“Apocalypticism” designates a cluster of features that share a family resemblance literarily and notionally and are often thought to originate with groups that share common social coordinates. One finds here a religious perspective that evinces interest in visions, dreams, symbolism, heavenly beings (especially angels), revelation of mysteries, the eschatological end of history, cosmological lore, historical determinism, last judgment, the postmortem fate of human beings, and dualism, among other things. Defining the term is complicated by the fact that it is necessary to distinguish two different but related terms when examining the subject: “apocalypse” and “apocalypticism.” The terms are both derived from the Greek apokalyptein, “to uncover, disclose, reveal”; but they do not refer to the same thing. “Apocalypse” is a genre designation, while “apocalypticism” refers to a social ideology or worldview related, but not limited, to its expression in apocalypses. Apocalypticism, then, designates a broader field than apocalypse: all apocalypses are apocalyptic, but not all things apocalyptic find expression through apocalypses.

In a general sense, apocalypticism represents an ideology that emphasizes the importance of heavenly revelation to human recipients. The circumstances of such revelation can vary, as can the type of information disclosed. Frequently, a heavenly mediator makes known future events or information about the cosmos by interpreting dreams or visions. Groups who value this sort of view see reality—both the seen and unseen worlds—as full of mystery that must be supernaturally disclosed or decoded. This may result in the transport of the recipient of the preternatural knowledge to the heavenly realms (or, on occasion, hell). One also commonly finds in this literature an imminent expectation of the end of history, which is to be followed by the inauguration of a new era in which the wicked are annihilated and the righteous rewarded. Scholars label this as “apocalyptic eschatology.” In most of these cases, the historical end is a way of expressing hopes for the downfall of imperial powers.

An impressive amount of literature in early Judaism and Christianity (ca. 250 B.C.E.–250 C.E.) contains many of these elements, although no one work contains all of them. Only a small portion of this literature became canonical in Judaism, but the influence of many of the noncanonical works is quite clear. In early Christianity the situation is slightly different, at least in so far as much of the New Testament arguably presents an apocalyptic outlook even if there is only one apocalypse.

Many scholars also contend that apocalyptic literature originates in groups subject to persecution. As such, it forms a literature of resistance. This argument makes good sense of some, but not all, of the apocalyptic literature of the Hellenistic and Roman periods since persecution by foreign leaders is explicitly treated by these texts. A few examples will illustrate the point. Much of Daniel 7–12 deals with the crisis created by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (r. ca. 175–164 B.C.E.) when he forced the cessation of traditional worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Also, 4 Ezra responds to a crisis, that of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Finally, the New Testament book of Revelation might also be seen as an example of this sort of perspective in its treatment of difficulties attributed to Rome experienced by certain Christians. Not all apocalyptic writing is crisis literature or literature of resistance, but this does account for certain well-known apocalyptic compositions. As such, one must attend to the social contexts that inform and shape these works.

Literary Origins.

Apocalypticism emerged as a Jewish ideological and literary phenomenon in the Hellenistic period, and Christian apocalypticism constituted a first-century C.E. development from within Judaism. Most scholars posit that certain intellectual, social, and religious pressures created by Hellenism on Judaism led to the creation of apocalyptic viewpoints. Many of these views were inherited by early Christians, who elaborated them in their own distinctive ways. Early apocalypticists likely drew on several prior traditions; indeed, several antecedent traditions appear to have played some role in the phenomenon’s development.

Several scholars have pointed to a Mesopotamian origin for apocalypticism. A Babylonian precursor may exist in the so-called Akkadian prophecies, two of which (Dynastic Prophecy and Uruk Prophecy) bear some resemblance to the later apocalyptic literature. In these texts the writer presents a long series of historical events that culminates in a prediction about his own day. The earlier events are also presented as predictions, although in fact they had long since occurred (vaticinia ex eventu). The actual predictions at the end are also eschatological in nature, like much of the later apocalyptic literature. A second type of Babylonian link may be seen in the early prominence in apocalyptic literature of Enoch and Daniel, both of whom have strong associations with Babylon. The Daniel tales are set in Babylon, and Enoch may have been modeled on the great Mesopotamian sage Enmeduranki.

Another possible origin has been sought in Zoroastrian Persian religion, where there was a well-developed apocalyptic tradition. These traditions displayed elements that may have fed apocalypticism, including dualism, historical periodization, postmortem judgment, resurrection, angels and demons, and eschatological battles. The difficulty with establishing links with Persian sources, however, revolves around the uncertainty of much of the Persian material’s date. Since we do not know when it was originally written, it is hard to establish convincing links.

The most influential antecedent, however, is the literature of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have debated whether the primary influence is from wisdom or prophetic traditions, although most studies have decided in favor of the latter. In prophecy, the idea of revelation is expressed extensively, occasionally using the idiom of dreams and visions (e.g., Isa 6; Amos 7:10–17). Two prophetic books in particular adumbrate formal features of apocalyptic literature. First, Ezekiel 1 contains a mystifying vision in which Ezekiel reports “visions of God” when the heavens were opened. Second, Zechariah 1–6 contains a series of eight visions in which the prophet sees symbolically meaningful phenomena in the heavens that are interpreted by an angel. Both of these prophetic texts possess elements that later apocalyptic writers appropriate in their apocalypses.

Other late prophetic texts also contain material that makes the transition from prophecy to apocalyptic literature possible. Isaiah 24–27, sometimes inappropriately called the “Isaiah Apocalypse,” includes images of cosmic and social upheaval caused by the breaking of the divine command followed by divine judgment (24:1–13, 21–23; cf. 1 En.1:6–8), Yahweh swallowing up death (25:6–8), and metaphorical language about resurrection (26:19). Scholars have also drawn attention to proto-apocalyptic ideas in other prophetic texts: a new heaven and new earth in Isaiah 65:17; scenes of warfare between the nations and Yahweh’s people in Ezekiel 38–39, Joel 3 (Eng. ch. 4), and Zechariah 9–14; Joel’s depiction of the “day of the LORD” as a cosmic portent (2:1–3); and Malachi’s expectation of an eschatological messenger (3:1–2) and heavenly book (3:16–18).

Apocalypse as Genre.

The genre called “apocalypse” derives its name from apokalypsis, “revelation.” This term occurs in the first line of the New Testament book of Revelation, where it likely designates the content of the book (a “revelation of Jesus Christ”), not a literary genre. The use of the term to designate a literary genre is not found until somewhat later in Christian literature (2 and 3 Bar.). This genre has been defined as “revelatory literature with a narrative framework, 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” (Collins, 1998, p. 5). Such works are nearly all pseudonymous (although this is not the case with Revelation and Hermas). Most apocalypses are associated with a figure from antiquity whose “biography” made him (they are universally male) privy to heavenly matters of some sort. Such individuals include Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Ezra, Paul, and Peter. Using the definition above, we can identify apocalypses in various portions of 1 Enoch, Daniel, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, 3 Baruch, 2 Enoch, Testament of Levi 2–5, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Revelation, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocryphon of John, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, and Ascension of Isaiah, to name just some of those from the third century B.C.E. through approximately the third century C.E.

The definition above forms the basis of a further distinction into two types of apocalypses: “historical” and otherworldly journeys. In the biblical literature, for instance, Daniel 7–12 offers examples of the type of apocalypse labeled “historical.” This type often originates in times of political, social, or religious crisis and represents the broad passage of time by periodizing history into epochs. The focus of the apocalypse is usually on the last of the recounted periods, which is the current period of the author. In Daniel 7:1–27, the author divides portions of first-millennium history into four epochs related to four kingdoms: Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek. Each is symbolized by various animals: lion with eagle’s wings, bear, leopard, terrifying beast with 10 horns. Although four kingdoms are mentioned, the author’s interest is clearly related to the last of these, the Greeks. Sometimes later apocalypses reappropriate and reinterpret the earlier imagery, as is the case in 4 Ezra 12:11, which reinterprets the eagle imagery from Daniel 7. Some historical apocalypses begin schematic historical surveys with the primordial period (e.g., 2 Bar., 4 Ezra). Each contains examples of ex eventu prophecy and focuses on judgment or destruction of the wicked. History is often presented as culminating in some cosmic upheaval and transformation. The purpose of these catastrophic events is to punish the wicked for their persecution of the righteous.

Otherworldly journey apocalypses are well represented in postbiblical Jewish and Christian literature. Journeys to nonearthly regions as a literary element are found in other literature prior to and during the period under consideration here (e.g., The Odyssey XI and The Aeneid VI), but they take on a different meaning in the apocalypses. In this type of apocalypse, the main figure, usually the individual for whom the book is named, is taken into the heavens where information about the future (usually the eschatological end) or cosmological matters are disclosed. A heavenly angel (e.g., Gabriel) reveals these mysteries to the individual. For example, in 1 Enoch 1–36 (also called the “Book of the Watchers”), the primordial Enoch experiences visions in which he is taken into the heavenly realms (14:9) where a message of judgment for the Watchers is made known to him. On other occasions, the pseudonymous figure reports having visions or dreams that require interpretation by the heavenly guide (e.g., 4 Ezra 11:1–12:39).

Important Apocalyptic Texts.

While apocalyptic materials are widespread in the period we are surveying, a few call for special comment because of their importance and influence. Here, we will briefly mention three such texts: 1 Enoch, Daniel, and Revelation.

First Enoch.

The book 1 Enoch is actually an anthology of traditions now only fully preserved in an Ethiopic version of a Greek translation of an original Hebrew edition associated with the antediluvian figure whose description in Genesis 5:24 made him an obvious choice as a later pseudonymous apocalyptic figure: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” The first half of this statement suggested his righteous character, while the second half was understood to make him privy to divine mysteries. The content of 1 Enoch was written over a period of two centuries beginning about 250 B.C.E., which makes the apocalyptic material in this book likely the earliest surviving exemplar of this sort. It contains several different apocalypses: the Book of the Watchers (chs. 1–36), the Astronomical Book (chs. 72–82), the Animal Apocalypse (chs. 85–90), and the Apocalypse of Weeks (chs. 93:1–10, 91:11–17; the original continuous order is documented in Aramaic Enoch fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls). Perhaps the earliest of these is the Apocalypse of Weeks, an example of the historical type of apocalypse (so also the Animal Apocalypse). Here, biblical history is presented in 10 divisions of weeks (lit. “sabbaths”), beginning with Enoch’s birth as the pivotal seventh in the first “week” and continuing to the tenth week, which is understood as the eschatological period of eternal judgment when a new heaven appears (cf. Isa 65:17). The turning point is the seventh week, the period of the apocalypse’s author. After the tenth week, we read of “weeks without number” when righteousness prevails and sin is eradicated. The content of this apocalypse is revealed to Enoch in a heavenly vision and from heavenly tablets. The effect is to convey the impression that all of history unfolds in a predetermined manner under divine control.

The apocalyptic traditions of 1 Enoch also include material that is focused on cosmological speculation. For example, the Astronomical Book (1 En. 72–82) depicts the angel Uriel disclosing the proper order and movement of heavenly luminaries. The purpose is to establish the 364-day calendar (instead of a 360-day one) governing the passage of time until the beginning of the eschatological end. The end is marked by the shortening of sinners’ lives and the deterioration of the natural world (80:2–8). Enoch is also privy to the “tablets of heaven” upon which are written the deeds of humanity (81:1–2).


The book of Daniel comprises two discrete sections: chapters 1–6 record tales from the Babylonian diaspora, featuring Daniel and some of his companions; chapters 7–12 contain apocalyptic materials that stem from the time of Antiochus IV and his assault on the Jerusalem Temple. In this latter section, the book’s namesake receives three visions that offer examples of the “historical” type of apocalypse: 7:1–14, 8:1–14, and 11:2—12:4. The first two present a succession of political empires symbolically portrayed as various animal or animal-like figures with accompanying angelic interpretations (7:15–18; 8:15–27). The third presents a much more detailed, though occasionally unclear, vision of future political events focused far more on the interaction of the Seleucids and Ptolemies. The end of the vision includes reference to the eschatological end featuring a book upon whose pages are recorded those destined for deliverance (12:1). Additionally, this section contains the first clear reference to resurrection in the biblical tradition (12:2). As in the similar apocalyptic sections in 1 Enoch, the effect of these visions is to present current events as the end of a long chain of events that have played out under divine control. As such, Antiochus IV’s disastrous actions are placed under divine sovereignty and rendered intelligible and less threatening.


The book of Revelation’s date of composition is difficult to determine, but it should likely be placed around the turn of the second century C.E. The first part of the book contains a series of letters to seven churches scattered throughout Asia Minor (chs. 1–3). Though epistolary, Revelation explains their origin as visions (1:9–11). The recipient of these and later visions in the book is a figure called John who is said to be on the island of Patmos. Chapters 4–22 contain the earliest example of a Christian apocalypse and consist of a heavenly throne room vision (4:1—5:14), followed by two large cycles of eschatological visions (6:1—11:19; 12:1—22:5). The two cycles contain several sequences of “sevens” (e.g., seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls), which usually report aspects of various cosmic cataclysms. The series of sevens is interrupted in 17:1—19:10 by a section devoted to “Babylon,” here code for Rome. The book concludes with a flurry of divine activities in which God’s enemies, including Satan, are defeated; a millennial kingdom is established; and a new heaven and new earth are revealed, culminating with a vision of a new Jerusalem (19:11—22:5). The entire vision is recorded in a book that is to remain unsealed and unchanged in view of the coming end (22:10, 18–19).

Other Apocalyptic Traditions.

Not all apocalyptic literature comes in the form of apocalypses. In fact, one of the most apocalyptically oriented groups in early Judaism lived near Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The texts associated with this group, collectively known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” contain no apocalypses; but among the substantial findings were some generally accepted apocalyptic texts (e.g., Daniel, sections of 1 Enoch). In sectarian texts like the War Scroll (1QM) one reads of a coming eschatological battle between two groups, symbolically called the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness,” which is a fulfillment of Ezekiel 38–39. Heavenly beings (Michael and Belial) lead the forces into battle, the outcome of which results in the destruction of evil. Other texts look forward to the coming of one or more messiahs whose appearance will usher in the eschaton. Finally, one notices a more thoroughgoing dualism in many of these documents than in earlier Jewish apocalyptic texts.

Turning to early Christianity, we note that much of the New Testament literature displays an apocalyptic perspective; but aside from Revelation, there is no full-blown apocalypse. The available sources suggest that many early Christian groups could be classified as apocalyptic. As Peter argues in his Pentecost sermon, the eschatological end began with Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 2:14–36), a position that the earliest canonical Christian author, Paul, holds as well (1 Cor 15:12–20). In 1 Thessalonians, he expresses his expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, an event that is accompanied by the resurrection of deceased Christians (4:14–17). In addition to this temporal apocalyptic perspective, Paul expresses a spatial understanding of apocalyptic. He describes his conversion as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12) and elsewhere talks about “visions and revelations of the LORD” (2 Cor 12:1) and God’s secret and hidden wisdom, which was “decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7).

The synoptic tradition presents Jesus expressing apocalyptic views as well. For example, Mark 13 describes the events surrounding the annihilation of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. using language about the eschatological end (13:13). The chapter also depicts the eschatological coming of the Son of Man accompanied by cosmic cataclysms (13:24–27) and intense suffering of the elect (13:19–20). In the view of many scholars, Jesus likely understood himself as an apocalyptic prophet because, among other things, he thought the end was near, he was associated with other apocalyptic and eschatological figures like John the Baptist, and his actions in the Temple fit with the widespread expectation of its eschatological destruction and rebuilding (Murphy, 2012, p. 289).


Few things biblical have attracted as much postbiblical attention as apocalyptic literature. Although interest in apocalyptic dissipated in Judaism after the turn of the Common Era, the same cannot be said of Christianity. Apocalypses continued to be written into the medieval period, although they never achieved canonical status. Rather, the most obvious legacy of the apocalyptic in Christianity came through sustained interest in the book of Revelation. The book was the object of interpretive focus through sermons, commentaries, music, and especially art. Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of images in the book and Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment on the western wall of the Sistine Chapel are but two famous examples of the latter.

In the modern period, certain millenarian groups and apocalyptically oriented traditions in Christianity have proliferated, especially in the United States. As Paul Boyer demonstrated in When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, an apocalyptically oriented, literal interpretation of the Bible has become central to many conservative, evangelical denominations. These formerly fringe religious groups had come to represent one of the largest segments of American Christianity by the early 2000s. Books that espouse such apocalyptic interpretations, like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series, have sold millions of copies and influenced how nearly as many envision the end of history. While their indebtedness to the actual Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts that served as the catalyst for this type of thinking is marginal, their expectation of an imminent end followed by the inauguration of a new era of divine rule bears some similarities to earlier apocalyptic thinking.




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J. Todd Hibbard