Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come


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The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith
Second Edition

Norman Cohn

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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 work The Pursuit of the Millennium takes 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 The Pursuit of the Millennium.

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.

"[A] rich tapestry encompassing history, archaeology, popular culture, mythology and religion. . . . Cohn's depth and breadth of knowledge is marvelous, his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. Well-documented and extremely readable, this is highly recommended for religion, history, and seminary collections."—Library Journal 

"Learned, fascinating and readable. . . . Norman Cohn combines scrupulous scholarship with readability in a unique way. . . . This book . . . will become a classic."—Anthony Storr, Independent on Sunday

"An incisive study of ancient religion and the rise of belief in an impending apocalypse. . . . A tight, intelligent study."—Kirkus Reviews

"[A] cogent, highly readable volume."—Booklist

"A cool draught of wise and intelligent scholarship."—J. D. F. Jones, Financial Times

"The author has given us a panorama of beliefs about the driving forces of good and evil in the universe, extending back to the earliest settled communities in the Near East. He has shown the value of the comparative study of religion in understanding the origins of some of the most important among traditional Christian beliefs. . . . A stimulating work of learning."—W. H. C. Friend, Church Times

"This is an exciting as well as a learned book, not only for those students of ancient religion but for those with any interest in modern apocalyptic faith."—Jasper Griffin, New York Review of Books

"Cohn's lucid writing style and his detailed notational listings will make Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come an interesting read and a useful tool for students of ancient history and religion."—Charles Odahl, Historian

"A provocative account of how [apocalypticism] arose and took root in a variety of religious systems, including Judiasm and Christianity. . . . Cohn offers a lucid study here, taking his readers on an exotic journey through ancient civilizations. . . . Those who appreciated Cohn's other books will find this among his best."—History Book Club

"Anyone concerned with the history of apocalypticism and millennial cults, whether ancient, medieval, or modern, should read this book carefully."—E. Randolph Daniel, Church History

"One cannot but admire the daring undertaking, the vast reading, and the immense effort that went into this book."—Devorah Dimant, History of Religions

"[A] highly readable and fully referenced, this wide-ranging, non-partisan view of Middle Eastern religion during the first millennium BCE explains a crucial stage in the emergence of revolutionary totalitarian monotheism from the conservative totalitarian polytheism of the Middle Eastern cosmic state and helps show why we perceive monotheistic religion as so different from the polytheistic outlook of the rest of the world."—Prudence Jones, Cosmos

“This is a magnificent book by the doyen of millennial scholars.”—Damian Thompson, Catholic Herald

Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come embodies in clear and graceful prose fifty years of study on Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Vedic Indian, Zoroastrian, Canaanite, Jewish, and Christian beliefs about the origin and destiny of the world and human beings, and the relationship between deities, humanity, and the continued existence of the world order.”—Sarah Belle Dougherty, Sunrise

ISBN: 9780300090888
Publication Date: August 11, 2001
256 pages, 5 x 7 3/4