by Young Oon Kim
The Consummation Of History
In 1960 Biblical scholars and theologians were startled by the pronouncement of the New Testament critic Ernst Kdsemann that apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology. 1 This announcement produced a flurry of excitement because, if true, it would mean a major turning point in our understanding of the Christian faith. The shock was increased when Wolfhart Parmenberg's theology gained supporters, because he insisted that the apocalyptic concept of history was the basis for 2 both the Christian faith and modern man's thinking about the future. Kdsemann and Pannenberg engendered a positive apocalyptic renaissance among younger German theologians.
What does one mean by apocalyptic? It comes from a Greek word simply meaning "revelation." Hence, the last book in the New Testament is called either the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse. Moreover, in a restricted and technical sense, apocalyptic literature refers to Jewish and Christian writings which resemble the New Testament Book of Revelation. An apocalypse contains secret divine disclosures about the end of the world and the nature of the heavenly state. In other words, apocalyptic literature depicts the consummation of history.
However, between the writing of these two canonical books, pious Jews composed many apocalyptic scrolls which were part of the treasured religious literature of the times but never became part of the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, even though the Christian movement also produced a great deal of apocalyptic literature, most of it was excluded from the final form of the New Testament canon.
Let me simply list the apocalypses which have been preserved in whole or in part:
Book of Daniel
I Enoch (Ethiopic)
Book of Noah
Book of Jubilees
Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs
Sybilline Oracles (Jewish)
Psalms of Solomon
Book of Zadok (Damascene Document)
Dead Sea Scrolls
Manual of Discipline
Book of Mysteries
Assumption of Moses
II Enoch (Slavonic)
Life of Adam and Eve
IV Ezra (2nd Esdras)
Apocalypse of Baruch
Ascension of Isaiah
Apocalypse of Abraham
Testament of Abraham
Synoptic Apocalypse (Mk. 13)
Book of Revelation
Many scholars for convenience sake limit their study of apocalyptic to the period from the writing of Daniel to that of Revelation (3rd century B. C. 400 A. D.). We should, however, recognize that apocalypses continued to be written by Christians in the subapostolic age and apocalyptic literature was still widely circulated in spite of strong opposition from powerful bishops for several centuries. Among these Christian apocalypses are:
The Didache (chapter 16)
Shepherd of Hermas
Apocalypse of Peter
V and VI Ezra
Sybilline Oracles (Christian)
Book of Elchasai
Apocalypse of Zephaniah (or Sophonias)
Apocalypse of Elijah
Apocalypse of Zechariah
Apocalypses of John (3)
Apocalypses of Mary (2)
Apocalypse of Stephen
Apocalypse of Paul
Apocalypse of Thomas 5
It is generally agreed that Jewish apocalyptic literature originated as a protest against the Hellenization program of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (d. 164 B. C.). Like Alexander the Great, Antiochus believed that the world could be unified and pacified on the basis of Greek thought and culture. Many upper-class Jews in Palestine had no difficulty adapting to Greek ways. Even the high priests belonged to the Hellenizing party. 6
However, the ruler's plans angered the religious traditionalists and his control of Palestine was opposed by fanatical nationalists. When a Seleucid attack upon Egypt was frustrated, Antiochus turned his fury against the troublesome Jews. He forbade Sabbath observance and the rite of circumcision, ordered copies of the Torah to be destroyed and converted the Jewish temple into a shrine of Zeus. The book of Daniel then was written to comfort and inspire the faithful in a time of religious persecution. Later apocalypses, Jewish and Christian, originated in similar situations of governmental oppression. Like Daniel, these later books were designed to evoke courage and confidence in God's ultimate triumph. 7
The apocalyptic world-view has several key features. 8 First, God has a definite purpose for mankind which is depicted in the course of history. This divine plan can be explained in terms of sacred numbers like 4, 7, 12, 40, 70 or 72. Thus the orderly course of history parallels the regularity of nature with four seasons of the year, seven days in the week, twelve signs in the zodiac, and seventy or seventy-two five-day weeks in the ancient calendar. Second, history as we know it will culminate in the birth of a completely new age of peace, harmony and fellowship with God. By contrast with what we now experience, the age to come will be like a return to the garden of Eden or the advent of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Third, our human history is more than a simple record of political, economic and social changes. We are participants in a colossal battle of God and the angelic hosts against the supernatural armies led by Satan. Apocalyptic theology has a well-developed angelology and demonology because history is viewed as interaction between our world and the spirit world. According to the apocalyptic scheme, mankind and the whole earth have become subjugated by Satan and cry out to God for liberation. Consequently, much stress is placed upon the bondage of this world to sin.
Fourth, apocalypticism proclaims a gospel of hope. God will not abandon creation. He will intervene dramatically in history to free man from Satan and usher in an age of messianic glory. There are several divergent views about the nature of the messianic liberator but complete agreement that God will finally triumph over His satanic opposition. No matter how powerful evil may now appear to be and in spite of all the trials of the godly, the future will see the dawn of God's full reign over creation.
Fifth, all apocalyptic writers state that the consummation of history will follow soon after a time of terrible religious persecution, moral decay and social turmoil. Thus, if everything looks black, that may be the prelude to the dawn of the New Age. Political, moral and natural calamities serve as birth pangs of the Messiah to come.
Sixth, in contrast to much of the Old Testament, apocalyptic is universal rather than nationalistic in its orientation. 9 The apocalyptic seer sees God manifesting His reign over the entire globe. Concern for Israel, even if never absent, is subordinated to concern for the fate of all mankind. Destiny does not separate Jew from Gentile but the godly from the godless. The final judgment will be governed by standards of individual righteousness rather than nationality or race.
In addition to these fundamental characteristics of the apocalyptic world-view, let me mention three neglected aspects of the apocalyptic movement. First, it is not pessimistic, as is often said, but very realistic in its estimate of man and history. 10 Because they saw the world in the light of God's holiness, apocalyptists recognized the fallen nature of man, the curse of original sin and the power of Satan. But they believed that deep-seated evil could be eradicated and were confident that the best was yet to be. God would sweep away evil and bring to fruition every potentiality for good. Apocalyptic is optimistic because it is grounded in the righteous and loving heart of God Himself.
Second, the apocalyptic theology was greatly influenced by Zoroastrian concepts and imagery derived from Jewish contact with Persia. Apocalypticism represents an advance over pre-exilic Judaism because it benefited from creative dialogue with a foreign prophetic faith. The contemporary New Testament scholar Schmithals states that there is an unmistakable closeness of ancient Parsee theology to Jewish apocalyptic: dualism, universalism and individualism, resurrection of the dead, a fiery last judgment and God's eschatological final victory over the supernatural forces of evil. 11 This process of Israel ite-Iranian syncretism shows how Judaism developed because of its openness to religious wisdom from beyond its own borders.
Third, apocalyptic literature clearly suggests that revelation is never limited to the sacred canon, because God can and does continue to unveil His mysterious ways to the prophet and seer. God's revelations to "Daniel," "Enoch," "Esdras," "Baruch" and the other apocalyptic seers represent new divine truths which cannot be found in the Torah of Moses. Similarly, the Christian apocalyptic prophets and prophetesses claim to offer divine truth previously unknown but now revealed. In effect, apocalyptic is a strong protest against the notion of a closed canon. God can always reveal more than is deposited in the contents of a treasured holy book. Undoubtedly this aspect of apocalyptic explains why such writings were seldom favored by the custodians of institutionalized religion, both Jewish and Christian.
Finally, it is important to realize that apocalyptic piety provides the necessary bridge between the Old Testament and the New. The apocalyptic hope served as the religious and ideological foundation for the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, the earliest disciples and the oldest epistles of St. Paul. 12
1 The most commonly known apocalyptic books are the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament Apocalypse of St. John. 1E. Kdsemann, New Testament Questions of Today (1969), p. 102.
2 Quite significantly, the symposium Revelation as History issued by Parmenberg and his friends grew out of a theological workshop in the autumn of 1960.
3 K. Koch, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic (1972), p. 14.
4 For the texts, see R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. 2 volumes (1913); G. Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962).
5 U. Hennecke-Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (1965), vol. 11.
6 Cf. M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (1974).
7 H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of Apocalyptic (1963), pp. 13-53.
8 W. Schmithals, The Apocalyptic Movement (1975), pp. 13-49; Rowley, ibid., pp. 166-193.
9 Schmithals, op. cit., pp. 19-20.
10 O'Rowley, op. cit., pp. 178-179.
11 Schmithals, op. cit., pp. 113-123.
12 cf. K. Koch, "The Agonized Attempt to Save Jesus from Apocalyptic," The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic (1972), pp. 57-97.
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