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Apocalypticism is a very old way of thinking. While there is debate regarding the origins of beliefs in the end of the world, there is no doubt that long ago people considered the possibility that someday their known world would end, be replaced, or be renewed. However, to really understand the mindset that led ancient Jewish and Christian writers to imagine an apocalyptic event, we have to start well before even our oldest apocalyptic texts. In fact, we have to start with a different worldview entirely: the wisdom traditions that apocalypticism grew out of.
From wisdom literature, we will turn to a discussion of apocalyptic literature as a genre, including its key features and concerns. As exhausting as all that may sound, we won't be done there. We will dig deeper into biblical and non-biblical apocalyptic writings whose specific ideas continued to influence later thinking.
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Genre means the type or kind of writing a piece of literature is. As we know, different writing serves different purposes, and the genre reflects the purpose. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is not the same as my shopping list. One type of writing—of the genre poetry—is meant to evoke strong feelings of beauty or love. The other—of the genre list—is intended to convey needed information in the most efficient way possible. The Bible has genres of literature, too, including law, prophetic oracle, letter, apocalyptic, and gospel, just to name a few.
THE WISDOM TRADITION
Wisdom literature, and the worldview behind it, was one direct precursor to the apocalyptic literature we wish to understand. Wisdom traditions were very important within the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as a way of understanding the world and why bad things happen. Apocalyptic traditions that grew out of wisdom literature attempted to answer some of the same questions.
Wisdom traditions in ancient Israel are very old. And some scholars believe that traditions date as far back as the reign of kings Saul, David, and Solomon. However, the existing texts we have (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, some of the Psalms, Song of Songs, Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon) have a long compositional history which likely reaches into the period of the exile of the Judahites by the Babylonians (586 BCE and later). The book of Deuteronomy includes a system of blessings and curses based on a person's actions (Deut. 30), so the wisdom tradition and its almost universal basic view that good things happen to the righteous and bad to the evil are a natural extension of the laws in the Pentateuch. Indeed wisdom literature, as we now understand it, took the idea of reward and punishment in this life to its logical extreme, creating both a unified worldview and an ultimate backlash.
In order to understand the growth of apocalyptic traditions we have to first understand what the concept of wisdom implied. Put succinctly, wisdom is the orderly worldview of the sages of Israel and Judah, in which actions resulted in a this-worldly reward or punishment based on the standards of the Law and right action. Consider the following, from Proverbs 28:4, 5, 7, 9:
Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them. The evil do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.... Those who keep the law are wise children, but companions of gluttons shame their parents. ... When one will not listen to the law, even one's prayers are an abomination.
Here we see the first of several features that exemplify the Wisdom worldview—humans ought to live according to the standard of the Law. Scholars do not agree about what exactly the sage meant by law, but we can guess that it was not too different from the Torah commands that we see in the Scripture today: circumcision as a sign of the covenant, the worship of one God, kashrut (proper behavior in such matters as what to eat), interpersonal justice, and the keeping of holy days. (See for example Wisd. Sol. 6:4; Sirach 24:23; 35:1.) Whatever the specific content of the Law, however, it is clear from the sage's advice that keeping the law was critical to a life of wisdom and justice.
Added to this standard of the Law, the sages often relied on experience to convince their audience that this pursuit of wisdom was prudent. In some forms of the wisdom tradition the self-guided quest for wisdom can even completely replace the standard of the Law. In Ecclesiastes (called Qoheleth) for example, the teacher applied his "mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven" (1:13) and made a test of various lifestyles to consider their role in the cosmic order (2:1–8). The author of Ben Sira exhorts his reader, "When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily" (5:7). Behind this experiential model of gaining wisdom is likely a sense that wisdom is built into the cosmos, that it is "set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth" (Prov. 8:23). Thus, wisdom can be seen and understood in all the created order, even apart from knowledge of the Law.
From the standard of the Law, and the ordered and predictable nature of the cosmos as a whole, the wisdom tradition draws its second key feature: a strict division between the righteous and the wicked. Good people do good things ("keep the Law" or "seek the Lord"), and the bad do bad things ("forsake the Law," etc.). In most wisdom literature humans seldom have mixed motives. Instead, humanity is neatly organized into those who seek wisdom, and those who do not. The division is so orderly that it can be described in poetic couplets.
A third feature of the wisdom worldview, as evident in Proverbs 28:4–9, is the immediacy of reward and punishment for these two types of people. For the faithful, rewards are evident and tangible in this world. The author of Ben Sira explains:
Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord. The Lord's gift remains with the devout, and his favor brings lasting success.... The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the pious, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish. (Sirach 11:14–17, 22)
The reward might be in the form of offspring, financial gain or property, wisdom, or status, but all rewards are in the here and now. There is no sense that the faithful might be denied their due, nor that the evil might go unpunished with immediate consequences for their unfaithfulness. Instead, the wisdom tradition affirms that the good things that happen in this world are a sign of favor and proof of righteousness, while curses and hurt are a sign of damnation.
Since most of these texts focus on immediate reward and punishment, an afterlife or place of eternal torment or bliss is never mentioned. The wisdom writers mention heaven only as the place where God and the angels dwell, and they do not talk about a blissful life to come for the faithful, except perhaps in the memories of the living (as in Wisd. of Sol. 8:13). They may mention Sheol, (as in Job 7:9, Prov. 1:12, and others) but only as a sort of holding cell for the dead, without regard to one's actions in life.
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Sheol is the common term in the Old Testament for the underworld. The people who wrote the Bible believed the earth was flat and that it was squeezed between a world above (heaven) and a world below (Sheol, see Isa. 7:11). In the Bible, Sheol is described as the place people go when they die, whether righteous or wicked (see Ezek. 32 and Ps. 88).
Consider other examples from the wisdom tradition, such as this from the book of Ecclesiastes:
For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (3:19–20)
And similarly from the book of Job:
Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye that beholds me will see me no more; while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone. ... For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be. (7:7–8, 21)
In wisdom literature, then, what one experiences in this life is all one has. What one gains, one gains here, and death marks the end of striving and self. In the end, all are dust, and all turn to dust again.
Apocalyptic texts depend on the ideals of justice, order, and good and evil that we see in these wisdom texts. Once Israel fell under the imperial domination of the Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, the simple answers of the wisdom texts could no longer respond to the pressures imposed by other nations. As part of the efforts to truly conquer the people they subjugated, these empires enacted policies that had an impact on the law of Judaism, and consequently on a person's ability to keep it. By the time of Greek rule, for example, laws were enacted banning circumcision and compelling the Jewish people to eat unclean foods. People who refused were killed in horrific ways (e.g., 2 Macc. 7). In the later Roman occupation, many Jews and Christians were pressured to give up monotheistic practice for the Roman tradition of emperor worship. In Asia Minor during the reign of Domitian (81–96 CE), for example, the imperial cult was at least promoted and may have even been compulsory, with Domitian himself demanding to be called "Lord and God." Such a violation of monotheistic principles may have been part of the motivation for the writing of the Revelation in the New Testament.
A system whereby those that kept the law of Moses and meditated on wisdom were blessed with righteousness and gain in this lifetime, and whereby the good could trust that they would be rewarded and the evil would be punished, could no longer address the realities of the world of subjugation and oppression and left people struggling for understanding. People were asking, "Does Greek rule mean that the Greeks are favored by God? But how could they be favored when they so clearly flout the Law?" And what of the Jewish people who tried to keep Torah, only to be tortured or killed for their faithfulness? Did they deserve to die? The wisdom worldview simply could not answer these questions in meaningful ways for oppressed people, and gradually a new view of the world came into existence to address some of these key questions.
CHARACTERISTICS OF APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
The earliest forms of apocalyptic literature appear ca. 200 BCE when the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah were under Greek rule. Over several hundred years, the features of apocalyptic literature grew and developed into what we see in Jewish and Christian texts today. However, all apocalyptic texts do not share all characteristics of apocalyptic literature; instead, they share a common ideology. Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts are different because the beliefs and practices of the religions differ.
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An ideology is a worldview or way of thinking. Everyone views the world differently, of course, but sometimes people with similar experiences share a similar way of thinking about those experiences. In the case of apocalyptic communities, shared suffering results in an ideology which looks forward to the end of suffering.
I will try to make clear these theological differences as we go. Finally, scholars differentiate between the following:
* apocalyptic literature
* apocalyptic worldview
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What's the difference between apocalyptic literature, apocalyptic worldview, and apocalypticism? Apocalyptic literature refers to a genre of writing that shares common elements and style, which we will discuss here. An apocalyptic worldview is a set of ideas about the coming end of the world, which may be written down in apocalyptic literature but isn't always. Apocalypticism is a social movement, a group of people that gather around a leader in anticipation of the coming end of the world.
These categories are used because texts cannot and do not contain all aspects of a group's ideology. In fact, not all apocalyptic communities (in the sense of having a dire view of a fast-approaching end) produce apocalyptic works, so I will emphasize the literature's genre (or, conventional style of writing in apocalyptic literature) because it is the writings and the ideas they contain that continue to influence historical and modern apocalyptic movements.
The most widespread feature of apocalyptic literature is this: apocalyptic texts develop in situations of oppression and/or uncertainty. The crisis may be political or theological, and it may be real or perceived, but behind most apocalyptic literature is a group of people asking why. As previously discussed, after the destruction of the first temple, Jewish life was difficult. Not only did the Babylonians destroy the sacred space in Jerusalem, where God was said to dwell; they also ended the Davidic monarchy, which was supposed to have stood forever (see 2 Sam. 7) and sent the people into exile far from the land of Judah. Even after the temple was rebuilt and the people returned under the Persian emperor Cyrus, no leader from the line of David was allowed to rule. Instead, foreign emperors appointed client or puppet kings to oversee subjugated lands. These rulers were often brutal in their treatment of the local population, as exemplified by the Greek Seleucid princes in the second century BCE.
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The Seleucids were a series of Greek rulers that controlled Palestine from 223–164 BCE. They got their name from the first of these leaders, Seleucus I, who had been a general of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.
Among the most vicious of the Seleucids was Antiochus IV, who ruled from 175–164 BCE. According to the stories in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees, Antiochus expected more than just political obedience and taxes from the people; he demanded to be called Epiphanes ("God manifest") and forbade the Jewish people from circumcision, kosher, and worship in the temple (2 Macc. 6) in order to make the people behave like Greeks. This is a process called Hellenization, and usually refers to making language, philosophy, art, and/or religion more Greek.
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The Apocrypha is a collection of ancient texts that are revered and used in worship by Christians in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Included in this collection are writings such as Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch, along with additions to other books of the Canon such as Daniel and Esther. These books aren't part of the Protestant Canon, but do help all Christians understand the social and historical situation right before the life of Jesus.
When he heard of potential rebellion, he "ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those [Judeans] whom they saw and to slay those who took refuge in their houses" (2 Macc. 5:12). At one point Antiochus's army even marched into the temple and sacrificed to Zeus on the altar there. The Jewish rebellion that followed this desecration of the temple is remembered in the eight-night celebration of Hanukkah, with one candle lit for each night the people needed in order to make the temple a sacred space again.
Apocalyptic sections of Daniel (specifically 7–12) address this time of persecution by looking forward to a time when suffering will be resolved. Here is one vision:
I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. (Dan. 7:13–14)
You can see that both the religious and political uncertainty of the time is addressed by imagining a new (soon-to-come) king, approved by God (the "Ancient One") and appointed to rule over all people, including foreign oppressors. It is no wonder that, during this period and other times of persecution or uncertainty, it became necessary to rethink the past worldview of the wisdom literature and the absolutism of a Davidic monarchy, which didn't last forever as planned. Apocalypticism became a way to imagine hope in such bleak times, to provide assurance that current conditions were soon to end.
Many scholars point out that not all apocalyptic literature can be traced to a particular moment of political crisis. Instead, as previously mentioned, uncertainties about God, life, and death can result in apocalyptic writing. One common concern, it seems, is the fate of the dead. The Pentateuch makes no mention of a life after death; the prophets and writings (except the apocalyptic sections of Daniel) share little more. In some books that follow Deuteronomy the authors mention Sheol, but only as an abode of all the dead. Reward for the righteous or a punishment for the wicked in Sheol is not discussed. As we have seen, wisdom literature tended to emphasize present rewards for the righteous and present punishment for the unjust.
By the Hellenistic period, authors address the injustice of an immediate reward and punishment system. Obviously, a Hellenistic writer would not be able to ignore his own situation where the innocent were slaughtered and the heretics ruled. Key issues needing to be addressed would include the following:
* How to still trust in an orderly world
* How to maintain the hope that the murdered were not gone forever without reward for their faithfulness
The answer was that rewards and punishments happened in the vast space and time of eternity—not in the relative space and time of earthly nation-states. Consider the following text from Daniel:
Excerpted from GUESSES, GOOFS & PROPHETIC FAILURES by JESSICA TINKLENBERG DEVEGA Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Nelson Publishers . Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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