Notes on Revelation part 1 – On Apocalyptic and Eschatology

My church will be embarking on a study of the book of Revelation pretty soon. With that, I’ve decided to type down some thoughts related to this unique book based on whatever little study that I’ve done. This will be the first of a short three-part observation.

Revelation is a bizarre book. Quite often reading this book leaves us confused to say the least. The frequent use of symbolic language alone makes it hard to interpret the text not including the cultural gap between the time in which the letter was written and the culture that we live in today. So difficult it is to understand this book, it has often been claimed that the famous French reformer John Calvin abstained from writing a commentary on Revelation for the reasons given above. Of course, there is no evidence that Calvin himself said or thought this but the rumour nevertheless persists. In the course of my own little and limited study, I have only scratched the surface surveying nothing more than just the genre of the book. Yet, what I have found remains (at least to me) illuminating.

It seems almost common today to think of apocalyptic literature as end time literature. Such a view may be reinforced through movies/books such as the Da Vinci Code or X-Men: Apocalypse. Under this view, Revelation is primarily about the end. More specifically, the end of the world. Apocalyptic literature thus results in an equivocation with eschatological literature. However, several problems arise from understanding the book of Revelation in such a manner. Let me explore just one namely that there is nothing inherent about the term apocalyptic that requires an eschatological reading to be included as well.

The term apocalyptic or apocalypse derives from the Greek word Ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) which in fact means revelation or disclosure. This is why the NRSV translates the heading of the book of Revelation as “The Revelation to John” (APOKALUPSIS IOANNOU, ΑΠΟΚΑΛΥΨΙΣ ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ). As the heading of the book and the meaning of the word suggests, inherent to the book of Revelation or the meaning of apocalypse is the idea that something is being revealed or disclosed. As a standalone, there is nothing about revelation/apocalyptic literature that necessitates it being about the end times. Rather, apocalyptic literature is interested in the disclosing of certain signs and symbols that are normally understood to contain hidden mysteries.

That being said, this view does find itself in a slightly uncomfortable position seeing that majority of the canonical books that we typically consider apocalyptic do seem to make some reference to the end. For example, Daniel 8:17 does affirm that “the vision is for the time of the end.” Indeed, when looking at the content of these books, we seem warranted in concluding that apocalyptic literature points to a “future-oriented eschatology.”[1] However, when the larger context of Jewish literature is taken into account, this position diminishes in its explanatory power.

In his highly influential book on the apocalyptic genre, Christopher Rowland, the former Dean Ireland’s Professor of Exegesis of Holy Scripture at Oxford, surveys apocalyptic literature dating from 300 BC to AD 300. Some of the literature that he surveys include:

1 or Ethiopic Enoch
2 or Slavonic Enoch
2 or Syriac Baruch
3 or Greek Baruch
4 Ezra or 2 Esdras
Apocalypse of Abraham
Testament of Abraham
Testament of Levi or Naphtali
Ascension of Isaiah
Shepherd of Hermas
3 or Hebrew Enoch[2]

Based on his findings, Rowland summarizes his points as follows:

(i) A definition of apocalyptic should not be too restricted but attempt to do justice to all the various elements in the literature.

(ii) Apocalyptic seems essentially to be about the revelation of the divine mysteries through visions or some other form of immediate disclosure of heavenly truths.

(iii) The use of the word apocalyptic to describe the literature of Judaism and early Christianity should, therefore, be confined to those works which purport to offer disclosures of the heavenly mysteries, whether as the result of vision, heavenly ascent or verbal revelations. Such a description also extends to those visionary reports which give evidence of the same kind of religious outlook as the apocalypses, even if the contexts in which they are now found cannot be said to conform to the literary genre of the apocalypse.

(iv) Although eschatology is an important component of the heavenly mysteries which are revealed in the apocalypses, it is difficult to justify the selection of this particular element as the basis of a definition of apocalyptic. The consequence of this can lead to an indifference to the fact that apocalyptic is concerned with the revelation of a variety of different matters. Any attempt, therefore, to use the term apocalyptic as a synonym of eschatology must be rejected.[3] (emphasis added)

What then is the difference between eschatological literature in comparison to apocalyptic literature? One way to look at it might be to abandon seeing eschatology as a genre and instead view it as a subject. To put differently, perhaps we should consider eschatology as content rather than form. This means that while eschatology can feature as a potential subject within apocalyptic literature, it does not make a literature apocalyptic by virtue of featuring in it. Going back to the meaning of apocalyptic, it is revelation or divine disclosure that is crucial to that genre, not eschatology. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck thus summarizes the relation between apocalyptic and eschatology in the following manner:

Rather than eschatology being the center piece of Jewish apocalypses, the point of departure, whether in relation to time or space, may have been a matter of hidden mysteries being revealed through mediator figures to human beings.[4]

This interesting distinction does carry implications. The most obvious being that we need to be extremely mindful of any eschatological readings that we may tend to insert into Revelation due to certain preconceived equivocation. Can eschatological content be found in Revelation? Perhaps so. But that conclusion must be drawn from the text rather than assumed. On that note, what on earth does eschatology even mean?

[1] Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “Introduction,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Minneapolis [Minnesota]: Fortress Press, 2017), 3–4.

[2] Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 15.

[3] Rowland, The Open Heaven, 71.

[4] Reynolds and Stuckenbruck, “Introduction,” 4.

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