Friday, May 20, 2011

Apocalypse Now

With all the hullabaloo concerning the supposedly imminent apocalypse, I thought that we would take some time to explore apocalyptic literature.  In this post we will examine the advent of apocalyptic literature and then turn to the book of Daniel in order to see how apocalyptic literature functions in history.

Michelangelo's Daniel
To begin, the English word 'apocalypse' is a cognate of the Greek verb apokalypto, meaning "to reveal" and "to make known."  We may understand the phrase 'apocalyptic literature' then as literature that makes known that which is unknown.  A basic definition of 'apocalyptic literature' in the context of Jewish and Christian Scripture that we may work from in this post is literature that depicts the culmination and summation of God's hidden work in history.

Our paradigmatic example of apocalyptic literature appears in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible with a second example coming in the book of Revelations in the Christian New Testament.  A third, readily available example, is the "The War Scroll" found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I will not be able to discuss this scroll here, but a simple search on Google should take you to an online English translation (it is definitely worth a read).  For this post, we will examine the book of Daniel in order to understand both the context out of which apocalyptic literature arrises and the objective to which apocalyptic authors write.

The book of Daniel spans 12 chapters and breaks prosaically between chapters 6 and 7, which suggests Daniel existed as two separate works prior to its final redaction.  We ascertain this prosaic break due to the fact that Dan 6 concludes with the character of Daniel prospering during the reign of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great (placing the character of Daniel at some point between 559-530 BCE), while Dan 7 begins with the character of Daniel serving the Babylonian king Belshezzar during the first year of Belshazzar's reign (placing the character of Daniel around the year 553 BCE).  So the narrative of Dan 6 historically ends after the narrative of Dan 7 begins, which alludes to each narrative as being separate at one point in the history of the compilation of the book of Daniel.  (In addition to this, Dan 6 ends with a common semitic ending while Dan 7 begins with a common semitic introductory formula.)

Another interesting feature of the book of Daniel is that Dan 2-7 appear in Aramaic, a linguistic descendent of Hebrew that was widely used during the Second Temple Period of Israel (539 BCE - 70 CE).  This linguistically places the compilation of Daniel to some point following the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  To place the book of Daniel more firmly in a historical context, we will very briefly examine key features of Dan 1-6 and Dan 7-12.  

In Dan 1-6, we read about the character Daniel working alongside his three friends in the Babylonian royal court.  While we do not know to what extent foreigners worked in the Babylonian court, we do know that foreigners did work in the court of the Ptolemies of Egypt (Ptolomy was a general of Alexander the Great who, after Alexander's death, set up a dynasty in Egypt that melded Egyptian and Greek culture around the year 323 BCE).  These foreigners, it is believed, served as famuli (singular:  famulus)--in this context, meaning 'attendants'--in the royal court of the Ptolemies (similar to the story of Joseph and Potipher in Gen 40-41).  So while the serving of the character of Daniel in the Babylonian court appears odd, if we place the writing of Dan 1-6 during the Ptolemaic rule of Israel, we find a historical basis for a foreigner serving in a royal court.  Our interpretation of Dan 1-6, therefore, views the apocalyptic prophecies made throughout Dan 1-6 as a distant / non-imminent memory of Israel's past.

In Dan 7-12, we enter a much more imminent narrative where the character of Daniel foretells the continual rise and fall of foreign rulers that will ultimately bring Israel to the "abomination of desolation" in which a foreign ruler will profane the Temple of Jerusalem (Dan 9:27, 11:21 and 12:11).  We know that this "abomination of desolation" to have taken place historically during the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Dynasty (Seleucus was another general of Alexander the Great who gained control of much of what had formerly been the land of Babylon, and he established his own dynasty).  While Antiochus IV Epiphanes was busy dealing with a possible war with the Ptolemies in Egypt, a rumor spread that Antiochus IV had been killed in a battle.  Jerusalem then revolted, only to learn that not only that Antiochus IV was alive but that Antiochus IV had come to Israel.  Antiochus IV quickly supressed the rebellion and then decided to strengthen his grasp in Jerusalem.  To do so, Antiochus IV replaced the worship of God at the Temple in Jersualem with the worship of Zeus (including the sacrifice of pigs--an unclean animal in Judaism).  Many Jews who were more inclined to Greek culture were fine with this, but Jews who were loyal to the worship of Israel's God immediately rebelled, launching Israel into a civil war.

This "abomination of desolation" that the character of Daniel said would occur in Jerusalem's Temple fits perfectly with the establishment of Zeus and the sacrifice of pigs in the Temple by Antiochus IV.  This allows us to place the composition of Dan 7-12 at some point during Antiochus IV rule in the second century BCE (or during the onset of the Maccabean revolt, which was a Jewish insurgence that ultimately expelled Antiochus IV and culminated in the cleansing of the Temple).

Where we ultimately arrive is one book that contains two styles of apocalyptic literature.  Daniel 1-6 presents us the first style in which an author looks back through history and makes the audience aware of God's hidden work throughout that history.  Daniel 7-12 presents us with the second style of apocalyptic literature in which an author understands his or her present as God's culminating and near-completion of history.

We do not possess two separate literary works but the one, canonical book of Daniel.  For this reason, we must read the narratives of Dan 1-6 and Dan 7-12 in conjunction with one another.  To do this, I believe that we must not use apocalyptic literature primarily to understand the past or to predict the future, but we must use apocalyptic literature to understand the present.  For the past is more like an ingredient of apocalyptic literature than a foundation; and all future predictions made within apocalyptic literature are the expectations of how God will draw history to its end.  The present is not only the literary focus of the authors of apocalyptic literature, but the present is the reality in which the authors of apocalyptic literature lived.  If the present is what drew these apocalyptic authors to reveal God's work in the history of the past and the history of what is yet to come, why do we so fervently focus on using apocalyptic literature to decode the past or to attempt to predict the future?  I do not have an answer, but I would like to end with a final question:  How are we to read and to experience apocalyptic literature in our present, today?

Note:  To stave confusion, I have included a map of the present-day Middle East following the war of succession following the death of Alexander the Great.  Note that Antigonus first laid claim to the land of Israel, but during the time period discussed above, the land of Israel was continually contested and fought over between the Ptolomaic and Seleucid kingdoms:

Also, if you are interested in further study of apocalyptic literature, The Apocalyptic Literature by Dr. Stephen Cook is a wonderful introduction.