Wilhelm Bousset
(1865 – 1920)

Major NT scholar in religionsgeschichtlicher Schule
in Goettingen, Germany |
 Not to be Confused with Jacques Bossuet

The AntiChrist Legend (PDF)
Jesus | Die Offenbarung Johannis

The Historical New Testament: The Apocalypse (PDF) – Explaining in detail Bousset’s (very mature) explanation of the wide range of dates for the Apocalypse

Preterist Commentaries By Historical Preterism

(The Antichrist Legend, pp. 20-25)

This character of the tradition is most pronounced in chap. xi. of the Revelation of S. John. Specially puzzling is here the sudden appearance of the beast that comes up out of the pit and kills the two witnesses (ver. 7). If we suppose that in the expression ” the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit ” the hand of the ” editor ” of Revelation has been at work, still there is the reference in ver. 7 to a demoniacal power by which the two witnesses are slain. As this can by no means be separated, as Spitta would have it, from the general context, the fragment remains all the more puzzling.

In any case the sudden cessation of the testimony of the witnesses after three years and a half must still have been brought about by some hostile power.

But where are we elsewhere to look for the appearance of the witnesses and of the beast ? According to ver. 8, in Jerusalem. Even apart from the words ” where also our [their] Lord was crucified,” Jerusalem is unmistakably indicated both by the connection with vers. 1 and 2, and by the circumstance that in the earthquake in which the tenth part of the city fell seven thousand men were slain (ver. 13). For the assumption that the scene takes place in Rome there is not a particle of evidence. The assertion that Jerusalem could not be called ” the great city ” can be shown to be groundless, while the fact that Rome is elsewhere in Revelation also called ” the great city ” proves nothing for the explanation of this quite exceptional chapter.

But if everything thus points to Jerusalem as the theatre of these events, then comes the question, How are we to explain the appearance in Jerusalem of the beast which is elsewhere in Revelation associated with the Roman empire, with Rome itself, or with Nero returning from the Euphrates ? Here a too hasty exposition of a single chapter of Revelation would avail nothing. For after all it is quite possible, nay, even tolerably certain, that we have in this book diverse cycles of thought lying close together.

Moreover, who are the two witnesses ? Why are they here introduced at all ? Why, and against whom, do they forebode the plagues ? In what relation do they stand to the beast ? Why does the beast of all others slay the witnesses ? Who are the dwellers upon the earth who rejoice and make merry and send gifts one to another during the three days and a half that the witnesses lie dead ? If we are to suppose that they gathered about Jerusalem, how did they get thither ? Is it the Roman legions that are to tread Jerusalem underfoot ? But if so, how can these be spoken of as ” they that dwell upon the earth ” ? All these are moot points which will never be solved by discriminating the sources within chap. xi.

Now let us take it as unquestioned that in this chapter the figure of the Antichrist appears in Jerusalem, that he here stands in no relation to Rome and the Roman empire, or to. the Gentiles, who, as would seem, tread Jerusalem underfoot. Then a parallel passage will at once be found in the eschatological section of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, whose authenticity I accept without however in my researches laying too much weight on this assumption.

Here the very mysterious fragmentary manner of the exposition is obviously intentional. The author will not say more than he has said, but refers to his previous oral communications, giving the impression of an allusion to some esoteric teaching. In fact Paul speaks of a mystery in the words — ” Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things ? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work : only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way ” (chap, ii., vers. 5-7). We read of ” the man of sin,” a ” son of perdition,” who is yet to come. This figure also of the Antichrist appears in Jerusalem ; he sitteth in the Temple of God, and proclaims himself God. His advent will be ” after the working of Satan ” ; he will work ” signs and lying wonders,” and will beguile them that perish ” with all deceivableness of unrighteousness.”

Here therefore we have also an Antichrist who has nothing whatever to do with the Roman empire. For the passage is not applicable even to Caligula and his whim to have his statue set up in the Temple of Jerusalem. By such an interpretation we should miss the most essential point — that is to say, the threatened profanation of the Temple by foreign armies. Here we have nothing but signs and wonders and deceits, and it is characteristic of the passage that it contains an altogether unpolitical eschatology— an Antichrist who appears as a false Messiah in Jerusalem and works signs and wonders. And when Paul says that this man of sin will lead astray those destined to perish because “they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (ver. 10), it is quite evident that he is thinking of the Jews, to whom a false Messiah will be sent because they have rejected the true Messiah. But whence does Paul know all this, and who is the one that ” letteth,” who has to be ” taken out of the way ” before the coming of the Antichrist ?

I turn to a third allied passage, the section of the Lord’s discourse in Matthew xxiv. and Mark xiii. on the Second Coming, and I assume, with many recent expositors, that the distinctly apocalyptic part is a fragment of foreign origin introduced amid genuine utterances of the Lord. It is also evident that compared with that of Mark the text of Matthew is the original. Here we have again the same phenomenon of short mysterious forebodings. The writer speaks of the ” abomination of desolation ” in the holy place, followed by the flight of the faithful (one scarcely knows from what) ; of a shortening of the days (we know not what days, or whether any definite period of time is meant) ; of the ” sign of the Son of man,” which still remains a puzzle, although treated lightly by most expositors. In any case the view is steadily gaining ground that the allusion to the siege of Jerusalem and the flight of the Christians to Pella is an explanation introduced as an after-thought into Revelation.

Yet one is reluctant to understand the passage except in association with the time of the emperor Caligula.

How then is to be explained the flight after the pollution of the Temple ? Was the writer one of the advocates of peace, who wished to dissuade his fellow-countrymen from taking to arms ? But if so, he might have spoken in plainer language. A life-and-death struggle would after all seem probably to have taken place before the setting up of the emperor’s statue.

The simplest way out of the difficulty will be to apply 2 Thessalonians to the explanation of Matthew xxiv. Then the profanation will be the Antichrist who takes his seat in the Temple of Jerusalem, and the flight will be that of the faithful from Antichrist and his persecution.

But then the question will again arise, Whence this whole cycle of thought ? What was the source of this conception of the Antichrist in the Temple of Jerusalem ?

Do the last verses of Revelation ii., 2 Thessalonians ii., and Matthew xxiv. all belong to the same legendary matter, and will it be possible again to bring the scattered fragments together ? Apart from the New Testament, are there any sources still at all available calculated to afford fresh information on this common tradition ? We can now say that there is, in fact, still extant a superabundance of such material.

When we pass on to the eschatological commentaries of the Fathers on Daniel, Revelation, 2 Thessalonians ii., Matthew xxiv., etc., we everywhere observe the same phenomenon, a multiplicity of details, causing us to ask in amazement, How does it happen that these expositors of the Old and New Testament writings are all alike so full of those wonderful and fantastic representations which occur precisely in this particular domain ? Even beneath the most arbitrary exegetic fancies and allegorical explanations we may still perceive how this came about. But in this field of research there is opened up a world of fresh eschatological imagery, for which scarcely any support is sought in the Bible, at least beyond mere suggestions.

Yet these very suggestions or assertions everywhere crop out with surprising persistence, so that when the matter is more closely examined we begin to detect order, consistency, and system in what we had regarded as a mere congeries of marvellous fancies.


Greg Alles
Otto converted him to neo-Friesianism around 1908. Very active in left-liberal politics, he was probably closer to Nelson politically than Otto (who was a little further to the right). For example, in the 1910 volume, Was ist Liberal?, Nelson wrote the opening essay from the perspective of philosophy; Bousset wrote the next essay (if my memory is good) from the perspective of theology. In 1910, Bousset presided over the merger of all left-liberal political parties. Also in 1910: Bousset, Otto, and, I believe, Nelson were involved in a fiasco of a public meeting of the Akademischer Freibund, Goettingen. The question for discussion: is it possible to revive the old spirit of liberalism among German students today? The meeting fell apart. Actually, it caused a riot.

Bousset and Otto both had difficulties getting professoriates. They were popularizers, and they were too liberal (by the standards of the day). Both finally succeeded in 1915: Bousset went to Giessen, Otto to Breslau. “

New Testament scholar and theologian, professor successively at the universities of Göttingen and Giessen, and co-founder of the so-called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history of religions school) of biblical study. His many publications include works on New Testament textual criticism, Gnosticism, and the early church. His principal works were Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen (späthellenistischen) Zeitalter (1903; “The Religion of the Jews in the New Testament [late Hellenistic] Era”) and Kyrios Christos (1913; “Lord Christ”).

E.B. Elliott
“It may probably at once strike the reflective reader that if the chronology of Bossuet’s scheme, extending as it does from Domitian’s time to fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century, do in regard of the supposed Roman catastrophe abundantly better suit with historic fact than the German Neronic or Galbaic Præterist Scheme, it is on the other hand quite as much at disadvantage in respect of the other, or Jewish catastrophe. For surely that catastrophe was effected in the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, above 20 years before Bossuet’s Domitianic date of the Apocalypse: and all that past afterwards under Hadrian was a mere rider to the great catastrophe.” (
Bousset’s Roman Praeterist Scheme)

Larry Hurtado
“The approach and views that have been dominant were developed largely in the closing years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century in a period of German scholarship dominated by the so-called “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religions school”). The key scholar on early Christian belief in Jesus was Wilhelm Bousset, and in a monumental study first published in 1913, Kyrios Christos (English translation 1970), he laid out what became a widely echoed historical understanding of matters. Essentially, Bousset portrayed a divinization of Jesus that took place as the result of influences from the wider Roman religious environment with its many gods and divine heroes. In his view, Jesus’ earliest followers, “the Palestinian Primitive Community,” revered him as Messiah and “the Son of Man” whom they expected to come soon to bring eschatological salvation. Bousset sharply distinguished their beliefs about Jesus from what came later.

    |equent stages, especially in “the Gentile Christian Primitive Community,” that Jesus was regarded as divine and invoked as “Kyrios” (“Lord”) in worship settings. Basically, these circles of Christians brought their pagan concepts (such as apotheosis of heroic figures) and religious schemes with them, treating Jesus as a “cult deity” like the many divinities and heroes of their background. As traced by Bousset, these subsequent developments, from the apostle Paul on through to Irenaeus (late second century) essentially comprised a story of a progressive (and in Bousset’s view, regrettable) paganization of an originally simple piety with which Bousset more readily identified himself in its putative emphasis on ethics and a “purer” monotheism unencumbered by dogmas about the divinity of Jesus.

     In short, Bousset portrayed devotion to Jesus as divine as an evolutionary process that was largely explained by “syncretistic” influences from the wider pagan world mediated through the influx of Gentile (non-Jewish) converts to the early Christian churches, especially in diaspora locations such as Syrian Antioch. Although Bousset certainly had his critics and major scholars (such as Oscar Cullmann) offered cogent alternative views of some relevant matters, the “story” set forth in Kyrios Christos has enjoyed remarkably wide acceptance in scholarly circles, and the gist of it has also been echoed in many popular accounts as well.” (Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity)

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