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Asbury Bible Commentary – Apocalyptic Literature
Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic Literature

The book of Revelation strikes most readers as patently different from all other NT books. Isolated passages in other books (e.g., Mk 13 and its parallels; 2Th 2) may bear some resemblance to it, but its nearest biblical relatives would appear to be the OT books of Daniel and Zechariah. Beyond the boundaries of the Canon, however, can be found numerous documents sufficiently similar to Revelation and Daniel to be classified along with them in the single generic category of Apocalypse. Among the more significant of these extrabiblical apocalypses are 1, 2, and 3 Enoch; 4 Ezra; 2 and 3 Baruch; and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah. The nature of the biblical apocalypses will come more sharply into focus when characteristics of this larger group of apocalypses are brought to light.John J. Collins, Daniel, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature XX (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 2-5.

Apocalypses typically were written pseudonomously, under the names of illustrious heros of the past such as Enoch, Abraham, Isaiah, or Ezra. Motives for pseudonymity may have varied from a desire to add an authoritative ring to what was written to a desire to protect the writer from possible reprisals. But whatever the motive, the writer was now able, by assuming the vantage point of the ancient hero, to cast known past events in the form of unfulfilled prophecy. In 1 En 83-90, for example, Enoch relates to his son Methuselah his visions of the forthcoming events from the flood to the Maccabean revolt. Such pseudoprophecy often divided the course of history into distinct ages that led to the cataclysmic end of all history, often with intense interest in the punishment of the wicked.

The means by which God would reveal such secrets of the future to the seer varies widely in apocalyptic literature. Sometimes a dream or vision provides the open window of revelation, while on other occasions the seer might be transported to supernatural regions for a much more direct encounter. Not uncommonly does an angelic guide accompany the seer, interpreting perplexing scenes and answering his questions. Yet it seems likely that most visions and supernatural journeys do not report actual experiences, but are the products of fertile imagination taking form in standard literary dream or vision genres to promote the particular concerns of the author.

Another prominent characteristic of apocalyptic literature is its love of images, symbols, and symbolic numbers. Fire, ice, smoke, light, darkness, precious stones, wind, the sea, clouds, mountains, trees, and countless other “props” laden with symbolic meaning form the surrealistic landscape of the narrative [cf. 1 En]. Grotesque monsters, angels (both fallen and righteous), animals of all sorts, and wretched sinners in the throes of their punishment take leading roles in the unfolding dramas. Colors (e.g., white, red, black) paint the scene with added significance. Items appear not in simple pluralities but in suggestive 3's, 7's, 12's, and the like.

The similarities between the book of Revelation and the larger grouping of apocalyptic literature as described above are apparent and should not be discounted. Though the genre of apocalypse can be defined only in generalities and with many exceptions, Revelation's place within the genre is secure. But salient differences should be noted between this canonical apocalypse and its non-canonical cousins. Revelation is not pseudepigraphical; it is not cast as divine revelation to an ancient hero, and it does not review a long sweep of known history in the guise of prophecy. Furthermore, while some apocalyptic literature can be read as explorations of the curious into the esoteric, Revelation from beginning to end presses hard the ethical demands laid upon those who wish to be faithful to God in the midst of fiery trials. Furthermore, the secrets it exposes are not reserved for an inner circle of wise men, but demand complete and accurate promulgation to the addressed churches (Rev 22:16-19).The differences between Revelation and other apocalyptic literature prompts Koester to go so far as to consider it “a critical discussion of already existing apocalyptic views and speculations.” Helmut Koester, History and Literature of Early Christianity, Introduction to the New Testament vol. 2 (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1982), 248.

The structure of Revelation reveals a far more complex and confusing pattern than is found in other apocalypses. After an initial collection of seven letters to churches in Asia Minor, the focus shifts to the visionary realm for the bulk of the book, until a final postscript. When postscript (Rev 1:4-8) and prescript (22:10-21) are examined, Revelation appears to have been cast as a letter (again, unlike other apocalypses), though without standard letter components described above.Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 240-43. The structure of the bulk of the book, in its labyrinthine progression of ordered scenes, is not easily understood, enhancing the mystery and awe so powerfully presented in language and symbol.

Insofar as the churches to whom the book is addressed were to find encouragement and illumination in what they read, we may conclude that its symbolism should be interpreted within the parameters of the ancient setting in which it was written. Anachronistic adaptations of ancient symbols to modern realities cut the linkage between the book and its originally intended readers, while leading to arbitrary and erratic interpretation. On the other hand, an exclusively futurist reading of the whole fails to account for the immediately pastoral concern of the writer. A healthy reading strategy that violates neither the nature of the genre nor a high view of inspiration would seek to discover the relevance of Revelation for its original readers.