The Book of Revelation is unique among the New Testament documents.
It is different from both the Gospels and the Acts (narrative literature), and from the epistles which compose the remaining of the New Testament. On the other hand, some sections of the Gospels can be said to exhibit characteristics of the genre (Matthew 24:-25; Mark 13; Luke 17 and 21; Acts 2:17-21 [Joel 3:1-5).
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However, many Old Testament books or sections are apocalyptic in genre, and many other apocalypses were written between approximately 200 B.C (written by Jews) and A.D 200 (some written by Jews and others by Christians).
Even if apocalyptic literature is not something with which we are familiar, we need to take heed of John’s words in the opening of the book Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Rev 1:3)
Apocalypses and apocalyptic tinged prophecies are a foreign country to us modern, western readers. We are more at home in Romans 13 than in Revelation 13. There is a danger that distaste for what is alien can prevent us from attempting to hear what message such texts have for us and our contemporaries.
We must extend to them the courtesy of trying first to understand them on their own terms. One must overhear their message to their original constituencies and try to empathize with their intent.
Defining the Terms
There is confusion about certain terms in New Testament studies. There is still no scholarly consensus, but something similar to working definitions are now in place:- Apocalypsis: A Greek word meaning ‘revelation’.
The verb means to uncover, to reveal or to disclose.- Apocalypse: A particular style or genre of writing, or a literary work exhibiting apocalyptic genre. John’s apocalypse (revelation) is one example.
– Apocalyptic: An adjective used with reference to either the literary genre or the religious perspective underlying it- Apocalypticism: Refers either to the social movement or religious ideology which produced apocalyptic writings.- Apocalyptic eschatology: A particular type of eschatology, “a perspective about how God’s future proposes are worked out, which is mainly expressed in, though not restricted to, apocalypses”
Apocalyptic and Eschatology
One must be cautious not to confuse the terms apocalyptic and eschatological, as if both terms refer to the same reality. Eschatology normally refers to what pertains to the end, thus referring to content rather than to form; something can be said about the times of the end without using imagery, visions, etc. On the other, apocalyptic refers not to a subject matter, but rather to form, therefore, not all apocalypses depict the end-times, as some present cosmology, meteorology, seasons of the year, using visionary language, divine revelation, angelic mediation and the like.–Eschatology refers to content while Apocalyptic refers to form–
Esc and Apoc Continued
Apocalyptic literature may or may not speak about eschatological matters; what is revealed within apocalypse may be knowledge about the future, but then again it may not be.
The substance of the heavenly revelation might be knowledge about astronomy, or the creation, or celestial worlds, or matters concerning the heavenly Jerusalem, for example, and not knowledge of eschatological matters and what is going to happen in the future.
Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature 1
1. Coming from God/Revelatory: in prophetic revelation, oral communication from God is stressed; the communications are mostly under the form of visions.
However, these categories should not be considered as mutually exclusive.
Esoteric symbolism: For example, Daniel 7-12. But one should note that Isaiah 24-27 does not contain elaborate symbols. Therefore, one should rather understand that when both the previously mentioned characteristics and this one are present, one deals with apocalyptic.
3. Intermingling of past, present, and future events: often apocalyptic literature has few references to the past, but mostly focuses on the present and (even more) on the future.
Also is a mix of past and future events, thus providing an assurance for the present time,
Even more important is a intermingling of horizontal (temporal) and vertical (heavenly versus earthly) dimensions. While this characteristic is not found every apocalypse, it appears in the majority of these.
Angelic Mediation: this is found in two-thirds of apocalypses, where angels interpret the significance of symbols. Not only are they present, but they serve as guides. When angels are absent, one finds heavenly tablets or secret books (e.g., 1 Enoch, Jubilees. And Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs).
Cycles of discourses: not found in every single apocalypse, but in about 80% of them. While prophecy is often sequential, apocalyptic literature is mostly cyclical. One thinks of seals, trumpets and bowls in the biblical book of Revelation. Some even see up to seven cycles in John’s Apocalypse, a suggestion that has not won a large consensus among scholars.
Pseudonymity: this appears in three fourths (75%) of the intertestamental literature. Only extreme critical scholars maintain John’s revelation to be pseudonymous. While intertestamental literature used figures of times past (Enoch, the Twelve Patriarchs, Moses, etc.), the biblical book Revelation is written under the name of a contemporary figure, that is, John (Rev 1:1).
This is unique in apocalyptic literature.
The Apocalyptic Mindset
Part of our difficulty to understand apocalyptic literature, and thus to rightly understand the book of Revelation, is our failure to appreciate its mindset. These books were written during special times and under specific circumstances:6 Headings
1. A crisis situation: they were often written during times of testing, oppression, when all hope seemed to be lost without a demonstration of divine intervention. Questions such as “Is God sovereign? Is He still in control?” are answered by God being sovereign over history.
2. Pessimism concerning the present times: prophetic writings described warnings, threats and punishments, but these were conditional to Israel’s response (or failure of responding) to God’s oracles. Apocalyptic literature, present situations are seen in a pessimistic way, as being hopeless; this, one’s hope must look further in the future when God intervenes in favour of his people.
3. Optimism toward the future: when it speaks about “salvation,” this does not refer to spiritual salvation, but rather to deliverance from and victory over evil, the beast, etc. Promises of vindication are numerous, and recompense for faithfulness is guaranteed.
Determinism – It is the most deterministic of all literary genres. Victory is certain, the defeat of the enemies is without a doubt!
5. Dualism: this can be between God and Satan (see Rev 12:-20), but also between the woman and the dragon, or Michael and Satan, this presenting a modified dualism. There are a true and false people of God who are sealed, one by the Spirit and one by the beast.
6. Transcendence: God surpasses everything and nothing escapes him.