Book Review: Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

Taylor, Richard A. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2016. 205 pp. Pb; $21.99.   Link to Kregel

This new contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of Old Testament Exegesis has a more narrow focus since apocalyptic literature only appears in parts Daniel and a few other prophetic books. Taylor therefore expands his comments beyond the canon of the Hebrew Bible to include literature from the Second Temple Period usually classified as apocalyptic.

taylor-apocalyptic-literatureThe first chapter defines apocalyptic literature. Taylor surveys the contemporary resurgence of interest in apocalyptic as well as the difficulty scholars have defining the genre. He distinguishes between an apocalypse as a form of literature and apocalypticism as a worldview. This is an important distinction since some literature labeled as apocalyptic does not represent the kind of apocalypticism commonly used in contemporary discussions. What is more, there is a difference between apocalyptic as a genre and an apocalyptic eschatology. The sudden and decisive intervention of God to judge the world may appear in wide a variety of literature, whether that literature is apocalyptic or not. Taylor also distinguishes between proto-apocalyptic (presumably Isaiah 24-27) and the later fully developed apocalyptic (presumably Daniel and 1 Enoch 1-36). The later forms of apocalyptic tend toward otherworldly journeys or esoteric allegories (The Animal Apocalypse).

In the second chapter Taylor surveys major themes in apocalyptic literature. This is the longest chapter in the book and is divided into three parts. First Taylor briefly summarizes the major works of apocalyptic in the Old Testament (Daniel, parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, and Malachi). Extra-biblical apocalypses include 1 Enoch (in five sections), 2 Enoch, Jubilees, Fourth Ezra, Second Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, Testament of Levi, Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Zephaniah and Testament of Moses. Most of these are summarized in a short paragraph. Taylor surveys apocalyptic in the literature of the Qumran community (the Dead Sea Scrolls) in four pages.

The section of this chapter offers an overview of literary features of apocalyptic. Of primary importance is the revelatory nature of the literature. The writers of extra-biblical apocalyptic express their revelations in the dreams and visions of a hero of the distant past who claims to be revealing or hiding deep secrets. In order to give authority to their revelation, the hero is often from the distant past (Enoch, Baruch, Ezra). Pseudonymity is a common feature of apocalyptic. Because the revelation is in dreams and visions, these books tend to use complicated imagery which overwhelms the reader.

The third section of this chapter develops several themes common in apocalyptic, including angelology, ethical dualism, and determinism. In most of this literature there a soon-to-come crisis, but the faithful remnant will perseverance through that crisis. The eschatological crisis concludes with divine judgment where the righteous remnant will be vindicated and the oppressors will be judged. Each of these features are richly illustrated from 1 Enoch, Second Baruch and Fourth Ezra.

Chapters three and four form a guide to interpreting apocalyptic. For the most part, this section offers genre-specific insights into dealing with apocalyptic beginning with figurative language. Taylor surveys several types of imagery and illustrates these with biblical prophetic texts. A second section is a brief discussion of reception history, although most of these might be better described as “do not let this happen to you.” Here Taylor dismisses attempts to decode apocalyptic in order to discover hidden meanings. The bulk of chapter three concerns textual history and original languages. Although the illustrations are drawn from apocalyptic, there is nothing genre-specific. Taylor presents a standard grammatical historical method which serves apocalyptic as well as prose or poetry in the Old or New Testaments.

His final warnings to would-be interpreters of apocalyptic are excellent, however. Both unnecessary ignorance and misplaces certainty in one’s interpretation of apocalyptic should be avoided. His third warning is to refuse to manipulate the details of apocalyptic in order to fit the eschatological scheme already adopted by the interpreter. The specific example he uses is a historicist reading of 1335 days in Daniel 12:12 and 2300 mornings and evenings in Daniel 8:14. But this warning equally applies to a futurist interpretation who wants to read the details of Daniel as referring to a future tribulation or an idealist interpreter who does not want to see any specific application to future events at all. Taylor’s fourth warning cautions against creating arbitrary timelines from apocalyptic literature. He appears to have the historicists in view again, although in a footnote he dismisses Hal Lindsey’s prediction of a 1981 or 1988 rapture.

Chapters five and six offers practical advice on preaching apocalyptic literature along with examples of expositions from Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-32. As with his exegetical method, much of his advice in these two chapters is not genre-specific (clarifying structure, main points of pericopae, etc.) I would have appreciated some comments on what NOT to preach in this literature. Preaching through Daniel 1-6 is relatively easy, but is it possible to preach through Daniel 11 in a series of expositional sermons in a way that is faithful to the text and applicable to a modern congregation?

Taylor concludes the book with a brief yet extremely helpful survey of antecedents of apocalyptic. Canaanite mythology (Gunkel, Cross), Akkadian prophecy (Hallo), Mesopotamian traditions (Kvanig), Egyptian apocalypticism (McCown), Wisdom literature (von Rad), Temple theology (Hamerton-Kelly), Hellenistic Syncretism (Betz), Persian religion (Hanson, Hultgård), Anti-Imperialism (Horsley) and Old Testament prophetic literature (Sweeny). Each is briefly illustrated and the footnotes point to relevant literature.

Conclusion. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature fills a need for a basic introduction to apocalyptic literature, although the book is limited to the few examples in the Old Testament. I would have liked to see Revelation included as well, so that a single Handbook would cover the genre of Apocalyptic, rather than one for the Old Testament and another for the New.  Nevertheless, this Handbook reaches its goal of providing students of Old Testament prophecy the tools for teaching and preaching these important and often neglected texts. This would make a good textbook for a college or seminary class on the Prophets, especially in more conservative circles.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Reviews of previous volumes in this series:

Gary Smith, Interpreting the Prophets

Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters

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