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A biblical style of writing that developed during the Exile (587–538 B.C.) and especially the postexilic age. The term is derived from the Greek verb ἀποκαλύπτω, meaning to unveil. The apocalyptists wrote as though they had received a vision involving God's cosmic kingdom and His eschatological battle to establish it. Almost every earthly element acquired symbolic value—parts of the human body, animals, colors, clothing, and numbers— for God was utilizing everything for His world triumph. Angels acted as mediators not only of the revelation, but particularly of its explanation. Finally, the authors usually wrote in the name of personages of the distant past; thus, under the literary form of a vision granted centuries earlier, they actually described contemporary scenes.

Apocalyptic evolved out of an earlier prophetic style of preaching. A historical study of the development of prophecy into apocalyptic not only explains the origin but also the dominant features of apocalyptic. The development can be observed in the three periods of OT history: (1) the late preexilic, (2) the exilic, and (3) the postexilic age.

For lessons on the topic of Apocalypse, follow this link.

Late Preexilic Age

The weird symbolism of apocalyptic had its roots in the events and reactions of the last 60 years before the Babylonian exile, which began in 587 B.C. The colossal Assyrian empire was collapsing. In 22 years it plunged from a peak of extravagant glory and terrifying ruthlessness to the depths of total destruction. Nations shuddered at such swift reversals. They began to write official documents, as in Babylon, in ancient scripts and long-forgotten languages, and in many ways people revived religious traditions and practices of hoary origin.

This almost haunting return to ancient customs and accounts showed up in Jerusalem in the Deuteronomic reform of King Josia (c. 640–609 B.C.). The biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel [1], and Kings [2] were redacted, and their Deuteronomist author recognized in the accumulation of early stories, folklore, and liturgy a pattern of action repeated over and over again in history: sin brings suffering; suffering induces compunction; compunction moves God to send deliverance (Jgs 2.6–3.6). Deuteronomy used these early traditions to actualize faith in the present moment (Dt 5.1–5).

In a somewhat different way the Prophets of this final period before the exile thundered doom and destruction upon sin. Zephaniah and Nehemiah both cried out that a DAY OF THE LORD was to strike Israel with almost annihilating force (Zep) and to sweep aside all opposition from foreigners (Neh). The Prophet JEREMIAH stressed the cosmic impact of Israel's sins (Jer 2.12; 4.23–36; 5.22–23). In this account of preexilic Israel only those details are highlighted that later become united in apocalyptic: reappearance of ancient personages and events; cosmic and agonizing battles between God and wickedness; and victory's emerging out of the sorrowful effects of sin.

Exilic Age

The Babylonian Exile (587–538 B.C.) destroyed all the external forms of religious and civil life, almost everything that seemed of utmost importance to Israel. Two prophets—EZEKIEL and Deutero-Isaiah (author of Isaiah ch. 40–55)—then pointed out what was truly at the heart of existence: faith in God, who is personally interested in His chosen people, who is adamant against evil, and who will secure His world kingdom.

Ezekiel is of special interest here in the development of prophecy into apocalyptic. He made a free, extravagant use of symbolism (ch. 1–3; 40–48); his word pictures defy imagination, just as the explosive destruction of the Exile did. The mystery of God's promised kingdom breaks the bonds of reasoning and picturing. Ezekiel not only spoke but acted apocalyptically (5.1–5; 12.6, 11; 24.24, 27). By his concern over the priestly traditions within the Pentateuch Ezekiel may have been responsible for preserving accounts that later apocalyptists generously used, such as the creation story, Enoch and other patriarchal figures, and Noah and the Flood.

Postexilic Age

During the postexilic age, from the return of the first Jewish exiles to the first half of the 2d Christian century, apocalyptic writing completely replaced the older prophetic style. There are only a few exceptions, such as parts of Zechariah (ch. 7–8) and of Malachi; but even in these cases the Prophets were subservient to the priest, a situation that had hardly been true of the preexilic Prophets. In Joel, for instance, trumpet blasts and locust plague proclaim the Day of the Lord, but the writer calls not for social reform but for fasting and liturgical prayer. The liturgy suddenly expands into the outpouring of the Spirit with "blood, fire and columns of smoke" (ch. 3) and a terrifying judgment upon the nations of the world (ch. 4).

The great persecution of 167 to 164 B.C., when ANTIOCHUS IV EPIPHANES, the Seleucid king of Antioch, attempted to suppress Jewish national identity in Palestine, brought forth the most complete form of Old Testament apocalyptic, the Book of DANIEL. The first six chapters of the book are probably a haggadic reediting of early stories, some of which originated as far back as the Exile. Chapters 7 to 12 show all the major trends of apocalyptic: visions explained by the angel Gabriel; a pseudonym of a hero of the Babylonian Exile; a flamboyant concoction of clashing and fearful images; catastrophic suffering; and the sudden appearance of a glorious cosmic victory for Yahweh. The author seeks to sustain the faith of his persecuted coreligionists by assuring them that God will quickly reverse their sorrows with eschatological triumph.

Apocalyptic continued in Judaism among the PHARISEES and the members of the QUMRAN community. It seems, however, that after the devastation of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and again after the suppression of the revolt of BAR KOKHBA in A.D. 136, JUDAISM gave up its apocalyptic hopes and settled down as the people of the Torah, devoted to the careful study and punctilious fulfillment of the Law.

Christianity inherited the apocalyptic; and, in fact, the last New Testament book, the Book of Revelation, like the Book of Daniel, is one of the finest examples of this literary form. Jesus used the apocalyptic style (Mk ch. 15), and the Apostles after the Resurrection did likewise (1 and 2 Thess). Soon, however, the tendency set in of seeing apocalyptic hopes already realized in Jesus' presence, in the gift of the Spirit, and in the liturgy (Romans and Gospel of St. John). Christians, however, still looked forward to a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pt), when sorrow would be totally removed (Rom ch. 8) and the fullness of the Godhead revealed (Ephesians and Colossians). Then would apocalyptic hopes be satisfied, and vision and symbol be turned into reality.

See also


  • S. B. FROST, O.T. Apocalyptic: Its Origin and Growth (London 1952).
  • H. H. ROWLEY, The Relevance of Apocalyptic (3d ed. New York 1964).
  • R. H. CHARLES et al., eds., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the O.T. in English, 2 v. (Oxford 1913); Religious Development Between the Old and the New Testaments (New York 1914).
  • M. J. LAGRANGE, Le Judaïsme avant Jésus-Christ (Études bibliques 1931).
  • D. S. RUSSELL, Between the Testaments (Philadelphia 1960).
  • O. PLÖGER, Theokratie und Eschatologie (2d ed. Neukirchen 1962).
  • J. BLOCH, On the Apocalyptic in Judaism (Philadelphia 1952).
  • J. B. FREY, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed.
  • L. PIROT, et al. (Paris 1928–) 1:326–354.
  • F. J. SCHIERSE, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. J. HOFER and K. RAHNER (Freiburg 1957–65) 1:704–705.
  • H. RINGGREN and R. SCHÜTZ, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 1:464–469.
  • J. SICKENBERGER, Reallexikon für Antike Christentum, ed. T. KLAUSER (Stuttgart 1950–) 1:504–510. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by L. HARTMAN (New York 1963) from A. VAN DEN BORN, Bijbels Woordenboek, 110–111.
  • J. H. CHAR-LESWORTH, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N. Y. 1983).
  • J. J. COLLINS, The Apocalyptic Imagination. An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York 1984).
  • B. MCGINN, Visions of the End (New York 1979).
  • C. ROWLAND, The Open Heaven. A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Christianity (New York 1982).

Source Citation

"Apocalyptic." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 545-547. Gale Virtual Reference