In Thinking Through Paul, Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still examine J. C. Beker’s suggestion that Paul’s thinking is “the apocalyptic interpretation of the Christ event” (TTP 302). It has become fashionable to describe Paul’s theology as “apocalyptic” even if the term is misunderstood. Douglas Campbell, for example, subtitles his book on Paul theology “An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul.”
Before taking up the possibility Paul is an apocalyptic thinker, two observations need to be made. First, “apocalyptic literature” is different than “apocalyptic thinker.” The two clearest examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible are Daniel 7-12 and Revelation, and with the exception of 2 Thessalonians 2, I cannot think of two books more different than Paul’s letters. For the most part Paul is not writing in an apocalyptic genre, even if his idea “breathes the air of Jewish apocalypticism” (TTP, 303).
Second, not all apocalyptic thinking refers to the “end of the world as we know it” (and I feel fine). Apocalyptic as a modern genre usually describes the end of the present world. Books and films like The Road or The Book of Eli are “end of the world” stories which often leave little hope of salvation. The Left Behind series is a modern Christian apocalypse with a more positive message (God will bail us out in the end and establish his kingdom). Again, with the possible exception of 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is not creating that sort of an apocalypse.
At its very heart, apocalyptic is about God breaking into history and acting in a very real way to defend his people. He will judge those who are persecuting his people and reward those who are faithful to the end. Revelation 19-20 describes Jesus as returning in glory far beyond that of the Roman world, destroying the power of Rome and replacing Rome’s rule with a Kingdom that will never end. Revelation is not far from many other Jewish apocalypses produced in the Second Temple period since the hope God would break into history and vindicate his people was very strong in the first century.
Paul is therefore thinking about Jesus through the lens of a Second Temple Jewish person who has encountered Jesus as resurrected from the dead. Like any Pharisee, Paul would have expected a general resurrection before God established his kingdom. But what Paul did not anticipate was God raising one man from the dead as a “firstfruits” of that future resurrection.
In fact, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Gal 1:12). The word “revelation” appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. Paul does not say he developed his Law-free gospel through careful reading of the Hebrew Bible nor does he claim to have discovered some new way of reading the Old Testament to prove Gentiles should not keep the Law. Paul’s audacious claim is Jesus revealed this teaching to him through some sort of apocalyptic vision.
There is more in Paul which can be fairly described as apocalyptic, but is it helpful to describe these apocalyptic elements in this way? Is Paul really viewing the death and resurrection in terms of the apocalyptic worldview of the Second Temple Period? How does reading Paul in this well help us understand his overall theology?