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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Jewish Apocalypses

I now turn to the earliest Jewish apocalypses, which modern readers of the Bible often find hard to understand. The language and even the point of a lot of apocalyptic writing can seem elusive. But, after the introduction, perhaps what follows will not seem so strange. At all events, it would not have seemed strange to any ancient reader.


Although not part of the Western Old Testament, 1 Enoch is in the canon of some other Christian churches (such as the Ethiopic), and in any case contains the earliest known Jewish apocalypses. In fact, the book is a collection of writings attributed to Enoch. Thanks to the discovery of literary fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can now confidently date the collection (except possibly for chapters 37–71) to the pre-Christian era, and the earliest parts to the third century BCE. The four early Enoch books in this collection are the Astronomical Book (chapters 72–92), the Book of the Watchers (chapters 1–36), the Epistle of Enoch (chapters 91–105), and the Book of Dreams (chapters 83–90). They represent a body of traditions, rather than a single tradition, but all the traditions are related and suggest a more or less coherent pattern of ideas.

How did Enoch become a patron of apocalyptic literature? The biblical notice about him (Gen. 5: 18–24) is brief: he was the son of Jared and father of Methuselah; he lived 365 years and then ‘walked with God’. Then ‘he was not, for God took him’. It is usual to consider this tantalizing hint of something special as the origin of the Jewish Enoch tradition; his life span suggests a connection with the solar calendar, and his manner of departure suggests that he did not die. As for ‘walking with God’, this suggests a fairly intimate acquaintance. But the Genesis notice probably stands not at the beginning but somewhere in the middle, or even towards the end, of Enoch's development as an apocalyptic sage. Enoch is probably derived from a figure in the Sumerian King List. This is a list of rulers of Sumer (the earliest civilization of Mesopotamia) before the Flood, and is preserved in several forms, including the third century BCE historian Berossus (see Pritchard 1955: 265). Here one of the kings, often appearing as the seventh, is called Enmeduranki or Enmeduranna. He is generally associated with the city of Sippar, which was the home of the cult of the sun-god Shamash. Moreover, in other texts (see VanderKam 1984: 39 ff.) this Enmeduranki was the first to be shown by the gods Adad and Shamash three techniques of divination: pouring oil on water, inspecting a liver, and the use of a cedar (rod), whose function is still unclear. These were to be transmitted from generation to generation, and in fact became the property of the guild of baru, the major group of diviners in Babylon.

These details show how the biblical portrait of Enoch corresponds to Enmeduranki: he is also seventh in the list of names in which he appears; the number 365 preserves an affinity to the sun; walking with God (or perhaps, ‘angels’?) suggests a special intimacy between him and the heavenly world. The final connection links him not with Enmeduranki, but with a fish-man (apkallu), with whom each of the first seven kings associated and from whom they learnt all kinds of knowledge. Enmeduranki's apkallu, called Utu'abzu, is mentioned in another cuneiform text, where he is said to have ascended to heaven. The writer of Gen. 5: 21–4 seems to be alluding briefly to a Judaean version (as Noah is a Judaean version of Utnapishtim or Ziusudra, the Mesopotamian Flood heroes) of a figure connected with the transmission of divine wisdom by divinatory means. But since, as we saw earlier, divination was frowned upon in Judah, Enoch will acquire his knowledge by other means.

1 Enoch provides us with a lot of information about the Enoch to whom Genesis alludes. In the Astronomical Book, possibly from the third century BCE, Enoch reveals to his son Methuselah what the angel Uriel had shown him of the workings of the sun, moon, and stars. Most of this book is entirely scientific, being a description of the movements of the heavenly bodies, ostensibly revealed in heaven, but obviously the result of many generations of sky watching. However, there is a brief section (chapters 80–1) which is especially important. Here Enoch also tells of the deeds of righteous and unrighteous persons, forecasting a disruption in the natural order. It is very likely that this passage is not original, but its presence shows us how a text of purely astronomical observations came to be used in the service of ethical exhortation and eschatological prediction—something closer to the usual interest of apocalyptic writers. But according to Michael Stone (1976), the origins of apocalyptic writing lie in ‘lists of things revealed’, including the names and functions of angels, and from there develops a focus on the origin and end of evil, on the final judgement, and on the identity of the righteous.

In the Book of the Watchers, perhaps compiled in the late third century BCE, these more ethical dimensions come to the fore. Here we find a story about the beginning and the end of the present order, particularly the origin of sin and its ultimate solution. These ethical concerns combine the ‘listing of revealed things’ with traditional concerns of Wisdom: right behaviour, harmony with the natural order, divine justice, the dualism of wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness. The Book of the Watchers opens (chapters 1–5) with a warning that moves from the observation of order in the natural world—in obeying the laws set for it by God—to the lack of order among humans. Those persons who adhere to these natural laws are righteous; those who do not are sinners. Note that righteousness and wickedness are represented as functions of knowledge and understanding, rather than of simple obedience. In 1 Enoch (and apocalyptic generally) we find an ascendance of these wisdom categories over the categories of law and covenant. Although the Enoch corpus does not contain very much direct or indirect interpretation of Scripture, chapters 1–5 seem to draw on the story of Balaam (Num. 22–4)—though we now know that this tradition was not confined to Israel. Chapters 611 describe how sin first came into the world with the descent of heavenly beings called the Watchers. Here again we encounter in 1 Enoch a fuller version of an episode that is only briefly related in the Old Testament.

The biblical episode is Gen. 6: 1–6, where the ‘children of God’ have intercourse with women, producing a race of Nephilim, ‘mighty men that were of old, men of renown’. 1 Enoch 6–11 (which actually combines two versions of the tale) describes how these heavenly beings (all of whom are named) teach the women about spells, root cutting and plants, astrology, weapons of war, and cosmetics. The women give birth to giants, who turn to cannibalism and drink blood. The earth cries out to heaven for help, and God orders the execution of the giants, the binding of the Watchers beneath the hills until the day of judgement, and thereafter in a fiery chasm. The leader according to one version, Azazel or Asa'el, is buried under a rock, until, after judgement, he is hurled into the fire.

Many scholars take the view that this story, in its various forms, is inspired by the Greek legend of Prometheus, the Titan who brought heavenly secrets to men, and that it has also developed from the Genesis story. But that very short account makes little sense except as an allusion to some fuller version. The parallels between the story of the Watchers and the story of Cain are also intriguing: bloodshed on the earth, the earth crying out, the villain cast into the desert, the acquisition of technology, and the increase of violence among descendants. The fuller 1 Enoch story explains the ritual of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, where a goat is sent into the wilderness ‘for Azazel’. It is thus difficult to explain the Enoch story simply as an expansion of Gen. 6: 1–4. More probably it is a version of an older myth about the origin of sin, which held sin to have originated in heaven and to have been brought to earth together with illicit knowledge which enabled humanity to progress in arts and sciences. Isa. 14: 12 possibly echoes a story about a fallen rebellious angel whom it names as the morning star (= Lucifer, as he was named in later, Christian mythology).

Later in the Book of the Watchers Enoch enters the divine presence, and learns in more detail about the future. Here he is called a ‘scribe of righteousness’, who records the divine sentence on the Watchers. But he also intercedes for them with God. In the rest of this book, Enoch travels twice, to the west and around the world, including visits to Jerusalem, Eden, and Sheol, the abode of the dead—thus adding a knowledge of geography to his understanding of astronomy. In all this, we can see reflected in Enoch the figure of the ideal scribe whose goal is universal knowledge, gained not only by experience but also by revelation, and who hands it on to his ‘children’ (the disciples of the wise man).

In the remaining two books of 1 Enoch we find two substantial apocalypses (there is also a brief third one in 83: 3–5), both dating from the first half of the second century BCE. The earlier of these, the Apocalypse of Weeks (93: 1–10 and 91: 11–17), divides Israelite history into ten periods (‘weeks’), the time of the author being the seventh. This introduces us to another common feature of apocalypses: their division of history into periods—always culminating in the present time, of course, which stands on the eve of the End. This periodizing of history and the eschato-logical culmination may be inspired by Persian ideas, and seems to have been a common practice among the scribal classes. The Apocalypse of Weeks makes a rather clear reference to the political and religious crisis beginning around 175 BCE (see pp. 290–3), and it takes the form of pseudo-prediction of past events followed by a genuine prediction of the (real) future. Here it foresees a restoration of order and righteousness, first in Israel, then in the world, and finally in the whole cosmos, when a new heaven and a new earth will appear.

The other apocalypse in 1 Enoch is the Animal Apocalypse (chapters 85–90), which is also an example of periodized history and prediction, and acquires its name from its depiction of individuals and nations in the guise of animals (animals are another favourite device of apocalypses, as in Daniel's beasts and Revelation's Lamb and Serpent). Unlike the Apocalypse of Weeks, this periodization commences only with the Exile, and it enumerates seventy shepherds who have ruled Israel—almost certainly inspired by Jer. 25 (esp. 32 ff.). Neither of these apocalypses is concerned merely with periodizing history, however. Both are responding to problems raised by their own time, problems that raise the question of the orderliness and purpose of history as a whole.

From this overview of 1 Enoch we have been able to see how the content, form, and world-view of the apocalypse develops from a more general concern with things unseen, with ancient secrets, and their inspired revealers. But we can offer here only a sketch of apocalyptic; for it is the product of a very rich and varied culture. It is not an esoteric and intra-Jewish development, but a cosmopolitan, variegated, many-sided, cross-cultural phenomenon. And while it is often connected with sects or religious groups, this is not always so; and its authors (and readers) come from privileged, literate, and influential levels in society.


Like 1 Enoch, the book of Daniel is a composite collection of stories and visions, not all of which have the form of an apocalypse, but it allows us to see how the apocalypse form emerges. The stories that comprise the first part of the book (chapters 1–6) portray the adventures of a Judaean youth initiated into Babylonian manticism. His gifts, which surpass those of the native Babylonians, are those of interpreting dreams and (at least on one occasion) mysterious writing on a wall. However, as a Judaean, he acquires his knowledge by direct revelation, not by any divinatory technique. But the stories also tell of persecution and how the righteous are delivered through divine intervention. In these deliverance stories Daniel's profession is important, in that it places him in a prominent position that renders him vulnerable as a victim of the idolatrous or envious designs of kings and courtiers. Daniel is required under these circumstances of persecution to show exemplary behaviour, to teach in this case by his deeds rather than by his words.

At the close of the book of Daniel, the authors reveal their own identity:

Those among the people who are wise shall make many understand, though they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder, for some days, but when they understand, they shall be helped a little some of those who are wise shall fall, to refine and to cleanse them, and to make them white, until the time of the end, for the time appointed is yet to be. (Dan. 11: 33–5)…Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever. (Dan. 12: 3; my trans.)

The Hebrew word for ‘wise’ here is maskil, of which Daniel himself is one (1: 4). Their task, according to this passage, is both to suffer and to reach righteousness, as did Daniel (who taught a lesson to the foreign king). An obvious model for this combination of roles is the ‘servant’ of Second Isaiah (chapter 53, especially verse 11). The profile of Daniel as an educated ‘wise man’, serving at court, a political administrator (2: 48), an interpreter of the future for the king, is a profile of the scribe and learned in mantic lore. The book of Daniel is indeed the product of ‘Daniels’. The book as a whole was created by appending a series of apocalyptic visions, which we can date to the mid-second century BCE, to an older cycle of stories reflecting life in the Eastern diaspora. These stories are not apocalypses themselves, but belong to the genre of court-tale (see chapter 9), but they lay a foundation for the second, apocalyptic part of the book, with its themes of knowing the future and suffering persecution.

Daniel 7–12 is an account of Daniel's visions in the first person, though from chapter 9 onwards the emphasis shifts from visions to Daniel's penitence and then to a detailed pseudo-prophecy (again with a genuine prediction attached) of the events of the writer's own time. In the first two visions (chapters 7 and 8) we find a form familiar from biblical prophetic literature, the ‘symbolic vision’, a literary form that constitutes the main technique for divine revelation in Jewish apocalypses.

In the simplest form of this literary device, as found in visions of Amos (7: 1–9; 8: 1–3) or Jeremiah (1: 11–19; 24), the objects seen in the vision belong to everyday life (e.g. a basket of fruit, an almond tree), and yield their meaning by metaphor or word-play. The accounts of the vision use a simple question-and-answer pattern: the prophet is asked what he sees, then the significance is given. In a second phase, represented in Zech. 1–6, the vision develops into a more elaborate narrative, with rather more unusual objects seen, and an extended dialogue between the prophet and an interpreting angel in place of the deity. In Daniel, this type of vision is used to portray the succession of earthly empires as creatures (we have encountered this device already in 1 Enoch). The origin of the description of the beasts remains disputed, but among the possibilities are zodiacal signs and catalogues of physical anomalies, such as are included in omen lists as significant portents. The vision of judgement in Daniel 7 also borrows motifs from other scriptural writings. From Zech. 1: 18 it gets four horns, and perhaps from Zechariah or from Ezek. 40 (where the prophet is shown the future Jerusalem), it gets an interpreting angel. The heavenly scene itself is reminiscent of those in 1 Enoch, although no precise parallel can be cited. The theme of four world empires has long been thought to reflect a widespread notion (it is found in the Greek poet Hesiod, c.700 BCE), but, like the phrase ‘visions of his head as he lay upon his bed’ (7: 1; cf. 2: 28) probably comes directly from Dan. 2.

Interpretation of Scripture is more significant in Daniel than in 1 Enoch. Apart from those influences just mentioned, Dan. 9 shows the hero preparing for an inspired interpretation of a biblical passage in Jeremiah (25: 11–12 or 29: 10) that he cannot understand. He is given the meaning—seventy years means seventy weeks of years, i.e. 490 years—and the events of those weeks are then enumerated in a manner similar to the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch. Yet another example of the use of biblical prophetic texts is the quotation from Isa. 53: 11 given earlier, while Dan. 11:17 quotes Isa. 7:7. The use of Jeremiah is an excellent example of the mantic technique applied to biblical texts: the texts do not mean what they appear to say, but when properly deciphered contain a message about the here and now.

As in the case of the Enochic apocalypses, the Danielic historical summaries—which become more detailed in each successive vision—are designed to account for a present crisis in terms of the meaning of history as a whole. The crisis is the destruction of the altar in Jerusalem (in 167 BCE), and first appears in Dan. 8: 11. The daily offering used to take place twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, and the phrase ‘evenings and the mornings’ (8: 26) recurs in later visions as a reminder of how the desolation was marked by each missed offering. The visions of chapters 7–9 are reticent about exactly what will soon happen or when: but they give assurance that it will come, for God has so ordained it. (This is essentially what the stories also imply: be faithful, and God will protect you when crisis attends.) Only in chapter 12, at the end of the final vision do we find a statement of what actually is predicted to happen, and even here it is not described in much detail. There will be trouble; the angel Michael will act; some will be raised from the dead to be punished or rewarded; the wise who set the example to the people will truly reach the pre-eminence which their exemplary behaviour in this present life merits.

Like two of the Enochic apocalypses, Daniel's visions are provoked by a specific crisis. There is evidence in other Hellenistic apocalypses also of a reaction to a crisis, but not one so sharp or well-defined. The nations overcome by the eastward expansion of Hellenism used the apocalypse to foretell the end of this domination. Examples of this evidence in Egypt are the ‘Demotic Chronicle’ and the ‘Potter's Oracle’ (Collins 1984: 94). A second burst of apocalyptic writing occurred when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in the Jewish Revolt (70 CE), and Christian apocalypses (starting with Revelation) react to the persecution of that new cult. The apocalypse is an ideal form for expressing hope in an imminent change to a desperate or unhappy situation. But it typically does so by a return to the past, to authoritative figures and texts that can be made to reassure present-day readers that they saw it all coming, and all will finally be well.

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