Understanding Biblical Genres: Apocalyptic

The other day, we looked at how the genre of Biblical literature called Prophecy worked; we saw how the prophets weren’t so much predicting the future as they were providing commentary on current events and policy. Today I’d like to look at a related, but perhaps even more misunderstood genre: Apocalyptic. This is a particularly challenging genre to understand, and its misunderstanding has proven to be particularly dangerous over the centuries.

First, what is Apocalyptic? Apocalyptic is a literary genre that emerged out of the prophetic genre either during the Exile or early in the Second Temple period. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning ‘unveiling’, and therefore ‘revelation,’ and the name is fitting, since Apocalyptic is about unmasking or revealing truths that are hidden in day-to-day reality, generally by means of visions or dreams. It envisions current events, particularly frightening ones, as immediate expressions of the battle between good and evil, as a means of resistance and hope for oppressed people. The consistent message of Apocalyptic is: Things are awful now and may get worse, but God is in control and will vindicate the faithful. Apocalyptic therefore has an interesting relationship with history; on the one hand, it is rooted in the circumstances in which it was written and is most helpfully understood in that context, but on the other hand, those circumstances are discussed in such an abstract and symbolic way (and often in the future tense!) and the message is so consistent, that it becomes universal and ahistorical. It is through this understanding of current events as revelatory of God’s universal and ultimate purposes that Apocalyptic has received its connotations of being about ‘the end times’.

It’s impossible to determine where exactly Apocalyptic came from, but it seems safe to say that at least three factors contributed to its development: the continued foreign domination of the people of God and their homeland, the gap between the vision of the Prophetic oracles and lived reality, and the exposure to Zoroastrianism, the faith of the Persian Empire, which features a strong opposition between good and evil and a complex cosmology involving heaven and hell and ranks of angels and demons.

While by far the most important and influential piece of apocalyptic writing in the Bible is the book of Revelation (its Greek name rendered into English is in fact ‘Apocalypse’), there are other apocalyptic texts, particularly parts of Daniel and the Gospels, with some proto-Apocalyptic in prophets like Joel and Isaiah. But what one might not know is that there are substantial amounts of apocalyptic literature outside the Bible; in fact, it was the most popular and influential genre of Jewish spiritual writing during the over four centuries known as the Second Temple period. So, far from representing a strange and niche book at the end of our Bibles, Apocalyptic was a very big deal for a very long time. The apocalyptic sections of the Bible are therefore small parts of a much bigger puzzle.

Some of the major features of Apocalyptic as a literary genre include:

  • Visions as a literary framing device
  • Exploitation of ‘gaps’ in the biblical witness (e.g., God’s ‘taking’ of Enoch and Elijah, Melchizedek’s lack of genealogy, the disappointing in-time fulfillment of the oracles in Isaiah about the coming king and glorious return of the people to the land)
  • Angelic mediation
  • Descriptions of heavenly mysteries
  • Coded language (especially numerology and animal symbolism)
  • Heightened symbolic language
  • Dualism between good and evil, with good winning in the end
  • Extreme pessimism about the world, which is more to be endured than to be contributed to
  • Conflation of past, present, and future time
  • God’s action understood in terms of a decisive moment that ends or redefines time, rather than unfolding within time

We can see a lot of these features in Revelation 1. It starts:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (1.1-2)

Already in these two verses we have the identified as an Apocalypse, framed as a vision sent through an angelic mediator. Jumping down to verse 9, it reads:

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’ Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. (1.9-16)

Here we have apocalyptic features such as an identification with persecution and suffering and exhortation to endurance, explored using heightened imagery (voice like a trumpet, golden lampstands, flaming eyes, holding stars, a sword in his mouth, etc.), and numerology (seven churches, seven lampstands, seven stars). There is also a hint at the conflation of present and future time, since he refers to “what must soon take place,” but what follows in the addresses to the seven churches is clearly about their present circumstances.

Let’s compare this to the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, a pseudepigraphical text that is generally dated to Egypt in and around the time of Jesus. A fragment found in the writing of Clement of Alexandria begins:

And a spirit took me and brought me up to the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called ‘lords,’ and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more [brilliant] than the light of the rising sun. (Fragment A, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 1).

Again we have a vision that reveals cosmic mysteries and angelic mediators, using heightened language and symbolic numbers. To give a further hint of what the text is like, chapter 6 begins:

Again I turned back and walked, and I saw a great sea. … I discovered that it was entirely a sea of flame like a slime which casts forth much flame and whose waves burn sulfur and bitumen. … That same instant I stood up and I saw a great angel before me. His hair was spread out like the lionesses’. His teeth were outside his mouth like a bear. His hair was spread out like a women’s. His body was like a serpent’s when he wished to swallow me.

The point of this is just to get a picture of the broader literary world into which the apocalyptic writings of the Bible fit. The Book of Revelation is not a one-off thing, nor is it really all that remarkable in comparison to other apocalyptic texts, in content or in themes.

All of this puts the apocalyptic portions of the Bible in a new light. Reading them within the broader context of what Apocalyptic is and does shifts them away from being predictions of a terrifying, fiery future, towards being symbolic reinterpretations of events (contemporary to the writing, but in the past for us), which resonate archetypically into the present and future. This is to say, the book of Revelation was not intended to be a step-by-step guide to the second coming of Christ. (As a reminder, Jesus himself said not to be concerned about the whens and hows of his return, so it would be very strange for the Bible to contain a puzzle book intended for just this purpose!) Rather, it was a message to the seven churches of Asia Minor somewhere around the turn of the second century, urging them to persevere in a time of persecution, and to understand their experience as part of Christ’s ultimate victory over the powers of evil. That message remains valuable for any community experiencing persecution or danger from war, disease, famine, or what-have-you.

Such an understanding of Apocalyptic also takes the pressure off some long-time scholarly debates about the role of Apocalyptic in the rest of the New Testament. Both the Gospels and Epistles are full of apocalyptic language and feeling, without being ‘Apocalyptic’ in and of themselves. These texts come by their typically apocalyptic contrasts between the Kingdom of God and the kings “of this world,” and warnings about God coming decisively in judgement honestly. And, since the resurrection of the dead was an important apocalyptic symbol for God’s ultimate victory, it makes sense that the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus would be understood through that lens. Beyond being a literary genre, Apocalyptic was a way of looking at the world and spirituality that pervaded the religious world the first Christians inhabited.

Apocalyptic provided a powerful mechanism into which the faithful could channel their fears and anxieties and remain strong in the face of oppression and violence. But it is also true that its pessimistic view of the world and insistence that current events are revelatory of a cosmic battle coming to a head have born a lot of very bad fruit in the world when its symbols cease to be interpreted symbolically. Having given up on the world, apocalyptic groups believe they have nothing to lose and act accordingly, with disastrous results. The communities that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a particularly vivid example of this; they were convinced that they were preparing for the ultimate good-vs-evil show-down with the Romans, and this misguided trust caused them to be annihilated. The same could be said for apocalyptic sects across religions throughout time, down to the Branch Davidian disaster of the 1990s, or the militant jihadism of groups like Da’esh today. Such misuse of apocalyptic language leads to annihilation when such groups lose and to reigns of terror when they win. This makes the apocalyptic obsession of certain Christian groups all the more troubling — especially when they are in halls of power making law. (I’m reminded of how Jürgen Moltmann was appalled to see his Theology of Hope, written from within a context of the social, political, financial, and literal ruin of Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, being appropriated by those whom the War had left victorious, powerful, and enriched. A tool of resistance for the powerless or hopeless is a dangerous things in the hands of the powerful.)

The dangers of Apocalyptic are why it was largely excised from Judaism following the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE. Where it wasn’t eliminated, it was put to use in intentionally symbolic ways in the Jewish mystical traditions. Apocalyptic fared a bit better in early Christianity, but even here, the only explicitly Christian Apocalypse to make it into the canon of the New Testament (of the many that were circulating in the early Church) is Revelation, and even that was the last book around which any consensus was reached, and it was still kept at a bit of a distance and always considered to be controversial. Compared to other New Testament books, the Church Fathers wrote very little about it and Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is not read in the lectionary of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. This is where, yet again, allowing Scripture to function in different ways is really helpful. Traditional Christian understandings of the Bible allow for Revelation to be considered Sacred Scripture, but peripherally — just as in Jewish traditions, the Writings don’t have the same authority as the Torah. The flatted understanding of authority in much of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist worlds prohibits this and means that the vision in Revelation 20 of the dragon chained in a pit for a thousand years, rather than being symbolic, is just as authoritative, and in exactly the same way, as the Beatitudes or Passion narratives.

So what can we say in the end about Apocalyptic? It was a tool of oppressed communities to resist oppression and persevere in the midst of persecution; as such, it remains archetypically present and true in every day and age. It stands as a witness to the conviction of the faithful that God is bigger than whatever the world can throw at them and that, ultimately, good will win. Allowed to function in this way, Apocalyptic continues to reveal hard truths about our world and what we are up against. But, it also reminds us that still today, God and goodness will win. At the same time, its dualistic worldview also makes it susceptible to dangerous abuse, so we need to be careful to interpret its language symbolically (as intended) and subordinate it to the good, loving, and holistic Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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