The word ‘apocalyptic’ is nowadays used to describe a scenario that heralds the end of the world, or at least the end of life, or civilization, as we know it. This meaning lies some distance from the original meaning. The Greek word apokalypsis means ‘revelation’, and is the title (because it is the first word) of the New Testament book of Revelation. That book contains many descriptions of future events, particularly a time of great distress and persecution, followed by one of judgement and of bliss for the faithful. A number of books of this kind, describing the end of history, were written during the Graeco-Roman period, not only by Jews and Christians, but also by Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Persians. These writings have also come to be known as ‘apocalypses’.
A focus on the ‘end-time’ is a common feature of apocalypses, but in fact this ancient literary genre needs to be defined a little more widely. It conveys (as its name implies) what are claimed to be direct revelations from heaven, given usually in a vision or by angelic dictation, or by a journey to heaven. Apocalypses were often ascribed to a venerated figure of antiquity, who would foretell what would happen in that person's future, which was, in fact, the past from the perspective of the real author and the reader. A real prediction of the future, which was usually the main point, then formed the final section of this ‘pseudo-prediction’. But the ‘end-time’ was not the only possible content of such ‘revelations’. The origins of the world, or the movements of the heavenly bodies, or the meaning of history, or the geography of heaven, the names of angels, or even the appearance of God himself, all counted among the secrets that could be learned only by revelations of this kind.
The characteristics of this literary genre of apocalypse have acquired a broader sense in biblical scholarship, one that is not altogether helpful, but which cannot be overlooked. ‘Apocalyptic’ or ‘apocalypticism’ is sometimes used to describe a way of thinking, even a kind of religion, which is other-worldly and focused on some imminent moment that will bring the existing world order to an end. On other occasions, ‘apocalyptic’ may even be loosely used to mean ‘eschatology’, or ‘eschatological’, i.e. concerned with the end or goal of history or the cosmos. Finally, ‘apocalyptic’ is occasionally used of communities that are created or sustained by hope or belief that the order will soon change; and hence literary apocalypses have tended to be understood in some quarters as being the product of millenarian sects. Most citizens of the ancient Near Eastern and classical world believed in a realm of the gods from which mortals might access knowledge about this world. Apocalypses are really a refined expression of an attitude that believes in the overwhelming reality of the transcendental world and its effects on everyday life. It is not surprising that this genre was especially popular in times of uncertainty or fear of the future, though some apocalypses seem to be generated from a kind of proto-scientific attempt to get ‘behind the scenes’ of reality and show what makes things happen, and how.
In the Old Testament, apocalyptic literature (or simply ‘apocalyptic’, as the genre is often called) might not seem to occupy a prominent place. Only the book of Daniel falls into this category. Despite its poor representation in the Bible, apocalyptic literature is not a fringe activity; nor are its contents peripheral to an understanding of Judaism (or Christianity, for that matter). It was certainly a very common kind of writing from the third century BCE onwards. It would be impossible even to begin to cover the range of apocalyptic writings now known to us that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE; for this the reader can consult the two-volume Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Charlesworth 1983). The last part of this chapter will focus attention on the book of Daniel, the main Old Testament exemplar, and the book of 1 Enoch, which contains the earliest and in many respects most important Palestinian Jewish apocalypses (Enoch himself is referred to in the New Testament, in Jude 14–15). The material in this collection known as 1 Enoch dates from the third century BCE onwards and is often simply referred to as the Book of Enoch (though there are other ‘books of Enoch’ as well).