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Holman Bible Dictionary

Apocalyptic

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describes: (1) writings from God that employ symbolic language to tell of a divine intervention soon to take place; (2) the doctrinal system explicit in these writings; and (3) the movement(s) that produced the writings and doctrines.

Old Testament While portions of Joel, Amos, Zechariah, and Isaiah have apocalyptic features, Daniel is the only Old Testament book which is wholly apocalyptic.

New Testament “Apocalyptic” is derived from the Greek verb apokalupto , “to uncover,” and so figuratively “to disclose, reveal.” Its use, however, is due to the opening word of the Book of Revelation, apokalupsis , which means an “uncovering,” “a disclosure, a revelation.” This term has passed into English as “apocalypse.” When writers refer to “the Apocalypse,” they mean the Book of Revelation; when they speak of an apocalypse, or apocalypses, or apocalyptic writings, they mean works written in a similar style to the Book of Revelation. The first sentence of the Book of Revelation is noteworthy in this connection: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ , which God gave to him , to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John : who bare record of all things that he saw .” The italicized expressions illustrate the fundamental features of the genre of apocalyptic: these writings claim to originate from God; they most frequently tell of a divine intervention soon to take place; their authors often use sign language—i.e. they “sign-ify,” employing pictorial language which is also parabolic; an angelic intermediary commonly explains to the prophet the meaning of the message conveyed to him; and the prophet makes known to others his visions (“all that he saw”). John's “apocalypse” is specifically stated to be a Christian revelation: it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ ,” received from God; accordingly it is described as “the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” It is thereby declared to be an authentic apocalypse. John the prophet would have been aware that there were many other works which possessed similar literary characteristics as his own, the most notable being the Book of Daniel.

Extra-biblical Sources The other apocalyptic writings are outside the Bible and mainly belong to the period 200 B.C.-A.D. 100. The best known of the extra-biblical apocalyptic books are 1Enoch (often called “Ethiopic Enoch,” since it survives in that language), 2Enoch, 4Ezra, and 2Baruch. With these Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Oracles are generally classed, although their form differs from that of “classic apocalyptic.” It is not clear, however, that we should postulate a standard structure of apocalyptic writing; the use of symbolism, whether of animals or of mythical monsters, of visions and of messianic woes varies greatly. Various forms are used to convey the apocalyptic message. For example, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs take the form of testaments, but poetic composition appears in the Sybilline Oracles. The most complete collection of Jewish and Christian apocalypses ever assembled is in the two volumes, The Old Testament Pseudepigraphs, edited by J. H. Charlesworth (New York, 1983,1985).

Apocalyptic Movement The so-called “apocalyptic movement” which gave birth to the apocalyptic literature had its roots in Israel's history. The creation myths of the Semitic world supplied quarries for the picture language employed by the prophets and apocalyptists. The leading literary features and apocalyptic message were conditioned above all by Israel's history and experience of God. Historical alienation created the conditions wherein apocalypticism flourished. Estrangement resulted from the disintegration of society, caused by oppression or the ravages of war. The isolation of a group within its society also caused alienation. While the Jewish literature that concerns us was the offspring of Old Testament prophecy, the apocalyptic movement had parallels in the contemporary world of the Middle East. Other nations resisted Greek rule and created hopes of a renewal of a native kingship. They divided history into four successive kingdoms and expected a god to intervene to restore order and bring victory. This shows the links between the religious thought of nations of the ancient world, of their response to aggressive oppression, and of their hope in deliverance from God.

Characteristics of Apocalyptic Writing The characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic writings are widely discussed, sometimes without due regard for the diversity in these writings. It is commonly agreed that three major features characterize apocalyptic thinking: dualism, determinism, and pessimism. Dualism is the dominant characteristic and is expressed in two ways: (1) in a dual spacial order—powers of heaven and powers of hell, hence angels and demons in abundance, spirits of good and spirits of evil, a holy Spirit and an evil prince of this world; (2) in a historical dualism—the present age is ruled by the evil powers and is wholly wicked, but it will be succeeded by the age to come, which will be ruled by God and therefore will be good. The ordering of the ages for the accomplishment of God's purpose in the coming age often entails a determinism, which can be applied to the last detail of history. This means God has already planned each historical event regardless of human choices and acts. This in turn can lead to pessimism, such as that in 4Ezra. Examples of dualism or determinism in some literature does not mean every writer of apocalyptic works believed in a world dominated by dualism and determinism. Persian religion had the ultimate dualism. The powers of good and evil were co-equal. This was impossible in Jewish thought, whose main belief was one God without equal. The idea that the devil is lord of the present age was not shared by all apocalyptists; for example, in Daniel 4:25 , Nebuchadnezzar was told that he would be humbled until he learned that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will,” (compare Revelation 13:5-10 ). Positively, we should view these insights as subsumed under the heading of the sovereignty of God. He is Lord of the universe, and so of all powers; the good are His ministers, the evil have to contribute to His will. The two ages are a clarification of the prophetic view of history leading to the day of the Lord, the coming of God, and the fulfillment of His purpose in the victorious kingdom of God. The determinism of which these writings speak is an attempt to set forth God's will as done on earth as in heaven. Such a faith is not rightly described as pessimism. It certainly postulates the inability of humanity to save itself and thus looks to God to complete history in the kingdom of glory. The end therefore is good !

Most apocalyptic works are ascribed to an ancient saint, as their names imply (for example, the books of Enoch , the Apocalypse of Abraham , of Noah , of Ezra , of Baruch ). The reason for this form is still uncertain; it obviously includes the desire for a book to gain a hearing, but it also expresses the conviction that the revelations have come down from ancient times, somewhat as the Pharisees believed that their tradition went back to Moses. Pseudonymity, however, was not a necessary adjunct of apocalyptic work; the literature of Qumran is without it, and the supreme example of apocalyptic writing, the Book of Revelation, was issued in the name of its author.

Significance The chief importance of the apocalyptic literature was its enabling the prophetic faith in God and hope for His kingdom to burn brightly in oppressive times. At its best it was more than maintenance of dogma. It encouraged people to be ready for and participate in God's final victory in history. Thus it encouraged an alienated, estranged, defeated people to live for God and to hope in His promised coming. Apocalyptic writing found its correction and true fulfillment in the message of Jesus, and in His living, dying, rising, and the hope of His appearance.

George Beasley-Murray


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Apocalyptic'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=378. 1991.

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