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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Apocalyptic Technique

The apocalypse is a literary genre that claims to impart knowledge of heavenly secrets. In what way does an apocalypse differ from wisdom or prophecy, or law, which also claim to derive from divine revelation? The differences lie, basically, in the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘secrets’. Prophecy is a public announcement of a message that God wishes the recipient to hear. Wisdom instruction is knowledge derived from observation and experience by a sage and passed on in his name to his disciples or a wider audience. The apocalypse pretends to offer what cannot normally be known and what is not supposed to be known, or at least widely known. Unlike prophecy and wisdom, it is not directly an exhortation to behave in a certain way. It is, rather, essentially ‘privileged information’, which enables the recipient to know what is ‘going on’. This knowledge is the key to salvation, and is often shared among restricted groups, hence its frequent association with sects. While the ‘information’ given in apocalypses may be intended to affect human behaviour (for instance, to join the privileged group with the ‘saving knowledge’), it often serves to confirm that the present time, however bad, has been planned, and that a better future lies ahead. The technique of apocalyptic requires that the future is knowable and therefore has been predetermined.

Naturally, since this knowledge is presumed to be confidential, the apocalypse employs devices to explain how it has been acquired. The name of the recipient of the knowledge and (pretended) author of the book is given, along with details of the experience by which his (or her) knowledge was obtained. More often than not, the ‘author’ is a great figure of the past—Daniel, Enoch, Moses, even Adam—and hence many apocalypses are Pseudepigrapha, i.e. given a fictitious authorship. The ‘author’ is often claimed to have passed the knowledge on to his children, or to have written it down in a book which the reader is to assume has remained a secret or has been published just recently. In this respect, the book of Revelation, paradoxical as this may seem, is not like other apocalypses; and actually does not call itself an apocalypse. The ‘revelation’ of its opening verse refers to what is described, not to the book itself—and the author actually dubs his words ‘prophecy’ (1: 3). Whether it is pseudepigraphic remains unclear, but the name ‘John’ hardly points in that direction.

Apocalypses represent the world as governed from heaven, and either imply or insist that everything is predetermined. Were it not so, the universe would not be orderly, nothing could be learned about it which would enable humans to understand it. In a way, apocalyptic literature is trying to grasp the sense that lies beneath the nonsense of the present world—or, more graphically, the sense that lies above it! In that respect it is very closely linked to the ethos of wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible, however, apocalyptic literature is—Daniel apart—found in the Prophets (see below). For the origins of apocalyptic writing we must go outside the orbit of biblical prophecy and wisdom and look at an aspect of religion that was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel: divination.

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