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The Book of Revelation and the Apocalypse Genre

I’m devoting a thread to the book of Revelation and its interpretation.  This began by my raising the issue of what 666 stands for, which led me to say a few things about the symbolism of the book, which occasioned several comments from readers wanting to know what my broader take is on how to interpret it.

Yesterday I began to stress the importance of knowing what an “apocalypse” is before trying to interpret any one particular apocalypse.   Today I pursue that a bit more, by talking about this genre which has numerous representatives in ancient Jewish and Christian writings.  Here is how I begin to describe the genre more fully in my textbook on the New Testament:


Despite their wide-ranging differences, our surviving apocalypses typically share specific literary features.  The most common of these are the following:

  1. Pseudonymity. Almost all of our ancient apocalypses were written pseudonymously, in the name of a famous religious person from the past (the book of Revelation, interestingly enough, is a rare exception). Among our surviving Jewish apocalypses are some claiming to be written by Moses, Abraham, Enoch, and even Adam; we have Christian apocalypses reputedly from the pens of the prophet Isaiah and the apostles Peter, Paul, and Thomas.

Is there a particular reason for authors of apocalypses to hide their identity behind a pseudonym?  We have already seen that….


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The Book of Revelation in Historical Context
Apocalypticism and Apocalypses



  1. Avatar
    JBfree  February 20, 2015

    So, are there any examples of manuscripts written by the actual original prophets whose “predictions” are uncannily detailed to future events that we know did actually happen?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      If I’m understanding your question correctly, the answer is no.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 25, 2016

        I have two questions related to your “no” answer above.

        1. Is it right to assume you don’t think Dan’s fourth beast refers to Rome?

        2. Is it right to assume you don’t think Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem/temple?

        I ask, because if you thought either of these were true (or at least plausible), then I imagine you’d have answered “maybe” rather than “no.” I’ve read scholars who do affirm both as likely true (including ancient ones like Jerome).

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2016

          1. Yes, the fourth beast is almost certainly Greece; 2. No, I do think he predicted it.

          • TWood
            TWood  May 26, 2016

            On #2: Interesting… 3 quick follow ups:

            1. Is this the current scholarly consensus? I know that doesn’t “prove” anything per se, but consensuses are consensuses for a reason.

            2. Are you saying that “Mark” invented the Olivet Discourse out of whole cloth when he wrote about it circa 70 CE, and the others copied him?

            3. Is the reason you don’t think he predicted it because it seems too “miraculous”—so it had to be written after the fact?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2016

            You’re misunderstanding me. I’m saying that I think Jesus *did* predict the destruction of the temple. And yes, there is broad consensus on that view.

          • TWood
            TWood  May 27, 2016

            Bart… sorry to to reply before you’ve had a chance to moderated my recent follow up question (regarding the claim that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem/Temple)… but I just ran across an answer you gave in January of 2015 that seems to indicate that either: A) I do not understand your recent answer, or B) your current view is different from the one you held less than two years ago. Please clarify when you’re able. Thanks! I pasted the URL and your previous answer below:


            Bart  January 29, 2015
            Yes, I’ve always thought the predictions of the destruction of the temple go back to Jesus himself.

          • TWood
            TWood  May 27, 2016

            Ah, yes, I see where I did indeed misread your “no, I do…” as “no, I don’t…” Sorry about that. But one last follow up (I trust you’ll ignore it if you think it’s superfluous). But a bit of confusion remains.

            The other person’s original question was “are there any examples of manuscripts written by the actual original prophets whose ‘predictions’ are uncannily detailed to future events that we know did actually happen?” Your answer was “no.”

            It’s true Jesus didn’t write his prediction… but isn’t it fair to say that his oral prediction is impressive enough to qualify as “uncannily detailed to future events that we know did actually happen?”

            I understand some think it was in essence a “lucky educated guess”—and perhaps it was—but it still seems like a significant and accurate prediction, especially when tied to “this (first century) generation.”

  2. Avatar
    billgraham1961  February 21, 2015


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    nichael  February 21, 2015

    This has nothing to do with the current topic, but:

    A couple weeks back mention was made of a new Teaching Company course on “Gnosticism” by David Brakke.

    I’ve just finished my first pass through the course. I’m sure I’ll go through the lectures again (while doing a lot of the follow-up reading), but I just had to break in here to say what a _thoroughly_ amazing course this is.

    (Just to pick one particular issue: Despite doing a fair amount of reading on this topic, I’ve never had a good understanding of the realtionships among, and difference between, the various Gnostic sects –e.g. Sethian, Valentinians, etc. Dr Brakke’s course has really helped me finally get a good grip on this sometimes bewildering topic.)

    In any case, I really can’t recommend this course highly enough to those on the list interested in these topics.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  February 21, 2015

    As if by some mystical divine plan, or merely coincidence perhaps Prof Mitchell Reddish’s APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE: A READER has been brought back into print just this very month. It contains at least portions of 25 non-canonical Jewish and Christian apocalypses including the biggies like the Qumran War Scroll, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra (my favorite), the apocalypses of all the New Testament figures named and even the Sibylline Oracles. Prof Reddish provides nice scholarly introductions to each work. No “Left Behind” foolishness.

    Prof Ehrman could you comment about the opening epistolary chapters to Revelation? Is there another such apocalyptic work that does this? What do you think is the relationship between this part of the book and the apocalypse proper? Do you think the book was actually addressed to and passed among those churches or does the writer have some other purpose in mind?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      Good question. Off hand I cannot think of an epistolary section in other apocalypses, but maybe someone else can pitch in? But yes, I do think the book was addressed to the Christians of western Asia Minor.

  5. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 21, 2015

    You know Bart, when I read that the book of Daniel was ‘probably’ written 400 years later that basically DECEIVE their audience into thinking that God gave certain individuals the gift of prophecy and so we MUST listen to them makes me sort of mad really. The same thing in the NT when the early writers picked up a word or phrase from the OT as justifying Jesus as the Messiah. But then these same ‘Christians’ conveniently forget what the Messiah was supposed to do when he comes and so they have to find another narrative to suggest that God used Jesus as the Messiah for Salvation, atonement and heaven.

    Surely ANY intelligent person that has studied all this so called holy text (which makes me even more mad) would conclude that its all fairy tales like Father Christmas and move on. The really daft thing is these people think God spoke to these Prophets thousands of years ago and yet this same God has been silent for at least 2000 years that we know of? ie the Christian God and Jewish God. Obviously Islam claim he gave revelation to Muhammad later. But despite the huge conflict between Sunni and Shia that has and is costing tens of thousands of lives, this God remains silent with arms folded while he watches?

    This is not the time or place to say what I really think of all this as my post would be pulled but IF only all these religious text had one statment in them like Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, I would find no problem with them at all. IE The words contained within this book are not factual events but an allergory to try and show a relationship between the Creator and man.

    ALL the problems are because millions of people and religious leaders believe they were written by or inspired by the hand of the Creator and so MUST be literal and MUST be obeyed..OR else!

    I wonder one day Bart, that you will really say what you think about them. I guess that day will be when you take up the mantle of the late Christopher Hitchens who wrote that ‘Religion, poisons everything’.
    There is a need for such wonderful biblical scholars such as yourself to do just that.

    • Avatar
      MikeyS  February 21, 2015

      I should add that ‘Religion doesn’t poison everything’ in my opinion but its a great title to sell books, as the alternative that Religion poisons lots of things or even most things, would not get the same attention. CH knew that. Or indeed his publisher did.

      • Avatar
        Eric  February 23, 2015

        God hasn’t been silent all this time. According the Mormons, he sent the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith with new info c. 1830


    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      Actually, I don’t agree that just because the Bible is filled with historical mistakes and problems it is nothing more than a bunch of fairy tales that should be thrown out! They are great religious texts. The question is how to interpret them!

      • Avatar
        MikeyS  February 22, 2015

        Fair comment Bart, but I `wasn’t suggesting throwing them all out. I agree there are some good text in there like Psalm 23. Unfortunately its the literal interpretation that IS the problem. The real problem is most theists believing their holy text IS the word of God and therefore cannot be changed. Slavery is the killer blow to that thinking but they even come up with other reasons for that like domestic servants etc.

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    RonaldTaska  February 21, 2015

    Although I have read all of the “Left Behind” novels, I did not know that the breaking of the sixth seal resulted in the destruction of the sun, moon, and stars, but somehow light and life goes on. Interesting. It’s sort of Genesis in reverse where there was light and then the earth and plants were created before the sun, moon, and stars were created. Neat trick! Thanks.

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    Jen  February 21, 2015

    Is there a defining point in the book of Daniel between what was actually written history and what was his guess at the future? I’m wondering if there is such a point that eschatologists have now taken to be the *gap* between the 69th and “70th week of Daniel” as they call it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      Yes, that’s right. He stops recounting history and starts predicting at certain points — e.g., in ch. 7 where the “little horn” is destroyed, that is a prediction of the imminent death of Antioches Epiphanes. Which never happened as predicted.

      • Avatar
        Jen  March 9, 2015

        Thank you for your reply. Since asking you that question, I have read your book “God’s Problem”. I found a section of that book to be very informative on this subject.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 25, 2016

        Also, from all the patristics I’ve read (correct me if I’m wrong), most early Christians believed the 70th week was fulfilled in the first century (albeit with oddly different schemes)—thus they saw no (significant) gap between the 69th and 70th week. Irenaeus/Hippolytus are obvious exceptions that get all the modern press (because they’re used to justify the modern Darbyite (Left Behind) fundie nonsense.

  8. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 22, 2015

    Is there a modern list of all known non-canonical writings (apocalypses, gospels, epistles and any other genre whose name I might not know) whether extant or not? By this I mean a list that includes documents that are only known by name. I keep coming across works that I’ve never heard of before, like one called “By the Four” by a heretic name Tatian that is only known by title, as far as I know, in the writings of Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria writing about 450. I’m just wondering if the known number is in the hundreds or maybe the thousands.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2015

      There probably is, but I don’t recall ever seeing an exhaustive list. The By the Four is the famous Diatessaron, which, regrettably, has not survived. But we certainly don’t know of thousands of lost texts, even though there may well have been boat-loads of them (many unmentioned).

  9. Avatar
    Jana  February 22, 2015

    I don’t know why it occurred to me that these are also spells … meaning the repetitions …. eager to read more.

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