What is the Apocalypse of Zephaniah?

The Apocalypse of Zephaniah is a fragmentary piece of apocalyptic literature. Study of the book is hindered by missing sections in the two partially preserved manuscripts. Clement of Alexandria may have referred to the book (in Stromata), making the latest date possible about A.D. 175 and implying an origin for the book in Egypt.

Apocalypse-lambSince the book refers to both Daniel 3 and the apocryphal Susanna, implying a date no earlier than 100 B.C. The author was a Jew living in a Greek speaking Diaspora community. The book appears to have been used in the Coptic Apocalypse of Paul, found in Upper Egypt. E. A. Budge includes this in his Miscellaneous Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London 1915) but carefully distinguishes this Apocalypse of Paul from the Nag Hammadi text of the same name. There is nothing uniquely Christian in the text, despite the fact Christians preserved the text.

The fragment of the Apocalypse of Zephaniah which is preserved in Clement’s Stromata is a brief description of the prophet’s ascension into the fifth heaven. There he sees angels (called “lords”) being crowned by the Holy Spirit and seated on brilliant thrones. This sort of heavenly journey and throne vision is common in the apocalyptic genre based on Isaiah 6:1-8. The unique element is the activity of the “Holy Spirit.” Since this is a Jewish text, we need to be careful not te read the Christian Trinity into this text (OTP 1:508, note b). He explains his use of capital letters in his translation and notes the spirit of God is described in similar ways in the Jewish sources (WisSol 9:17; Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:14, 4 Ezra 14:22; PssSol 17:42, CD 2.10).

The Sahidic fragment describes a punishment scene. A soul is lashed a hundred times each day by each of five thousand angels. Zephaniah faints at the sight of this and is told by his angelic guide to be strong. He calls Zephaniah “the one who will triumph.” It is this line, specifically the title for Zephaniah,” which is found in Budge’s Coptic Apocalypse. A second scene describes a great, broad places with thousands of people. The description of the people breaks off after their hair “loose like that belonging to a woman.” Since this description appears in 4:4 of the Akhmimic text, it is possible the people described are the souls of the ungodly in Hades.

The Akhmimic text is much longer, although it is also fragmentary and sections are missing. The first fragment is the end of a section which deals with the burial of the dead. A dead person is to be carried out accompanied by the playing of the cithara and the chanting of psalms and odes. This could be construed as a Christian funeral rite, but as Wintermute notes, there is simply not enough here decide if this is Christian or Jewish (OTP 1:509, note b).

Bibliography: Wintermute, O.S. “Apocalypse of Zephaniah” in OTP 498-515.