Book Review: ‘2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse’
Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in Southwestern Journal of Theology, vol. 55, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 187-88. This particular issue focuses on “Scripture, Culture, and Missions.” For more information about the journal, or to subscribe, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse. By Matthew Restall and Amara Solari. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2011. 160 pages. Hardcover, $16.95.
December 21, 2012, is the end.
If you are one of a host of interpreters who are committed to the thesis that the Mayan City El Tortuguero has yielded a Mayan calendar that covers 5,126 years and culminates this year with intense apocalyptic ramifications, then you believe that December 21, 2012, is the cataclysmic end of the world as we know it! Some things recounted in this book are beyond question. First, the discovery of the Mayan calendar in question, based on the famous Long Count and beginning in 3114 BC, is a remarkable discovery. Second, the calendar itself, chronicling such a long period of time, is in a class of its own. Third, unquestionably those who believe that the information contained in the calendar has an apocalyptic nature are sufficiently excited about the prospects of such a climax to civilization that they have succeeded in creating 2012 mania. Like other apocalyptic predictions, which seem to come more and more frequently, a large number of people are stirred to act totally beyond reason in the thirty to sixty-day period immediately preceding “the end of the world.”
Nevertheless, Restall and Solari, from the University of Pennsylvania, are not buying into the mania. Quite to the contrary they contend that there is nothing at all apocalyptic about the calendar. According to them, the calendar simply covers a period of time from one Mayan “beginning” to the end of that period, with virtually little anticipation of any end of the world or apocalyptic kingdom. Their fascinating accounts of the calendar provide a brief history of the discovery and the nature of the calendar itself. They present an overview of Mayan civilization and its expectations—particularly during the days of the Conquistadores— and then an assessment of the inroads of the Roman Catholic church, especially the Franciscan Padres, who, in the viewpoint of the authors, actually are the order most seriously responsible for the spread of apocalyptic views in the new world.
Although this reviewer has read the book, I find myself insufficiently prepared to make much of a judgment since I have had little opportunity to study the civilizations of ancient Central and South America. What Restall and Solari indicate about the nature of the calendar and its lack of apocalyptic prediction certainly makes reasonable sense. Because I have long been an observer of latter-day apocalypticists’ exaggerated anticipation, I can certainly believe that such conspiratorialists have seized an otherwise fairly innocent expression of antiquity and turned it into something that it is not.
However, when it comes to the authors’ understanding of the Bible and the Franciscans and the conditions of late medieval Catholic church, they could afford to do a little more homework. At one point they speak of “the book of the Revelations,” making one suspect that despite speaking of the book, they have not paid much attention to it. At another place they imagine millenarian advocates as seeing a millennium followed by a time of great trouble in the world when, in fact, no chiliast I know would be expecting a tribulation period to follow the millennium. There are some, of course, who would see one last great conflict in the battle of Gog and Magog; but even that point would be debated among others. Furthermore, the general position of the Roman Catholic Church has not been premillenarian but inevitably it has held to other apocalyptic positions, such as the idealist position advocated by Origen or the historicist or preterist position advocated by others. The confusion in the mind of the authors seems to be that the Franciscans certainly had vivid doctrines of unending bliss and eternal punishment and unquestionably taught those to the Native Americans with enthusiasm. Beyond preaching, this included paintings of heaven and hell left behind on structures, and undoubtedly they anticipated the intervention of God at the end of the age—but were they millenarians? That would not be defined as premillennial interpretation today in any sense.
All of that said, I would recommend to all Christians this book as a relatively quick read. This reading of less than 150 pages will enable you to deal with those who come with whatever apocalyptic fancies to which they may turn as the year 2012 winds down. As a final word, even if the Mayan calendar did call for some sort of an apocalypse to take place December 21, 2012, I do not counsel any unusual measures for the storage of food, water, and medication and strongly suggest that no one pack a suitcase. After all, Jesus is the one who said, “No man knows the day or the hour of the return of the Son of Man.” That being the case, there is little need for concern in the Christian community.