restricted access Elijah in Upper Egypt: The Apocalypse of Elijah and Early Egyptian Christianity (review)
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Reviewed by
David Frankfurter. Elijah in Upper Egypt: The Apocalypse of Elijah and Early Egyptian Christianity Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 380. $42.00.

Frankfurter began by looking at the gap between the religious cultures of Alexandria and those of Egyptian monasticism, and saw nothing about the rural Christianity of Egyptians and Greco-Egyptians. It was that Christianity, he said, that would form the links between "Alexandria and the rural monastery, between apocalyptic Judaism and apocalyptic Egyptian Christianity, between epichoric folk religion and fanatical Egyptian martyrs, between the scribal traditions of the native Egyptian priesthood and Coptic literature, and between Alexandrian ecumenism and the nationalism of Egyptian monastic culture" (p. 1). He argues that The Apocalypse of Elijah, written in the latter half of the third century, is unique evidence of this phase of Egyptian Christianity. It represents an eschatological faith outside the world of Alexandria. Frankfurter used a combination of social history, literary criticism, and the history of religions to examine The Apocalypse of Elijah, trying to show how the book as literature functioned within a particular social and historical situation.

Part 1 of his book focuses on the apocalypse as religious literature. Here he outlines the critical questions, the research previously done, and sets The Apocalypse of Elijah in the context of both the Bible and Elijah pseudepigraphy in Egypt. Then he examines the literary questions: genre, audience, major themes and traditions, and the relationship of the apocalypse to the question of martyrdom. Out of this analysis, Frankfurter suggests the following conclusions: 1. The Apocalypse of Elijah is primarily oral and performance-oriented, which suggests its audience was, at best, semi-literate. 2. The eschatological interests of the book indicate that its audience saw itself as "pre-millennial." 3. The audience was people from rural backgrounds. 4. The audience saw themselves as "wise men," that is, those who know the eschatological signs, and the signs of deceit practiced by the "lawless one." 5. The author is likely to have been the first "performer" of the text before an audience. 6. The author may have had some connections with the Egyptian priesthood. 7. The rigorism of the apocalypse seems to reflect the roots of the Melitian schism. 8. The references to martyrdom correlate to the time of Decius and Valerian, even though there are no specific historical references.

Part 2 ("Envisioning the Collapse of Things: The Convergence of Egyptian and Christian Worldviews in the Apocalypse of Elijah") draws on an old Egyptian tradition of Chaosbeschreibung, or times of distress in Egypt. This comes from a literary form used to describe the accession and decline of kings, showing both their glory and the chaos that resulted from an interregnum. Always in the background was the idea of demonic opposition to kingship and the attempt of chaos to threaten order. Chaos was on the periphery. It was the foreign invader, the threat posed by the desert encroaching on the fertile Nile valley, and the creatures of the desert (from scorpions to demons). The literary traditions of the demons, or gods of [End Page 237] the periphery, Frankfurter argues, are a key part of the literary background to The Apocalypse of Elijah. He traces this literature through the Hellenistic period into the Roman, and shows how the literary tradition helped shape popular cultural ideas in rural Egypt. He argues that The Apocalypse of Elijah is one more attempt to describe chaos in Egypt and reveals Christ as the real "king from the sun" who restores order and harmony to the cosmos.

This fairly lengthy section on literary criticism is one of the unique contributions of the book, and sets The Apocalypse of Elijah in a broad literary context of millennialist Christian authors, both outside and inside of Egypt.

Part 3 ("A Silhouette of the Millennium: Toward A Historical and Social Context for the Apocalypse of Elijah") deals with three levels of historical context: Egypt in the third century; Millenialism in Upper Egypt 260-270; and "A Sect in the Crossfire of Asceticism Debates," ca. 260-290. On the first level, the third century saw a decline in the Egyptian economy and a period...