The term 'apocalyptic is taken from the Greek word, found in Revelation 1:1, that means a 'revelation, an 'unveiling or 'uncovering. It is currently used to classify a group of writings prominent in the biblical world between 200 b.c. and 100 a.d. (the term 'apocalyptic was never used in this way by the authors of the literature itself).
Much of the problem in the attempt to assess this literature is due to the ambiguity of the term 'apocalyptic as it is used by contemporary scholars. More recently, however, many have come to distinguish between
* 'apocalypse as a literary genre (a 'genre being a group of written texts characterized by recurring features which constitute a distinctive and recognizable type of writing),
* 'apocalypticism as a social ideology, and
* 'apocalyptic eschatology as a set of ideas and motifs that may be found in a number of different literary genres.
We are primarily concerned with the literary genre 'apocalypse, which has been defined as
'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 (John J. Collins, 'Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre, in Semeia 14, Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (1979), p. 9).
Before we examine the two major sub-genres or types of apocalypses, let us note several characteristic features of this sort of literature. In doing so, however, it must be remembered that not every 'apocalypse will necessarily manifest every characteristic. More on this in relation to Daniel later.
A. Characteristics of Apocalyptic
1. The revelation imparted to the earthly recipient is frequently esoteric in nature, i.e., it is said that the revelation is to be kept hidden until the end of time (which time, of course, turns out to be that of the apocalyptist).
2. The apocalypse is literary in form. 'The prophet, for the most part, declared his message by word of mouth which might subsequently be put into writing by himself or by his disciples or by editors at a much later date. The apocalyptist, on the other hand, remained completely concealed behind his message which he wrote down for the faithful among God's people to read (Russell, 118).
3. The apocalypses share a basic world view. 'Specifically, the world is mysterious and revelation must be transmitted from a supernatural souce, through the mediation of angels; there is a hidden world of angels and demons that is directly relevant to human destiny; and this destiny is finally determined by a definitive eschatological judgment. In short, human life is bounded in the present by the supernatural world of angels and demons and in the future by the inevitability of a final judgment (Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 7).
4. All apocalyptic literature is eschatological. In other words, it points to a future divine intervention in the affairs of men both to deliver and judge.
5. There is always a strain of dualism. The world is seen to be dominated by a conflict of God with Satan, good with evil, light with darkness, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come, etc.
6. The apocalyptic writer is usually pessimistic about the destiny of this world; improvement and eventually the consummate state of perfection must come by the intervention of divine power. Simply put: evil will persist until God acts at the end of the age.
7. Apocalyptic literature is deterministic in its approach to human history. That is to say, all are keenly aware that notwithstanding the presence of evil in the world all the events of history and its ultimate course and end are predestined.
8. Another characteristic of apocalyptic literature, unlike strictly prophetic books, is the presence of ethical passivity. The apocalyptist consoles and sustains the righteous whereas the prophet castigates the hypocrite. The former confirms and encourages the remnant in the midst of their suffering, the latter rebukes and exhorts the immoral, demanding their reform.
9. The apocalyptist writes with a sense of imminence, i.e., with a sense of immediacy concerning the end of the age (which, as noted earlier, they often believe will occur or is occurring in their own day).
10. There is always to some extent the presence of an angelic messenger or mediator who either reveals the vision or interprets it, or both.
(Now come what are probably the 3 most important characteristics of the genre 'apocalypse".)
11. Apocalyptic literature is almost always characterized by pseudonymity (the exceptions being the canonical books of Daniel and Revelation; more below). In other words, the apocalyptist writes under a false name, invariably the name of a venerable figure from the past such as Enoch, Moses, Ezra, etc. The reason for pseudonymity is not altogether clear. It was not to escape from persecution, for in that case anonymity would have served equally well. It was not designed to intentionally deceive the readers of the work, for pseudonymity was a well-known, popular literary device in ancient times. Some suggest that it was used to lend authority to the revelation. But how can this be if all its readers were aware that the alleged author was fictitious? Joyce Baldwin comments:
'It will be noted that pseudepigraphy is said to fulfill functions which are mutually exclusive. On the one hand we are asked to believe that this was an accepted literary convention which deceived no one, and on the other that the adoption of a pseudonym, which presumably went undetected, increased the acceptability and authority of a work. Those who contend that Daniel was written under a pseudonym cannot have it both ways ('Is there pseudonymity in the Old Testament? Themelios, Sept. 1978, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 11).
12. Apocalyptic literature is also characterized by vaticinium ex eventu = prophecy after the event. In other words, history is rewritten as prophecy. An apocalyptic author writing in the 1st century b.c., for example, would write as if he were some famous figure who lived centuries earlier. Thus what on the surface appears to be prophecy is, in fact, history written after the fact. More on this below.
13. The most conspicuous element in apocalyptic literature is the use of symbolic language. The symbolism is most often quite bizarre in which the images usually transcend and violate our normal conception of the way things ought to be. The concrete objects in our everyday life are presented in an almost grotesque and often distorted manner. Animals have multiple heads, horns, wings; they speak and act as if human; etc. D. S. Russell's explanation is helpful:
'The apocalyptic literature is marked by a highly dramatic quality whose language and style match the inexpressible scenes which it tries to portray. Such scenes cannot be portrayed in the sober language of common prose; they require for their expression the imaginative language of poetry. But it is poetry quite unlike the restrained language of the Old Testament Scriptures. The apocalyptists give full rein to their imaginations in extravagant and exotic language and in imagery of a fantastic and bizarre kind. To such an extent is this true that symbolism may be said to be the language of apocalyptic. Some of this symbolism no doubt had its origin in the fertile imaginations of the apocalyptists themselves through their experience of dreams, visions and the like. But for the most part they were using stereotyped language and symbols which belonged to a fairly well-defined tradition whose roots went back into the distant past. Some of this symbolism is taken over directly from the Old Testament, whose imagery and metaphors are adapted and used as material for graphic figurative representation. Much of it, however, has its origin in ancient mythology. This influence is traceable even in the Old Testament itself, but in apocalyptic it is much more fully developed. Over the course of the years a pattern of imagery and symbolism was evolved--indigenous and foreign, traditional and mythological--which became part of the apocalyptists' stock-in-trade. The same figures, images and ideas appear in book after book; but because of the constant adaptation and readaptation of the old figures to convey new interpretations there is no guarantee that they will have the same meaning in two successive books (122).
'Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text. [I disagree with this statement as it is applied to the Bible in general, but agree with Collins that . . .] Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way. The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual (Apocalyptic Imagination/14).
One should not be disturbed by the usage of the term 'myth, by which is not meant 'pagan or 'false. Rather, 'the word is used in biblical studies primarily to refer to the religious stories of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. When we speak of mythological allusions in the apocalyptic literature we are referring to motifs and patterns that are ultimately derived from these stories (ibid., 15). Any attempt, therefore, to interpret apocalyptic literature with the hermeneutic of 'literalism as is done, for example, in the epistles of Paul, is certainly a mistake (although this does not mean that an apocalypse is devoid of 'literal truth).
B. The two major Sub-Genres of Apocalpyse
1. The Historical Apocalypses
a. the media of revelation (there is always an account of the manner or way in which the revelation was received)
1) symbolic dream vision (cf. Dan. 7-8)
2) epiphany (the vision of a single supernatural figure, such as in Dan. 10)
3) angelic discourse (revelation delivered as a speech by an angel)
4) revelatory dialogue (conversation between the recipient and the revealer, either God or an angel)
5) midrash / pesher
6) revelation report
b. the content of the revelation
1) ex eventu prophecy (of which there are 2 types)
a) periodization of history (history, or a significant part of it, is divided into a set number of periods)
b) regnal prophecy (prediction of the ongoing rise and fall of kings and kingdoms)
2) eschatological prediction (predictions of end-time events that fall into the pattern of crisis-judgment-salvation)
a) signs of the end, with special emphasis on cosmic disturbances that disrupt human affairs (cf. Mark 13:24-25; Joel 3:1-2)
b) description of judgment scene (Dan. 7:9-14)
c) epiphany of a heavenly figure (Dan. 7:13-14)
d) prophecy of cosmic transformation
2. The Otherworldly Journey
(What distinguishes this sort of apocalypse from the historical type is a visionary experience in which an individual ascends into the heavens for a journey under the direction of an angelic being who interprets the revelatory scenes. As far as we can tell there are no OT examples of this type of apocalypse; but cf. Rev. 4:1ff.)
a. the media of revelation
1) transportation of the visionary
a) report of ascent
b) report of descent
2) the revelation account
a) report of a tour
b) report of ascent through a numbered series of heavens
b. the content of the revelation
1) lists of revealed things
2) visions of the abodes of the dead
3) judgment scenes
4) throne visions (cf. Rev. 4-5)
5) lists of vices
Special Note on Daniel
It is not necessarily the case that a scholar who places Daniel in the 2nd century and thus classifies it as pseudepigraphical does so because he has an anti-supernaturalistic bias or is philosophically opposed to the possibility of predictive prophecy. Many believe that Daniel is simply another example of Jewish apocalyptic which, although canonical, manifests the same characteristics as all the ancient literature in that particular genre. If this be the case, a 2nd century date for Daniel would not mean that it constitutes a literary forgery or an act of intentional deception. John J. Collins, one prominent exponent of this view, explains:
'Underlying the debate . . . is the fundamental question of the genre (or genres) of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus of Persia were unquestionably historical figures, but the stories in which they are mentioned are not for that reason factual. One can grant the a priori possibility of predictive prophecy without conceding that we find it in Daniel. In each case we must decide what kind of story we are dealing with: historical account or edificatory legend, bona fide prediction or vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy after the fact). These are literary and form-critical questions. They carry theological implications but they cannot be decided on theological grounds (Daniel, 28-29).
In another volume Collins again insists that
'what is at issue in all this is not the veracity of 'the word of God,' as literalists construe it, but a question of genre. An assumption that the 'word of God' must be factual historical reporting, and cannot be literary fiction, is theologically unwarranted (The Apocalyptic Imagination, 69).
Since 'prophetic predictions in an apocalyptic work such as Enoch are acknowledged by all to be ex eventu, according to Collins 'the burden or proof must fall on those who wish to argue that Daniel is different from the other examples of the genre (Daniel, 34).
John Goldingay is one example of an evangelical scholar who is comfortable with the use of pseudonymity in Daniel:
'I believe that the God of Israel who is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is capable of knowing future events and thus of revealing them, and is capable of inspiring people to write both history and fiction, both actual prophecy and quasi-prophecy, in their own name, anonymously, or in certain circumstances pseudonymously. . . . It was excusable for Pusey to think that pseudonymity makes the author a liar and must be incompatible with being divinely inspired. It is less excusable now we know that in the ancient world, and in the Hellenistic age in particular, pseudonymity was a common practice used for a variety of reasons some unethical, some unobjectionable for poetry, letters, testaments, philosophy, and oracles, and by no means confined to apocalypses. . . . That pseudonymity is a rarer literary device in our culture, especially in religious contexts, should not allow us to infer that God could not use it in another culture. Whether he has actually chosen to do so is to be determined not a priori but from actual study of the text of Scripture (xxxix-xl).
The question, then, is this:
* Is the book of Daniel (a) a work of genuine predictive prophecy written in the 6th century in which are found certain characteristics of apocalyptic literature?
* Or, (b) is the book of Daniel a 'pure apocalypse, sharing altogether the characteristics of other literature in that genre such as pseudonymity and ex eventu prophecy?
My opinion is that (a) is correct. Daniel is not wholly apocalyptic, differing precisely in the two aforementioned respects: it is neither pseudonymous nor an example of vaticinium ex eventu. However, since Daniel contains unmistakable features of the apocalyptic genre, it must be interpreted in the context and light not only of inspired Scripture but also uninspired, non-canonical apocalypses of the ancient world (with priority given to the former, of course).
Pseudonymity and the New Testament
The issue of pseudonymity is perhaps more crucial in the New Testament than in the Old. For example, it matters considerably whether one accepts the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles. Issues of interpretation are greatly affected if one believes that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written by a disciple of Paul late in the first century or early in the second. Similar issues are raised if one should conclude that 2 Peter is pseudonymous.
Pseudonymity was a common literary convention in the NT period, wherein a letter or book would claim to be written by a given author (usually a well-known figure) when in fact it was not.It is highly unlikely, however, that pseudonymity was acceptable to the early church when it came to the Scriptures:
a) "If we may start with the New Testament itself, we find Paul instructing the Thessalonians to give no credence to any 'prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us' (2 Thess. 2:2) and telling them of 'the distinguishing mark' in all his letters (2 Thess. 3:17). This suggests that pseudonymous letters were not entirely unknown; on the other hand, it certainly shows that the apostle did not agree with the practice of pseudonymity -- at least in the case where someone was writing a letter in his name! He does not regard this as acceptable; in principle, he repudiates the practice, regarding pseudonymity as something to be guarded against, for he gives his readers a token whereby they might know which writings come from him and which make a false claim" (An Introduction to the NT, Carson, Moo, & Morris [Zondervan], p. 367).
b. In terms of non-canonical literature dating from the time of the NT, "there is not one such letter emanating from the Christians from anywhere near the New Testament period, and precious few even from later times. It may be correct that New Testament Christians commonly wrote letters in names not their own (an opinion that scholars routinely perpetuate), but we should be clear that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have about the way letters were written in first-century Jewish and Christian communities" (p. 368).
c. Furthermore, "the early Christians appear to have had no great urge to attach apostolic names to the writings they valued. More than half of the New Testament consists of books that do not bear the names of their authors (the four gospels, Acts, Hebrews, 1 John; even 'the elder' of 2 and 3 John is not very explicit). Apparently the truth in the documents and the evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work in the people who wrote them carried conviction, and the attachment of apostolic names was not judged necessary" (p. 368).
d. One must also take note of the strong warnings in the pastoral epistles about deceivers (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:13; Titus 1:10). See esp. Titus 3:3. "Would a person who speaks of deceit like this put the name of Paul to a letter he himself had composed? Would he say so firmly, 'I am telling the truth, I am not lying' (1 Tim. 2:7)?" (p. 371).
e. Finally, when the early church made its decisions regarding canonicity, one of the principal criteria was authorship. "There appears to be no example of anyone in the early church accepting a book as truly canonical while denying that it was written by the author whose name it bears" (p. 371).
Thus "the difficulty is not the idea of pseudonymity but the lack of evidence that the New Testament Christians gave any countenance to the idea. Nowhere is evidence cited that any member of the New Testament church accepted the idea that a pious believer could write something in the name of an apostle and expect the writing to be welcomed" (p. 370).