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Repurposing the Apocalypse

Posted On December 20, 2017 | 10:16 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Christopher Bonura studies the political history of apocalyptic literature

Christopher Bonura, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies. On November 6, he delivered his research report, “The Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara: History and Prophecy in the Christian Encounter with Islam,” which discussed the translation, dissemination, and influence of the apocalyptic text in Byzantium and the Mediterranean world.

Q&A with Christopher Bonura

Even today postapocalyptic novels, movies, and TV shows hold this great attraction. What is the value of studying apocalyptic literature? What is it able to express?

There’s always an interest in apocalyptic literature. Today that manifests in stories of zombie apocalypses or post-nuclear-war survival, but medieval Christians had a religious understanding of what would happen at the end of the world derived from their interpretation of scripture, and they worked within that framework. Still, both medieval and modern apocalyptic literature can express similar interests and concerns, especially contemporary political concerns. What does a zombie outbreak say about fear of disease and its containment? What does a postapocalyptic nuclear hellscape say about our concerns about the immense destructive capabilities that modern technology has enabled? It’s a similar thing in medieval apocalypticism; political concerns are always there, and that’s what I’m interested in studying.

Some of the older scholarship that first used medieval apocalyptic literature as historical sources saw these works as useful inasmuch as they can provide useful chronological data. There was a notion that they can be read as “chronicles written in the future tense.” I’m skeptical of that approach. What I’m more interested in studying is how apocalypses reflect mentalities, such as a point of view about the world or political concerns that are happening around their composition.


You explained how you don’t think the text is a reaction to the Arab conquest so much as to the general centralization of power. Talk more about that.

I don’t think it’s a response to the Arab conquest because it was written probably fifty years afterward. And on top of that, there has been a general assumption that the Arab conquests must have caused an outpouring of apocalyptic speculation. When viewing it from a Byzantine’s perspective, as have many Byzantine historians who have dealt with this work, there’s this perception that the conquests were enormously disruptive. If you’re in Constantinople they are, because half the empire has been lost to the Arabs. On the ground in the areas that were conquered, though, it was less disruptive. Most of these places just opened their gates and accepted new rulers. What I think was more important was the rise of a powerful and centralized Arab government at the end of the 7th century and beginning of the 8th that made Islam central to the state the way Christianity had been central to the Byzantine state. That was new and disconcerting to Christians at the time, because of this idea that Christianity and empire had to go hand in hand. And then this government starts to impress its power on the provinces in a way that hadn’t happened before, and that meant a greater ability to exact taxation and install administrators and officials.


You talked a lot about how, in the Apocalypse, the Ishmaelites are politicized and treated as this almost allegorical Other; are there other figures or entities in the text that get this treatment?

Absolutely. For instance, there’s this story in the text about Gog and Magog being imprisoned by Alexander the Great, which was a popular story in the Near East at the time. You see it in Syriac texts, and it makes its way into the Quran, though the Quran doesn’t explicitly identify the ruler as Alexander. Medieval Latin readers do not generally have access to these texts, so it’s the Apocalypse of Methodius of Patara that brings them that story, and in fact, in the West, the story of Gog and Magog seems to be more interesting to them than that of the Ishmaelites. It becomes especially potent when the Mongols appear on the scene, because they’re so confusing and disruptive to the West’s understanding of the world and history. They sort of came out of nowhere in the east, they’re not Muslims, they’re not Christians, but the story of Gog and Magog fits them surprisingly well.