still retards the revelation of Antichrist (2 Thess. ii. 6 &c., τὸ κατέχον; ὁ κατέχων), an allusion which, in the tradition of the Fathers of the church, came to be universally, and probably correctly, referred to the Roman empire. In this then consists the significant turn given by St Paul in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians to the whole conception, namely, in the substitution for the tyrant of the latter time who should persecute the Jewish people, of a pseudo-Messianic figure, who, establishing himself in the temple of God, should find credence and a following precisely among the Jews. And while the originally Jewish idea led straight to the conception, set forth in Revelation, of the Roman empire or its ruler as Antichrist, here, on the contrary, it is probably the Roman empire that is the power which still retards the reign of Antichrist. With this, the expectation of such an event at last separates itself from any connexion with historical fact, and becomes purely ideal. In this process of transformation of the idea, which has become of importance for the history of the world, is revealed probably the genius of Paul, or at any rate, that of the young Christianity which was breaking its ties with Judaism and establishing itself in the world of the Roman empire.
This version of the figure of Antichrist, who may now really for the first time be described by this name, appears to have been at once widely accepted in Christendom. The idea that the Jews would believe in Antichrist, as punishment for not having believed in the true Christ, seems to be expressed by the author of the fourth gospel (v. 43). The conception of Antichrist as a perverter of men, leads naturally to his connexion with false doctrine (1 John ii. 18, 22; iv. 3; 2 John 7). The Teaching of the Apostles (xvi. 4) describes his form in the same way as 2 Thessalonians (καὶ τότε φαινήσεται ὁ κοσμοπλάνος ὡς υἱὸς θεοῦ καὶ ποιεῖ σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα). In the late Christian Sibylline fragment (iii. 63 &c.) also, “Beliar” appears above all as a worker of wonders, this figure having possibly been influenced by that of Simon Magus. Finally the author of the Apocalypse of St John also has made use of the new conception of Antichrist as a wonder-worker and seducer, and has set his figure beside that of the “first” Beast which was for him the actual embodiment of Antichrist (xiii. II &c.). Since this second Beast could not appear along with the first as a power demanding worship and directly playing the part of Antichrist, he made out of him the false prophet (xvi. 13, xix. 20, xx. 10) who seduces the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first Beast, and probably interpreted this figure as applying to the Roman provincial priesthood.
But this version of the idea of Antichrist, hostile to the Jews and better expressing the relation of Christianity to the Roman empire, was prevented from obtaining an absolute ascendancy in Christian tradition by the rise of the belief in the ultimate return of Nero, and by the absorption of this outcome of pagan superstition into the Jewish-Christian apocalyptic conceptions. It is known that soon after the death of Nero rumours were current that he was not dead. This report soon took the more concrete form that he had fled to the Parthians and would return thence to take vengeance on Rome. This expectation led to the appearance of several pretenders who posed as Nero; and as late as A.D. 100 many still held the belief that Nero yet lived. This idea of Nero’s return was in the first instance taken up by the Jewish apocalyptic writers. While the Jewish author of the fourth Sibylline book (c. A.D. 80) still only refers simply to the heathen belief, the author of the (Jewish?) original of the 17th chapter of the Apocalypse of St John expects the return of Nero with the Parthians to take vengeance on Rome, because she had shed the blood of the Saints (destruction of Jerusalem!). In the fifth Sibylline book, which, with the exception of verses 1-51, was mainly composed by a Jewish writer at the close of the first century, the return of Nero plays a great part. Three times the author recurs to this theme, 137-154; 214-227; 361-385. He sees in the coming again of Nero, whose figure he endows with supernatural and daemonic characteristics, a judgment of God, in whose hand the revivified Nero becomes a rod of chastisement. Later, the figure of Nero redivivus became, more especially in Christian thought, entirely confused with that of Antichrist. The less it became possible, as time went on, to believe that Nero yet lived and would return as a living ruler, the greater was the tendency for his figure to develop into one wholly infernal and daemonic. The relation to the Parthians is also gradually lost sight of; and from being the adversary of Rome, Nero becomes the adversary of God and of Christ. This is the version of the expectation of Nero’s second coming preserved in the form given to the prophecy, under Domitian, by the collaborator in the Apocalypse of John (xiii., xvii.). Nero is here the beast that returns from the bottomless pit, “that was, and is not, and yet is”; the head “as it were wounded to death” that lives again; the gruesome similitude of the Lamb that was slain, and his adversary in the final struggle. The number of the Beast, 666, points certainly to Nero (ןורנ רסק = 666, or ורנ רסק = 616). In the little apocalypse of the Ascensio Jesaiae (iii. 13b-iv. 18), which dates perhaps from the second, perhaps only from the first, decade of the third century, it is said that Beliar, the king of this world, would descend from the firmament in the human form of Nero. In the same way, in Sibyll. v. 28-34, Nero and Antichrist are absolutely identical (mostly obscure reminiscences, Sib. viii. 68 &c., 140 &c., 151 &c.). Then the Nero-legend gradually fades away. But Victorinus of Pettau, who wrote during the persecution under Diocletian, still knows the relation of the Apocalypse to the legend of Nero; and Commodian, whose Carmen Apologeticum was perhaps not written until the beginning of the 4th century, knows two Antichrist-figures, of which he still identifies the first with Nero redivivus.
In proportion as the figure of Nero again ceased to dominate the imagination of the faithful, the wholly unhistorical, unpolitical and anti-Jewish conception of Antichrist, which based itself more especially on 2 Thess. ii., gained the upper hand, having usually become associated with the description of the universal conflagration of the world which had also originated in the Iranian eschatology. On the strength of exegetical combinations, and with the assistance of various traditions, it was developed even in its details, which it thenceforth maintained practically unchanged. In this form it is in great part present in the eschatological portions of the Adv. Haereses of Irenaeus, and in the de Antichristo and commentary on Daniel of Hippolytus. In times of political excitement, during the following centuries, men appealed again and again to the prophecy of Antichrist. Then the foreground scenery of the prophecies was shifted; special prophecies, having reference to contemporary events, are pushed to the front, but in the background remains standing, with scarcely a change, the prophecy of Antichrist that is bound up with no particular time. Thus at the beginning of the Testamentum Domini, edited by Rahmani, there is an apocalypse, possibly of the time of Decius, though it has been worked over (Harnack, Chronol. der altchrist. Litt. ii. 514 &c.) In the third century, the period of Aurelianus and Gallienus, with its wild warfare of Romans and Persians, and of Roman pretenders one with another, seems especially to have aroused the spirit of prophecy. To this period belongs the Jewish apocalypse of Elijah (ed. Buttenwieser), of which the Antichrist is possibly Odaenathus of Palmyra, while Sibyll. xiii., a Christian writing of this period, glorifies this very prince. It is possible that at this time also the Sibylline fragment (iii. 63 &c.) and the Christian recension of the two first Sibylline books were written. To this time possibly belongs also a recension of the Coptic apocalypse of Elijah, edited by Steindorff (Texte und Untersuchungen, N. F. ii. 3). To the 4th century belongs, according to Kamper (Die deutsche Kaiseridee, 1896, p. 18) and Sackur (Texte und Forschungen, 1898, p. 114 &c.), the first nucleus of the “Tiburtine” Sibyl, very celebrated in the middle ages, with its prophecy of the return of
- See Bousset, Kommentar zur Offenbarung Johannis, on these passages.
- Ibid. ch. xvii.: and Charles, Ascension of Isaiah, lvii. sq.
- Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Literatur, i. 573
- See Bousset, in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklop. für Theologie und Kirsche (ed. 3), xviii. 273 &c.