Nuancing the ‘Millennium’ in the Writings of Norman Cohn


  • Mario Baghos


 The great historian of apocalypticism Norman Cohn’s work The Pursuit of the Millennium demonstrated that certain anxiety-filled socio-political situations produced apocalyptic expectation among the masses which was exploited by charismatic charlatans who set themselves up as messianic saviours, often with devastating results. Cohn believed that understanding these socio-political and religious factors could help explain why so many people embraced Nationalism Socialism and Communism in the twentieth century. This article argues that while Cohn’s approach towards the medieval and modern movements is valid and important, he nevertheless misrepresents the apocalyptic expectations of intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity by not taking into serious consideration the nuances in their respective approaches towards the ‘last things.’ This article provides definitions of related terms, apocalypticism, eschatology, chiliasm, and millenarianism or millenarism, before demonstrating that Cohn’s conflation of them under the latter—that is, the ‘millennium’—does not accurately reflect the belief of the earliest Christians—exhibited by their main apologetic representatives (Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian)—that God’s kingdom, which was ostensibly meant to be ushered in by the apocalyptic millennium—is experienced already in the Church but will not be consummated until the second coming of Christ (i.e. the already/not yet tension). It contextualises Cohn’s approach and the precipitating factors that led to his assessment in order to demonstrate that, while he indeed set the benchmark for just how scholars analyse the expectation of the end-times in intertestamental Judaism, earliest Christianity and the Middle Ages, more work needs to be done to consistently represent what the intertestamental Jews and earliest Christians believed about the ‘last things.’