Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A literary style that employs vivid imagery, symbolism, numerology, and portrayals of cosmic struggle (Armageddon) to distinguish a present age from a future one. It is often stilted in language, exaggerated, and even grotesque—evidently to indicate that it is to be taken as myth, although there never seems to be a shortage of theological futurists who would prefer to treat it as next year's news in code.

The term apocalyptic , based on the Greek expression for "revelation," is taken from the New Testament book, The Revelation to John (also called The Apocalypse), which uses the literary device of the author recounting a series of visions. The literary form seems to have emerged in the postexilic period of Jewish history, when writers in the subordinate Jewish nation borrowed Persian imagery for use in a cultural resistance against assimilation into a wider Hellenistic, and later Roman, cultural area. Prophetic literature, which was based on oral preaching against Israelite and Judean rulers, was no longer being written. Beginning with the Book of Daniel, the new literature was written to be read rather than proclaimed, and its critique was directed against foreign-based governing powers.

In addition to Daniel, Jewish works that are considered apocalyptic include the Book of Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Ezra (4 Ezra, or second part of 2 Esdras), the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch, the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Genesis Apocryphon (Apocalypse of Lamech). Of these, only Daniel is recognized as a biblical book by Christians, and only part of it by Jews; the Apocalypse of Ezra is often appended to Christian Bibles. The Book of Jubilees is historically important because it uses a solar calendar rather than a lunar one, thereby countering both Hellenism and official Judaism; the Christian Gospel of John seems also to use the solar calendar. In addition to the Revelation to John, Christian apocalyptic literature includes the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Thomas; only the Revelation to John is recognized as biblical (or "canonical"). Its acceptance was controversial and occurred in the Eastern churches only reluctantly.

From a social science perspective, apocalyptic literature seemed to mark times of severe testing for Jews (Hanson 1976, Riddle 1927), and later Christians (deSilva 1992, Riddle 1927), under Hellenistic and Roman governments. In therefore is analogous to millenarian and messianic revitalization movements that emerged in later colonial empires. Occasionally, sectarian movements in modern settings predict the end of the world as we know it, to be brought about by cataclysms, on the basis of the biblical and near-biblical apocalyptic works. Traces of apocalyptic influences can be found in the rhetoric of diverse modern movements (see Prandi 1984, Léger 1982) in an effort to escape secular (Fenn 1991) as well as religious anxiety.

See also Eschatology

Anthony J. Blasi


D. A. deSilva, "The Revelation to John," Sociological Analysis 53(1992):375-395

R. K. Fenn, "The Secularization of Dread and Despair," Religion and the Social Order 1 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1991): 53-72

P.D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976)

D. Léger, "Charisma, Utopia and Communal Life," Social Compass 29(1982):41-58

C. Prandi, "Le catholicisme italien à l'époque de l'unité," Archives de sciences sociales des religions 58(1984):67-83

D. W. Riddle, "From Apocalypse to Martyrology," Anglican Theological Review 9(1927):260-280.

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