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The Rise of Apocalypticism

Now, with all the background out of the way, I am able to explain where the apocalyptic worldview came from.  I am maintaining that it emerged out of the classical view of the Hebrew prophets, as historical circumstances forced thinkers in Israel to re-evaluate what the prophets had said.   Here is the simple version of the story, as I lay it out in my textbook on the Bible


The Prophetic Perspective

We have seen that the classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible differed from one another in a number of ways, in the historical contexts that they addressed, in their manner of addressing them, and in the specifics of their messages.   But there are certain common features that tie all the prophets together, especially with respect to their understanding of God, his reaction to Israel’s failure to do his will, and the coming disasters that will occur as a result.   If you were to ask a prophet like Amos, Isaiah, or Jeremiah why it is the people of God suffer, they would have a clear and ready answer.  They suffer because …

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Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: January 16, 2016



  1. Avatar
    jhague  January 18, 2016

    Interestingly, I come across Christians today who believe both views. They think that natural disasters and terrorist attacks are people being punished by God for sinning against God. Often there is a certain sin that people are being punished for. Everyone is punished even if a person hasn’t committed the sin(s). These same people think that God has allowed Satan and his demons to cause suffering. Satan will finally (some day soon) be stopped and all who have remained true to God will never suffer again.
    What I really find interesting is that educated people in an enlightened world can believe these things.
    It seems that the large community churches do not mention these issues from the pulpit but the membership as a whole still believes them.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, in interviews you often say that the main reason you abandoned your faith in God is because of the problem of suffering (i.e. theodicy). To paraphrase Epicurus: if God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, whence cometh suffering? If God is impotent and/or ambivalent, why worship him? I call this top-down versus bottom-up thinking. Top-down thinkers, such the ancient Judean prophets, are certain that the universe is teleological–guided by a power greater than us–and that nothing happens without reason or purpose. A bottom-up thinker, on the other hand–such as, say, Charles Darwin or a modern string theorist–realizes that there is no ultimate purpose to the universe, and that everything that happens is merely a result of countless, simple interactions occuring at the most fundamental levels of reality, and, therefore, the reality of our existence is what philosophers would call an epiphenomenon, which is just a fancy way of saying the universe of our experience is a byproduct of the interaction of fundamental particles–not unlike how our mind is a byproduct of the billions of neurons firing in our brain.

    So, I guess what I’m asking is how much of ancient Jewish apocalyptism is a result of being wedded to this top-down way of looking at the universe? At some point one would imagine that the prophets would come to see that the reason bad things happened to “good” people was not because they had to revise their top-down view, but because the top-down view itself is fatally flawed to begin with, and, like you, they needed to adopt a bottom-up view of the world?

  3. Avatar
    Boltonian  January 18, 2016

    Excellent exposition, Bart.

    In a number of posts you have referred to Isaiah as if he is one prophet. Most scholars, in my reading at least, think that Isaiah had two or three authors and was written at different times. Forgive me, I have not yet read your Bible text book, which might answer my questions. How many authors do you think wrote Isaiah (and if you have an idea, who they were) and when were they compiled?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2016

      Yes, I definitely hold to the notion that there were three “Isaiahs”! One was 8th c; one was 6th; and one was post-exilic.

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  January 19, 2016

        Thanks, Bart. I have just tracked down the book where I read the information about Isaiah; it is called: ‘Who Wrote the Bible,’ by Richard Elliott Friedman. Is he a reliable source, in your opinion?

  4. Avatar
    SteveWalach  January 18, 2016

    Ya gotta love humanity’s unrelenting quest for justice.

    Our belief in an all-powerful and just God eventually getting around to punishing the wicked and elevating the good in an earthly realm has not as yet panned out, but I suppose if we wait longer enough …

    Charles II took matters into his own hands, exhuming the bodies of the leaders of the regime led by Lord Protector Cromwell, who had executed Charles I. Charles II hanged their bodies for a day and them beheaded them, so there’s plenty of anthropomorphic evidence (if the apocalyptic view were not enough) attesting to an unrelenting desire for justice that reaches beyond the grave.

    Before reading about apocalypticism, I had naively assumed the resurrection of the death was solely a glorious time when the good would rise and be reunited with loved ones. As I understand it now, however, it seems the resurrection of the dead is the occasion when the wicked will be raised and judged — harshly. Death gives no easy escape from one’s crimes.

    One persistent perspective in Judaism to this day, however, is that once dead, it’s over, except perhaps that the good done while alive will live on. I have to wonder if this focus on one’s earthly existence and not on the great beyond was also commonplace during the 1st Century. It probably would have run counter to the apocalyptic view even among the earliest Christian communities.

    Is there any evidence of an anti-apocalyptic bloc among Jesus’ followers in the early-mid 1st Century?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2016

      Some of the Xns in Corinth appear not to have held apocalyptic views. As to others — it’s very hard to say. By the end of the first century, definitly.

  5. Avatar
    Everythingmustgo65  January 18, 2016

    Job’s view seems to be that God permits the devil to cause suffering to test the righteousness of a person. Was this the view of apocalyptic Jews that God was permitting a period of suffering to the nation as a test? Also it appears they did not always have a dualistic view of the devil/evil, but it later developed in the Christian period under Paul’s teaching. Was this due to outside nations religious beliefs influencing them? I have heard it is.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2016

      There’s some thought that Persian dualistic thought played a major role.

  6. Avatar
    smackemyackem  January 19, 2016

    I am really enjoying this line of commentary/articles. Good work! I have also been reading a bit of Margaret Barker and James McGrath….1 Enoch, monotheism/henotheism…the two powers in heaven/trinity, etc. Barker believes much of what was Christian in the early days was a hold over from ancient Israelite religion (before the Deuteronomists got a hold of Judaism). I personally see influences on the early Christian views of Jesus’ divinity, i.e. the angel of YHWH. The writings of Enoch, like the DSS, seem to have many similarities to NT writings/thought. Barker proposes that this world view stems from the earliest forms of Judaism…well before the temple cult. Do you think apocalypticism has any influences from the earliest forms of Israelite religion? What do you think of Barker’s theory?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2016

      I read Barker some years ago and remember not being completely convinced: but I don’t remember her precise argument off the top of my head or what about it I found less than compelling. Sorry!

  7. Avatar
    Matt7  January 19, 2016

    Don’t most Christians think that God has always existed. If so, then he has already had an infinite amount of time to destroy his enemies. Why should we think he is now going to destroy them “soon”, if he has let an eternity go by without doing so?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2016

      Yes, good quesiton! I think most would say it’s one of the mysteries of God’s great plan!

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 19, 2016

    Your 11/15/15 post about the four tenets was very helpful and I recommend it.

    Viewing apocalypticism as growing out of an attempt to understand why God is not rewarding an obedient nation makes sense.

    Seeing natural disasters as a punishment reminds me of how even now some religious leaders have attributed the cause of hurricanes to such things as the “sin” of gay rights parades.

  9. Avatar
    Applesauce  January 20, 2016

    Doesn’t the God of the Hebrew Bible display human characteristics?
    The prophetic styles, both traditional and apocalyptic, and dualism (bringing Satan in as commander of the dark forces) anthropomorphize “God.”
    God, as a king or leader, is presumed to act in human history, God desires that humans behave in a certain way, God will intervene in history to bring aid to individuals or groups, usually favoring the Hebrews over others, etc. God has a really nasty brother or out-of-control angel that gets up to all sorts of bad stuff, presumably, however, with God’s permission. All of these ideas involve an attempt to rectify inconsistencies in the behavior of a God seen as all-powerful, omniscient, and, presumably, omnipresent, although absent at crucial times, such as the moments before the Persians or Romans break down the gates to the city.
    Most atheists or agnostics, or even an average teenager, and some religions, such as Buddhism, rather logically do not believe in this type of supernatural being, as described in the Bible.
    (Of course, there are logical paradoxes involved in all these descriptions, which are bound to draw the attention of skeptics.)
    I often hear the assertion that the Hebrew Bible does not portray God as a “human being” in contrast to Christianity.
    Yes, while Christianity says God incarnated as a human person, it seems that the God of the Hebrew Bible also has “human” characteristics, if not a physical body.
    So, is that the main difference, that Jesus was born of woman, and had a body?
    (Though one might argue, I suppose, that if God is omnipresent, then He or She is already present in human bodies somehow, like the Stoic spark of celestial fire.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2016

      Yes, like other divinities in antiquity, God could temporarily appear as a human. The difference with Jesus is that he actually and permanently *became* a human.

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    Kazibwe Edris  January 23, 2016

    seated at the right hand of the Power,’
    and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’

    if one is sitting on the right hand of power is that someone sharing in the same power?
    in pagan divine council’s is the god in the centre sharing the same powers with the gods on his side?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2016

      Yes, someone enthroned next to a divine being was normally understood himself to have been elevated to a level of divinity.

  11. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  September 12, 2016

    “Prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction are found in both Micah 3:13 and Jeremiah 26:18. There is no mention that the Temple will be rebuilt (Donahue and Harrington 2002, p368). ”

    found this quote on m turtons commentary on the gospel of mark

    were both micah and jeremiah anti temple?


  12. Avatar
    theyugu  July 4, 2017

    When, where, and why did the idea of the rapture come into play? Was it common in the apocalyptic view, or was it specific to certain types?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2017

      It’s a modern concept, but it’s based ultimately on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

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