Defining Apocalyptic Literature

The problem western pop-Christianity has re-defined apocalyptic to refer only to “the end of the world as we know it.” Some students want to read Revelation as if it was in the same genre as The Book of Eli or The Road. Those two films are excellent examples of the modern genre of post-apocalyptic. Some disaster has happened which has nearly wiped out most of the world forcing a tiny community of surviving humans to struggles against

But that is not at all what the genre of apocalyptic was in the Second Temple Period. From about 250 B.C. to about A.D. 250, the genre of apocalyptic flourished. Both Jews and Christians wrote apocalypses in order to deal with the rapidly changing world. These books look at the recent past and current events using spectacular imagery in order to
provide hope for the future. In this sense, a story like The Book of Eli functions the same way since despite the almost universal evil in the world, there is some hope a the end of the story that humans will survive and create an ideal community.

David Noel Freedman once said apocalyptic is “born of crisis – from the start it was underground literature, the consolation of the persecuted” (Journal for Theology and Church 6 [1979]: 173). Christian and Jewish apocalyptic reflects a crisis of faith. The world is evil and most people are living ignorantly in the darkness. Evil is oppressing the small minority of righteous. Yet this literature always ends with the hope of God’s justice. The righteous will be rewarded and the evil oppressors will be condemned.

In the introduction to his recent collection of essays on apocalyptic literature, John Collins sketches recent attempts to define apocalyptic, settling on “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” (Apocalypse, Prophecy and Pseudepigraphy, 4). This definition preserves both the revelatory aspect of apocalyptic, but also some eschatology which many think is the whole purpose of apocalyptic.

But can apocalyptic be a kind of protest literature? Do the visions of Daniel, the quintessential apocalyptic book in the Hebrew Bible, offer protest against the empire (whether Babylon, Persia, the Greeks or later the Romans)? If apocalyptic was popular during the Hasmonean dynasty and the advent of the Romans, how did books like 1 Enoch offer both comfort and protest against “the evil powers of this world”?


17 thoughts on “Defining Apocalyptic Literature

  1. I’ve always liked Mitch Redding’s definition—”Apocalyptic literature is crisis literature.” This is, obviously, akin to the definition above and I think is a succinct and accurate description.


  2. I think that whenever things go bad people say that it cannot get any worse and that the Lord will be coming back soon, people have been saying that for centurys. People in my own family say it now, but I am sure that Christians in Rome who were being fed to lions were also saying that same thing. There is no way to tell when that time will be, and I think that this literature does give Jews and Christians alike, hope for what is to come if they truly are in Christ. I also think that in a way the Jews could read or look at this literature and view it as protest literature and have it/make it fit their own situation(s) that they were gong through at that time.


  3. I would say that apocalyptic literature can be interpreted to be a kind of protest literature simply due to the fact that there is a lot of “warrior language” in the Old Testament. On the other hand, it is also relying on God to be the defender and trust that He will restore the world to the way He intended it to be through redemption, the ultimate expression of which will be His establishment of the Kingdom through the person of Jesus Christ. In Daniel, there was a movement but it failed. Ultimately, 1 Enoch brought about comfort and protest against the evil powers of the world by: the group looking forward to the emergence of a special elect group with an emphasis on righteousness, after judgment “then the plant of righteousness and truth will appear…” (10:16), and the righteous “will escape” and the world will experience physical renewal and restoration (10:17-19).


  4. I see how easy it would be to look at apocalyptic as a form of protesting against the current government. I can imagine this type of literature becoming banned by empires for this very reason. Perhaps there have been many more works of this apocalyptic type that were never published or were destroyed by the empires which they were about. The Hasmoneans were unique in the sense that they were sort of under the Seleucids, yet had a large amount of freedom after their successful rebellion. This line of thought also makes me wonder what line of progression changed the term apocalyptic from what we are discussing to the modern view of an end of the world. I would suspect the misinterpretation of Revelation as the standard for apocalyptic literature to be a key part in the transition. Revelation appears to be more of a final culmination of past apocalyptic works in the idea that apocalyptic works seek the removal of oppression. With time they are only replaced by new oppressive governments. Each Apocalyptic story that has come true can be seen as the end of its own small story. Revelation is the end of the entire story and the entirety of the world as we know it. The fact that many stories today look to “the end of the world” as apocalyptic shows that society has come to learn that though there are small apocalyptic victories they are not fulfilling. World ending apocalypses seek to end this cycle of little victories. Without a belief in God this often ends in the doom of humanity or a sort of restart from scratch for humanity. With God this ends as in revelation with a final and just kingdom.


    • I enjoy the perspective that you have in understanding apocalyptic literature and how it would be seen from the outside as rabble rousing. Apocalyptic literature is hard to understand up front partially for the safety of the reader. It protects the people who have these writings because the literature more or less focuses on the ideals of these evil rulers instead of just stating who is being a bad ruler. So, if a Christian is reading Revelations out loud, someone listening would not hear Nero’s name spoken, but the Christian who is reading would have Nero’s name, possibly coming to mind. I wonder if this was an intention God had when He revealed Revelations to John.


  5. I see how modern believers see the end of times as more of a end of the way things are. In a world that the top tv show still revolves around zombies. Zombies in general fascinate us because modern thought is when we die thats it, but more often then not we want more then what this life is and zombies are a great way of thinking of things being different. When we release us of our faith and are stuck in an American, we notice that our country is falling apart and its a matter of time before the great America goes the way of the Romans. People think that somehow we will survive this Apocalyptic event and have a fall out type world, but the difference between our concepts of the end times brought about from God and that what man makes are so much different.


  6. I do think that the apocalyptic literature was a huge protest towards mighty powers such as the Romans, Persians, and Greeks etc, within the Second Temple Period. It’s been mentioned profoundly that the powers of Rome, the Greeks and Persians were historically strong and powerful and had huge influence throughout their respected reigns (Tomasino, 69, 103). And because of the autonomy of these groups, and even groups of people such as the Hasmoneans, the pride of these groups would have immensely high. Therefore; when, apocalyptic literature came out such as the kind that came about within 1 Enoch, such as in 1 Enoch 1- 10, this may have been seen as protest to these types of powers. This may have been seen as protest because the oppressed people knew that God was stronger than the powers oppressing them and they knew God would eventually come to deliver them from harm, which also would have been comforting as well.


  7. I believe that apocalyptic literature definitely is for future hope for Judah. The Jews had to have been getting tired of their immoral rulers and longing for God to finally step in and rescue them. The Hasmonean dynasty had the potential for being their rescue from the issue of corrupt leaders, but they too ended up being power hungry kings. I wonder if because of this failure, part of the mindset of the apocalyptic literature was that only God alone can save the righteous remnant from the corrupt rulers of the world. Plus it is always exciting to get insight into new, secret knowledge.


  8. I completely agree with the fact that Americans and mankind as a whole have taken the idea of the apocalypse and have ran with it. I love the definition that John Collins gave describing the true meaning of apocalyptic. I do think that there is a danger of apocalyptic literature becoming a form of protest. On the other hand I do agree with a few other posts regarding God being the only one whom can save the what is left of the corrupt rulers.


  9. Out of personal preference, I prefer an American satirical game that founded itself on the idea of a post-apocalyptic world brought on by a nuclear war. You can have a lot of fun with the ‘end of the world’ in an ironic kind of way, but I believe that Daniel’s writings go beyond just defying against the government. It is entirely possible, however, because God has been known to protest against corrupt governments, churches, and people hovering over his people in one way or another. Blowing them up, or sending a prophet.
    I think that apocalyptic literature was founded on the basis of warning(at least, I believed when I was younger), but also the message of hope these intimidating writings and visions can carry. Not all is what it seems on the surface, especially if you interpret things literally for what they are.
    So perhaps Daniel was calling it early, history does tend to repeat itself but prophecy remains constant to the situation. However it could easily have been more, or less, than that.


  10. It’s interesting that there has been such a change in the modern perception of the ‘apocalyptic’ as opposed to the historical use of apocalyptic literature. Clearly the shift from a portrayal of religious persecution or crisis to the end-of-the-world genre has to have some clear causation. While both are, as you said, “born of crisis,” there is definitely something to be said for a cultural trend that has changed the perceived meaning of ‘apocalyptic literature.’ I wonder if this change has been influenced at all by the intention of the authors at all. For example, the authors of Jewish apocalyptic literature would have had the goal of showing the spiritual struggle of the Jews – perhaps demonstrating their persecution. In contrast, authors in the 21st century are motivated by marketable literary “hooks.” The end-of-the-world scenario has become popular, and sells to readers today, so the genre may have adapted to fit the demand. It makes sense that this sort of consumer view of the genre would become prevalent in western culture. If nothing else, it’s something that might be worth investigating further.


  11. I enjoy looking at the subject of apocalyptic literature, even though when I try to say the word, I feel like I am potentially speaking in tongues. The contrast of doom and hope puzzles the heart and minds of the righteous who are facing great challenges, but at the core of apocalyptic literature is the hope that God will follow through. As you stated, “both Jews and Christians wrote apocalypes in order to deal with the rapidly changing world.” Because even though Gondor will be overrun by Orcs, the farmers on horseback will save them all, because there is a stronger force behind them. In modern times, it is not hard to look at situations and think of doom and destruction for the righteous. The themes that are displayed in Daniel and in Revelation are ideas meant for their day, but carry an overarching theme of when fires burn from evil men, God will put out the flames with their blood. Any superpower government has the ability of being the evil tyranny in apocalyptic literature. Political propaganda will always embrace the idea of an overlord superpower that is pulling the strings. The truth is out there, but it does not end on such a morbid note. Understanding the One who is, has been, and is yet to come brings a victorious hope. In many ways apocalyptic literature is the theological novacaine for the pains and struggles that pool together in striving to understand a God that loves us and still allows evil to rome the earth.


  12. I do not think that the modern day apocalyptic films, literature, and other media are too far off from the Jewish writings. In a twisted sense, the modern stuff is also a rebellion against modern governments and culture. There is no shortage of people that have qualms with society. So why not write a story about a time where there is no established government due to some massive “end of world” event. Typically in these stories, they end with everything being “alright”. In a secular world, I would not expect the story to end on a heavenly note where the people are rescued from above. Either way it is a story of deliverance in the end.


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