Apocalyptic Literature

The term apocalyptein (Greek), means to uncover or reveal. At the heart of apocalyptic writing is the imminent vindication and grand reversal  that will put a religiously committed community, now persecuted, in a position of power.  The historic situation of the apocalyptic community is characterized by trials and tribulations, persecution and repression, or war and destruction. The visionary anticipates (or describes) thr present (in disguise of a foreseen future) in bewildering visions and symbolic representations of the passage of historical or cosmic time in precisely measured intervals. The era closest to the moment of divine intervention on behalf of his trusted servants is  unlike anything  ever been seen before. These tribulations and their “end” are disclosed (“revealed”) as having been presaged by earlier prophets and sages of old, such as Enoch or Daniel, and they attest to the hidden works of divine providence in the face of experience to the contrary. Fourth Ezra (aka 2 Esdras), an apoclypse written around 100 CE,  reiterates, for its own situation, the question asked in the Book of Daniel, written during the tribulations of Seleucid-Hellenistic interference with the traditional worship at the Jerusalem temple, namely, the question: how long?

Redemptive divine intervention on the historic plane on behalf of a persecuted minority community and culminating in a grand reversal of power is also the expectation of the earliest Christians, living in expectation of the parousia or second coming of Christ. As Jesus puts it in the NT gospels, “the last will be the first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). As the theologian, physician, and musician Albert Schweitzer noted a century ago, we need to understand the apocalyptic mind in order to understand early Christian writing, including the letters of the Apostle Paul. And as August Gfrörer, founder of the modern historical study of apocalypticism, noted in the nineteenth century, apocalypticism allows us to see the continuity between certain forms of Judaism and early Christianity. Simplifying we might say that instead of the Old Testament as such it is apocalyptic literature more than anything else that prepared the ground and provided the matrix for the emergence of the Christian proclamation.

Much like earlier historical and prophetic writing, apocalyptic literature speaks to the fate of a community troubled by internal and external threats. In this regard it conforms to the social and political norms of earlier Israelite and Judahite literature. However, in contrast to the earlier prophetic tradition, late-second-commonwealth apocalyptic writing shows distinctly different literary characteristics, represents a new, more dualistic way of thinking, and concerns itself with the wellbeing of a community of “saints” or chosen ones from among the nation. It is not simply a “sacred remnant” that will escape the coming wrath, a remnant or shoot from which the whole may be rebuilt. Rather, apocalyptic writing makes vindication dependent on belonging to a group or movement of individuals who excel in piety, devotion, and obedience to a particular “teacher of righteousness,” as in the Qumran community or early Christianity. Compared with older genres of biblical literature rooted in the experiences of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies it thus constitutes an innovation. It presupposes the conditions of diversification and contestation of the Israelite/Jewish heritage that is typical of the late second commonwealth and manifest in the widely attested sects of the time, such as the Pharisees, Saducees, and the Essenes mentioned by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius.

The only true apocalypse in Tanakh is found in the Book of Daniel. Only Daniel 7-12 are fully apocalyptic in literary character. The early chapters of Daniel constitute a Persian-age diaspora narrative about Jewish piety in the Babylonian exile. Some stylistic antecedents to the Daniel apocalypse can be found in the visions of Ezekiel as well as in parts of Isaiah and the prophet Joel. The exact relation between apocalyptic and prophetic genres is a matter of debate.

The date of Daniel 7-12 has long been established as the late first half of the 2nd century BCE (c. 165 BCE), the time of Seleucid king Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” and the changes in the YHWH cult of Jerusalem imposed by Antiochus and the Hellenizing faction of Judahite priests, events also reflected in Maccabean literature (esp. 1 and 2 Maccabees) and described by Josephus Flavius in the Antiquities of the Jews. An important Jewish apocalypse from the time (c. 100 CE) following the destruction of the second temple (70 CE) is Fourth Ezra, now part of the Book of Esdras , which can be found among the Old Testament Apocrypha as well among the historical books of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox editions of the Old Testament.

Apocalyptic texts include a review of history up to the time of the writing in form of a foretelling. (A non-apocalyptic foreshadowing of futures past can be found in Genesis 15:13-16). What makes these texts puzzling and bewildering to uninitiated readers is the use of cryptic imagery as well as unfamiliarity with the historical particulars referenced in these writings. The schema in Daniel and elsewhere is that a pious visionary of old is given a preview of future history in veiled images that are subsequently interpreted by an angelic guide. (In the so-called Enoch literature, the ante-diluvial figure of Enoch, transformed into an angelic being called “Metatron,” serves as the interpreter for the human visionary.)

To the community of learned readers for whom such texts were produced,  this history is a known past that leads up to their own moment of tribulation, and offers them the hope of an imminent divine intervention, an end to their suffering, removal and punishment of a violent regime, and the advent of a just and divine ruler. The text ends with predictions of an imminent end to the present age, which is governed by evil forces, the sudden appearance of a divine redeemer, and scenarios of a grand reckoning (e.g. “last judgment”), with punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous few. The focus of this literature is thus on the historical experience of the community and the hope for providential intervention on their behalf.

It is in apocalyptic literature that we first encounter ideas about a sequence of world-ages or aeons (Greek aion), which gives us the popular motif of a “dawning of a new age” and creates an understanding of history as divided into epochs running toward historic completion (“end of history”), rather than circular, repetitive, or illusory. Some apocalyptic literature shows the influence of astrological speculation. While this indicates a turn from restorative concepts of history to utopian, future oriented ones, the apocalyptic future is essentially scripted or fated in heaven, not open for humans to change, influence, or delay. The only escape from the imminent judgment may be individual repentance and/or joining the preferred movement of saints and martyrs.

Apocalyptists see history as unfolding on two plains: a lower world of injustice and suffering of the righteous and their oppression by a sequence of evil regimes, and a hidden upper world where divine righteousness prevails that will eventually become manifest on earth as a “kingdom of heaven” (malkhut ha-shamayim). This replaces the older view where collective suffering of a nation was motivated by the anger of the nation’s god who allowed, or called upon, others to wreak punishment for the sins of the nation. This older view of the fate of the nation and its causes is evident not only in the Bible, as in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27-28, but also in the Moabite Stone. It was part of an Iron Age koine (a common symbolic vocabulary or system of interpretation) by which states explained periods of misfortune.

A major difference between the older view and that espoused by the apcalyptists is that the earlier view reflects a national (or monarchical) perspective, whereas the latter reflects the view of a party without direct access to power, in other words, it is by nature “sectarian,” namely, it represents the view of a party or social-religious movement that finds itself on the margins of power but hopes to be vindicated and restored or elevated to power. The marginality or outside view of the apocalyptists may also explain literary recourse to the device of speaking about the present in form of a pseudo-prophetic revelation received long ago that alludes to contemporary affairs in veiled imagery. Expressing the view of a powerless minority, the apocalyptists must have labored under the pressures of censorship or outright persecution. Apocalyptic writing became popular among many groups and movements, including – over time – marginalized Christian and Muslim communities, who counted themselves among the righteous few and hoped to be vindicated in the end. The attractiveness of the apocalyptic genre is rooted in its appeal to the pious persecuted and suffering saints.

The message of apocalyptic writing is directed to people who have no direct influence or agency on the historical plain, who find themselves in the position of mere observers or victims of violence enacted upon them by others, including powerful opponents within their own community. Having apocalyptic visions that speak to them directly in the voice of a time long past puts the group “in the know,” whereas others–though now in power– walk around in darkness and ignorance. A striking aspect of this literature is the vindication of suffering and the passivity with which the divine intervention is hoped for and expected. There is thus a Stoic element in this literature that echoes with the attitude emphasized and promoted in other, non-apocalyptic works of  late second temple literature, such as Fourth Maccabees, which promotes the stoic virtue of the individual in the face of painful foreign government-imposed torture and proclaims the immortality of the soul.

Daniel 12:3 also provides us with the first attestation of the belief in the reward of those killed in religious wars. The divine judgment that will put an end to the evil also a personal resurrection of the righteous few who keep the faith during the present times of repression and tribulation, and “everlasting shame” for the wicked. This should be compared with other late second commonwealth Jewish writings, such as the Wisdom of Solomon, that promote belief in the immortality of the soul. The two beliefs (resurrection and immortality) are not identical and there seems to have been an ongoing debate on the correct view. (Cf. Jonathan Klawans, Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism, chapter 3). Belief in an immortal soul entered the Jewish religious imagination through Greek cultural influence. Belief in bodily resurrection and posthumous judgment has a Hebraic foothold in the prophetic vision of Ezekiel 37 (Valley of Dry Bones), was debated between Pharisees and Saducees, and later became orthodox rabbinic Jewish belief. The doctrine of posthumous judgment was firmly rooted in Egyptian religion, which preserved the body as a precondition for the successful passage of the Ka or spiritual essence of a person to the hereafter where a person’s deeds were weighed on a scale of justice. Egyptian religion became thoroughly popularized over the course of the first millennium BCE and it is possible that it exerted a quiet influence on the Judahite population, esp. during the century of Ptolemaic Egyptian rule that preceded the turmoil caused by the Seleucid conquest of Jerusalem (198). While the Book of Daniel is composed in the Persian-age lingua franca of imperial Aramaic, the apocalyptic worldview it represents may well have been influenced by other sources as well.

In addition to the canonical Book of Daniel, examples of Jewish apocalyptic writing include works attributed to the biblical figure of Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24; cf. Hebr 11:5), the Book of Watchers from Qumran (incl. in the Ethiopic version of Enoch), Fourth Ezra (part of Christian 2 Esdras), 2 Baruch, and others adopted by var. Christian traditions. Christian versions of Jewish apocalyptic texts, among them parts of the Book of Revelations, the only apocalyptic book included in the New Testament, and 2 Esdras, underwent Christian editing and include additions and interpolations that give the text a Christian orientation.

The apocalyptic genre helps us to understand many of the literary tropes that are prominent in the New Testament and some of the fundamental beliefs proclaimed by early Christians, including John the Baptist preaching repentance and immersion for purification in anticipation of an imminent judgment, apocalyptic scenarios (e.g. Matthew 24; Revelation), Paul’s urge to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth in anticipation of the second coming of Christ, the idea of the Christian community as a new humanity, a sacred remnant that embodies the righteous few to be saved in the coming judgment, heavenly visions and other apocalyptic revelations in Paul, Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of god, the title “son of man” (a reference to Daniel 7), and the belief that Christ conquered death/was resurrected/could not be killed. This list also shows that there were various competing versions and interpretations of the events associated with Jesus, many of which resonated with the apocalyptic frame of mind.

Among the more recent and ongoing consequences of apocalyptic literature is the use made of this literature by various modern fundamentalists. Evangelical Christians are thoroughly enamored with the idea that the apocalyptic predictions of Daniel and Revelations are as yet to be fulfilled. Many believe that they are in fact being fulfilled in our own days and that the second coming of Christ (an apocalyptic belief) is imminent. The Apostolic Church as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also more “mainstream” Evangelicals, are apocalyptic in their outlook on history and in how they view their own place in history. This attitude already played an important role in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English philo-Semitism which influenced British foreign policy, including the British government’s support of the Zionist project. This reflected the belief that the English were called upon, as a Christian nation, to hasten the second coming of Christ by helping the Jews to return to their ancient homeland and rebuild their commonwealth. Today, similar beliefs are espoused by many American Evangelicals, including members of CUFI (Christians United for Israel), in their support for Zionism, the State of Israel, and initiatives to build the Third Temple. This kind of political activism is not, strictly speaking, apocalyptic, but is empowered and driven by the belief that God’s “plan” is being implemented and that the “end times” are near. The popularity of the Left Behind series indicates the popularity of this kind of thinking in terms of end-time scenarios among American readers.






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