Circumcising the Antichrist:
An Ethno-Historical Fantasy


Bonita Rhoads and Julia Reinhard Lupton

Yale University and University of California--Irvine

Copyright © 1999 by Bonita Rhoads and Julia Reinhard Lupton, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. The Antichrist legend is among the most elusive and elastic of Christian narratives, as diffuse in its origins as in its incarnations. A composite of sources both scriptural (Daniel, John, Paul, Revelations) and non-scriptural (patristic and post-patristic commentaries and historical speculations), the Antichrist, conceived as the returned Christ's final human opponent, is insecure in its materials and unpredictable in its applications, constantly changing in a desperate effort to coordinate present events with the anticipated end of history. Our purpose in writing this essay is not to give a comprehensive history of the Antichrist's antecedents and evolutions; that has been done.[1] Rather, we hope to corner the arch-fiend of Christian eschatology in a particular fraternization, to catch him in the "Acts," so to speak, as a monstrous but indispensable chimera in collaboration with the teachings of St. Paul and the historiographical possibilities embedded in them. Of the scriptural sources that have contributed to the formation of the Antichrist legend, Paul's Second Epistle to the Thessalonians provides what one Antichristologist calls "[i]n addition to the Johannine texts, the most important, and perhaps the most interesting, single source for the interpretation of the Antichrist" (Emmerson 37).[2] The identification of ambiguous passages in 2 Thessalonians with the Antichrist appears in almost every version of the legend from its earliest articulations onward, including the most influential narrative formalization of the Antichrist's infamous career, Adso's tenth-century Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist. So established is the bond between Paul's equivocal prophesies and later stories of the Antichrist that, although Paul nowhere refers to him by that name, the Antichrist literally stares out from Paul's text: many illuminated Bibles contain decorated initials at the beginning of 2 Thessalonians that portray the Antichrist or images of Paul preaching against him (Emmerson 38).

  2. It should be no surprise that the typological terms Paul gave his ministry, which defined Christianity as the historical negation and redemption of Judaism, would figure largely in the construction of the Antichrist, the ultimate specter in the terminal chapter of salvation history, the Last Judgement or Christianity's "last analysis." We use the term "last analysis" here, because Paul's analytic strategies will be very much at stake in linking the story of the Antichrist with Paul's prophetic hermeneutics, which might be considered Christianity's "first analysis," its foundational theory and practice of a kind of literary and historical criticism. As a sequel to Paul's epistles, the Antichrist legend could be thought of as a "necessary evil," necessary to Christianity as Paul conceived of it, a postscript picking up threads that were left imperfectly woven into Paul's schematization of Christian history as a dialectical response to Judaism. For, if Christianity represents the New Covenant that has raised and cancelled the Old Covenant, the Second Coming promises a third epoch, a definitive yet indeterminate future moment that casts the present as an as-yet illegible typological anticipation of final events. The Antichrist threatens to negate Christianity not only by opposing the forces of good in a final battle, but also by Judaizing contemporary existence, rendering the current moment into a second Old Testament, its events imperfect shadows of a future crisis legible only in the obscurity of prophetic images.[3]

  3. In this essay, we are concerned not with theology per se, but with what we term the "ethno-historical" dimensions of the Christian basis of Western secular modernity. Ethnos, Greek for "nation" and equivalent to the Latin gens, is the root of such words as "ethnography" and "ethnicity." Its plural, ethne, refers in the Old and New Testaments to the "nations" other than the Jews--to the gentes or Gentiles, addressed by Paul as the inheritors of a universal, increasingly trans-ethnic church. In this essay, we use the word ethnos in the singular in order to designate the separation of the nation of Israel--and of other groups that would come to take its place in the typological imagination of the Christian West--from the inclusionary embrace of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Throughout Paul's epistles, the supreme marker of the Jewish people as an ethnos is circumcision. In the Renaissance and Reformation, circumcision not only continued to emblematize Judaism as a nation apart, but also Islam, the Catholic Church, and competing Protestant sects--groups which, in the eschatological waves that battered European consciousness, could all be identified with the Antichrist or his anticipations. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that in the ethno-historical vision of European Christendom, the Antichrist himself would have to undergo circumcision, a legendary episode in the life of this figure which this essay locates in the ethno-historical economy of Christian-secular modernity.

  4. In order to interpret the relation between the Pauline discourse of nations and the figure of the circumcised Antichrist, we have chosen to analyse a standard and popular version of the Antichrist legend, Adso of Montier-en-Der's Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist. Written in the tenth century for his royal patron, the Frankish Queen Gerberga, Adso's brief tract, in the form of a narrative rather than a commentary, brings together multiple strands that came before it and feeds disparate versions that came after it. A noted hagiographer, Adso consolidated previous opinions and gave the Antichrist's story a narrative clarity by borrowing and inverting the conventions of the saint's life. The popularity of Adso's treatise is exemplified by its wide dissemination: nine variants of his text were in circulation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, of which 171 extant manuscripts have been identified. Not only was Adso's Antichrist translated into a number of vernaculars, it also provided the template for numerous medieval artistic representations of the Final Enemy, from the twelfth-century German play, Ludus de Antichristo to fifteenth-century blockbooks that offered pictorial vitae of the Antichrist after the manner of hagiography and vitae domini.[4]

  5. Following the structure of the Golden Legend, in which each calendar entry begins with an etymological homily on the name of the day's saint, Adso's biography opens with a disquisition on the word "Antichrist": "the first thing you will want to know is why he is so called. This is because he will be contrary to Christ in all things and will do things that are against Christ [ideo scilicet, quia Christo in cunctis contrarius erit et Christo contraria faciet]" (90; 22). Here Adso establishes the career of the Antichrist as the systematic negation of the life of Christ and his saints. As modern commentators have pointed out, the negative machinery used to generate the Antichrist legend often produces parallels as much as inversions; in many cases, only the context of specific episodes rather than their shape distinguishes the career of the Antichrist from that of his divine model (Miceli 86-87). Later in the tract, Adso specifically links the Antichrist to a principle of imitation. Citing and glossing Paul's prophesies concerning "the son of perdition," (2 Thess 2:2-4), Adso writes, "Even though he is a man, he will still be the source of all sins and the Son of Perdition, that is, the son of the devil, not through nature but through imitation [non per naturam, sed per imitationem] because he will fulfill the devil's will in everything" (93; 26). Here, Adso establishes the human and historical nature of the Antichrist and distinguishes him from the Devil, whom he imitates but does not incarnate; the Antichrist will appear at the end of time, but within time, his historical being doubly defined as mimetic, stemming from his (false) simulation of Christ and his (true) imitation of the Devil.[5]

  6. Adso then addresses the problem of whether the Antichrist is single or multiple, already at large in the world or anxiously awaited. Adso reconciles these notions by proposing a final and full Antichrist who nonetheless has precedents, a mode of interpretation familiar from Christian typology, in which Moses, David and Solomon, for example, are read as antecedents of Christ. Just as the Old Testament prefigures the New, so ancient and modern avatars of evil--garden-variety antichrists selected from Jewish and Roman history as well as everyday life--predict the Final Opponent to come: "The Antichrist has many ministers of his malice. Many of them have already existed, like Antiochus, Nero, and Domitian. Even now in our own time we know there are many Antichrists, for anyone, layman, cleric, or monk, who lives contrary to justice and attacks the rule of his way of life and blasphemes what is good [Rom. 14:16] is an Antichrist" (90).

  7. The Antichrist proper, however, whose appearance at the end of time will have given meaning to this shadowy sequence of types, is to be born in Babylon among the Jews. Adso compares the conception of the Antichrist to that of his divine counterpart, fashioning the Antichrist as a perverted or inverted parallel of Christ; blockbooks of the legend model this scene on Annunciations, using iconographic formulae to visualize the mock-hagiographic structure of Adso's text.[6] [Figure 1] After receiving an education from magicians who "instruct him in every evil, error, and wicked art," the Antichrist will go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of Solomon [Figure 2]. This episode is extrapolated from a clause in 2 Thessalonians, "so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God" (1:4), commonly glossed to mean that the Antichrist will proclaim himself as the Messiah, an element included in Adso's legend as well. Within this Thessalonian scenario, Adso narrates the circumcision of the Antichrist, an episode with patristic but no scriptural basis: [Figures 3 and 4]
    He will erect his throne in the Holy Temple, for the Temple that Solomon built to God that had been destroyed he will raise up to its former state. He will circumcise himself and will pretend that he is the son of Almighty God. (91)

    The circumcision of the Antichrist first appears as part of his training and education, his early life, his devilish Bildungsroman--paralleling the initiations and early signs that mark the youths of Christ and his saints. Adso goes on to narrate other counter-hagiographic moments in the Antichrist's career--the use of miracles to convert Christians, for example, and, in a kind of anti-pilgrimage that thematizes Adso's negational principle of composition, the destruction of "the places where the Lord Christ walked," undoing the steps and stations of Christ's life.

  8. Adso then doubles back and retells the circumcision of the Antichrist, this time with a concentrated emphasis on the fate of the Jews, who are to be converted by this false Christ:

    As we said above, he will be born in the city of Babylon, will come to Jerusalem, and will circumcise himself and say to the Jews: "I am the Christ promised to you who has come to save you, so that I can gather and defend you who are in the Diaspora." At that time the Jews will flock to him, in the belief that they are receiving God, but rather they will receive the devil. (94)

    In his very next paragraph, Adso seems to contradict himself by proposing a different fate for the Jews, one more consonant with a widespread millenarian belief in the ultimate conversion of the Jews to Christianity at the end of time.[7] In order that the human race, including the Jews, not be entirely won over to the Antichrist, God sends the prophets Enoch and Elijah--Old Testament figures typologically linked to New Testament promises--to preach against him:

    These two very great prophets will convert the sons of Israel who will live in that time to the faith, and they will make their belief unconquerable among the elect in face of the affliction of so great a storm. (94)
    Adso then summarizes the final acts of the Antichrist. His reign of terror will endure for three and a half years; he will assassinate Enoch and Elijah; he will either martyr the faithful or bring about their apostasy. Whomever the Antichrist wins to his cause will be physically marked, receiving "his brand on the forehead" (96). Ultimately either Christ or the Archangel Michael will kill the Antichrist, after which the elect will be granted a forty-day reprieve in order to repent for having been led astray. After this period, the Last Judgement may come at any time.

  9. The circumcision of the Antichrist, an apparently minor episode within the legend--we have found no extended critical commentary on it--nonetheless stands out as a symptomatic detail that fantasmatically situates Judaism vis á vis Christianity in an ethno-historical fantasy of national covenant, trans-national conversion, oburate de-conversion, and apocalyptic redemption. We have already noted that Adso and his forbearers build the story of the Antichrist in part from a passage in Paul; the significance of circumcision in the tract also derives ultimately from Paul, for whom the Jewish rite provided a locus for a constellation of historico-theological isssues. Pragmatically viewed, circumcision may have achieved its importance to Paul as an obstacle to his missionary aspirations, since the rite was generally unappealing to non-Jewish peoples in the ancient world. Or, less cynically viewed, it may be that Paul (himself "circumcised on the eighth day" [Phil 3:5]) genuinely considered the practice of circumcision incompatible with his understanding of Christ's advent, death and resurrection. In any case, Paul's message of Christian universalism depended on revising the claim of the Jews to exclusive membership in the covenant promised to Abraham--the contract between God and Israel which is signed into law by the bodily script of circumcision (Gen 17: 10-12).

  10. Paul's method of obviating the rite of circumcision while still retaining the Hebrew Bible as revealed scripture hinged upon his use of typology. Paul argued that the coming of Christ had abolished the covenantal law for faith, and that what was now the "Old" Testament could be read allegorically as a prediction of the New. In Romans, his most important and extended theological statement, Paul writes, "For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal" (Rom 2:27-29). Specifically glossing the meaning of the covenant between Abraham and God as an issue of surface and depth, Paul figured a contract of which the content is Abraham's faith in God, while circumcision is now merely a symbolic trace of that faith: "[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised" (Rom 5:11). With this figural interpretation, Paul fundamentally reconstrued the status of circumcision--no longer the legal ratification of the covenant but the semiotic exhibition of its significance, a fleshy exterior signifier of an interior spiritualized signified.[8]

  11. This exegetical reinscription of values allowed Paul to shift the borders of Israel from a nationally and historically defined people to a universalized spiritual estate in which one might partake without an obligation to assume rituals that had been reduced in meaning to the ethnic mark and regional practice of Judaism. Circumcision, dietary laws, a genealogy in Judaism and a place in Israel's history--though valid before Christ's advent, these were, in Paul's analysis, culturally specific tokens of faith made obsolete both for membership in the elect and as a means of salvation. Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome, composed of both Gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also" (Rom 3:28-29). At the same time as Paul upset the scriptural premises that posited an exclusive Jewish nation, he did attempt to assign an historical role--albeit a completed one--to the Jews: "They are the Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their flesh is the Christ" (Rom 9:4-5). Paul's efforts to accommodate the Jewish position within a specifically Christian economy of history would lead to tensions in European Christendom, for whom the survival of Judaism beyond its typological supercession increasingly became an embarassment or scandal. Historically present yet theologically unconverted, the modern Jew became the sign of an historical contradiction threatening the dialectical pattern of testamentary retranscription. Paul's conception of a universal Christian brotherhood unhindered in its spiritual accessibility by external ethnic markers paradoxically estranged groups uncommitted to his particular ideal of universality and established the Jew as one paradigm for the unchristian--and the anti-Christian--in Christianity's world-view.

  12. In Adso, the episode of the Antichrist's circumcision mobilizes Paul's historical refunctioning of the Jews within a Christological economy. Adso first introduces the episode in conjunction with the rebuilding of the Temple: "Templum etiam destructum, quod Salomon Deo edificavit, in statum suum restaurabit et circumcidet se et filium Dei omnipotentis se esse mentietur" (24). The rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon, a key dream in Jewish messianic thought after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., stages a nightmare in post-Pauline theology, insofar as it represents the threat of a return to Old Testament institutions after their spiritual reinscription. Solomon's Temple is in itself a symbol of the uncanny ability of the Jewish people to resurrect itself against all opposition, having already been destroyed and rebuilt once before in Israel's history. Solomon built the Temple in order to house and protect the ark of the covenant, which was supposed to contain the original tablets of the Decalogue; in Christian thought, it is associated with the stony letter of the law. Medieval and Renaissance iconography often depicts the Temple in ruins in contrast to the established glory of the Church, which is sometimes depicted as having been built out of the recycled remnants of the Synagogue, the new existing at the expense of the old.[9]

  13. In the Antichrist legend, rebuilding the Temple represents a regression to a carnal Israel unspiritualized by Christ's advent, in which a central place is accorded to the law. In this sense, this episode of the Antichrist legend is not about a new form of adversity to Christ at all; it is a ghost story--Solomon's Temple is a haunted house full of the revenants of Old Testament precursors that dog Pauline Christianity, refusing death and rebirth through typological rereading. The Jewish paternity of the Antichrist, signed and sealed by his circumcision, exemplifies this haunting of Christianity by the continued existence of Judaism. If the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), the Antichrist's circumcision re-marks the body as the temple of Solomon's ghost, not Christ's spirit. Like the rebuilding of the Temple, the addition of circumcision to the Antichrist's curriculum vitae brazenly exhibits the menace of Jewish perseverance against Paul's revaluation of covenantal law. The imago (and corpus) of a Jewish Antichrist gives a face to this felt contradiction, and tries to resolve it in a fantasmatic scenario of history's end, redoubling and concentrating the persistence of Judaism in one figure so that it can be finished off once and for all.

  14. Associated with the restored Temple, the Antichrist's circumcision represents a negation of Paul's negation of Jewish law, a dangerously atavistic, even anti-historical return to a carnal moment after its supercession. The episode is modelled, however, not so much on circumcision as an Old Testament practice, but on the motif of the circumcision of Christ, a popular subject in Christian art and an event celebrated by its own feast day (on January 1, eight days after Christmas following the letter of Jewish law).[10] Adso probably derives this detail from the third-century commentary on the Antichrist written by St. Hippolytus, who introduces circumcision as one of a series of parallels linking the careers of Christ and Anti-Christ:
    For the deceiver seeks to liken himself in all things to the Son of God. Christ is a lion, so Antichrist is also a lion; Christ is a king, so Antichrist is also a king ... The saviour came into the world in the circumcision, and he will come in the same manner ... The Saviour raised up and showed His holy flesh like a temple, and he will raise up a temple of stone in Jerusalem. (cited Lucken 15)
    Christ's circumcision, considered from a Pauline point of view, is a rite that Christ accepted in order to end circumcision (and the law), following Paul's interpretation of Christ's acceptance of death on the cross as a means to give humanity everlasting life. The circumcision of Christ is also commonly considered to be the first time that his blood was let, and so it prefigures his passion, while also implicating the Jews (who would, of course, have performed the rite) in the crime of his eventual crucifixion (Mellinkoff 106-07). The Antichrist's circumcision undoes Christ's circumcision. Christ's circumcision abolishes the law while the circumcision of the Antichrist restores it. The one prefigures the crucifixion through which Christians attain salvation and the other brings Christians to damnation by seducing their worship to the outward show of a carnal relation to God. In this, circumcision is not simply one negation among others, but the Pauline emblem of typological negation par excellence, the cut that, precisely in submitting to world-historical cancellation, becomes a marker of epochal sublations in general.

  15. Following an indeterminacy in medieval orthography between "anti-" and "ante-" (Lucken 12-16), we could say that theme of circumcision marks the Antichrist as an Antechrist, a kind of devilish John the Baptist whose reinstitution of the law and attendant re-judaizing of historical existence permits and predicts the second coming of Christ (Lucken 12-16). Because Christianity's Messiah has already been revealed (the meaning of "apocalypse"), Christianity must explain the continuation of history after Christ while simultaneously maintaining the Pauline tenet that history has been redeemed and terminated in Jesus; the Antichrist's role in what is a second apocalypse, a post-apocalyptic apocaylpse, allows for the redoubling of the story of testamentary cancellation in a final historic passage from a rejudaized Christianity to a renewed and final Messianic era (cf. Boyarin 35). The Antichrist legend evolved in part as a compensatory narrative that could explain and economize the protracted stretch of Christian history after the apparent end of history in Christ's first advent.

  16. The primary targets of Adso's legend are not, of course, Jews, but other Christians; though the Antichrist proper would be a Jew, his precedents in the Christian community comprise "anyone, layman, cleric, or monk, who lives contrary to justice and attacks his way of life and blasphemes what is good" (90). The Christian reader must translate the exterior and future menace of the Antichrist into both an internal critique and a commentary on contemporary affairs by finding in the world around him living proto-types of Christ's greatest ante- and anti-type. The parade of the Antichrist's precedents through time, the "many ministers of his malice," serves to conceptualize the readmission of fallen history into Christian life, identifying its secular efflorescence with a Judaic temporality, a new Old Testament of profane and illegible types of which the Christian reader must become an astute and wary hermeneut.

  17. If the movement from the Old Testament to the New models the transition from pre-Christian antiquity to Christian modernity, the incompleteness of that translation--the frustrating survival of Judaism--justifies the concentration of modernity's discontents in the figure of the modern Jew, no longer benignly pre-Christian but malignantly anti-Christian. Its due date up, the continued practice of Judaism into the Christian era reduces the revealed Law to a mere legalism, an evacuated form that can then be filled with a new meaning, the peculiarly contentless content of secular history. In the Christian historical imagination, the Jew becomes a figure of modernity insofar as he stubbornly holds onto his antiquity--in this case the outmoded rite of circumcision, its atavism becoming the sign of a perverse modernism. The specter of the Jewish Antichrist pushes this movement into the prophetic future, drawing out the sequence of secular types in order to close off the malevolence of modernity in a final re-Christianizing battle.

  18. In Adso's second retelling of the circumcision of the Antichrist, the Jews appear as a people with an ambiguous yet important historical place and function in the last days of the world. Adso writes that he "will circumcise himself and say to the Jews: 'I am the Christ promised to you who has come to save you, so that I can gather together and defend you who are the Diaspora.' At that time all the Jews will flock to him, in the belief that they are receiving God, but rather they will receive the devil" (94; emph. added). Here, Adso specifically links the motif of circumcision to the Antichrist's presentation of himself as Messiah to the Jews. Yet, as we noted earlier, Adso goes on to suggest that Enoch and Elijah will convert "the sons of Israel," successfully innoculating them against the rhetorical power of the Antichrist (94). The contradiction in Adso's forecast for the Jews in the time of Antichrist mirrors Paul's own dilemma in his treatment of Israel. Paul accorded Judaism and the law a value, but only insofar as the Israel of the Old Testament prefigured and made way for its own replacement by faith in Jesus Christ, an historicization which, however, made it difficult for later Christianity to welcome the Jew into modernity (the same modernity of which the Jew increasingly became a type). Millenarian schemes resolved the problem of Jewish survival by predicting the ingathering and conversion of the Jews as a sign of the end of time; what had occured only incompletely with Christ's first coming would be resolved forever at the time of his return. It is no accident that Adso assigns this role to Enoch and Elijah; as Old Testament prophets linked to foreknowledge of Christ, they are themselves heroic emblems of successful typological conversion, a function redoubled and projected into future time by the image of their successful mission to the Jews. Adso adopts Paul's troubled position by imagining both the Jews' conversion to a false Messiah (a retaliation for their rejection of the true Christ) and the Jews' conversion to Christianity. In this way, the double fate of the Jews in the Antichrist story frames both the overdue fulfillment of Paul's dialectical synthesis of Judaism into Christianity and the punishment of the Jews for the delay.

  19. The historical scandal represented by literal circumcision may also secondarily inform the motif of the mark branded onto the foreheads of the Antichrist's followers, as an hysterical parody of the physical mark of circumcision: "And whoever shall have believed in him will receive his brand on the forehead" (96). Although this element is borrowed primarily from Revelations (20:4), its appearance in the same narrative as the references to circumcision recontextualizes the allusion in relation to Jewish law. As an identifying mark of belief in a Jewish Antichrist, the brand literalizes Paul's repudiation of circumcision as an outward show of faith by rendering the mark as outward as possible, right on the forehead--one of the contradictions in Paul's indictment of circumcision is that, not unlike faith, circumcision is after all effected in an area not so commonly or casually seen! As such, Adso's legend includes both an excessive reading of Paul's anxiety about outward ethnic observances (circumcision as a brand of the Antichrist) as well as an expression of Paul's dream of universal conversion (the "unconquerable" conversion of the Jews to Christianity by the not-so-Hebrew Prophets Elijah and Enoch).

  20. By returning the Antichrist to the Jews, Adso's legend unknowingly acknowledges the origin of the Antichrist figure in Jewish sources. Descriptions of Jewish conceptions of a final or eschatological opponent are for the most part to be found in apocalypses, a form of religious literature popular during Second Temple Judaism. The final opponent of Jewish eschatology was modelled off the great persecutors of Israel, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who razed Solomon's Temple and murdered and enslaved the Jews, and Antiochus, the Roman emperor who desecrated the Second Temple (McGinn Antichrist 10-11). Though akin to the Christian Antichrist, insofar as he is also an infamous persecutor and great tyrant, the Jewish final enemy is no Messiah look-a-like; the apocalyptic incubus of an Arch-Hypocrite is entirely Christian, and founded in part on the precarious doubling of Judaism into Christianity. As a tyrant on the model of Israel's previous oppressors, the Jewish Final Opponent is the enemy of Israel's history. The threat that he presents is the possibility of halting Israel in its history, a traumatic projection of a danger that Israel had already encountered and overcome numerous times. Because Israel is related to God precisely through its history (not by a faith that is beyond history), the threat of destroying Israel or of interrupting its genealogy was the greatest menace that Judaism's apocalyptic imagination could entertain. In this way, the Final Opponent in Judaism functions to accord Judaism's ongoing historical being a primary value in Jewish religious life.

  21. By contrast, the Christian Antichrist functions to negate Christian history, not in the sense of stopping it in its tracks, but in the sense of rendering it once more into antetypes of a future turn. The anticipation of apocalypse means that all of current experience is "through a glass darkly," since only at the end of time will God be encountered face to face. The Christian Antichrist is a figure in and of history--a human being, not the Devil, as Adso insists--yet his advent heralds the end of history, and as such renders the previous epoch a series of shadows, like the Old Testament itself. Paul's typological hermeneutic implies not only a spatial problem of surface and depth, an insinuation of supersensuous meaning into material appearances, but also a temporal problem, an insinuation of the future into the present. In the same way that, in an allegory, the material sign is supposed to give way to its significance, the Pauline present must defer to something beyond itself. History still exists for Paul (indeed, his thinking about Judaism is historical through and through), but only as a history outside of history; even as the Pauline tradition and the Antichrist legend negate material historical reality by Judaizing it, this act simultaneously gives history a destination, as a meaning that will be retroactively appended onto mortal life from its end-point. The Antichrist is the last lie in a historical existence made of lies, the lie to end all lies, before the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgement, which will overcome all deceptions and make all appearances transparent.

  22. Yet if Christ's circumcision serves to end all circumcision while the Anti-Christ's act reverses that negation in order to be cancelled in a final apocalypse, there is nonetheless no marked formal or material difference between the circumcisions of Christ and Antichrist.[11] In the parallelisms structuring Hippolytus' catalogue and narrativized in Adso's legend, the historic "anti/ante-" marked by circumcision institutes a principle of mirroring as well as negation, with the Antichrist as a perverse imitator of Christ. This, too, is a Pauline theme; throughout his epistles, Paul pleads his case from an embattled position, warning against spiritual charlatans and begging for fidelity to his Christ; one of the legacies that Paul leaves is his suspicion of potential misreadings of Christ, his sense of the possibility of the false teacher, of evil that comes in the guise of religious probity: "there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ [. . .] If any man preach any other gospel onto you than you have received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:9). In Corinthians, Paul admonishes his congregation against "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ" (11:13). It is against the backdrop of Paul's fear of "false apostles"--and in the image of the false Christ promulgated by the false apostle--that the Antichrist legend can imagine itself. The false face of Christ, conceived as the Antichrist, provides a narrative that keeps Christian readers on their toes, keeps them reading surfaces as inconclusive facades for uncertain depths, reading the symptoms of Christianity, both within themselves and without, as potentially deceitful. The beautiful and sorrowful (indeed, Christ-like) face of the Antichrist in Luca Signorelli's sixteenth-century frescoes reveals the outrageous and humbling self-doubt underlying Christianity's anticipation of an Antichrist, as the possibility of the believer's obscene mistake, the scandal of Christian credulity in the face of an evil double or demonic twin of Christ. In the pictorial vitae of fifteenth-century blockbooks (which for the most part follow the tradition of Adso), the Antichrist appears as a handsome young man, in no way visibly intelligible as a monster. [e.g., Figure 3] The product of a miraculous birth, yet still a human being, the Antichrist has an unpublic youth and then, like Christ, makes his appearance in the Holy Land. As a parody of Christ's historical being, the career of the Antichrist insinuates that Christ cannot be known by his historical manifestation, by demonstrating that the historical events of Christ's life may mean anything, may function as indices of good as well as of evil, of Christ or of Antichrist. The Antichrist legend, by holding up the specter of a false Christ (who is a likeness of Christ or who is Christ-like), keeps Paul's exegetical practices vital by turning the formula of Paul's typological reading of Judaism against Christianity's own subsequent progress through history, Judaizing the present moment in order to promote its future redemption.

  23. Luther, in his Pauline critique of the established Church and the Papacy, invoked the Antichrist legend as a vehicle for his reproaches. In collaboration with Luther, the artist Lucas Cranach produced a unique pictorial cycle of the Antichrist. [Figure 5]

    Cranach's Antichrist is no longer the Jew of the Adsonian tradition, but the Papal Antichrist that dominates Reformation appropriations of the theme; for Luther, Paul's prophesy "so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God" designated not the rebuilt Temple of Solomon but the Vatican as its modern type (cf. Hill 179-80). Yet this apparent shift is founded on a fundamental continuity: namely, the identification of the Church, with its sacraments, ceremonies, and saints, with an unacknowledged Jewish recidivism. In his commentary on Galatians, Luther frequently links "the Jews, the Turks, and the fanatics [other Protestant sects]," since "those who do [works] are not Christians: they are hirelings, whether they are called Jews, Mohommedans, papists, or sectarians" (Works 26: 26, 10). Luther develops the analogy:

    The monk, for example, imagines this to himself: "The works I am doing are pleasing to God. God will look upon my vows, and on their account He will grant me salvation." The Turk says: "If I live this way and bathe this way, God will accept me and give me eternal life." The Jew thinks to himself: "If I obey the Law of Moses, I shall find God gracious to me, and so I shall be saved." (Works 26: 28)[12]
    In Protestant typology, Catholicism becomes increasingly aligned with a secondary Judaism as well as an imperial Islam, the latter at once mirror and other of European Christendom's own transnational projects.[13] In these translations, circumcision, a Pauline synecdoche for "works" in general, once more forms a switch point between Judaism as an ethnos or nation apart, and the other un-Christian and anti-Christian groups that postdate Judaism and assume its historical function in new typological scenarios.[14]

  24. The motif of the circumcised Antichrist, then, is more than an arcane footnote in the history of theology; this obscure medieval fantasy, overtaken and taken up by the vaster and more vivid iconography of the Reformation's Papal Antichrist, has nonetheless infiltrated the forms and narratives of secular modernity, by authorizing a place for secular history within Christian time. Moreover, the profane figure of the modern Jew in Christian-secular society feeds on the theological symbolism of the Jewish Antichrist and his retypologization of redeemed existence. This affiliation between the secular Jew of market modernity and the theological Jew of Antichristology backlights the figure cut by the greatest stage-Jew of Renaissance drama, Shakespeare's Shylock. It is a truism to link Shylock to the devilish Vice figure of medieval drama, but such an identification insufficiently accounts for Shakespeare's specificically historical positioning of the Jew in an epochal economy of conversion, deconversion, and reconversion.[15] It is no accident that Portia appears at the end of The Merchant of Venice as a "second Daniel," bearing the alias of Balthazar, the name assumed by the young prophet at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, one of the formative Jewish types of the Antichrist. That same climactic scene is marked by the systematic refunctioning of circumcision from an ethnic marker signifying Shylock's recalcitrant Jewish modernity to a symbol of the trans-national subsumption of ethnos in the Pauline circumcision of the heart. Although we cannot pursue the full implications of the play's allusions to the circumcised Antichrist here, it is important to point in closing to The Merchant of Venice as one crucial clearing house for the ethno-historical dissemination of this theological motif.

  25. It is also appropriate by way of conclusion to turn here to modernity's most famous tractate on the Antichrist, Nietzsche's Der Antichrist. Nietzsche's work is, of course, a complex and independent philosophical enterprise with a genealogy quite distinct from that of the circumcised Antichrist. Quite unlike previous tractates on the subject, Nietzsche fashions himself as the Antichrist of the work's title, insofar as his aim is to mount a critique of institutional Christianity. He lambasts Christianity for being too Jewish--that is, too "priestly," too rabbinic--thus cutting the ground from under Christian anti-Semitism: "it is not a counter-movement to the Jewish instinct, it is its very consequence, one inference more of its awe-inspiring logic" (Section 24). He also suggests that Christianity distorts both Judaism and Jesus. It has accomplished the first by denying the Yahweh of pre-Temple Israel, its god "the expression of a consciousness of power, of joy in oneself, of hope for oneself" (Section 25). It performs the second by exchanging Jesus' radical program for a living praxis that denies any separation between man and God in favor of an other-worldy and guilt-driven faith that isolates consciousness from doing (Section 33). Moreover, Nietzsche's target is not only Christianity as a religion, but also its sublation into the apparently secular form of German philosophy: "The Protestant parson is the grandfather of German philosophy; Protestantism itself, its peccatum originale [original sin]. Definition of Protestantism: the partial paralysis of Christianity--and of reason. One need merely say 'Tübingen Seminary' to understand what German philosophy is at bottom: an insidious theology" (Section 10).

  26. The figure who inspires this three-part critique--against priestly Judaism, its Christian heir and twin, and its philosophical ghost--is none other than St. Paul, the rabbi-turned-Christian whose sublationary tactics would ultimately fuel the dialectical machinery of Hegel's philosophy of history.[16] Calling Paul a "dysangelist," a bringer of ill tidings, another bad Angel in an anti-Annunciation, Nietzsche rages that
    once more the priestly instinct of the Jew committed the same great crime against history--he simply crossed out the yesterday of Christianity and its day before yesterday; he invented his own history of earliest Christinity. Still further: he falsified the history of Israel once more so that it might appear as the prehistory of his deed: all the prophets spoke of his 'Redeemer.' Later the church even falsified the history of mankind into the prehistory of Christianity. (Section 42)
    In the final analysis, Nietzsche's Antichrist is not Nietzsche himself, but rather Paul, who has negated the best in both Judaism and Christianity, making possible a Christian-secular philosophy of history that, in the manner of typology, retroactively rewrites all that has come before as a sequence of predecessors which receive their meaning through acts of epochal translation--the retroactions that Nietzsche assiduously ferrets out in all of his works of genealogical critique.

  27. Does Nietzsche's unexpected identification of Paul with the Antichrist indicate his escape from the theological substratum of idealist philosophy, or rather his continued captation by it? In our estimation, the answer must be both. Insofar as Nietzsche (not unlike Kierkegaard) ultimately loves and cherishes a certain un-Jewish Jesus whom he separates out from the history of the Church, he remains partially invested in the typological dynamic that he wants to critique: for Nietzsche, Jesus represents a genuine departure from Judaism, but the Church--as priestly as the Judaism it despises--has failed to realize this. In doing so, however, Nietzsche strives to isolate an historical and existential position other-than-negation: thus he writes of his Jesus that "to negate is the very thing that is impossible for him" (Section 32). By analysing the retroactive dynamics that link theology and philosophy in order to imagine a non-negative form of historical thought, Nietzsche begins to provide a map of modernity beyond the Christian-secular synthesis. As such, the title of Nietzsche's work targets the "anti-" of negation as much as the "Christ" of institutional Christianity; his target is the first part of the word "Antichrist" as much as the second, or rather he identifies the first part with the second, insofar as the "anti-" of typological hermeneutics mobilizes Christianity and its philosophical afterlife.

  28. Nietzsche brings creator and created, Paul and Antichrist, face to face, identifying them in an uncanny mirror that leaps across the sequential deferrals of typology. Derived from Paul's Thessalonian prophesies, the medieval Antichrist of an ever-more prolonged Christian era takes shape as the projection of Pauline hermeneutics into the (re)redemptive future, only to arrive in Nietzsche's text not as the other of Paul, but as his sublime double and secret agent. If in Nietzsche's text the type of the Antichrist has come full circle, the shape traced by this trajectory delineates the possibility of a different history, a different modernity, from the one circum-scribed by circum-cision in the Christian-secular imaginary. Such a history would find a place for ethnos beyond the dialectic of Jewish particularism and Christian universalism, a place or set of places in which the differences marked by circumcision could be acknowledged without the need either to idolize or to cancel them.

List of Figures

1. Mock-Annunciation of the Antichrist. From 1467 woodblock book, Antichrist (NYPL *KB+1467). Reprinted with permission from the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

2. The Antichrist Rebuilds the Temple of Solomon. From 1467 woodblock book, Antichrist (NYPL *KB+1467). Reprinted with permission from the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

3. Circumcising the Antichrist. From 1482 woodblock book, Von dem Endkrist (NYPL *KB+1482). Reprinted with permission from the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

4. Circumcising the Antichrist. From Martinez Martin, Libro del Antichristo, Zaragoza, 1496 (NYPL *KB+1496).

5. Lucas Cranach, Antichrist. Woodcut illustrations from Martin Luther's Passioni Christi und Antichristi (Erhurt: Matthes Maler, 1521). Reprinted courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


  1. See, for example, works by Emmerson, McGinn, Wright, Jenks, and Miceli. Back

  2. The authenticity of 2 Thessalonians will not be at stake here, as it was attributed to Paul himself until the end of the eighteenth century; even now, scholars remain divided on the authorship of the letter (Meeks 107-8; Hawthorne 937). Our interest here is not with Paul as historical individual, but with the role of his letters as an integral scriptural corpus in the history of Christian typology. Back

  3. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, whose obsessive Antichristology runs side by side his scientific innovations, "If God was so angry with the Jews for not searching more diligently into the Prophesies which he hath given us to know Christ by, why should we think he will excuse for not searching the Prophesies which he hath given us to know Antichist by?" (cited McGinn 1). Back

  4. See McGinn, Antichrist 101-103 and 90-95; and McGinn, Apocaluptic Sprituality 81-88. The latter volume includes the translation and commentary of Adso's letter on which this essay relies; for Latin we use D. Verhelst's edition. Back

  5. On the Antichrist as a simulation, see Origen: "veritas Christus, et simulata veritas Antichristus; sapienta Christus, et simulata sapienta Antichristus" (cited Lucken 16). Back

  6. On annunciations and mock-annunciations in hagiographic literature and its secular afterlife, see Lupton, Afterlives of the Saints 112-16. 155-56. Back

  7. On the theme of Jewish conversion in Reformation millenarian thought, see Shapiro 113-65. Back

  8. For an elaboration of this point, see Lupton, "Ethnos and Circumcision." For modern accounts of Paul's relation to Judaism, see important statements by Boyarin, Davies, Hübner, Sanders, and Segal. Back

  9. Erwin Panofsky describes the typological program of Pullelle's Hours of Jean d'Evreux: "The bas-de-pages . . . illustrate the concordance between the Old Testament and the New by showing how the Twelve Apostles convert the saying of the Prophet's tearing a stone out of the fabric of the Synagogue and passing it on to the Apostle so that it might serve as building material for the Church, a process which naturally results in the gradual ruination of the Synagogue. A handsome edifice in January and February, it begins to show traces of wear and tear by the middle of the year and is completely reduced to rubble in November and December" (33). Back

  10. For a cultural analysis of cults of Christ's foreskin, see Shell, "The Holy Foreskin." Back

  11. A possible exception is the fact that the Antichrist is circumcised as an adult (like a proselyte) rather than on the eight day; in this, Christ's circumcision is the more traditional, if not the more legal, of the two. Back

  12. See also pp. 10, 33, 125, 140, and 147 in the same volume. Back

  13. For an elaboration of this point, see Lupton, "Othello Circumcised." Back

  14. On the Turk as Antichrist, Chistopher Hill makes the following observation: "In Mediterannean countries the idea that the Turk was Antichrist naturally had some popularity. In England the Turk was less of a menace, but Aylmer and Fox were prepared to add him to the Pope as Antichrist, and many followed them. But others denied this status to the Turk, since he was not a Christian. Richard Montagu proposed the Turk rather than the Pope as Antichrist" (181). See also Chew 396-97. Back

  15. Both authors of this essay are pursuing independent research on the relationship between anti-Judaism and secular historiography in The Merchant of Venice. On Merchant and Biblical typology, see especially Lewalski, Colley, and Engle; on Merchant and circumcision, see especially Shapiro 119-30. Back

  16. On Hegel and Pauline theology, see John Smith, The Letter and the Spirit. Back

Works Cited

Adso of Montier-en-Der. De Ortu et Tempore Antichristi. Ed. D. Verhelst. Brepols: Turnholti Typographi Brepolis Editores Pontifici, 1976. Trans. as "Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist." In McGinn, Apocalyptic Spirituality. 898-96.

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley U of California P, 1994.

Chew, Samuel C. The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance. New York: Octagon, 1965.

Colley, John Scott. "Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in Merchant of Venice." Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 181-89.

Davies, W.D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. 1948. Fourth Ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Emmerson, Richard Kenneth. Antichrist in the Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Apocalypticism, Art, and Literature. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1981.

Engle, Lars. "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 37.1 (Spring, 1986): 20-37.

Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. A Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1993.

Hill, Christopher. Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford UP, 1971.

Hübner, Hans. Law in Paul's Thought. Trans. James C. G. Greig. Ed. John Riches. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1984.

Jenks, Gregory C. The Origins and Development of the Antichrist Myth. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991.

Lewalski, Barbara. "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Mercahnt of Venice." In Sylvan Barnet, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of the Merchant of Venice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. 33-54. Also reprinted in Harold Bloom, ed., Shylock. 236-51.

Lucken, Brother Linus Urban, F.S.C. Antichrist and the Prophets of Antichrist in the Chester Cycle. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1940.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard. Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature. Stanford: Standford UP, 1996.

---. "Ethnos and Circumcision in the Pauline Tradition: A Psychoanalytic Exegesis." The Psychoanalysis of Race. Ed. Christopher Lane. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. 193-210.

---. "Othello Circumcised: Shakespeare and the Pauline Discourse of Nations." Representations 57 (Winter 97): 73-89.

McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

---. Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactantius, Adso of Montier-en-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, Savonarola. New York: Paulist, 1979.

Meeks, Wyane A., ed. The Writings of St. Paul. New York: Norton, 1972.

Mellinkoff, Ruth. Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Later Middle Ages. Berkeley: U of California P,1993.

Miceli, Vincent P., S.J. The Antichrist. West Hanover: Christopher Publishing House, 1981.

Nietzche, Friedrick. The Antichrist. The Portable Nietsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1976. 565-656.

Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Peerbolte, L.J. Lietaaert. The Antecedents of the Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.

Shell, Marc. "The Holy Foreskin; or, Money, Relics, and Judeo-Christianity." Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Stuies. Ed. Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Sanders, E.P. Paul, the Law and the Jewish People. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.

---. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale Up, 1990.

Smith, John. The Spirit and Its Letter: Traces of Rhetoric in Hegel's Philosophy of Bildung. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Wright, Rosemary Muir. Art and Antichrist in Medieval Europe. Manchester: U of Manchester P, 1995.

Back to Contents Page || Back to Jouvert Mainpage