Encyclopedia of The Bible – Apocalyptic Literature
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Apocalyptic Literature

APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE. A type of Jewish and early Christian lit., the bulk of which stems from the years 200 b.c.-a.d. 100, containing visions or revelations (hence the term “apocalyptic,” from the Gr. apokalypsis, meaning “a revelation” or “a disclosure”) from God concerning the imminent coming of the end of the present evil age and the final advent of God’s kingdom.

In its broadest sense the term “apocalyptic” is applied to parts of the writings of the OT prophets—specifically to passages in Joel, Amos, Zechariah, and Daniel—as well as to portions of the NT (e.g. the Olivet Discourse, 1 Thess 4:13ff., and the Revelation). It is customary, however, to identify that specific genre of lit. which came into existence during the intertestamental period, but which has remained outside of the Biblical canon, much of which is included under the heading of the Pseudepigrapha (q.v.), by this term. The Book of Daniel in the OT and the Revelation in the NT are possible exceptions.

1. Examples of apocalyptic writings. Although apocalyptic has its roots in OT prophecy in general, the real prototype of the non-Biblical Ap. Lit. is the Book of Daniel with its visions of chs. 7-12. Because of its similarities to the non-Biblical lit. many scholars have argued for a Maccabean date (c. 165 b.c.) as providing the historical setting for Daniel. Conservatives have, however, given strong evidence in favor of a 6th cent. b.c. date (cf. the article on Daniel in this encyclopedia). All are agreed, however, that it bears many of the essential marks of apocalyptic.

The Book of Enoch (1 Enoch), also known as the Ethiopic Enoch (since it is extant only in a fragmentary Ethiopic tr.), is a composite work dating from c. 170 b.c. and following. It contains visions of world history and the history of Israel, from the time of Enoch to the present day, and looks toward the impending end. It is by far the most important of the non-Biblical apocalypses. The second section of the book, the “similitudes” or “parables” of Enoch, deals with the times of judgment on the world, and gives assurance to the righteous concerning the certainty of the Messianic hope. The Messiah is referred to by the title “the Son of Man.” The fifth section of the book contains, among other things, an “apocalypse of weeks”; here history is divided into ten “weeks” (i.e. periods of time of varied length, each marked by a momentous event, usually toward its end), seven belonging to the past and three yet to come. Although there is some question concerning the date of the final ed. of the book—it may have been worked over by a Christian scribe—Enoch throws valuable light on pre-Christian Jewish theology.

The Book of Jubilees (c. 150 b.c.) is not, strictly speaking, an apocalyptic book; but it belongs to the same milieu and contains definite apocalyptic features. Its name is derived from its method of dividing history into “jubilee” periods of forty-nine years each; these, in turn, are subdivided into seven weeks of years. The course of history will lead to the Messianic kingdom, which will come as a result of the gradual, spiritual development of mankind and a corresponding transformation of nature; during this time the forces of evil will be restrained and men will live to be a thousand years old.

Although parts of it have a Christian origin, the Sibylline Oracles (from c. 150 b.c. onward) contain a number of documents of Jewish origin (Books III, IV and V). Written in Gr. by Hel. Jewish apologists who sought to imitate the pagan oracles, words are put into the mouth of a prophetess or Sibyl (identified as Noah’s daughter-in-law) which purport to predict the course of world history and the coming of the Messianic age with its peace and prosperity.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (c. 140 b.c., with Christian redaction) consist of the last words and testaments of the twelve sons of Jacob to their children. Each testament contains three elements: an account of the significant events in the life of the patriarch, an exhortation based on the foregoing, and a prediction of what will happen in the last days. The apocalyptic element is not very prominent; rather, the stress is laid on ethical admonition. The work is esp. important because of its association of the Messianic hope with Levi as well as with David.

Again, although the apocalyptic element in the Psalms of Solomon (c. 50 b.c.) is not the most prominent feature of these writings, it is significant. There are eighteen psalms in the collection; two of them contain apocalyptic or Messianic content. Psalm of Solomon 17 gives a brief review of the history of Israel and describes the glories of the Messianic era in terms which are reminiscent of the OT. Psalm of Solomon 18 continues the same theme, centering on the Davidic Messiah, who will rule the nations with wisdom and righteousness. The author’s sympathies lie with the humble poor and oppressed, who are destined to share the glories of the kingdom and also the resurrection.

The Assumption of Moses (c. a.d. 6-30), written originally in Aram., but extant only in Lat. tr. of an earlier Gr. tr., is only one part of a much longer work. According to R. H. Charles, the greatest of students of Ap. Lit., the longer work was the result of a conflation of a “testament” and an “assumption” of Moses. The part which survives bears more the nature of the “testament” than the “assumption,” in spite of its present title. Moses is portrayed as predicting the history of Israel from the time of the entry into Canaan to the time of the author. The text is somewhat dislocated, but it centers on the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (169-164 b.c.) and a pronouncement concerning the coming kingdom of God and the end of the world.

The Martyrdom of Isaiah (first half of 1st Christian cent.), extant only in Ethiopic, Latin (in part), and Slavonic (fragmentary) trs., forms part of a work known as the Ascension of Isaiah. It contains a prediction of the prophet’s death by being sawed in two (cf. Heb 11:37). The rest of the Ascension is more typically apocalyptic, but prob. dates from a later time and is definitely Christian in character.

2 Enoch (1st cent. a.d.), also known as the Book of the Secrets of Enoch or the Slavonic Book of Enoch, is prob. the work of a Hel. Jew of Alexandria (though there is some evidence of Christian influence). The first part of the book consists of Enoch’s vision of the seven heavens (on a trip through them!), and a revelation of the history of salvation from the dawn of time down to Enoch’s day, and on to the time of the Flood; this is followed by the present age, which will last for seven millennia and will be brought to a conclusion by the final judgment. The last part of the book contains ethical admonitions directed toward his sons so that they may direct their lives accordingly. This latter section, along with parts of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, represents the high water mark of apocalyptic ethics.

The Life of Adam and Eve (before a.d. 70), also called the Apocalypse of Moses, is a Jewish work which contains a good bit of interpolation. It attempts to supplement the Biblical record concerning the lives of Adam and Eve. The small but significant apocalyptic eleement consists of a brief vision given to Adam of the giving of the Law, the building of the Temple, its destruction, the Exile, the return and rebuilding of the Temple; this is followed by a time during which “iniquity will exceed righteousness,” to be ended by the coming of God to judge the wicked and to save and purify the righteous.

The narrative of the Apocalypse of Abraham (1st cent. a.d.) tells the story of Abraham’s youth and conversion and subsequent attack upon idolatry. This is followed by an ascension to heaven and a vision of the events of the past and the future. The author is deeply concerned with the problem of evil, but he seems to leave it ultimately unresolved.

The Testament of Abraham (1st cent. a.d.), to be distinguished from the above work, consists of a series of visions or extraordinary experiences of Abraham immediately preceding his death. He is visited by the angel Michael, caught up into the heavens, is given a glimpse of the final judgment of human souls, and has various encounters with death in the form of a radiant angel. In his vision of “the world and all created things,” Abraham is told that history will last for seven ages, each lasting for a thousand years (cf. 2 Enoch). In contrast to other apocalyptic writings, there is no sense of impending judgment in the Testament of Abraham. Its chief concern is with the future destiny of individual souls.

As it stands, 2 Esdras or the Apocalypse of Ezra (4 Esdras in the Vulgate) (c. a.d. 90-100) is prob. a mixture of Christian interpolations (chs. 1-2, 15-16) and an original Jewish apocalypse (chs. 3-14). It records seven visions given to Ezra in Babylon. The first two deal with the twin problems of suffering and sin (the latter due to the “evil impulse” in man as a result of Adam’s sin), and the signs which will herald the approach of the end. The third vision speaks of the appearance of the Messiah; he and all those with him will die and be raised after seven days. A mourning woman appears in the fourth vision and is comforted; suddenly she disappears and is replaced by the new Jerusalem. The fifth vision presents an eagle with twelve wings and three heads, a reinterpretation of the fourth kingdom of Daniel 7, and a review of history; the present age will be followed by the appearance of Messiah (symbolized by a lion), who will destroy the eagle and deliver the righteous. The Messiah again appears in the sixth vision, as a man who rises out of the sea, travels on the clouds of heaven, and destroys his enemies with the fire of his mouth. The seer is told in the final vision that he will be tr. to be with “the Son” until the time of the end (which will come soon); under divine inspiration he dictates ninety-four sacred books (including the Scriptures), which had been destroyed, and then ascends to heaven. The book is replete with imagery and phraseology which appear also in the NT, esp. in Revelation.

2 Baruch or the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (c. a.d. 100-130) is closely related to 2 Esdras, and is prob. dependent on the latter. The work begins with a discussion of the problems of suffering and evil. The answer given is this: the present evil age will soon be consummated by a time of “twelve woes,” following which the Messianic age will dawn; the appearance of Messiah will lead to the resurrection of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked.

A number of the writings found at Qumran (cf. DSS) contain apocalyptic elements. The most important of these is the document known as The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness (1QM) or The War Scroll, which gives the plan for the final eschatological battle between the forces of good and evil. Although the details of the final battle are more realistically described than in other apocalyptical works, there is no doubt that the book is a theological treatise rather than a military manual. The writer draws on Ezekiel 38, updates this to the situation which exists in his day) i.e. the middle of the 1st cent. b.c.), and gives it a cosmic perspective. Other Dead Sea documents which include apocalyptic features are the Genesis Apocryphon, the Book of the Mysteries, and A Description of the New Jerusalem.

2. Historical background. Many factors concerning the historical milieu of Ap. Lit. are debated among scholars. All are agreed that the Book of Daniel (q.v.) provides the prototype for this literary form and that apocalyptic writings arise out of a context of renewed Jewish nationalism, beginning with the Maccabean revolt. It is also generally agreed that the apocalyptic writings were written during times of intense persecution and crisis. As Russell has written, “It is essentially a literature of the oppressed who saw no hope for the nation simply in terms of politics or on the plane of human history” (The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, p. 17).

But how is this lit. related to the various sects of Judaism? Is it representative of “mainstream” Jewish thinking? Or is it the lit. of a “fringe” movement in Judaism? Does it stem from Palestinian Judaism, or from the Diaspora?

G. F. Moore, R. T. Herford and others have minimized the place of apocalyptic in Judaism, arguing that it had little to do with normative Judaism. On the other hand, C. C. Torrey, W. D. Davies, D. S. Russell and others have written in favor of the view that apocalyptic represents one of the most important developments in Judaism within the intertestamental period. Since (a) there was no such thing as “normative” Judaism prior to c. a.d. 70 (contra Moore) and (b) the extant lit. is so extensive, it is prob. safe to conclude that it was indeed an important feature of the Judaism of the period 200 b.c.-a.d. 100.

Is the lit., then, to be identified with the Pharisees (Bousset, Charles, Zeitlin), the Zealots (Herford, in his earlier writings), or the Essenes (K. Kohler R. P. C. Hanson)? (No one argues in favor of identifying this body of lit. with the Sadduccees, since there is such great emphasis on the resurrection and final judgment.) While it is certain that the Zealots drew some inspiration from apocalyptic writings, that the Essenes read and possibly even wrote some of them, and that there may have existed an “apocalyptic Pharisaism” (to use the phrase of Charles), it seems likely that the writers of Ap. Lit. were scattered throughout the various parties of Judaism. There is also good reason to regard the movement as having arisen in Pal., rather than in the Hel. world outside (though the movement did spread to the Diaspora).

3. Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature. There is much diversity among the apocalyptic writings. Nevertheless, there are certain general features which are characteristic of the lit. as a whole and which justify the distinguishing of “apocalyptic” as a literary type: the presence of a cosmic dualism, visions and revelations; a contrast between the present evil age and the coming eschatological age; pessimism concerning the present age and optimism concerning the age to come; references and allusions to mythology, numerology, and animal symbolism; the idea of the unity of history and a goal toward which history is moving; the development of belief in life after death, and esp. the resurrection of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked (there is no resurrection for the unrighteous dead); and the appearance of a transcendent figure identified as “the Son of Man.”

Russell suggests four distinctly literary characteristics of apocalyptic: “It is esoteric in character, literary in form, symbolic in language, and pseudonymous in authorship” (op. cit., p. 106).

a. Esoteric. The apocalyptic writings purport to be revelations (Gr. apokalypsis) of divine mysteries to certain illustrious individuals of Israel’s past, which were subsequently recorded in secret books for the instruction of God’s chosen remnant. The secrets are revealed to the seer in the form of a dream or vision, often in the context of a literal or spiritual tr. to heaven. The vision may consist of a review of the history of the world up to the time of the assumed author, or it may take the form of prediction and outline the future destiny of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom. Or it may describe the mysteries of the unseen world, i.e. heaven(s) and hades, the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the forces of nature. What is seen by the seer is written down, to be hidden away for many generations and faithfully preserved until the time of the end.

b. Literary. In spite of the visionary character of Ap. Lit., it is quite clear that the visions are, for the most part, literary creations by the author. That is to say, they are not the descriptions of actual ecstatic experiences, but rather are self-conscious theological statements. While the OT prophets were first men who spoke the Word of God which was given to them and only afterward wrote down their messages, the apocalyptists were primarily authors. Closely related to this feature is the elaborate symbolism through which the various authors convey their messages.

c. Symbolism. Apocalyptic Lit. is marked by imagery and style which are striking to say the least. Some of the images are taken from the OT (esp. from Dan). Some of it has its origin in ancient Near Eastern mythology, e.g. references to Leviathan, Behemoth and “the dragon” (also alluded to in the OT); the use of animals to symbolize men and nations; allusions to “heavenly tablets” and astral phenomena; etc. In fact, the whole lit. is marked by a carefully developed symbolism, which tends to suit its esoteric character. A study of this symbolism is important for an understanding of the Book of Revelation in the NT, as well as the Book of Daniel in the OT.

d. Pseudonymous. Apocalyptic Lit. is generally, though not always, pseudonymous. That is to say, the writers put their message into the mouth (or at least the pen) of some honored figure from ancient times (e.g. Enoch, Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, etc.). The reason for the adoption of pseudonymity is not entirely clear. The traditional explanation is that these writers had to attribute their writings to men of God prior to the time of Ezra (when, it was believed, prophecy had come to an end in Israel), in order to have them accepted as authentic revelations. Yet it is questionable whether anyone would have been deceived by this tactic. Another suggestion is that they adopted pseudonyms to avoid persecution by the authorities of the day (but why not simple anonymity?). Another explanation given by some is that pseudonymity was merely a literary custom with no attempt to deceive the reader. More recently, pseudonymity has been explained (by Russell) in terms of “corporate personality,” the peculiar time-consciousness of the ancient Hebrews, and the proper name in Heb. thought; the author identified himself and his message with the ancient seer in whose name he wrote, and wrote as his representative. Whatever the real reason for choosing the medium of pseudonymity, it seems probable that the name of the person in whose name the author wrote is related to the content of the book and, therefore, is not the result of an arbitrary choice.

4. Biblical vs. non-Biblical apocalyptic. Although the writings which we have been discussing lie outside the canon of the Bible, they have their roots firmly embedded in the OT prophetic tradition. First, the authors are heirs to the prophetic view of history; alongside the Biblical writers they speak in the name of the One who is sovereign over the whole of human history. Secondly, they call Israel to repentance and bring a message of comfort and encouragement to the faithful. Thirdly, they draw heavily on the visionary imagery of the prophets—chiefly Daniel, but also Joel, Zechariah, Isaiah and Ezekiel.

Many scholars would classify the Book of Daniel (q.v.) itself as apocalyptic in the same sense as the other writings which have been discussed in this article. Conservative scholars, however, tend to emphasize the difference between Daniel (and also Revelation) and the later apocalyptic writings and to classify it as “prophetic-apocalyptic.” Drawing attention to the tendency toward determinism, pessimism, and ethical passivity in non-canonical apocalyptic, G. E. Ladd stresses the contrast between Biblical and non-Biblical apocalyptic books (Jesus and the Kingdom, pp. 75ff.). It must be noted, however, that these features are not present to the same degree in all the extracanonical writings; the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and 2 Enoch lay a greater stress on the ethical implications of eschatology than even Daniel and Revelation, and it is certainly an overstatement to suggest that “the present and future (in Ap. Lit.) are quite unrelated” or that the apocalyptists “lost the dynamic concept of the God who is redemptively active in history” (ibid., pp. 89, 97). Without denying the differences, it is prob. more helpful to emphasize the similarities between Biblical and non-Biblical apocalyptic, esp. as a literary genre. Daniel has links with the prophetic tradition in Israel which the other apocalyptists do not possess, but its ties with the apocalyptic tradition are equally close. The Book of Revelation (q.v.) has its roots squarely in the latter tradition.

5. Apocalyptic and the New Testament. Although the eschatology of the NT writings is free from the mythological associations and other negative features of non-canonical apocalyptic, it does draw from the store of apocalyptic imagery and occasionally uses its literary forms. References to the Parousia of the Son of Man (the name itself is apocalyptic!) and the coming of God’s kingdom in the teaching of Jesus are replete with apocalyptic images, as are also references to the resurrection and the final judgment in the letters of Paul. There are also passages such as “the little apocalypse” of Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24) and the description of “the man of sin” (2 Thess 2:3 KJV). The chief representative is, however, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, commonly called the Revelation of St. John the Divine (q.v.), from which this genre derives its name (Revelation = gr. Apokalypsis).

The symbolism of Revelation is derived from three sources: the OT (the chief source), contemporary life in the Rom. province of Asia (esp. in chs. 1-3, but also in the rest of the book), and Jewish Ap. Lit. Symbols which Revelation shares with the latter include these: a woman, representing a people (ch. 12) and a city (ch. 17); horns, speaking of authority (5:6; 12:3; 13:1; 17:3; etc.); eyes, signifying understanding (1:14; 4:6; 5:6); trumpets, representing a superhuman or divine voice (1:10; 8:2; etc.); white robes, portraying the glory of the world to come (6:11; 7:9, 13, 14; 22:14); and crowns, indicating dominion (2:10; 3:11; 4:10; etc.). The symbolic use of colors (white = victory; purple = kingship; black = death), numbers (seven = fullness or perfection; twelve = the eschatological perfection of the people of God; four = the visible world), angels (mentioned sixty-seven times) and visions (fifty-four times) also link Revelation with the apocalyptic tradition. Revelation stands apart from the other apocalyptic writings, however, in a number of ways: it is not pseudonymous; it contains no revelations of the mysteries of cosmogony, astrology, or the unfolding of ancient history since the beginning of the world; and it offers a specifically Christological conception of history.

Bibliography D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964) is the most important recent study of the subject and contains an extensive bibliography. See also R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseud-epigrapha of the Old Testament, II (1913); F. C. Burkitt, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (1914); H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of Apocalyptic (1944; 3rd ed. 1963); J. Bloch, On the Apocalyptic in Judaism (JQR Monograph 2) (1952); S. B. Frost, Old Testament Apocalyptic (1952); G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (1964), ch. 3.