rapture

The other day, a friend of mine who lives in Berkeley, California posted this on her Facebook feed:

Anyone not getting raptured want to go to Nerd Nite East Bay on Monday?

After someone asked what she was talking about, she went on to explain in a comment:

raptured = the burning man rapture, or what happens to the Bay Area when everyone goes to burning man. Nerd Nite east bay is a monthly night of entertaining science-based presentations. You know, for nerds.

Burning Man, for those unaware, is a week-long festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada at the end of August. Around 70,000 people attend each year. The capstone event of the festival is the burning of a giant, wooden effigy of a man, hence the name. I was very familiar with Burning Man—I’ve never attended myself, but having lived in the Bay Area, I know many people who go each year—but before her post I’d never heard rapture used to describe the emptying out of the Bay Area each year.

Most people are at familiar with the word from the apocalyptic Christian doctrine of the rapture, but that’s a relatively recent development in theology. The word is much older.

The noun rapture comes from the post-classical Latin raptura, a participle of the verb rapio, meaning to snatch, seize, pillage. The Latin verb is also the source of our verb to rape. And many of the early uses of the word in English are in reference to the abduction and raping of women.

The earliest use of rapture recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from George Chapman’s 1594 poem Σκìα Νυκτòς (Shadow of Night):

It is an exceeding rapture of delight in the deepe search of knowledge [...] that maketh men manfully indure th’extremes incident to that Herculean labour.

Chapman, who we shall see was extraordinarily fond of the word, uses it here in the sense of a condition of delight or enthusiasm. And Shakespeare uses it in Coriolanus (1623):

Your pratling Nurse Into a rapture lets her Baby crie.

But the word has a darker sense, that of abduction and rape, which is just as old as the sense of a state of delight. Francis Sabie, in his 1595 Fissher-mans Tale, writes:

Priams famous towne, Nere bought so deare the rapture of faire Hellen.

And Chapman uses it to refer to sexual violation in his c. 1615 translation of the Odyssey:

My women servants dragg’d about my house To lust and rapture.

The idea of rapture being a carrying off to heaven is almost as old. Chapman (I warned you that he was extraordinarily fond of the word) uses the phrase divine rapture, albeit in a pagan rather than Christian sense, to refer to the transport of the mind into ecstasy in his 1598 publication of his translation of Seauen bookes of the Iliades of Homere:

This […] Diuine Rapture; then which nothing can be imagined more full of soule and humaine extraction.

Chapman’s use here is still more of transport of the mind to ecstasy than it is a physical carrying off, but he uses it in this latter sense in this 1609 poem Euthymiae Raptus; or the Teares of Peace:

A lightening stoop’t, and rauisht him to heauen, And with him Peace [...]: Whose outward Rapture, made me inward bleed.

The Christian doctrine of the rapture did not appear until the eighteenth century. The OED records this from Thomas Broughton’s 1769 Prospect of Futurity:

We have determined likewise, from the Circumstance of the Rapture of the Saints, [...] that the Air or Atmosphere will be the Place of the Judgement.

While there is some discussion of the bodily ascension into heaven of the believers among eighteenth-century theologians, the full flowering of the doctrine wouldn’t appear until the nineteenth century and the writings of the dispensationalist theologian John Nelson Darby. In his 1848 An Examination of the Statements Made in the Thoughts on the Apocalypse, by B. W. Newton, Darby writes:

It is certain that the immensely important fact of the rapture of the Church takes place between the two, whatever the interval, and that Christ cannot receive the power of His own peculiar kingdom below, till this has taken place. Nor can this rapture take place till after He has left the throne.

The doctrine that the saved will be bodily taken up into heaven has no place in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or the mainline Protestant churches.

So there you have it. Ecstasy, rape, apocalypse, and Burning Man, all in one word.


Sources:

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1879, s. v. rapio.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2008, s. v. rapture, n., rapture, v.

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