Apocalypse (A User's Manual): Joseph Mede, the Interpretation of Prophecy, and the Dream Book of Achmet

By Haugen, Kristine Louise | The Seventeenth Century, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Apocalypse (A User's Manual): Joseph Mede, the Interpretation of Prophecy, and the Dream Book of Achmet


Haugen, Kristine Louise, The Seventeenth Century


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In 1632, the English theologian Joseph Mede proposed a new avenue for interpreting a text whose importance, for him and others, was literally worldhistorical. The biblical Apocalypse, Mede announced, should be read with the help of a Near Eastern book of ancient dream interpretations attributed to 'an Arab' called Achmet. Once it was understood that John's prophecies were, on one level, an accurate prediction of the course of world political history, Achmet's book of symbols allowed the attentive reader to cut with confidence through the Apocalypse's morass of bloody seas, horned beasts, and astronomical prodigies to determine exactly what part of John's prophecy was past and what was yet to come. Because these were among the clearest claims in Mede's Commentarius apocalypseos ('Commentary on the Apocalypse') - a book written to aid the bewildered readers of his even more difficult Clavis apocalyptica ('Key to the Apocalypse') of 1627 - and because both of Mede's books were later published in English by order of the Long Parliament in 1643, Achmet's name gained large currency among Protestant interpreters of prophecy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.1 Nor did those interpreters confine themselves merely to repeating Mede. As late as 1796, an anonymous British follower of Joseph Priestley discovered, with the aid of 'the Oriental oneirocritics', that John had prophesied both the French and American Revolutions.2 If Achmet is little known today outside Byzantinist circles - and was little known to early modern readers before Mede's intervention - his seventeenth-century rise to fame deserves our attention not least because it reveals the priorities and the manifold difficulties of a typical scholarly churchman.

The key attraction of Mede's Clavis, as he explained, was his entirely novel justification for treating the Apocalypse as a prophetic account of actual world political history. No-one, Mede claimed, could charge his account of the Apocalypse with arbitrariness or confessional bias; in fact, his method of explicating John's prophecy involved no metaphorical interpretation whatsoever:

We should read the Apocalypse in a purely literal way (juxta literam), as though it were an unadorned history of events, not a prophecy enfolded in mystical allegories and typologies: nonetheless, the book is provided with mystical signs and characters that the Holy Spirit has inserted throughout the whole narrative, so that without assuming or using any interpretation given in advance, we can educe, assemble, and prove the true sequence, order, and synchronisms of all these visions, with each thing taking place at its proper time.3

In Mede's subsequent Commentarius on the Apocalypse, Achmet would provide the most striking of the codes that Mede would use to explain John's 'mystical signs' while remaining entirely 'literal' himself. By outsourcing the risky task of interpretation to a Near Eastern expert on dreams, Mede promised to solve at a stroke the structural problem that afflicted any explanation of prophecy. His interpretation of the Apocalypse could not be contradicted, he implied, because his account of the text's meaning was not the result of interpretation at all.

In themselves, these were compelling claims; as Katharine Firth pointed out in her fundamental work on the Apocalypse's English readers, Mede's words also took up a challenge that the orientalist John Selden had laid down in 1618, to explain the prophetic text in a way that avoided arbitrariness and emphasized historical events and chronological correspondences ('storie and synchronisme').4 Yet Mede's Clavis of 1627 left it quite unclear how Mede's historical explanation of the Apocalypse, for all its internal consistency, had actually emerged in a verifiable way from the Biblical text. Mede soon found himself on the receiving end of a stream of polite but frankly challenging letters asking him to explain one part or another of the Clavis, and many of his replies to correspondents were reproduced in the Commentarius of 1632. …

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