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Apocalyptic Literature

The words “apocalyptic” and “apocalypse” (from a Greek root meaning “to uncover,” “to reveal”) are terms that came to be used from the second century CE onward to indicate a type of Jewish and Christian literature akin to the New Testament Apocalypse (an alternative title of the book of Revelation), which gave its name to this style of writing.

The term “apocalyptic literature” is taken to refer to a body of revelatory writing produced in Jewish circles between 250 BCE and 200 CE and subsequently taken up and perpetuated by Christianity. It includes not only the genre “apocalypse” but may also include other related types of literature, such as testaments, hymns, and prayers, which share some of its more important characteristics and motifs; that is, it does not have a common literary form but is diverse and even hybrid in its literary expression. The apocalypse type of writing, which forms the core of this literature, is a record of divine disclosures made known through the agency of angels, dreams, and visions. These may take different forms: an otherworldly journey in which the “secrets” of the cosmos are made known (the so‐called vertical apocalypses), or a survey of history often leading to an eschatological crisis in which the cosmic powers of evil are destroyed, the cosmos is restored, and Israel (or “the righteous”) is redeemed (the so‐called horizontal or historical apocalypses).

Biblical Apocalypses.

The scholarly consensus sees a strong link between the apocalypse and biblical prophecy, and regards such writings as Ezekiel 38–39, Isaiah 24–27, Zechariah 12–14, and Joel 3 if not as apocalypses per se then as forerunners of them. The wisdom tradition undoubtedly also influenced the apocalyptic in its growth and development, but arguments that its origins lie there rather than in prophecy remain unconvincing. However closely related prophecy and apocalyptic may be, they are to be distinguished from each other in at least two respects: whereas the prophets for the most part declare God's word to his or her own generation, the apocalyptists record revelations said to have been made known by God to some great hero in earlier times and now to be revealed in a “secret” book at the end of the days; and whereas the prophets see the realization of God's purpose within the historical process, the apocalyptists see that purpose reaching its culmination not just within history but above and beyond history in that supramundane realm where God dwells.

Within the Bible itself there are two great apocalypses: Daniel and Revelation. In the first of these, five stories are told of a wise man, Daniel, who remained faithful to his Jewish religion during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, and was enabled by God to interpret dreams and visions. In the second half of the book, four of Daniel's visions are recorded, along with their interpretations, which give a survey of history from the exile (when the writer is reckoned to have lived) to its denouement in the second century BCE in the time of Antiochus IV, when the book in its present form was actually written. In this sense, the book of Daniel is addressed to the writer's own contemporaries, but the method and approach are altogether different from those of the prophets. So too with his hope for the coming kingdom: in keeping with the prophets, he sees it established here on earth as the climax of history, but in no way is it to be separated from that transcendent, heavenly realm where God dwells with his holy angels.

The book of Revelation follows a somewhat similar form, for it too reveals the future course of events by means of visions and declares the triumph of God's purpose. In the course of time other Christian apocalypses appeared, some as independent works, such as the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, and others as interpolations in or additions to existing Jewish apocalyptic books.

Extrabiblical Apocalyptic Books.

A number of extrabiblical Jewish apocalypses appeared during the Greco‐Roman period which, for the most part, have survived only in translation, having been preserved within the Christian tradition. They are of considerable value for the light they throw on the four hundred and fifty or so years between 250 BCE and 200 CE and not least on our understanding of the background of the New Testament. There is no agreed list of such books, but the following works are generally so regarded: 1 Enoch (Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch), third century BCE to first century CE; Apocalypse of Zephaniah, first century BCE to first century CE; Apocalypse of Abraham, first to second century CE; 2 Enoch (Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch), late first century CE; 2 Esdras (= 4 Ezra) 3–14, ca. 100 CE; 2 Baruch (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch), early second century CE; 3 Baruch (Greek Apocalypse of Baruch), first to third century CE.

Besides these, there are from this period certain other Jewish writings that, though not themselves apocalypses, belong to the same milieu and are generally recognized as part of the apocalyptic literature. They are as follows: Jubilees, second century BCE; Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, second century BCE; Jewish Sibylline Oracles, second century BCE to seventh century CE; Treatise of Shem, first century BCE; Testament (Assumption) of Moses, first century CE; Testament of Abraham, first to second century CE.

To this list may be added material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: fragments of a Testament of Levi (related to a late and redacted Greek Testament of that name) and a Testament of Naphtali, and likewise fragments of the (composite) first book of Enoch and the book of Jubilees. Other writings and fragments belonging to the Qumran community indicate a close relationship between the religious outlook of the apocalyptic writers and that expressed in the scrolls, such as certain passages in the Manual of Discipline, the War Scroll, the Hymns, and such works as the book of Mysteries, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Description of the New Jerusalem.

Literary Features.

The apocalypse is recognized by many scholars as a distinct literary genre expressing itself, as we have seen, in terms of divine disclosure, transcendent reality, and final redemption. As such, it shares with other related apocalyptic books certain literary features that are worthy of note:

Revelation through visionary experience.

This is a stock‐in‐trade of these writings, though visions may be replaced by dreams, trances, auditions, and visual/physical transference to the ends of the earth or to heaven itself. The ancient seer (in whose name the author writes) is confronted with the heavenly mysteries, either directly or as mediated by an angel, and is bidden to record what he has seen and heard.

In so doing, the writer often makes use of two literary devices that, though not confined to the apocalyptic writings, are a common feature. The first is that of secret books, in which the seer is bidden to conceal these mysteries until the end time, when he will reveal them to the wise as a sign that the end is now at hand. The second is that of pseudonymity, whereby the author writes in the name of some honored person of antiquity, such as Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, or Ezra. The intention is not to deceive but rather to strengthen the conviction that the apocalyptist is transmitting a long and authoritative tradition. The same device is followed in Christian apocalypses, such as those of Peter and Paul, but not in the book of Revelation, where it is enough that the writer should declare in his own name the revelations he himself has received directly from his risen Lord.

Symbolic imagery.

Symbolism, it has been said, is the language of the apocalyptic style of writing, a code language rich in imagery culled both from biblical and from Canaanite and Babylonian traditions. Generally speaking, the code is fairly easily recognizable: wild beasts represent the gentile nations, animal horns are gentile rulers, people are angels, and so on. Elsewhere it is less easily broken, particularly where vestiges of early myths have no obvious relation to the content of the book itself.

Tracts for the times.

The apocalyptic books, particularly those “historical” apocalypses of Palestinian origin, were in many cases the product of their age and its political and economic climate. As tracts for the times, they were written to encourage those who were oppressed and saw little or no hope in terms of either politics or armed might. Their message was that God himself would intervene and reverse the situation in which they found themselves, delivering the godly from the hands of the wicked and establishing his rule for all to see. Sometimes such encouragement is given in the form of discourse in which the revelation of God's sovereignty is disclosed; at other times, as in the book of Daniel, it takes the form of a story or legend concerning the ancient worthy in whose name the book is written.

Such features are not peculiar to the apocalyptic books, but their form of presentation, together with their recurring theme of revealed secrets and divine intervention, indicates an identifiable and distinct body of literature within Judaism that, though sharing the ideals of prophecy, is nevertheless markedly different from it.

Common Themes.

Certain well‐marked themes run through the apocalyptic writings:

History and “the end.”

The whole of history is a unity under the overarching purpose of God. It is divided, however, into great epochs that must run their predetermined course; only then will the end come, and with it the dawning of the messianic kingdom and the age to come when evil will be routed and righteousness established forever.

Present troubles are in fact birth pangs heralding the end. Calculations, involving the use of numerology (See Number Symbolism), demonstrate that soon, very soon, earth's invincible empires will disappear and be replaced by God's eternal rule: “The coming of the times is very near… The pitcher is near the well and the ship to the harbor, and the journey to the city, and life to its end” (2 Bar. 85.10). The writer of Daniel tries to be more precise, interpreting Jeremiah's seventy years' captivity as seventy weeks of years, ending in the writer's own day (9.21–27; cf. Jer. 25.11–12; 29.10). The Christian expectation is no less eager, though less precise: “ ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22.20, See Second Coming of Christ).

Cosmic cataclysm.

The coming end will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Dan. 12.1). Sometimes this is described in terms of political action and military struggle; at other times the conflict assumes cosmic proportions involving mysterious happenings on earth and in the heavens—earthquakes, famine, fearful celestial portents, and destruction by fire. Such things find an echo in the New Testament, where it is said that in the last days there will be an eclipse of the sun, and the stars will fall from heaven (Mark 13.24–25).

This cosmic upheaval is closely related to the concept of cosmic powers in the form of angels and demons. The angel hosts are drawn up in battle array against the demon hosts under the command of Satan. In the final battle the powers of evil, together with the evil nations they represent, will be utterly destroyed.

The consummation.

The coming kingdom is, generally speaking, to be established here on this earth; in some instances it has a temporary duration, and is followed by the age to come for, as 2 Esdras puts it, “The Most High has made not one world but two” (7.50). In this new divine order, the end will be as the beginning and paradise will be restored. “Dualism” is sometimes used to describe the discontinuity between this age and the age to come, but continuity remains: generally speaking, this earth (albeit renewed or restored) is the scene of God's deliverance.

In some of these writings the figures of Messiah and Son of man, among others, are introduced as agents of the coming kingdom. These probably represent two originally distinct strands of eschatological expectation which, in the course of time, became intertwined.

One significant development is the prevailing belief in a resurrection, a coming judgment, and the life to come (see Dan. 12.2 for an early reference). It is by this means that the gap, as it were, between the eschatology of the nation and the eschatology of the individual is finally bridged. Both together find their fulfillment in God's final redemption when all wrongs are to be righted and justice and peace are established forever.

D. S. Russell

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