By Adolf Jülicher
THE APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
§ 21. A General Survey of Apocalyptic Literature
While the Epistolary literature of the New Testament was created by Christianity itself, that is by the great Christian Apostle Paul, without any dependence on existing models, and the Gospels and Acts were written in a form naturally arising from the needs of an historical religion—for we may suppose that even if no one had ever composed an historical book before, the Saviour would have been described in much this way to future generations—the Apocalyptic writings of the New Testament belong to a species of artistic composition which existed long beforehand, which grew up on Jewish soil and was finally adopted by the new religion without any essential modifications. It is true that only one such book, the Apocalypse of John, has found its way into the New Testament Canon (or has remained there permanently), but there are other works of the kind which have laid claim to a like consideration, such as the Apocalypse of Peter,1 and the ʽShepherdʼ of Hermas,2 and this form of edifying literature was for centuries exceedingly popular in the widest Christian circles. Professional theologians made light of it, but the lower orders of the Christian population derived from it much stimulus to their imagination and material for their religious thought.
The name ʽApocalypse,ʼ which many books of this class do not bear from the beginning, is generally applied to all those writings in which a human being tells the story of what had been imparted to him from heaven above, under circumstances of miracle, concerning those matters and problems of the other world which, though inaccessible to human reason, are of all the greater interest on that account to the pious heart. Apocalyptic elements are also frequently found in books of another class—e.g. in the Psalms of Solomon, in Jewish books of legends, and so on—and this naturally enough, for the Apocalypse does not merely represent a branch of literature, but rather a stage in the development of the Israelitish religion. The first great product of Apocalyptics was the Book of Daniel, written in the time of the Maccabees about the year 166 B.C.; all later examples drew from it, most of them consciously. It now finds its place among the Prophets of the Old Testament, and perhaps rightly so, for Apocalyptic literature is in reality the last manifestation of Old Testament Prophecy.
Prophecy found itself on the way to an it ae form as soon as, from Jeremiah onwards, it was compelled to abandon the direct action of man on man, and to influence its generation solely through the medium of literature. Ezekiel in the Captivity is already book-prophet from first to last. In other respects, too, he shows very strongly the characteristics of an age of decadence: few new ideas and none of the moral energy of the old stock, but in their place an imagination luxuriant enough, but running to waste in a tangle of barren weeds. Vague allegories exercise the ingenuity of the reader rather than guide his will in accordance with eternal law. The healthy bond between Prophecy and the living history of the people has been severed, nor are matters mended by the return of half the exiles to Palestine, for Israel remains divided and has lost the free disposal of its own affairs. No Prophet could now venture to deal publicly with political questions, and indeed none would have had the power, for the mental horizon and the interests of the poor downtrodden Palestinians grew narrower year by year. At last—for when the aspect of the present is too dreary, we turn our eyes to the future—the best of them had little left but the hope that Israel would one day be restored by supernatural intervention, and would be suffered to attain the mastery over its former tyrants in token of Godʼs approval of its steadfast faith. And they did not merely turn their eyes to this future time, they invented an art of calculating the precise moment of its appearance by the interpretation of ancient prophecies, such as that of the ʽseventy yearsʼ of Jeremiah. The existing world they gave over to the Devil, as the Children of God had been compelled to give over their land to the heathen oppressor, but they yearned with all the more feverish expectation for that future æon in which, after fearful judgments on the guilty, God would at last carry out his will in all things, great and small. This one idea still had life; but, partly because it could not be freely uttered under foreign rule, partly because the shrinkage of the available material made it necessary to adopt new forms to produce the old effects, and partly because the inexpressible could not from its very nature be reproduced with exactness in the language of men, it became the custom for those who spoke or wrote on this subject to veil their thoughts, and half to reveal them in images, half to keep them back as riddles. This explains the two prime characteristics of — this last phase of prophecy—the overwhelming stress laid on the future and its joys, and the obscurity of the form—the chequered, fantastic dress—in which that future is presented to the mind.
Nor is this half prophetic, half poetic literature wholly without grandeur. Ideal aims sometimes find sublime expression, and the ethical standpoint, that only faith wins Godʼs final reward, attains due recognition. It has deserved well, too, of the community which it sought to sustain and hold together, for whenever fear and despair were at their height, a book of this kind would almost certainly appear, arousing new courage by interpreting the present calamities as the birth-pangs of the glory that was to be. Nevertheless, viewed as a whole, Apocalyptics is Prophecy turned senile, drawing its sustenance from one interest only, and working on a single pattern. Instead of creative genius we have laborious imitation; only by yet more detailed and extravagant descriptions of the final Metamorphosis, which was ever receding further into the future, could the later writer excel the earlier; the mind becomes more and more entangled in the subtleties of a riotous and yet calculating imagination, till at last it becomes a mere question of satisfying the pseudo-religious curiosity and pleasing the degenerate taste of the time. So impotent were the leading spirits of this age, indeed, that no man was confident enough to assume the office of Godʼs messenger in his own name, but put what he had to say into the mouth of some famous man or woman of old, such as the legendary Daniel, Ezra, Moses, Noah, a Sibyl, Enoch, Seth, or Adam. One of these personages describes to his descendants how a revelation was vouchsafed to him, by supernatural means, of the life and condition of the heavenly world, of Godʼs intentions for his creatures, and especially of the course of history, which, after an age of bitter disappointments for the just and of overweening insolence on the part of the ungodly, would end at last in the victory, not less perfect than sudden, of God and of the righteous. This end the Apocalyptic writer usually describes as near at hand, and his own place in history as immediately preceding it; but the real date of these professedly primeval revelations can be recognised from the fact that up to a certain point the predictions of the Man of God correspond in some degree (and towards the end even in points of detail) to the true historical tradition, while after that point their outlines suddenly become blurred, and analogies with the actual course of events are no longer to be found. The former class came within the authorʼs own experience or transmitted knowledge; the latter he expected to be realised by the immediate future, and, it must be admitted, expected generally in vain.
With the appearance of Jesus, this form of prophecy was in principle superseded. Jesus did not come forward under anotherʼs name, he spoke freely and without disguise—using images only to facilitate the understanding of his thought— he sought the means of realising the Messianic hopes, not in extravagant descriptions of blessedness to come, but in warfare against the false piety of Pharisaism, and in the establishment of a healthy relation between every child of God and its Father. And his Apostles followed his example, especially Paul ʽthe Apostleʼ; they laboured for the Gospel after the manner of the genuine Prophets, and we can only speak of a Pauline3 or a Gospel4 ʽApocalypseʼ cum grano salis, in so far as in the painting of the ʽlast daysʼ some of their colours were taken from Jewish Apocalyptics. But we could not expect that those Christians who as Jews had owed their spiritual edification mainly to Apocalypses should undergo a complete change of taste; and the general condition of things rather favoured the adoption of this form of religious literature on the part of the new religion, for not less eagerly were the Christians now looking forward to the Parusia of Christ than had the Jews in former times awaited the appearance of the Messiah. Soon, too, their condition became one of not less oppression and almost greater hopelessness than that of Israel in its worst days. Add to this that in all religiously inclined sections of the life-weary world of those days, and not in Jewish circles only, we may reckon upon finding a particular interest taken in books. with an apparatus of mystery and enigmatical predictions. concerning the end of all things. So it came about that the Apocalyptic genre was soon cultivated with eagerness by Christian authors also. Sometimes an old Jewish Apocalypse: was recast from the Christian point of view, sometimes an entirely new one was written; and of these last the oldest that has come down to us is the Revelation of John.
1) See p. 240.
2) Written at Rome about 140 A.D.
3) 2 Thess. ii. 1-12.
4) Matt. xxiv.