Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History
By Jay Rubenstein
Oxford University Press, 2019
Probably 100,000 people took active part in the First Crusade that rang out the 11th century and ended with the Christian crusaders capturing Jerusalem and routing their Saracen foes in July of 1099. At least an equal number of innocent civilians were looted, displaced, or butchered along the way, and hundreds of legends were springing up even before the blood on Antioch’s cobblestones was dry.
In the eyes of Christian commenters, some of those legends were two thousand years old. Jay Rubenstein’s fantastic new book, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, is about the Crusades in general and the First Crusade in specific, but its strange and steeply intelligent elaborations deal at least as much with myth as with history. One myth in particular: the famous story of a dream had by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon featuring a towering colossus with feet of clay and iron:
According to Daniel, in the second year of his reign King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon had a troubling dream. He wished to know its meaning, even though the king himself seems to have forgotten its details. Thus when Nebuchadnezzar called together his soothsayers, he set them a double task: describe the dream and then interpret it. Understandably, the soothsayers complained, “There is no one on earth, O king, who can accomplish your command! Nor does any king, though great and mighty, ask such a thing of any diviner, or wise man, or Chaldean.” Nebuchadnezzar, unmoved, ordered them all put to death.
Daniel steps forward and, guided by the grace of God, succeeds in slotting the king’s dream into a scheme of eschatology that would go on to obsess countless Christian intellectuals, cryptologists, and overcooked fruitcakes who used Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s interpretation to create a map and timeline of the Christian End Times. That varied commentariat was inflamed to a millenarian fever-pitch by the First Crusade and its seismic consequences. “Christianity had reclaimed its birthplace,” as Rubenstein writes, “world maps were being redrawn and world histories rewritten.” Christian monks and scholars flocked to their writing tables to make sense of it all and to work it into the long-debated conceptual scaffolding of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The Book of Daniel had long been (and continues to be) one of the Bible’s lodestars of what Rubenstein calls “Salvation history”; an event as epochal as the retaking of Jerusalem must surely figure in all that essential vision-making.
That supernatural accommodation, that vision-terraforming in light of current events, is the fascinating heart of this book by Rubenstein (whose full title is, be seated now, “Chancellor’s Professor, Riggsby Director of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Alvin and Sally Beaman Professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville”), who chases down every last sacerdotal interpretation of the First Crusade’s meanings and overlays those meanings on the raw facts, which were predictably more mundane than mystical, most especially including the men themselves, from the near-legendary Bohemond to the scheming Pope Urban II, to the all-too-human Christian Crusaders who were lionized for their victories and then suffered the customary penalties:
The knights who had achieved victory were imagined as paragons of virtue, warriors who had purged themselves in the fires of penance and been honed into inexorable weapons of divine vengeance. The survivors who returned home could not possibly live up to the legends they had inspired, though a notable few seemed to have made claims to moral infallibility.
“All history is a journey from one city to another, from earthly Babylon to heavenly Jerusalem, with Rome as a way station along that path,” Rubenstein writes at one point in this illuminating study of the ways apocalyptic studies reacted in real time to an unfolding apocalypse. “In the case of Babylon and Rome, history and allegory were the same thing.” To the extent that the Crusades were at their heart condemned from their beginning specifically because they tried to mesh history and allegory, they are understood in Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream in more thought-provoking ways than they’ve ever been seen before. No reader of Crusades history should miss this book.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.