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

Apocalyptic Eschatology

The aspect of the apocalypses that has most shaped popular perception is their expectation of the imminent coming end of the world, although, as we have seen, such expectations are the dominant concern of only one group of apocalypses. Apocalyptic eschatology developed gradually from the eschatology of the prophets. The pre-exilic prophets believed that if Israel kept its end of the covenant with God, it would enjoy peace and prosperity in its own land under the rule of a king descended from David, established in the holy city of Jerusalem, seat of the temple in which God had chosen to let the divine glory dwell. Still, human life is understood to continue more or less as we know it; people will continue to grow old and die, although they will no longer die prematurely. Yet although there is nothing inherently supernatural about the new era, the prophetic descriptions of the harmony of all nature or of the wisdom of the Davidic king often have elements of the miraculous.

With the destruction of the first temple, the loss of independence, and the end of the Davidic line, the hopes of the prophets, which had once seemed not unrealistic, became more and more difficult to realize. Divine intervention began to seem the only possible way to achieve them. The Davidic king, now a figure of the future, begins to take on some of the characteristics of the later figure of the messiah. Many of the apocalypses look forward to a redeemer with supernatural powers who will defeat Israel's enemies. The expectation of such a redeemer contributes to the early Christian understanding of the figure of Jesus.

The prophets had claimed that God controlled not only the fate of Israel, but also the fate of all nations. First Assyria and then Babylonia triumphed not by their own might, but because God used them as instruments to punish the people of Israel for their wickedness. “The Assyrian! He is the rod I wield in my anger,” Isaiah says of the most important enemy of his day (Isa. 10.5 ). So the claim of the apocalypses that the course of all history is in God's hands is nothing new. What is new is the claim that that course has already been determined once and for all. The prophets called on Israel to repent so that their punishment might be averted. The apocalypses issue no such call, for the end is approaching whatever human beings may do.

The importance of apocalyptic eschatology for our understanding of early Judaism cannot be underestimated, for these beliefs were by no means limited to the authors of the apocalypses. Indeed they had become a central part of popular expectations. While there was no agreement about the details for the scenario of the end, there was widespread belief, especially at times of persecution, that it was imminent and that it would entail a dramatic and terrible series of events. It was among Jews who held such expectations that Christianity first emerged, and it is in the context of such Jewish expectations that earliest Christianity must be understood.

Like the prophets, the authors of the apocalypses concerned with the end of history saw transcendent significance in historical events. Several apocalypses, including the Book of Daniel, appear in response to perhaps the greatest crisis of the second temple period, the decree of Antiochus IV prohibiting the practice of Judaism, the persecution of the pious and the ensuing martyrdoms, and finally the Maccabean Revolt in 167–62 B.C.E. The destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. also inspired a number of such apocalypses, including 4 Ezra. The Book of Revelation is usually associated with the sporadic persecutions experienced by Christians in the late first century C.E. The writing of some of the apocalypses, on the other hand, appears to have been motivated by on-going discontent rather than by specific events.

Although apocalyptic eschatology has its origins in the thought of Israel's prophets, there are some striking parallels to it in the ideologies that develop among other subject peoples of the Hellenistic Near East who saw their own kings deposed by Alexander the Great and his successors. In Egypt, for example, a body of oracular literature expresses the yearning for the restoration of native kingship, predicting the appearance of a new pharaoh who will rid Egypt of foreign invaders and restore order by cleansing the land of the pollution of foreigners. Themes typical of apocalyptic eschatology, then, appeared beyond Israel's borders as well as within.

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