In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Apocalypticism, Millennialism, and Messianism

  • Introduction
  • Apocalypticism, Millennialism, and Messianism
  • Early Islamic Apocalypticism and Messianism
  • Medieval Jewish Apocalypticism and Messianism
  • Joachim of Fiore
  • Apocalypticism, Alchemy, Astrology, and Esotericism in the Late Middle Ages

Medieval Studies Apocalypticism, Millennialism, and Messianism
Lorenzo DiTommaso
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0147


Apocalypticism is a worldview. It is a fundamental cognitive orientation that makes axiomatic claims about the nature of time, space, and human existence. In the apocalyptic pattern of thought, time is linear and history is finite. Space consists of two realities, transcendent and mundane. The transcendent reality is traditionally equated with God or heaven. Mundane or everyday reality is shaped by the historic conflict between two irreducible and antagonistic forces, typically good and evil. The eschatological resolution of this conflict is predetermined, imminent, and, for the elect, salvific, in the sense of a deliverance from this reality. The revelation of this information orients existence and gives life meaning and purpose. Together, these core axioms describe an “apocalyptic minimum,” which distinguishes apocalypticism from other types of revelatory phenomena, and by which cultural expressions and social movements may be recognized as apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a literary genre, prominent in early Judaism and ancient Christianity. The archetypal example is the New Testament Revelation of John, also known as “the Apocalypse.” One of the most influential books in history, Revelation was the lodestone (if not always the focus) of Christian apocalyptic speculation throughout the Middle Ages. This speculation was almost always expressed in oracles, testaments, political prophecies, systematic theology, vision and dream reports, commentaries and other kinds of exegetical literature, homilies, sermons, drama, and lyrics, rather than in formal apocalypses, as well as in non-literary forms (see below, Medieval Apocalyptic Art and Imagery). Eschatology, or the study or doctrine of the “last things,” comes in many varieties. Apocalyptic eschatology is the eschatology of the apocalyptic worldview, and therefore reflects its propositions. Its most distinctive feature is the anticipation for the impending post-mortem judgment of the dead. Millennialism is the expectation for a collective eschatological salvation that anticipates an earthly utopia as the abode and reward of the saved. It, too, appears in a variety of forms. Messianism is the set of ideas concerning the anticipation for an end-time agent(s) who play a positive, authoritative, and usually redemptive role. In Christianity, apocalyptic speculation is always informed by the expectation of Christ’s second coming.

Apocalypticism, Millennialism, and Messianism

Collins 1998 is the best introduction to ancient apocalyptic literature, with Rowland 2002 a close second; both may read with profit. Collins, et al. 1998 is an excellent starting point for most topics on apocalypticism, millennialism, and messianism. Collins 2014 is more thematic and analytical in its focus, yet equally valuable, with essays on aspects of apocalyptic literature. DiTommaso 2014 shifts the investigation to the worldview, investigated as a global, historical phenomenon. Wessinger 2011 is important, but weighted toward contemporary expressions. Walls 2008 is more comprehensive and better balanced, though it inclines toward the theological in its topics and scholars. Court 2008 provides a solid introduction to Christian millenarianism. See also O’Leary 1994.

  • Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

    The best introduction to ancient apocalyptic literature. Collins headed the effort to set the study of “apocalyptic” on solid taxonomical ground, his core category being the literary genre apocalypse. Medievalists might find the stress on genre unhelpful, since formal apocalypses are rare in the post-biblical era, while new forms of apocalyptic literature (commentaries, homilies, pope prophecies, etc.) appear. But this book is essential: among other things, it should prevent the fallacy of viewing apocalyptic phenomena solely through the lens of Western medieval Christianity (or the New Testament).

  • Collins, John J., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    The essays in this superb volume concentrate on apocalyptic literature from a literary and thematic perspective. Although it does not contain much on medieval apocalypticism, it is a benchmark reference based on its scope, the quality of its entries, and the hand of its editor.

  • Collins, John J., Bernard McGinn, and Stephen J. Stein, eds. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. 3 vols. New York: Continuum, 1998.

    The articles in Volume 1 cover “The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity,” in Volume 2 “Apocalypticism in Western History and Culture,” and in Volume 3 “Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and Contemporary Age.” All contain useful bibliographies. Many of the articles in Volume 2 are referenced in the sections below.

  • Court, John M. Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2008.

    A balanced, well-written introduction to the subject that situates medieval millennialism in its historical and cultural contexts, with a useful glossary of terms.

  • DiTommaso, Lorenzo. The Architecture of Apocalypticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Concentrates on apocalypticism as a historical, global phenomenon, and proposes an “apocalyptic minimum” as a way by which the worldview may be identified across the centuries and in different cultures.

  • O’Leary, Stephen D. Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Outlines the major patterns of apocalyptic discourse, although its assessments are somewhat slanted by its focus on Protestant apocalyptic social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. That said, this is still the best book on a relatively underexplored subject.

  • Rowland, Christopher. The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Christianity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002.

    Along with Collins 1998, this is a first-rate introduction to apocalyptic literature, with a greater stress on early Christian apocalypticism and messianism. Rowland’s taxonomy is different than Collins’s: Rowland views “apocalyptic” as the revelation of divine mysteries. While this definition is untenable, the book itself contains more for the medievalist in its emphasis on themes, motifs, and apocalyptic epistemology. Originally publication: New York: Crossroad, 1982.

  • Walls, Jerry L., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195301052.001.0001

    Thirty-nine essays on the varieties of eschatology, in three parts: “Historical Eschatology (Biblical and Patristic, and World Religions),” “Eschatology in Distinct Christian Traditions and Theological Movements,” and “Issues in Eschatology (Theological, and Philosophical and Cultural).” The volume tends toward the theological without being informed by theology.

  • Wessinger, Catherine, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

    Thirty-seven essays on the varieties of millennialism. Although medievalists ought to consult it, most of these essays deal with topics pertaining to modern millenarian movements and new religions, on which Wessinger is an acknowledged specialist. The taxonomy and definitions of the key categories, including “millennialism,” are informed by this bias.

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