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The Apocalyptic Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series

The Apocalyptic Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series

by Stephen L. Cook

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Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the IBT series is to help serious readers in their experience of reading and interpreting by providing guides for their journeys into textual


Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the IBT series is to help serious readers in their experience of reading and interpreting by providing guides for their journeys into textual worlds. The focus of the series is not so much on the world behind the text as on the worlds created by the texts in their engagement with readers.

Nowhere is the world of the biblical text stranger than in the apocalyptic literature of both the Old and New Testaments. In this volume, Stephen Cook makes the puzzling visions and symbols of the biblical apocalyptic literature intelligible to modern readers. He begins with definitions of apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature and introduces the various scholarly approaches to and issues for our understanding of the text. Cook introduces the reader to the social and historical worlds of the apocalyptic groups that gave rise to such literature and leads the reader into a better appreciation and understanding of the theological import of biblical apocalyptic literature.

In the second major section of the book, Cook guides the reader through specific examples of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. He addresses both the best-known examples (the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation) and other important but lesser known examples (Zechariah and some words of Jesus and Paul).

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Abingdon Press
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Interpreting Biblical Texts
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The Apocalyptic Literature

By Stephen L. Cook

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-5088-5


Encountering Apocalyptic Worlds

Readers encounter wonderfully diverse worlds to explore in most parts of the Bible, but the apocalyptic parts—Revelation, for example, or Daniel—offer one that is uncommonly expansive and venturesome. Apocalyptic horizons dwarf other worlds within the Bible, encompassing the very destiny of the cosmos. Beyond its vastness, the apocalyptic world is illumining. Within its horizons, ethical lines are fully exposed. There is no difficulty identifying the allies of God or the enemies.

Entering an apocalyptic world within the Bible, the reader cannot remain neutral for long. Battle lines are drawn between the forces of good and evil. The stakes are profound, and they force a quick choosing of sides.

One's daily routines and encounters take on new meaning, framed against a supernatural battle. It is hard not to become engaged with present, earthly life when a purposeful, cosmic backdrop is revealed to lie behind it. Against such a backdrop, focused by the Bible's apocalyptic literature, individual existence brims with urgency and vibrancy.

Fantastic wonders and extreme horrors fill the apocalyptic worlds of the Bible. These worlds provoke readers' imaginations with highly metaphorical and mythological language. This colorful and elastic language is intrinsically flexible, encompassing diverse human situations and challenges and revealing heaven's cosmic perspective on them all.

The vista is breathtaking and enlivening but subject to much abuse. Too often, in fact, people read apocalyptic literature with misguided motives and interests. Eager for clairvoyant speculations or sensational entertainment, they miss the texts' real import. Apocalyptic texts aim much more to clarify the patterns and conflicts at stake in present experience than to speculate about the details of the future.

Wakefulness about God's interests and goals and their impact on present experience is the core concern of apocalyptic texts. A good example of how this works occurs in an apocalyptic hymn among the Dead Sea Scrolls, interpreted by John J. Collins, a major scholar of apocalyptic literature. Collins's discussion of the hymn illustrates the relevance of an apocalyptic world for the immediate situation of the document's author. Collins writes:

The space in which the author of this hymn moves is the cosmic space of Sheol and the eternal height. The time in which he moves is the eschatological period of wrath against [Satan]. The pattern of future tumult and deliverance is already manifest in his own experience.

The Bible's apocalyptic worlds can put off modern readers. The light of apocalyptic illumination is piercing, cutting through the many gray areas familiar from our daily experience. The tone of crisis and catastrophe of apocalypticism is jarring. It pulls the rug of normalcy out from under our feet.

Apocalyptic worlds even call into question common religious beliefs. The apocalyptic reign of God has nothing to do with many spiritual assumptions and aspirations typical of religious believers in the Western world. For example, it does not set its future hopes on an ethereal realm of heaven, populated by souls enjoying a beatific afterlife. Rather, its fervent hope centers firmly on a tangible, physical renewal of the cosmos and natural environment and of humanity and human community.

A realized, undisputed reign of God would necessarily contradict humanity's will to power, disrupting and overthrowing the powers and structures presently forging human history. It would have cataclysmic implications for earth's present systems of politics, economics, and society. In addition, since sovereignty over the whole cosmos—heaven and earth—is God's prerogative, an advent of God's ultimate reign would be cosmic in scope. Its impact would change nature, space, and time alongside human society.

Despite their strange and disconcerting traits, the Bible's apocalyptic worlds continually captivate large numbers of readers. These worlds must appeal to real, deep human needs.

As the twenty-first century begins, apocalyptic fears, hopes, and dreams are everywhere. Ongoing research into the apocalyptic imagination of the Dead Sea Scrolls enthralls scholars of religion and the educated public alike. The question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was an apocalyptic prophet currently stimulates even greater interest and debate. In popular culture, the Left Behind series of novels about the end of the world has now sold more than fifty million copies in twenty-one different languages. Three of the novels in the series have reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list.

Many people experienced the terrorist destruction of New York City's twin towers on September 11, 2001, as an apocalyptic specter. The baseline normalcy of things we took for granted suddenly appeared vulnerable and transitory in the wake of the disaster. What is more, our decent and acceptable world revealed a gory potential for demonic tragedy in a way hard to contest. United States culture as a whole was jarred—at least for a few months—with an existential shock usually confined to individual experience, when a person loses a parent or spouse to death and comes face-to-face with the unacceptable, the catastrophic.

The apocalyptic texts of the Bible come to terms with the very revelations about the world unveiled by the tragedy of September 11. They grapple with the unmistakable truth that components of "normal" life are fundamentally inhuman, completely unacceptable. Biblical apocalyptic worlds take for granted that space/time reality, as we know it, contains tangible signs of inherent catastrophe. They claim God has a plan of cosmic redemption to address that problem.

Despite modern suspicions and reluctance about the Bible's apocalyptic imagination, the apocalyptic dream may well be the only one worth dreaming. If our post-September 11 realism is accurate, the world suffers irredeemable wrong, and salvation is only possible with God's climactic intervention. The New Testament scholar Dale C. Allison elegantly expresses the point:

If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.


The term apocalyptic, given to the biblical worlds before us, comes from the Greek word apokalyptein, which means, "uncover, reveal." The apocalyptic worlds of the Bible peer beyond mundane political and social realities, revealing a new world coming. Profoundly realistic about humanity's limitations and shortcomings, the literature recognizes that this better world, while a fundamental human longing, will never come as a human achievement. It comes only with the advent of God's sovereign rule on earth.

"Apocalyptic," as a label, fits several different phenomena. It applies to a body of literature (a genre), to a particular type of religious imagination (a worldview), and to a specific sort of group within society (a social entity). Apocalyptic, or "millennial" groups, share an apocalyptic imagination, an apocalyptic view of the world around them. Such groups may or may not produce writings. If they do, these writings, which reflect the group's imagination, are termed apocalyptic literature.

Scholars nowadays are reluctant to speak of the essence of apocalyptic literature or to make a list of necessary characteristics. They conceive of the literature, rather, as a body of texts sharing a family resemblance. A complex set of common features and differences interconnect family members, but they are not necessary, fixed features or any ultimate essence.

One can begin exploring apocalyptic literature by sampling a particular text. The apocalypses of the Bible are examined closely below, so we can begin with an extrabiblical document, one from the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran.

The Qumran community was a priestly and apocalyptic ("millennial") sect within early Judaism. It is one of the best-known early Jewish apocalyptic groups. Its sectarian founders abandoned privileged posts at the Jerusalem temple to move to the Judean desert and prepare for the world's end. The Qumran scrolls date relatively late, to Greco-Roman times, so beginning with one of them has the benefit of providing a look at a well-developed example of apocalyptic literature, with full-blown apocalyptic features.

Let us briefly survey two columns of text from the Community Rule scroll (1QS) of the Dead Sea sect, columns III.13–IV.26. The Community Rule is likely a charter, a regulatory document for those choosing to live as permanent members of the Qumran community. Its original manuscript dates to around the end of the second century B.C.E. This makes it one of the community's older documents.

Our text lays amid other sections of the scroll that state the community's aims, admission procedures, organization, and rules for common life. It forms a compact statement of the community's beliefs and teaching, with particular emphasis on the nature of human existence and the spirits of truth and falsehood that govern it.

In the current era, according to the text, two spiritual forces coexist in extreme tension—"the spirits of truth and of injustice" (III.18-19). The technical term for such a stark, either/or (binary) opposition of spirits is "moral dualism." It is widespread in apocalyptic literature.

Each spirit fiercely opposes the other with an "eternal enmity," which God has put "between their (two) classes" (IV.16-17). God established the forces "in equal parts until the last time," but, for the time being, evil has the upper hand. All human beings must choose sides in the ongoing struggle, which will continue until God's climactic "visitation" of earth at the end of days. Each human being belongs in one of the two camps.

The text makes clear that real people are not ideal types, purely negative or positive. In the current era, at least, people behave in both good and evil ways. This results from the dual influence on all people of both spirits of truth and injustice (cf. III.21). One of the two spirits predominates in each individual, however, so each person belongs with either the children of light or the children of darkness.

The moral dualism of the text is not absolute. Having no eternal, independent existence, the power of evil is not really on a par with God. In strong monotheistic statements, the text declares God the creator of both spirits of light and of darkness. God "created the spirits of light and of darkness, and upon them founded every deed" (III.25). Since God created the possibility of evil, God can, and will, exterminate all dark powers at the end of days.

According to the Community Rule, angels and other supernatural figures play key roles in the ongoing struggle of the forces of good and evil. These figures function primarily as mediators between heaven and earth. Their existence and role in apocalyptic texts highlights another type of dualism characteristic of this literature: a metaphysical dualism.

Apocalyptic literature frequently imagines heaven and earth as separate realms of existence, which parallel and mirror each other. Transcendent molds, or archetypes, in heaven often prefigure and orchestrate the course of history on earth. Supernatural entities in heaven frequently invade earth to achieve divine goals.

In our text, a figure called the "Prince of Lights" wields control over righteous human beings as they walk in the ways of light (III.20). At some points in other Dead Sea Scrolls, the Prince of Lights appears to be the archangel Michael. Michael is a highly significant individual angel in apocalyptic texts such as Dan 12:1; 1 Enoch 9:1; and Rev 12:7. The Community Rule terms good angels in general "the sons of heaven" (IV.22).

An "angel of darkness," by contrast, has complete control of all humans aligned with injustice on earth. The text states: "Complete control over the sons of injustice lies in the hand of the angel of darkness, and they walk in the ways of darkness. It is through the angel of darkness that all the sons of righteousness go astray, and all their sins, their iniquities, their guilt, and their deeds of transgression are under his control" (III.20-22). Elsewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls, this commander of the spiritual forces of wickedness is called "Belial" ("uselessness," "wickedness"; Damascus Document [CD] IV.12), "the angel of enmity" (CD XVI.5, 1QM XIII.11), and "the prince of the kingdom of wickedness" (1QM XVII.5b-6a).

Humans must endure the struggle of light and darkness for the present, but this will not always be the case. God has a fixed plan to create a world where truth will prevail. Apocalyptic texts frequently contain this further type of dualism between the present age of struggle and darkness and an age to come, forever purged of darkness and evil.

The Community Rule uses glowing language to describe the coming new era, when God will reign on earth. In the new era, the chosen that presently walk in truth will experience an Eden-like paradise—"all the glory of Adam" (IV.23). There will be "healing, abundant peace with long life, fruitfulness with every everlasting blessing, eternal joy with life forever, and a crown of glory with a garment of honor in eternal light" (IV.6-8).

Apocalyptic texts generally expect an imminent divine intervention in history to permanently expunge evil. The expectation is a type of "radical eschatology." (Eschatology refers to beliefs about "last things," such as the last days of history.) In our text, from beyond the veil separating earth from heaven God terminates evil and renews the world by breaking into history's last days. The text refers to this coming intervention as God's "visitation." God has already decided on an appointed time for the visitation, a "time decreed for judgment" (IV.20). The judgment that occurs at God's climactic visit involves both punishment and reward, the latter of which goes to the children of light (III.14-15).

When the visitation comes, God's intervention destroys evil, forever putting "an end to the existence of injustice" (IV.18). At that time, God will "destroy it forever" (IV.19). This, in turn, allows truth to appear in the world forever, a benefit of the undisputed reign of God. Righteous human beings get to experience eternal bliss on earth from that point forward.

God appears in complete control of history. From before creation, God worked out "everything that is and will be," specifically fixing "all their plans" (III.15). In other words, God preplanned and predetermined the course of all events on earth. This notion of predetermination of earth's events, or at least of the end of human history, is a key feature in many apocalyptic texts.

God's sovereign control and divine plan for the periods of history are a mystery to humans, however. Any insight into the plan is necessarily secret, "deviant" wisdom. As mentioned above, apocalyptic knowledge usually seems suspicious and jarring to most readers. It calls into question the everyday world they take for granted.

Our text describes the orchestration and timing of God's end-time intervention as a matter of God's "mysterious insight and glorious wisdom" (IV.18). The "mysteries of God" are the private knowledge of the Qumran covenanters, to whom God has revealed God's secrets.

Some apocalyptic groups are open and evangelistic about apocalyptic beliefs, but the Qumran community exercised extreme secrecy. In fact, the rules of the community forbade any general, open disclosure of God's apocalyptic plans. Among the ways and behaviors of the "sons of truth," our text specifically speaks about circumspection and about "concealment of the truth of the mysteries of knowledge" (IV.6).

The Jewish historian Josephus (writing around 79 C.E.) reports that initiation into Essene communities, like that of Qumran, involved a binding oath never to reveal the group's secrets even if tortured to death (J.W. 2.141). All the covenanters swore never to tell strangers about their group plans, above all about their preparations for an end-time war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. The Essenes' end-time war involved the real defeat of political adversaries. Such expectations for the downfall of contemporary world powers, if made public, would surely have provoked the hostility of the authorities.


Excerpted from The Apocalyptic Literature by Stephen L. Cook. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

(2001) Stephen L. Cook is Associate Professor of Old Testament, Virginia Theological Seminary. His Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting (Fortress Press, 1995) was named Outstanding Book of the Year by the professional journal Choice.

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