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Is the Apocalypse an apocalypse?

February 11, 2010

Maybe this should have been a discussion question over at Theologica. Toss me back argument if you wish. This is not a fully-baked thing by any means.

It’s just something that bugs me in the conventional wisdom in regard to the study of the book of Revelation. I feel like the kid who dared point out the slight nakedness of the emperor. The smart money had him dressed to the nines, however breezy he may feel. Similarly, only the uneducated don’t understand that Revelation is pretty typical apocalyptic literature. My goodness, as one teacher put it (whose material I was supposed to be teaching) it identifies itself right from the beginning as “apocalypse.”

Okay so here are some things that bug me.

1. We’re told the Revelation is the same genre as the other apocalypses (“a genre which flourished between 200 BC and AD 200”). But didn’t John REALLY see a vision from God and report it, and most of the others only write AS IF they had seen a vision and reported it???

Isn’t this like saying simple 18th century travel narratives and Gulliver’s Travels are the same genre?

Are we taking the vastly more numerous pseudo-prophecies of the era and using them to define the genre, and then analyzing the TRUE prophecy of the Revelation on that basis. Does that make sense to you???

2. Does Revelation identify it’s own genre by the word “apocalypse” in the first verse? I’ve just found the answer to the question today of whether any “apocalypses” identify themselves as such BEFORE the writing of Revelation?? Hmm??? No, they don’t.

Doesn’t this suggest that use of “apocalypse” after Revelation is a copy of it’s style, rather than Revelation being a part of said genre??

3. Isn’t it more reasonable to suggest that both Daniel and Revelation spawned copycats, just as we see massive cloning of Harry Potter style literature today, or the way that Gulliver’s Travels spawned multiple similar books?

4. Is there really ANY evidence that the ancients saw apocalyptic as a genre, apart from prophecy? Ancient apocalypses were largely pseudonymous. Do we see ancient commentaries saying, well, we take this as part of the genre that the author is pseudonymous, his “predictions” after the fact, and that he is really making a socio-politico-theological point?

5. When I read or hear commentators on Revelation, they start off that, yes, he was really John, and he really saw this vision. But then when they get down to it they write as if it were a conscious literary composition, images drawn BY JOHN from OT sources, instead of what he just saw. I sometimes wonder which side the commentators are coming down.

6. The usual definition of apocalyptic is trotted out be even very conservative commentators, particularly the bit about “flourishing” between 200 BC and AD 200. BUT!! This date of 200 BC, isn’t that based on the dating of Daniel to this era? Even conservative commentators who DON’T date Daniel in this late century will nevertheless cite this date range for apocalyptic. Isn’t that rather an uncritical acceptance of Biblical background material?

7. We are given criteria that place “prophetic” on one side and “apocalyptic” on the other, but we see very, very early clear prophetic practice of interpreting dreams and visions. Genesis 37 and so on, Joseph’s dreams, the dreams he interprets.

Indeed Numbers 12:6-8 gives us insight into NORMAL procedure for prophets:

If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles

Why then isn’t Revelation pretty squarely in “prophecy” as opposed to “apocalypse”?

It DOES identify itself as “prophecy” after all.

8. This has a bearing on the interpretation of this book. Are we really supposed to think he was writing in such a way that contemporary readers would recognize his genre as apocalyptic and KNOW RIGHT AWAY what the symbols meant, as we are frequently told? Are we supposed to understand what he wrote as concerning current conditions, which John was consciously writing about? Or should we understand that the symbols REALLY come from Christ, and John may have been as clueless as anyone?

9. As I alluded to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” I have the sense that even asking such questions I appear benighted and naïve, since educated folk know better. Well, I’ve known the story about apocalyptic since I was about 14. So I’ve been there and back again.

10. One thing the apocalyptic tag permits is a significantly dismissive attitude toward Revelation, coupled somehow with a reverent attitude toward it anyway…strange. But it seems to me to provide a nice box where we can put it, sort of crate training for a troublesome little pet.

11. Revelation embarrasses. If you haven’t noticed this, I’m not sure you’ve been looking. It fascinates some, embarrasses others, and those fascinated by it embarrass those who are embarrassed by the book. Apocalyptic embarrasses too. So we stuff one in the other and we kill two birds with one stone.

4 Comments leave one →
    • asphaleia permalink*
      July 30, 2010 8:33 am

      Ha. I didn’t see that blog. “Backwards” is an appropriate word in this issue, because as I see it, we have a body of literature made up of false prophecies, exhortations written as if they were actual prophecies, even falsely adopting the name of some pious person of the past, and this become the genre of apocalyptic.

      So we are supposed to see Revelation as an example of that genre? We interpret true prophecy by the rules established by dealing with false prophecy?

      Dunno, but that strikes me as backward.


  1. Revelation as Prophecy: What is Prophecy? | The Church of Jesus Christ
  2. Revelation as Prophecy | Joel L. Watts

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