6 A J S Pe rsp e c t i ves
The Apocalypse Issue Apocalypse Then John J. Collins
In modern parlance, an apocalypse is a disaster of cosmic proportions, such as might be set off by a nuclear explosion. It derives this connotation from the prototypical apocalypse, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which does indeed describe cosmic disasters on a grand scale. Revelation chapters 8 and 9, for example, describe a series of disasters introduced by trumpet blasts that destroy much of the earth. In those days, we are told, people will seek death and not find it. Eventually, the present heaven and earth pass away and are replaced by new ones. In an age where cosmic catastrophe is all too real a possibility, these ancient images of destruction are often eerily relevant.
The Book of Revelation was an adaptation of a genre that flourished in Judaism around the turn of the era. The earliest examples date from the early second century BCE. Typically, they are attributed to famous ancient figures, such as Enoch or Daniel, who could not possibly have been their real authors. (Enoch supposedly lived before the Flood; Daniel in the Babylonian Exile, but his visions concern a time some four hundred years later.) These names lent authority to the revelations, and also enabled the authors to present overviews of the intervening history in the guise of predictions. Since these “predictions” were known to have been fulfilled, the real predictions of the future could be trusted too. Apocalypses were often written in response to actual disasters. An early cluster of apocalypses, including the Book of Daniel, is associated with the disruption of the temple cult by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE. Another series of apocalypses was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (Revelation, and the Jewish apocalypses 4 Ezra, 2 and 3 Baruch). The images of destruction, then, reflected actual experiences, but projected them onto a cosmic scale. But there was more to ancient apocalypses than the imagery of destruction.