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The Prophetic Background of Jewish Apocalyptic Thought

Several members of the blog have asked me to go into greater detail to explain where Jewish apocalypticism came from.  I’m happy to do so: it’s an important topic for understanding Jesus, Paul, and other early Christians.

As is true for all religious and political ideologies, the historical background to the rise of apocalyptic thinking is complicated.  To make sense of it, I have to say something about a very different perspective which provided the matrix out of which apocalyptic thought was eventually born and grew: the perspective of the “classical prophets” of the Israelite tradition.  I will spend a couple of posts explaining what the prophets of the Hebrew Bible had to say, focusing on arguably the earliest, Amos (who in many key ways is typical) before explaining how these views came to be transformed and radically altered centuries later into the apocalyptic views held by so many Jews in the days of Jesus.

In these posts I will simply reproduce material on the prophets as found in my recent textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (published by Oxford University Press).




The Classical Prophets

The prophets in the English Bible are divided into the five major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and the twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).   The difference between the two groups is simply one of length, not importance (major prophets are longer).   In the Hebrew Bible the entire (same) group is known as the Latter Prophets, and are only four in number:  Lamentations and Daniel are not included in the group, and the twelve minor prophets count as one book, “the Twelve.”

The classical prophets appear…

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The Prophet Amos
Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: January 8, 2016



  1. Avatar
    smackemyackem  January 10, 2016

    Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. I love this stuff! Thanks. I am vey fascinated with how the apocalyptic/Christian world view came to be during the second temple period. Most people think Jesus showed up one day and “boom”…there it was. I try to explain these things to others and I get blank stares.

  2. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  January 10, 2016

    Were there competing views to the apocalypticists? Were any of the religious sects from the time of Jesus, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, decidedly NOT apocalypticists?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2016

      The Sadducees are the only one of these sects known not to subscribe to the idea of a future resurrection.

  3. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  January 10, 2016

    I’ve had this other text book of yours on my Amazon wish list for a while because I enjoyed your NT text book. The description says I get a free 6 month subscription to Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Does anyone get this even if we aren’t a student?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2016

      I don’t know! Try it and see!

    • Avatar
      magpie  January 12, 2016

      I bought the book and did get the six month access to the Oxford Biblical Studies Online. I am not a student and was not required to provide any documentation that I was. The site was quite interesting and has side by side translations of a variety of translations and versions of the Bible. Well worthwhile. A good way to see if the rather steep price of joining the site on a yearly basis is right for you. I don’t recall what the yearly price was, just that it was not inexpensive.

      • Greg Matthews
        Greg Matthews  January 13, 2016

        Thanks for letting me know!

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  January 10, 2016

    Chapter 7 of Amos reads more like a historical account than a prophecy, which, to me, suggests that it was written after the fact–probably much after the fact–with Amos and Amaziah as characters in an historical drama. The fact that it purports to recount events after the destruction of the northern kingdom further suggests that this narrative was written in Judah, which was still a semi-independent vassel. Furthermore, the motive of the story seems to be a precautionary tale, warning the current kingdom of Judah to not act like the latter kingom of Israel, or Judah, also, shall be destroyed just as Israel was, as is clear in 2:4-5 “Thus saith the LORD: For three transgressions of Judah, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they have rejected the law of the LORD, and have not kept His statutes, and their lies have caused them to err, after which their fathers did walk. So will I send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem.” which further suggests that this was written at a time when Judah also under threat of destruction, this time by the Babylonians. Therefore, in all likelihood, the book of Amos was probably begun, in at least an inchoate form, in pre-exile Judah, possibly during the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim or Jehoiachim, and was completed and transliterated into the Aramaic script post-exile in the Acheamenid period.

  5. Avatar
    plparker  January 11, 2016

    It would seem that the tradition of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible would help set the scene for Christians calling Jesus a prophet since Hebrew prophets were usually outsiders, with no social standing, speaking up against the prevailing views and customs of the society they were living in. I assume this idea has been often explored in Biblical scholarship?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2016

      Yes, it is widely thought that Jesus is presented in line with Hebrew Bible prophets (and that possibly Jesus saw himself in that way)

  6. Avatar
    Luke9733  January 11, 2016

    I have a sort-of off-topic question (though it does relate to what Jesus taught). I’ve read that Geza Vermes thought Jesus was a “Hasid”. To my understanding, Rabbi Shmuel Safrai and also David Flusser argued a similar view.

    Could Jesus have been both a Hasid (or Tzadik) *and* also have preached an apocalyptic message at the same time? Or would he have had to be one or the other?

    Also, I’m just starting to read about Jewish Hasidim. Do you think you could post about where it fit in Jewish philosophy in the first century and whether you think it was similar or different from what Jesus preached?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2016

      There wasn’t a kind of official “office” of Hasid, and of course what we call Hasidic Judaism is a modern phenomenon. But yes, the kind of person that Vermes is describing could certainly be apocalyptic.

      • Avatar
        Luke9733  January 12, 2016

        Were there first century Hasidic Jews? Would that have been the same thing as Hasideans? I see so many different spellings, I’m not sure if these are referring to the same philosophies and groups or not.

        The more I read about this though, the more similarities I see between sage/miracle working Jews like Honi the Circle Drawer, Hanina Ben Dosa, Hillel the Elder and Jesus. Could Jesus have been a sort of apocalyptic/holy man/sage combination? Or is that a bit of a stretch?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 12, 2016

          I think it’s a problem of terminology. It’s kind of like asking if early followers of Jesus were conservative evangelical Christians. There were certainly conservative, and evangelical, and Christian. But what *we* think of as evangelicalism could not exist back then. So too with Hasidism, which is a modern Jewish movement.

  7. Avatar
    Dipsao  January 11, 2016

    The word “prophet” is often misunderstood, especially among fundamentalists/evangelicals Christians. The word conjures mystics looking into the future when, in fact, most of OT “prophesying” concerned forth-telling as opposed to “foretelling”. They were more preachers than crystal-ball gazers and if there was any prophesying going on it was to their immediate context. I can just as easily predict that if certain individuals are elected president in 2016, one can expect economic disaster and increase international tensions. You don’t need to read tea leaves to know that.

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 12, 2016

    The comment that amos is possibly the earliest prophetic book made wonder what is the oldest book in the bible? A simple google search had most of the first page results in agreement… Job! Well I wasn’t expecting that! The first page I opened was “facts” about the bible. Apart from Job being the earliest, I learnt that Moses wrote the torah, the last book in the OT to be written is Malachi, and the oldest book in the NT is James, written in 45CE. Obviously I had to do a bit more looking. I found the question is flawed. Most of the books, especially the oldest ones, have been modified, added to, taken from, for hundreds of years. Do you use the time it was first written down? Or when it was finalized? Or when it got it’s name? Or when the oral tradition started? Maybe some of the psalms are the oldest, but does that mean the book is the oldest? Argh, let’s call the whole thing off!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 12, 2016

      Dates are highly disputed. It is VERY difficult to know how to date the final text of Job, for example. For a brief discussion you may want to look at my textbook on the Bible. (You can’t trust Internet discussions!!!)

  9. Avatar
    jhague  January 13, 2016

    Most people seem to think of prophets as those who can predict the future. Is a better description of a prophet that he is one who proclaims God’s message (as he believes he has received it)?

  10. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  January 14, 2016


    Ancient Jews did not separate between matters of religion and geopolitical affairs, right? There was not even the word “religion” in Hebrew, is that correct? So, my question is: were the prophet’s proclamations, in their own time, regarded as divination or just political comments/analysis/opposition? Both? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2016

      Since they didn’t separate politics and religions, my sense is that they wouldn’t have understood the either/or! The proclamations were divine comments on governmental and social affairs — both!

  11. Avatar
    jbhowell  January 24, 2016

    Why do you think there is little reference among scholars concerning Zoroastrian influence on Jewish apocalypticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2016

      It is usually referred to rather casually; my guess is that it is largely because of a lack of any direct causality.

      • Avatar
        jbhowell  January 25, 2016

        I find that strange. Pre exilic Judaism had no belief in Satan as the enemy of God; no belief in heaven and hell; no final judgment; and no virgin born Saviors. They encounter the Persians in the exile who believe in Ahura Mazda. Isaiah praises Cyrus as the Messiah. Jews come out of the exile with a developed eschatology that mirrors Zoroastrian beliefs. And you have Magic visiting baby Jesus in Marthew. What am I missing here?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 25, 2016

          Yes, there are important parallels. But it’s also important to recognize the massive differences as well. It’s the two together (parallels and differences) that add up to the sensible gestalt.

          • Avatar
            jbhowell  January 27, 2016

            I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my queries. By the way, I have listened to 3 or 4 of your Great
            Courses lectures. They are phenomenal. You have really helped me clarify many issues (former Baptist
            minister for 15 years!). One last question. I understand there are great differences between Zoroastrianism
            and Judaism, but here is what bothers me. If the Jews did not directly get some of these ideas from the
            Persians, then where did they come from. I don’t see any clear parallels with the Greeks (and I know they
            get many ideas from the Greeks) or any other group. I have read many scholars who say there is no DIRECT
            connection between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but again, then where do the Jews of 2nd and 1st
            century BCE get their ideas that later influence Christianity?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 28, 2016

            Certainly some ideas came from other eastern religions; but ideas also can generate out of one’s own historical context. I think it’s important to realize that ideas *have* to “originate” somewhere, or there simply would be no ideas. I would say there are many really important connections between Judaism and other religions of its world, but also many key differences.

  12. Avatar
    jbhowell  January 28, 2016

    Thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my query!

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