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Going Far Beyond the Bible
All of the major advocates of apocalyptic gather data, albeit not exclusively, from outside of the Bible. Brent Sandy demonstrates his procedure of going beyond Scripture when he says, “In order to understand the language of apocalyptic, we must review the period of world history relevant to Daniel 8 and then examine Daniel’s language.”1 He is not alone. Notice what is entailed in this statement about the genre:
Apocalypse was a literary genre that flourished in the period between the OT and NT(though apocalyptic visions of the future can be found in the OT as well as the NT).2
Here is another statement from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:
Apocalyptic forms of expression were very common outside the Bible, and contemporary readers need to become familiar with that mindset to understand biblical apocalyptic literature and symbolism.3
What the author of this article is saying is that one cannot comprehend large parts of Daniel and Revelation, not to mention certain parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, and some Pauline letters4, unless one goes beyond the Bible for clues of how the ancients used this sort of imagery.
Holding to this understanding of apocalyptic involves an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Whenever we go foraging into profane history, for example, to try to determine genre5, ideas which are foreign to the Bible are inevitably brought to bear on the text of the Bible, thus essentially undermining the Bible’s own ability to explain itself.
We encounter this again in a recent evangelical work:
Old Testament apocalyptic literature belongs to a genre of Jewish writing that includes both canonical and non-canonical texts. For a proper understanding of this genre within the context of its historical development, neither of these groups of texts should be examined in isolation from the other.6
Notice the position that inspired Scripture is being forced to take. It must remain content to be analyzed alongside of non-inspired writings and until the accidental artifacts of ancient history have been sifted through. But letting the Bible be its own interpreter clears away a lot of confusion. For one thing, one sees the likelihood that later Jewish apocalypses (e.g. The Book of the Watchers; The Testament of Levi) are attempts to copy the biblical writings and put them to use in circumstances of hardship and hopelessness.7
Again, if we are going to insist that it is wrong to think of apocalyptic as serving up specific prophetic content, but rather leaving us with an image or impression of something, it seems natural that we ask just how God will wrap up history, since basically all the passages that speak of it are lumped together as “apocalyptic” texts. Will He do it by “rolling up the heavens as a scroll” (Isa. 34:4)? Will Jesus really come “in the clouds with great power” (Mk. 13:26)? Will the armies of heaven really follow Him (Rev. 19:14)? Will there be a great earthquake (Rev. 16:18)? Will the moon become blood red (Rev. 6:12)? The answer coming from the apocalyptic corner is “No; these are symbols meant to create impressions.” For the record, my answer is Yes!
Reminding Ourselves of the Bible’s “Wild” Worldview
Let us assemble some of the things that people actually saw and experienced in Old Testament times. It would be a salutary exercise to ponder these events before considering apocalyptic as a genre.
Adam saw cherubim8 and a flashing sword barring the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). Enoch was snatched out of the world without seeing death (Gen. 5:24). Men lived to staggeringly great ages before the global flood (Gen. 5). The bene ha elohim of Genesis 6 were probably demonic fallen angels.9 There were giants on the earth before and after the flood (Gen. 6:4; Num. 13:33). Two of every creature came to Noah, seemingly of their own volition (Gen. 7:15). Jacob fought with an angel (Gen. 32:24-32). Moses beheld the burning bush which was not consumed? (Exod. 3:3-6); Exodus 13 refers to the pillar of fire and cloud which protected Israel. The staff of Aaron and the staffs of the viziers became serpents (Exod. 7:9-12); Recall the twelve plagues of Egypt (Exod. 7 – 11); the sons of Korah went down into sheol alive when the ground opened up underneath them (Num. 16:30-33). Balaam saw an angel with a drawn sword (Num. 22:21-35); and his donkey spoke to him (Num. 22:30). Joshua was confronted by the angel of Yaheh (Josh. 5:13-15). He too saw giants (Josh. 17:15 – notice the matter-of-fact reporting). The Book of Judges is filled with supernatural events, like the angel of Yahweh rebuking the people at Bochim (Judg. 2:1-4); the same appearing to Gideon (Judg. 6), and Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13); the unearthly strength of Manoah’s son Samson (Judg. 14 – 16).10 In the time of the Divided Monarchy Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Ki. 18:36-38; 2 Ki. 1:10-14), and he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Ki. 2:11-12); Elisha saw horses and chariots of fire (2 Ki. 6:17). In Hezekiah’s time an angel came down and slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night (2 Ki. 19:35).
From this sampling of weird supernatural occurrences a question emerges: How many of these incidents would have been interpreted as symbolic and apocalyptic images due to “ecstatic visions” and stylized perspectives if they had not already actually taken place? And how many of the characteristics of apocalyptic also characterize the historical narratives of the Bible? We must look into this question further.
1 D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 103
2 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Gen. eds., Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 35. Emphasis mine
3 Ibid, 36
4 Collins writes that the scholars who tried to formulate a consensus view of apocalyptic in the journal Semeia (No 14) rejected Isaiah’s apocalypse and Mark 13 as apocalypses – John J. Collins, Apocalypse, Prophecy and Pseudepigraphy, 3 n.7
5 There is no space here to speak to the matter of the present popular trend of “Genre Criticism,” which I firmly believe is both unbiblical and will suffer the same fate as the “source criticism” that was all the rage for most of the Twentieth Century. It is sufficient to say that the genre does not and cannot determine meaning. Readers who wish to know why must simply reflect on the fact that prior to being categorized a text must be read in its normal plain sense. See the excellent treatment of this by Richard A. Howe, “Does Genre Determine Meaning?” in The Jesus Quest: The Danger From Within, edited by Norman L. Geisler and F. David Farnell (Xulon Press, 2014).
6 Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, 41
7 They also appear to betray the apparent fetish of non-inspired religionists to mimic inspired writings. Another example of this is the many false Gospels and Acts which arose in the second to fourth centuries A.D.
8 Scholars promoting the concept of a “Cosmic Temple” motif in Scripture often identify Adam as the cherub of Ezekiel 28:14-16. But then surely the cherubim who guarded the way back into Eden would have to be human also? For more comment see the exposition of “The Mysterious King of Tyre” in the chapter on Ezekiel.
9 See, e.g., Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Biblical Theology, Vol. 1, 164-168
10 Who would believe the fact that Samson’s great strength was really connected to the length of his hair if he only read about it in a third century B.C. apocalyptic book?
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.