Interpreting Revelation & Other Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook

Interpreting Revelation & Other Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook

by C. Marvin Pate


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780825443640
Publisher: Kregel Publications
Publication date: 11/27/2016
Series: Handbooks for New Testament Interpretation Series
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

C. Marvin Pate (PhD, Marquette University) is professor of biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University. He is the author and editor of numerous works, including Four Views on the Book of Revelation; The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse; Romans (Teach the Text Commentary Series); and From Plato to Jesus.

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Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature

An Exegetical Handbook

By C. Marvin Pate, John D. Harvey

Kregel Publications

Copyright © 2016 C. Marvin Pate
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8254-4364-0



The Chapter at a Glance

This chapter provides a basic introduction to apocalyptism and the genre of literature that it produced.

• The genre of apocalypticism consists of form, content, and function.

• There are three mixed genres in Daniel (court tales, apocalyptic dreams, four-kingdom topos), and three genres that comprise Revelation (letter, prophecy, apocalypticism).

• Revelation also contains numerous subgenres, the: Letter/Covenant Structure of Revelation 2-3; Merkabah Mysticism and Revelation 4–5; Revelation 6–7 and The Olivet Discourse; Revelation 21–22 and the Restoration of Paradise; beatitudes and woes, 144,000, woman and the dragon, Caesar cult and the beasts, fall of Rome, temporary messianic kingdom, urzeit-endzeit, and ekphrasis.

• There are numerous figures of speech in Revelation, including simile, metaphor, personification, and parody.

• Apocalypticism is distinct from Merkabah Mysticism and Old Testament Prophecy.

David Hellholm writes, "Genre criticism is that aspect of comparative literature that attempts to understand a literary work in relation to other similar works, both diachronically and synchronically. A literary genre consists of a group of texts that exhibit a coherent and recurring pattern of features constituted by the interrelated elements of form, content, and function." The last three descriptors will rightly receive the bulk of the attention in this chapter as we seek to define the genre of apocalyptic literature. Moreover, we will also consider the subgenres and figures of speech that comprise that literature.

The first ancient composition to be designated an "apocalypse" by its author was the book of Revelation, which begins with, "the revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1). Since the publications of 1 Enoch in the nineteenth century, biblical scholars have noted the similarities with it and Revelation. Consequently, a whole body of literature has come to be included in such a category of apocalyptic literature: Daniel, especially chapters 7–12 (cf. Isa. 24–27; 56–66; Ezek. 38– 39; Joel 3–4; Zech. 9– 14). Outside of the Old Testament and preceding the New Testament era, the aforementioned 1 Enoch with its five-fold composition (chapters 1–36 — the Book of Watchers [known to modern audiences from the film "Noah"!]; chapters 37–71 — the Parables of Enoch; chapters 72–82 — the Book of Heavenly Luminaries; chapters 83–90–the Animal Apocalypse; chapters 91–105 — the Apocalypse of Weeks) is considered to be apocalyptic material. Other works such as 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Testament of Moses, and especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, are labeled "apocalyptic literature" by biblical scholars.

Later in this chapter we will analyze some of those writings just mentioned most pertinent to our concerns in terms of the threefold components of genre: form, content, and function. We will look only at those writings that either preceded the New Testament era: the relevant Old Testament writings; 1 Enoch (while the other sections of 1 Enoch date to before the first century A.D., the date of the Parables of Enoch is debated), and the Dead Sea Scrolls (150 B.C.), or were contemporaries to the New Testament material (Test. of Mos.; 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch).

This chapter has as its goal to discuss four key aspects of the genre of apocalypse: the definition of apocalypse, using the threefold category of form, content, and function, and in particular, how they relate to the books of Daniel and Revelation (Aune already applied the genre to this book; see below); mixed genres in the two biblical apocalypses — Daniel and Revelation; subgenres in Revelation; figures of speech in Revelation (the mother of all apocalypses); the relationship of the genre of apocalyptic literature to the genres of prophecy and merkabah mysticism. Unless I miss my guess, the reader is in for some big surprises as the next few chapters unfold!


Two stages have presented themselves in defining the genre of apocalypse: before the SBL definition in 1979 and after that seminal description.

Before the SBL Definition

The older way of defining apocalyptic literature before 1979 was to identify common literary features of the genre: pseudonymity, reports of visions, reviews of history presented as prophecies (ex eventu prophecy), number speculation, the figure of the angelus interpres (the interpreting angel), the tendency to make frequent use of the Old Testament, and the proclivity to incorporate a variety of literary forms (testaments, laments, hymns, woes, visions). The more characteristic theological features of apocalypses include imminent eschatology, pessimism, dualism (spatial, temporal, ethical), determinism, esotericism, bizarre imagery, individual transcendent salvation, and revelation of cosmic secrets.

David E. Aune, however, offers several weaknesses of the preceding description of the genre of apocalypse, rendering it insufficient for accurately treating that material: (1) The essential features of apocalypses are not distinguished from optional elements that are present in some apocalypses but absent from others. (2) Many of the characteristics on such lists are also found in other ancient literary genres. (3) Some of the compositions widely considered to be apocalypses do not exhibit many of the proposed traits of apocalypses. (4) The usual lists of traits leave out features that are present in apocalypses, such as the interest in cosmology, astrology, demonology, botany, zoology, and pharmacy.

The 1979 SBL Definition of the Genre of Apocalypse

In light of the above weaknesses of the definition of apocalypticism, J. J. Collins, the chair of the Apocalypse Group of the SBL Genres Project, offered what has by now become the standard definition of the genre of apocalypse: "'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."

This definition describing the core elements of the genre is related to a master paradigm Collins has proposed, which contains a lengthy list of the constituent features of ancient apocalypses, dividing into the following major categories, each of which describes an aspect of the form or content of apocalypses:


This definition by Collins and the SBL group has become the standard in ascertaining the definition of the genre of apocalypse, but the one weakness of this definition, as D. Hellholm as pointed out, is that it does not include the element of function. For that author, function notes that the apocalyptic work is, "intended for a group in crisis with the purpose of exhortation and/or consolation by means of divine authority."

The above paradigm based on form and content needs to be supplemented by the function of apocalyptic literature, as D. Hellholm well points out. As I have studied the pertinent literature under investigation, it is my contention that the authors situate their audiences in an eschatological reading of the covenant curses and blessings. Everyone of the previously listed apocalyptic pieces are designed by the respective authors to remind their communities that they are still in exile, that is, under the covenant curses due to Israel's disobedience to God's law. If they will repent, however, and embrace the Torah, God will bring Jews home to Israel to enjoy the covenant blessings in the land. This story is the heart of the book of Deuteronomy and is illustrated in the historical books of the Old Testament as well as enforced by the prophets. As N. T. Wright has conclusively demonstrated, the story of Israel — sin, exile, restoration — was embraced by Second Temple Judaism along with the New Testament as the dominant paradigm of the day, in particular, that Israel though returned to her land was nevertheless still in exile. This paradigm applied to apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic materials.

We would add, however, that apocalyptic literature intensifies its assumption that Israel was still under the covenant curses by relating them to the messianic woes or the eschatological trials of the end-time; that is, the great tribulation. Conversely, when Israel repented of its sin and returned to God He would pour out the covenant blessings upon His people, perhaps through the Messiah, in the form of the kingdom of God or, in some instances, the temporary messianic kingdom. We might illustrate this dynamic in chart form (which we earlier added to the master paradigm):

Covenant Curses
Covenant Blessings

Messianic Woes
Kingdom of God/Temporary

Messianic Kingdom

Therefore, in the following chart that applies the SBL matrix of form and content to the book of Daniel, we will add the category of function based on our proposal that such is an eschatological reading of the covenant curses and blessings, intensifying them into the messianic woes and kingdom of God /temporary messianic kingdom, respectively.


In the second point of this chapter on the genre of apocalyptic material, we now must also note that several common literary forms and features combine in that literature. We focus on Daniel and Revelation because they are canonical. Indeed, from here on we pay particular attention to biblical apocalyptic literature. We turn now to Daniel, and after that, Revelation.


It is commonly recognized that three main genres contribute to the book of Daniel. Daniel 1–6 are comprised of court tales; Daniel 7–12 consists of apocalyptic visions; Daniel 2 and 7 match an eschatological topos in postexilic Judaism and in the ancient near east, namely, the four kingdoms. We now discuss each of these three genres.

Daniel 1–6: Court Tales11

W. Lee Humphreys proposed a distinction between "tales of court conflict" and "tales of court contest" in Daniel. The conflict tales are found in Daniel 3 and 6, while chapters 2, 4, and 5 are designated as tales of contests. The tale of court conflict conveys the notion of the disgrace and rehabilitation of a minister on the king's court. This genre is found in the Joseph story, in Esther, in the Egyptian story of Ahikar, in Daniel 3, 6 and in Bel and the Serpent. Each of these stories exhibit five stages in the narrative. The hero is: in a state of prosperity on the king's court; is endangered, often because of conspiracy; is condemned to prison or death; is released; is restored to their former honor. In the cases of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, it is God who vindicates his servant. The tale of court contest follows the typical pattern: the king is confronted with a problem he cannot solve; the king's sages fail to resolve the problem; the hero is called in who solves it; the hero is elevated or restored to high position.

Daniel 7–12: Apocalyptic Visions

Daniel 7–12 casts Daniel in the role of an Old Testament prophet, even though the book is not included in the prophets' section of the Hebrew Bible. Yet the predictive aspects of the visions in Daniel 7–12 clearly portray him as a prophet. Indeed, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 10.11.7//266–68), the Dead Sea Scrolls [4Q Florilegium 2:5], Jesus (Matt. 24:15), and early rabbinic sources (Mekilta 1b; Pesiq.R 14, 61) considered Daniel as such. One can only speculate why Daniel is left out of the Hebrew canon. Daniel was written in exile and therefore was considered somewhat ritually unclean compared to the prophets; Daniel was written after the time the prophets section was fixed in the Hebrew Bible; Daniel received divine revelations in dreams rather than directly as did the prophets. Either way, in the prophets' section or not, contemporary biblical scholars consider Daniel 7–12 to be apocalyptic literature, as the taxonomy above shows.

Yet here we offer a caveat regarding Daniel 7–12–because only this part of the book is considered apocalyptic and not chapters 1–6, the label "apocalyptic" is understood not as the main genre of Daniel but something different, for Daniel 7–12. There are two reasons, however, we rather identify Daniel 1–6 as apocalyptic as well. First, it too, like Daniel 7–12, contains predictive prophecy (notably chapter 2). Second, the apocalyptic matrix utilized above required the whole book of Daniel to fill out the details of the genre of apocalyptic. In light of these two points, we rather label the main genre of Daniel as apocalyptic, not just chapters 7–12.

Daniel 2 and 7: Four Kingdoms

While Daniel 2 is a part of the court tales of Daniel 1–6 and Daniel 7 is a part of Daniel's predictive visions, there is a genre that characterizes these two chapters, namely, the genre of the toposof the four kingdoms. The four kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7 seem to follow a well-known pattern in the ancient near east. Daniel 7 possibly parallels the Babylonian "Dynastic Prophecy," (this text records four successive ancient empires not unlike Daniel 2 and 7: Assyria, Babylonia; Persia, Macedonia). Daniel 2 possibly parallels the Persian Bahman Yasht, chapter 1 (Ahura Mazda revealed to Zoroaster a trunk of a tree on which there were four branches: one of gold, one of silver, one of steel, one of mixed iron). We will offer our interpretation of the identity of these four kingdoms in another chapter. For our purposes here, however, Daniel 2 and 7 may participate in a common attempt in the ancient near east to forecast the future in terms of four successive kingdoms. Of course, Daniel's message is that the ultimate kingdom, the kingdom of God and His Messiah/heavenly Son of Man, is to rule all kingdoms of this world (Daniel 2:44–45).


Revelation is more complex and includes numerous subgenres that were common in the Bible and outside the Bible. For convenience's sake, we will simply list those subgenres that are present in Revelation and will provide a brief comment on each.

Letter/Covenant Structure of Revelation 2–3

The following chart demonstrates how the covenant structure of Deuteronomy thoroughly informs the letters to the seven churches in Revelation:


We might also mention at this point that the covenant theme integrates three genres of Revelation: prophecy, letter, and apocalyptic. The covenant theme connects to the genre of prophecy (2–3; 22:6–10, 18–20) in that the Old Testament prophets enforced the covenant with Israel, which is now applied to John and the church. The letter genre (1:4–5; 2–3; 22:21) understands Revelation to be the book of the new covenant (see 5:1–5; 6-7). The apocalyptic genre, as we saw in the first half of this chapter, intensifies the covenant blessings into the eschatological kingdom of God and Messiah while intensifying the covenant curses into the messianic woes. The kingdom of God and Messiah, in juxtaposition with the messianic woes, is the heart of Revelation.

Merkabah Mysticism and Revelation 4–5

It is clear that Revelation 4–5 reports a transcendental experience of John, as is evident in three symbols comprising his vision: (a) the heavenly court of Yahweh/Christ (see 1 Kings 22:19; Ps. 89:7; Isa. 24:23); (b) mystic experience as the mode for being transported to the divine throne (Ezekiel 1; 1 Enoch 14; 4 Ezra 14); (c) the revelation in heaven of the things that will transpire on earth in the end times (Dan. 2:29, 45; 4 Ezra 7:14, 83; 13:18; 2 Baruch 21:12; 1QS 11:5–8).

Whether or not such mysticism is of the merkabah variety is debatable. Thus I. Gruenwald identifies a number of features in Revelation 4–5 that distinguish John's experience from merkabah mysticism. (1) The author knows only one heaven, not the plurality of as many as seven heavens found in Jewish apocalypses and merkabah literature. (2) Although the twenty-four elders have some parallels in Jewish literature, they are not part of the merkabah tradition and betray the eclecticism of the author. (3) The throne of God has two peculiar features: (a) that the four living creatures are "in the midst of the throne and round about the throne" may reflect the Jewish tradition that the four living creatures bear the firmament over their heads and that the throne is located on the firmament (so they cannot see God), and (b) the four living creatures are listed in a different order from that found in Ezekiel 1, and they have six wings rather than the four wings of the creatures in Ezekiel 1. These peculiarities further indicate the eclectic character of the vision in Revelation 4. (4) Gruenwald then turns to the Apocalypse of Paul (a composition dependent in part on Revelation) and points out that the throne of God appears to be located in the heavenly temple, though apart from Isaiah 6 the temple is never mentioned in merkabah visions; this suggests that the author of the Apocalypse of Paul, like the author of Revelation, has produced a blend of literary motifs.


Excerpted from Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature by C. Marvin Pate, John D. Harvey. Copyright © 2016 C. Marvin Pate. Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
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Table of Contents


Series Preface, 19,
Preface, 21,
Abbreviations, 23,
1. The Genre and Figures of Speech of Apocalyptic Literature, 27,
2. The Historical Background of Prophetic-Apocalyptic Books, 49,
3. The Function of Apocalypticism and the Theme of Israel's Story, 79,
4. Preparing to Interpret the Text, 111,
5. Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic Literature, 135,
6. Communicating a Passage in Revelation, 171,
7. From Text to Sermon: Two Examples, 191,
8. Selected Sources, 221,
Glossary, 233,

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