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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Apocalyptic.

1.

Apocalyptic forms a vital part of the literary legacy of Second Temple Judaism. It was the genre that most directly challenged the closing of the canon by appealing to new, direct, divine revelation. The apocalyptic texts, and the circles that produced them, indelibly stamped their mark not only on Judaism, but, through their influence on Christianity, profoundly affected Western thought as well. The term ‘apocalyptic’ is modern: it was coined by Christian scholars to designate a collection of texts that resemble the Apocalypse of John (or book of Revelation) in the NT. Works so designated included Daniel (which found its way into the canon of Scripture), 1 and 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra (2 Esdras), and 2 Apoc. Bar. The term ‘apocalyptic’ is doubly useful: not only does it help broadly to define a genre of literature by using the book of Revelation as a yardstick, but it also highlights a fundamental characteristic of that literature: ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning ‘revelation’, ‘the disclosure of what is hidden’. The apocalypses above all claim to reveal secrets.

2.

The secrets which they disclose are varied, but they fall under three general heads: (1) Theosophy: apocalyptic explores the mysteries of the deity, or more generally, of the heavenly world. It contains vivid, symbolic descriptions of God's throne, his celestial palace, and his retinue of angels. These descriptions provide the setting for the main revelations that the apocalypse conveys. The fact that these are received before the celestial throne of glory gives them solemnity and guarantees their authenticity. (2) Cosmology: apocalyptic is also, in some texts more than in others, concerned with the mysteries of the cosmos, particularly with its basic structure—the seven heavens, the location of the places of reward and punishment for souls after death, the heavenly storehouses in which the natural phenomena are kept, and the motions of the heavenly bodies. This material also tends to be subordinate to the primary concerns of the apocalyptist. Thus it is often incidentally, in the course of his ascent to heaven (whether in the body or in trance), that the hero of the apocalypse discovers the structure of the world. There are, however, cosmological traditions of a more disinterested, scientific character in some apocalypses, notably in 1 Enoch (see ANTH D.5). (3) Eschatology: both theosophy and cosmology are, however, on the whole secondary to apocalyptic's main concern—eschatology, the mysteries of the future. The apocalyptists believed that the present world order will culminate in the coming of the Messiah and in the establishment of the kingdom of God. They tried to discover how and when this would happen. They searched for a pattern or rhythm in history that would enable them to tell when the messianic age would dawn. They were also deeply interested in the fate of souls immediately after death, and in the ultimate destiny of the soul after the last judgement.

3.

The style of apocalyptic is highly distinctive. The texts are full of fantastic and arresting images—strange beasts, surreal landscapes, portents, prodigies, and wonders. They have at times a nightmarish quality, and, indeed, are often presented as dream- or trance-visions. They represent the re-emergence within Judaism of a mythological mode of discourse (with links to Canaanite and Near-Eastern mythology) which had been suppressed in earlier times. The apocalyptists frequently interpret their visions for us, and from these interpretations it becomes clear that the fantasy is under tight control. The visions are elaborate allegories: the imagery has symbolic meaning and its details are worked out with great precision and care.

4.

There is no standard apocalyptic literary form: the apocalypses combine the basic apocalyptic motifs in a bewildering variety of ways, and apocalyptic material can frequently be found in texts belonging basically to other literary genres such as Bible commentary, wisdom, and liturgy. 2 Enoch, however, will serve to illustrate one pattern, which is particularly common in later texts. 2 Enoch, which now survives in its entirety only in old Slavonic, was popular in the Slavonic church and was reworked several times by medieval editors. There are now two major Slavonic versions of it (the long Recension A and the short Recension B). Its textual history is very complicated, but there is general agreement that in some form or other the Slavonic versions go back to a Jewish apocalypse composed originally in Greek, probably in Alexandria, in the first century CE. (Text: (Vaillant 1952 ); tr.: Forbes, APOT ii. 425–69; Pennington, in Sparks (1984: 321–62); Andersen, OTP i. 91–222; commentary: Charles and Morfill (1896 ).)

5.

The work, which manifestly builds on the traditions of 1 Enoch (on which see MAJ GEN A.7), falls into six sections. The first of these (chs. 1–2 ) sets the scene: Enoch is awakened from sleep by two glorious angels who tell him that God has sent them to escort him up to heaven. The second section (chs. 3–21 ) describe in some detail Enoch's ascent through the seven heavens (so Recension B), or the ten heavens (so Recension A). It tells us what he saw in each heaven: the subjects are partly cosmological, partly concerned with the fate of souls after death and with the angelic hierarchies. The third section (ch. 22 ) contains the climax of the ascent. Enoch sees God's glorious throne and apparently undergoes physical transformation into an angel (ANTH C.1). The next section (chs. 23–38 ) records the revelations that Enoch received before God's throne. God commands an archangel to bring the books from the celestial archive and to instruct Enoch in certain mysteries. The secrets imparted to him are largely cosmological and are presented in the form of a loose commentary on the work of the six days of creation in Gen 1 . In section five (chs. 39–66 ) Enoch returns to earth to impart the knowledge he has been given to his sons. The content is once again cosmological, but it passes over into ethical admonition. The last section (ch. 67 + ch. 68 , Recension A) forms an appendix to the work and tells of the final translation of Enoch. Enoch is carried by the angels to heaven and set before God's face ‘for ever’ (Recension B). 2 Enoch exhibits one of the basic patterns of apocalyptic literature, which contains five elements: (1) trance/dream: (2) ascent to heaven; (3) vision of God's throne and glory; (4) revelation of mysteries; (5) descent to earth and communication of these mysteries. In 2 Enoch, as we have indicated, the secrets disclosed are mainly cosmological, but they could equally, and indeed more typically, have been eschatological—a vision of the course of history up to the messianic age, or of the fate of souls, or both.

6.

Apocalyptic appears to have flourished in early Judaism at two distinct periods. The first of these coincided roughly with the Hellenistic crisis (c.180–150 BCE). It is to this period that Daniel and parts of the apocalyptic material in 1 Enoch and in the Book of Jubilees belong. The second period covers the first few decades after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. It is to this period that the book of Revelation belongs, as well as (probably) the important apocalypses known as 4 Ezra and 2 Apoc. Bar. (ANTH C.6, 9). 4 Ezra is the name commonly given to an apocalypse found in Latin Vulgate Bibles either under the title 4 Esdras (the Gk. form of Ezra), or as chs. 3–14 of 2 Esdras (see 2 ESD). 2 Apoc. Bar. is now extant in a single Syriac manuscript dating from the sixth century CE, but it is widely recognized that it too goes back to a Jewish apocalypse written in Greek probably around 95 CE. (Syriac text: Dedering (1973: 1–50); Gk: Denis (1970: 118–20); trs.: Charles, APOT ii. 470–526, rev. Brockington, in Sparks (1984: 835–97); Klijn, OTP i. 615–52; commentaries: Charles (1896 ); Bogaert (1969 ).) It has close affinities in language and ideas to 4 Ezra.

7.

The periods 180–150 BCE and 70–100 CE were marked by political and religious turmoil. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many have interpreted apocalyptic as a literature of crisis, which aims to give consolation to the persecuted and the religiously bemused. The strong emphasis in some apocalyptic texts on proclaiming the imminence of redemption and on justifying God's ways towards Israel tends to support this view. It is interesting to note that there was another outburst of apocalypticism within Judaism coinciding with the period of spiritual and political upheaval engendered by the Islamic invasions of the Near East in the early seventh century CE: it produced the Midrashim of Redemption, such as the Book of Zerubbabel and the Prayer of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. But it is important not to link apocalyptic too closely with political crisis. To do so can result in overstressing the eschatological element. Moreover, once launched, apocalyptic ideas became a permanent feature of the Jewish intellectual tradition and attracted interest through good times as well as bad. More often than not what fosters the apocalyptic mood is not objective historical reality, but individual perceptions of reality, which are not necessarily the same thing.

8.

Apocalyptic texts share a family likeness and play on the same limited repertory of themes. They belong to a genuine literary tradition. But who was responsible for them? It was once proposed that apocalyptic provided evidence for popular Judaism in late Second Temple times. This is highly implausible. On every page of this literature are traces of immense learning. Apocalyptic is a scholarly literature, and its authors should be sought in the circles of the scribes (the Soferim), whose influence was increasingly felt in late Second Temple Judaism. Apocalyptic cannot be tied to any single Jewish sect. It seems to have arisen before the emergence of the sects, and it influenced all of them, with the possible exception of the Sadducees. Apocalyptic literature was found in abundance among the Dead Sea scrolls, including fragments of hitherto unknown apocalypses. This is hardly surprising, given that the Dead Sea sect believed it was living at ‘the end of days’. Just how seriously it took this belief is shown by the War Rule and the Messianic Rule. Though neither of these texts is strictly speaking an apocalypse, both show how committed the community was to apocalyptic teaching about the imminence of the messianic age. The Dead Sea community believed it would play a leading role in the wars at the end of history, and in the War Rule it worked out what tactics it would adopt (ANTH C.7; text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 112–45); tr.: Vermes (1997: 161–83); commentary: Yadin (1962 ); see further Davies (1977 )). The War Rule is written in Hebrew and several versions of it are extant, all dated palaeographically to the Herodian era. Another element of the apocalyptic scenario was the messianic banquet. The Dead Sea community believed that it had a major part to play in this event as well. In the Messianic Rule, an appendix to the Cave 1 version of the Community Rule (on which see MAJ GEN F.2), it sets out how the community was to behave when it sat down with the Messiah at the eschatological feast (ANTH C.8; text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 98–103); tr.: Vermes (1997: 157–60); see further Schiffman (1989 )). It is clear from the NT that apocalyptic decisively influenced early Christianity as well, and Pharisaism too probably felt its impact. The Pharisees certainly believed in the resurrection of the dead, one of the key doctrines of apocalyptic (ANTH C.9). The later Merkabah and Hekalot texts testify to the persistence of apocalyptic ideas and literary forms even in a rabbinic milieu—a fact most simply explained by supposing that the rabbis had inherited apocalyptic traditions from their Second Temple predecessors, the Pharisees.

9.

Apocalyptic has roots in earlier traditions to be found not only in the great canonic prophets, but in the wisdom writings as well (on which see MAJ GEN D). Isa 24–7, 40–55, 56–66, and Zech 9–14 provide particularly important antecedents. Yet the dominant impression one gets from reading apocalyptic is of its novelty. It brought together and promoted a number of ideas which were rather new to Judaism—a full-blown doctrine of the Messiah, with elaborate scenarios of the end of history; a belief that history is purposeful and patterned, and moving towards a grand climax; the survival of the soul after death in places of reward and punishment; the bodily resurrection of the dead; and an interest in angels and in the workings of the celestial world. The apocalyptists were concerned with areas of knowledge that were regarded as mysterious; they touched on dangerous subjects. Later rabbinic tradition was to ban public discussion of two of their major themes—the Account of the Chariot (Ma῾aseh Merkavah), i.e. the mysteries of the heavenly world, and the Account of Creation (Ma῾aseh Bere῾shit), i.e. the mysteries of the natural order (m. Ḥag 2:1 ).

10.

Besides the novelty and daring of their speculations, the apocalyptic texts create in the reader a strong sense of fresh revelation. Time and again the apocalyptists expressly claim that what they write was received directly from God or from his angels. They use prophetic modes of discourse, and describe visions of God as impressive as any granted to the earlier prophets. But there was a problem here. Apocalyptic flourished at a time when it was widely accepted in Judaism that direct prophetic revelation had ceased, and that revelation was to be found only in the prophetic writings from the past. Claims to new revelation would have been looked at askance. This faced the apocalyptists with the problem of how they could justify their novel ideas. Basically they used two strategies. First, they linked them as closely as they could to the canonic texts, presenting them, wherever possible, as an interpretation of Scripture. Thus, as we noted earlier, the cosmological speculations of 2 Enoch 24–33 are set out as a kind of commentary on Gen 1–3 , and the story of the fall of the Watchers in 1 Enoch is made to hang on Gen 6:1–5 (ANTH A.4). This element within apocalyptic brings it close to the Rewritten Bible type of Bible interpretation. It allows the apocalyptists to domesticate their novelties within accepted tradition, and to cover them with that tradition's authority. Secondly, the apocalyptists claimed to be in receipt of teachings passed down secretly from the great sages who lived back in the classic age of prophecy. These teachings, though given then, could not be disclosed till the end of time to which they referred. This claim, expressed with greater or lesser clarity, lies behind many apocalyptic works (see e.g. Dan 12:4 ). They attributed their work to such great prophetic figures of the past as Enoch, Moses, Elijah, Baruch, and Ezra. The implication is clear: despite appearances, what they are offering is not new fangled; it is, in fact, ancient teaching of unimpeachable authority. Significantly the one apocalypse that breaks with this convention of pseudepigraphy is the book of Revelation in the New Testament. Perhaps because he lived in a community which believed that prophecy had been restored to Israel, John, the author of this work (whoever he was), felt he could put it out under his own name.

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