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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Apocalyptic Vision

Martha Himmelfarb

When the word “apocalypse” appears in the newspaper, it is usually in connection with the horrors of nuclear war or the threat of environmental pollution. The association of “apocalypse” with doom and disaster reflects the influence of the two canonical apocalypses, Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation in the New Testament. In these two works, as in 4 Ezra (2 Esd. 3–14 ) in the Apocrypha, the dominant theme is the imminent and cataclysmic end of the world and the reign of the righteous to follow, revealed through symbolic visions.

For some types of biblical literature, for example the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, no extra-biblical examples have survived. But a significant number of apocalypses have come down to us outside the canon. Some of these other apocalypses share with Daniel, Revelation, and 4 Ezra their concern for the coming end of the world and their use of symbolic visions as the medium of revelation. But the Greek apokalypsis means literally “uncovering,” and thus, in the more extended sense relevant to ancient Judaism and Christianity, “revelation,” without any necessary connection to the end of the world and the last judgment. Many apocalypses are as interested in the wonders of nature, the fate of souls after death, and the divine throne and its angelic entourage, as in collective eschatology. In these apocalypses the mode of revelation is not symbolic visions but ascent to heaven.

Jews and Christians continued to write apocalypses through the Middle Ages, but this essay will consider only the apocalypses that belong to the period relevant to the Bible, from the beginnings of apocalyptic literature in the third century B.C.E. through the second century C.E., a corpus of about twenty texts. It is worth noting that only four or five of these apocalypses are Christian. Thus despite their intense eschatological expectations, Christians of the first two centuries were not particularly inclined to express those hopes in apocalypses. All of the Jewish apocalypses concerned primarily with collective eschatology appear to have been written in Palestine. The other Jewish apocalypses that have survived were probably written in Egypt, where the Jews were thoroughly integrated into the culture of their Greek-speaking neighbors. In these apocalypses the final fate of the individual is a more central concern than the fate of the people, although collective eschatology is by no means absent. Of the clearly Christian apocalypses, one is from Egypt, one from Rome, one from Asia Minor or Syria, and the Book of Revelation surely from Asia Minor. The fact that Christians in Asia Minor were writing apocalypses centered on collective eschatology so early in the history of Christianity may suggest a tradition of such apocalypses among the Jews of Asia Minor, from whom almost no literary evidence has survived.

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