Enoch is not the only figure in the Hebrew Bible to be taken up to heaven while still alive. The prophet Elijah, too, makes a spectacular ascent. As recorded in the Book of Kings, Elijah is walking along the Jordan River with his disciple and spiritual successor, Elisha, when suddenly, “a fiery chariot with fiery horses appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). In the illumination on the cover of this issue, Elijah appears at upper right, ascending to heaven in a wagon-like chariot.

Elijah’s dramatic departure, like Enoch’s before him, inspired the belief that God must have special plans for Elijah. The later prophet Malachi suggested that God had further work for Elijah on earth. In Malachi 3:24 (4:5 in the Christian Old Testament) we read: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome fearful day of the Lord.” In later Jewish tradition, Elijah is expected to return as the forerunner of the Messiah. An extrabiblical Hebrew Apocalypse of Elijah describes his role as a seer prophesying events of the end-time. And at the Passover Seder, an extra cup of wine—Elijah’s Cup—is always placed on the table in anticipation of his return.

Some New Testament writers suggested that Elijah had already come—in the form of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. Matthew writes of John: “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14; see also Mark 9:11–13; Luke 1:17). Elijah also appears with Moses at Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2–8).

By the third century C.E., Elijah and Enoch were being paired in Christian literature. A Christian Apocalypse of Elijah from this period, known only in Coptic, identifes Enoch and Elijah as the “two witnesses” martyred by the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation. The theme reappears in a very fragmentary seventh-century Coptic text on Enoch—and flourishes in later Christian art.

Chapter 11 of Revelation foretells of two unnamed, fire-breathing prophets, who will appear on earth just after the mysterious Seventh Seal is opened and just before the day of God’s wrath: “And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for 1,260 days, wearing sackcloth,” a heavenly voice says to John (Revelation 11:3). “If anyone wants to harm them,” John writes, “fire pours from their mouths and consumes their foes … These men have authority to shut the sky so no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they desire” (Revelation 11:5–6).a

But even with their formidable gifts, the two witnesses will meet their match: The “Beast”—the Antichrist, in his first appearance in Revelation—will rise from the abyss, attack them and kill them. In an 11th-century illumination (above) from a commentary on Revelation by the 10th-century Spanish monk Beatus, the crowned king of the underworld cuts off the heads of the witnesses—identified as Enoch and Elijah in the Latin inscription—and tosses their bodies aside. Above, wicked Gentiles are seen tearing down the Holy City of Jerusalem, while in the inner court of the Temple of God, seven righteous worshipers wait to be counted. (Known as the Saint-Sever Beatus, the manuscript resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris.)

According to Revelation, the witnesses’ corpses are left to rot in the open, because no one will deign to bury them. Instead, “the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth” (Revelation 11:9).

Despite all the merrymaking, the witnesses have the last laugh: After lying dead for three and a half days, “a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on” (Revelation 11:11–12).

An illumination (above) from a 14th-century illuminated Apocalypse manuscript from the Cloisters, in Upper Manhattan, shows the wicked, at left, passing each other gifts while the prophets lie dead on the ground. The doves flying into their mouths symbolize God’s breath or spirit, which brings the prophets back to life. They arise, at center, and strike terror into the multitudes at right, before an angel, at upper right, calls them back to heaven.