The Days of Tribulation in the Apocalypse of Elijah

The Apocalypse of Elijah is not strictly speaking an apocalypse. It is strongly influenced by the book of Revelation, especially 11:1-12 (the appearance of two witnesses in Jerusalem). There are dozens of possible ways to interpret the two witnesses, from literal people (Elijah and Moses, Elijah and Enoch) to figurative (the Old and New Testament, two volcanoes, etc.) The book does not contain any of the sorts of things we expect in a true apocalypse: heavenly journeys, thinly veiled reviews of history, revelation of mysterious secret knowledge, or angelic guides. Coptic translations of a Greek original of the Apocalypse date to the fourth century. The book is clearly dependent on Revelation and appears to quote 1 John 2:18. A date of the mid-second century seems probable (OTP 1:730). If the book was a Christian re-working of a Jewish original, then some material may be still older (There is a Hebrew Apocalypse of Elijah which may stand in the background of the book, but no one has systematically studied the possibility of a Hebrew to Greek to Coptic translation). The book may reflect an Egyptian Christianity, but this is far from clear.

Related imageThe Apocalypse of Elijah is of interest to the study of New Testament eschatology since there are various interpretations and extensions of key eschatological vocabulary, such as Antichrist and the kingdom. There is a strong martyrdom theme in the book, especially in the fourth chapter.

The word of the Lord comes to Elijah and confronts him over love of the word (chapters 1-2). This verse is roughly the same and 1 John 2:15, but it is not an exact quote. Since the subject matter is common there is no reason to assume the writer of this Apocalypse knew 1 John.

The God of Glory has had mercy on his people in the past and at the present time he has come as a man to save us from sin (3-7). This text says God did not inform anyone of his plan to become incarnate and says God “changed himself into a man.” This is a fairly underdeveloped Christology and does not seem to be aware of any later Trinitarian thinking. God will preserve his people from the man of lawlessness, the term used by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 for the antichrist of popular apocalypses. The writer may have been aware of Paul, but the term is general enough that it may have been a common way of describing the apocalyptic oppressor.

The sinners will pass on to “thrones of death” because they have “alienated themselves” from God (8-12). In the last days there will be deceivers who teach false doctrine and “make God their belly” (13-14), a very similar description of the last days as found in 2 Tim 4:1-5 and the false teachers Paul addresses in Philippians (3:19 especially.)  Fasting is of importance to our writer – God ordained the fast because it purifies the heart and hands, heals disease and casts out demons (15-22). Related to the fast is double-mindedness in prayer (23-27). The person who is double-minded in prayer is “darkness to himself.”

Chapter 2 concerns the “kings of Assyria and the dissolution of the heaven and the earth (1). From the west a “king of peace” will arise, but he will in fact be a man of injustice and will take vengeance on Egypt with much bloodshed (2-16). While he is never directly called the Antichrist, this king of peace is modeled after the great Antichrist figures of the past (Antiochus IV Epiphanies for example). That an antichrist-like character will arise out of the east is common in the Sibylline Oracles, which play on the Nero-Myth. Note also Revelation 8 describes a demonic army crossing from the east; the river Euphrates is dried up in order to give the east access to the west.

He commands peace but will appoint priests and establish idols, even commanding that the wise be seized.  The writer gives us some “signs” so that we will know who the king of peace is when he comes (17-28). The material in 17-28 only appears in a recently published manuscript from the Chester Beatty library (OTP 1:741, note e2). Elijah weeps for Egypt which will bear the brunt of the attack of this king of peace (29-38). The days will be so bad people will beg the rocks to fall on them and kill them, but they will not die (33-34, cf. Rev 6:16). Nursing women will be forced to suckle snakes and blood will be drawn from their breasts (35-36). Verses 39-41 are fragmentary, but appear to have described the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. The Assyrians and Persians will fight a war in those days (42-50), and the whole land will hail the Persians. At the end of this time there will be peace and prosperity and the dead will rise (51-53). Curiously, no royal matter will be allowed to be brought for three and a half years. Typically the “time, times and half a time” period from Daniel is the duration of persecution, the reign of an antichrist, etc. This is one of the few direct references to this three and a half year period in the pseudepigrapha.

Apocalypse of Abraham

Dating the Apocalypse of Abraham is difficult due to the lack of concrete historical references in the book. It refers to the destruction of the temple in chapter 30 and possibly Vesuvius in the same context. The fact the book is interested in the fall of the Temple and the fate of the Jews in the time after the fall of the temple argues for a date at the end of the first century, parallel to 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. There is some external evidence, but even this evidence is not decisive. Origen, for example, refers to an “Apocalypse of Abraham” used by the Sethians, but is probably not the same as the present Apocalypse of Abraham. The original language of the book appears to have been Hebrew, implying an earlier date and Palestinian origin. The book has an interest in the temple and the priesthood in the first sections. Proper worship of God is important (“recite these words, etc.) Near the end of the book the “eschatology” seems very Christian.

Image result for Abraham terah's idolsThe first seven chapters of the book are a narrative of Abraham’s realization the gods his father Terah crafts are nothing but wood and stone. His father asks him to sell five idols of Marumath, but Abraham loses three in the river. Later, while cooking his father’s dinner he sarcastically asks the god Barisat to watch over the cooking fire while he went to ask his father what he should cook. When he returns, the fire was still going and the god was burning himself. Abraham and Terah argue over this; Abraham says the god is nothing and says the gods are only honored because Terah made them well.

Abraham is pondering the gods when a voice from heaven calls to him and says he is the God of gods and commands him to leave the house of Terah (chapter 8). When he does, it is destroyed with a great thunder and fire. Abraham goes out and prepares a sacrifice, and while he is doing this he has a vision (chapter 9). He falls to the ground without strength and an angel is sent to strengthen him. The angel says he was the one that gave the order to destroy his father’s house and now he will bless Abraham because he was seeking the eternal one (chapter 10). The angel is described in chapter 11 very much like the “man” in Dan 7 or Jesus Christ in Revelation 1.

Abraham and this angel go walked for forty days without eating or drinking and came to the mountain of God. Abraham wants to make a sacrifice, but has nothing. The angel tells him to look behind, and Abraham sees the sacrifice prepared (chapter 12). Abraham performs the sacrifice as commanded, but at the time of the evening sacrifice an unclean bird comes to him and asks what he is doing. This bird, we are told, is Azaz’el. The angel commands Azaz’el to leave (chapter 13). The angel tells Abraham he has been chosen by God and Azaz’el has been sent far from men. At sunset they continue their ascent of the Mountain of God and Abraham sees Gehenna and a great crowd of people running around and prostrating themselves (chapter 15).

Abraham questions the angel as to why he has been brought to this place (chapter 16). The angels tells him to not fear and be strengthened, then fire engulfed them, and the angel knelt with Abraham and worshiped. The angel teaches Abraham a song of worship he is to recite without ceasing (Chapter 17). This song of prayer is filled with repeated attributes and names of God (Eternal One, El, God autocrat), as well as descriptions and titles (light-giver, thunder-voiced, many-eyed). While he is singing this song the fire is rising higher and higher and Abraham sees the cherubim under the throne of fire (chapter 18, cf. Ezek. 1, Rev. 4-5). A voice from the midst of the fire called to him and he is told to look out over the expanse. He sees fire spread out and a multitude of angels and a “host of the invisible glory” (chapter 19).

In the vision Abraham sees all of creation as displayed before him as a huge painting or picture. The vision proceeds as he is told to look at various parts of the image. This is a specialized form of apocalyptic vision known as an ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art. Any work of art based on another work of art may be described as an ekphrasis, such as music interpreting a painting, for example, but most often ekphrasis is a literary description of a painting or tableaux.  He is told to look up at the stars and is told his seed will be as the stars of heaven (chapter 20).

He is then told to look down at his feet and he sees creation and all the creatures prepared for it (chapter 21). He sees the land giving fruit and the Garden of Eden. He asks about this picture of creation and the Lord tells him this is how it was when he created it (chapter 22). But at the right side of this picture he sees Azazel, the one who seduced Eve (chapter 23). Azaz’el is condemned for ruining creation. As he looks at the picture, Abraham is told to look at the crafty adversary Cain, who killed his brother. Abraham sees an “idol of jealousy” like his father used to make, being worshiped by a man. Boys were being slaughtered to this god, but Abraham does not know the god, the worshiper or the temple it is in. The Lord says this is the temple of The Lord and he is angry with the seed of Abraham for this worship (chapter 25). Abraham asks if God has established this judgment on the council of only one (chapter 26) and the Lord tells him to look again at the picture (chapter 26). As he looks again, Abraham sees the Temple burning with fire and being plundered and destroyed (chapter 27). Abraham prays for this evil never to happen, but the Lord says this destruction is just because the people worshiping did not regard God.

Abraham asks what the fate of the people of the time of the destruction of the temple might be and for how long will they suffer (chapter 28). The answer is obscure, “four ascents.” The fourth ascent will be one hundred years, and an hour of that age will be on a hundred years. This seems to have perplexed Abraham too, since he cries out to the Lord and asks how long an hour is in the age (chapter 29). The Lord tells him to count it out himself by looking again at the picture. In 29:9-13 there seems to be evidence Christian influence, since there will come a man at the end of the age who will be trusted by the heathen but the Jews will insult and beat him and many will be offended by him (an obviously Christian element.) Before the age of justice grows the heathen will come upon the seed of Abraham and persecute them. Many righteous of Abraham’s seed will remain.

Chapter 30 lists ten plagues which will happen in the last twelve hours of the earth (these are general cosmological chaos.) Then the trumpet will sound out of the air and the Lord will send his chosen one and he will summon his people from the heathens and the Lord will judge them with fire and deliver them to Azaz’el in Hades. By way of a conclusion, Abraham is asked if he understands what his tribe will encounter in the last days (chapter 31). Abraham acknowledges that he does understand.

Although the book is identified as an apocalypse, it might be fairly descried as an expansion on Genesis 12. Genesis does not really address the question of why God choose Abram, he suddenly appears in Genesis 12 and God simply tells him to go to the land he will show him. Modern theologians discuss whether the Abrahamic covenant was conditional or not, the Apocalypse of Abraham offers a legendary explanation for God’s chose of Abram, he was already a monotheist and well on his way to being a righteous Jew, so God chose to bless him.