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Apocalypticism and Apocalypses

In the just finished thread I discussed the number of the Beast, 666, in the context of the book of Revelation and its broader symbolism.  In response, several readers asked me to say some more about Revelation (which by the ways does NOT have an “s” on the end!!  That’s one of my pet pieves.  It’s not the book of Revelations but the book of Revelation).  So I think I’ll do two or three posts on it.  It is the one book my students are *most* interested in.  The book is so weird, so unlike anything they’ve ever seen, that they assume that it can only have come about by  divine revelation, and that it is in fact predicting something that is to happen in our near future.

I’m afraid that I end up disappointing my students by my understanding of the book.   I don’t think it is a blue-print for what is to transpire in the early 21st century.  It is a book written in its own day, and for its own audience, to give them a message for themselves, not for people living 2000 years later.

The way to make sense of the book is to understand that it is written in the ancient genre known as the “apocalypse.”   The view I stress in my class is that if you do not know how a genre of literature “works,” you won’t know how to interpret any particular book in that genre.   If you have never encountered a novel before, or a short story (these are both very modern inventions), then probably you wouldn’t be able to figure out what is going on.  Is David Copperfield some kind of biography of a 19th century Englishman?

The way I explain it to my students is this.  Suppose you read an account of a scientific experiment that could easily go awry: if the virus that has been invented in the test tube escaped the laboratory, it could cause massive death worldwide.    If you read this in a science fiction novel, you might decide to buy another book by the same author; if you read it on the front page of the NY Times, you might call your senator.  It is important to know which genre you’re reading, if you want to know the real meaning of a text.

So too with apocalypses.  If you read one, you need to know how the genre works.   And so this is how I begin to describe the genre in my textbook on the New Testament, in the chapter that deals with the Apocalypse of John (a.k.a. the book of Revelation).


Apocalyptic World Views and the Apocalypse Genre

The first thing to say is that…

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The Book of Revelation and the Apocalypse Genre
666: The Number of the Beast



  1. Avatar
    nichael  February 20, 2015

    With regard to the dangers of a viewer/reader not understanding the conventions of a given genre, it’s hard not to recall the scene in one of my favorite movies, “Galaxy Quest”, in which the alien Thermians –who are completely unfamiliar with the notion of “fiction”– are nearly brought to tears when reminded of the “historical documents” which record the travails of those “poor people” trapped with Gilligan on that island.

    Anyway, it’s amusing to speculate what John would say if someone showed him a copy of “The Late, Great Planet Earth”.

  2. Avatar
    Hank_Z  February 20, 2015


    Dale Martin, your friend and Yale professor, mesmerized me with his lecture about the book of Revelation. He dramatized it in such a way I’d never be able to forget his lecture or the purpose and structure of the book of Revelation even if I wanted to.,

    Best of all, this lecture is free and available right here: http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152/lecture-23.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 20, 2015

    Your suggestion and examples about the importance of knowing the “genre” of a book are quite helpful, Thanks.

  4. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 20, 2015

    Thanks Bart. the Book of Rvelation intrigued almost everyone as you said it was something that was to take place ‘shortly’ Despite that in all the years that I attended the Christian Church I could count on one hand how many times it was preached to us. I guess that was because nobody understood it. Few Christians ask if that was to take place ‘shortly’ then why didn’t it happen back then? Oh I know, Paul said a day was like a thousand years with the Lord. 2 days is not long is it? 😉

    Although Paul. Jesus and John the Baptist didn’t reveal ‘details’ of the next stages after the apocalypse, they seemed pretty clear it was to happen in that generation and arguably they were the ultimate Apocalyptics that the end was near and repent etc. Its ironic though the passages concerned are rarely preached either. How can Christian Apologetics argue that when Paul said the time of Jesus second coming was nearer than when they first believed. The very fact that the three names mentioned predicted the end of days within their generation and it didn’t happen, to me anyway, makes the whole case for Christianity redundant.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      That was 2 Peter (not Paul), but yes, your point holds!

  5. Avatar
    John  February 20, 2015

    You mentioned nothing written by Jesus. What is the feeling among scholars about why there was never anything attributed directly to Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      There is one letter from Jesus that still survives, to the king of Edessa named Abgar. Short, but intriguing.

      • Avatar
        Jason  February 21, 2015

        Wait-back up here. Are you joking about that?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 21, 2015

          Sorry — I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

          • Avatar
            Jason  February 22, 2015

            It sounds as if you’re taking the Jesus and Abgar letters in Eusebius as something that Jesus really dictated, not as a Paul and Seneca type of creation. Do you take the correspondence seriously? What about the balance of serious scholarship?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 23, 2015

            No no! I wasn’t being clear. They are absolutely a later forgery, no question about it.

      • Goat
        Goat  February 21, 2015

        Do you mean one letter atrributed to Jesus but that no scholars believe to have actually have been written by Jesus or do you mean a letter that may actually have been written by Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 21, 2015

          It’s an apocryphal letter that *certainly* was not actually written by Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    jackcollins72  February 20, 2015

    Do you have a reason for dating 1 Enoch “somewhat later” than Daniel? That’s arguable for some sections of it, and certain for others, but the Book of the Watchers and Astronomical book are generally dated to the third century BCE.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      I suppose I meant the book as a unit published as we now have it. (Just as, for example, the Didache is often dated to around 100 CE even though portions of it were written earlier)

  7. Avatar
    Slydog1227  February 21, 2015

    Fascinating and educational stuff!! Thanks again! Just started The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot last night and can’t put it down. (I never thought I would ever say that about anything remotely connected to religious writing.) Thank you again for your blog and the time you devote to it.

  8. Avatar
    Jana  February 22, 2015

    How do you classify these Heavenly Journey visions? As hallucinations or something mystical? Also, what would you recommend my reading from among your books to better understand the Apocalyptic genre? Specifically I want to know what tells you that a piece was written only for the time and events of the author rather than for the future? (again if I’ve missed points all ready address, I am sorry)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2015

      I think they are mystical visions. But the visions, in my opinion, are not veridical (these people did not *really* go to the heavenly realm to see God), so by definition they would be hallucinatory.

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  February 26, 2015

    2 Apocalypses in the New Testament: Are They Both Needed?

    #1 – By Jesus: Destruction of the Temple, etc.

    #2 – Apocalypse as justice for the saints defeated in the Jewish Revolt, the apocalyptic lamentation over the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jerusalem to Gentiles.

    Yes, they were saints. Vespasian said Jupiter defeated the God of Israel thereby putting Jupiter before the God of Israel which is a violation of the first of 10 Commandments in the Torah

    Yes, we needed the second apocalypse to honor those who suffered and died during the First Jewish Roman War. Those saints cry out: how long before we are justified?

    Notice, since the spirits of the fallen speak, this genre is non-naturalistic, beyond realism, into the realm of imagination, with angels and beasts.

  10. Avatar
    JR  May 11, 2016

    Hi, I am trying to explain apocalypticism to someone. Please could you tell me which scholar first coined the phrase or classified the worldview? I assume it goes way back. Searching on Google only seems to yield sites predicting the rapture!!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2016

      I’m not sure offhand who invented the phrase. For a classic statement you might see the book Apocalypse: Morphology of a Genre.

      • Avatar
        JR  May 12, 2016

        Thanks. Always appreciate the blog and how you answer queries. As it happens I ordered ‘apocalyptic Imaginations’, which looks like it was written by the same author, a few days ago and should have it waiting for me today!

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