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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The End of Prophecy and the Rise of Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic literature is often viewed as the form in which visionary activity continued after the cessation of prophecy. But in fact prophecy never ceased. Although the last biblical prophets known to us by name were active around the time of the rebuilding of the temple at the end of the sixth century B.C.E., modern scholarship tells us that the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible preserve under the names of earlier prophets the words of anonymous prophets who lived a century or two later. Prophets continue to appear in Jewish history to the turn of the era and beyond, but the behavior that characterizes people accepted as prophets is quite different from that of the classical prophets. Many of the later prophets claimed the title through the signs and wonders they performed, but some, like John the Baptist, engaged in preaching that places them in a certain continuity with the classical prophets. Still, there is considerable evidence that ancient Jews and Christians distinguished between the biblical type of prophecy, which they understood to have come to an end around the time of the rebuilding of the temple, and the prophecy of the period of the second temple, which did not attain the same exalted level.

A belief in the cessation of prophecy is often invoked to explain the pseudepigraphy, or false attributions, of the apocalypses. Because prophecy was understood to have come to an end, the argument goes, visions could no longer be presented in the author's own name, but instead had to be attached to the name of some ancient hero who lived before the end of prophecy. The willingness of John of Patmos, the seer of the Book of Revelation, and Hermas, the visionary of the Shepherd of Hermas, to use their own names reflects the Christian belief that the new age inaugurated by the appearance of Christ meant the restoration of prophecy, as promised by the biblical prophets themselves. There is considerable evidence for prophetic activity among early Christians, although of a form rather different from the prophecy of the Hebrew Bible or of the apocalypses.

For all the interest in apocalyptic literature in recent years, pseudepigraphy remains a poorly understood phenomenon. We have just seen that the assumption of this argument, that prophecy ceased, is problematic, but it is not entirely without value. The belief in the cessation of the old kind of prophecy in the second temple period may have been a contributing factor, but it is certainly not a complete explanation. Another suggestion that has some merit is that pseudepigraphy was intended to lend authority to visions by allowing the author to present a quite accurate account of the past as prophecy. In the Book of Daniel, for example, the author, who wrote in the middle of the second century B.C.E., allows his hero, a seer in the court of the king of Babylonia, to see visions “predicting” the course of events from the fall of Babylonia to the author's own time. These relatively accurate “prophecies” promote the author's view that the course of history has been determined in advance and lend authority to the portions of the visions that are genuinely predictive.

But this motive for pseudepigraphy cannot serve for those apocalypses with little interest in the course of history. Given how little we know about how the apocalypses were understood by those who read them or heard them read, we may never come to a fully satisfying explanation of pseudepigraphy. Further, in light of their great diversity of content and historical context, it is unlikely that any single explanation will prove convincing for all the apocalypses. But any explanation must take into account the role of narrative in the apocalypses and thus the significance of the choice of pseudepigraphic hero. For unlike most of the oracles of the biblical prophets, the revelatory visions and ascents of the apocalypses appear in the context of narratives.

The stories, which are usually told in the first person, can be crucial to the understanding of the revelation. In light of the narrative of Abraham's rejection of idolatry that forms the first section of the Apocalypse of Abraham, for example, certain themes of the vision God shows Abraham after his ascent stand out more clearly. The seer is often chosen for the perspective his career offers on the issues with which the apocalypse is concerned. Thus several of the apocalypses concerned with the destruction of the second temple take as their hero Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied and experienced the destruction of the first temple, or Ezra, the leader of the community of the Jews who returned from exile in the Persian period. Both choices implicitly equate the disaster of the author's time, the destruction of the second temple, with the destruction of the first temple, and thus suggest the expectation of a happy ending, the establishment of a new temple and the return of the Jews to their land, as occurred after the destruction of the first temple.

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