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Apocalyptic Literature

Two of the most interesting books in the Bible are the books of Daniel and Revelation.  They’re interesting on their own terms.  They’re also interesting because people have used these books in an unusual way in the modern period.  These books are both called apocalypses. 

An apocalypse was an ancient literary genre in which a visionary, a prophet, a seer would have a set of visions that are very peculiar and odd, full of symbolism, very weird, hard to understand and even the visionary doesn’t understand them. 

In these apocalypses you always have an angel standing by to explain to the seer what it is he’s just seen because the imagery is so bizarre and strange.  We don’t have books like that in our world very often.  We have science fiction novels and we accept them as science fiction novels; but we really don’t have this form of the apocalypse which was a common form in the ancient world. 

When people today read these apocalypses, they often misread them as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future.  But, ancient apocalypses weren’t meant to be talking about what’s going to be happening in 2000 years hence.  They’re meant to be talking to people of their own day. 

The Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation may seem strange to us but it’s because they’re the only two apocalypses we’re familiar with.  Ancient people would have read lots of apocalypses and would have understood how these apocalypses were functioning; they’re functioning to provide hope because they’re all about how there are wicked forces in charge of this world that God is going to overcome if you just hold on, if you just keep the faith.  And so, the point of these books is for people to keep the faith for a little while so that God can destroy the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom on Earth.  They’re not predicting what is going to happen in our own future.

  • Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His fields of scholarly expertise include the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. He has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, including four New York Times bestsellers: Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne), God’s Problem (HarperCollins), Misquoting Jesus (HarperCollins), and Forged (HarperCollins).