What is an apocalypse?

What is an apocalypse?

Apocalypse is a term that has come to refer to a range of ideas, themes, and literature. It is derived from the Greek word apocalypsis, which means “revelation, disclosure, uncovering.”

Apocalypse is the term representing the ancient visionary literature or parts of writings that flourished between 200 BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) 100 in the world of Israel and Jewish Christianity.

Roots of Apocalyptic Literature

Scholars trace the roots and origins of apocalypse back to the late third millennium BCE to Hebrew prophecy and wisdom traditions, Iranian (Persian) religion, Hellenistic syncretism, and Old Canaanite myths, with influence of the eastern Zoroastrianism.

When considered in light of its antecedents, apocalyptic literature is “not bizarre or opaque, but is rather a narrative way of reflecting about theology, philosophy, and history, and of teaching a way of life” (Clifford 34). Both ancient and modern people share an interest in ultimate causes and explaining the cosmos and the nature of evil.

The ancient genre of the Combat Myth heavily influenced apocalyptic literature. The Combat Myth are stories that tell of monsters who threaten the cosmic and political order. The assembly of the gods is called. But a commander to defeat the monster is not found, so they turn to a young god to fight for them. He defeats the monster and restores the world order. He builds a kingdom and receives praise. Examples of the combat myth are Lugal-e, Anzu, and Enuma Elish.

Canaanite literature, the Baal Cycle, Exodus 15 and biblical prophecy are representative of combat myth (Clifford 3–7). In Psalms 96 and 98 God’s triumph over chaos reflects the concept of the combat myth.

Scholars also trace the apocalyptic worldview back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster, “who spoke of a cosmic battle between good and evil, ending in a new, perfect world for humanity.” Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion that is still practiced today in Iran. It is characterized by apocalyptic eschatology.

From the Achaemenian (Cyrus to Darius III) to the Sassanian period, the Jews and Persians were in close contact and had good opportunities for cultural contacts. Yet there is no evidence of direct borrowing of Iranian eschatology by Judaism and Christianity. Scholars debate the extent of the Iranian influence on Judaism and Christianity. (Hultgard 79–80). Most importantly, apocalypticism emerged in the Hellenistic age out of Judaism as a continuation of prophecy.

Apocalyptic Eschatology

Eschatology refers to the teachings about the last things, the beliefs about how God will accomplish his purposes in the world and in the cosmos. Eschatology can be found in the Old Testament particularly in the prophets. This is known as prophetic eschatology. An example is found in the promise of a seed and an everlasting kingdom to David made by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 7:12-14). Such prophecy was expected to take place within the normal events of history (Reddish 19-20).

During the post-exilic period of Israel’s history prophetic eschatology develops into apocalyptic eschatology, which is also concerned with God’s activity in the future.
However God’s plans would be accomplished by supernatural means outside of the normal flow of history. Israel saw that promises and plan of God could not be achieved within history rather God must act to bring about his plan. Apocalyptic eschatology is concerned with how God will bring an end to the wicked age punishing the wicked with judgment and vindicating the righteous (Reddish 20).

Both the prophet and the apocalyptist were concerned with the future. They both understood God controlled the events of the future. The prophet saw the future developing out of the present, but the apocalyptist saw God intervening in the course of history. The prophet announced the captivity of Israel and promised her restoration. But the apocalyptist announced the end of the age and revealed the meaning of secrets locked in heaven.

From Prophecy To Apocalypse

The Babylonian Exile of Judah broke many of Israel’s traditions and institutions, but prophecy survived and continued into the post-exilic period. There is continuity from Amos and Isaiah to Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, and Zechariah. After the restoration, Trito-Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Obadiah, Malachi, Joel, and others are written.

Pre-exilic prophets emphasized hearing the word of the Lord rather than on seeing visions or dreams (Jeremiah 23:28). But post-exilic prophets and those who collected oracles emphasized visions because this was how God spoke to his messengers. Entire stories were depicted in symbolic form and interpreted by an angel (Ezek 9).
Prophetic forms were broken down and writing took precedence. The use of “Thus says the Lord” and “oracle of Yahweh” is less frequent in post-exilic prophecy. The prophets’ eschatological interests are reflected in the expression the “end of days” and “in the day.” Post-exilic prophecy and oracles are characterized by liturgical forms, allegories, and extended vision reports.

The message of judgment that was important in pre-exilic prophecy (Amos 8:2; Hos 13:14; Isa 9:12, 17, 21), was displaced by the divine purposes for Israel (Jer 29:11; Ezek 36-39; Isa 40-55). The post-exilic prophets brought a message of comfort for Israel, but a message of judgment for Israel’s enemies. Amos and Malachi condemned the Temple cult (Amos 4:4-5, 5:4-5, Malachi 1:6–10), but Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah, understood the Temple to be central for the reconstruction of Israel (Ezek 40–44, Hag 1:4; Zech 4:8-10).

From the post-exilic period, there was an increasing sense that prophecy was no longer what it used to be. The prophets fell into question. From the time of Ezra, the Law Book took center stage in the life of the people. Persian and Babylonian thought influenced the outlook of the Jews and contributed to the deterioration of prophecy. Certain prophets were considered a threat to the peace. Prophecy is referred to as a thing of the past in 1 Maccabees (9:27, 4:46, 14:41). By the New Testament period prophets were considered to be moral teachers, who did not preach a message of encouragement and of disaster. In contrast, the Qumran community and the early Christians believe prophecy had been recently revived. The book of Revelation is the most extensive example of Christian prophecy among the earliest Christian literature.

The Genre of Apocalypse

In 1979, the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project met to survey the apocalypses from 250 BCE to 250 CE, with the purpose to determine their shared characteristics. In Semeia 14, they set forth the definition of the literary genre of “apocalypse”: Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

Their study has produced a “Master-Paradigm” (Table 1) containing “the significant recurring features” in apocalyptic literature (22).

Scholars see three aspects of the genre of apocalypse: apocalypse, apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism. Apocalypse (the literature) is the set of writings. Apocalyptic eschatology (the perspective) is a “religious perspective” or an “attitude of mind” that “involves certain beliefs about the world and the place of humans in it.” Apocalypticism (social aspects) concerns “social aspects of apocalypses and transcendent eschatology” (Thompson 22–24). It is a worldview that involves apocalyptic ideas and motifs such as heaven, hell, otherworldly beings, and divine retribution (Reddish 23). These terms help scholars shed light on apocalyptic literature and make sense of the phenomenon of apocalypse.

Apocalyptic literature is literature of crisis. It is written to offer hope to those facing opposition, persecution, and even death. Apocalypses offered a different way (vision) to see the world. They were a call to God’s people remain faithful until God’s kingdom was installed.

Not all literature containing apocalyptic ideas are classified under the genre of apocalypse. Genre has to do with form rather than content. Parables contain apocalyptic ideas but are not apocalypses. Parable is the literary form.

Jewish Apocalypses

Jewish apocalypses flourished during the Second Temple period (200 BCE—100 CE). Scholars observe two distinctions among Jewish apocalyptic literature: “those that do not have an otherworldly journey (Type II) and those that do (Type I)” (Collins Semeia 14). The SBL “Master-Paradigm” (Table 1) sets forth the elements of an apocalypse into two sections, “the framework of the revelation and its content (5-8).” Framework refers to the manner in which the revelation is conveyed. Its content refers to the historical and eschatological events, which are plotted on a temporal axis (sequence of time). Otherworldly beings and places are placed on a spatial axis (occupying or characterized by space). See Semeia 14 chart.

Type I include: Daniel, the “Animal Apocalypse,” the “Apocalypse of Weeks,” Jubilees 23, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.

Type II includes: the Apocalypse of Abraham, 1 Enoch 1–36, the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries, the Similitudes of Enoch, 2 Enoch or the Slavonic Book of Enoch, Testament of Levi 2–5, 3 Baruch, the Testament of Abraham, and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah.

The body of original Jewish Apocalypses was “more extensive than this” extant list. Certain Christian Apocalypses are considered to be originally Jewish, but were later “reworked by Christians.” They include the Apocalypse of Elijah, the Apocalypse of Sedrach, and the Ascension of Isaiah. There are a number of other writings that “share a common worldview” with Jewish apocalypses, such as testaments (farewell address of a father to his sons or a leader to his successors), oracles, and the Qumran scrolls (Collins, Semeia 14 42–49).

The Book of Enoch is the earliest known apocalypse. Like most apocalypses, it was attributed to an ancient worth. It is composed of five separate sources written at different times: (1) “Book of Watchers,” chapters 1–36 (per-Maccabean, late third century BCE); (2) “Similitudes of Enoch,” chapters 37–71 (mid-first century CE); (3) “Book of Heavenly Luminaries,” chapters 72–82 (pre-Maccabean, perhaps the earliest of the sources); (4) “Book of Dreams,” chapters 83–90 (early Maccabean); and (5) “Epistle of Enoch,” chapters 91–108 (late Hasmonean) (Thompson 19).

Books and parts of books in the Hebrew Bible are classified as apocalypses: Isaiah 24–27, known as the Isaiah Apocalypse, Trito-Zechariah, Zechariah 12-14, the Book of Joel, and the Book of Daniel. Daniel is the only full-blown example of apocalyptic. It is a composite work consisting of six midrashes (1–6) and four apocalyptic visions (7–12), which were composed during the political conflict between the Jews and Antiochus Epiphanes after 187 BCE. They were contemporaneous with the Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch.

The Qumran books have close ties with the apocalyptic books. They included: the Commentaries on Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk. Zephaniah and Psalm 37, the Zadokite Document (or the Damascus Document), the Manual of Discipline (or the Rule of the Community), the Rule of the Congregation, a Scroll of Benedictions, the Testimonies Scroll (or a Messianic Anthology), Hymns (or Psalms) of Thanksgiving, the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness (or the Rule for the Final War), the Book of Mysteries, a Midrash on the Last Days, a Description of the New Jerusalem, an Angelic Liturgy, the Prayer of Nabonidus and a Pseudo-Daniel Apocalypse, and a Genesis Apocryphon.

Christian Apocalypses

During the first century, apocalyptic literature continued to flourish. Christians adopted and modified Jewish apocalyptic thought and apocalyptic literature (in form and content) to address their own issues (Reddish 33). John expected the Messianic kingdom and Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom. The growing resistance of the Jews toward Rome and the persecution of Nero were motivation for the writing of apocalypses.

Yabro Collins identifies twenty-four Christian texts that fit within the definition of apocalypse put forth by SBL Genre Project (Collins, The Early Christian Apocalypses 62). Scholars divided them into two types according to the mode of revelation: vision or audition (Type I) and otherworldly journey (Type II).

Type I includes: Jacob’s Latter, Revelation, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Book of Elchasai, The Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, Testament of the Lord 1:1–14, 2 Ezra 2:42–48, Testament of Isaac 2–3a, Testament of Jacob 1–3a, Questions of Bartholomew, The Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle 8b–14a.

Type II includes: Ascension of Isaiah 6–11, Apocalypse of Paul, The Apocalypse of Esdras, The Apocalypse of the Virgin Mary, Testament of Isaac 5–6, Testament of Jacob 5, The Story of Zosimus, The Apocalypse of the Holy Mother of God concerning the Punishments, The Apocalypse of James, the Brother of the Lord, The Mysteries of St. John the Apostle and Holy Virgin, The Book of the Resurrection (Bartholomew) 17b–19b, and The Apocalypse of Sedrach.

Features of Apocalypse

According to Klaus Koch, there are six general literary features that are present in apocalypses: (1) “Discourse cycles, frequently called visions, occur between the apocalyptic seer and a heavenly counterpart, revealing something about the destiny of mankind”; (2) “Formalized phraseology” used to report the “spiritual turmoils” of the seer who experiences a “trance sometimes being heightened to the point of unconsciousness” that can lead to the felling of a violently produced change of place”; (3) “Paraenetic discourses” in which the seer “draws conclusions for his readers, offering them to his community, or his disciples or sins”; (4) Pseudonymity because “later Israelite and early Christian apocalyptic writers do not reveal their names or the period in which they are writing, but hide behind a man of God belonging to the past”; (5) “The language takes on a concealed meaning by means of mythical images rich in symbolism”; and (6) a “composite character” (24–26).

Koch explains an apocalypse by the use of: (1) “An urgent expectation of the impending overthrow of all earthly conditions in the immediate future”; (2) “A cosmic catastrophe”; (3) “fixed segments” to divide the time of the world, in which the end-time is closely connected with the previous history of mankind and of the cosmos”; (4) the use of “an army of angels and demons to explain historical events and the events of the end-time”; (5) “A new salvation”; (6) a “transition from disaster to final redemption by an act from the throne of God”; (7) a “mediator with royal functions is introduced to accomplish and guarantee final redemption”; and (8) use of the “catchword glory” (28–32).

Apocalypses share stereotypical constructions, expressions, and motifs. In the book of Revelation, John participates in a “mystical tradition, a convention of images, themes, styles and literary forms, that shape in part his psychological experiences, social perceptions, religious insights, and literary expressions” (Thompson 18).

Through the use of metaphor and symbolic language, the seer reports his dream visions and narratives of eschatological judgment and salvation. In an ecstatic state, the apocalyptist may experience otherworldly journeys, transported both spatially and temporally. Apocalypses disclose secrets about the end of the world and the heavens, and provide insight into ancient geography, astronomy, cosmogony, and primordial history. Farewell discourse, doxologies, prayers, exhortations, and hymns may also be found.

Social Settings of Apocalypses

Social settings are the “when, where, by whom, and for whom most apocalypses were written.” The text of an apocalypse provides the information about the social settings, for it is a window into the author’s world (Thompson 25). Apocalypses are a literature of crisis, which rose from a situation of crisis, which includes persecution. They diverted the attention from the present crisis to the eschatological future. They may be used in different ways in different social settings.

Scholars generally understand apocalypses as a “function of the social setting.” However, some scholars remove all connections with their social situation. “Perceived crisis” is a compromise of both positions that maintains the connection between apocalypses to social crisis. The seer’s perspective and perceptions do not have to be tied to a social-historical situation. He explains a situation through his “angle of vision,” with which the reader and hearer of his apocalypse sees what he sees from his “vantage point of transcendent reality” (Thompson 27–28). The social situation varies with the apocalypse. The book of Daniel arose out of the Maccabean revolt, but 1 Enoch is not considered to belong to political turmoil.

There is no one specific historical setting out of which the genre of apocalypse developed. Apocalypses change and shape how readers view their social situation. A reader draws upon those social conventions in order to understand the message of the book. The speaker and hearer share beliefs and knowledge about the world.

Apocalyptic Literature and Today

The church has failed to appreciate apocalyptic literature. The apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation are often ignored. Instead, the interpretation of these books has been left to popular televangelist and personalities. Popular interpretations are misguided and fail to take into account the historical and social context out of which these books emerge. These books were designed to offer hope to God’s people who were in a situation of crisis, facing persecution and martyrdom. These popular interpretations disregard the nature and puporse of the genre of apocalypsis (Reddish 35).

Apocalyptic literature still remains relevant for today because it can continue to speak words of hope to God’s people and to suffering and dying world. Apocalypses are also literature of protest against oppressive religious, political, social, and economic institutions and systems. It is our job to handle this literature responsibly and articulate it’s message of hope and protest in a world that so desperately needs it.

Works cited

Hultgard, Anders. “The Roots of Apocalypticism in Near Eastern Myth.”

The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Cancik, Hubert. “The End of the World, of History, and of the Individual in Greek and Roman Antiquity.” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Clifford, Richard J. “The Roots of Apocalypticism in Near Eastern Myth.” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Collins, John J. Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre. SBL Semeia 14 (1979).

—. “From Prophecy to Apocalypticism: The Expectation of the End.” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.
Ed. John J. Collins. New York: Continuum, 2002.

—. The Apocalyptic Imagination, An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

—. “Apocalypse and Apocalypticism.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: 
DoubleDay, 1992.

—. “The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity.” The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. “Apocalypse and Apocalypticism: Early Christian.” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 Vols. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: DoubleDay, 1992.

Koch, Klaus. The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic. London: SCM Press, 1972.

Reddish, Mitchell G. Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader. Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1990.

Rowley, H. H. The Relevance of Apocalypse: A Study of Jewish and Christian Apocalypses from Daniel to the Revelation. Greenwood: Attic Press, 1944.

Russell, D. S. The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964.

Thompson, Leonard L. The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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