This entry only concerns the historical genre of apocalyptic literature. Justifications and interpretations within theological contexts are abundantly available at entries for individual books. For other uses, see Apocalypse (disambiguation) for a list.
Apocalyptic literature was a new genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture and was popular among millennialist early Christians.
"Apocalypse" is from the Greek word for "revelation" which means "an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling" (Goswiller 1987 p. 3). The poetry of the Book of Revelation that is traditionally ascribed to John is well known to many Christians who are otherwise unaware of the literary genre it represents.
The apocalyptic literature of Judaism and Christianity embraces a considerable period, from the centuries following the exile down to the close of the middle ages. In the present survey we shall limit ourselves to the great formative periods in this literature--in Judaism from 200 BCE to 100 CE, and in Christianity from 50 to approximately 350 CE.
Transition from prophecy to apocalyptic literature
The origin of the apocalyptic genre is to be sought in unfulfilled prophecy and in traditional elements drawn from various sources.
Sources of apocalyptic literature
The judgments predicted by the pre-exilic prophets had indeed been executed to the letter, but where were the promised glories of the renewed kingdom and Israel's unquestioned sovereignty over the nations of the earth? One such unfulfilled prophecy Ezekiel takes up and reinterprets in such a way as to show that its fulfilment is still to come. The prophets Jeremiah(iv.-vi.) and Zephaniah had foretold the invasion of Judah by a mighty people from the north. But as this northern foe had failed to appear Ezekiel re-edited this prophecy in a new form as a final assault of God and his hosts on Jerusalem, and thus established a permanent dogma in Jewish apocalyptic, which in due course passed over into Christian. Another alternative is that the invasion from the north predicted in Jeremiah 4:6; 6:1 was fulfilled in the subsequent invasion of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, since Jeremiah 25:9 suggests that northern armies would assist Nebuchadnezzar in his invasion of Judah. Other scholars suggest that a Scythian invasion that possibly occurred during that time was intended by Jeremiah, though this seems unlikely. Thus, the Battle of Gog and Magog prophesied in Ezekiel 38-39 could be a quite different invasion altogether.
But the non-fulfillment of prophecies relating to this or that individual event or people served to popularize the methods of apocalyptic in a very slight degree in comparison with the non-fulfilment of the greatest of all prophecies--the advent of the Messianic kingdom. Thus, though Jeremiah had promised that after seventy years. (Again, these two books were not considered as inspired Scripture by the Jews, and thus were not authoritative on matters of prophecy.). Earlier in Daniel chapter 7, and also in chapter 2, however, the fourth and final world empire is actually Rome, since Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome were world empires which all clearly arrived in succession. This may mean that according to the Book of Daniel, Rome would be the last world power before the kingdom of God.
Once more such ideas as those of "the day of Yahweh" and the "new heavens and a new earth" were constantly re-edited by the Jewish people with fresh nuances in conformity with their new settings. Thus the inner development of Jewish apocalyptic was always conditioned by the historical experiences of the nation. But the prophecies found in Jewish Scriptures, which have not changed over time, await their fulfillment.
Another source of apocalyptic was primitive mythological and cosmological traditions, in which the eye of the seer could see the secrets of the future no less surely than those of the past. Thus the six days of the world's creation, followed by a seventh of rest, were regarded as at once a history of the past and a forecasting of the future. As the world was made in six days its history would be accomplished in six thousand years, since each day with God was as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day; and as the six days of creation were followed by one of rest, so the six thousand years of the world's history would be followed by a rest of a thousand years, the garden of Eden.
The object of this literature in general was to solve the difficulties connected with the righteousness of God and the suffering condition of His righteous servants on earth. The righteousness of God postulated according to the law the temporal prosperity of the righteous and the temporal prosperity of necessity; for as yet there was no promise of life or recompense beyond the grave. But this connexion was not found to obtain as a rule in life, and the difficulties arising from this conflict between promise and experience centred round the lot of the righteous as a community and the lot of the righteous man as an individual. Old Testament prophecy had addressed itself to both these problems, though it was hardly conscious of the claims of this latter. It concerned itself essentially with the present, and with the future only as growing organically out of the present. It taught the absolute need of personal and national righteousness, and foretold the ultimate blessedness of the righteous nation on the present earth. But its views were not systematic and comprehensive in regard to the nations in general, while as regards the individual it held that God's service here was its own and adequate reward, and saw no need of postulating another world to set right the evils of this. But later, with the growing claims of the individual and the acknowledgment of these in the religious and intellectual life, both problems, and especially the latter, pressed themselves irresistibly on the notice of religious thinkers, and made it impossible for any conception of the divine rule and righteousness to gain acceptance, which did not render adequate satisfaction to the claims of both problems. To render such satisfaction was the task undertaken by apocalyptic, as well as to vindicate the righteousness of God alike in respect of the individual and of the nation. To justify their contention they sketched in outline the history of the world and mankind, the origin of evil and its course, and the final consummation of all things. Thus they presented in fact a theodicy, a rudimentary philosophy of religion. The righteous as a nation should yet possess the earth, even in this world the faithful community should attain its rights in an eternal Messianic kingdom on earth, or else in temporary blessedness here and eternal blessedness hereafter. So far as regards the righteous community. It was, however, in regard to the destiny of the individual that apocalyptic rendered its chief service. Though the individual might perish amid the disorders of this world, he would not fail, apocalyptic taught, to attain through resurrection the recompense that was his due in the Messianic kingdom or in heaven itself. Apocalyptic thus forms the indispensable preparation for the religion of the New Testament.
Apocalyptic literature as a genre
We have already dwelt on certain notable differences between apocalyptic and prophecy; but there are certain others that call for attention.
Apocalyptic literature as distinguished from prophecy
The message of the prophets was primarily a preaching of repentance and righteousness if the nation would escape judgment; the message of the apocalyptic writers was of patience and trust for that deliverance and reward were sure to come.
In the nature of its message
Prophecy believes that this world is God's world and that in this world His goodness and truth will yet be vindicated. Hence the prophet prophesies of a definite future arising out of and organically connected with the present. The apocalyptic writer on the other hand despairs of the present, and directs his hopes absolutely to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present..
Under the guidance of such a principle the writer naturally expected the world's culmination in evil to be the immediate precursor of God's intervention on behalf of the righteous, and every fresh growth in evil to be an additional sign that the time was at hand. The natural concomitant in conduct of such a belief is an uncompromising asceticism. He that would live to the next world must shun this. Visions are vouchsafed only to those who to prayer have added fasting.
By its dualistic theology
We have already touched on this characteristic of apocalyptic. The prophet stood in direct relations with his people; his prophecy was first spoken and afterwards written. The apocalyptic writer could obtain no hearing from his contemporaries, who held that, though God spoke in the past, "there was no more any prophet." This pessimism and want of faith limited and defined the form in which religious enthusiasm should manifest itself, and prescribed as a condition of successful effort the adoption of pseudonymous authorship. The apocalyptic writer, therefore, professedly addressed his book to future generations. Generally directions as to the hiding and sealing of the book were given in the text in order to explain its publication so long after the date of its professed period. Moreover, there was a sense in which such books were not wholly pseudonymous. Their writers were students of ancient prophecy and apocalyptical tradition, and, though they might recast and reinterpret them, they could not regard them as their own inventions. Each fresh apocalypse would in the eyes of its writer be in some degree but a fresh edition of the traditions naturally attaching themselves to great names in Israel's past, and thus the books named respectively Enoch, Noah, Ezra would to some slight extent be not pseudonymous.
By pseudonymous authorship
Apocalyptic took an indefinitely wider view of the world's history than prophecy. Thus, whereas prophecy had to deal with temporary reverses at the hands of some heathen power, apocalyptic arose at a time when Israel had been subject for generations to the sway of one or other of the great world-powers. Hence to harmonize such difficulties with belief in God's righteousness, it had to take account of the rôle of such empires in the counsels of God, the rise, duration and downfall of each in turn, till finally the lordship of the world passed into the hands of Israel, or the final judgment arrived. These events belonged in the main to the past, but the writer represented them as still in the future, arranged under certain artificial categories of time definitely determined from the beginning in the counsels of God and revealed by Him to His servants the prophets. Determinism thus became a leading characteristic of Jewish apocalyptic, and its conception of history became severely mechanical.
By its comprehensive and deterministic conception of history
Old Testament Era Apocalyptic Literature
(See the separate headings for the various apocalyptic books mentioned in this article.) All are probably pseudepigraphic except the passages from Ezekiel and Joel. Of the remaining passages and books, large sections of Daniel belong unquestionably to the Maccabean period, and the rest possibly to the same period. Isaiah xxxiii. was probably written about 163 B.C.; Zech. xii.-xiv. about 160 B.C., Isaiah xxiv.-xxvii. about 128 B.C., and xxxiv.-xxxv. sometime in the reign of John Hyrcanus. Jeremiah xxxiii. 14-26 is assigned by Marti to Maccabean times, but this is highly questionable.
Isaiah xxiv-xxvii; xxxiii; xxxiv-xxxv
possibly Jeremiah xxxiii 14-26?
Ezekiel ii. 8; xxxviii-xxxix
Joel iii. 9-17
Daniel Canonical books
For more details on this topic, see book of Noah. Book of Noah