Although relatively little known today the Apocalypse of the Pseudo-Methodius was the equivalent of a bestseller of its day. Supposedly written by a fourth century Christian holy man called Methodius, the text was likely composed originally in Syriac around 690-92 CE based on various other similar texts.
It was massively popular across the Mediterranean. Greek and Latin translations followed soon afterwards. Even today around 190 Latin manuscripts of the text survive. The original Syriac text was discovered in the nineteenth century. It was also translated and inspired versions of texts in various languages including Old Church Slavonic, Coptic and Arabic.
Outline of story
The Pseudo-Methodius is a strange text. It tells the entire history of mankind from the beginning until the end. The first half sets out the scene and proves the veracity of the second half. The text claims to have been composed at an earlier date. The passages of history which take place between the supposed composition and the actual composition are presented as prophecies, which of course came true. This is called vaticinium ex eventu.
Kush and the four empires
The text however has an intriguing understanding of ancient History. For example, Alexander the Great’s mother in the text is Chouseth, an Ethiopian princess who marries King Byzas (of Byzantium) after the death of Alexander. The daughter of their union marries Romulus Armelaus (of Rome). This union produces three dynasties of kings of Rome, Byzantium and Alexandria.
This genealogy from Alexander conveniently conflates the empires of the Hellenistic successor states and Rome so that Daniel’s vision of the four empires is still concurrent at the point of composition.
The sections of genuine prophecy are also intriguing. At the end of the world several enemies will spring forth, including the peoples of Gog and Magog whom Alexandria chained up at the end of the world, and the anti-Christ. The prophecy also tells of how the Last Roman Emperor will defeat these enemies and then march to Jerusalem and place his crown on the True Cross.
Literary sources for this text
The main literary influence for this text was of course the bible. The events described above echo Psalm 68.31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”. For much of the period of early Christianity, apocalyptic visions were based on a small number of texts such as Daniel 7 (the Four Beasts), Mathew 24 (tribulations and false prophets) and 2 Thessalonians 2 (the son of perdition). For much of this time Revelation was not a respected text in the New Testament Cannon. It did not begin to influence apocalyptical visions until a much later stage.
Pseudo-Methodius was also inspired by the Syriac texts such as The Julian Romance and The Cave of Treasures. The Cave of Treasures outlines the history of Alexander’s mother. Another key historical personage in the text is Julian the Apostate. After his reign, Jovian restores Christianity and the True Cross. These passages seem largely based on The Julian Romance (which survives independently). It has always fascinated me the extent to which this characterisation of the period of the Julianic restoration was based on oral history or folk memory, or on polemical texts written and copied by monks like the Julian Romance.
Historical sources for the text
Another obvious influence operating on the text was of course the major historical events taking place in the region during this period. The seventh century witnessed both the destabilisation of two long established world empires and the rapid expansion and consolidation of a third, alongside the birth of a major religion. The likely two-year period of composition saw the consolidation of Arab power under ‘Abd-al Malik, the construction of the dome of the rock, the introduction of new coinage and a poll tax. For some at the time, it may have finally felt that the new state of affairs were here to stay.
It is worth noting then that the Arab tribes are not depicted in Pseudo-Methodius as the last enemy, but rather as one of many towards the latter days. The anti-Christ of the text is also not a Muslim or indeed any identifiable historical person.
The Last Roman Emperor?
However, the acts of the Last Emperor seem to consciously echo the propagandist acts of the emperor Heraclius at the start of the seventh century. The early seventh century saw a major war between the Sassanian and Roman empires. Following the invasion and devastation of large swathes of the Roman empire, the tables turned and the Romans, led by Heraclius, were able to defeat and invade the Sassanian empire. After defeating Khosrau II, Heraclius received the True Cross (which the Sassanians had taken from Jerusalem at an earlier stage of the war). In a triumphant ceremony Heraclius returned the True Cross to the holy city. This act was charged with eschatological meaning and Heraclius knew it. Byzantine coins would continue to be stamped with the image of the True Cross long into the reign of Constans II.
Heraclius was also a fanatical persecutor of the Jewish communities in his empire. He may have seen this as an eschatological act as well.
Heraclius’ reign is famous today for witnessing the first attacks of the nascent Arab tribes on the Roman Empire. The major war between the Sassanians and Romans exhausted both empires and left them unable to defend themselves. Given both his role in the restoration of the true cross of Christianity and his reign during the early period of Islam, Heraclius continued to be honoured in various traditions of both religions. A complex and ruthless figure with a keen sense of his own brand, this version of Heraclius become a rich source for the figure of the Last Roman Emperor in the Pseudo-Methodius.
In many ways, the Apocalypse of the Pseudo-Methodius is a strange text which has little to offer outside of its own anachronistic vision of history. Yet the text is nevertheless valuable to read as an insight into the intellectual and social history of the time.
The text is now available at a reasonable price with facing Greek and Latin texts in the Dumbarton Oaks series. I recommend reading it.