As this series on “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” begins to come to a close, it is necessary to examine one of the most complicated (and controversial) components of early Christian eschatology—the Antichrist Tradition, which may be defined as follows:
The expectation that an evil world ruler would arise at the end-time, prior to Jesus’ return, the climax of a period of increasing wickedness and corruption. He will be opposed to God and to Christ, and will openly persecute true believers in Jesus; he will deceive people, leading them astray, through supernatural power and influence that may resemble Jesus’ own, a wicked imitation of Christ himself. He is commonly referred to by the title “Antichrist”.
This tradition was reasonably well-established in Christianity by the end of the 2nd century A.D., and continues, with certain variations, into the present day. Many Christians today simply read this tradition into various eschatological passages in the New Testament; to do so, however, is highly problematic, for it assumes that the tradition outlined above had already taken shape, and was widespread, during the first century. As we shall see, the evidence for this is extremely slight. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the seeds of the later tradition are present in at least several of the New Testament writings. We can go back even further—for the roots of the Antichrist tradition can be found in key passages in the Old Testament Prophets, establishing a number of apocalyptic and eschatological motifs which would be developed in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., contemporary with, and prior to, the New Testament texts.
This study will explore the development of the Antichrist Tradition. There have been a number of fine critical studies along this line, going back to Wilhelm Bousset’s landmark Der Antichrist in der Überlieferung des Judentums, des Neuen Testaments, und der alten Kirche (1895, published in English translation as “The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Jewish Folklore”). One I have found especially useful is by L. J. Lietaert Peerbolte, The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents, vol. 49 in the “Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism” (Brill: 1996). This work will be cited as “Peerbolte, Antecedents,” followed by page number.
Part 1 of this study will begin with a brief examination of the word a)nti/xristo$—its meaning and significance, etc—followed by a survey of the main Old Testament references and passages that were influential in the formation of the Antichrist Tradition.
“Antichrist” in English comes from a transliteration of the Greek word a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos). It is a compound noun which means, literally, “against the anointed (one)”. There is no evidence that the word was ever used, prior to its adoption by Christians in the mid/late-first century A.D., nor is there any known contemporary usage by non-Christians. Since the “Anointed” (xristo/$, christós) essentially refers to the Jewish Messiah (or Messianic figure-type), anti/xristo$ conceivably could have been applicable in a Jewish context, referring to someone or something that was “against the Messiah”, or to a false Messiah. However, there is no real evidence for this, and, in all likelihood, the word was coined by early Christians, with the specific understanding of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (xristo/$)—on this, cf. my series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
As coined by first-century Christians, the word follows the pattern of similar descriptive titles with the prefixed preposition a)nti/ (antí), cf. Moulton-Milligan s.v., p. 49:
- a)ntistra/thgo$ (antistrát¢gos), i.e. the leader of the opposing army (used by Thucydides, etc)
- a)ntisu/gklhto$ (antisýngkl¢tos), an opposing assembly (i.e. senate, su/gklhto$, those “called together”)
- a)ntixo/rhgo$ (antichór¢gos), an opposing ‘chorus’ leader, i.e. of voices
Perhaps closer in formal meaning to the Christian use of a)nti/xristo$ is the word a)nti/qeo$ (antítheos), when used in the (admittedly rare) sense of a rival God (qeo/$) or something imitating the Deity. The fundamental meaning of the preposition a)nti/ is “against”, but it can also mean “in place of”, and both of these aspects apply to the Antichrist Tradition as it was developed.
Old Testament Background
The background of the Antichrist Tradition is located in the Old Testament Prophetic writings—especially within the specific genre of the nation-oracle, i.e. oracles of judgment against specific nations (and their rulers). This genre has a long history, from virtually the earliest writings as they have come down to us (8th century B.C.), through to the exile and post-exilic periods. Indeed, most of the canonical Prophetic Scriptures contain some form of nation-oracle, the most notable being those in Amos, Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Initially these oracles were not eschatological, but referred to the judgment God would bring on a particular nation in the immediate or near future. The genre did not apply only to the surrounding (pagan, non-Israelite) nations—the Prophets regularly gave specific messages of impending judgment for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah which followed a similar pattern.
From the prophetic standpoint, a nation (and its people) was represented by its king, and, occasionally, a nation-oracle would be directed specifically at its ruler. While this symbolized the wickedness of the people as a whole, it had the practical effect of focusing attention on the king as a wicked/corrupt ruler. And, the larger and more powerful the nation, the more conspicuous the ruler is in his worldly ambition, arrogance, and corrupt/brutal use of power. We may call this motif, such as it is highlighted in several key Prophetic passages, that of the “Wicked Tyrant”.
The “Wicked Tyrant” Motif
This motif goes back to at least the late-8th century and the figure of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.). At the time, Assyria was the pre-eminent national power in the Near East, having expanded, through brutal conquest, to form an extensive regional empire. After the northern Israelite kingdom had fallen to Assyria (722-721), it was Sennacherib who led a successful invasion of Syria-Palestine, including an expedition against the southern kingdom, in 701. Dozens of cities were captured or destroyed, but Jerusalem survived, in spite of the siege laid against it. The relevant Scriptural accounts of these events are found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37; 2 Chron 32:1-23; and Isaiah 36-37. In 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff) there is a prophetic denunciation (and taunt) against Sennacherib, which may be seen as the earliest instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:
“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)
The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28).
There are two especially noteworthy examples of this “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets—(1) the oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23, and (2) the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19. Each of these emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the king, who would dare to put himself in the position of God (on earth), essentially appropriating the divine authority for himself. This follows the basic seminal pattern of the oracle against Sennacherib (above); however, the imagery in these (later) oracles is expanded considerably, no doubt reflecting a significant development in the tradition.
Isaiah 14:3-23: The King of Babylon
This two-part oracle is closer in tone and style to the poem against Sennacherib; indeed, as an Isaian oracle, it may have been originally directed against Assyria. The specific king and nation being addressed is not indicated within the oracle itself, and the target of Assyria is much more appropriate to the overall context (and historical setting) of the first half of the book (chaps. 1-39). It is a bit difficult to explain the sudden shift to Babylon in 13:1-14:23 (at 14:24 the focus is back on Assyria) on historical grounds, and many critical commentators believe that an earlier Isaian oracle has been applied to a later Babylonian setting (i.e. the Neo-Babylonian empire). However, the introduction to the oracle (14:3-4) clearly has it being addressed to the king of Babylon; the oracles in chaps. 13-14 presumably refer to the fall of the city (to the Persians) in 539 B.C.
The oracle itself appears to be comprised of two distinct poems—one, a more realistic description of the king (and city)’s fall (vv. 4b-11), and the other, a more figurative version of the same (vv. 12-21), drawing upon mythological traditions. The second poem is more relevant to our study, and, in its opening lines, we can see how some of the same motifs and themes of the oracle against Sennacherib (cf. above) have been developed:
“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my covered seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”
… (vv. 12-15)
As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (du@om) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.
While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb ud^G`) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); as noted above, Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.
Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).
Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms ll@yh@ (“shining [one]”) and rj^v* (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler. For more on this, cf. below.
The oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 is even more complex, part of a series of oracles spanning chapters 26-28. If the Babylonian empire signified military power, the city-state of Tyre embodied commercial power. The product of centuries of Phoenician colonization and trade, the port-city of Tyre, with its fortified island location, was indeed a commercial power, with ambitions to become the center of world trade. Though threatened by the Babylonians, including a lengthy siege by Nebuchadnezzar (c. 585-572?), the city avoided destruction, presumably by way of a surrender treaty or similar agreement. This contrast with the fate of Jerusalem helps to explain Ezekiel’s emphasis on Tyre, devoting several oracles to the city’s expected and impending destruction. As it was envisioned, it would seem that this destruction never did occur, which may be one of the reasons that the book of Revelation chose to use these prophecies for the fate of the end-time “Babylon” (chaps. 17-18), where they could truly find fulfillment.
In this oracle, also in two parts (vv. 1-10, 11-19), many of the same basic themes are repeated, including the overweening ambition (and divine pretensions) of the king, along with his ultimate fate of being cast down into Sheol (here, tj^v^, the place of decay/destruction, v. 8). The arrogance of the king is stated more bluntly, and blatantly, in verse 2:
“…your heart has raised (itself) high, and you said, ‘I am (a) Mighty (one) [°E~l], (on the) seat of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm] I sit, in the heart of (the) seas!’ And (yet) you (are) a man, and not a Mighty (one) [°E~l], and (yet) you give your heart (to be) like (the) heart of (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]!”
This idea of the wicked ruler daring to sit in the very seat of God would play a significant role in the subsequent Antichrist tradition. On the meaning of the titles El and Elohim, and how I translate them, consult the corresponding articles. Even more significant is how this ruler sets his heart to be like the heart of God—this marks his ambition and desire for power in a deeper and more essential way. The Greek term anti/qeo$ (antítheos) could be applied to this attitude, of wishing to function “in the place of God”, or “in imitation of God”; on the parallel between anti/qeo$ and anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), cf. above.
The poem in verses 11-19, like that of Isa 14:12-21, is more figurative in nature, drawing heavily on mythological tradition. We have again the idea of the Garden of God (v. 13), located at the top of the great Mountain (the Mountain of God, v. 14). This Garden-setting was only alluded to in 2 Kings 19:23 (par Isa 37:24), but it is described here in considerably more detail, referring to ancient traditions regarding the primeval ±E~den (/d#u@), the luxuriant locale mentioned in the Genesis Creation narratives (2:8, 10, 15; 3:23-24), containing a garden (/G~)—here called the “Garden of God” (“garden of the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$-/G~).
The satire, too, is much more expansive, depicting the Tyrian king as a k§rû» (bWrK=), a word of uncertain derivation, but typically referring to a divine or heavenly being, presumably with wings, as in the conventional image of an Angel (cf. Exod 25:20, etc). The richness of the divine Garden, with its jewels (precious stones), reflects the wealth and commercial aspirations of Tyre; moreover, the kerub’s wings provide covering (vb Ek^s*), which may allude to the protected position of the city (as an island-fortress). In spite of Tyre’s privileged position (provided to it by God, “I set you on the holy mountain…”, v. 14), it became arrogant and acted wickedly, corrupting its beauty and desecrating its space. As a result, God declares that it will be cast down and destroyed by fire (v. 18), a suitable image for the destruction of a city by military attack.
Here, more so than in Isa 14:12ff, we are likely dealing with an ancient tradition, regard the sin and punishment of a divine/heavenly being, that is being applied to an earthly king. One can only speculate on the details of such a tradition, as well as its possible relation to the sin and fall of Adam in Genesis 2-3. The idea that these oracles refer to the rebellion of Satan and the fallen Angels surely reads far too much into the text, though many today would accept such an interpretation, albeit rather uncritically. Conflict among deities features in many cosmological and religious myths, including aspects of the fall and punishment of certain divine beings; it is only natural that similar tales and traditions were current in Israel, though only fragments have survived within the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. Ezekiel appears to make rather more use of colorful, extra-Scriptural traditions, than do the other Prophets, but similar instances can be cited in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere. Such use of traditions is no bar whatsoever against the inspiration of these writings.
The Book of Daniel
The book of Daniel had an immense influence on Jewish and early Christian eschatology, a subject which will be dealt with more in Parts 2 and 3 of this study. Here space will only allow for a relatively brief survey of the passages most directly relevant to the development of the Antichrist Tradition. To some extent, the precise nature of the book’s influence depends on how one dates the text as it has come down to us. Most critical scholars would date the book (as certainly chapters 7-12) to the mid-2nd century B.C., placing it fairly close in time with other Apocalyptic writings, and even contemporary with some the earlier Qumran texts and parts of the book of Enoch, etc. This would allow the possibility that the book of Daniel is part of a wider apocalyptic tradition. On the other hand, if one takes the book at face value, as coming ostensibly from Daniel’s own time (in the early-mid 6th century), then it is much more likely that it is the primary source of the later lines of tradition.
The book of Daniel was certainly important to the Community of the Qumran texts, as is indicated by the number of manuscript copies, but also by the various “Pseudo-Daniel” writings that have survived. Among these may be considered the famous Aramaic “Son of God” text (4Q246), on which see my earlier article; I will touch on the Qumran texts in Part 2 of this study. A brief survey of the Pseudo-Daniel writings can be found in the article on “New Testament eschatology and the book of Daniel”.
There can be no doubt that much of early Christian eschatology was inspired by the book of Daniel. Of the many signs of this influence (cf. the aforementioned article), the following may be noted especially:
- The idea of the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14), best known from Jesus’ statements in Mark 13:26-27 par; 14:62 par, and the other eschatological “Son of Man” sayings.
- The tradition regarding the “disgusting thing of desolation” (Dan 9:27; cf. also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted in Mark 13:14 par, and likely alluded to elsewhere; this will be discussed further in Part 3.
- The early Christian concept of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) appears to have been shaped significantly by Dan 12:1ff [LXX]; cf. Mark 13:19 par; Rev 7:14, etc.
Many of the prophecies in the second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) build upon the same “wicked tyrant” tradition found in other Prophetic nation-oracles (cf. the discussion above). It appears prominently in three main sections (cf. also the survey in Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 226-37):
1. Daniel 7—The Horn of the Fourth “Beast”
Chapter 7 is built around a vision of four “beasts” (lit. “living [creature]s”, Aram. /w`yj@) that come up out of the sea, each with fabulous, hybrid animal attributes (vv. 1-8). The fourth of these was the most deadly and terrifying in appearance (v. 7), with ten horns, among which another smaller horn arose (v. 8). This latter horn is described as having eyes “like the eyes of a man”, and also a mouth, which was speaking “great things”. These specific attributes indicate the shrewdness and bold ambition of this “horn”, whose very rise suggests violence—with three of the previous horns being “pulled (up) by the roots”.
Following a theophanic vision of God (the “Ancient of Days”) and the heavenly “Son of Man” (“[one] like a son of man”) in vv. 9-14, an explanation of the vision of the four creatures is given (vv. 15-27). As in the vision of the statue (chap. 2), these four beasts symbolize a sequence of four great kingdoms, the last of which will be the fiercest and most powerful, a conquering empire that shall “devour all the earth and trample it and crush it (to pieces)” (v. 23). As befitting the motif of the horn (symbol of strength and power), each of the ten horns is a king who will rule over the empire. The horn that comes after them is described more extensively, in verses 24-26, prophesying his character and actions; it is in verse 25 that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif:
“And (thing)s spoken against the High (One) will he speak,
and he will wear out the holy (one)s of the Highest;
and he will think to change (the) appointed (time)s and decrees,
and they will be delivered in(to) his hand
until a (set) time, and times, and a division [i.e. half] of a time.”
Each of these lines reflect a key theme or motif that would help shape the Antichrist tradition:
- Opposing, attacking, or insulting God, especially by the things he says—i.e. boastful, arrogant, and impious words
- Persecution of the righteous/believers (“he will wear out the holy ones”, also v. 21 “he made war on the holy ones”)
- Replacement of true religion with false/wicked practices
- He will be allowed to attack God’s people and institute false religious practice, i.e. he will have the power to do so, and God will permit it
- This will last for a relatively brief period of time— “a time, times, and half a time”, usually understood as a symbolic period of 3 ½ years.
The wicked rule of this king will be cut short by God’s Judgment, when both the kingdom (the beast) and its king (the horn) will be destroyed (vv. 11f, 26). In its place there will be an eternal kingdom, that of God himself, a kingdom belonging to the holy ones (i.e., the people of God). The “Son of Man” figure is central to this dominion, and features in the vision as a singular figure that is parallel to the collective people of God (vv. 14, 22, 27).
2. Daniel 8—The Horn of the He-Goat
There is a similar vision in chapter 8, of a horned ram, followed by a male goat (he-goat) with a series of horns (vv. 1-14). A single great horn is broken, replaced by four others (v. 8), among which a smaller horn rises up (v. 9). The horn-symbolism is identical, only here the actions of the “little horn” are narrated in much greater detail (vv. 10-15), reflecting both the historical events associated with this king, and the wickedness and arrogance of his conduct. An interpretation of the vision follows in vv. 15-26. This expanded prophetic description means that the “wicked tyrant” motif is also given a significant development, in verses 10-12:
“And it became great, until (it reached the) army of heaven,
and it made to fall (down) to earth (some) from (the) army,
and from (the) stars, and he tread them (down);
even until (reaching) the prince of the army did he grow great,
and from him the continual (offering) was lifted (away),
and the established place of his holiness was thrown down;
and an army was given against the continual (offering), in rebellion,
and it threw down truth (itself) to the earth—
and it did (this), and pushed ahead (with success).”
The elements of the “wicked tyrant” motif are applied to a specific action—an attack against the Temple and its sacrifice. Additional aspects are brought out in the subsequent interpretation of the vision (vv. 23-25); these may seen by highlighting the particular expressions and phrases:
- “a king strong of face”, i.e. of a harsh and fierce countenance
- “understanding (the tying of) knots”, reflecting his shrewdness, skill in political intrigue, etc.
- “his strength shall be mighty (indeed)”; the MT includes the phrase “but not by his own strength”, i.e. his wicked power is allowed/permitted by God, who represents the true source of strength.
- “he shall do wondrous things (that) bring ruin” —the phrase is a bit uncertain textually, and in terms of its meaning
- “he shall bring the mighty ones to ruin”, presumably his military conquests
- “his cleverness (will be) against the holy ones”, i.e. his plans to attack (“make war” against) the righteous; this translation follows a reconstruction of v. 24-25, based in part on the LXX.
- “deceit will (be) push(ed) forward in his hand”, i.e. he will act with deceit and will promote the use of deception
- “he shall become great in his (own) heart”, reflecting his ambition and self-delusion, implying pretensions to deity, etc.
- “with (a sense of) security he will bring many to ruin”, i.e. he will destroy them when they feel themselves safe and secure
- “he shall take a stand against the Prince of princes”, that is, against God and his heavenly representative(s), esp. the prince of the heavenly army Michael
- “by the end of a hand [i.e. without use of a hand] he will be broken (to pieces)”, this difficult idiom indicates Divine Judgment, without use of any human intermediary (“without a [human] hand”)
3. Daniel 11:21-45—The Rise of a Wicked Ruler (Antiochus IV)
Nearly all commentators are agreed that the “horn” of chapters 7-8, the wicked ruler who will appear, refers primarily (if not exclusively) to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 B.C.). The details and context of the visions of chaps. 7-8 seem to bear this out, but the historical scenario becomes much more precise, and specific, in the great vision of chapter 11. Even traditional-conservative commentators generally recognize that these are prophecies relating to Antiochus IV, while allowing for the possibility of a secondary application to a wicked ruler in the more distant future. The wicked ruler described in verses 21-45 of chapter 11 is unquestionably Antiochus IV—his military exploits, political intrigues, and persecution of the people of God (the faithful ones of Israel/Judah). Special attention is given to his desecration of the Jerusalem Temple—including the elimination of the daily sacrifice, and the setting up of “the disgusting thing [JWQv!] bringing devastation [<m@v)m=]” (v. 31, also 9:27; 12:11) in the sanctuary.
This ruler’s self-exaltation, impiety, and opposition to God is described vividly in verses 36-39, providing the most developed form of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Old Testament, a portrait that would exert an enormous influence on subsequent eschatological and apocalyptic tradition.
The Judgment of the Nations
A separate line of tradition, within the Prophetic nation-oracles, involves the idea of the Judgment of the Nations, collectively. While the nation-oracles normally focused on one specific nation, and the judgment that was expected to come against it in the near future, these collections of prophecies (against different nations) led to the image of all the nations being judged, together, in a setting that was more properly focused on the end-time—that is to say, eschatological.
The idea of the hostility and opposition of the surrounding nations was a basic component of Old Testament tradition and ancient Israelite theology, deriving fundamentally from the distinction of Israel as God’s chosen people, in contrast to all other peoples. The very nature of God’s Covenant with Israel, and the binding terms of this agreement (the Torah regulations), drew a sharp line demarcating the holy from the profane, pure from impure, true worship of God and false, which corresponded closely to the ethnic distinction (i.e. Israel vs. the Nations). This sense of opposition only sharpened within the contours of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, expressed and preserved primarily in the Scriptural Psalms, with their repeated references to the protagonist being surrounded by enemies; often these enemies are more or less equated with the “wicked” and the “nations”. The royal context of this motif is perhaps clearest in Psalm 2, which depicts the new king as being surrounded by potentially rebellious vassals, as well as rulers from the nearby nations, eager to gain greater power and freedom for themselves. The portrait of these wicked/rebellious rulers in vv. 1-3 is justly famous:
“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.
‘We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!'”
For more, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 2.
From the standpoint of the Prophetic nation-oracles, the theme of the collective Judgment of the nations, by God, finds its earliest form in the oracle of Joel 3. While not strictly eschatological, the oracle does envision a future time when Israel (Judah and Jerusalem) has been restored (vv. 1), and this restoration follows the great Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21). The Judgment is depicted as taking place in a great valley, where all the nations have been gathered together (v. 2)—it is the valley where they will be “judged by YHWH” (fp*v*ohy+, Y®hôš¹¸¹‰).
While there is a definite military aspect to this imagery (vv. 9-11), there is no clear sense that the nations are actually engaged in battle. In light of the traditional motif of the hostility of the nations (to Israel), and their opposition to God, it is no great surprise that this scene of the gathering of the nations for Judgment would eventually develop into a gathering for battle—and that they would seek to make war against the people of God (Israel/Judah, and Jerusalem). This is expressed in two primary visions—the closing vision of Zechariah (chap. 14), and the great vision-set of Ezekiel 38-39. In both visionary scenes, the nations gather to make war against Israel, advancing on the city of Jerusalem, before they are defeated through the power and intervention of YHWH.
These Judgment-visions and oracles are not directly related to the Antichrist tradition, as such; however, they are relevant (and worth noting here) for several reasons:
- The hostility/opposition of the nations (and their kings) to God and His people is placed within a clear eschatological setting—in the context of the Judgment (but prior to it) and the ultimate restoration of God’s people; indeed, their salvation is expressed in terms of deliverance from the wickedness and violence of the nations.
- The wickedness of the nations (and their rulers), in this Judgment setting, has been expanded in scope, now depicted on a worldwide and cosmic scale; this has significance for the development of the Antichrist tradition.
- The Ezekiel vision, in particular, has the coalition of nations being effectively led by a great king named “Gog” (goG), and, while this specific detail is only marginally related to the Antichrist tradition, it does provide an Old Testament parallel for the concept of wicked world-ruler—a menacing figure who exercises rule over all the nations, in opposition to God.
In Part 2, we will focus on the subsequent development of these lines of tradition in Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D.