Tag Archives: historical apocalyptic

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (4): The Exegetical Imperative

The special nature of apocalyptic prophecy raises a separate issue. A generally accepted principle of biblical interpretation is that God meets people where they are. In other words, Scripture was given in the time, place, language, and culture of specific human beings. The knowledge, experience, and background of the Biblical writers was respected. Paul, with his “Ph.D.”, expresses God’s revelation to him in a different way than does Peter, the fisherman. John writes in simple, clear, almost childlike Greek. On the other hand, the author of Hebrews has the most complex and literary Greek in all the New Testament with the exception of the first four verses of Luke. In Matthew, you have someone who understands the Jewish mind. Mark, on the other hand, reaches out to the Gentile mind. So the revelations recorded in the Bible were given in a way comprehensible to each audience.

This point was driven home with great power a few decades ago. In the nineteenth century, New Testament Greek was thought to be unique. It was quite different from both the classical Greek of Plato and Aristotle and the Greek spoken today. Some scholars thought that the New Testament had been given in some special kind of Greek, perhaps a “heavenly language.” Then someone stumbled across an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It was filled with the remnants of love letters, bills, receipts, and other products of everyday life in the first century. To the shock of many, these papyrus fragments were written in the same language and style as the books of the New Testament! The New Testament was not written in a heavenly language, nor in the cultured language of the traditional elite, but in the everyday language of everyday people. God meets people where they are! The Sacred Word was expressed through the cultural frailty of human beings.

This principle is clearly articulated in Selected Messages, Volume 1, 19-22:
“The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit. . . .
“The Scriptures were given to men, not in a continuous chain of unbroken utterances, but piece by piece through successive generations, as God in His providence saw a fitting opportunity to impress man at sundry times and divers places. . . .
“The Bible, perfect as it is in its simplicity, does not answer to the great ideas of God; for infinite ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite vehicles of thought.”

In affirming this principle we do not fall into the trap of treating the Bible as if it were merely exalted human conceptions of God. The richness of the human elements in the Bible are not a liability, they are part of God’s intentional design for His Word. God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way for our sakes. At some points in the Bible the human elements of expression reflect the personality and style of the human author, seeking to express God’s revelation in the best possible human language. But at many points in the Scriptural narrative, it is God Himself who bends down and takes onto His own lips the limitations of human language and cultural patterns for our sakes. There is, perhaps, no clearer illustration of this than the Ten Commandments, which come directly from the mouth of God (Exod 20:1-19), yet include significant elements of the cultural milieu within which they were received (including slavery, idolatry, and neighbors who possess oxen and donkeys). Clearly this aspect of the nature of God’s revelation has implications for hermeneutics.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic: Defining Terms

As we all struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, many people want to know what the Bible in general, and biblical prophecy in particular, may offer that can guide us in these challenging times. So I decided to offer a series of reflections on the issue of interpreting biblical apocalyptic; the genre of literature to which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong. I have addressed this topic at a scholarly level for nearly forty years now, but my purpose is to keep the blogs readable for the general audience.

John J. Collins of Yale University, whom I count as a friend, has worked with a team of scholars for some fifty years now on how to define “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” (Among his many works, I recommend the following as a first read on this topic: The Apocalyptic Imagination, third edition, Eerdmans, 2016.) The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the biblical book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” From the second century AD onward, it became increasingly used as a term for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Revelation. So modern scholars are not out of line in applying the label “apocalyptic” to a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, such as Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation.

Collins’ team of scholars analyzed all such texts from 250 BC through 250 AD and developed a definition based on their common characteristics. The definition they developed was published in Semeia 14 in 1979 and remains the scholarly consensus to this day: “An 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.”

As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework.” The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of our five sense to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

While not present in the above definition of apocalypse, scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. The mystical type of apocalypse describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. While one might be tempted to view these two types of apocalypses as distinct genres, several ancient writings, including the book of Revelation, mix elements of both types in one literary work. For Seventh-day Adventists, the historical type has been of primary interest.

The Genre of Revelation (Rev 6)

The New Testament genre “gospel” was an invention of the apostles. The genre “epistle,” as used in the New Testament, adopting a common writing style, was also largely an invention of the apostles. But the genre of Revelation, “apocalypse,” is an adopted genre. It is the only work of its kind in the New Testament, but there were many works like it in the ancient world, particularly within Judaism from around 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.

According to the scholarly definition, an apocalypse is a form of revelatory literature, which means it claims to directly communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework,” rather than poetry or some other form. The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality” (beyond the ability of the five senses to apprehend), about the course of history leading up the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

Scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. Historical apocalyptic visions tend to be highly symbolic, referring to heavenly and earthly beings and events (Rev 12 is a good example). The mystical type of apocalypse, on the other hand, describes the ascent of the visionary into heaven (as in Rev 4-5). While symbolism may be used in mystical apocalyptic, there is more of a sense of reality in the description, the visionary ascends into a real place where actions take place that affect the readers’ lives on earth. Both types can occur in a single literary work, Revelation being a clear example.

Ancient apocalypses sought to encourage faith in God and hope in God’s future kingdom among those facing difficult times. John seems to have adopted Daniel’s apocalyptic visions as the model for understanding his own visions (Rev 1:1, cf. Dan 2:28, 45). But Revelation itself is also called a prophecy (Rev 1:3, cf. 19:10; 22:7-10, 18-19) and is also heavily dependent on prophetic books like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. In addition, there are echoes of epistolary genre in chapters 2 and 3. So Revelation has come to be seen as a mixed genre, the main part of the book a mixture of prophetic and apocalyptic features. It could be called a prophetic apocalypse or an apocalyptic prophecy.

Applying the Lessons of the Prologue (Prologue 1:8)

For Seventh-day Adventists, the Prologue of Revelation brings out two things that might seem in tension with each other: a) the centrality of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation, and b) the value added of a Seventh-day Adventist, historicist (apocalyptic sequences of history) reading of Revelation. What value does the unique SDA approach offer in today’s world? How do you keep a balance between articulating the historical details of the SDA reading of Revelation and uplifting Jesus Christ as the center of all hope?

What is the value of an SDA approach to Revelation today? Among other things, I would suggest the following. 1) The SDA view answers the three great philosophical questions of human existence. These are, in principle: Who am I? Where did I come from? and Where am I going? Who am I? A being made in the image of a loving, gracious and self-sacrificing God who prizes freedom so much that He has even given us power to create little people like ourselves. Where did I come from? I am not here as a result of random chance, but I am the result of a loving, creative purpose. That means that my life has meaning and purpose even when it is not appreciated by those around. It means that my life has infinite value in the eyes of the most important Person in the universe. Where am I going? Life in this universe will not end with a bang or a whimper. It will not end in primeval silence. It will end in an eternity of meaning, purpose and ever-deepening relationships.

2) The SDA approach to Revelation helps us see the hand of God in history. In our daily experience, it is often difficult to know what God wants us to do and just where God is leading in the major events around us. Apocalyptic prophecies like Daniel 2 and Revelation 12 affirm the giant principles upon which God bases His interaction with this world and the universe. As we see prophecy’s interpretation of the past, we have a clearer picture of what God is doing today and what He is likely to do in the future.

3) The SDA approach to Revelation gives us confidence in the midst of chaos that God is still in control of history. Events in the world seem increasingly out of control, but apocalyptic prophecy assures us that this is nothing out of the ordinary and God is well able to manage today’s governmental chaos just as he managed the many “beasts” of the past.

4) The SDA approach to Revelation gives us confidence that since God has been active in creation and throughout history, the hope that we have for the future is also real. Things will not always be as they are now. God is still working toward the ultimate fulfillment of His purpose and ours. We may not know just when the climax of history will occur, but we know that the outcome is assured and God’s faithful people, both living and dead, will participate in that outcome.

Why Adventists Prefer the “Historicist Method” (Prologue 1:3)

In this blog series on the big picture of the Book of Revelation, I am indebted to the SDA concept of inspiration, the historicist method of prophetic interpretation, the unique organizational structure of Revelation, and a Christ-centered approach to interpretation.

The historicist method, in my view, is supported by the broad structure of Revelation itself. The book begins with the seven churches (Rev. 1:9 – 3:22), which primarily concern the situation of John’s day. The seals and the trumpets, on the other hand, each cover from the time of John to the End (4:1 – 11:18). The last half of the book (11:19 – 22:5), on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the last days of earth’s history and beyond.

This method is also supported by the allusion to Daniel 2 in the very first verse of the book. Let’s take a closer look at that verse.

Generally, the best way to approach Scripture is to take everything at face value, unless it is clear that a symbol is intended. In Rev. the opposite approach is indicated in the first verse. There it tells us that the entire vision was “signified” (Rev. 1:1, KJV, Greek: esêmanen) by either God or Jesus. So in Rev. the best way to approach the text is to treat everything as a symbol, unless it is clear that a literal meaning is intended (for example, “Jesus Christ” in Rev. 1:1 should be taken literally).

This insight takes even clearer shape when the reader discovers an allusion to Daniel 2 in the first verse of the book. The only other place in the Bible that combines “signified” with the unusual expression “what must take place” (Rev. 1:1, RSV, NIV, Greek: a dei genesthai) is Daniel 2 (LXX: combine verses 28 and 45). Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great image was the place where God “signified” (2:45) to him “what must take place” (2:28) in the last days. What was to be “in the last days” in Daniel is now “soon” in Revelation.

At the very opening of the book of Revelation, therefore, one finds a powerful allusion to Daniel 2. This allusion ties the two books together, like companion volumes. While Revelation alludes to many of the prophets, there is a special bond between it and the book of Daniel. So we should expect at least some of the symbolism of the Rev. to point to sequences of history in John’s future. Apocalyptic sequences run from the prophet’s time until the End. Not all of Daniel is historical apocalyptic, but much of it is, and that is the case also with Revelation.