BMCR 2022.06.42

Eschatology in antiquity: forms and functions

, , , Eschatology in antiquity: forms and functions. Rewriting antiquity. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021. Pp. xxiv, 629. ISBN 9781138208315. $200.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Eschatology in antiquity is, as its editors rightly claim (p.1), the first volume of its kind: an exploration of various eschatologies originating from the numerous societies and cultures within the Mediterranean throughout the period broadly identified as ‘antiquity’ (25th century BCE to 9th century CE). While such breadth of scope is a common feature of Routledge’s Rewriting Antiquity series, this is the first time that (ancient) eschatology has been addressed within a single tome. While the editors are almost apologetic in their acknowledgment that this volume falls short of encyclopaedic coverage of its subject matter (p. 12), noting their awareness of areas for discussion that are not presently addressed, the comprehensiveness therein is unprecedented.[1] Eschatology in antiquity contains a total of 42 essays divided into six broad milieux/traditions: 1) Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible; 2) Greek world; 3) Jewish texts of the Hellenistic and Roman periods; 4) Etruscan and Roman worlds; 5) New Testament texts; and, 6) Late Antiquity and Byzantine worlds. While the editors acknowledge that some of the ideas within specific essays were first presented at two particular symposia in 2017,[2] this volume should not be mistaken for a conference proceedings. Not only have the relevant papers undergone a development of thought – a fact to which this reviewer can personally attest, having had the privilege of attending the Craven Seminar and hearing the papers by Long, Giusti, Earnshaw, and Schiesaro – but the extent of the book’s coverage far exceeds the scope of either symposium (with 14 and 6 papers respectively). Thus, not only does Eschatology in antiquity provide an up-to-date examination of specific eschatological texts/themes/materials from across antiquity, it also creates a unique opportunity for comparison and contrast across an extensive breadth of cultural and historical milieux.

Yet because of the volume’s breadth of scope – in addition to the usual difficulties presented by an edited volume consisting of 42 chapters – it is unfeasible for any single reviewer to provide a comprehensive perspective of all the material. Indeed, the three editors find their own specialities divided between the Biblical, Classical and Late Antique eras (broadly defined). Thus, this review will limit itself to comment upon the contribution of the volume as a collective whole, rather than evaluating individual essays. There are two primary reasons for this. First, with my own expertise lying in the discipline of Classics (although supplemented with an interest in Biblical Studies), more than a third of the essays fall outside of this speciality. Furthermore, the significance of this volume lies in its contribution as a collective whole, rather than that of the individual contributions. For example, those who are already familiar with Homeric (ch. 7) or Orphic (ch. 8) eschatologies will be aware that George Gazis and Radcliffe Edmonds III have written extensively elsewhere on these topics, at a level of detail that these individual chapters could not hope to imitate.[3]

The significance of this volume’s unique scope cannot be overstated and should be considered the culmination of several recent trends in eschatological scholarship. The first, and perhaps most noteworthy, is the increased interest in the study of eschatology outside of a strict Judeo-Christian setting – previously the default discipline for such study (and related concepts such as apocalypse). While conceptualisations of life-after-death and the processes therein are a general anthropological phenomenon, occurring all the world over and throughout history, the prevailing definition of eschatology remains the “doctrine of last things” (from the Greek, ἔσχατος) with a particular focus on “death, judgement, heaven, and hell”.[4] These aspects relate well to specific doctrines within Christian theology (e.g., the nuances of soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, divine providence and Biblical inspiration) but do not correspond as well with other religions and/or cultures – whether ancient or modern. Thus, despite initial hesitation, the disciplines of ancient world studies and religious studies have slowly been reclaiming the concept of eschatology via a more generalized, anthropological usage (i.e., both individual and collective eschatologies) with Eschatology in antiquity representing the pinnacle of this development.[5]

Indeed, this historical association between eschatology and Judeo-Christian theological reflection has had further impact upon the nature and shape of this present volume. The editors take great care to emphasize that the collected essays are not intended to “construct an artificial teleological story… in which Greek and Roman examples are constructed as precursors to Christianity” (p. 5). Such ‘grand narrative’ readings of ancient eschatological material were commonplace in late 20th-century scholarship which often adopted problematic methodologies in their analyses. Not only were such examinations limited to a specific corpus of cultures (i.e., Egyptian, Greek and Roman) and sources (e.g., Homer and Plato) but the unique contribution(s) of such material was largely glossed over via the imposition of a hierarchical model which sought to demonstrate these as precursors to later Christian thought.[6] It is a significant strength of the current volume that it avoids these pitfalls by both allowing individual essays to limit themselves to a detailed analysis of their particular source and by avoiding affiliations with any one religion (either ancient or modern).[7] This emphasis upon plurality is itself another recent development in scholarship which has reacted against these problematic historical approaches.

Another key strength is that the volume is highly accessible to both non-specialists and undergraduates, with the editors specifically noting the significance and potential appeal of the volume to these audiences. Thus, the introduction provides the customary definition of eschatology and related concepts (e.g., apocalypse, apocalyptic) by which to frame the essays that follow: while there is nothing overly novel in these definitions – for they merely provide confirmation of current scholarly consensus – this remains an important exercise given the complications surrounding this terminology. Furthermore, the desire for accessibility is evident in that key texts and terminology are presented in English (either translated or, if more appropriate – particularly for Hebrew sources – transliterated) with very few essays including extended quotations in the original languages (the chapters by Laterza (ch. 21), Giusti (ch. 22) and Star (ch. 26) are exceptional in this regard – notably all Latin texts); specialists will find this balanced by the retention of original phrases/terminology in parentheses when required for the illustration of significant points.[8] Without such an emphasis upon accessibility, this volume would never be able to achieve its chief aims.

One final element of note is the expansion of sources to include material culture, a necessary development within the study of ancient eschatology. Previous treatments of ancient material culture, in any detailed form, have been few and far between with, for example, Polygnotos’ Nekyia being a single point of note in the context of ancient Greece (however, as reconstructions of this painting are based on a textual description by Pausanias, the question remains as to what extent this can be considered ‘true’ material culture). Scholars have often been critical of this lack of engagement but this has had little impact on the shape of the discipline.[9] Thankfully, this volume includes several chapters which focus on material culture: van der Meer (ch. 18) examines Etruscan tomb paintings and sarcophagi for their representations of the afterlife; Toner (ch. 25) utilizes tomb stones and epitaphs in addressing popular eschatology in the Roman empire; and Cvetković (ch. 41) addresses symbols, icons (complimented by liturgy) and burial art in catacombs as examples of early Christian eschatological art.[10] While there is certainly room for more study in this area, such inclusivity is welcome.

In sum, Eschatology in antiquity will be a valuable resource for anyone broadly interested in eschatology in the ancient world. Not only does this volume provide accessible, up-to-date examinations of key texts, cultures, and materials but it combines this with a previously unrealised opportunity for comparison and contrast via its unprecedented breadth of scope (geographically, temporally, and culturally). Eschatology in antiquity will be of interest to those for whom eschatology in the ancient world is an entirely novel concept with the individual chapters being easily digestible and covering such a wide range of cultures and sources; however, it will also provide much benefit to specialists in this discipline thanks to its wide ranging approach to the concept of eschatology and its novel capacity to compare and contrast eschatologies across various milieux.

Authors and Titles

Helen Van Noorden, Hilary Marlow, and Karla Pollmann, “Introduction” pp. 1-15
Section I: Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible
Dina Katz, “Beyond the Future: Mesopotamian perceptions of the very end” pp.19-33
Leon Goldman, “Individual and Universal Eschatology in Zoroastrianism” pp.34-48
Alexandre Loktionov, “Egyptian Oracles and the Afterlife” pp.49-62
Uta Schmidt, “Eschatology in the Book of Isaiah: Multiple perspectives on the promised times” pp.63-75
Hilary Marlow, “‘As I Looked’: Visionary experiences and conceptions of place in the book of Ezekiel” pp.76-89
Lester L. Grabbe, “Daniel and Daniel Apocalyptica” pp. 90-102

Section II: Greek World
George A. Gazis, “Beyond the Stream of the Ocean: Hades, the Aethiopians and the Homeric eschata” pp. 105-116
Radcliffe G. Edmonds, “ ‘Orphic’ Eschatologies? Varying Visions of the Afterlife in Greek Thought” pp. 117-130
Chiara R. Ciampa, “Eschatological Visions in Pindar and Empedocles” pp. 131-143
Alex Long, “Plato’s Myths, the Soul and Its Intra-Cosmic Future” pp.144-155
Nicolas Wiater, “Contemplating the End of Roman Power: Polybius’ Histories in context” pp.156-168

Section III: Jewish Texts of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods
Gabriele Boccaccini, “Protology and Eschatology in the Enochic Traditions” pp. 171-183
Frances Flannery, “Dreams and Visions of Eschatological Trees in The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36)” pp. 184-194
Albert Hogeterp, “Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Dead Sea Scrolls: The end as Qumran counter-cultural discourse on society and creation” pp. 195-208
Sami Yli-Karjanmaa, “Returning From the Diaspora of the Soul: Eschatology in Philo of Alexandria” pp. 209-221
Carla Sulzbach, “End Times and Ending Times in 4 Ezra” pp. 222-234
Lorenzo DiTommaso, “Eschatology in the Early Jewish Pseudepigrapha and the Early Christian Apocrypha” p. 235-249

Section IV: Etruscan and Roman Worlds
L. Bouke van der Meer, “Etruscan Eschata” pp.253-266
Jed W. Atkins, “Hope and Empire in Ciceronian Eschatology” pp. 267-279
Alessandro Schiesaro, “Lucretius On the Nature of Things: Eschatology in an age of anxiety” pp. 280-293
Giovanna Laterza, “Eschatological Temporalities in Vergil’s Elysium” pp. 294-306
Elena Giusti, “The End Is the Beginning Is the End: Apocalyptic beginnings in Augustan poetry” pp.307-319
Gareth Williams, “Eschatology in Seneca: The senses of an ending” pp.320-332
Katharine M. Earnshaw, “Enduring Death and Remembering the Apocalypse: Identity, timespace and Lucanian paradoxes” pp.333-345
Jerry Toner, “Popular Eschatological Visions in the Roman Empire” pp.346-355
Christopher Star, “Four Eschatological Emperors: Augustus, Nero, Vespasian and Hadrian” pp.356-368

Section V: New Testament Texts
Sarah Underwood Dixon, “The End of the Temple or the End of the World? First Century Eschatology in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew” pp. 371-382
Steve Walton, “The End: What and When? Eschatology in Luke–Acts” pp.383-395
Jörg Frey, “Eschatology in the Gospel of John and in the Johannine Epistles” pp.396-408
Eve-Marie Becker, “Eschatology: Pauline and Catholic Epistles” pp.409-421
Christopher Rowland, “The Book of Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” pp. 422-432

Section VI: Late Antique and Byzantine Worlds
Anders-Christian Jacobsen, “Eschatology in Origen From Alexandria” pp.435-446
Nikolaus Klassen, “Eschatology in Early Christian Poetry” pp.447-459
Sergey Trostyanskiy, “The Eschatological Thought of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa” pp.460-471
Karla Pollmann, “Knowing One’s Place: Eschatological thought in Augustine” pp.472-484
Peter Gemeinhardt, “Eschatological Motifs and Patterns of Thought in Christian Hagiography” pp.485-498
Witold Witakowski, “Syriac Eschatology in Antiquity” pp.499-514
Zaroui Pogossian, “Eschatology and Anti-Jewish Polemic: Examples from the Armenian tradition” pp.515-527
David Cook, “Early Muslim Apocalypses and Their Origins” pp. 528-539
David Frankfurter, “Christian Eschatology in Late Antique/Byzantine Egypt” pp.540-553
Vladimir Cvetković, “Symbols, Icons, Liturgy: Eschatology in early Christian art” pp. 554-575
Philip Alexander, “Eschatology in the Apocalyptic Revival in Judaism (Sixth to Ninth Centuries CE) in Its Historical Context” pp. 576-588.


[1] Cf., e.g., The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (ed. J. Walls, 2008) which contains 38 essays.

[2] The Craven Seminar “Eschatology and Apocalypse in Graeco-Roman Literature”, hosted by the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, June 2017, and a one-day workshop, “The End of the World or the World of the End? Forms and Functions of Ancient Eschatologies”, hosted by the School of Humanities, University of Reading, September 2017.

[3] E.g., Gazis, (2011). “Odyssey 11: the power of sight in the invisible realm.” Rosetta 12: 49-59; Gazis, (2018). Homer and the Poetics of Hades. Oxford; Gazis (2018). “Voices of the dead: Hades narratives in the Odyssey and Bacchylides’ Ode 5.” Trends in Classics 10(2): 285-305; Edmonds, (2004). Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets. New York; Edmonds (ed.), (2011). The ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further along the Path. Cambridge: Edmonds, (2013). Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion. Cambridge.

[4] Notably, the editors (p. 13, n. 5) highlight the OED definition of eschatology in illustrating this point: “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell’.”

[5] E.g., in classical studies: L. Albinus, (2000) The House of Hades: Studies in Ancient Greek Eschatology. Denmark: Aarhus University Press; A. Drozdek, (2008) “Eschatology in Funeral Orations”, Eranos, 105(1), 73-78; S. Shoemaker, (2018) The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[6] E.g., R. Longenecker (ed.), (1991). Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament. Grand Rapids; A. Bernstein (1993) The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell; A. Turner, (1993) The History of Hell. London; J. Davies, (1999) Death, Burial, and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity. London; A. Segal, (2004) Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. New York.

[7] Notably, the editors draw attention to the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology as a point of comparison. While Walls’ edited volume provides an equally critical and detailed study of eschatology from a variety of perspectives (including Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and antiquity), it is primarily a Christian-theological orientated study as evident from the introduction’s opening words “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again” (p.3).

[8] Likewise Gazis (ch. 7) includes key eschatological terms in their transliterated form (e.g., eidola and domos) but includes definitions in parentheses after the first instance for those who may be unfamiliar with such terms.

[9] E.g., Osborne, p.15 n.1 (1988, “Death revisited; death revised. The death of an artist in Archaic and Classical Greece”, Art History, 11, 1-16) names Vermeule and Garland as particularly guilty of ignoring material culture; Pakkanen, p. 18 (2001, The Classical Review, 51, 279-81), makes a similar judgment within her review of Albinus (2000).

[10] Gemeinhardt (ch. 36) also notes the importance of material cultures in discussing Christian hagiography (although limits the present analysis to textual evidence).