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Apocalyptic literature

From Academic Kids

This entry only concerns the historical genre of apocalyptic literature. Justifications and interpretations within theological contexts are abundantly available at entries for individual books. For other uses, see Apocalypse_(disambiguation) for a list.

Apocalyptic literature was a new genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture and was popular among millennialist early Christians. "Apocalypse" is from the Greek word for "revelation" which means "an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling" (Goswiller 1987 p. 3). The flaming poetry of the Book of Revelation that is traditionally ascribed to John is well known to many Christians who are otherwise unaware of the literary genre it represents.

An apocalypse is a literary report of a fearful, often violent, vision that reveals truths about past, present and future times in highly symbolic and poetical terms. The poet may represent himself as transported into a heavenly realm, or the vision may be unveiled— and even interpreted— by an angelic messenger. Apocalyptic exhortations are aimed at chastening and reforming their hearers with threats of punishment and rewards in the coming "end times." A brief apocalyptic vision is found in Gospel of Mark 13 is sometimes called the "Little Apocalypse" and parallel passages can be found in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.

Apocalyptic poetry concentrates the character that Northrop Frye has found in the Bible as a whole: "a series of ecstatic moments or points of expanding apprehension—this approach is in fact the assumption on which every selection of a text for a sermon is based" (Frye 1957 p 326).

In connection with a PBS documentary "Apocalypse!" Dr. L. Michael White said, "Apocalyptic thinking has been called "the child of prophecy in a new idiom." (see link). White drew attention to the new direction prophecy took after the Hebrews' return from the trauma of the "Babylonian captivity." Earlier prophets of Israel and Judah had spoken of the word of God, calling the children of Israel to their duty. The newer apocalyptic writings, in the aftermath of the destruction of Solomon's temple looked forward to coming divine retribution and made forecasts of the future that contrasted hope and despair. The throne of David itself, as it was not unshakeable as events had proved, took on metaphoric meanings. Early examples of the apocalyptic world-view can be found in the late additions made to Isaiah by the pseudepigraphical writer called the "Third Isaiah" (chapters 56 to 66), and in the collection of prophetic forecasts of this new kind that are collected as Ezekiel

The new cultural element included extreme and vivid polarized contrasts, a distinctly realized Satan in opposition to Yahweh, a city of Evil (Babylon) contrasted to the city of Good (Jerusalem), the evil and corruption and despair of the visible world contrasted with the blinding light of the world to come and often embodied in demons and dragons, elements deriving from Zoroastrian dualism. A new focus on eschatology, the End of All Things, was also foreign to the earlier Hebrew tradition. Some, though not all apocalyptic literature was messianic, predicting the imminent arrival of a savior—even in Essene writings, of more than one savior.

The overtly allegorical nature of this new literature inspired new allegorical readings, now applied to every kind of earlier statement, a detailed unravelling of texts, often to give results not originally foreseen, which influenced the development of techniques of exegesis for Jewish and Christian scholar alike and became a foundation of the medieval hermeneutics, which are still practiced today in some traditionalist circles, as "Biblical hermeneutics".

Among books of prophecy of this new kind, the Book of Daniel was accepted into the Hebrew Bible, among the "Writings," as the sense of a canonic literature developed in the Rabbinic tradition during the first centuries of the Common Era. Other apocalyptic literature did not make the cut: The Book of Enoch, some of which is older than Daniel (though it has received some Christian interpolations and editing in the versions that have survived) was never considered canonical by Jews or Christians, though it is quoted or paralleled dozens of times in the New Testament. Enoch has been called "an ecstatic elaboration" of the line in Genesis (v.22): "And Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he begat Methuselah." The book of Jubilees (2nd century BCE) also contains some apocalyptic poetry. The so-called Sibylline Oracles, which were assembled partly in Alexandria, are filled with pseudo-prophecy (vaticinium ex eventu, written after the fact) and threatening generalities; they bridge any apparent gap between late Jewish apocalyptic literature and early Christian writings in the genre.

Within the Christian tradition, the Apocalypse of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas are examples of apocalyptic literature that devotees of Revelation would also enjoy, though their poetry never reaches the same intensity.

Apocalyptic literature has had a long history. Some aspects of apocalyptic visions can be found in the Kaballah.

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