Apocalypse: Jewish Apocalypticism to the Rabbinic Period

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The genre "apocalypse" first appears in Judaism in the Hellenistic period. The early apocalypses are of two types. One type, attested in Daniel, the Animal Apocalypse and the Apocalypse of Weeks, provides an overview of the course of history and may be dubbed the "historical" type. The other, typified by the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch 136, describes an otherworldly journey and is primarily a description of places outside the normal range of human experience.

The Earliest Apocalypses

The Book of Daniel (164 bce) provides the only example of the genre in the Hebrew Bible. The earliest noncanonical apocalypses are found in 1 Enoch. This is a collection of five books fully preserved only in Ethiopic, but four of the five books are attested in Aramaic in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The earliest copies date to the second century bce. Some of the books of Enoch (The Book of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 136, and the Astronomical Book, 1 Enoch 7282) are likely to date from the third century bce, whereas others (the Animal Apocalypse, 1 Enoch 8390 and the Apocalypse of Weeks, 1 Enoch 93:110 and 91:1117) are roughly contemporary with the Book of Daniel.

The historical apocalypses

In Daniel 78 the revelation takes the form of symbolic visions. In chapter 7, Daniel sees four beasts rising from the sea. Then he sees a judgment scene in which a whiteheaded "Ancient of Days" condemns the beasts and confers the kingdom on "one like a son of man" who comes on the clouds of heaven. This vision is explained to Daniel by an angel. The beasts represent four kings or kingdoms. The final kingdom is ruled not only by the "one like a son of man" but also by "the holy ones of the Most High" and "the people of the holy ones of the Most High." (The interpretation of the "one like a son of man" and of "the holy ones of the Most High" is disputed. Most probably, the former is the archangel Michael, who is explicitly identified as the "prince" of Israel in chapters 10 to 12, and the holy ones are the angelic host). In Daniel 8, the vision concerns a he-goat, which defeats a ram. Then one of its horns rises up against the heavenly host and disrupts the cult. The angel explains that the ram, which has two horns, represents the kings of Media and Persia, whereas the goat is the king of Greece. The rebellious horn represents an arrogant king who will succeed for a time but will suddenly be broken, "not by human hands." In Daniel 9, the revelation is triggered by a prophecy of Jeremiah that Jerusalem would be desolate for seventy years. An angel explains to Daniel that this really means seventy weeks of years, or 490 years. Finally, chapters 10 to 12 contain a lengthy prediction about kings and wars that is a thinly disguised overview of Hellenistic history and the wars between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria. This account culminates in a persecution of "the holy covenant" by an arrogant king who exalts himself above every god. This king meets a sudden end, however. Then follows the resurrection of the dead, when the righteous martyrs are exalted in glory and their enemies are condemned to everlasting disgrace.

The recipient of these visions, Daniel, was supposedly one of the captives taken to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 bce. In fact, he is a fictitious character, whose legendary exploits are recounted in Daniel 16. His revelations concern the course of history from the Babylonian era forward. The four kingdoms portrayed as beasts from the sea in chapter 7 are identified by other references in the book as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. The climax of the revelations relates to the persecution of the Jews by King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria from 168 to 164 bce. The historical references in Daniel 1012 can be verified down to the time of persecution, but the king did not die in the manner predicted in Daniel 11:4045. Already in antiquity, critics inferred that the Book of Daniel was not written in the Babylonian period, but in the time of persecution, before the actual death of Antiochus Epiphanes became known in Jerusalem. The lengthy predictions are ex eventu, or prophecy after the fact. The accuracy of these predictions helps reassure the reader that the part still unfulfilled (the end of the persecution and the resurrection) is also reliable. The purpose of the revelations is to assure the persecuted Jews that their deliverance is at hand. The reassurance is supported by several claims of authority: the revelation is given by an angel to a famous ancient figure, and much of it could already be verified at the time the book was actually written. It is essential to an apocalypse that the revelation is "out of this world." It reveals a hidden reality no one could know without such revelation.

The historical apocalypses in 1 Enoch are less colorful than in Daniel but exhibit a similar logic. In this case the recipient is more ancient than Daniel. Enoch supposedly lived before the Flood. According to Genesis, Enoch did not die but was taken up to heaven (Gn. 5:24). He was therefore exceptionally well qualified to convey revelation to humanity. Living before the Flood, Enoch is able to "predict" the entire course of history, from before the Flood to the crisis of the Hellenistic age. The Animal Apocalypse recounts a symbolic dream in which the human actors are symbolized as animals, as was also the case in Daniel 78. The Apocalypse of Weeks is an instruction of Enoch to his children, based on what he had seen in the heavenly books. In this case history is divided into periods that are called weeks (compare Daniel 9). The wicked are defeated at the end of the seventh week. In the tenth week there is a cosmic judgment when the first heaven will pass away and a new heaven will appear. In the Animal Apocalypse, God descends to earth for the judgment, and it is followed by the resurrection of the dead. Both of these apocalypses, like Daniel, culminate in the Hellenistic period. The Animal Apocalypse alludes clearly to the persecution in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and to the Maccabean revolt. It is apparent that the conflict of this period was a major factor evoking this kind of apocalypse.

The Sources of Historical Apocalypticism

There is evident continuity between this kind of apocalypse and biblical prophecy. From the eighth century bce onward, Hebrew prophets had visions that related to historical events, and that foretold divine intervention for judgment. These visions were often symbolic. For example, Amos saw a basket of dried fruit, symbolizing the coming end of Israel (Am. 8:12). After the Babylonian exile there were some significant changes in the nature of prophecy. The visions of Zechariah (520 bce) are interpreted by an angel, like the later visions of Daniel. Many oracles from this period proclaim a radical change, not only in the fortunes of Israel but in the conditions of human life. An addition to the Book of Isaiah (Is. 65:17) declares that the Lord will create a new heaven and a new earth. The Book of Joel speaks of the Day of the Lord as a day of cosmic judgment (Jl. 34). Isaiah 2427 say that God will destroy death forever (Is. 25:8) and kill Leviathan, the seadragon (Is. 27:1). Because of the similarity of these themes to those found later in Daniel and the Book of Revelation, many scholars refer to these chapters as "the Apocalypse of Isaiah." In these and other postexilic oracles an increased use of mythic imagery describes the coming judgment. Ancient Near Eastern creation myths often described a battle between the creator god and a chaos monster (e.g., the Babylonian Enuma Elish ). In postexilic prophecy, and also in the apocalyptic literature, this battle is projected into the future. The symbolism of the seadragon Leviathan also underlies the beasts that arise from the sea in Daniel 7 and the sevenheaded beast in Revelation 18. The late prophetic texts also resemble the apocalypses insofar as both depict the current situation as desperate and both look for God to change radically the conditions of human existence.

Despite these similarities, however, there are also significant differences between the late prophetic texts and the apocalypses. The prophetic oracles either are attributed to the actual prophets who delivered them (Zechariah, Joel) or are anonymous additions to other prophetic books, such as Isaiah. The apocalypses, in contrast, are pseudonymous: they are attributed to famous ancient figures such as Enoch and Daniel. It is unlikely that the actual authors concealed their identity for fear of persecution; rather, the name of the ancient figure was probably thought to enhance the authority of the writing. The interpreting angel appears in Zechariah, but not otherwise in the prophetic writings. The apocalypses often divide history into periods (e.g., four kingdoms, ten weeks). The most important difference, however, is in the expectation about the last things, or eschatology. Whereas all these texts expect the restoration of Israel, the apocalypses also expect the resurrection and judgment of the individual dead. Even Isaiah 2427, which say that God will swallow up death, expect neither the resurrection nor judgment of the individual dead. It is in the apocalypses of Daniel and Enoch that the resurrection and judgment of individuals first appeared in Jewish tradition. This new belief entailed a profound shift in value systems. Prior to this, "salvation" was to live a long life and see one's children's children. Now the goal of life was to live with the angels in heaven. Consequently, it made sense to let oneself be killed in time of persecution rather than break the law. The apocalyptic belief in resurrection would be crucially important for the origin of Christianity. The apocalypses are sometimes seen as an outgrowth of wisdom tradition rather than prophecy. Enoch and Daniel are presented as wise men rather than as prophets, and the apocalypses place great emphasis on understanding. Nonetheless, the content of the apocalypses bears little similarity to that of the wisdom books. Jewish wisdom was traditionally very this-worldly and practical.

The apocalypses deal with heavenly mysteries. It seems likely, however, that the authors of the apocalypses were learned people (in their fashion), although their kind of learning was traditional and not scientific. The apocalypses are not popular folk literature, but rather the works of literate scribes. It is possible but difficult to prove that the historical apocalypses were indebted to Persian models. Typical features of the apocalypses, such as the periodization of history and the belief in resurrection, are also prominent in the Persian apocalyptic tradition. The Persian material, however, is notoriously difficult to date, and so its relation to the Jewish tradition remains controversial.

The Otherworldly Journey

The second type of apocalypse is the otherworldly journey. The Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch 136 is an early example, although somewhat atypical. This book elaborates upon a brief and enigmatic story in Genesis 6 about the sons of God who married the daughters of men. In Genesis, God reacts by limiting the lifespan of human beings to 120 years. Shortly afterwards, the wickedness of humankind is so great that God sends the Flood, but this is not directly related to the descent of the sons of God in Genesis. The Book of the Watchers makes the connection explicit. The Watchers are fallen angels. Their descent is an act of rebellion. They are guilty not only of sexual sin but also of improper revelation and of spreading violence on earth. Eventually God decrees that they should be destroyed and imprisoned under the earth. This story provides a different paradigm for the origin of evil from the more familiar story of Adam and Eve. Here sin does not arise because of human disobedience but is imported into the world by supernatural agents.

Enoch is introduced into this story as a righteous scribe who is asked to intercede for the Watchers. The intercession is not successful, but it provides an occasion for an ascent to heaven. Enoch is taken up on the clouds and brought into the presence of the Most High. He sees the inner chambers of the heavenly temple. Then he is taken on a tour to the ends of the earth, guided by an angel. He is shown such places as the storehouses of the winds and the places where the dead are kept to await judgment. He is also shown the place prepared for the judgment in the middle of the earth.

Traditions about ascents to heaven and descents to the netherworld can be found in many traditions in the ancient world. The closest analogy to Enoch is provided by the legendary Mesopotamian king Enmeduranki, who was taken up to heaven and shown the tablets of heaven, and who became founder of a guild of diviners. It is likely that the earliest stages of the Enoch tradition developed in the Babylonian Diaspora. The Astronomical Book (1 Enoch 7282) is indebted to Babylonian astronomy, but of a rather archaic sort. In the Book of the Watchers, a clear contrast exists between the Watchers, who were heavenly but descended to earth and consequently perished, and Enoch, the human being who ascended to heaven to live forever with the angels. The implication is that one should aspire to live a heavenly, spiritual, life.

Unlike Daniel or the historical apocalypses, the Book of the Watchers does not seem to have originated in a time of persecution. Some scholars read the story of the Watchers as an allegory for the spread of Greek culture in the Near East, which often conflicted with native traditions. Others think the Watchers represent the priests of the Hellenistic period who were thought to have fallen from their state of holiness. The story is not directly allegorical in the manner of the symbolic visions of Daniel. Most basically, however, it seems to represent a conflict of cultures. After the Watchers descended to earth, the world was changed. The sense seems to be that the new developments in the Near East in the Hellenistic period defiled the world, and the reaction of the pious, represented by Enoch, is to withdraw by ascending to heaven, if only in their imagination, to live with the angels. This goal would be fully realized after death. In the meantime, the example of Enoch encouraged a tendency to mysticism that would be developed in later Jewish tradition.

Later Jewish mystics had techniques by which they could "descend to the chariot" or initiate visionary experience. It is noteworthy that both Daniel and Enoch describe certain practices that induce their visions. Daniel fasts for three weeks and does not anoint himself (Dn. 10:23). Enoch sits by the water and reads a petition aloud until he falls asleep (1 Enoch 13:7). In the later apocalypse of 4 Ezra, Ezra eats the flower of the field and has a wonderful vision (4 Ezr. 9:26). Similar practices are known to induce visions in other cultures. The difficulty in the case of the Jewish texts is that all these visionaries are pseudonymous, so there is no way of knowing if the experiences attributed to them were the experiences of the actual authors. Nonetheless, it appears that the authors were familiar with the practices of the visionaries, and the possibility that they themselves practiced such techniques remains intriguing.

The Spread of Apocalypticism

The corpus of Jewish apocalypses from the pre-Christian period is quite small, but characteristic themes and ideas of this literature became widespread and also appear in other genres. For example, the Sibylline Oracles, written in Greek hexameters in the Jewish Diaspora, share many features of the historical apocalypses, especially the long overview of history in the guise of prophecy and the division into periods. The earliest Jewish Sibylline Oracles derive from Egypt in the second century bce. These oracles look for a restoration of the Jewish people around Jerusalem. The fourth book of Sibylline Oracles, from the late first century ce, is thought to have been composed in Syria or Palestine, and has a more strongly apocalyptic character. This oracle concludes with a cosmic conflagration and the resurrection of the dead. The genre of testament, or death-bed instruction, also typically involves an overview of history in the guise of prophecy. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs contain the main corpus of testaments, including much material of Jewish origin, but they were clearly edited by Christians in their final form, and their value for the study of Judaism is controversial. It should be noted that the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch can be construed as a testament, as it is presented as an instruction by Enoch to his children rather than a direct account of the revelation.

The main evidence for the influence of apocalyptic beliefs outside the apocalypses in prerabbinic Judaism is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are thought to constitute the library of a sectarian movement, most probably the Essenes. The Scrolls include multiple copies of the apocalypses of Daniel and Enoch. These were not products of the sectarian movement itself, but part of the larger corpus of Jewish literature in its library. They also contain several fragmentary works, mostly in Aramaic, that are clearly related to the apocalypses, but whose genre is difficult to determine because of their fragmentary state. These include at least two works in the name of Daniel that are distinct from the biblical book, each of which contains a prediction of the course of history and an eschatological conclusion (4Q243244; 4Q245). Other possible apocalypses include a vision that foresees the coming of a figure who is called "Son of God," (most probably the messiah, 4Q246) and a vision in which someone sees four trees, representing four kingdoms (4Q552553). Because the main sectarian texts are all in Hebrew, some scholars think that this Aramaic literature is part of the wider Jewish literature of the time.

It is not clear that the sect represented by the Scrolls actually composed new writings in the form of apocalypses. The clearly sectarian writings use different genres: rule books, biblical commentaries, and hymns. But some of these writings are profoundly influenced by apocalyptic ideas. In the Community Rule (1QS) a treatise on creation and eschatology is inserted in columns 3 and 4 before the actual rules and regulations. According to this treatise, when God created humanity he also created two spirits, of light and darkness. The spirits are viewed both as dispositions that people share and as angelic/demonic powers that inspire the dispositions. All humanity is divided between these spirits and will remain so until the predetermined time when God will put an end to iniquity. This view of history is more sharply dualistic than anything else in Jewish tradition, and it is clearly indebted to Zoroastrianism. It resembles the apocalypses, however, in the attempt to give a comprehensive account of history, the division into periods, and the expectation of a final judgment. The final denouement of history is addressed directly in the Rule of the War, which prescribes preparations for a final war between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, in which the Children of Light will be led by the archangel Michael and the Children of Darkness by Belial (another name for Satan) The sectarian scrolls express a consistent belief that the righteous will enjoy a beatific afterlife, whereas the wicked are damned to everlasting fire. (They do not express a belief in resurrection: the spirits or souls of the dead go directly to their reward or punishment.) The most distinctive belief in these scrolls, however, is that the righteous do not have to wait until after death to enjoy their reward. Already in their community life, they enjoy the fellowship with the angels that is the destiny of the righteous after death in the apocalypses. This belief is expressed especially in the hymns of the community.

The fact that the sectarians did not express these beliefs in the form of apocalyptic visions is related to the structure of authority in their community. The primary mediator of revelation is the Teacher, the person who gave the movement its distinctive character. He in turn based his teachings on the interpretation of the Torah. The sectarians, then, did not need to base their revelations on the authority of Enoch or Daniel. The role filled by these figures in the apocalypses was now filled by the Teacher and his interpretations.

Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls there is very little literature from Israel from around the turn of the era (200 bce to 200 ce). The historian Josephus wrote of various prophets and wouldbe messiahs in the first century ce who hoped for divine intervention to restore a Judean kingdom. The career of Jesus of Nazareth belongs in this context. While the aims of the historical Jesus are very controversial, he is portrayed in the Gospels as an apocalyptic prophet who prophesied that the Son of man would come on the clouds of heaven, as foretold in Daniel 7. After Jesus' death, his followers believed he was risen again and would return as the Son of man. We have no way of knowing just how widespread such ideas were in the first century ce, but they were evidently current.

The Later Historical Apocalypses

Most of the surviving historical apocalypses are clustered around two great historical crises: the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes from 168 to 164 bce and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 ce. The Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 3771), probably dating from the first half of the first century ce, provide one exception. This apocalypse adapts both types of apocalypse discussed, in that Enoch is taken up to heaven and sees his visions there, but he is not given a tour, and there is no description of a journey. The visions are clearly indebted to Daniel, especially Daniel 7, but there is no overview of history such as we find in the other historical apocalypses. Much of the interest of this apocalypse centers on a figure called "that Son of Man," who is clearly modeled on the "one like a son of man" in Daniel 7. The figure from the Similitudes of Enoch is depicted as a kind of super-angel who is the heavenly patron of the righteous on earth. At the end of the Similitudes, Enoch is taken up to heaven again and told, "you are the Son of Man who has righteousness." There is no indication in the earlier chapters that Enoch and the Son of Man are one and the same. It may be that the passage identifying Enoch with the Son of Man is a secondary addition. It is also possible that Enoch is being told that he is "a righteous man," like the Son of Man, rather than identified with him. Throughout the Similitudes there is emphasis on the correspondence between the righteous in heaven and the righteous on earth, with the implication that the human righteous are elevated to join their heavenly counterparts when they die. Some scholars have suspected that the Similitudes, which are not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, are of later Christian origin, but it is inconceivable that a Christian author would have failed to identify Jesus as the Son of Man.

Two of the longest Jewish apocalyptic texts were composed in the years after the destruction of Jerusalem. These are 4 Ezra (= 2 Esdras 314) and 2 Baruch (Syriac). These apocalypses differ from the older apocalypses in Daniel and Enoch insofar as they engage the question of theodicy. Both are ostensibly reflections on the first destruction of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians), but there is little doubt that the works were actually written after the second destruction. 4 Ezra begins with a series of dialogues between Ezra and an angel. In each case, Ezra complains bitterly about the destruction, and the angel responds by telling him God knows best and everything will be resolved in due time. Ezra does not seem to be convinced. Then he has a vision in which he sees a woman transformed into a city, representing Jerusalem. The immediacy of the vision seems to persuade where the words of the angel did not. Ezra then sees two other visions that follow the typical conventions of the historical apocalypse. (Both are influenced by Daniel.) In the end, Ezra is inspired to restore the Law, which had been burnt, but also to write out seventy other books that contain the secret of wisdom. 2 Baruch has a similar view of the future but lacks the skeptical questioning of divine justice that distinguishes 4 Ezra. Both of these apocalypses give a prominent place to the messiah, a figure who was not represented at all in the early apocalypses of Enoch and Daniel.

The Later Otherworldly Journeys

The subgenre "otherworldly journey" is attested primarily in the early centuries of the Common Era. Whereas Enoch was taken on a tour of the ends of the earth, the later visionaries are typically taken up through a series of heavens. The classic number is seven, but other numbers are also attested (three, seven, ten). Besides the ascent of Enoch to the divine throne, there is an ascent of Levi attested in a fragmentary Aramaic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls. 3 Baruch, written in Greek, comes from the period after the destruction of the Temple. In this case there is no attempt to address the problem of theodicy. Baruch is told to stop worrying about the fate of Jerusalem and to contemplate instead the mysteries of God. This somewhat detached view of the fate of Jerusalem was probably more feasible for a Jew who lived in Egypt, as the author of 3 Baruch apparently did, than for someone who lived in the land of Israel. Another major account of an ascent through the heavens is ascribed to Enoch in a text only preserved in Slavonic (2 Enoch ), but it is thought to have been written in Greek at the beginning of the era, most probably in Egypt. These ascent texts show little concern for history, although one apocalypse, the Apocalypse of Abraham, combines a heavenly journey with a brief historical review.

The Rabbis and Apocalypticism

Judaism in the ancient world changed radically at the end of the first century ce because of a series of Jewish revolts against Rome that were crushed mercilessly. Jerusalem was destroyed. The once flourishing Jewish community in Egypt was virtually wiped out. The rabbis who salvaged Jewish traditions in Palestine were understandably cautious and avoided anything that might seem to encourage revolution and rebellion by predicting that God would intervene to overthrow the enemies of Israel. The great compilations of Jewish law, the Mishnah and the Talmud, have scarcely a glimmer of apocalyptic hope. The tradition of historical apocalypticism died out in Judaism for several centuries.

The tradition of the otherworldly journey, however, was taken over and adapted by Jewish mystics. Continuity with the earlier apocalypses is most clearly evident in the text known as Sefer heikhalot, or 3 Enoch. This complex text cites Rabbi Ishmael, from the early second century ce, but was probably compiled in the fifth or sixth century ce. The most intriguing feature of this text is the figure of Metatron, a kind of super-angel and even called "the lesser YHWH." Amazingly, this figure is identified as none other than Enoch, taken up to heaven and exalted. 3 Enoch, appears to continue the tradition found at the end of the Similitudes, that Enoch was taken up to heaven and either identified or closely associated with a heavenly being. The Jewish mystical tradition, of which 3 Enoch is part, continued to flourish down to the Middle Ages.


Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1. Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. New York, 1983. The major nonbiblical apocalyptic texts in English translation.

Collins, John J. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Minneapolis, 1993.

Collins, John J. Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. London, 1997.

Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998. Standard introduction to the Jewish apocalypses.

Collins, John J., ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. 1, The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. New York, 1998. Contains essays on various aspects of Jewish apocalypticism, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, messianism, and mysticism.

Gruenwald, Ithamar. Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism. Leiden, the Netherlands, 1980. Shows the continuity between the apocalyptic literature and later Jewish mysticism.

Hanson, Paul D. The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Philadelphia, 1975. Stimulating study of postexilic prophecy as early apoca-lypticism.

Himmelfarb, Martha. Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. New York, 1993. Careful study of the ascent apocalypses.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 136; 81108. Minneapolis, 2001. Detailed commentary on 1 Enoch.

Rowland, Christopher. The Open Heaven. A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity. New York, 1982. Emphasizes the mystical aspects of the apocalypses.

Sacchi, Paolo. Jewish Apocalyptic and its History. Sheffield, U.K., 1997. Finds the root idea of apocalypticism in the sin of the Watchers in 1 Enoch.

Stone, Michael E. Fourth Ezra. A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra. Minneapolis, 1990. Detailed commentary on 4 Ezra.

VanderKam, James C. Enoch and the Growth of an Apocalyptic Tradition. Washington, D.C., 1984. Discusses the Babylonian models for the figure of Enoch.

John J. Collins (2005)