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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Apocalyptic Literature

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APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE . The apocalypse as a literary form of Jewish literature first appears during the Hellenistic period. Its origin is to a considerable degree in dispute, but is involved in the general development of the period. Among the Hebrews its forerunner was the description of the Day of Jehovah . On that day, the prophets taught, Jehovah was to punish the enemies of Israel and to establish His people as a world power. In the course of time this conception was supplemented by the further expectation of a judgment for Jews as well as for heathen ( Amos 2:3-8; Amos 3:9-15; Amos 5:10-13 , Zechariah 1:2-18; Zechariah 2:4-13; Joel 2:18-28 , Ezekiel 30:2 f.). The first approach to the apocalyptic method is probably to be seen in Zechariah 9:1-17; Zechariah 10:1-12; Zechariah 11:1-17; Zechariah 12:1-14; Zechariah 13:1-9; Zechariah 14:1-21 . It was in the same period that the tendencies towards the aesthetic conceptions which had been inherited from the Babylonian exile were beginning to be realized under the influence of Hellenistic culture. Because of their religion, literature was the only form of aesthetic expression (except music) which was open to the art impulses of the Jews. In the apocalypse we thus can see a union of the symbolism and myths of Babylonia with the religious faith of the Jews, under the influence of Hellenistic culture. By its very origin it was the literary means of setting forth by the use of symbols the certainty of Divine judgment and the equal certainty of Divine deliverance. The symbols are usually animals of various sorts, but frequently composite creatures whose various parts represented certain qualities of the animals from which they were derived.

Apocalyptic is akin to prophecy. Its purpose was fundamentally to encourage faith in Jehovah on the part of those who were in distress, by ‘revealing’ the future. Between genuine prophetism and apocalyptic there existed, however, certain differences not always easy to formulate, but appreciable to students of the two types of religious Instruction. ( a ) The prophet, taking a stand in the present, so interprets current history as to disclose Divine forces at work therein, and the inevitable outcome of a certain course of conduct. The writers of the apocalypses, however, seem to have had little spiritual insight into the providential ordering of existing conditions, and could see only present misery and miraculous deliverance. ( b ) Assuming the name of some worthy long since dead, the apocalyptist re-wrote the past in terms of prophecy in the name of some hero or seer of Hebrew history. On the strength of the fulfilment of this alleged prophecy, he forecast, though in very general terms, the future. ( c ) Prophecy made use of symbol in literature as a means of enforcing or making intelligible its Divinely inspired message. The apocalyptists employed allegorically an elaborate machinery of symbol, chief among which were sheep, bulls, birds, as well as mythological beings like Beliar and the Antichrist.

The parent of apocalyptic is the book of Daniel, which, by the almost unanimous consensus of scholars, appeared in the Maccabæan period (see Daniel [Bk. of]). From the time of this book until the end of the 1st cent. a.d., and indeed even later, we find a continuous stream of apocalypses, each marked by a strange combination of pessimism as to the present and hope as to the future yet to be miraculously established. These works are the output of one phase of Pharisaism, which, while elevating both Torah and the Oral Law, was not content with bald legalism, but dared trust in the realization of its religious hopes. The authors of the various works are utterly unknown. In this, as in other respects, the apocalypses constitute a unique national literature. Chief among apocalyptic literature are the following:

1. The Enoch Literature . The Enoch literature has reached us in two forms: ( a ) The Ethiopic Enoch; ( b ) The Slavonic Book of the Secrets of Enoch. The two books are independent, and indicate the wide-spread tendency to utilize the story of the patriarch in apocalyptic discourse.

( a ) The Ethiopic Book of Enoch is a collection of apocalypses and other material written during the last two centuries before Christ. It was probably written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and then translated into Greek, and from that into Ethiopic and Latin. As it now exists, the collection is a survival of a wide-spread Enoch literature, and its constituent sections have been to a considerable extent edited by both Jews and Christians. Critics, while varying as to details, are fairly well agreed as to the main component sources, each probably representing a different author or school.

(i.) The original ground-work of the present book is to be found in chs. 1 36 and 72 104, in the midst of which are, however, numerous interpolations (see iv. below). These chapters were probably written before b.c. 100. Chs. 1 36 deal chiefly with the portrayal of the punishment to be awarded the enemies of the Jews and sinners generally on the Day of Judgment. The eschatology of these chapters is somewhat sensuous as regards both the resurrection and rewards and punishments. In them we have probably the oldest piece of Jewish literature touching the general resurrection of Israel and representing Gehenna as a place of final punishment (see Gehenna).

The dream visions (chs. 83 90) were probably written in the time of Judas Maccabæus or John Hyrcanus. By the use of symbolic animals sheep, rams, wild beasts Hebrew history is traced to the days of the Hasmonæan revolt. The years of misery are represented by a flock under seventy shepherds, who, in the new age about to dawn, are to be cast with the evil men and angels into an abyss of fire. The Messiah is then to appear, although his function is not definitely described. In ch. 91 the future is somewhat more transcendentally described.

In the later chapters of this oldest section the new eschatology is more apparent. In them are to be found representations of the sleep of the righteous, the resurrection of the spirit of the Messiah, though human, as God’s Son (105.2), the Day of Judgment, and the punishment of the wicked in hell.

(ii.) Whether or not the second group of chapters (37 71), or the Similitudes , is post- or pre-Christian has been thoroughly discussed. The general consensus of recent critics, however, is that the Similitudes were probably written somewhere between b.c. 94 and 64: at all events, before the time of Herod. The most remarkable characteristic of these Similitudes is the use of the term ‘Son of Man’ for the Messiah. But it is not possible to see in the use of this term any reference to the historical Jesus. More likely it marks a stage in the development of the term from the general symbolic usage of Daniel 7:13 to the strictly Messianic content of the NT. In the Similitudes we find described the judgment of all men, both alive and dead, as well as of angels. Yet the future is still to some extent sensuous, although transcendental influences are very evident in the section. The Messiah pre-exists and is more than a man. The share which he has in the reorganization of the world is more prominent than in the older sections.

(iii.) Interspersed throughout the book are sections which Charles calls ‘the book of celestial physics.’ These sections are one of the curiosities of scientific literature, and may be taken as a fair representative of the astronomical and meteorological beliefs of the Palestinian Jews about the time of Christ.

(iv.) Interpolations from the so-called Book of Noah , which are very largely the work of the last part of the pre-Christian era, although it is not possible to state accurately the date of their composition.

The importance of Enoch is great for the understanding of the eschatology of the NT and the methods of apocalyptic.

( b ) The (Slavonic) Secrets of Enoch probably had a pre-Christian original, and further, presupposes the existence of the Ethiopic Enoch. It could not, therefore, have been written much prior to the time of Herod, and, as the Temple is still standing, must have been written before a.d. 70. The author (or authors) was probably a Hellenistic Jew living in the first half of the 1st cent. a.d. The book is particularly interesting in that in it is to be found the first reference to the millennium (xxxii. 2 xxxiii. 2), which is derived from a combination of the seven creative days and Psalms 90:4 . At the close of the six thousand years, the new day, or Sabbath of the thousand years, was to begin. The Secrets of Enoch is a highly developed picture of the coming age and of the structure of the heaven, which, it holds, is seven-fold. Here, too, are the Judgment, though of individuals rather than of nations, the two æons, the complete renovation or destruction of the earth. There is no mention of a resurrection, and the righteous are upon death to go immediately to Paradise.

2. The Book of Jubilees is a Haggadist commentary on Genesis, and was probably written in the Maccabæan period, although its date is exceedingly uncertain, and may possibly he placed in the latter half of the last cent. b.c. In this writing angelology and demonology are well developed. While there is no mention of the Messiah, the members of the Messianic age are to live a thousand years, and are to be free from the influence or control of Satan. The book contains no doctrine of the resurrection; but spirits are immortal. While there is punishment of the wicked, and particularly of evil spirits and the enemies of Israel, the Judgment is not thoroughly correlated with a general eschatological scheme. The chief object of the book is to incite the Jews to a greater devotion to the Law, and the book is legalistic rather than idealistic.

The ‘new age’ was to be inaugurated by wide-spread study of the Law, to which the Jews would be forced by terrible suffering. Certain passages would seem to imply a resurrection of the dead and a renewing of all creation along with the endless punishment of the wicked.

3. The Psalms of Solomon a group of noble songs, written by a Pharisee (or Pharisees) probably between b.c. 70 and 40, the dates being fixed by reference to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the death of Pompey (Ps-Sol 2:30, 31). The collection is primarily a justification of the downfall of the Maccabæan house because of its sins. Its author (or authors) was opposed to monarchy as such, and looked forward to the time when the Messiah would really be king of Judæa. The picture of this king as set forth in Psalms 17:1-15; Psalms 18:1-50 is one of the noblest in Jewish literature. He is to be neither sufferer nor teacher, pre-existent nor miraculously horn. He is not to be a priest, or warrior. He is to be sinless, strong through the Holy Spirit, gaining his wisdom from God, conquering the entire heathen world without war, ‘by the word of his mouth,’ and to establish the capital of the world at Jerusalem. All the members of the new kingdom, which, like the Messiah, is miraculous, are to be ‘sons of God.’ These two Psalms are not of a kin with the ordinary apocalyptic literature like the Enoch literature, and probably represent a tendency more religious than apocalyptic. At the same time, the influence of the apocalyptic is not wanting in them.

4. The Assumption of Moses was probably written in the opening years of the 1st cent. a.d., and narrates in terms of prophecy the history of the world from the time of Moses until the time of its composition, ending in an eschatological picture of the future. As it now stands, the writing is hardly more than a fragment of a much larger work, and exists only in an old Latin translation. The most striking characteristic is the importance given to Satan as the opponent of God, as well as the rather elaborate portrayal of the end of the age it narrates. The Judgment is to be extended to the Gentiles, but no Messiah is mentioned, the Messianic kingdom rather than He being central. Further, the writer, evidently in fear of revolutionary tendencies among his people, says distinctly that God alone-is to be judge of the Gentiles.

5. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a composite work purporting to preserve the last words of the twelve sons of Jacob. It was probably written during the first two centuries of the Christian era, although some of its material may be earlier. As it now stands, it is full of Christian interpolations, and it has little apocalyptic material, being rather of the nature of homilies illustrated with much legendary matter, including eschatological pictures and references to demons and their king Beliar. The new age is not distinctly described, but apparently involves only earthly relationships. God’s judgment on wicked men and demons is, however, elaborately pictured, sometimes in terms hard to reconcile with the less transcendental accounts of the blessings assured to the Jewish nation. Each of the patriarchs is represented as dealing with that particular virtue or vice with which the Biblical account associates him, and also as foretelling appropriate blessings or curses. The work is preserved in Greek and Armenian translations.

6. The Ascension of Isaiah is a composite book which circulated largely among the Christian heretics of the 3rd century. At its basis lies a group of legends of uncertain origin, dealing with the Antichrist and Beliar. These in turn are identified with the expectation that Nero would return after death. The book, therefore, in its present shape is probably of Christian origin, and is not older than the 2nd cent., or possibly the latter part of the 1st. The Isaiah literature, however, was common in the 1st cent., and the book is a valuable monument of the eschatological tendencies and beliefs of at least certain groups of the early Christians. Particularly important is it as throwing light upon the development of the Antichrist doctrines. It exists to-day in four recensions Greek, Ethiopic, Latin, and Slavonic.

7. The Apocalypse of Ezra (Second Esdras), written about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is the most complete expression of Pharisaic pessimism. Written in the midst of national misery, it is not able to see any relief except in the creation of a new world. The age was coming to an end, and the new age which was to belong to Israel would presently come. The judgment of Israel’s enemies was presently to be established, but not until the number of the righteous was complete. The book is no doubt closely related to the Apocalypse of Baruch , and both apparently reproduce the same originally Jewish material. It has been considerably affected by Christian hopes. Both for this reason and because of its emphasis on generic human misery and sin, with the consequent need of something more than a merely national deliverance, it gives a prominent position to the Messiah, who is represented as dying. As Second Esdras the book has become part of the Apocrypha of the OT, and has had considerable influence in the formation of Christian eschatology. In 2Es 7:30-70 is an elaborate account of the general Resurrection, Judgment, and the condition of souls after death; and it is this material quite as much as the Messianic prediction of chs. 12 14 that make it of particular interest to the student. It is possessed, however, of no complete unity in point of view, and passes repeatedly from the national to the ethical (individual) need and deliverance. The separation of these two views is, however, more than a critical matter. As in Mark 13:1-37 , the two illustrate each other.

8. The Apocalypse of Baruch is a composite work which embodies in itself a ground-work which is distinctly Jewish, and certain sections of which were probably written before the destruction of Jerusalem. Criticism, however, has not arrived at any complete consensus of opinion as regards its composition, but there can be little doubt that it represents the same apocalyptic tendencies and much of the material which are to be seen in Second Esdras. Just what are the relations between the two writings, however, has not yet been clearly shown. The probability is that the Apocalypse of Baruch, as it now stands, was written in the second half of the 1st cent. a.d., and has come under the influence of Christianity (see esp. chs. xlix li). Like Second Esdras, it is marked by a despair of the existing age, and looks forward to a transcendental reign of the Messiah, in which the Jews are to be supremely fortunate. It exists to-day in Greek and Syriac versions, with a strong probability that both are derived from original Hebrew writing. This apocalypse, both from its probable origin and general characteristics, is of particular value as a document for understanding the NT literature. In both the Apocalypse of Baruch and Second Esdras we have the most systematized eschatological picture that has come down to us from Pharisaism.

9. The Sibylline Oracles are the most important illustration of the extra-Palestinian-Hellenistic apocalyptic hope. As the work now exists, it is a collection of various writings dealing with the historical and future conditions of the Jewish people. The most important apocalyptic section is in Book iii. 97 828, written in Maccahæan times. In it the punishment of the enemies of the Jews is elaborately foretold, as are also the future and the Messianic Judgment. This third book was probably edited in the middle of the 2nd century by a Christian. In general, however, this Sibylline literature, although of great extent, gives us no such distinct pictures of the future as those to be found in the Ezra-Baruch apocalypses.

Shailer Mathews.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Apocalyptic Literature'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/a/apocalyptic-literature.html. 1909.

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