What is Apocalyptic Literature? – Part 1 in ‘Approaching Revelation’

Apocalyptic Literature Books

What is Apocalyptic? Imagine With Me…

You may have wondered, “What is apocalyptic?”

It’s the year 4000. You find yourself on an archaeological dig in the middle of western Iowa (though by AD 4000 it certainly isn’t called ‘Iowa’). And just as you’re about to give up on this particular location, the sun glints off something in the dirt. It catches your eye. You take a toothbrush out of your utility belt and dust the dirt where the light gleamed. And within seconds, you’re face to face with one of the most important finds of the century.

After removing the dirt from the sides of the artifact, you gently lift it up out of the ground. It’s what historians call a ‘book’: a series of sheets of dried wood-pulp bound together. Its pages contain what to most people would be unintelligible scribbles. But you’re well-versed in several ancient tongues, including this one: English. And the moment you see the gold, embossed title on the cover, you know you’ve found a real treasure.

By the mere reading of that title, it’s obvious to you that what you’ve found is a history of this land. And what’s more, you’ve discovered what people called this area nearly 2,000 years ago: Narnia.

You hold in your hands The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Chronicles Of Narnia: History, Allegory, Or Fantasy?

The Chronicles of Narnia - What will future archeologists think?
What will 41st century archaeologists think?

Now, back to 2017. We all know that The Chronicles of Narnia is not a history book. It’s a series of fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis. But imagine, for a moment, that the above hypothetical story actually happened. Imagine that someone 2,000 years in the future found The Chronicles of Narnia but had no knowledge of the fantasy genre. Some people might read it and assume that it was supposed to be a literal history.

They might laugh at our quaintness and ignorance. “Talking lions? Portals to other worlds? Those ancient folks sure were superstitious.”

Likewise, some might argue that it’s not to be taken as literal history but rather as an allegory of wider truths (and certainly, there are allegorical elements in it, though it is not an allegory).

Still others might come up with some other idea about how to interpret it

How could people with no understanding of the fantasy genre understand a book like The Chronicles of Narnia?

First, they’d need to try and wrap their heads around what fantasy literature is. They might want to read other, similar books. Things like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Le Guin’s Earthsea or Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. They might take some time to study the author, his time and place. And if they approached The Chronicles of Narnia after all this, they’d have a much better chance of understanding it.

The Chronicles of Narnia isn’t history.

It isn’t an allegory.

And neither is it science fiction, romance, or a western.

It’s a fantasy novel. And until I understand that fact, I’m going to have a rather difficult time discerning its ‘meaning’. I may enjoy the story. But I could very easily miss the statement that the author is trying to make through that story.

The Book of Revelation…What Is It?

When we approach the book of Revelation, we do so very similarly to the imaginary archaeologist above. We’re nearly 2,000 years removed from when it was written. The setting and time are unfamiliar. And the genre is utterly foreign.

Most people today are about as familiar with apocalyptic writing as a 40th century person would be with today’s fantasy genre. We don’t understand its conventions. And so we try to fit the book into the categories we do understand.

We understand history and allegory and fantasy (among many others). And since that’s what we understand, those are the terms in which we think. So when we read Revelation, we assume that it’s telling a straightforward story. We assume that it’s either predicting literal events or, perhaps, that it’s a sort of allegorical puzzle we need to solve. But it’s neither.

Revelation is neither future-history nor an elaborate allegory.

It’s first-century apocalyptic.

What Is Apocalyptic Writing?

Let’s start with a super-academic definition of apocalyptic writing and we can go from there.

J.J. Collins writes, “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatalogical salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”¹

I’m sure that definition clears things right up for you….Or not.

As I read that definition – a definition that seems to be pretty standard in the scholarly literature – I can’t help but feel a little pang of despair. How in the world will the average Christian ever understand Revelation or its meaning if they can’t even make heads or tails out of ‘what’ it is in the first place?

Before we can begin to understand what John meant by all of the symbols and visions and numbers…and before we can apply any of it to today’s world…we first need to understand what it is.

So that’s where we’re going to start.

But first, you may be wondering…

Is All Of This Really Necessary? Why Not Just Read It?

Revelation, in Greek
I don’t understand why people don’t just read what it says…

You may be thinking, “Isn’t God clear in his word? Do we really need all of this extra stuff to wade through in order to understand what he’s trying to tell us?”

This approach has been reduced down to a bumper-sticker saying: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

And that’s true in a sense. But the problem is that until we understand the genre of a particular passage or book of Scripture, we don’t really understand what God said.

Here’s what I mean by that.

An Example from Proverbs

One of the most famous proverbs in the Old Testament is: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Proverbs 22:6 NRSV). Now, if “God said it” and “I believe it” and “that settles it”, then does that mean that this is an iron-clad, money-back guarantee? Is this verse telling us that as long as we train our children in the right way, that they will never, ever stray?

If that’s what it’s saying then I’m afraid God is wrong. Because I know there are people who have trained their children up in the Way – and yet, in adulthood, those children have utterly rejected it.

They may be the exception to the rule but they exist. And if a single exception exists, then this isn’t a full-proof guarantee.

So what is it?

It’s a proverb. And once again we find ourselves back at the issue of ‘genre’.

Proverbs is not meant to be a series of guarantees or perfect promises. They’re meant to be proverbs: “a short, memorable statement [that] is used to give wise advice or counsel”.²

If I take the book of Proverbs to be a series of promises that God has personally addressed to me, I’m going to be disappointed. Things don’t always work out the way it describes. On the other hand, if I understand that this book primarily contains wise advice and counsel, then I can apply what it says to my living while knowing that it’s a general rule – not a complete guarantee. And so yes, usually things work out according to how Proverbs describes. But not always.

In other words, genre matters.

And it doesn’t just matter when reading Proverbs. I could point to places where genre makes a huge difference while studying Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, the Prophets, and every other book in the Bible – including Revelation.

But Seriously…Is It Necessary?

If we are going to take our faith – and God’s word – seriously, then we need to be committed. We need to commit ourselves to the daily disciplines of reading and studying. And part of that process includes doing all we can to understand the context in which Scripture was written. God has not given us a ‘timeless’ book.

Yes, the message contained is timeless. But the words that contain the message are not. This is evident every time you look down at your Bible and see English words. If you can’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, then you are depending on someone (or a group of someones) to bring Scripture’s original words forward in time. God spoke to particular people, in particular locations, at particular times.

If we’re going to understand what he’s saying to us, we first need to understand what he said to them. And the only way we’re going to understand that is by entering into their world. And part of that involves realizing that Revelation is not written like anything we’re used to in the twenty-first century.

As once scholar has written, “Apocalypse was to the first century what science fiction is to the twentieth. Imagine trying to explain science fiction to a first-century tentmaker in Ephesus, or apocalypse to a cab-driver in Boston or Toronto”³.

It’s not an easy task. But I’m going to try.

In our next post, we’ll begin by examining the historical roots of Apocalyptic literature – and we might just examine a few examples of it.

(You can find out more about this blog by checking out the about me section. And for a quick summary of what I’m covering here and in the next couple of posts, check out ‘3 Things to Consider When Reading Revelation‘)

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Sources

¹ Collins, J. J. (1987). The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity. New York: Crossroad, p. 4.

² Strong, J. D. (2016). Proverb. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

³ Stevens, R. P. (1993). Poems for People in Distress: The Apocalypse of John and the Contemplative Life. Themelios, 18(2), 11.

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