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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie
Messias – Endkaiser – Antichrist. Politische Apokalyptik unter Juden und Christen des Nahen Ostens am Vorabend der arabischen Eroberung.
Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag 2014. XII, 345 S. m. Abb. u. Tab. = Orientalia Biblica et Christiana, 21. Lw. EUR 78,00. ISBN 978-3-447-10134-9.
This book is the printed version of the doctoral dissertation of Lutz Greisiger, conducted at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg under the supervision of Jürgen Tubach. The research objective of the book aimed at an examination of the Jewish and Christian Syriac apocalypticism of the seventh century, that is, at the eve of the Muslim Arab conquests of the Eastern provinces of Byzantium. However, the book develops into a quite different and broader study of named time period.
The introduction presents an elaborate analysis of what G. quite ingeniously calls »historical apocalyptology«. As the reader very soon observes, this book which is supposedly dedicated to apocalypticism, has actually a much wider scope. The book is divided in three major parts, under the headings: Messiah (Messias) – Last Emperor (Endkaiser) and Antichrist respectively. Accordingly, the book is generally structured on three central figures of traditional apocalyptic thought and literature. However, the respective main chapters that are listed under these figures are entitled: »The Persian Byzantine War 602–628« (Der persisch-byzantinische Krieg 602–628); »The Restitutio Crucis and the Forced Baptism of the Jews« (Die Restitutio Crucis und die Zwangstaufe der Juden); »The new Alexander« (Der neue Alexander). These titles are naturally also revealing for the overall character and research focus of the book. Thus, al-though the book uses as its starting point certain Jewish and to a lesser extent Christian apocalyptic texts (as there is hardly any Chris-tian political apocalyptic text from the seventh century, which would predate Islam), this is not a study of apocalyptic literature
The book deals mainly with the political and military history of the region at the time as well as with the question of how apocalyptic expectations and ideas might have reflected historical events and perceptions or even influenced the reception and interpreta-tion of contemporary political events. Major parts of the volume are devoted to the description and analysis of the military history of the time and the exposition of Byzantine and Islamic aspects of war-fare. According to G., the book seeks to offer a differentiated approach to the reaction of the Syriac Christians to the Muslim conquests. This goal is also achieved through a very balanced and careful evaluation of the primary source literature.
Furthermore, this volume focuses on the Jewish population of the Byzantine empire at a time of significant political and military turmoil during the long warfare between Byzantium and the Muslim Arabs. The analysis describes in detail the situation of the Jews in Byzantium before and during the Muslim conquests. More importantly, it traces and even unearths historical hints in the Jewish apocalyptic texts that relate to contemporary political events. In that sense, the work offers at many places an original and detailed interpretation of Jewish apocalyptic texts from a political and historical perspective. In this frame of reference, Jewish messianism is considered as a pivotal political factor, which shaped the reactions and mentality of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire at the time. Accordingly, the Jewish contribution to these wars is also addressed and adequately explained in terms of their hatred and reaction to Christian hegemony. Specifically, the study focuses on the alliance of the Jews with the Muslims against the Christian rule. As G. argues the early Muslim rulers even acquired messianic qualities in the eyes of many Jews. [»Damit gewann Umar in den Augen nicht weniger Juden messianische Qualitäten« (154)]. As G. convincingly argues the apocalyptic visions that are narrated in the relevant texts derive from real feelings of the contemporary Jewish population. Furthermore, the book shows that the Jews were also familiar with Christian historical and religious-apocalyptic tradi-tions (210). In that sense, the study presents a fresh approach to the reading and understanding of apocalyptic literature with political overtones.
However, in support of his line of argument, G. often uses not only contemporary but also considerably older or younger source material without always taking into account adequately the respective historical background or the historical sequence that pertains to these sources. Thus, it is characteristic that two sources from the tenth century (Andres Salos) and from the fourth or fifth century (pseudo-Hippolytus) would be discussed and brought into connection on the same page without any further contextualiza-tion except for their respective use of the shared motif of the antichrist.
This book is more about political history and less about political eschatology or apocalypticism from the point of view of the history of religions. The apocalyptic texts are examined in length but mainly as historical sources and not as religious or theological lit-erature. This is an original methodological approach but it often seems to be insufficient for an in-depth understanding and interpretation of the texts. A thorough religious-historical or literary analysis of the texts is lacking. Similarly, Church History is hardly discussed.
The book offers a very comprehensive historical overview and is the outcome of a significant scholarly effort and diligence. G. has made use of a considerable amount of secondary literature in order to elaborate the analysis of the historical situation of the time. The critical and thorough discussion of the relevant secondary litera-ture is exceptionally informative and exhaustive. The book includes long retellings of primary literature and offers an interesting and useful collection and discussion of primary sources. Long quota-tions are used but hardly any original translations of original sources are offered. At times the lengthy retelling of the sources or of the secondary literature seems too long-winded. Furthermore, it should be noted that the conclusions of this work are not entirely clear. It would have been helpful, if in the concluding chapter of the book, the new insights of this study would have been briefly summarized and elucidated.
The book is generally well written and often uses a journalistic writings style, as in the title of the epilogue »Apocalypse Now!«. However, its language and style that succeed in keeping the inter?est of the reader through the discussion of numerous often complex and obscure historical sources, also tend at times to sound too ge-neralizing. For example, it is often not distinguished between the Muslims and the Arabs; or, there are statements, such as, to the »religion of the Arabs« that was attractive for »many Christians« (4).
Finally, it should also be noted that this generally carefully written and argued book would have profited from a rigorous editorial care in order to avoid a substantial number of typographical errors.
In summary, this is a very erudite work that illuminates and carefully analyses little-studied aspects of the history of Byzantium at a time of a deep political, historical and religious turmoil that introduced radical changes in the Eastern provinces of the Empire and beyond.