Apocalyptical literature outside the Bible (Revelation 2)

Bilderesultat for apocalyptic literature

Illustration: The four horsemen of the Apocalypse

Some of the religious literature from early Jewish and Christian sources is referred to as “apocalyptic literature”. Such writings are characterized by visions and revelations given by God to great saints; often these visions are filled with strange symbols. Apocalyptic literature originated in the Old Testament times and may be seen in parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and especially in Daniel. Revelation is the last great apocalyptic book of the Bible, but there are many non-biblical apocalyptic texts, which are referred to as “pseudoapocalyptic” because they are imitations of Biblical apocalyptic works such as Daniel and Revelation. Important examples are the books of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra and the Apocalypse of Abraham:

  • First Enoch, which in its present form consists of 108 chapters of various visions involving the patriarch Enoch, was a tremendously popular book in early Jewish and Christian communities. It is particularly noteworthy for its elaboration of Genesis 6, a narrative Enoch interprets as an angelic interbreading with human women. Enoch’s expansion of the Genesis 6 narrative includes a vivid description of the places of judgement (e.g. 1 Enoch 21-22) and the coming of God’s kingdom (1 Enoch 45, 93).
  • The Sybilline Oracles, which likewise enjoyed widespread use, consists of oracles of looming judgement written in the style of Greek prophecy but drawn from Biblical texts.
  • Fourth Ezra and 2 Baruch deal with (among other things) the theological questions raised by the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Both adopt the convention of having been written shortly after the Babylonian captivity, but contextual clues make it clear that they are post-A.D. 70 works. Fourth Ezra is remarkable for its concern over the problem of evil, as Ezra relentlessly pressed God’s angel to explain why wicked nations appeared to triumph over God’s chosen people.
  • The Apocalypse of Abraham is ostensibly a narrative of a heavenly journey by the forefather of the Jewish people.

The word apocalyptic comes from the Greek word for “unveiling”. The key feature of apocalyptic literature, which was common in early Judaism, was the unveiling of secrets by heavenly mediators. Often these secrets concerned the end times, when God would come to judge the world, but in non-biblical texts these visions could also include matters such as pseudoscientific descriptions of the paths of the stars or other “mysteries” of the natural world. Sometimes the recipient of the visionary secrets would be caught up into heaven, while on other occasions an angel might descend with the revelation (e.g. 2 Barach 6:5-6). Although vivid and sometimes bizarre imagery appears in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation is especially noteworthy for its heavenly concentration of such symbolism.

John’s Revelation is not an isolated work; it is clear that it is in some ways similar to the non-biblical literature described above. On the other hand, Revelation does not draw upon the non-biblical apocalyptic material, although it does directly appropriate other Biblical apocalyptic images, especially those from Daniel. The key question, of course, is not whether Revelation is unique in style but whether it reflects authentic revelation. Some books simply mimic a Biblical style by including fantastic images or by repeating some stock phrases from the Bible. Most pseudoapocalyptic  works were also pseudepigraphical, falsely claiming ancient heroes, such as Abraham or Baruch, as their authors. But in originality, in breadth of vision, in the subtle way it draws together a massive amount of Old Testament and New Testament theology and in the profound nature of its visions, Revelation has no equal.


 

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