This is a draft chapter from the forthcoming book ‘The Words of the Covenant’
The purpose of this article is to cast a little doubt upon the generally received view of the reading of biblical apocalyptic literature. As the unique Word of God, the Bible itself is its own interpreter, and much of the edifice of genre criticism and particularly apocalyptic genre is not based on biblical premises, nor should the “apocalyptic” sections of the Bible be read as if at odds with the understanding of God’s covenants that we have been considering. In point of fact, read against the backdrop of the divine covenants apocalyptic presents few problems for the interpreter and makes its own contribution to the prophetic big picture of the Bible.
Apocalyptic as We are Supposed to View It
According to the leading writers on the subject, the study of apocalyptic literature only gained impetus in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and really began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century. Though there has been some shift in opinion over the past fifty years, the overall consensus is fairly stable. Mainline scholars have broken down their study into three major strands:
Apocalypse is “a genre of 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.”
Apocalyptic includes the “language and conceptions” of the genre of apocalyptic literature.
Apocalypticism is the worldview or mindset of those who wrote apocalypses, and the community for whom they wrote.
John J. Collins, who is the most recognizable scholar writing on the subject, says that,
“A movement might reasonably be called apocalyptic if it shared the conceptual framework of the genre, endorsing a worldview in which supernatural revelation, the heavenly world, and eschatological judgment played essential parts.”
This way of speaking is so inclusive as to embrace nearly everything in the Bible. Yet only in this sense is Ernst Kasemann’s statement that “apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” true.
The Bible and “Apocalypse”
In historical-critical assessments of the genre the story goes that a movement sprang up in the centuries before Christ of which some biblical writers were a part. Some scholars, like P. D. Hanson, believed that the movement had its roots in the 6th century B.C., but for all intents and purposes it is held to have truly sprung up in the 3rd century B.C., thus making all the Jewish writers (including, as they believe, Daniel and Second Isaiah) pseudonymous. For reasons that have been debated, but which often include pious mysticism, fear and persecution, or plain confusion, some writers developed this genre of apocalyptic literature. Briefly stated, the genre,
…focuses upon a dramatic revelation (Gk apokalypsis) to an outstanding religious figure …a revelation that typically anticipates the climax of history for a deteriorating world with the destruction of the forces of evil and the victory of God. This revelation is characteristically coded with striking images and mediated through angelic mediators.
It is not my purpose in this chapter to question the whole genre of apocalyptic. I do think that for example, Daniel 7 and 8 and Revelation 12 and 13 contain visions and images (e.g. composite beasts) which may represent a certain literary genre. Also, the angelic messengers to Ezekiel (Ezek. 40 – 48) and to John (e.g. Rev. 17 – 22) appear within a genre of divine disclosure which one may wish to call “apocalyptic.” But I am of the strong opinion that the angels in both cases were real, and so was much of what they revealed (in the sense that it was not symbolic), so that both the temple in Ezekiel and the New Jerusalem in Revelation should be taken literally. There is little clear evidence to suggest that the generally accepted perspective on apocalyptic genre should be foisted upon the biblical materials. For example, although the beasts of Daniel 7:3-7 are figurative in that they stand for something else (i.e. kings and kingdoms), there is no reason to think of the “living creatures” in Ezekiel 1 and 10, or the supernatural horses of Zechariah 1:7 or even the stork-winged women in Zechariah 5:9 in the same way. In other words, I view Daniel’s “beasts” as impossible creatures, but these other beasts as entirely possible. Discerning the difference is an important part of the literary study of the genre, but it produces little to improve one’s comprehension of the revelation. (more…)