Apocalypse: Medieval Jewish Apocalyptic Literature

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While the Talmudic and Midrashic literature of late antiquity appropriated various elements of the classical apocalyptic of the intertestamental period, it did so in an unsystematic and fragmentary fashion. Apocalyptic themes competed for attention amidst a wide range of contrasting views on eschatological matters in rabbinic literature. The early decades of the seventh century, however, witnessed the reemergence of a full-fledged apocalyptic literature in Hebrew. Produced primarily between the seventh and tenth centuries in the Land of Israel and the Near East, these generally brief but fascinating treatises exhibit a rather clearly recognizable set of messianic preoccupations and literary themes.

This literature may be illustrated by reference to one of the most important and influential of these works, Sefer Zerubbavel (Book of Zerubbabel). Composed in Hebrew in the early part of the seventh century, probably shortly before the rise of Islam, the Sefer Zerubbavel may have been written within the context of the military victories achieved by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Persians in the year 629. These historical events no doubt incited speculation concerning the conditions under which the final messianic battles would be waged and their ultimate outcome.

As is characteristic of apocalyptic literature, the book is pseudepigraphically ascribed to a biblical figure, in this case to Zerubbabel, the last ruler of Judaea from the House of David, whose name is associated with the attempts to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile. He is presented as the beneficiary of a series of auditions and visions. The angel Michael (or Metatron as he is also called here) reveals himself to Zerubbabel and leads him to Rome, where he encounters a "bruised and despised man" in the marketplace. The latter turns out to be the Messiah, son of David, named here Menaem ben ʿAmmiʾel. The Messiah informs Zerubbabel that he is waiting in Rome until the time is ripe for his appearance. Michael then proceeds to relate to Zerubbabel the events that will lead up to the End of Days.

Zerubbabel is informed that the forerunner of the Messiah, son of David, the Messiah, son of Joseph, identified as Neemyah ben ushiʾel, will gather all of the Jews to Jerusalem, where they will dwell for four years and where they will practice the ancient sacrifices. In the fifth year the king of Persia will rise over Israel, but a woman who accompanies Neemyah, Hephzibah, mother of the Messiah, son of David, will successfully resist the enemy with the help of a "rod of salvation" that she possesses.

Following these events Zerubbabel is shown a marble statue in Rome of a beautiful woman; he is told that Satan will cohabit with this woman, who will thereupon give birth to Armilus, a cruel tyrant who will achieve dominion over the whole world. Armilus (whose name may be derived from Romulus, founder of Rome) will then come to Jerusalem with nine other kings, over whom he will rule. He will wage war against Israel, slaying Neemyah ben ushiʾel and driving the survivors of Israel into the desert. Suddenly, however, on the eve of the festival of Passover, the Messiah son of David will appear in the desert to redeem the Jewish people. Angered by the scorn and disbelief with which he is greeted by the elders of the community, he will shed his tattered clothes for "garments of vengeance" (Is. 59:17) and go up to Jerusalem, where he will prove his identity by conquering Armilus and the forces of evil. As with much of this literature, this book does not describe the messianic age itself, but focuses on the developments leading up to it.

The Sefer Zerubbavel became extremely popular and widely influential. The characters and events depicted in this work provided the basis for a considerable variety of apocalyptic texts over the next several centuries, including the final section of Midrash Vayoshaʿ, the Secrets of Rabbi Shimʿon bar Yoai, the Prayer of Shimʿon bar Yoʿai, apocalyptic poems by Elʿazar Kallir, and the eighth chapter of Saʿadyah Gaon's important philosophical treatise, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions.

The messianic speculation found in these and other works is characterized by several distinctive features, which, when taken together, provide a shape to Jewish medieval apocalyptic literature. There is, for example, a preoccupation with the political vicissitudes of great empires; historical upheavals are regarded as bearing momentous messianic significance. There is, moreover, a concern for the broad march of history, of which contemporary events are but a part, leading up to the final tribulations and vindication of the people of Israel. In the apocalyptic literature, redemption is not a matter for theoretical speculation but a process that has already begun, whose culmination is relatively imminent and whose timing can be calculated. A related feature of this literature is the sense that historical and messianic events have a life of their own, independent of the behavior of human beings. There is an inevitability to the force of events with little regard for the choices that Israel might make, such as to repent and gain God's favor. Nor do the authors of these texts indulge in theorizing about why events unfold as they do, other than the obvious fact that righteousness is destined to win over evil.

From a literary point of view, the apocalyptic treatises are, like their themes, extravagant. They revel in fantastic descriptions of their heroes and antiheroes, richly narrating the events that they reveal, and often regard their protagonists as symbols for the cosmic forces of good and evil. Another feature of apocalyptic literature is its revelatory character; knowledge of heavenly secrets and mysteries not attainable through ordinary means are revealed, typically by angels who serve as messengers from on high.

In subsequent centuries various authors wrote under the influence of these early medieval apocalyptic texts. The sixteenth century, in particular, witnessed an explosion in Mediterranean regions of messianic writing that had strong overtones of apocalypticism. In the wake of the calamitous expulsion of Jewry from Spain and Portugal in the last decade of the fifteenth century, messianic calculation and eschatological ferment were widespread, especially among the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean. Apocalyptically oriented writings of this period include, among others, the extensive and highly influential works of Isaac Abravanel (14371508), whose interpretation of the Book of Daniel led him to calculate the year 1503 as the beginning of the messianic age; the anonymously authored Kaf ha-Qetoret (Spoonful of incense; c. 1500), which interprets the Psalms as battle hymns for the final apocalyptic wars; the treatises of a Jerusalem rabbi and qabbalist, Avraham ben Eliʿezer ha-Levi (c. 1460after 1528); and the work of Shelomoh Molkho (c. 15011532).

Medieval apocalyptic literature had at least two important historical consequences. First, it played a highly significant role in shaping the vision that Jews had concerning the events leading up to the End of Days. Most rationalist thinkers, exemplified best by Moses Maimonides (1135/81204), opposed the apocalyptic conception that the eschaton would be accompanied by cataclysmic events and that the messianic era would differ radically from the established natural order. But despite such reservations on the part of philosophical rationalists, apocalyptic visions and themes occupied a prominent place in the medieval Jewish imagination. Second, apocalyptic literature developed in a religious climate that also gave rise to a variety of short-lived messianic movements. Their connection to apocalypticism may be seen in the militant activism, the penchant for identifying signs of the messianic age, and the consuming interest in international events that typically characterized these movements. Particularly between the seventh and twelfth centuries, especially under Muslim rule in the Near East and Spain, a number of small movements emerged. In the seventeenth century the most significant messianic movement in Judaism since the birth of Christianity came into existenceShabbateanism. Centered around the figure of a Turkish Jew, Shabbetai Tsevi (16261676), the movement, which stirred intense messianic turmoil throughout the Near East and Europe, incorporated within it elements of apocalypticism. Various Shabbatean apocalypses were written (some of which included enlarged and revised versions of Sefer Zerubbavel) and employed for the purposes of confirming the messiahship of Shabbetai Tsevi and justifying his antinomian behavior.

See Also

Messianism, article on Jewish Messianism; Shabbetai Tsevi.


The most important collection of primary sources for medieval Jewish apocalyptic literature is Midreshei geʿulah, in Hebrew, edited by Yehudah Even-Shemuʾel (Jerusalem, 1954). This volume also contains excellent bibliographical information. A somewhat dated but still useful overview of this literature in English is Abba Hillel Silver's A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel from the First through the Seventeenth Centuries (New York, 1927), especially part 1, chapter 2. Concerning the apocalyptic tendencies of the Shabbatean movement, see Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 16261676 (Princeton, 1973).

New Sources

Cook, Stephen L. Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting. Minneapolis, 1995.

Himmelfarb, Martha. Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. New York, 1993.

Sacchi, Paolo. Jewish Apocalyptic and Its History. London, 1996.

Stuckenbruck, Loren. "The 'Angels' and 'Giants' of Genesis 6:14 in Second and Third Century bce Jewish Interpretation: Reflections on the Posture of Early Apocalyptic Traditions." Dead Sea Discoveries 7 (November 2000): 354377.

VanderKam, James C., and William Adler. The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, 1996.

Lawrence Fine (1987)

Revised Bibliography