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Apocalyptic Scriptures

Roman Palestine
1011 Lecture 9
Original Date
July 5, 2010

Only one book in the Hebrew Bible is generally classified as apocalyptic literature, and that is the book of Daniel. But that is not to say that Daniel is the only book that shows characteristics typical of apocalyptic literature. Certain motifs characteristic of apocalyptic eschatology can be found in the myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Motifs of cosmic warfare pervade mythic material, such as the battle between the high gods and the sea monsters. This divine warrior motif is also present in biblical apocalyptic literature. The royal cult of Jerusalem, where Yahweh is king, may be the source of various warrior motifs in biblical apocalyptic literature. Also, Persian dualism may have affected the development of apocalyptic ideology.

In addition to having affinities with literature that predates the Hebrew Bible, some scholars suggest that apocalyptic literature have similarities with both the wisdom and the prophetic literatures of the Hebrew Bible. Von Rad argues that it has its origins in wisdom. Hanson (1975) traces the precursors of Jewish apocalyptic literature back to biblical prophecy. He dates the movement from prophetic eschatology to apocalyptic eschatology in the early post-exilic period, roughly 538-500 BCE. Second and Third Isaiah, dating to the sixth century, contain a good deal of apocalyptic material. This attests a move to apocalypticism, but it really achieved prominence in the second century BCE during the Hellenization process.

Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

Many Jewish books were composed between 200 BCE and 100 CE Written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, the books include wisdom literature, history, short stories, and apocalyptic literature. Some of the books were widely used by Jews of this period, especially the Jews of the Diaspora. There are two broad groups, the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. None of the books, however, became part of any official Jewish collection of scriptures.

The word Apocrypha, as usually understood, denotes the collection of religious writings which the Septuagint and Vulgate (with trivial differences) contain in addition to the writings constituting the Jewish and Protestant canon. This is not the original or the correct sense of the word, as will be shown, but it is that which it bears almost exclusively in modern speech. In critical works of the present day it is customary to speak of the collection of writings now in view as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Apocrypha.” Many of the books at least were written in Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and because all of them are much more closely allied to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament than to the New Testament. But there is a “New” as well as an “Old” Testament. Apocrypha consisting of gospels, epistles, etc. Moreover the adjective “Apocryphal” is also often applied in modern times to what are now generally called “Pseudepigraphical writings,” so designated because ascribed in the titles to authors who did not and could not have written them (e.g. Enoch, Abraham, Moses, etc.). The persons thus connected with these books are among the most distinguished in the traditions and history of Israel, and there can be no doubt that the object for which such names have been thus used is to add weight and authority to these writings.

The investigation which follows will show that when the word “Apocryphal” was first used in ecclesiastical writings it bore a sense virtually identical with “esoteric”: so that “apocryphal writings” were such as appealed to an inner circle and could not be understood by outsiders. The present connotation of the term did not get fixed until the Protestant Reformation had set in, limiting the Biblical canon to its present dimensions among Protestant churches. Is it quite certain that there is no Hebrew word or expression corresponding exactly to the word “apocrypha” as first used by Christian writers, i.e. in the sense “esoteric”? One may answer this by a decisive negative as regards the Old Testament and the Talmud. But in the Middle Ages Kabbalah (literally, “tradition”) came to have ‘a closely allied meaning.

Zahn (Gesch. des neutest. Kanons, I, i, 123ff); Schürer (RE3, I, 623); Porter (HDB, I) and others maintain that the Greek word “Apocrypha ?Biblia” is a translation of the Hebrew “Sepharim Genuzim.” If this view is the correct one it follows that the distinction of canonical and non-canonical books originated among the Jews, and that the Fathers in using the word apocrypha in this sense were simply copying the Jews substituting Greek words for the Hebrew equivalent. But there are decisive reasons for rejecting this view. The Hebrew phrase in question does not once occur in either the Babylonian or the Jerusalem Talmud, but only in rabbinical writings of a much later date. The Greek apocrypha cannot therefore be a rendering of the Hebrew expression. The Hebrew for books definitely excluded from the canon is Sepharim Hitzonim = “outer” “outside” or “extraneous books.” The Mishna (the text of the Gemara, both making up what we call the Talmud) or oral law with its additions came to be divided analogously into (1) The Mishna proper; (2) the external Mishna: in Aramaic called baraita’.

Pseudepigrapha (Greek pseudos = “false”, “epi” = “after, later” and grapha = “writing (or ‘writings’)”, latterly or falsely attributed, or down-and-out forged works, describes texts whose claimed authorship is unfounded in actuality. Typically, writers have employed the technique of publicly ascribing a false authorship other than their own to a well-known figure so as to attain greater interest or credibility for their work. The authenticity or value of the work itself, which is a separate question for experienced readers, often becomes sentimentally entangled in association. For instance, few Hebrew scholars would insist that the Song of Solomon was written by the king of Israel, or ascribe the Book of Enoch to the prophet Enoch, and few Christian scholars would insist today that the Second Epistle of John was written by St. John. Nevertheless, in some cases, especially for books belonging to a religious canon, the question of whether a text is pseudepigraphical elicits sensations of loyalty and can become a matter of heavy dispute – though the inherent value of the text may not be called in question, the weight of a revered or even apostolic author lends authority to a text. This is the essential motivation for pseudepigraphy in the first place.

In Biblical studies, Pseudepigrapha refers particularly to works which purport to be written by individuals mentioned in either the Old and New Testaments or by persons involved in Jewish or Christian religious study or history. These works can also be written about Biblical matters, often in such a way that they appear to be as authoritative as works, which have been included in the many versions of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.



General Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature

Differences  in Content

Both in matter and form apocalyptic literal and the writings associated with it differ from the prophetic writings of the preceding periods. As  mentioned, while the predictive element as present in Apocalypses, as in Prophecy, it is more prominent and relates to longer periods and involves a wider appreciation of the state of the world at large. Apocalypse could only have been possible under the domination of the great empires. Alike in Prophecy and in Apocalypse there is reference to the coming of the Messiah, but in the latter not only is the Messianic hope more defined, it has a wider reference. In the Prophets and Psalmists the Messiah had mainly to do with Israel. “He will save his people”; “He will die for them”; “His people shall be all righteous.” All this applies to Israel; there is no imperial outlook. In the Apocalypses the imperial outlook is prominent, beginning with Daniel in which we find the Messianic kingdom represented by a “son of man” over against the bestial empires that had preceded (Daniel 7:13) and reaching the elevation of Apocalypse, if not its conclusion. While the prophet was primarily a preacher of righteousness, and used prediction either as a guarantee, by its fulfillment, of his Divine mission, or as an exposition of the natural result of rebellion against God’s righteous laws, to the Apocalyptic prediction was the thing of most importance, and in the more typical Apocalypse there is no moral exhortation whatever.


Differences  in Literary Form


In the literary form employed there are marked differences between Apocalyptic and Prophecy. Both make use of vision, but in Prophecy, in the more restricted sense of the word, these visions are as a rule implied, rather than being described. Although Isaiah calls the greater part of his Prophecy  “vision,” yet in only one instance does he describe what he sees; as a rule he assumes throughout that has audience knows what is visible to him. The only instance (Isaiah 6:1-13) in which he does describe his vision is not at all predictive; the object is exhortation. In the case of the Apocalypses the vision is the vehicle by which the prediction is conveyed. In Ezekiel there are visions, but only one of these – “the valley of dry bones” – is predictive. In it the symbols used are natural, not, as always in Apocalypses, arbitrary.

Compare in Daniel’s vision of the Ram and the He-goat (Daniel  8). In Ezekiel the dry bones naturally suggest death, and the process by which they are revivified the reader feels is the natural course such an event would take did it come within the sphere of ordinary experience; while in what is told of the horns on the head of the Greek goat there is no natural reason for the changes that take place, only a symbolical one. This is still more marked in the vision of the Eagle in 4 Esdras 11. 
What may be regarded as yet more related to the form is the fact that while the Prophets wrote in a style of so elevated prose that it always hovered on the border of poetry – indeed, frequently passed into it and employed the form of verse, as Isaiah 26:1 – the apocalyptic always used pure prose, without the elaborate parallelism or cadenced diction of Hebrew poetry. The weird, the gorgeous, or the terrible features of the vision described are thrown into all the higher relief by the baldness of the narrative.