By: Louis Ginzberg
Counterpart of the Messiah and opponent of God Himself; one of the most important personages in Christian eschatology. The name occurs for the first time in the Johannean Epistles (I John, ii. 18, 22, iv. 3; II John, 7); but the idea is met with in earlier New Testament writings, and, like the greater part of the eschatology of early Christianity, its beginnings are to be found in Jewish theology, and modern scholars even hold the opinion that its true origin is to be found in the Babylonian Chaos-myths. In II Thess. ii. 1-12—a passage probably of Pauline origin—it is stated that the day of the Lord shall not come before "the man of sin," the lawless one (ὁ ἄνομος), "the son of perdition," be revealed. This opponent will appear and seat himself in the Temple of God at Jerusalem, "showing himself that he is God"; but he, the wicked one, will then be consumed by the Messiah through the spirit of his mouth, who thus will make an end of him "whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders." Paul declares further that "the mystery of iniquity doth already work," but that that which now restraineth will restrain until it be taken out of the way, and "that wicked [one] be revealed."
This "little apocalypse," as this passage has well been called, has been variously expounded. It is, however, quite evident that Paul understood by Antichrist a personal opponent of the Messiah, this conception being compounded of ideas derived from the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (Dan. vii. 25, ix. 27, xi. 36; Isa. xiv. 13 et seq.; Ezek. xxviii. 2, 14; I Macc. xiv. 14). It is not, however, clear whether this description is intended to represent an opposing Messiah, or a Jewish pseudo-Messiah, or whether Paul had any definite historical personage in mind. His expression concerning the lawless one (ὁ ἄνομος), seating himself in the Temple (compare Ezek. xxviii. 14), and "showing himself that he is God," can hardly be understood of a Jewish Messiah; nor can, by any possibility, a Roman ruler, such as Caligula or Nero, be understood by it. Just as unreasonable is it to assume that by the expression "he who now restraineth" (A. V. "letteth") the appearance of Antichrist, it is intended to designate the Roman government or the emperor himself. The iniquitous one, the incarnation of evil upon earth, is not a political personage, held back by Roman power. The passage is to be explained by the aid of rabbinical eschatology, as for instance in Sanh. 98a, which teaches that the Messiah will not appear until the whole world is either entirely righteous () or entirely wicked (); a standpoint that explains not only the expression "that which restraineth"—the rabbis speak of various things which impede the redemption (; Mek., Beshallaḥ, 1, ed. Weiss, p. 29; Niddah, 13b)—but alsoelucidates Paul's vacillation as to the period to be set for the "day of the Lord." In his earlier Epistles, Paul speaks as if he expected the promised time to arrive speedily, because he counted upon the rapid conquest of the world by Christianity, for him the first and essential condition of the world's perfect righteousness; but experience gradually showed him that his optimism was unfounded, and therefore he speaks of the power that prevents the dawning of the glad time.
The statement of Paul that the wicked one will be slain by the breath of the Messiah is based upon Isa. xi. 4, as interpreted in the Targum . Even the names of Antichrist in this passage are of Jewish origin; the "lawless one" (II Thess. ii. 8, R. V.) is none other than Belial—whom Paul mentions in another place as the opponent of the Messiah (II Cor. vi. 15)—a name interpreted by the rabbis as compounded of without, and yoke, so that Belial is the one who will not accept the yoke of the Law (Sifre, Deut. 92; Tanna El. R. iii.; Midrash Sam. vi., ed. Buber, p. 64). It is thus evident that this "little apocalypse" represents not a Christian, but the Jewish view of the Anti-Messiah. The pseudepigraphic literature (see Bousset, "Der Antichrist," pp. 86, 99, 100) informs us that in Jewish circles in the pre-Christian period the expectation was prevalent of the appearance of Belial (one of Satan's lieutenants) if not of Satan himself; and that his activity was imagined as being almost identical with that expected of the Antichrist in Thessalonians. There is a remarkable similarity between this New Testament passage and II Sibyl. 167 et seq., and III Sibyl. 46 et seq.—the former a Sibylline of undoubted Jewish origin—the expression in ii. 188, the τρισσὰ σήνατα, the three signs of Elijah, certainly referring to the Jewish tradition (found in Mekilta Beshallaḥ, 1, ed. Weiss, p. 60) that before the appearance of the Messiah, the prophet will reveal the whereabouts of the three holy utensils which disappeared at the time of the destruction of the Temple (compare Jellinek, "B. H." iii. 72 and Pirḳe Rabbenu ha-Ḳadosh, ed. Grünhut, 57).Origin of the Idea.
As to the idea of the Antichrist, like Jewish eschatology itself, it is derived from three sources: prophetical teachings, later Midrash, and an admixture of heathen mythology. Ezekiel (xxxviii., xxxix.), speaking of a last great outpouring of the heathen powers against Israel—which outpouring is to introduce the new period foretold by the ancient prophets—names Gog, the prince of the land of Magog, as the representative of those powers. The same idea amplified is found in Zechariah (xii.-xiv.) where God is described as appearing upon Zion at the last hour with His hosts of angels to protect His own from the attacks of the heathen, and to give them victory. When, therefore, in the Maccabean period, the Jews first perceived the chasm between Judaism and heathenism, the idea of a presentation of the philosophy of the world's history was conceived and admirably carried out in Daniel. It was no more a question of the salvation of Israel in the future, but of the redemption of the whole world. The course of the world's history, as illustrated by the attitude of the heathen toward the Jews, was now viewed as a continuous triumph of powers hostile to God—a triumph which would not end until the whole world had become utterly corrupt, to be superseded by the kingdom of God and a new order of things.
The opposition between this world and the future world, between Satan and God, between heathen and Israel, naturally furnished representatives for the supreme struggle in the final hour of the world's existence. If God in His own proper person would appear at the decisive contest, His opponent could be no other than Satan; but if God were to be represented by Messiah, it must of necessity follow that Satan should be represented by one as close to him as was Messiah to God; that is to say, by Antichrist. Uncertain as is the characterization of Messiah in the new order of things, the personality of his counterpart is equally fluctuating. In the circles that expected the rule of Belial at the end of days, God was recognized as the chief personality in the final catastrophe; and Antichrist, as the worst tool of Satan, corresponds in his sphere with that conception of the Messiah current among the Pharisees in the age of Jesus, according to which Messiah was to be the one man whom God would endow with especial strength and influence, such as were vouchsafed to no other. Just as the Haggadah through its interpretations of ancient prophecies endeavored to furnish a close description of the personality of Messiah, similarly Antichrist received more and more definite forms derived from the descriptions and conceptions of the Old Testament. He was, for instance, very early identified with Gog—such a Midrash is clearly evident in the Septuagint translation of Num. xiv. 7 (compare also 'Ab. Zarah, 3b; Sanh. 94a)—and his death expounded, as already remarked, according to Isa. xi. 4.
The conception of Antichrist no doubt also contains mythological elements, which, far from being uprooted from the national consciousness, became, through contact with Babylonia, Persia, and, at a later date, with Greece, more and more deeply ingrained in it. An eloquent proof that Antichrist meant no more than its name signifies—namely, the Anti-Messiah—is furnished by the fact that none of the Pharisaic literature has any word concerning him. The official teachings of the Pharisees, after the rise of Christianity, tried, for reasons easy to understand, to negative all that was superhuman in the popular conception of Messiah (compare especially Justin, "Dialogus cum Tryphone," xlix.); so that no room was given for Antichrist to play any very eminent rôle. Thus Eliezer b. Hyrcanus—an eye-witness of the national catastrophe in the year 70—speaks only of a ruler after the style of Haman, who will usher in the pangs of the Messianic period (; Sanh. 98b).
The Apocrypha of Baruch (Syriac) and IV Ezra ( = II Esdras), which originated in the same circle, knew nothing of an Antichrist; for what Baruch, xl. 1, 2, says of the last ruler of the heathens is simply that the latter will choose for themselves a leader for the last battle; and IV Ezra, while it contains explicit statements concerning the pangs of the Messianic period, has no reference whatever to an Antichrist. Both Bousset and Gunkel are probably wrong, therefore, when they refer to Antichrist the passage (II Esd. v. 6), "And even he shall rule, whom they that dwell upon the earth look not for" —words which, being based on Isa. xxiii. 13, may allude simply to Rome, as is apparent from Suk. 52b and Yer. Ta'anit, iii. 4, where the Romans are meant by the euphemism "Chaldeans." It is true that there is no lack of references in Talmudic literature to the belief in a contest between God and the devil, or an evil angel, in the latter days (see Ahriman). To this class belongs the battle between Gabriel and the Leviathan; also the sea-monster (B. B. 74b), and the conquest of the prince of Edom, that is, Samael (Mak. 12a; compare also the triumph of Messiah over Satan, Pesiḳ. R. xxxvi.).Nero as Antichrist.
The bitter feeling against Rome that actuated the Jews for the hundred years between 30 and 130 permitted no other conception than that it would be Rome's ruler who would marshal the heathen hosts for the final struggle and lead them to victory; and Nero—the vilest wretch that ever mounted a throne—filled the ideal of wickedness sufficiently to be considered the worthy leader of the heathen. The Jewish Sibyl, writing about the year 80, tells the story that Nero was at that time in concealment in the land of the Parthians, where he would remain for decades, returning thence to stir up a universal war (IV Sibyl. 119-150, in agreement with a Roman legend; see Zahn, "Zeitschr. für Kirchliche Wissenschaft und Leben," 1886, 337 et seq., and Geffeken, "Göttinger Nachrichten, Phil.-Hist. Classe," 1899, pp. 441 et seq.). More of the demoniac character of Antichrist, and more, therefore, of the original conception concerning him as being either Satan or one of Satan's tools, is reflected in the reference to Nero in the fifth Sibylline (363 et seq.), written in 74: "Then from the ends of the earth shall return the matricidal man who has become fugitive, and who frames iniquitous plans in his mind; he will destroy the whole earth, and conquer all, and in all matters he will be wiser than all other men. . . . But the wise people shall have peace, the people that remaineth tried in sorrows in order that it may thereafter rejoice." But the complete metamorphosis of Nero into a devil—wherein he is no longer the representative of Rome, but the incarnation of the Evil One—is first to be found in a Jewish Sibyl of about 120-125 (V Sibyl. 28-34). Of Nero it is there said, "The one that received the letter for 50 [letter נ, N, as initial] will become ruler—a terrible dragon, breathing fierce war. . . . Thereafter he will return and make himself like unto God, but He [God] will convince him that he is as nothing." Here Nero is the true Antichrist, the Satan, the old Dragon (), who measures himself against God.
This conception did not remain confined to Jewish circles, but as the Revelation of John (xiii., xvii.) shows, when rising Christianity suffered much at the hands of the Roman power, it spread among the Christians likewise. In any case, the last struggle of the heathen is conceived as a battle against God; and it appears thus in the Midrash Wayosha' (Jellinek. "B. H." i. 56), where it is declared of Anti-christ: "And he shall say, 'I will first conquer their God, and after that will kill them [the Jews]'"; again the old conception of Antichrist as an opponent of God.
The Biblical narrative of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt afforded much material for the description of the latter days, inasmuch as the final redemption was conceived after the fashion of the first. Thus the Ephraimite Messiah—Messiah, the son of Joseph, as he is called—who plays a great part therein in conjunction with Armilus, originated in the legend preserved by the Haggadah of an attempted departure from Egypt made by the Ephraimites (Mek., Shirah, 9; Sanh. 92b; Pirḳe R. El. xlviii.); and inasmuch as prior to the first redemption there had been a prominent Ephraimite named Nun, who headed an attempt by the Israelites at self-emancipation and found a violent death at the hands of the Egyptians, parallelism demanded that there should be an Ephraimite Messiah, to be slain by Armilus.
The conception of Antichrist held by the Church of the early Christian age and throughout the Middle Ages is very much involved and in need of critical investigation. The passages concerning Antichrist in the New Testament were misunderstood at a very early date; and there seems to have been, moreover, a persistent oral tradition that modified the legend of Antichrist to a considerable degree. In John, v. 43, the popular Jewish conception of an Anti-Messiah has become transformed into a Jewish pseudo-Messiah, a presentation which was championed for many centuries in the Church (see Bousset, l.c. pp. 180 et seq.). It was particularly expected that he would be of the tribe of Dan (ibid. p. 112), which is probably connected with the Jewish conception of the Messiah, that he would be derived from that tribe on the maternal side (Gen. R. xcviii.; see also Zohar, Balak, 194b). On the other hand, there reigned for a certain time among Christians too some confusion of Anti-christ with the legend of Nero (Bousset, l.c. pp. 49 et seq)., and there is likewise to be found an identification of Antichrist with Belial—Antichrist being often represented as the son of Satan, and even as an incarnation of Satan himself (see Belial).The Modern Hypothesis.
The legend of the origin of Antichrist (= Belial) set forth by Gunkel and Bousset is that the Babylonian Tiamat, queen of the abyss of darkness and flood, aided by the powers of her infernal domain, rebels against the higher gods, but is defeated by the son of the gods, Marduk; and it gives rise to a human incarnation in the shape of the Antichrist with superhuman powers, the man who sets himself up as equal to God.
The idea of Antichrist has made its way beyond the confines of Judaism and Christianity and has entered into various literatures of the world—only, however, through the medium of Christianity. There are traces of it in the more ancient Edda literature; while the semi-Christian old-Bavarian poem "Muspilli" (ninth century) makes extensive use of the various Antichrist legends. The Parsee Pahlavi writings betray unmistakable evidences of the tradition, especially the apocalypse "Bahman Yast," written in Pahlavi and translated in "Sacred Books of the East," v. 191 et seq., which is full of it. In Arabian literature, Antichrist is called "Al Dajjal" (the liar), or more fully, "Al Masiḥ al-Dajjal (the false Messiah). The name shows its Christian-Syriac source; for "dajal" denotes "lying" almost exclusively in the Christian dialect of Aramaic. In the Mohammedan account, Dajjal is really the Jewish pseudo-Messiah, and is slain by Jesus after he had long maintained his imposture. Of the numerous details concerning him, it is interesting to note that he is represented as a one-eyed monster, of horrible mien, and that in some respects the picture agrees with the various descriptions of Armilus (see Abomination of Desolation; Ahriman; Armilus).
- The literature on Antichrist is very extensive, so that only a small selection can be given here: Bornemann, Commentar zu den Thessalonier-Briefen, pp.348-382, 400-537 (rich in references to literature);
- Bousset, Der Antichrist, Göttingen, 1895, translated into English by Keane, 1896;
- idem, Offenbarung Johannis, pp. 415, 464-480;
- Friedländer, in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxviii. 19 et seq.;
- Geffcken, in Preussische, Jahrb. 1900, pp. 383-399;
- Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos, 1895, pp. 221 et seq.;
- Holtzmann, Lehrb. d. Neutest. Theologie, i., ii. (see index; this work contains also valuable literary references):
- Haug, in Theolog. Stud. aus Würtemberg, v. 188 et seq., 282 et seq.;
- Schneckenburger, in Jahrb. für Deutsche Theologie, iv. 405-467, Schürer, Gesch. ii. 532;
- Wadstein, in Zeitsch. f. Wissensch. Theolog. xxxviii. 538 et seq.;
- Zahn, Einleit. in das N. T. (see index).