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The Idea Possibly of Babylonian Origin (§ 1).
Old Testament Conceptions (§ 2).
Later Hellenistic Jewish Literature (§ 3).
In the New Testament (§ 4).
In Post-Christian Judaism and in the Church (§ 5).
1. The Idea Possibly of Babylonian Origin.
The name “Antichrist” is first found in the Epistles of John (I. ii. 18, 22, iv. 3; II. 7). The idea, however, is in earlier New Testament writings, and its roots are in the Old Testament. According to a modern supposition they are even to be sought in the Babylonian chaos-myth,—a native myth of the springtime, which narrates how Tiamat, the ruler over the deeps of darkness and the waters, aided by her powers, rebelled against the upper gods, but was overcome by Marduk, the son of the gods, who had been elevated to the throne and then created the heavenly lights. It has been supposed that the Old Testament writings indicate that this myth migrated to Canaan in very ancient times, was transferred by the Israelites to the latter end of the world, and was applied in various forms also to political enemies of the people; and herein is sought the origin of the Old Testament idea of a rise and conquest of evil powers, which preceded the establishment of the kingdom of God (Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos, Göttingen, 1895, pp. 221 sqq.). But influence of old Oriental thoughts upon the figurative style of Biblical writings can be admitted only in a very limited degree.
2. Old Testament Conceptions.
Neither the sources of the eschatological ideas which meet in the notion of Antichrist, nor the characteristic features of their development can be traced back to extra-Biblical elements. The belief in the election of Israel as a people of God, sanctified unto him and blessed by him, received a rude shock by the experience of a reality apparently opposed to such choice. Hence arose the prophecy, that, because of its faithlessness Israel is given over to heathen powers, but that it shall be delivered from them, their presumption being punished for exceeding their divine commission as God’s scourges. Thus the opinion was formed that before the kingdom of God is completed it is to be attacked by the godless world. As the representative of the latter, Ezekiel (xxxviii. 2, xxxix. 1-6) mentions Magog, the land of King Gog, a comprehensive designation of the nations of the north. Zechariah (xii.-xiv.) describes more minutely the oppression of the people of God by hostile powers. When Antiochus IV. Epiphanes of Syria undertook with cruel severity to supplant the religion of Israel by Greek heathenism, these ideas found a further development. The heathen world-power then appeared not as an instrument of punishment in the hand of God, but as his adversary, attacking with destructive purpose the very center of his kingdom. The history of the godless world-kingdom, which reaches its climax in the person of the proud king, is thus represented in the Book of Daniel.
3. Later Hellenistic Jewish Literature.
Gradually the last enemy of the kingdom of God came to be thought of as the antitype of the Messiah; at least such is the representation of the later Hellenistic Jewish literature (cf. Num. xxiv. 7, LXX.; Sibyllines, iii. 652 sqq.). In the extant pre-Christian Palestinian literature no indication is found of a personal antitype of the Messiah. In the older portions of the Book of Enoch the appearance of the Messiah is spoken of as taking place at the end of all struggles 195 and judgments (Enoch xc. 37). In the pseudo-Solomonic Psalms (xvii. 27-39) of the time of Pompey, and in the Fourth Book of Ezra, of the time of the Flavian emperors, it is the godless powers or the heathen nations who are overpowered by the Messiah. In the almost contemporary Apocalypse of Baruch (xl. 1-2) this passage is applied to the destruction of a last impious king by the Messiah. The conception here is not yet influenced by Christianity; and thus the expectation of a personal opponent to the Messiah is found in pre-Christian Judaism.
4. In the New Testament.
In the New Testament writings the thought seems to be influenced by ideas which originated in the Christian revelation. The great struggle against sin as selfishness revived the idea of a final culmination of the enmity against God. On the other hand, by the separation of the religious life from the national-political life, the idea is divested of its natural form and is more spiritualized. In his eschatological discourse where the abomination of desolation in the holy place is spoken of as expressive of the tribulation of the approaching end (Matt. xxiv. 15), Jesus quoted the Book of Daniel. But the Messianic son of man is here not opposed, as in Daniel, by a ruler who at the same time destroys the religious and national side of the theocracy, but by a great number of pseudo-prophets and pseudo-Messiahs (Matt. xxiv. 5), who are thought of as fanatical representatives of a Jewish natural Messianic idea. The apostle Paul, when he declares that the appearance of the man of sin, the opponent who rises against every thing which contains good and God’s service, will precede the coming of Christ (II Thess. ii. 3-4), no doubt also thought in the first place of a pseudo-Messiah in personal recollection of the bitter opposition to the Gospel by Judaism filled with politico-Messianic thoughts (I Thess. ii. 15). For his picture of the adversary he doubtless took some traits from the description of Antiochus Epiphanes in the Book of Daniel and that of Caligula in history, who had his image in the form of Jupiter set up in the Temple at Jerusalem. Furthermore, Paul’s high conception of the superhuman virtue of Christ, is reflected in the description of his antitype. In John’s Apocalypse the counterpart of the kingdom of God in the last times, besides the nations Gog and Magog, which are to march against the holy city after the completion of the millennium (Rev. xx. 8), includes also the Roman power, personified (xvii. 11) in the incendiary, matricide, and persecutor of the Christians on the imperial throne, Nero (xvii. 9 sqq.), as well as a multitude of false prophets who mislead to the cult of the world-kingdom and its rule (xiii. 11-17, xvi. 13, xix. 20, xx. 10), representing no doubt the heathenish Roman practises of augury and necromancy. The last development of the idea within the New Testament is found in the Epistles of John, where the thought is of an opponent to the true Christ, putting himself in his place, brought about by doctrinal necessities to characterize heretics who destroy the unity of the historical Jesus and the bearer of the revelation of God, Christ. In these persons, according to the clear statement of the epistles (I John ii. 22; II John 7), the idea and the character of the Antichrist are realized.
5. In Post-Christian Judaism and in the Church.
In post-Christian Judaism the early national conception was enhanced. The name “Antichrist,” borrowed from Christianity, does not become current until late (e.g., in Abrabanel). But in the first Christian centuries there is found in Jewish literature the notion of a perpetrator of outrages upon the Jewish people in the last days. Sporadically, the figure of a powerful woman after the manner of Cleopatra appears (Sibyllines, iii. 77, v. 18, viii. 200); oftener that of an imperial Roman anti-Messiah. In later times Antichrist was represented in Jewish theology as victor over the suffering Messiah, and was called Romulus, also Armillus. In the Christian Church of the first centuries the main types of the Biblical Antichrist reappear. Origen identified the notion in an abstract sense with that of false doctrine. Certain contemporaneous representatives of heretical teaching were called by the name, without thereby excluding the expectation of an Antichrist as a future individual (cf. Didache, xvi.). Very often the latter was thought of as a false Jewish Messiah—hence circumcised and compelling circumcision—and it was expected that he would come from the tribe of Dan and from the East. The connection of Antichrist with Nero in the Apocalypse of John was also developed by representing him as the resuscitated Nero (Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, ii.; Jerome, on Dan, xi. 17; Augustine, De civitate Dei, xx. 13). Both conceptions were strangely fused (Victorinus, Comment. ad Apoc.) or outwardly connected with each other into the notion of a double Antichrist, a Western (Roman) and an Eastern, appearing in Jerusalem. In relation to Satan, the Antichrist was thought of as a man working his will, as his son, and even as his incarnation.
The idea receded in the Middle Ages, and when it again appeared it was mostly applied to phenomena of the present. It has often been applied to the papacy, an interpretation which was adopted by Luther (Adversus execrabilem Antichristi bullam) and other Reformers, and taken into the symbolical books of the Lutheran Church (Art. Schmal., ii. 4; Tract. de pot. Papæ). On the other hand, Roman Catholics have referred the Antichrist to Luther and Protestantism.
As Bousset (Antichrist) has so convincingly shown, a tradition was evidently current in Jewish thought which underlay the teaching both of Paul and the Apocalypse concerning the Antichrist. The tradition appears to have contained the following features. The coming of Antichrist was prevented by the Roman power. When this power should fall, the Antichrist, not of foreign birth but a Jewish false Messiah, would establish himself in the temple at Jerusalem and require men to worship him. His reign would last for three and one-half years. By means of his miraculous power he would convert the world to his side. Later, his real character would be exposed; the 196 believing Jews having fled into the wilderness would be pursued by him, and then he would be slain by the true Messiah with the breath of his mouth. This tradition is in part followed and in part contradicted by the Apocalypse and by Paul. In its background is the Book of Daniel with its fierce foreign oppressor; the Apocalyptic Belial, a supernatural spirit who will antagonize God at the end of time (Sybillines, bk. iii.); the doctrine of Satan (Rev. xx. 2); the Babylonian dragon-myth (Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos); and a man filled with satanic might. The doctrine of Antichrist contains one of the solutions which the early Church had to offer for two problems of the religious consciousness—the origin and overthrow of evil, and theodicy.
Bibliography: McClintock and Strong, Cyclopædia, i. 254-261 (able historical review, but omits survey of the Pseudepigrapha, a lack supplied in R. F. Charles, Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, London, 1899); J. G. Walch, Bibliotheca theologica, ii. 217 sqq., 4 vols., Jena, 1757-66 (gives bibliography of controversy between Protestants and Catholics); T. Malvenda, De Antichristo, Rome, 1604; J. H. Newman, The Protestant Idea of Anti-Christ, in his Critical and Historical Essays, ii. 112-185, London, 1871; DCB, i. 120-122; S. Huntingford, The Apocalypse . . . and the Antichrist of St. Paul and St. John, London, 1881; Computation of 666 . . . the Coming of Anti-Christ, ib. 1891; W. Bousset, Der Antichrist in der Ueberlieferung des Judenthums, des Neuen Testaments und der alten Kirche, Göttingen, 1895, Eng. transl., London, 1896; H. Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos, Göttingen, 1895; E. Wadstein, Antichrist, in ZWT, xxxviii.-xxxix. (new series, iii.-iv., 1895-96), 79-157, 251-293; M. Friedländer, Der Antichrist in den vorchristlichen jüdischen Quellen, Göttingen, 1901.
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