We live in apocalyptic times. Everyone is predicting the end of the world. Yet we’ve always lived in such times. Late antique Egypt was no different.
What does apocalypse mean?
Firstly, apocalypse does not mean the end of the world. Rather it means revelation. Sometimes these can be a revelations about the end times. Sometimes it can be a revelation about higher realities, mythic genealogies or life after death. This is similar to the use of the term revelation in Book of Revelation.
Other words used about end of world scenarios also have complex meanings. For example, Doomsday did not originally means the day of doom, but the Day of judgement. Doom being Old English for Judgement. The word doom as we use it today, developed from its associations with the final judgement. Armageddon is another term used for the end of the world. It actually refers to the location of the last battle. Eschatology can mean a study of end times, but this could be cosmic in scope or personal.
To complicate matters the Book of Revelation is not the only end of world prophecy found in the Bible. Predictions are found in Daniel 7 (the Four Beasts), Matthew 24 (tribulations and false prophets) and 2 Thessalonians 2 (the son of perdition). In fact the Book of Revelation was not always trusted as revelation, even after it was placed in the Bible by Athanasius.
The Apocalypse of Methodius (which was hugely popular) draws on other biblical apocalypses but not Revelation. The apocalypse of Methodius was translated into several languages and become the archetypal apocalypse across most of the Mediterranean. Yet it was only partly biblical. The sources of apocalypse were not just scriptural but drew on traditions and practices that has developed for centuries.
The first apocalypses
In late antique Egypt several apocalypses were written. There were often written in the monasteries. This follows a long trend. The early monastic movement in Egypt saw itself as apocalyptic. After all monks went to the desert to fight demons, not to find contemplation. Several Coptic apocalypses are found in the lives of Saints and Martyrs. This is before we argue whether monastery scriptoriums replaced temple scriptoriums.
David Frankfurter has argued that it was in scribal communities such as monasteries that early cultural forms were retained an enshrined, which can be seen in apocalyptic texts. For him, Apocalypses reflected two models of authority – an almost gnostic revelatory authority and a model of literary authority in a cultural hero. Apocalypses allowed early Christian communities new and personalised forms of composition to meet local ‘ideological circumstances’. He argues that the apocalypses’ specific role is to relate heavenly paradigms to events on Earth.
Apocalypses in the lives of saints
The biographies of saints are called hagiographies and martyr’s biographies are called martyrologies. Although they are different to each other, in Coptic literature they share several similarities.
Martyrology include a heady description of torture, divine intervention and then a future prediction on the success of the saint’s cult. This follows a Greek model, although there may be a Coptic tradition behind it.
Hagiography’s role is to edify the reader. In Coptic literature they follow contain models and are not neccessarily real depictions of actual events. In this narrative model prophecies are a standard sign of an individual’s saintliness. Hagiographies tended to present non-martyrs as suffering for their faith and as martyr-like. This followed the conceit that martyrs had one foot in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Following the Arab Conquests the monasteries became bulwarks of Christianity: providing both leaders and narrative frameworks.
The Life of Samuel of Kalamun is a good example of this. It tells of Samuel’s torture in the hands of the Romans and a vision of how his community would prosper. It is important to note that these visions do not predict future events of global importance, but of local importance. The prophecies strengthen the doctrinal beliefs of Christians.
In the History of the Patriarchs various Patriarchs experience different apocalyptic visions. Benjamin I experiences a vision both warning him to flee from a persecution at the hands of the Romans and later during the eucharist. He does not receive any visions predicting future events, even though he lived through the Persian and Arabic Conquests of Egypt.
To this extent we can argue that early apocalypses were less interested in predicting future events.
The historically focused apocalypse of the Pseudo-Methodius inspired The Nineteen Muslim Kings, A text which may date from the 7th century. The text lists nineteen obscure Muslim rulers. The copy that survives has no interest in prediction.
The most recent ruler might be Marwan II. He is described as a drunkard and avaricious. He taxes heavily. Under his reign, Egypt experienced major tax riots. The riots are not mentioned. Perhaps this is due to the slightly removed nature of the monasteries. Perhaps apocalyptic expectations were removed.
Some scholars have argued that it was the failure of these rebellions which may have increased the rate of conversions, although this is a complicated question due to lack of evidence.
It has a very different approach to history Pseudo-Methodius texts, but still uses imagery from the Book of Daniel.
Later apocalyptic texts resembled other apocalypses in Arab speaking countries. Around this date, Coptic began to be replaced as the spoken daily language of Christian communities by Arabic. Interestingly several Arabic apocalypses were influenced by or drew references from the Pseudo-Methodius.
Do apocalyptic prophecies dating from Ancient Egypt really predict the imminent end of the world? The answer is no, but reading such texts offers a rich insight into the beliefs, cultures and concerns of the peoples of late Antique Egypt.