1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
MILLENNIUM (a pseudo-Latin word formed on the analogy of biennium, triennium, from Lat. mille, a thousand, and annus, year), literally a period of a thousand years. The term is specially used of the period of 1000 years during which Christ, as has been believed, would return to govern the earth in person. Hence it is used to describe a vague time in the future when all flaws in human existence will have vanished, and perfect goodness and happiness will prevail. The attribution of a mystic significance to the millennium-period, though perhaps not prominent in that theory of Christian eschatology to which the names Millenarianism and Chiliasm (from Gr. xtXcas, a thousand) are given, is quite common in non-Christian religions and cosmological systems.
Faith in the nearness of Christ's second advent and the establishing of his reign of glory on the earth was undoubtedly a strong point in the primitive Christian Church. In the anticipations of the future prevalent amongst the early Christians (c. 50-150) it is necessary to distinguish a fixed and a fluctuating element. The former includes (1) the notion that a last terrible battle with the enemies of God was impending; (2) the faith in the speedy return of Christ; (3) the conviction that Christ will judge all men, and (4) will set up a kingdom of glory on earth. To the latter belong views of the Antichrist, of the heathen worldpower, of the place, extent, and duration of the earthly kingdom of Christ, &c. These remained in a state of solution; they were modified from day to day, partly because of the changing circumstances of the present by which forecasts of the future were regulated, partly because the indications - real or supposed - of the ancient prophets always admitted of new combinations and constructions. But even here certain positions were agreed on in large sections of Christendom. Amongst these was the expectation that the future kingdom of Christ on earth should have a fixed duration - according to the most prevalent opinion, a duration of one thousand years. From this fact the whole ancient Christian eschatology was known in later times as "chiliasm" - a name which is not strictly accurate, since the doctrine of the millennium was only one feature in its scheme of the future.
1. This idea that the Messianic kingdom of the future on earth should have a definite duration has - like the whole eschatology of the primitive Church - its roots in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, where it appears at a comparatively late period. At first it was assumed that the Messianic kingdom in Palestine would last for ever (so the prophets; cf. Jer. xxiv. 6; Ezek. xxxvii. 25; Joel iv. ao; Dan. vi. 27; Sibyll. iii. 49 Seq., 766; Psalt. Salom. xvii. 4; Enoch lxii. 14), and this seems always to have been the most widely accepted view (John xii. 34). But from a comparison of prophetic passages of the Old Testament learned apocalyptic writers came to the conclusion that a distinction must be drawn between the earthly appearance of the Messiah and the appearance of God Himself amongst His people and in the Gentile world for the final judgment. As a necessary consequence, a limited period had to be assigned to the Messianic kingdom. According to the Apocalypse of Baruch (xl. 3) this kingdom will last "donec finiatur mundus corruptionis." In the Book of Enoch (xci. 12) "a week" is specified, in the Apocalypse of Ezra (vii. 28 seq.) four hundred years. This figure, corresponding to the four hundred years of Egyptian bondage, occurs also in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a). But this is the only passage; the Talmud has no fixed doctrine on the point. The view most frequently expressed there (see Von Otto in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschrift, 18 77, p. 527 seq.) is that the Messianic kingdom will last for one thousand (some said two thousand) years. "In six days God created the world, on the seventh He rested. But a day of God is equal to a thousand years (Ps. xc. 4). Hence the world will last for six thousand years of toil and labour; then will come one thousand years of Sabbath rest for the people of God in the kingdom of the Messiah." This idea must have already been very common in the first century before Christ. The combination of Gen. i., Dan. ix. and Ps. xc. 4 was peculiarly fascinating.
Nowhere in the discourses of Jesus is there a hint of a limited duration of the Messianic kingdom. The apostolic epistles are equally free from any trace of chiliasm (neither r Cor. xv. 23 seq. nor 1 Thess. iv. 16 seq. points in this direction). In Revelation however, it occurs in the following shape (ch. xx.). After Christ has appeared from heaven in the guise of a warrior, and vanquished the antichristian world-power, the wisdom of the world and the devil, those who have remained steadfast in the time of the last catastrophe, and have given up their lives for their faith, shall be raised up, and shall reign with Christ on this earth as a royal priesthood for one thousand years. At the end of this time Satan is to be let loose again for a short season; he will prepare a new onslaught, but God will miraculously destroy him and his hosts. Then will follow the general resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and the creation of new heavens and a new earth. That all believers will have a share in the first resurrection and in the Messianic kingdom is an idea of which the author of Revelation knows nothing. The earthly kingdom of Christ is reserved for those who have endured the most terrible tribulation, who have withstood the supreme effort of the worldpower - that is, for those who are actually members of the church of the last days. The Jewish expectation is thus considerably curtailed, as it is also shorn of its sensual attractions. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." Other ancient Christian authors were not so cautious. Accepting the Jewish apocalypses as sacred books of venerable antiquity, they read them eagerly, and transferred their contents bodily to Christianity. Nay more, the Gentile Christians took possession of them, and just in proportion as they were neglected by the Jews - who, after the war of Bar-Cochba, became indifferent to the Messianic hope and hardened themselves once more in devotion to the law - they were naturalized in the Christian communities. The result was that these books became "Christian" documents; it is entirely to Christian, not to Jewish, tradition that we owe their preservation. The Jewish expectations are adopted for example, by Papias, by the writer of the epistle of Barnabas, and by Justin. Papias actually confounds expressions of Jesus with verses from the Apocalypse of Baruch, referring to the amazing fertility of the days of the Messianic kingdom (Papias in Iren. v. 33). Barnabas 15) gives us the Jewish theory (from Gen. i. and Ps. xc. 4) that the present condition of the world is to last six thousand years from the creation, that at the beginning of the Sabbath (the seventh millennium) the Son of God appears, to put an end to the time of "the unjust one," to judge the ungodly and renew the earth. But he does not indulge, like Papias, in sensuous descriptions of this seventh millennium; to Barnabas it is a time of rest, of sinlessness, and of a holy peace. It is not the end, however; it is followed by an eighth day of eternal duration - "the beginning of another world." So that in the view of Barnabas the Messianic reign still belongs to ounros o auov. Justin ( Dial. 80) speaks of chiliasm as a necessary part of complete orthodoxy, although he knows Christians who do not accept it. He believes, with the Jews, in a restoration and extension of the city of Jerusalem; he assumes that this city will be the seat of the Messianic kingdom, and he takes it as a matter of course that there all believers (here he is at one with Barnabas) along with patriarchs and prophets will enjoy perfect felicity for one thousand years. That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias towards an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiastic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the and century. And another proof is found in the fact that even a speculative Jewish Christian like Cerinthus not only did not renounce the chiliastic hope, but pictured the future kingdom of Christ as a kingdom of sensual pleasures, of eating and drinking and marriage festivities (Euseb. H. E. iii. 28, vii. 25).
After the middle of the and century these expectations were gradually thrust into the background. They would never have died out, however, had not circumstances altered, and a new mental attitude been taken up. The spirit of philosophical and theological speculation and of ethical reflection, which began to spread through the churches, did not know what to make of the old hopes of the future. To a new generation they seemed paltry, earthly and fantastic, and far-seeing men had good reason to regard them as a source of political danger. But more than this, these wild dreams about the glorious kingdom of Christ began to disturb the organization which the churches had seen fit to introduce. In the interests of self-preservation against the world, the state and the heretics, the Christian communities had formed themselves into compact societies with a definite creed and constitution, and they felt that their existence was threatened by the white heat of religious subjectivity. So early as the year '70, a church party in Asia Minor - the so-called Alogi - rejected the whole body of apocalyptic writings and denounced the book of Revelation as a book of fables. All the more powerful was the reaction. In the so-called Montanistic controversy (c. 160-220) one of the principal issues involved was the continuance of the chiliastic expectations in the churches. The Montanists of Asia Minor defended them in their integrity, with one slight modification: they announced that Pepuza, the city of Montanus, would be the site of the New Jerusalem and the millennial kingdom. After the Montanistic controversy chiliastic views were more and more discredited in the Greek Church; they were, in fact, stigmatized as "Jewish" and consequently "heretical." It was the Alexandrian theology that superseded them; that is to say, NeoPlatonic mysticism triumphed over the early Christian hope of the future, first among the "cultured," and then, when the theology of the "cultured" had taken the faith of the "uncultured" under its protection, amongst the latter also. About the year 260 an Egyptian bishop, Nepos, in a treatise called 'XEyxos 6,XX yoptarCnv, endeavoured to overthrow the Origenistic theology and vindicate chiliasm by exegetical methods. Several congregations took his part; but ultimately Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, succeeded in healing the schism and asserting the allegorical interpretation of the prophets as the only legitimate exegesis. During this controversy Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over "Jewish" chiliasm would never be secure so long as the book of Revelation passed for an apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena of the canon. He accordingly raised the question of its apostolic origin; and by reviving old difficulties, with ingenious arguments of his own, he carried his point. At the time of Eusebius the Greek Church was saturated with prejudice against the book and with doubts as to its canonicity. In the course of the 4th century it was removed from the Greek canon, and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of. The attempts of Methodius of Tyre at the beginning of the 4th century and Apollinarius of Laodicea about 360 to defend chiliasm and assail the theology of Origen had no result. For many centuries the Greek Church kept Revelation out of its canon, and consequently chiliasm remained in its grave. It was considered a sufficient safeguard against the spiritualizing eschatology of Origen and his school to have rescued the main doctrines of the creed and the regula fidei (the visible advent of Christ; eternal misery and hell-fire for the wicked). Anything beyond this was held to be Jewish. It was only the chronologists and historians of the church who, following Julius Africanus, made use of apocalyptic numbers in their calculations, while court theologians like Eusebius entertained the imperial table with discussions as to whether the dining-hall of the emperor - the second David and Solomon, the beloved of God - might not be the New Jerusalem of John's Apocalypse. Eusebius was not the first who dabbled in such speculations. Dionysius of Alexandria had already referred a Messianic prediction of the Old Testament to the emperor Gallienus. But mysticism and political servility between them gave the deathblow to chiliasm in the Greek Church. It never again obtained a footing there; for, although, late in the middle ages, the book of Revelation - by what means we cannot tell - did recover its authority, the Church was by that time so hopelessly trammelled by a magical cultus as to be incapable of fresh developments. In the Semitic churches of the East (the Syrian, Arabian and Ethiopian), and in that of Armenia, the apocalyptic literature was preserved much longer than in the Greek Church. They were very conservative of ancient traditions in general, and hence chiliasm survived amongst them to a later date than in Alexandria or Constantinople.
But the Western Church was also more conservative than the Greek. Her theologians had, to begin with, little turn for mystical speculation; their tendency was rather to reduce the gospel to a system of morals. Now for the moralists chiliasm had a special significance as the one distinguishing feature of the gospel, and the only thing that gave a specifically Christian character to their system. This, however, holds good of the Western theologians only after the middle of the 3rd century. The earlier fathers, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, believed in chiliasm simply because it was a part of the tradition of the church and because Marcion and the Gnostics would have nothing to do with it. Irenaeus (v. 28, 29) has the same conception of the millennial kingdom as Barnabas and Papias, and appeals in support of it to the testimony of disciples of the apostles. Hippolytus, although an opponent of Montanism, was nevertheless a thorough-going millennarian (see his book De Antichristo). Tertullian (cf. especially Adv. Marcion., 3) aimed at a more spiritual conception of the millennial blessings than Papias had, but he still adhered, especially in his Montanistic period, to all the ancient anticipations. It is the same all through the 3rd and 4th centuries with those Latin theologians who escaped the influence of Greek speculation. Commodian, Victorinus Pettavensis, Lactantius and Sulpicius Severus were all pronounced millennarians, holding by the very details of the primitive Christian expectations. They still believe, as John did, in the return of Nero as the Antichrist; they still expect that after the first resurrection Christ will reign with his saints "in the flesh" for a thousand years. Once, but only once (in the Gospel of Nicodemus), the time is reduced to five hundred years. Victorinus wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse of John; and all these theologians, especially Lactantius, were diligent students of the ancient Sibylline oracles of Jewish and Christian origin, and treated them as divine revelations. As to the canonicity and apostolic authorship of the Johannine Apocalypse no doubts were ever entertained in the West; indeed an Apocalypse of Peter was still retained in the canon in the 3rd century. That of Ezra, in its Latin translation, must have been all but a canonical book - the numbers of extant manuscripts of the so-called 4 Ezra being incredibly great, while several of them are found in copies of the Latin Bible at the beginning of the 16th century. The Apocalypse of Hermas was much read till far through the middle ages, and has also kept its place in some Bibles. The apocalyptic "Testamenta duodecim patriarcharum" was a favourite reading-book; and Latin versions of ancient apocalypses are being continually brought to light from Western libraries (e.g. the Assurnptio Mosis, the Ascensio Jesajae, &c.). All these facts show how vigorously the early hopes of the future maintained themselves in the West. In the hands of moralistic theologians, like Lactantius, they certainly assume a somewhat grotesque form, but the fact that these men clung to them is the clearest evidence that in the West millennarianism was still a point of "orthodoxy" in the 4th century.
This state of matters, however, gradually disappeared after the end of the 4th century. The change was brought about by two causes - first, Greek theology, which reached the West chiefly through Jerome Rufinus and Ambrose, and, second, the new idea of the church wrought out by Augustine on the basis of the altered political situation of the church. Augustine was the first who ventured to teach that the catholic church, in its empirical form, was the kingdom of Christ, that the millennial kingdom had commenced with the appearing of Christ, and was;therefore an accomplished fact. By this doctrine of Augustine's, the old millennarianism, though not completely extirpated, was at least banished from the official theology. It still lived on, however, in the lower strata of Christian society; and in certain undercurrents of tradition it was transmitted from century to .century. At various periods in the history of the middle ages we encounter sudden outbreaks of millennarianism, sometimes as the tenet of a small sect, sometimes as a far-reaching movement. And, since it had been suppressed, not, as in the East, by mystical speculation, its mightiest antagonist, but by the political church of the hierarchy, we find that wherever chiliasm appears in the middle ages it makes common cause with all enemies of the secularized church. It strengthened the hands of church democracy; it formed an alliance with the pure souls who held up to the church the ideal of apostolic poverty; it united itself for a time even with mysticism in a common opposition to the supremacy of the church; nay, it lent the strength of its convictions to the support of states and princes in their efforts to break the political power of the church. It is sufficient to recall the well-known names of Joachim of Floris, of all the numerous Franciscan spiritualists, of the leading sectaries from the 13th to the 15th century who assailed the papacy and the secularism of the church - above all, the name of Occam. In these men the millennarianism of the ancient church came to life again; and in the revolutionary movements of the i 5th and 16th centuries - especially in the Anabaptist movements - it appears with all its old uncompromising energy. If the church, and not the state, was regarded as Babylon, and the pope declared to be the Antichrist, these were legitimate inferences from the ancient traditions and the actual position of the church. But, of course, the new chiliasm was not in every respect identical with the old. It could not hold its ground without admitting certain innovations. The "everlasting gospel" of Joachim of Floris was a different thing from the announcement of Christ's glorious return in the clouds of heaven; the "age of the spirit" which mystics and spiritualists expected contained traits which must be characterized as "modern"; and the "kingdom" of the Anabaptists in Munster was a Satanic caricature of that kingdom in which the Christians of the 2nd century looked for a peaceful Sabbath rest. Only we must not form our ideas of the great apocalyptic and chiliastic movement of the first decades of the 16th century from the rabble in Munster. There were pure evangelical forces at work in it; and many Anabaptists need not shun comparison with the Christians of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages.
The German and Swiss Reformers also believed that the end of the world was near, but they had different aims in view from those of the Anabaptists. It was not from poverty and apocalypticism that they hoped for a reformation of the Church. In contrast to the fanatics, after a brief hesitation they threw millennarianism overboard, and along with it all other "opiniones Judaicae." They took up the same ground in this respect which the Roman Catholic Church had occupied since the time of Augustine. How millennarianism nevertheless found its way, with the help of apocalyptic mysticism and Anabaptist influences into the churches of the Reformation, chiefly among the Reformed sects, but afterwards also in the Lutheran Church, how it became incorporated with Pietism, how in more recent times an exceedingly mild type of "academic" chiliasm has been developed from a belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, how finally new sects are still springing up here and there with apocalyptic and chiliastic expectations - these are matters which cannot be fully entered upon here.
See Schiirer, Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte (1874), §§ 28, 29; Corrodi, Kritische Geschichte des Chiliasmus (1781); R. H. Charles, The Doctrine of a Future Life (1899); Book of the Secrets of Enoch (1896), pp. xxvii - xxx, ch. xxxu. 2 - xxxiii. 2; Apocalypse of Baruch (1896), xxix. 3-8 (notes); Book of Enoch (index, s.v. " Messianic Kingdom"); Bousset, Religion des Judenthums (1903), 273-276; C. A. Briggs, The Messiah of the Apostles, p. 284 seq.; Sabatier, Les Origines litteraires et la composition de l'Apocalypse de St Jean (1887); Spitta, Die Offenbarung des Johannes untersucht (1889). See also Eschatology and works there quoted.
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Millennium'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/m/millennium.html. 1910.