The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Aug 9, 2022

Christians need the Apocalyptic! The Ethical Ramifications of a Literary Style.

The word "apocalyptic" can mean many things to many people in biblical studies. Yet John J. Collins, speaking on behalf of the "Apocalypse Group" (which, disappointedly, is merely a study group of the SBL rather than a coalition of superheroes), provided a fairly precise, academic definition in the journal Semeia back in 1979, and scholarly discussion has had to interact with that definition ever since (see the appendix at the end of this post).

When teaching my Hermeneutics class, focusing on "Apocalyptic Prophecy" as a genre, I like to emphasize three things. Apocalyptic prophecy is: (1.) Epic, in the sense of representing the great conflict between good and evil; (2.) Vividly symbolic, using images, sometimes grotesque images, to represent something; and (3.) Needs to be interpreted (see Daniel 8:15-19).

I like to illustrate the difference between "regular" prophecy (like Isaiah 7:14) and "apocalyptic" prophecy by using one of my students student (we'll call him "Bubba Joe") in the following manner:

Regular prophecy: "Bubba Joe will go to Walmart, see that a 12-pack of Pepsi is half-price off, be tempted to buy it, but then remember his last experience with a dentist, and successfully resist the temptation."

Apocalyptic Prophecy: "Behold, I saw a great white tooth rising out of a sea of chlorine, and there was on top of that tooth a man, frightened and fearful and turning every which way. And there was arrayed against him a great, murky, dark substance in the shape of a "P", and it did assail the tooth, and try to overcome the man, but then a great drill of steel did come and push it away, and the man was freed and did not dissolve into the darkness."

Notice that the second type of prophecy is "epic" (something as simple as a potential trip to the dentist is turned into a cosmic conflict), uses grand images, and needs to be interpreted (you would not understand the second prophecy if you hadn't already read the first prophecy). It is important to realize that apocalyptic prophecy is still prophecy, however. The visions in Daniel and Revelation exemplify this point. The antichrist is not literally a giant beast as in an old Japanese monster movie. Yet this does not mean that he  isn't any more real in the future. The antichrist is coming, and the Spirit intended us to understand his ferociousness  and/or hideousness in terms of a giant monster (Revelation 13).

Now, the book of Jude is often described as  "apocalyptic" to some degree, partially because it seems to quote 1 Enoch, but for other reasons as well. This does not mean the entire epistle should be categorized as apocalyptic prophecy. It does mean,  however, that the situation facing Jude's audience is set within the context of end-time expectation and the ultimate judgment of God (see Richard, 2001, 241, as well as Harrington, 2003, 179; Lyle, 1998, 70). In other words, how Jude's audience reacts to the present crisis vis-à-vis false teachers and their temptations has other-worldly and eternal ramifications.

Here is why this perspective is helpful for Christians. How we react to temptation, and the stand we take for Jesus Christ, does not merely impact the "here-and-now" but rather has epic, cosmic ramifications. When Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife, in the "here-and-now" he ended up in prison, but from the perspective of eternity he set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Exodus, a key point in Salvation History. When the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 6:14, warns against "being unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (a phrase which has often been treated as if it refers to merely marriage, but surely contains broader application than just marriage), he does not characterize this as an unwise mistake, that might cause unhappiness, but rather as part of the conflict between "light" and "darkness," or "Christ" vs. "Belial" (vv. 14-15).

In  other words, apocalyptic literature helps orient us towards the eternal kingdom of God by reminding us that the decisions we make, for good and bad, must not be judged strictly on the basis of the "here-and-now." The temptations we resist and the temptations we cave in to, the activities we participate in, and the attitudes we adopt--all of these must be  understood not primarily in terms of what they mean for me or others today, but rather how they fit into the (very real) cosmic struggle between light and darkness which will only be resolved at the final judgment by Jesus Christ.

Sources cited:

The paragraph on Jude was paraphrasing some material from my forthcoming Lexham Research Commentary on Jude (Lexham Press/Logos).

Collins, John J. "Introduction: Toward the Morphology of a Genre." Semeia 14 (1979): 1-19.

Harrington, Daniel J. "Jude." In 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter, by Donald P. Senior and Daniel J. Harrington. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2003.

Lyle, Kenneth R., Jr. Ethical Admonition in the Epistle of Jude. Studies in Biblical Literature 4. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Richard, Earl J. Reading 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Appendix: John J. Collins' definitions of "Apocalypse":
“‘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 eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” 

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