Introduction to Old Testament Apocalyptic Literature
The term apocalyptic is used in modern biblical studies to refer to a type of discourse that describes, usually in highly figurative terms, a sudden divine intervention in human history for the accomplishment of either salvific or judgmental purposes. Apocalyptic motifs played an important role in Second Temple Jewish theology; by the second century BC, apocalyptic writings abound in extrabiblical Jewish literature. Apocalyptic theology became an important part of early Christian discourse as well. Such early Jewish and Christian writings constitute a distinct literary mode for communicating ideas about God’s supposed relationship to this world and the implementation of his plans for it.
Of the many genres of biblical literature, apocalyptic is perhaps the most challenging to understand, due in part to its frequent use of figurative language and its adoption of strange and even bizarre imagery. Compared to relatively straightforward narrative texts of biblical literature, apocalyptic literature has an unfamiliar feel for many readers. Some regard it as written in a code language whose decipherment and interpretation are anything but obvious, leading to reader confusion and disorientation.
Use of the apocalyptic genre is somewhat limited in the Old Testament. The only full-blown example occurs in the second half of the book of Daniel (chapters 7–12), although certain other portions of the Old Testament contain smaller sections of similar material (e.g., Isa 24–27; Joel; Zech). In the New Testament, the only complete apocalypse is the book of Revelation, which actually labels itself as an “apocalypse” (Rev 1:1; Greek, apokalypsis). Outside the parameters of the biblical canon, apocalyptic literature flourished and exercised considerable influence on early Jewish and Christian communities.
Definition of Terms
Some words commonly used in modern theological discourse are slippery; it is difficult to say what exactly we mean by them. The term apocalypse is such a word. Its etymology (Greek, apoi from + kalupto, to cover) suggests an unveiling or revelation of some sort. But in what sense does this “unveiling” describe a literary composition? In the interests of clarity, the following definition of the term apocalypse by John J. Collins offers a helpful starting point:
Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature, 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.1
A later addendum to this definition clarifies the purpose of an apocalypse:
[An apocalypse is] intended to interpret present, earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world and of the future, and to influence both the understanding and the behavior of the audience by means of divine authority.2
Several related terms frequently appearing in discussions of the apocalypse require clarification as well. It is important to disambiguate the following terms: apocalypticism; apocalyptic literature; apocalyptic eschatology; proto-apocalyptic.
- Apocalypticism refers to certain ideas and beliefs making up a distinctive worldview; such views may or may not find written expression in an apocalypse. In other words, apocalypticism is the worldview or system of thought that underlies an apocalypse. When expressed in written form, this worldview yields an apocalypse.
- Apocalyptic literature is a rather broad category that includes various forms of literature that may have features in common with the apocalypse without necessarily rising to the level of being an apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature is thus a category that includes not only the apocalypse but also other genres of literature that may embed within them apocalyptic motifs.
- Apocalyptic eschatology is a type of eschatological discourse that makes pervasive use of symbolic language to describe sudden divine intervention into human affairs in order to bring about salvific deliverance for the righteous and/or sudden judgment for the wicked.
- Proto-apocalyptic is an emerging form of apocalyptic motifs that have not yet reached the stage of development typically found in full-blown apocalypses. Proto-apocalyptic is thus a nascent or germ-form of apocalyptic emphasis; it has certain features in common with the apocalypse without warranting classification as an apocalypse. Although there is only one apocalypse in the Old Testament (i.e., the book of Daniel), many Old Testament passages contain apocalyptic elements. These passages fall under the rubric of proto-apocalyptic.
Origins and Antecedents of the Apocalyptic Genre
In most Old Testament literature, we find only occasional hints of apocalyptic motifs. Not until the book of Daniel do we find a fully developed apocalypse, exhibiting traits similar to those found in extrabiblical apocalypses. By the second century BC, a strong emphasis on apocalyptic writing had emerged in Jewish extrabiblical literature. This interest in apocalyptic ideas was also present in the Qumran community. Portions of the book of Enoch were discovered at Qumran, and several of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain apocalyptic elements (e.g., Community Rule; War Scroll; New Jerusalem). Scholars puzzle over this striking transition and wonder what circumstances led to the proliferation of apocalyptic texts during the Second Temple period. Where exactly are we to locate the antecedents of apocalyptic literature? What are its roots, and what factors contributed to its popularity? Scholars have posed various answers to these questions, not all of which are mutually exclusive.
Some researchers suggest that certain ideas found in Canaanite mythology of the second millennium BC may have morphed into motifs that we find in later Jewish apocalyptic literature. These ideas include ancient creation myths, prophecies given after the fact, dream visions, and representation of cosmic enemies by dreadful creatures. Such motifs appear in early Canaanite mythology. According to some scholars, they provided a stimulus for similar ideas that appear in later apocalyptic texts.
Others have suggested that certain elements found in Akkadian prophecy of the first millennium BC may have contributed to the eventual rise of an apocalyptic emphasis. These elements include pseudonymity, a deterministic view of history, and use of ex eventu prophecy. Perhaps such motifs found in east Semitic literature (i.e., Akkadian) had an impact on west Semitic literature (i.e., Hebrew and Aramaic).
Still others point to traditions found in early Mesopotamian and/or Egyptian literature as setting the stage for later development of apocalyptic themes. These traditions include visionary narratives, emphasis on dualistic portrayals of reality, and use of prophecy. Since the biblical world was frequently in contact with Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, it would not be surprising to find evidences of this contact in literary contexts.
A few scholars have looked in the direction of wisdom literature for the antecedents of apocalyptic ideas. Included here are themes such as divine sovereignty and the role of the sage in interpreting the meaning and complexities of life. Such parallels raise the possibility of cause and effect with regard to the antecedents of apocalyptic literature.
Other possibilities for locating the origins of apocalypticism include themes traceable to theology related to the Jerusalem temple, or the influence of Hellenistic syncretism, or possible borrowings from Persian religion, or responses rooted in resistance to imperial rule or empire. Each of these options has found advocates in modern scholarship.
While none of these possibilities can be summarily dismissed, the major source for Jewish apocalyptic literature should probably be located in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. Certain theological ideas found in germ form in the Old Testament prophets likely were later adapted and expanded to create a new and distinct genre, namely that of Jewish apocalyptic literature. In addition to the influence of prophetic motifs on later apocalyptic literature, some of the other antecedents mentioned here may have played a secondary role in the rise of apocalyptic literature.
In addition to the book of Daniel, there are a number of Jewish apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple period. The following works are representative of this developing interest in apocalyptic themes:
- Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36)
- Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71)
- Astronomical Book, or Book of Heavenly Luminaries (1 Enoch 72–82)
- Animal Apocalypse (1 Enoch 85–90)
- Apocalypse of Weeks (1 Enoch 93:1–10; 91:11–17)
- Second Enoch
- Book of Jubilees
- Fourth Ezra (2 Esdras 3–14)
- Second Baruch
- Apocalypse of Abraham
- Testament of Levi
- Testament of Abraham
- Apocalypse of Zephaniah
- Testament of Moses
All these works played a significant role in Jewish thinking of this period.
There are certain literary features that are common in apocalyptic texts. While not all of these features appear in every apocalyptic text, and while the presence of one or more of these features by itself does not necessarily indicate that a given text belongs to the apocalyptic genre, these features are commonly associated with apocalyptic literature. The stronger their presence, the more likely is the conclusion that their presence is the result of an apocalyptic emphasis.
- Literary expression: As noted earlier in the discussion of terms, an apocalypse belongs to a genre of literature. Unlike much of early rabbinic tradition, which depended on oral recitation, apocalyptic thinkers in early Judaism were for the most part writers. They produced literary documents. Their preferred medium of communication was literary and not just oral.
- Revelatory content: Apocalyptic literature is revelatory in nature. Part of its appeal in antiquity lay in the belief that readers gained insight into divine revelation. Recipients believed that the message of these writings rose above anything resulting from innate human insight. The apocalyptic writer claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, that he was communicating a divine message, one delivered to him through the intermediate agency of an otherworldly being.
- Dreams and visions: In apocalyptic literature, the preferred mode of divine revelation to a human recipient was that of dreams and visions. Often the apocalyptic writer describes receiving encoded information about the future through a dream or while in a trance-like state. While in this passive state, he “saw” events pertaining to the future and later recorded them for posterity.
- Pseudonymous authorship: Many extrabiblical apocalyptic writings make use of pseudonymity. By use of this literary device, the writer concealed his own identity, choosing instead to attribute authorship to a famous hero of the past, such as Enoch, Abraham, or Levi. In this way, apocalyptic writers hoped to secure greater authority for their writings and gain wider acceptance for their ideas.
- Hiddenness and secrecy: Apocalyptic writings tend to be opaque and mysterious rather than direct and immediately clear in their communication techniques. These texts were written for an audience that was already part of the apocalyptic mindset; this implied audience was inside the movement rather than outside it. It was accustomed to hiddenness and secrecy in its literature. Those outside the apocalyptic community would no doubt find this form of communication unintelligible and confusing.
- Pervasive symbolism: Apocalyptic literature tends toward frequent use of figurative language; it prefers symbolic descriptions of the realities it describes. It presents theology not in the form of propositional truths, but in symbolic terms that appealed to religious imagination. In some cases, these descriptions border on the bizarre and grotesque. They may portray strange monsters for which there is in nature no corresponding reality. To the uninitiated reader, such descriptions made little or no sense. For those who had interpretive keys to unlock the meaning of such texts, however, this pervasive symbolism was an effective literary technique.
Certain themes appear frequently in apocalyptic texts. While not all of these themes necessarily appear in any single apocalypse, apocalyptic writings as a whole typically exhibit these motifs.
- Developed angelology: While the activity of angels figures prominently in some Old Testament narratives (e.g., Zech), angelology generally plays a limited role in Old Testament theology. The Old Testament mentions only two angels by name: Michael (Dan 10:13, 21; 12:1) and Gabriel (Dan 8:16; 9:21). Many extrabiblical apocalyptic texts, on the other hand, reflect a highly developed angelology. Apocalyptic writers were not hesitant to go far beyond the Old Testament in describing alleged angelic activities. This is especially the case in the book of Enoch, which names dozens of angels and describes their activities in considerable detail (e.g., 1 Enoch 6:1–8; 8:1–4).
- Ethical Dualism: Apocalyptic writers expressed a dualistic view of the world, believing that the complexities of human society were reducible to a struggle between polar opposites: good versus evil, light versus darkness, the righteous versus the unrighteous. In the battle against evil, good would eventually prevail. This victory, however, would come about only through divine intervention—not through human strength, ingenuity, or timing. The oppressed righteous community could live in anticipation of a promised reversal of fortunes. To some extent, such themes are part of a metanarrative that characterizes Old Testament literature. Extrabiblical apocalyptic writers echo a similar dualistic understanding of the world (e.g., 1 Baruch 56:2; 54:21–22).
- Deterministic outlook: While the Old Testament stresses ideas of divine sovereignty and control of human history, it does so with some restraint. The most obvious deterministic scheme in the Old Testament is Daniel’s seventy weeks (Dan 9:24–27), which divides a portion of history into three segments that together total seventy weeks of years. The four-kingdom scheme of Daniel 2 and 7 also portrays a deterministic view of history. Many apocalyptic texts elaborate an even more detailed deterministic outlook, adopting a scheme of periodization of history somewhat different from that found in the book of Daniel. In the Apocalypse of Weeks, for example, a scheme of ten successive weeks characterizes this periodization (e.g., 1 Enoch 93:3–10; 91:11–17). In the Apocalypse of Abraham, there are four ascents of time, an hour of the age, twelve periods of the ungodly age, and a period of twelve hours on the earth (Apoc. Ab. 28:4–29:2; 30:2). In 4 Ezra, history is said to be circumscribed by twelve divisions (4 Ezra 14:11–12). 2 Baruch also divides the future into twelve periods of time (2 Baruch 27:1–15). 2 Enoch adopts the creative week of Genesis 1 as a template, maintaining that history will continue for six 1,000-year “days” (cf. Ps 90:4), after which there will be a seventh thousand-year day of rest (2 Enoch 33:1–2). All these views take for granted that God has predetermined the flow of history and that the outworking of history is characterized by specific numerical patterns.
- Imminent crisis: Some apocalyptic writers viewed themselves as living in a time of imminent crisis. They held firmly to the notion that in the struggle of good against evil God would eventually intervene, vindicating the suffering righteous community and bringing judgment against those who oppressed them. For some, this divine intervention was imminent; it would occur sooner rather than later. Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, and Malachi, touch on similar themes. 4 Ezra, an extrabiblical apocalyptic text, calls attention to unparalleled cosmic signs and terrestrial events that would signify these dreadful days (4 Ezra 5:4–5). Apocalyptic writers intended this message of imminent crisis and divine intervention to bring encouragement to those who otherwise had no reason to expect a positive outcome to their dire predicaments.
- A faithful remnant: Remnant theology is a part of the Old Testament prophetic message. The book of Daniel especially calls attention to a group who are said to be “wise” (e.g., Dan 11:33–35; 12:3). Their wisdom is evidenced by their faithful obedience to God in the face of enormous adversity and opposition. Although they may “stumble” for a time, they will in the end “be refined, purified, and made spotless” (Dan 11:35). Extrabiblical apocalyptic texts also express the notion of a faithful remnant and invite readers to become participants in this remnant (e.g., 4 Ezra 6:25; 2 Baruch 52:6–7).
- Divine judgment: Apocalyptic literature implicitly addresses the question of theodicy: Why does God allow suffering and evil in the world, and why do suffering and evil so often affect the righteous more so than the ungodly? Apocalyptic writers find resolution to these perplexing questions in a theology of divine judgment. Although suffering and evil may prevail in this life, God, who is the judge of all, will eventually set all things right. This emphasis appears in the Old Testament prophets; the court scene of Daniel 7:9–10 provides an example. Divine judgment as the final resolution to the problem of evil is a theme of extrabiblical apocalyptic texts as well (e.g., 4 Ezra 6:18–20; 7:33–36, 79–80; 1 Enoch 38:1–2; 47:3).
- Eschatological hope: Although apocalyptic writers often focused on the difficulties experienced by the righteous, they did not lose sight of the eventual resolution of the problems of this life. Those who were enduring the sorrows of life could take hope in the coming eschaton in which things would be set right. Daniel, for example, spoke of a resurrection of “some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2–3). This hope for the future translated into encouragement for the present life. In a similar way, extrabiblical apocalyptic writers spoke of a time when evil would be removed and righteousness would flourish (e.g., 4 Ezra 6:27–28; 7:17–18; 2 Baruch 25:1–40; 1 Enoch 91:17).
The apocalyptic genre, whether in biblical or extrabiblical writings, is a distinctive form of literature. Its approach to theology is less cerebral and more imaginative than that of texts more propositional or straightforward in approach. For many readers, apocalyptic literature has an unfamiliar feel; for some readers, its interpretive difficulties are too taxing to foster appreciation. Partly because of its abundant use of symbolism and figurative language, many readers simply avoid it. Though perhaps understandable, this attitude is not justified. Apocalyptic literature is a rich fount for theology; it depicts eschatological scenes in new and fresh ways. The influence of apocalyptic literature on the history of Jewish and Christian theological understanding has been significant. Whether or not we fully agree with the claim that apocalyptic “was the mother of all Christian theology,”3 apocalyptic literature is clearly an important resource for modern biblical research.
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Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Anchor Bible Reference Library. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.
Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.
Collins, John J. Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. George Brooke. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Collins, John J., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Cook, Stephen L. The Apocalyptic Literature. Interpreting Biblical Texts, ed. Gene M. Tucker. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.
Rowland, Christopher. The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
Russell, D. S. The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 200 BC–AD 100. Old Testament Library, ed. Peter Ackroyd, James Barr, Bernhard W. Anderson, and James L. Mays. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964.
Sacchi, Paolo. Jewish Apocalyptic and Its History. Translated by William J. Short. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement Series 20. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Taylor, Richard A. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook. Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis, ed. David M. Howard Jr. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.