under Iranian influence. Thus it comes that the devil, the opponent of God, appears in the end often also in the form of a terrible dragon-monster; this appears most clearly in Rev. xii. Now it is possible that the whole conception of Antichrist has its final roots in this already complicated myth, that the form of the mighty adversary of God is but the equivalent in human form of the devil or of the dragon of chaos. In any case, however, this myth has exercised a formative influence on the conception of Antichrist. For only thus can we explain how his figure acquires numerous superhuman and ghostly traits, which cannot be explained by any particular historical phenomenon on which it may have been based. Thus the figure of Antiochus IV. has already become superhuman, when in Dan. viii. 10, it is said that the little horn “waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground.” Similarly Pompey, in the second psalm of Solomon, is obviously represented as the dragon of chaos, and his figure exalted into myth. Without this assumption of a continual infusion of mythological conceptions, we cannot understand the figure of Antichrist. Finally, it must be mentioned that Antichrist receives, at least in the later sources, the name originally proper to the devil himself.
From the Jews, Christianity took over the idea. It is present quite unaltered in certain passages, specifically traceable to Judaism, e.g. (Rev. xi.). “The Beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit” and, surrounded by a mighty host of nations, slays the “two witnesses” in Jerusalem, is the entirely superhuman Jewish conception of Antichrist. Even if the beast (ch. xiii.), which rises from the sea at the summons of the devil, be interpreted as the Roman empire, and, specially, as any particular Roman ruler, yet the original form of the malevolent tyrant of the latter time is completely preserved.
A fundamental change of the whole idea from the specifically Christian point of view, then, is signified by the conclusion of ch. ii. of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. There can, of course, be no doubt as to the identity of the “man of sin, the son of perdition” here described with the dominating figure of Jewish eschatology (cf. ii. 3 &c., ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας, i.e. Beliar (?), ὁ ἀντικείμενος—the allusion that follows to Dan xi. 36). But Antichrist here appears as a tempter, who works by signs and wonders (ii. 9) and seeks to obtain divine honours; it is further signified that this “man of sin” will obtain credence, more especially among the Jews, because they have not accepted the truth. The conception, moreover, has become almost more superhuman than ever (cf. ii. 4, “showing himself that he is God”). The destruction of the Adversary is drawn from Isaiah xi. 4, where it is said of the Messiah: “with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.” The idea that Antichrist was to establish himself in the temple of Jerusalem (ii. 4) is very enigmatical, and has not yet been explained. The “abomination of desolation” has naturally had its influence upon it; possibly also the experience of the time of Caligula (see above). Remarkable also is the allusion to a power which still retards the revelation of Antichrist (2 Thess. ii. 6 &c., τὸ κατέχον; ὁ κατέχων), an allusion which, in the tradition of the Fathers of the church, came to be universally, and probably correctly, referred to the Roman empire. In this then consists the significant turn given by St Paul in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians to the whole conception, namely, in the substitution for the tyrant of the latter time who should persecute the Jewish people, of a pseudo-Messianic figure, who, establishing himself in the temple of God, should find credence and a following precisely among the Jews. And while the originally Jewish idea led straight to the conception, set forth in Revelation, of the Roman empire or its ruler as Antichrist, here, on the contrary, it is probably the Roman empire that is the power which still retards the reign of Antichrist. With this, the expectation of such an event at last separates itself from any connexion with historical fact, and becomes purely ideal. In this process of transformation of the idea, which has become of importance for the history of the world, is revealed probably the genius of Paul, or at any rate, that of the young Christianity which was breaking its ties with Judaism and establishing itself in the world of the Roman empire.
This version of the figure of Antichrist, who may now really for the first time be described by this name, appears to have been at once widely accepted in Christendom. The idea that the Jews would believe in Antichrist, as punishment for not having believed in the true Christ, seems to be expressed by the author of the fourth gospel (v. 43). The conception of Antichrist as a perverter of men, leads naturally to his connexion with false doctrine (1 John ii. 18, 22; iv. 3; 2 John 7). The Teaching of the Apostles (xvi. 4) describes his form in the same way as 2 Thessalonians (καὶ τότε φαινήσεται ὁ κοσμοπλάνος ὡς υἱὸς θεοῦ καὶ ποιεῖ σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα). In the late Christian Sibylline fragment (iii. 63 &c.) also, “Beliar” appears above all as a worker of wonders, this figure having possibly been influenced by that of Simon Magus. Finally the author of the Apocalypse of St John also has made use of the new conception of Antichrist as a wonder-worker and seducer, and has set his figure beside that of the “first” Beast which was for him the actual embodiment of Antichrist (xiii. II &c.). Since this second Beast could not appear along with the first as a power demanding worship and directly playing the part of Antichrist, he made out of him the false prophet (xvi. 13, xix. 20, xx. 10) who seduces the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first Beast, and probably interpreted this figure as applying to the Roman provincial priesthood.
But this version of the idea of Antichrist, hostile to the Jews and better expressing the relation of Christianity to the Roman empire, was prevented from obtaining an absolute ascendancy in Christian tradition by the rise of the belief in the ultimate return of Nero, and by the absorption of this outcome of pagan superstition into the Jewish-Christian apocalyptic conceptions. It is known that soon after the death of Nero rumours were current that he was not dead. This report soon took the more concrete form that he had fled to the Parthians and would return thence to take vengeance on Rome. This expectation led to the appearance of several pretenders who posed as Nero; and as late as A.D. 100 many still held the belief that Nero yet lived. This idea of Nero’s return was in the first instance taken up by the Jewish apocalyptic writers. While the Jewish author of the fourth Sibylline book (c. A.D. 80) still only refers simply to the heathen belief, the author of the (Jewish?) original of the 17th chapter of the Apocalypse of St John expects the return of Nero with the Parthians to take vengeance on Rome, because she had shed the blood of the Saints (destruction of Jerusalem!). In the fifth Sibylline book, which, with the exception of verses 1-51, was mainly composed by a Jewish writer at the close of the first century, the return of Nero plays a great part. Three times the author recurs to this theme, 137-154; 214-227; 361-385. He sees in the coming again of Nero, whose figure he endows with supernatural and daemonic characteristics, a judgment of God, in whose hand the revivified Nero becomes a rod of chastisement. Later, the figure of Nero redivivus became, more especially in Christian thought, entirely confused with that of Antichrist. The less it became possible, as time went on, to believe that Nero yet lived and would return as a living ruler, the greater was the tendency for his figure to develop into one wholly infernal and daemonic. The relation to the Parthians is also gradually lost sight of; and from being the adversary of Rome, Nero becomes the adversary of God and of Christ. This is the version of the expectation of Nero’s second coming preserved in the form given to the prophecy, under Domitian, by the collaborator in the Apocalypse of John (xiii., xvii.). Nero is here the beast that returns from the bottomless pit, “that was, and is not, and yet is”; the head “as it were wounded to death” that lives again; the gruesome similitude of the Lamb that was slain, and his adversary in the final struggle. The number of the Beast, 666, points certainly to Nero (ןורנ רסק = 666, or ורנ רסק = 616). In the little apocalypse of the Ascensio Jesaiae (iii. 13b-iv. 18), which dates perhaps from the second, perhaps only from the first, decade of the third century, it is said that Beliar, the king of this world, would descend from the firmament in the human form of Nero. In the same way, in Sibyll. v. 28-34, Nero and Antichrist are absolutely identical (mostly obscure reminiscences, Sib. viii. 68 &c., 140 &c., 151 &c.). Then the Nero-legend gradually fades away. But Victorinus of Pettau, who wrote during the persecution under Diocletian, still knows the relation of the Apocalypse to the legend of Nero; and Commodian, whose Carmen Apologeticum was perhaps not written until the beginning of the 4th century, knows two Antichrist-figures, of which he still identifies the first with Nero redivivus.
In proportion as the figure of Nero again ceased to dominate the imagination of the faithful, the wholly unhistorical, unpolitical and anti-Jewish conception of Antichrist, which based itself more especially on 2 Thess. ii., gained the upper hand, having usually become associated with the description of the universal conflagration of the world which had also originated in the Iranian eschatology. On the strength of exegetical combinations, and with the assistance of various traditions, it was developed even in its details, which it thenceforth maintained practically unchanged. In this form it is in great part present in the eschatological portions of the Adv. Haereses of Irenaeus, and in the de Antichristo and commentary on Daniel of Hippolytus. In times of political excitement, during the following centuries, men appealed again and again to the prophecy of Antichrist. Then the foreground scenery of the prophecies was shifted; special prophecies, having reference to contemporary events, are pushed to the front, but in the background remains standing, with scarcely a change, the prophecy of Antichrist that is bound up with no particular time. Thus at the beginning of the Testamentum Domini, edited by Rahmani, there is an apocalypse, possibly of the time of Decius, though it has been worked over (Harnack, Chronol. der altchrist. Litt. ii. 514 &c.) In the third century, the period of Aurelianus and Gallienus, with its wild warfare of Romans and Persians, and of Roman pretenders one with another, seems especially to have aroused the spirit of prophecy. To this period belongs the Jewish apocalypse of Elijah (ed. Buttenwieser), of which the Antichrist is possibly Odaenathus of Palmyra, while Sibyll. xiii., a Christian writing of this period, glorifies this very prince. It is possible that at this time also the Sibylline fragment (iii. 63 &c.) and the Christian recension of the two first Sibylline books were written. To this time possibly belongs also a recension of the Coptic apocalypse of Elijah, edited by Steindorff (Texte und Untersuchungen, N. F. ii. 3). To the 4th century belongs, according to Kamper (Die deutsche Kaiseridee, 1896, p. 18) and Sackur (Texte und Forschungen, 1898, p. 114 &c.), the first nucleus of the “Tiburtine” Sibyl, very celebrated in the middle ages, with its prophecy of the return of Constans, and its dream, which later on exercised so much influence, that after ruling over the whole world he would go to Jerusalem and lay down his crown upon Golgotha. To the 4th century also perhaps belongs a series of apocalyptic pieces and homilies which have been handed down under the name of Ephraem. At the beginning of the Mahommedan period, then, we meet with the most influential and the most curious of these prophetic books, the Pseudo-Methodius, which prophesied of the emperor who would awake from his sleep and conquer Islam. From the Pseudo-Methodius are derived innumerable Byzantine prophecies (cf. especially Vassiliev, Anecdota Graeco-Byzantina) which follow the fortunes of the Byzantine emperors and their governments. A prophecy in verse, adorned with pictures, which is ascribed to Leo VI. the Philosopher (Migne, Patr. Gracca, cvii. p. 1121 &c.), tells of the downfall of the house of the Comneni and sings of the emperor of the future who would one day awake from death and go forth from the cave in which he had lain. Thus the prophecy of the sleeping emperor of the future is very closely connected with the Antichrist tradition. There is extant a Daniel prophecy which, in the time of the Latin empire, foretells the restoration of the Greek rule. In the East, too, Antichrist prophecies were extraordinarily flourishing during the period of the rise of Islam and of the Crusades. To these belong the apocalypses in Arabic, Ethiopian and perhaps also in Syrian, preserved in the so-called Liber Clementis discipuli S. Petri (Petri apostoli apocalypsis per Clementem), the late Syrian apocalypse of Ezra (Bousset, Antichrist, 45 &c.), the Coptic (14th) vision of Daniel (in the appendix to Woide’s edition of the Codex Alexandrinus; Oxford, 1799), the Ethiopian Wisdom of the Sibyl, which is closely related to the Tiburtine Sibyl (see Basset, Apocryphes éthiopiennes, x.); in the last mentioned of these sources long series of Islamic rulers are foretold before the final time of Antichrist. Jewish apocalypse also awakes to fresh developments in the Mahommedan period, and shows a close relationship with the Christian Antichrist literature. One of the most interesting apocalypses is the Jewish History of Daniel, handed down in Persian.
This whole type of prophecy reached the West above all through the Pseudo-Methodius, which was soon translated into Latin. Especially influential, too, in this respect was the letter which the monk Adso in 954 wrote to Queen Gerberga, De ortu et tempore Antichristi. The old Tiburtine Sibylla went through edition after edition, in each case being altered so as to apply to the government of the monarch who happened to be ruling at the time. Then in the West the period arrived in which eschatology, and above all the expectation of the coming of Antichrist, exercised a great influence on the world’s history. This period, as is well known, was inaugurated, at the end of the 12th century, by the apocalyptic writings of the abbot Joachim of Floris. Soon the word Antichrist re-echoed from all sides in the embittered controversies of the West. The pope bestowed this title upon the emperor, the emperor upon the pope, the Guelphs on the Ghibellines and the Ghibellines on the Guelphs. In the contests between the rival powers and courts of the period, the prophecy of Antichrist played a political part. It gave motives to art, to lyrical, epic and dramatic poetry. Among the visionary Franciscans, enthusiastic adherents of Joachim’s prophecies, arose above all the conviction that the pope was Antichrist, or at least his precursor. From the Franciscans, influenced by Abbot Joachim, the lines of connexion are clearly traceable with Milič of Kremsier (Libellus de Antichristo) and Matthias of Janow. For Wycliffe and his adherent John Purvey (probably the author of the Commentarius in Apocalypsin ante centum annos editus, edited in 1528 by Luther), as on the other hand for Hus, the conviction that the papacy is essentially Antichrist is absolute. Finally, if Luther advanced in his contest with the papacy with greater and greater energy, he did so because he was borne on by the conviction that the pope in Rome was Antichrist. And if in the Augustana. the expression of this conviction was suppressed for political reasons, in the Articles of Schmalkalden, drawn up by him, Luther propounded it in the most uncompromising fashion. This sentence was for him an articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. To write the history of the idea of Antichrist in the last centuries of the middle ages, would be almost to write that of the middle ages themselves.
- See further, Bousset, Religion des Judentums, ed. ii. pp. 289 &c., 381 &c., 585 &c.
- See Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos (1893).
- It is, of course, uncertain whether this phenomenon already occurs in 2 Cor. vi. 15, since here Belial might still be Satan; cf. however, Ascensio Jesaiae iv. 2 &c.; Sibyll. iii. 63 &c., ii. 167 &c.
- It is not necessary to decide whether the epistle is by St Paul or by a pupil of Paul, although the former seems to the present writer to be by far the more probable, in spite of the brilliant attack on the genuineness of the epistle by Wrede in Texte und Übersetzungen, N.F. ix. 2.
- Cf. 2 Thess. ii. 8; the Targum also, in its comment on the passage of Isaiah, applies “the wicked” to Antichrist.
- See Bousset, Kommentar zur Offenbarung Johannis, on these passages.
- Ibid. ch. xvii.: and Charles, Ascension of Isaiah, lvii. sq.
- Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Literatur, i. 573
- See Bousset, in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklop. für Theologie und Kirsche (ed. 3), xviii. 273 &c.
- Latin text by Sackur, cf. op. cit. 1 &c.; Greek text by V. Istrin.
- See Bousset, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, xx. p. 289 &c.
- Published in Merx, Archiv zur Erforschung des Alten Testament.
- See especially the Ludus de Antichristo, ed. W. Meyer.