PETRUS IOHANNIS OLIVI: SELECTIONS FROM THE APOCALYPSE COMMENTARY

Translated by David Burr, History Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.



Petrus Iohannis Olivi was one of the brightest scholars of his generation, and one of the most troublesome. He was blessed or cursed with an inquiring , original mind which frequently led him to question what those around him considered obvious, and he had a greater tolerance for ambiguity than most of his contemporaries. Born in 1247 or 1248, Olivi joined the Franciscan Order at the age of twelve and was eventually sent to study in Paris; yet questions about his orthodoxy prevented him from becoming a master. He was censured in 1283 and removed from his teaching post for a while, but in 1287 he was rehabilitated and made lector at the Franciscan house in Florence, a prestigious position. Olivi 's two years there did a great deal to cement relations between Italian and southern French reformers within the Franciscan Order, an alliance that would spell trouble for leaders in the early fourteenth century.

In 1289 Olivi was soon sent back to his native southern France. He spent his remaining years there as lector in Franciscan houses at Montpellier and Narbonne. When he died in 1298 a thriving Olivi cult sprang up around his grave at Narbonne. Pilgrims to it included not only laity but clergy as well, even cardinals. For a while it seemed that he might become a saint, but instead his work was posthumously censured from 1318 on and his body quietly disposed of, we know not where.

When we examine Olivi's writings today, we may find it hard to decide what the fuss was about. The key thing to keep in mind is that, besides being an adventurous thinker he was a respected reformer who demanded that his order observe strict standards of poverty and who became the chief spokesman for that position. Thus after his death attacks on his memory were in part attacks on the movement which claimed him as their inspiration. This fact has led many modern scholars to assume that Olivi's posthumous condemnation was based on a misreading of his works. That is a dangerous assumption. The most recent study of Olivi's commentary on the Apocalypse argues that those who censured him did so because they understood what he was saying and considered it heretical. It undermined their basic notion of the church. They saw it as an institution which at its very inception had been given its basic organizational structure and the spiritual guidance to insure that the organizational structure would provide good leadership. Olivi saw it as an institution in process. He thought the organizational structure had developed in time and would evolve even more in the future as history entered a new age of the Holy Spirit. He saw the coming temptation of Antichrist as a total blitzkrieg of evil in which the powers of darkness would gain control of the papacy and a handful of embattled elect would defend the faith against their own leaders.

Olivi's thoughts on the matter were not entirely original. He was heavily influenced by Joachim of Fiore, whose commentary on the Apocalypse, written a full century earlier, laid out the same basic historical pattern found in Olivi's. There were, in fact, two patterns. The first involved seven periods of New Testament history paralleling seven periods of Old Testament history. The parallel wasn't exact. History didn't simply reoccur in precisely the same form. Nevertheless, the parallel was close enough so that one could look at what had happened in the Old Testament era and get some insight into what could be expected in the future. In other words, since Olivi thought of himself as standing at the transition point between the fifth and sixth periods of the New Testament era, he could turn to the Old Testament to see what periods six and seven might bring. He could also turn to the Apocalypse, the book of Revelation, the final book in the New Testament. Olivi saw it as a historical road-map laying out the course of church history.

Olivi's seven periods offer a image of the church as gradually progressing and at times retrogressing. In the fifth period, which began around the eighth century, the church had become big and powerful, but the result had been a gradual moral decay which proceeded until "around the end of the fifth period practically the whole church is infected from head to toe, confused, and turned into a new Babylon as it were." Nevertheless, even as the church had been backsliding, a new age had been coming to birth within it. Olivi, writing at the end of the thirteenth century, thought the sixth period of church history had been born a full century earlier, first with the prophetic gifts bestowed on Joachim of Fiore and then, more definitively, with the birth of St. Francis and ultimate formation of the Franciscan Order.

Francis ushered in more than the sixth period, and he we arrive at Olivi's (and Joachim's) second major pattern. World history was divided into three ages, those of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The age of the Father had run from creation to Christ. It had featured the literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The age of the Son had extended from Christ to Francis and had concentrated on the literal interpretation of the New Testament. Now Francis had become the harbinger of a third age, that of the Holy Spirit, which would offer a spiritual understanding of both testaments. Olivi didn't intend to suggest that Christ had been superceded. He often spoke of Christ's three advents: in the first century in the flesh, in the thirteenth in the spirit, and at the end in judgment. Nor did he mean to imply that the church would be replaced by some new organization. His third age of the Holy Spirit was equivalent to the sixth and seventh periods of church history. It looked not only forward but backward, since the new era was in some ways a fulfillment of the pattern already established in the early church but later abandoned as the church grew.

Nevertheless, all of Olivi's emphasis on continuity could not hide the fact that something very new was happening. The world was trembling on the brink of a new age with new spiritual gifts. Its model would be the evangelical life described in the New Testament and in the Franciscan Rule, a life of peace, humility and poverty. The double focus - New Testament and Franciscan Rule - was a reminder that St. Francis was related to the third age very much as Christ was related to the second. Moreover, the reaction from those in authority would be very much the same. Olivi had a disquieting way of suggesting that the role played by high priests, scribes and pharisees in Christ's time would be played by popes, cardinals and bishops in his own. As the new age of the Holy Spirit dawned, those who held power under the old dispensation would oppose the new one in increasingly violent ways. They would be led by no less than two Antichrists, a mystical and a great one. Olivi never really committed himself as to who they would be, but he favored the idea that both would be popes supported by powerful rulers. The beleaguered adherents of the new age would be persecuted and many would flee to non-Christian lands, where they would find a better audience than at home and would begin the process of converting the world. Eventually Christ would step in and destroy the great Antichrist, clearing the way for the new age to become fully operative.

Obviously little of this was calculated to go over well with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. They were uncomfortable with the idea that they were playing by outmoded rules, and even more unhappy with the suggestion that they would be - in fact, to some extent already were - on the side of Antichrist. Nevertheless, they took no definitive action against Olivi's Apocalypse commentary until it became a bible of sorts for dissident Franciscans and their lay supporters in southern France, the beguins.

The following is my translation of a few passages, based on the critical edition by Warren Lewis in his 1972 Tübingen dissertation, Peter John Olivi: Prophet of the Year 2000. Page numbers at the end of each selection refer to pagination in his edition.


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On the seven periods of church history:

As for the seven periods of church history described in this book, the first is that of the founding of the primitive church, especially within Judaism under the apostles. The second was that of its testing and confirmation through the martyrs, when it was set upon by the pagans throughout the world. The third was that of the doctrinal exposition of the faith in order to refute and win over the heresies springing up. The fourth was that of the anchorites, who fled the world in favor of extreme solitude and zealously disciplined their bodies, thus illuminating the whole church by their example, as if they were the sun and stars. The fifth was that of the common life under monks and clergy owning temporal possessions, and was characterized partly by severe zeal, partly by condescension. The sixth was that of renovation of the evangelical life, driving out the sect of Antichrist, and final conversion of the Jews and Gentiles, a rebuilding of the church on the model of the first period. The seventh, insofar as it applies to this life, is a certain quiet and marvelous participation in future glory, as if the heavenly Jerusalem had descended to earth. Insofar as it applies to the other life, it is the general time of resurrection and glorification of the saints and final consummation of all things. The first period properly begins with the sending of the Holy Spirit, although in another sense it begins with Christ's resurrection. The second properly begins with persecution of the church under the Emperor Nero, although in another sense it began from the stoning of Stephen or even from Christ's crucifixion. The third properly begins from the time of the Emperor Constantine to the Christian faith or from the time of Pope Sylvester or from the Nicene Council held to combat the Arian heresy. The Fourth properly begins from the time of Anthony the Great the anchorite or from the time of the Emperor Justinian, of whom we will say more later. The fifth properly begins from the time of Charlemagne.

The sixth begins in one way with the time of our blessed father Francis, but should begin more fully with the destruction of the great whore Babylon, when the aforesaid angel of Christ, sealed with his sign, will inaugurate the future army of Christ through his followers. The seventh begins in one way from the death of that Antichrist who calls himself god and messiah of the Jews, but in another way in the beginning of the final and general judgment of all reprobate and elect. (10-12)

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Just as the solemn beginning of the New Testament, occurring in the sixth age of the world and prepared for by the five preceding ages, clarified the prophets' meaning in regard to Christ's first advent and the times leading up to it, so the solemn beginning of the sixth period of the church, prepared for by the preceding five, clarifies the meaning of this book and other prophetic books in regard to Christ's threefold advent and the times leading up to both the first and second advents. Because of this, in the sixth period the sun of Christian wisdom will cast a sevenfold light, like the light of seven days. (58)

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In the first five periods of the church it was not conceded to the saints, however illuminated they might be, to open the secrets of this book, which were to be opened more fully only in the sixth and seventh periods, just as in the first five periods of the Old Testament the prophets were not given the ability to open clearly those secrets of Christ and of the New Testament which were to be opened and actually were opened in the sixth age of the world. (564)

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Around the end of the fifth period practically the whole church from head to foot is corrupted and thrown into disorder and turned, as it were, into a new Babylon. (52)

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On the three ages of world history:

Three mountains separated by two valleys will strike a man who sees them from a great distance as a single mountain. . . . Then, when he stands on the first mountain, he will see the first valley and two mountains, and when he stands on the second mountain he will see two valleys and three mountains. Just so, the Jews before Christ's first advent, like one standing before the first mountain, did not distinguish the first from the later ones, but took the first for all. Christians before the sixth period of the church distinguished between the first and the others because they stood on the first and saw an intervening space . . . between the first and final advents, but did not commonly distinguish between the two advents in the sixth period and in final judgment. . . . Those, however, who shall be placed in the sixth period or who see it in the spirit distinguish it from the first and last. Then they see this distinction in the prophetic books, and also in those things said by Christ and the apostles about Christ's final advent and the final age of the world. Then they also see the concordance of various events in the first five ages of the world with those in the first five periods of the church, as well as the concordance of the seven periods under the law with the seven periods of church history. (101f.)

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Just as in the first age of the world, before Christ, the fathers were involved in expounding the great works of the Lord carried out from the beginning of the world, and in the second age running from Christ to the third age the sons were involved in seeking the wisdom of mystical things and the mysteries hidden from immemorial times, so in the third age nothing remains except to sing to God and rejoice in him, praising his great works and great wisdom, as well as the goodness clearly manifested in his works and the words of his scriptures. For just as in the first age God the Father revealed himself as terrible and to be feared, and the fear of him shone forth, even so, in the second age, God the Son revealed himself as teacher, preserver and expressive word of his father's wisdom. Therefore in the third age the Holy Spirit will reveal himself as a flame and furnace of divine love, cellarer of divine inebriation, a storeroom of divine aromas and spiritual unctions and unguents, and a dance of spiritual jubilations and jocundities, through which all truth concerning the wisdom of the incarnate word of God and concerning the power of God the Father will be known, not only by simple understanding, but also by gustatory and tactile experience. (230)

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Although a multitude of people entered in to Christ through the apostles and other saints of the second general age of the church, as if through gates of the city of God, this passage is nevertheless more appropriately applied to the principal doctors of the third general age, through whom all Israel and the whole world will enter in to Christ. For just as it more befitted the apostles to be the foundations of the entire church and Christian faith, so it more befits these others to be the open gates and the openers or explicators of Christian wisdom. For just as a tree, when it is nothing but a root, cannot be totally explicated or explicitly demonstrated to all so well as when it is fulfilled in branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, so the tree or fabric of the church and divine providence and wisdom shining forth and shared in its diverse parts could not and should not have been explicated from the beginning as it can and should be at its fulfillment. And thus, just as from the beginning of the world to Christ the illumination of the people of God and explication of the order and procession of the entire Old Testament and providence of God in the establishment and governance of the world increased successively, so it is with the illuminations and explications of Christian wisdom in the time of the New Testament. (968f.)

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They suggest - not boldly, but in fact very mildly - that, around the end of the sixth millenium, at the close of the sixth day as it were, God will perfect the whole universe and there will follow a sabbath of eternal glory in which God and his saints rest from the works of this life. And this is in harmony with the opinion of certain ancient masters of the synagogue who said that two thousand years before the law (that is, to Abraham), two thousand under the law, and two thousand under the Messiah would form three pairs of millennia according to a threefold pattern of nature, scripture, and grace. According to these people, around seven hundred years of the sixth millenium remain, and this fits well with the third general age of the world appropriated to the Holy Spirit. . . . Insofar as the beginning of the third age is in some sense found seminally in the period when Christ's spirit caused a great army of Christians to sail to the Holy Land and, having killed innumerable Saracens, to restore Jerusalem to Christian worship, a period in which the Cistercians, Grandmontensians, Carthusians, Templars, and Hospitalers began, then instead of the aforementioned seven hundred years there are around one thousand years, or at least nine hundred. Moreover, if you begin the unloosing of Satan in connection with the time of the great Antichrist from the time when, under the fifth trumpet, the star falling from heaven took the key to the bottomless pit and opened it, then from Christ's resurrection to that time there are around one thousand years during which the saints reign with Christ. (919f.)

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On St. Francis of Assisi:

Just as our most holy father Francis is, after Christ and under Christ, the first and principal founder and initiator and exemplar of the sixth period and its evangelical rule, so he, after Christ, is primarily designated by this angel. Thus, as a sign of this fact, he appeared transfigured in a fiery chariot in the sun in order to show that he had come in the spirit and in the image of Elijah, as well as to bear the perfect image of the true sun, Christ.

Olivi goes on with a close reading of the passage which stresses Francis' poverty, humility, contemplative wisdom and missionary zeal. In the process of exploring the latter element he notes that Francis tried to preach to the Saracens three times. One occasion was in the sixth year of his conversion, symbolizing his status as angel of the sixth seal and as a sign that they would be converted by his order in the sixth period of the church. He tried again in the thirteenth year of his conversion, as a sign that the Saracens and other infidels would begin to be converted by his order in the thirteenth century. Olivi observes that, just as in the thirteenth day from his birth Christ appeared before the kings of the east and, in his thirteenth year he disappeared from his mother and was found in the temple, so in the thirteenth century from Christ's birth Francis and his evangelical order appeared and, in the thirteenth century from his death, "he will be exalted upon the cross and ascend in glory over the whole world." There follows another comment which we must consider in a moment when dealing with the peculiar problem of Francis' resurrection. It in turn is followed by one of Olivi's most pointed remarks about the turn away from the Latin church by spiritual men in the sixth period.

He will place his right foot upon the sea of infidel nations and his left upon the land of the faithful, because his principal impetus and progress will be toward conversion of the whole world to Christ, yet not in such a way as to desert the early church of the faithful. For just as, in the time of the apostles, their principal and, as it were, right progress was toward conversion of the pagans, and their secondary or, as it were, left one was toward the Jews because they sensed that they would not prosper so much by fishing on the land of the Jews as by fishing in the sea of the pagans, so this angel will sense that he will not prosper as much in the carnal church of the Latins as among the Greeks, Saracens and Tartars, and at last the Jews. . . . Moreover, from Francis' time until now this angel has fished more in the sea of the laity tossed about by secular cares than on the land of the regulars and clerics. For simple, uneducated men are more easily brought to penance than great clerics or monks. (564f.)

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I have also heard from a very spiritual man, very worthy of belief and very intimate with Brother Leo, confessor and companion of blessed Francis, something which is consonant with this scripture but which I neither assert nor know nor think should be asserted, namely that both through the words of Brother Leo and through revelation made to him personally, he learned that during the pressure of that Babylonian temptation in which Francis' state and rule will be crucified, as it were, in the place of Christ himself, he will rise again glorious, so that just as he was singularly assimilated to Christ in his life and in the stigmata of the cross, so he will be assimilated to him in a resurrection necessary for confirming and informing his disciples, just as Christ's resurrection was necessary for confirming the apostles and informing them concerning the foundation and governance of the future church. In order that the resurrection of the servant should clearly be distinguished in degree of dignity from the resurrection of Christ and his mother, however, it is said by certain people who are not entirely to be rejected that Christ was resurrected immediately after three days, his mother after forty, and this man after the whole duration of his order up to its crucifixion assimilated to the cross of Christ and prefigured in Francis' stigmata. (417f.)

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On the Antichrist:

According to this reasoning, through the beast ascending from the sea is signified the bestial life and people of the carnal and secular Christians which, since the end of the fourth period, has had many heads in the form of carnal princes and prelates, and this has been going on for six hundred years now. In this sixth centenary, one head has been almost killed through Francis' evangelical state; for the higher, more widely, and more perfectly evangelical poverty and perfection is impressed upon and magnified within the church, the more powerfully the head of earthly cupidity and vile carnality is killed in it. But now this head, almost destroyed, is reviving so much that carnal Christians admire and follow its carnal glory. When, however, the apostate beast from the earth of the religious ascends on high with its two horns of pseudoreligious and pseudoprophets falsely resembling the true horns of the lamb, the most powerful temptation of the mystical Antichrist will occur. . . . The pseudochristians and pseudoprophets will cause the cupidity and carnality or earthly glory of the secular beast to be adored by all, and will offer great signs to this end: First, of its ecclesiastical authority, contradiction of which will seem to be disobedience, contumacy and schismatic rebellion; second, of the universal opinion of all its masters and doctors and of the whole multitude or common opinion of all, contradiction of which will seem foolish, insane, and even heretical; third, of arguments and falsely twisted scriptures, as well as of some superficial, ancient and multiform religion confirmed and solemnized through long succession from antiquity. Thus with these signs they will seem to make the fire of divine wrath descend on those who contradict them, . . . and will decree that whoever does not obey should be anathematized, ejected from the synagogue, and, if necessary, turned over to the secular arm of the former beast. They will make the image of the the beast - that is, the pseudopope raised up by the king of the first beast - adored in such a way that he is believed in more than Christ and his gospel and honored as if he were the god of this world. (734)

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