BOOK REVIEW / New world disorder: 'Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith' - Norman Cohn: Yale University Press, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NORMAN COHN is the historian of important parts of history other historians do not reach: the collective myths that underpin the assumptions, prejudices and beliefs which shake and shape human societies. His new book is as learned, fascinating and readable as his three previous studies, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Warrant for Genocide and Europe's Inner Demons.

Every known culture has myths about the origin of the world and about the forces at work in the universe. The ancient Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the early Indo-Aryan inhabitants of the Indus valley were different in many respects, including their religious systems, but all shared the conviction that the world had been created once and for all time and would not change. The world is a turbulent place in which order will always be threatened by disruption, cosmos by chaos, but some heroic god will always be found to oppose the dragon of chaos, so that order will usually prevail. Tranquillity is only to be found in the after-life; it can never be achieved on earth.

This reasonable acceptance of the world as likely to continue in much the same fashion was gradually supplanted in some other cultures by a variety of apocalyptic visions which shared the conviction that, at some time in the future, there would be a final struggle between the forces of good and evil which would bring an end to conflict and disorder, establish a new Kingdom on earth, and usher in a new era of perfect peace, prosperity and happiness.

This improbable but influential scenario first appeared in the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who is now thought to have lived some time between 1500 and 1200 BC. Zoroastrianism became a flourishing religion throughout Iran, and still survives among the Parsees of India, descendants of Zoroastrians who fled from the Muslim invaders centuries ago. Zoroaster preached that, after a cosmic struggle in which the forces of evil would be vanquished, there would be a judgment, both of the living and the dead; those considered righteous, whether living or resurrected, would live for ever in a new, changed world which knows nothing of evil or strife.

Originally, the Israelites had a world-view resembling that of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian peoples, although they were less sanguine about the prospect of peace or happiness in an after-life. However, the rise of monotheism, the belief in 'Yahweh alone', especially among the Israelites exiled in Babylon, brought about a change in their beliefs. If Yahweh was not only the special protector of the Jews but also all-powerful, he would surely destroy their enemies and establish a new Kingdom on earth in which Jews could once more prosper.

Norman Cohn traces, in fascinating detail, how apocalyptic belief in the imminent establishment of the Kingdom of God found its way into the teaching of that Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. 'Thy Kingdom come . . . on earth, as it is in Heaven'; and there can be little doubt that Jesus thought it was coming soon.

The Book of Revelation spells out the myth in dramatic terms; and, lest it should be thought that such fantasies belong only to history, let me remind readers that, as recently as April 1993, about 80 people, including 17 children, perished in the flames at Ranch Apocalypse, in Waco, Texas. Their leader, David Koresh, had persuaded them that he was the Messiah. He told his followers that Armageddon was imminent, that God would destroy the present world, and that only true believers would return to populate the new Kingdom, which God would establish in Israel, with Koresh on the throne.

Norman Cohn combines scrupulous scholarship with readability in a unique way. I think this book, like The Pursuit of the Millennium, will become a classic.