I’m reading and rereading and teaching the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. It is easy to forget that this mysterious book, marking the end of the New Testament both in print and in chronology, fit right into a literary genre of the time.
Jewish apocalyptic writings were known for several things:
1. Visions and dreams, usually highly symbolic.
2. Often include a view of the heavenly realms and the end times.
3. Often include mystical journeys into the heavenly realms.
4. Depict heavenly counterparts to earthly realities (e.g., a heavenly temple much like the one in Jerusalem).
5. Reveal patterns in which history repeats itself, especially with the end times being a return to the earliest times in Genesis.
The Apocalypse of John certainly does these things as well as any other Jewish apocalypse:
1. Visions: “in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (21:10).
2. View of heavenly realms: “After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven!” (4:1).
3. Heavenly tour: “I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a thunderous voice, ‘Come!’” (6:1).
4. Heavenly temple: “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense” (5:8).
5. Historical cycle: “when the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child” (12:13).
Looking at other apocalypses (examples given below), I think they were not meant to be taken as literal visions. Someone may slaughter me on this point, but it seems to me that people understood a Jewish apocalypse was a way of writing in code. Visions provided a symbolic way to sopeak fo things we might call political as well as spiritual.
But in the Apocalypse of John, there is an insistence on the reality of the visions:
He communicated it by sending his angel to his servant Yochanan, who bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Yeshua the Messiah, as much as he saw (1:2).
John says he reported what he saw. He warns people not to add to these visions (22:18). The emphasis on John seeing and reporting what was real is throughout his writings (assuming, as I do, that the author of the Apocalypse is the Apostle): John 1:14 (“we beheld him”) and 1 John 1:1-3 (“what we have seen”).
It seems John is saying, “Other apocalypses speak in coded visions invented by clever authors, but I reveal to you what was truly shown to me.” As the angel said to John, “These are true words of God” (19:9).
EXAMPLES OF JEWISH APOCALYPSE
Parts of Ezekiel (586 B.C.E.) and Zechariah (400 B.C.E.) have images that would become the basis of apocalyptic symbolism.
Daniel (c. 520 B.C.E.) is usually dated much later by many scholars who doubt that anyone could have seen the future so accurately. Daniel 2 and 7-12 especially contain symbolic visions about world history, which the apocalyptic genre is based on. Also, Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man (ch. 7) is very important for 1 Enoch.
The Book of Astronomy (1 Enoch 72-82, c. 250 B.C.E.). Enoch is led by an angel through the heavens for a detailed view of astronomical and calendar issues.
The Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36, c. 175 B.C.E.) is the story of the fallen angels (Gen. 6:1-4) and how their sin brought corruption to the world which can only be rooted out by a final judgment.
Jubilees (c. 164 B.C.E.) is a response to the pressures of Hellenism and Antiochus IV. Some Jewish leaders within Israel as well as Antiochus and forces outside Israel sought to pressure Jews to become Greek in practice, language, and religion. Jubilees is a retelling and expansion of Genesis 1 – Exodus 12 urging Jews to stand firm in the traditions of Torah. Jubilees does this, for example, by having patriarchs in the stories making speeches urging their children not to practice immorality and idolatry.
Testament of Moses (some parts as early as 160 B.C.E.) is an expansion and retelling of Deuteronomy 31-34: the preparations of Moses for his death, his song, his blessing for the tribes, and his death and burial. References are made to the issues of Hellenism (assimilation to Greek culture) and political events that threatened Israel’s way of life leading up to the Maccabees.
The Book of Dream Visions (1 Enoch 83-90, c. 160 B.C.E.) is about visions Enoch saw of the flood and a symbolic vision of the history of the world with animals representing people. There are many references to the pressures of Hellenism and the events leading up to the Maccabees.
Sybilline Oracles, Book 3 (early parts around 150 B.C.E.) are poetic prophecies related to the experiences and pressures of the Jewish community in Egypt. The end time is predicted to come after the seventh king of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt (probably to be identified with Philometer).
The Book of the Epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch 92-105, c. 150-50 B.C.E.) urges readers to be faithful in trials since the time of salvation is soon to come. History is represented as a period of ten “weeks” leading up to final judgment where all evil will be defeated.
2 Enoch (c. 1st cent. C.E.) is an account of Enoch’s ascent into heaven and comforting promises of a glorious Age to Come.
Parables or Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71, c. early 1st cent. C.E.) is a journey Enoch takes to the heavenly throne room where his questions are answered by an angelic guide. Enoch is revealed to be the Son of Man, the judge of the earth in the last days. He and the angels will carry out judgment on the wicked and resurrection for the righteous to a renewed earth.
2 Baruch (c. end of 1st cent. C.E.) contains detailed descriptions of the end times (viewed as coming during the Roman period): especially the Messianic woes, the resurrection, and the renewed earth. There are visions in 2 Baruch very similar to those in Daniel. The Messiah is a central figure in 2 Baruch.
4 Ezra (2 Esdras, c. end of 1st cent. C.E.) is similar to 2 Baruch. It has Daniel-like visions and identifies Rome as the final empire. A lot of 4 Ezra concerns sin and the problem of evil which is largely answered by the promise of a coming Age without evil.