Apocalyptic literature

Apocalyptic literature is a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture and was popular among millennialist early Christians.

Apocalypse” (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”[1] As a genre, apocalyptic literature details the authors’ visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other heavenly messenger.[2] The apocalyptic literature of Judaism and Christianity embraces a considerable period, from the centuries following the exile down to the close of the middle ages.


1.0 Origins

1.1 Unfulfilled prophecy

1.2 Traditions

2.0 Object and contents

3.0 Comparison to prophecy

3.1 Message

3.2 Dualistic theology

3.3 Pseudonymous authorship

3.4 Conception of history

4.0 Old Testament

4.1 Characteristics of Old Testament apocalyptic literature

4.2 Canonical

4.2.1 Proto-apocalyptic

4.2.2 Apocalyptic

4.3 Non-canonical

5.0 New Testament

5.1 Canonical

5.2 Non-canonical

6.0 See also

7.0 Notes

8.0 References

9.0 External links


Apocalyptical elements (αποκαλυπτειν, to reveal something hidden) can be detected in the prophetical books of Joel and Zechariah, while Isaiah chapters 24–27 and 33 present well-developed apocalypses. The Book of Daniel offers a fully matured and classic example of this genre of literature.

Unfulfilled prophecy

The non-fulfillment of prophecies served to popularize the methods of apocalyptic in comparison with the non-fulfillment of the advent of the Messianic kingdom. Thus, though Jeremiah had promised that after seventy years[3] Israel should be restored to their own land,[4] and then enjoy the blessings of the Messianic kingdom under the Messianic king,[5] this period passed by and things remained as of old. Some[who?] believe that the Messianic kingdom was not necessarily predicted to occur at the end of the seventy years of the Babylonian exile, but at some unspecified time in the future. The only thing for certain that was predicted is the return of the Jews to their land, which occurred when Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon in c.539 BC. Thus, the fulfillment of the Messianic kingdom remained in the future for the Jews.

Haggai and Zechariah explained the delay by the failure of Judah to rebuild the temple, and so hope of the kingdom persisted, till in the first half of the 2nd century the delay is explained in the Books of Daniel and Enoch as not because of man’s shortcomings but to the counsels of God. Regarding the 70 years of exile predicted in Jeremiah 29:10, the Jews were first exiled in the year 605 BCE in the reign of king Jehoiakim and were allowed to return to their land in c. 536 BCE when King Cyrus conquered Babylon. This time period was approximately 70 years, as prophesied by Jeremiah. But some people believe that the 70 years of Jeremiah were later interpreted by the angel in Daniel 9 as 70 weeks of years, of which 69½ have already expired, while Enoch 85 interprets the 70 years of Jeremiah as the 70 successive reigns of the 70 angelic patrons of the nations, which are to come to a close in his own generation. The Book of Enoch, however, was not considered inspired Scripture by the Jews, so that any failed prophecy in it is of no consequence to the Jewish faith.

The Greek empire of the East was overthrown by Rome, and in due course called forth a new interpretation of Daniel. The fourth and last empire was declared to be Roman by the Apocalypse of Baruch chapters 36–40 and 4 Ezra 10:60–12:35. (Again, these two books were not considered inspired Scripture by the Jews, and thus were not authoritative on matters of prophecy). In addition, earlier in Daniel chapter 7 (and also in chapter 2), the fourth and final world empire is considered to be Rome since Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome were world empires which all clearly arrived in succession. (After Babylon fell, Media and Persia merged in a joint empire known as the Medo-Persian or Achaemenid Empire). Thus, it appears that Daniel is saying here that Rome would be the last world power before the kingdom of God.

Such ideas as those of “the day of Yahweh” and the “new heavens and a new earth” were re-edited by the Jewish people with fresh nuances in conformity with their new settings. Thus the inner development of Jewish apocalyptic was conditioned by the historical experiences of the nation. But the prophecies found in Jewish Scriptures, which have not changed over time, await their fulfillment.


Another source of apocalyptic thought was primitive mythological and cosmological traditions, in which the eye of the seer could see the secrets of the future. Thus the six days of the world’s creation, followed by a seventh of rest, were regarded as at once a history of the past and a forecasting of the future. As the world was made in six days its history would be accomplished in six thousand years, since each day with God was as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day; and as the six days of creation were followed by one of rest, so the six thousand years of the world’s history would be followed by a rest of a thousand years.[6]


The object of this literature in general was to solve the difficulties connected with the righteousness of God and the suffering condition of His righteous servants on earth. Early Old Testament prophecy taught the need of personal and national righteousness, and foretold the ultimate blessedness of the righteous nation on the present earth. Later prophecy incorporated an idea of future vindication of present evils, often including the idea of an afterlife. Apocalyptic prophets sketched in outline the history of the world and mankind, the origin of evil and its course, and the final consummation of all things. The righteous as a nation should yet possess the earth, either via an eternal Messianic kingdom on earth, or else in temporary blessedness here and eternal blessedness hereafter. Though the individual might perish amid the disorders of this world, apocalyptic prophets taught that the righteous person would not fail to attain through resurrection the recompense that was due in the Messianic kingdom or in heaven itself.



Some may distinguish between the messages of the prophets and the messages of proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic literature by saying that the message of the prophets was primarily a preaching of repentance and righteousness if the nation would escape judgment; the message of the apocalyptic writers was of patience and trust for that deliverance and reward were sure to come. Neither the prophets nor the apocalyptic authors are without conflict between their messages, however, and there are significant similarities between prophecy and apocalyptic writings.

Apocalyptic literature shares with prophecy revelation through visions and dreams, and these often combine reality and fantasy. In both cases, a heavenly interpreter is often provided to the receiver so that he may understand the many complexities of what he has seen. Looking at the oracles in Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah, and Jeremiah gives a clear sense of how messages of imminent punishment develop into the later proto-apocalyptic literature, and eventually into the thoroughly apocalyptic literature of Daniel 7–12. The fully apocalyptic visions in Daniel 7–12, as well as those in the New Testament’s Revelation, can trace their roots to the pre-exilic latter biblical prophets; the sixth century BCE prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah 40–55 and 56–66, Haggai 2, and Zechariah 1–8 show a transition phase between prophecy and apocalyptic literature.[7]

Dualistic theology

Prophecy believes that this world is God’s world and that in this world His goodness and truth will yet be vindicated. Hence the prophet prophesies of a definite future arising out of and organically connected with the present. The apocalyptic writer despairs of the present and directs his hopes to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present.[8] This becomes a dualistic principle, which, though it can largely be accounted for by the interaction of certain inner tendencies and outward sorrowful experience on the part of Judaism, may ultimately be derived from Mazdean influences. This principle, which shows itself in the conception that the various nations are under angelic rulers, who are in a greater or less degree in rebellion against God, as in Daniel and Enoch, grows in strength with each succeeding age, till at last Satan is conceived as “the ruler of this world”[9] or “the god of this age.”[10]

Pseudonymous authorship

The prophet stood in direct relations with his people; his prophecy was first spoken and afterwards written. The apocalyptic writer could obtain no hearing from his contemporaries, who held that, though God spoke in the past, “there was no more any prophet.” This pessimism limited and defined the form in which religious enthusiasm should manifest itself, and prescribed as a condition of successful effort the adoption of pseudonymous authorship. The apocalyptic writer, therefore, professedly addressed his book to future generations. Generally directions as to the hiding and sealing of the book[11] were given in the text in order to explain its publication so long after the date of its professed period. There was a sense in which such books were not wholly pseudonymous. Their writers were students of ancient prophecy and apocalyptical tradition, and though they might recast and reinterpret them, they could not regard them as their own inventions.

Conception of history

Apocalyptic writing took a wider view of the world’s history than prophecy. Thus, whereas prophecy had to deal with governments of other nations, apocalyptic writings arose at a time when Israel had been subject for generations to the sway of one or other of the great world-powers. Hence to harmonize such difficulties with belief in God’s righteousness, it had to take account of the role of such empires in the counsels of God, the rise, duration and downfall of each in turn, till finally the lordship of the world passed into the hands of Israel, or the final judgment arrived. These events belonged in the main to the past, but the writer represented them as still in the future, arranged under certain artificial categories of time definitely determined from the beginning in the counsels of God and revealed by Him to His servants the prophets. Determinism thus became a leading characteristic of Jewish apocalyptic, and its conception of history became mechanical.


Characteristics of Old Testament apocalyptic literature

The revelations from heavenly messengers about the end times may come from angels, or from people who have been taken up to heaven and are returning to earth with messages. The descriptions not only tell of the end times, but also describe both past and present events and their significance, often in heavily coded language. When speaking of the end times, apocalyptic literature generally includes chronologies of events that will occur and frequently places them in the near future, which gives a sense of urgency to the prophet’s larger message. Though the understanding of the present is bleak, the vision of the future are far more positive, and include divine victory and a complete reformation of absolutely everything. Many visions of these end times mirror creation mythologies, invoking triumph of God over the primordial forces of chaos, and clear distinctions between light and dark, good and evil. Humankind is typically divided into a small group that experiences salvation, while the wicked majority is destroyed. Since the apocalyptic genre developed in the Persian period, this dualism may have developed under the influence of Persian thought.[12] The imagery in apocalyptic literature is not realistic or reflective of the physical world as it was, but is rather surreal and fantastic, invoking a sense of wonder at the complete newness of the new order to come.[13]

Jewish mysticism






Some are possibly pseudepigraphic except the passages from Ezekiel and Joel. Of the remaining passages and books, some consider large sections of Daniel attributable to the Maccabean period, with the rest possibly to the same period. Some consider Isaiah 33 to be written about 163 BCE;[14] Zechariah 12–14 about 160 BCE; Isaiah 24–27 about 128 BCE; and Isaiah 34–35 sometime in the reign of John Hyrcanus. Jeremiah 33:14–26 is assigned by Marti to Maccabean times, but this is disputed.


New Testament

In the transition from Jewish literature to that of early Christianity, there is a continuation of the tradition of apocalyptic prophecy. Christianity preserved the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, as Judaism developed into Rabbinism and gave it a Christian character either by a forcible exegesis or by a systematic process of interpolation. Christianity cultivated this form of literature and made it the vehicle of its own ideas. Christianity saw itself as the spiritual representative of what was true in prophecy and apocalyptic.



See also

General topics
Related literature


1. Goswiller 1987 p.3

2. Coogan 2009 p 424

3. Jeremiah 25:11, 29:10

4. Jeremiah 29:5,6

5. Jeremiah 28:5,6

6. 2 Enoch 32:2–33:2

7. Coogan p.354

8. 4 Ezra 7:50

9. John 12:31

10. 2 Corinthians 4:4

11. Daniel 12:4, 9; 1 Enoch 1:2; Assumption of Moses 1:16–18

12. Hayes, Christine (2006). “Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) — Lecture 23 — Visions of the End: Daniel and Apocalyptic Literature”. Open Yale Courses. Yale University.

13. Coogan p.353

14. Duhm and Marti.

15. See More Christian Apocrpyha, James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews, U.K.


•  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Apocalyptic Literature“. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

• Goswiller, Richard, Revelation, Pacific Study Series, Melbourne, (1987).

• Frye, Northrop, 1957. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.

• Reddish, Mitchell G. Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader

• Collins, John Joseph The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (The Biblical Resource Series)

• Cook, David, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature (Religion and Politics)

• Cook, Stephen L., The Apocalyptic Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts

• Charlesworth, James H. ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Anchor Bible)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *