This is a draft chapter from the forthcoming book The Words of the Covenant.
The purpose of this article is to cast a little doubt upon the generally received view of the reading of biblical apocalyptic literature. As the unique Word of God, the Bible itself is its own interpreter, and much of the edifice of genre criticism and particularly apocalyptic genre is not based on biblical premises, nor should the “apocalyptic” sections of the Bible be read as if at odds with the understanding of God’s covenants that we have been considering. In point of fact, read against the backdrop of the divine covenants apocalyptic presents few problems for the interpreter and makes its own contribution to the prophetic big picture of the Bible.
Apocalyptic as We are Supposed to View It
According to the leading writers on the subject, the study of apocalyptic literature only gained impetus in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and really began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century. Though there has been some shift in opinion over the past fifty years, the overall consensus is fairly stable. Mainline scholars have broken down their study into three major strands:
- Apocalypse is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”1
- Apocalyptic includes the “language and conceptions” of the genre of apocalyptic literature.2
- Apocalypticism is the worldview or mindset of those who wrote apocalypses, and the community for whom they wrote.3
John J. Collins, who is the most recognizable scholar writing on the subject, says that,
A movement might reasonably be called apocalyptic if it shared the conceptual framework of the genre, endorsing a worldview in which supernatural revelation, the heavenly world, and eschatological judgment played essential parts.4
This way of speaking is so inclusive as to embrace nearly everything in the Bible. Yet only in this sense is Ernst Kasemann’s statement that “apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” true.5
The Bible and “Apocalypse”
In historical-critical assessments of the genre the story goes that a movement sprang up in the centuries before Christ of which some biblical writers were a part. Some scholars, like P. D. Hanson, believed that the movement had its roots in the 6th century B.C.6, but for all intents and purposes it is held to have truly sprung up in the 3rd century B.C., thus making all the Jewish writers (including, as they believe, Daniel and Second Isaiah) pseudonymous.7 For reasons that have been debated, but which often include pious mysticism, fear and persecution, or plain confusion8, some writers developed this genre of apocalyptic literature. Briefly stated, the genre,
…focuses upon a dramatic revelation (Gk apokalypsis) to an outstanding religious figure …a revelation that typically anticipates the climax of history for a deteriorating world with the destruction of the forces of evil and the victory of God. This revelation is characteristically coded with striking images and mediated through angelic mediators.9
It is not my purpose in this chapter to question the whole genre of apocalyptic. I do think that for example, Daniel 7 and 8 and Revelation 12 and 13 contain visions and images (e.g. composite beasts) which may represent a certain literary genre. Also, the angelic messengers to Ezekiel (Ezek. 40 – 48) and to John (e.g. Rev. 17 – 22) appear within a genre of divine disclosure which one may wish to call “apocalyptic.” But I am of the strong opinion that the angels in both cases were real, and so was much of what they revealed (in the sense that it was not symbolic), so that both the temple in Ezekiel and the New Jerusalem in Revelation should be taken literally.
There is little clear evidence to suggest that the generally accepted perspective on apocalyptic genre should be foisted upon the biblical materials. For example, although the beasts of Daniel 7:3-7 are figurative in that they stand for something else (i.e. kings and kingdoms), there is no reason to think of the “living creatures” in Ezekiel 1 and 10, or the supernatural horses of Zechariah 1:7 or even the stork-winged women in Zechariah 5:9 in the same way. In other words, I view Daniel’s “beasts” as impossible creatures10, but these other beasts as entirely possible.11 Discerning the difference is an important part of the literary study of the genre, but it produces little to improve one’s comprehension of the revelation.
A Note on Leviathan
A good example of this point would be the creature Leviathan which shows up in several contexts. We might ask, for instance, doesn’t its presence in “Isaiah’s Apocalypse” (Isa. 27:1) make it symbolic? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Hamilton believes that Isaiah 27:1 contains a probable allusion to the defeat of the serpent of Eden.12 This “Leviathan” is often thought of as being mythical.13 This is understandable. But the context must be pondered. The prophet predicts a time of divine “indignation” (Isa. 26:20), that will culminate when God “comes out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity (Isa 26:21). Does this refer to the second advent? Very possibly. And it is at this time that Yahweh punishes the coiling serpent Leviathan. Motyer is of the opinion that Isaiah is employing mythological language to describe immense and unruly supernatural power, over which Yahweh emerges as victor.14 He also believes there is an allusion to Genesis 3:1. The fact that this “dragon” Leviathan is said to be “punished”, as the usual translation has it (and which fits the context), implies that it is blameworthy. Calvin thinks Satan is in view, although spoken of allegorically.15
Is Leviathan wholly mythological? That seems dubious, otherwise how can commentators reference Genesis 3? I for one do not doubt that there was a real serpent in Eden. Neither am I in much doubt that the dragon-like Leviathan in Job 41 was a real creature of colossal size (cf. Psa. 104:26). As for the many-headed monster of Psalm 74:14, which is often linked with the Baal Epic from Ugarit16, my only comment is to inquire why nobody has asked where the ancients got the idea of the dragon from? At any rate, I see no proof that the mention of Leviathan by Isaiah indicates that we are dealing with a proto-apocalyptic writing.
In the biblical viewpoint apocalyptic writings reflect a certain mode of communication that the Holy Spirit chose to employ, and which later non-inspired writings copied and often exaggerated. To create the impression that this is not the case17, introduces confusion and is a tacit denial of the Bible’s ability to interpret itself.
1 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 5
2 David E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 227
3 Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 5, 8
4 Collins, Ibid, 13
5 As cited by Hans Schwarz, Eschatology, 67. Schwarz provides a brief context for Kasemann’s remark.
6 Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic: The Historical and Sociological Roots of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 16-17. See also Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive; Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991), 233; Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016), 37
7 We see this belief also in the well-known New Testament scholar and historian, Martin Hengel. See his Judaism and Hellenism (London: SCM Press, 1981), Vol. I.180ff.
8 D. S. Russell thought that the nagging question of when the messianic age would dawn was a powerful impetus towards apocalypticism. See his Prophecy and the Apocalyptic Dream: Protest and Promise (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 1994), 15-16
9 Samuel A. Meier, Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 17. Meier spoils it rather by adding, “None of these features characterize the classical prophets”, which is arguable.
10 See N.T. Wright’s vivid words in The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 289
11 In other words, I believe the invisible realm is odder than most of us imagine. Please see my treatment of the various passages.
12 James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 198-199
13 Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, 46-47
14 Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 221-222
15 John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1, 246-247. I may say more about this serpent in my comments on Revelation 12.
16 E.g. Wayne T. Pitard, “Voices from the Dust: The Tablets from Ugarit and the Bible,” in Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), edited by Mark W. Chavalas and K. Lawson Younger, 260-263
17 As is done in some evangelical treatments, e.g. Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, 37-40
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.