Relevant New Testament Texts
Outside the book of Revelation, there are few New Testament references to a possible messianic interregnum. First Corinthians 15:23–28 (cf. Col 1:13) speaks of a resurrection and of Christ reigning at his coming until he puts all his cosmic enemies under his feet. Then he will turn all things over to God. Other than that, the messianic reign preceding the eternal kingdom goes unmentioned—even in the adventist passages (i.e., Mark 13 and parallels; 1 Thess 4:13–18; 2 Thess 2:1–12; 2 Pet 3:1–12). The same silence prevails even in some of the early extra-canonical literature: for example, the Didache concludes with an apocalyptic passage predicting the reign of the Antichrist and the second coming, but with no mention of a millennium.
Second Century Christian Writings
This silence in Christian writings soon ends. The eschatology of second-century Christianity was decidedly chiliastic, and its influence continued to be widespread through the next two centuries. Its proponents included the rogue Cerinthus, the “simple” Papias, the philosophizing Justin, the erudite sytematizer Irenaeus, the Sibylline-quoting Lactantius, and the “charismatic” Tertullian.1 Philip Schaff points to its pervasive, though unofficial, acceptance:
The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers. (Schaff 1892, 854)
Chiliasm Generally Accepted
No one could seriously argue against the assertion that this was the generally accepted early eschatology of the Christian church. It was a noticeable element of primitive Christianity. Harnack says, “chiliasm is found wherever the Gospel is not yet Hellenistic… and must be regarded as a main element of the Christian preaching” (von Harnack 1958, 1:167, n. 1). It became a powerful tool in the hands of Christian apologetes facing Jewish “propaganda” in the Roman empire. The Christians adapted the materialistic promises of Jewish appearance, frequently the only modification consisting of the substitution of the church for the nation of Israel as recipient of the promises.
Ascension of Isaiah
The Ascension of Isaiah in its present form is a Christian work from about the early second century AD It promises that Christ will return with angelic armies to defeat the Antichrist Beliar and to drag him and his armies into Gehenna (4:1–18). Then, following an indeterminate period of rest for the still-living godly who have execrated Beliar, along with the saints who have descended from heaven, they will all leave their bodies and ascend into heaven.
Epistle of Barnabas
The early second century AD Barnabas is a harsh anti-Judaistic tract that sets out to prove that even the Old Testament was never meant for the Jews.2 Using various tortured exegetical proofs, sometimes based on a gnosis-oriented interpretation, “Barnabas” makes the entire Old Testament the Christians’ book. Edmond de Pressensé says, “It is but a step beyond this to the daring speculation which arbitrarily tampers with texts” (Pressensé 1879, 6; quoted by Gregory 1983, 16).
Timing of the Millennium
He is quite specific about the time of the millennium. As in 2 Enoch, there are seven millennia days. Everything will be completed in six; then the Son of Man will return to judge and destroy the wicked and to bring in the restful seventh millennia day. “Barnabas” taught that the Son of God would appear at the beginning of the seventh millennium (15:4–9). He interpreted the creation week with its Sabbath: “Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, ‘he finished in six days.’ This implies that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with him as one thousand years. And he himself testified, ‘Behold, today will be as one thousand years.” Therefore, my children, in six days, that is in six thousand years, all things will be finished” (Epistle of Barnabas, 15).
“Sabbath” Followed by Eighth Day
Interpreting the Sabbath, he says: “This means: when his Son, returning shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then he will truly rest on the seventh day” (Epistle of Barnabas, 15), And interpreting “your new moons and your Sabbaths, I cannot endure.” he says, “You see how he speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but that which I have made, when giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world” (Epistle of Barnabas, 15).
Jewish Cosmic Week
He follows the Jewish cosmic week theory, adapting it to prove that the Jewish Sabbath was wrong and the Christian Sunday right (Barrett 1956, 370). To make that point, he outlined a cosmic week, with an eighth “day” as follows (Epistle of Barnabas 14:4–9):
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 = present | 7 = millennium | 8 = eternity (Kleist 1948, 179)
He was one of the earliest Christian writers to combine the six days of creation with Psalm 90:4 to produce a cosmic week of salvation; Justin would later develop this in more detail. Jean Daniélou sees in this speculation of Barnabas a mixed lot that retains “the Hellenistic notion of seven millennia as constituting the sum of history, the Jewish idea of the privileged character of the seventh day as a time of rest, and from Christianity, the conception of the eighth day as eternal life” (Daniélou 1964, 397–98).
Not Yet Developed Chiliasm
This is not yet chiliasm in any developed sense, for Barnabas sees only a rest period between the old and new worlds; however, his thinking falls into the same pattern that would later get fuller treatment in chiliastic interpretation.
From these undeveloped roots, the millennia hope gained in popularity during the next few centuries, having such early supporters as Cerinthus, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Montanus, and later, Hippolytus and Lactantius.
Cerinthus is reported to have depicted the future kingdom in terms of sensual pleasures of eating, drinking and marriage festivities when the saints would be rewarded in Christ’s earthly kingdom. He sometimes sounds like the false prophets of whom Micah warned: “If a man comes, telling an empty lie: ‘I will preach to you about wine and beer,’ he would be the preacher for this people” (Mic 2:11). But these prophets had misused liturgical material that spoke of hills dripping with wine (Amos 9:13; cf. Lev 26:5; Joel 3:18 [Heb 4:18]) to claim sensual delights.3 Eusebius castigated Cerinthus for this:
For the doctrine which he taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one. As he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that the kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion; that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.25.2–3)
Opposition to Cerinthus
Of course, the supporters of a doctrine are sometimes its own worst enemies. This Cerinthus was the very heretic with whom the Apostle John supposedly refused to share a bath house.4 But not all the literalists were so crass. If there were to be material delights, they were the delights of an Edenic paradise flowering again after creation had been freed from the curse of thorns, sweat, and pain.
- Barrett, Charles K. “The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology: In Honour of Charles Harold Dodd, edited by W. D. Davies and D. Daube, 363–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
- Daniélou, Jean. The Theology of Jewish Christianity. Vol. 1, The Development of Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea. Translated by John A. Baker. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1964.
- Gregory, Joel C. “The Chiliastic Hermeneutic of Papias of Hieropolis and Justin Martyr Compared with Later Patristic Chilasts.” Ph.D. diss. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 1983.
- Kleist, James A. The Didache the Epistle of Barnabas; The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp; The Fragments of Papias; The Epistle to Diognetus. Edited by Johannes Quasten and Joseph Plumpe. Ancient Christian Writers 6. Mahwah, N.J.: Newman, 1948.
- Pressensé, Edmond Dehault de. Heresy and Christian Doctrine. Vol. 4, The Early Years of Christianity. 4 vols. Translated by Annie Harwood Holmden. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879.
- Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Christianity AD 100–325. Vol. 2, History of the Christian Church. 6th ed. 7 vols. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1892.
- von Harnack, Adolf. History of Dogma. 7 vols. Translated by Neil Buchanan, J. Speirs Millar, E. B., and W. M’Gilchrist. New York: Russell & Russell, 1958.
- In the fifth century AD, Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men, 18) lists the following men as chiliasts: Papias, Irenaeus, Apollinaris, Tertullian, Victorinus of Petau, and Lactantius; Harnack’s more wide-ranging list also includes Pseudo-Barnabas, Hermas, 2 Clement, the Didache, Cerinthus, Justin [not in Jerome’s list!], Hippolytus, and Commodian (von Harnack 1958, 1:167). Though we might wonder about Jerome’s list, which lacks Justin, and perhaps question the identification of Hippolytus as a chilast, most scholars would agree with a list that looks much like these.
- Though the work purports to be the work of Paul’s associate, that is clearly impossible. Most scholars date it no earlier than AD 138.
- Note that Amos 9:13 and Joel 4:18 were two of the very passages that Papias and other early chiliasts adapted to Christian chiliasm, with its emphasis upon a millennial time of increased fecundity on earth.
- Eusebius reports this (Ecclesiastical History, 3.28.6), and the English version editors comment, “the occurrence fits well the character of John as ‘son of thunder.’”