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A New Genre in Jewish Antiquity: The Apocalypse

I am in midst of starting to explain how a new view of the afterlife came into existence in Jewish circles right around the time of the Maccabean revolt, and to that end I have devoted one post to a brief narrative of what happened leading up to the revolt and a second post to two of our principal sources of information about it, 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Now, I need to provide yet more background: it was at this time, and in this context, that a new genre of literature appeared within ancient Judaism, the “apocalypse.”   As we will see, the first Jewish apocalypse we have is in the book of Daniel, the final book of the Hebrew Bible to be written.  To understand Daniel (and its view of the afterlife) it is important to know something about the conventions of its literary genre.   That’s what I will explain in this post, in terms taken (with only a little editing) from my textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction

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Apocalypse as a Literary Genre

At about the time of the Seleucid domination of Judea in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes there started to appear Jewish writings that presupposed, embraced, and set forth these kinds of apocalyptic views.  In particular, it is at this time that Jewish “apocalypses” started to be written.   The term apocalypse refers to a …

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A New Attack on My Views
The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees

41

Comments

  1. godspell  July 30, 2017

    This ties back in to my earlier question–why does the Jewish bible ‘end’ where it does? Because its narrative was disrupted by Roman dominion–the triumph of the Maccabees only lasted one long human lifetime. They thought they’d reached the end of history, and pace Fukuyama, history never ends.

    To be sure, Palestine had been conquered many times but to be conquered by Rome was a different order of colonization. It became increasingly evident that this wasn’t going away anytime soon, and that they were just one small part of a huge empire. It became harder for Jewish mystics to see themselves as the center of an increasingly complex world. How did all this fit in with all the earlier promises about how they were the Chosen? How could they make their history mean something more than “We are a small nation that got gobbled up by a big one?”

    This is a pattern we see many times throughout history, all over the world–people who have been conquered and see no practical means of ending that state, look for a different type of liberation, that will come from the spiritual realm. The Plains Indian Ghost Dance would be just one example. When people see no way of changing their lives, they turn to their idea of God.

    What’s the source of most American apocalyptic thinking? Southern evangelicism. When did that movement begin to take hold among large numbers of people? After the Civil War.

    Why don’t most Catholics tend to go this way? Because Catholicism as an institution is global, and even when Catholics are subjugated and oppressed on a regional basis, they still see a strong coherent institution with a leader holding forth in Rome. If you were going to see apocalypticism take hold there, it would be among those who don’t accept the changes in the church, who feel internally conquered by the reforms of Vatican II and etc.

    Nobody wants the world to end unless they feel like the world has turned against them.

  2. hasankhan  July 30, 2017

    A person to correctly quote the past, he would have to be historian no? Or a literary genius to be coming up with poetic revelation at the same time? Did those prophets predict anything else in near future that turned out to be true? If there were multiple such people then why did they all chose to fabricate angel and poetry and similar story about past and future? We’re they all conspiring to form the same narrative?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      I think anyone can note what has happened in teh past. One doesn’t need to be a historian. And many people have a sense of what is going to happen in the future without being inspired.

      • hasankhan  July 31, 2017

        I think we would have to look at specific examples to determine if this in fact is something that someone can easily predict or could have known from the past. Would you cover those in your posts in future?

        • godspell  August 1, 2017

          You would have to be able to prove several things–

          1)This was definitely written well before the event being ‘prophesied.’

          2)This was not something that somebody could have guessed or foreseen through non-supernatural means–that’s a tough one, since probably every major catastrophic event in history has been foreseen by somebody. Even Trump.

          I don’t think there’s a single instance of this happening. Some people are uncanny, don’t get me wrong. Some people can see around corners, but they do this by paying attention, not by hearing angelic voices whispering in their ears. And everybody is wrong, sometimes. Without exception. Every human ever born. And of course, if somebody had supernatural beings with divine foresight advising them, and could perfectly understand what those beings were saying to them, they’d never be wrong.

          Everyone is wrong, sometimes. So in that sense, there are no prophets, and there never were.

          But there are people who see further than the rest of us. Not all of them claimed divine inspiration. That was just a way to explain their gift.

          • godspell  August 3, 2017

            I left something out–

            3)The self-fulfilling prophecy. You predict something, and then make it happen yourself. A true prophet would have to be someone with no temporal power, whose prophecies are not taken seriously by those who could act upon them. “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”

            The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By observing a thing, you can change a thing. And this calls your observations into question, since it might have been different, had you not observed.

          • hasankhan  August 3, 2017

            You’re right if a prophet says something about future with a specific time frame or date and he claims that it’s divine inspiration and it doesn’t happen then surely he is not a prophet.

            We don’t have enough accurate documented history of earlier prophets to evaluate them. Even history of Jesus is an unsolved mystery. All speculation and theories.

            Just as we don’t have solid tools to prove they were prophets then using the same tools to disprove them is also a fallacy.

            As Muslims the prophethood of earlier prophet is proven if Qur’an is proven to be from God. Whatever comes from truth is truth.

  3. stokerslodge  July 30, 2017

    Thank you for the above Bart, it’s fascinating stuff. I’m hoping you can shed some light on the following, please. I am curious to know how these Pseudonymous authors went about getting their writings into the public domain – so to speak – to the extent that their works were regarded as genuine and authentic by the religious authorities of the day – the gatekeepers of orthodoxy and dogma. How did they go about doing that? Do we know?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      They simply had someone copy them (by hand, of course) and show them to someone else who copied them and … and they went into circulation. After a few months, let alone years, of that, no one would really know who had actually written the book.

  4. TheologyMaven  July 30, 2017

    Just to clarify, all the apocalyptic writings had an end that was positive and also “soon? (100 years?, within the apostle’s lifetime?”) How could readers tell the timeframe through all the symbolism?

    And if say, Revelations, did have a specific timeframe, it couldn’t have been too “soon”, as it hadn’t happened by the time it was accepted into the canon (125 CE?). I guess I’m just confused about how time in apocalyptic literature relates to time as experienced in the physical world.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      Are you saying that the author of Revelation could not have thought the end was coming soon because in fact it did not come soon? For thousands of years people have thought the end was near, and they were (all!) wrong. But yes, that is a standard feature of apocalyptic writinng: the end is coming soon, and they authors say this in clear terms.

      • TheologyMaven  July 31, 2017

        No, sorry my question wasn’t clear. I guess from what I’ve read of Revelation, there’s all that symbolism but no real world timeframe. An example would be “within four generations from today, there will be seven beasts”. But that’s the only apocalypse I’ve read. My question are two then (1) in apocalyptic texts, how specific were the predictions of the end in physical time, and (2) if they weren’t specific, how did people know it was “soon”?. Was it written in the texts themselves, or .was it an idea outside the texts, but in the atmosphere of those times and places?,

        • Bart
          Bart  August 1, 2017

          The author of Revelation does emphasize that he expects the end to come “soon.” And it is clear from his symbolism — much of which is relatively easy to interpret, and would have been even easier inthe first century — that he sees Rome as the enemy and the Roman emperor in particular at the opponent of Christ who will be slain (666, the Beast, is Nero, for example; the Whore of Babylon is the city of Rome, and so on). So anyone who reads the book at the time it was written would have a good clue what it was about. And if not, someone else would simply tell them.

          • Tony  August 1, 2017

            Bart, have you found anything in Revelation that refers to an earthly Jesus, or indicates that the Messiah is returning, coming back or coming again?

            Btw, I think I found Paul’s “Born (or made) of a woman”….Revelation 12:1-5. Scary stuff!

          • Bart
            Bart  August 3, 2017

            Jesus is the “lamb who was slain” in Revelation, which is certainly referring to his earthly life. And his “coming again” is described in the final battle of Armageddon.

          • Tony  August 3, 2017

            I fail to see “the lamb who was slain” as referring to an earthly Jesus. This is a vision of a heavenly sacrifice.

            Also, I’m unable to find his “coming again” (Rev 19?). There is no question about a triumphant first arrival on earth after smiting Satan et al.

  5. Wilusa  July 30, 2017

    OT: Something that just occurred to me… When we’ve been describing our religious backgrounds, etc., I don’t think anyone has ever said they’re agnostic/non-theist/atheist because they were raised by parents who held those views. I wonder why that is. Do lifelong non-believers never happen to learn about this blog? Or are they a very small segment of, say, the U.S. population? (If so, will it be a much larger segment fifty years from now?) I’m also wondering about possible *believers* who were raised by non-believers.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      Ah, many are in just that boat. And yes, there are lifelong non-believers on this blog. Their numbers are steadily growing in the US.

    • TheologyMaven  July 31, 2017

      This 2009 Pew Report talks about “religion switching” http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/. Lots of info here.

    • bamurray  July 31, 2017

      I’m a life- long nonbeliever raised by nonbelievers!

    • Boltonian  July 31, 2017

      I am a lifelong non-believer, although I went to various churches in my youth depending on my social circle and who organised the best youth club (Methodists, as it happened). My parents were both agnostic in their different ways and both were suspicious of organised religion, especially Christianity, which was their main experience – there were few other religions around in our neck of the woods in those days. My late father, I would say, verged on atheism (and had a real antipathy to Roman Catholicism in particular – I never learned why) but my mum (who is still with us) is much more agnostic and is convinced that there is something (unspecified) more out there than we perceive.

    • Hormiga  August 1, 2017

      > I don’t think anyone has ever said they’re agnostic/non-theist/atheist because they were raised by parents who held those views.

      In my own life-long (70+ years) a/n/a case, my family was just detached from religion. Mostly, that is — my mother sent me to the local Congregational church a few times for, I think, social reasons. But it didn’t take, she didn’t insist that I continue and, by that time, I’d figured out that there wasn’t much there there. My father just didn’t have religion as a part of his worldview at all, and we never discussed it at home. Not that it was a taboo subject or anything, it just never came up.

    • Tony  August 1, 2017

      I was raised without religion by non-believers and became an atheist. My kids were brought up without religion and are atheists. My grandkids are brought up without religion and are atheists… you got the idea.

      I’m sure there must be people who are brought up without religion and become theists. I just don’t know any.

  6. anthonygale  July 30, 2017

    If it was in the norm of the genre to be pseudonymous, do you think the author of Revelation intended the reader to think it was written by the apostle John? I realize the author doesn’t claim to be the apostle John, but that by does not rule out the possibility that is what he wanted the reader to think. In doing so, he could soften his lie while still achieving his end.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      It’s *possible* that he wanted his readers to think that he was THAT John; but it appears that he was writing to people who knew who he was, so I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind.

  7. Seeker1952  July 30, 2017

    Can these apocalypses be considered, at least in part, as anything other than radically dishonest when they falsely attribute their writing and their prophecies to ancient figures like Moses? Or is that just a part of the genre, ie, a type of fiction or myth that tries to make sense of the world by telling a story?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      That is the argument I make in my book Forgery and Counterforgery — they wanted their readers to think they were someone other than who they were, and ancient readers who comment on such authorial claims considered them dishonest.

  8. hasankhan  July 31, 2017

    For a person to correctly quote the past, he would have to be historian. People couldn’t even agree on jesus’s birth or resurrection, how could these prophets then correctly quote the past?

    They would have to be poets also to come up with proses. And why would they form a consistent narrative about angels, afterlife, etc. If they were lying, they could have come up with different ways of revelation, the message and the medium, why copy one another?

    Did they not prophesize anything in future besides the dooms day that could be a proof of their truthfulness?

    PS: Please ignore/delete the first comment I posted. It has mistakes.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      Sorry — I’m having trouble understanding what you’re asking.

      • SidDhartha1953  August 4, 2017

        I think I understand what hasankhan is getting at with his first question. If they were writing about recent events, some of which they may have witnessed, or heard about from people who witnessed, or people who knew people who witnessed, etc. — wouldn’t they have about as good a chance of reporting them accurately as I would of recounting how President Truman broke a railway strike? My father was a railway worker at the time and told me about it. That’s my only credible source.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 6, 2017

          This would take a whole book to explain! And in fact, it was the last book I wrote, Jesus Before the Gospels. That’s where I deal with the relevance of what we know about reporting based on memory from teh studies of memory in psychological, sociological, and anthropological research.

          • SidDhartha1953  August 9, 2017

            Yes. Great book!

    • godspell  August 3, 2017

      They would also have to not be rulers.

      A prophet can not be a king. One or the other. Not both. The one would corrupt the other. Prophets speak truth to power. They are not power themselves.

  9. jhague  July 31, 2017

    Since the first Jewish apocalypse we have is in the book of Daniel which is also the final book of the Hebrew Bible to be written, then is it correct that the author of Daniel was the influence ultimately of Jesus, Paul and others in the first century?

    Also, why did the Hebrew Bible end with Daniel? Why no other writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2017

      I don’t think they were as influenced by Daniel as by other books, such as Isaiah and the Psalms, e.g. Jews started looking back at their past heritage and deciding which books they considered to be authoritative accounts from then; apparently they came to think that old books were more authoritative than ones written recently, so they had a kind of cut off point for when books could be seen as Scripture, and it was the time after the return from the Babylonian captivity. Anything since then was “too recent” to have the authority of antiquity about it.

  10. dankoh  July 31, 2017

    It seems to me that while you are working with the original meaning of apocalypse (uncovered or revealed), you are getting close to the eschatological connotation that the word took on later. For example, Zechariah has an apocalyptic vision (Zech. 4:1-6:8), but it was not eschatological, while Daniel’s vision does have some eschatological elements. Do you have any thoughts now (or intend to explore later) this shift into eschatological apocalypticism (as it were)? In particular, I would like to know if you agree with the argument that Daniel turns to eschatology because he did not expect the Maccabeans to succeed in their revolt and wanted to give the Jews some hope that God would save them instead.

    There is also the argument that Daniel used an apocalyptic vision to convey this message because the age of prophecy was held to have ended with Malachi (though this may be a later rabbinic argument) and so he could not use that form. Do you see the rise in apocalypticism as stemming from that reason? After all, Isaiah prophesied eschatology without being apocalyptic about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2017

      What I’m arguing is that this apocalyptic way of thought arose because of the intense suffering that occurred to Jews, precisely for being Jewish, in the Maccabean period. I’ll be saying more about that in the next posts.

  11. Jana  August 11, 2017

    Am I understanding the Jewish conceptional development accurately? Originally both righteous and unrighteous went to the netherworld Sheol. Next a separation took place and the righteous (those who upheld the Law of God even under torture) went to a more significant place while those who were unrighteous went to Sheol. About the time when this distinction took place, Apocalypticism evolved warning ALL to obey the Law of God or suffer the end of the World? Am I getting this right Dr. Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2017

      Yup, that’s pretty much it, with one major (though seemingly minor) difference: the differentiated afterlife didn’t develop at about the same time as apocalypticism, but was part of the apocalyptic view itself.

      • Jana  August 14, 2017

        Thank you. This helps!! It would then seem to me and this is a question that simultaneously the Jewish concept of God also changed. If everyone went to Sheol, hardly a need for a deity? Would this be a correct assumption?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 15, 2017

          Yes, the deity is no longer relevant in Sheol. God can’t even be praised there.

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