Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition in the New Testament
It has been noted on numerous occasions by scholars that the term “apocalyptic” may be used to refer to three distinct aspects. The first is the apocalyptic genre, i.e., apocalypses, which I will discuss more fully below. The second is apocalyptic worldview, i.e., apocalypticism. This term is used to describe the viewpoint evident in apocalypses and that was held by those who wrote apocalypses. Finally, apocalyptic eschatology refers to the eschatology present in some apocalypses, which is often concerned with the end of the world. Apocalyptic eschatology usually presents history as a series of stages with the present stage preceding the final, climactic stage. This final stage of history often includes the judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. The wicked may be judged by a messiah figure who will then gather the vindicated righteous to God.
See Also: Reynolds, Benjamin E. and Loren Stuckenbruck, eds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (Fortress, 2017).
By Benjamin E. Reynolds
Associate Professor of New Testament
Tyndale University College
When most people hear the word “apocalyptic,” they usually think about end-of-the-world scenarios. Whether the latest post-apocalyptic film portrays what happens after the earth has been scorched, frozen, or flooded, or what happens after robots, apes, or zombies take it over, “apocalyptic” is generally understood to refer to the end of the world as we know it. This is true within popular culture as well as with the Bible.
The word “apocalyptic” comes from a genre of literature known as “apocalypses,” and the genre derives its name from one specific apocalypse, namely the Apocalypse of John which is usually referred to as the book of Revelation (see Rev. 1:1). The earliest apocalypses known to us are Jewish texts from the third century BCE, but there are examples of apocalypses from that time through the medieval period. The book of Revelation is a Christian apocalypse and one of the most well-known because it is the last book of the New Testament. The beast of Revelation and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are images from the book of Revelation that are recognizable even to those unfamiliar with the Bible. Another apocalypse that is well-known because of its location in the Hebrew Bible is the book of Daniel. Since both Daniel and Revelation are two of the most commonly known apocalypses and because both of these apocalypses speak of the end of the world, it is not surprising that the terms “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” conjure up ideas and images associated with end-time eschatology.
However, it has been noted on numerous occasions by scholars that the term “apocalyptic” may be used to refer to three distinct aspects. The first is the apocalyptic genre, i.e., apocalypses, which I will discuss more fully below. The second is apocalyptic worldview, i.e., apocalypticism. This term is used to describe the viewpoint evident in apocalypses and that was held by those who wrote apocalypses. Finally, apocalyptic eschatology refers to the eschatology present in some apocalypses, which is often concerned with the end of the world. Apocalyptic eschatology usually presents history as a series of stages with the present stage preceding the final, climactic stage. This final stage of history often includes the judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. The wicked may be judged by a messiah figure who will then gather the vindicated righteous to God.
Now, it is important to note that not all apocalypses contain apocalyptic eschatology. The fact that the most well-known apocalypses—Revelation and Daniel—contain apocalyptic eschatology has colored and, as a result, narrowed our understanding of what an apocalypse is. In 1979 a group of scholars as part of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project presented a definition of “apocalypse” that continues to serve as the starting point for defining this type of literature. In essence, the SBL Genres Project definition states that an apocalypse is a narrative in which a heavenly being reveals heavenly mysteries to a human. The content of what is revealed may include information about the heavenly world and heavenly beings and/or information about what will happen in the future, particularly with regard to the future destinies of the righteous and the wicked.
This definition indicates that apocalypses are primarily concerned with the revelation of heavenly things and not the end of the word. The earliest apocalypses, the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36) and the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries (1 Enoch 72–82), are not as concerned, if at all, about apocalyptic eschatology. They tend to focus on the origin and punishment of evil or on cosmology. There are other examples of the revelatory nature of Jewish apocalypses, but even the apocalypses that do contain end-of-the-world scenarios present the eschatology as the revealed consummation of time. Revelation is central to Jewish apocalypses, and the content of what is revealed includes information about the cosmos and wisdom. When we recognize that Jewish apocalypses reveal spatial content as well as temporal content, it becomes apparent that the revelation of wisdom and the revelation of cosmology are also part of Jewish apocalyptic tradition and ought appropriately to be considered “apocalyptic.”
“Apocalyptic” and the New Testament
Since Jewish apocalyptic tradition may be understood as centered on the disclosure of hidden things, the synonymous use of “apocalyptic” for “eschatological” is inaccurate and inappropriate. The instances when “apocalyptic” is used synonymously with “eschatology” in reference to New Testament texts are too numerous to list, yet a solely eschatological understanding of “apocalyptic” overlooks the way in which the revelatory nature of apocalypses may have influenced New Testament language and its portrayal of revelation. In the space that remains, I will highlight evidence of the revelation of wisdom and cosmology in the New Testament. In my opinion, this evidence is indicative of the influence of Jewish apocalyptic tradition on New Testament thought. Many of these insights are drawn from the contributions of a number of scholars.
The Apostle Paul’s life and work are shaped by revelation. His life changed course after experiencing a vision of Jesus (Acts 9:3–9), and Paul tells the Galatians that the gospel he preached came to him through a revelation (apokalupseōs) of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12) and that God revealed (apokalupsai) his Son to him (Gal. 1:16). The heavenly nature of the disclosure is clear in Paul’s statements as is the evidence that the content of what was revealed was hidden to him beforehand. Hidden things are made known to a human being through otherworldly mediation just as they are in Jewish apocalypses. Similarly, in 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of what appears to be his own ascent to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2–4), and during this ascent to paradise, he saw and heard things that must remain hidden to humans. And while the consummation of time may be what comes to mind regarding 1 Thessalonians, this Pauline letter reveals aspects of cosmology in its presentation of Christ’s descent from heaven (4:16–17) and in its revelation of the resolution of time.
Not only does Paul’s own experience reflect apocalyptic tradition, but he speaks of the good news concerning Jesus in revelatory terms. We have already seen this with Gal. 1:12, 16, but there is evidence of further Jewish apocalyptic tradition in 1 Cor. 2:6–13. In this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of the rulers of the world in explicit revelatory language. Paul says that the wisdom he speaks of is “God’s wisdom, wisdom hidden in mystery [theou sophian en mustēriō tēn apokekerummennēn], which God predetermined before the ages” (2:7). Paul continues and states that God revealed (apokalupsen) this through the Spirit (2:10). What is clear from this passage is that God’s wisdom is different from that of humanity’s and that God’s wisdom is hidden. It is a heavenly mystery determined before the ages that only God can disclose. The similarities with Jewish apocalyptic tradition concerning the revelation of wisdom are quite striking. The revelation Enoch receives from the angel Uriel in the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries is described as wisdom. Uriel says, “Wisdom I have given you and to your children and to those who will be your children so that they may give this wisdom which is beyond their thought to their children for generations” (1 En. 82:2). As the wisdom Enoch receives requires the mediation of a heavenly being like Uriel, so the hidden wisdom Paul speaks of requires the mediation of the Spirit. Paul’s understanding of God’s hidden, mysterious wisdom and its revelation is quite apocalyptic and reflects Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
Whether Colossians and Ephesians derived from Paul himself or from later Pauline tradition, they likewise show affinity with Jewish apocalyptic tradition. In Col. 1:26 the “word of God” is referred to as “the mystery that was hidden [apokekrummenon] for ages and for generations.” The language is obviously similar to what was just noted in 1 Cor. 2:6–13 regarding wisdom. In Colossians, it is the word of God that is referred to as a mystery that was hidden. This mystery has “now been revealed [ephanerōthē] to his holy ones” (Col. 1:26). The verb used for “revelation” is not the same as in 1 Cor. 2:10, but the thought is comparable. Similarly in Eph. 3:4–5, we read about “the mystery of Christ” which was not made known to earlier generations but has “now been revealed [apekaluphē] by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets.” Here, the mystery of Christ was unknown and hidden, but in the present age has been disclosed through the Spirit. In the same context, the mystery concerning the Gentiles’ inclusion in the family of God (3:6) is called “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (hē oikonomia tou mustēriou tou apokekrummenou apo tōn aiōnōn; 3:9, NRSV). With the revelation of this mystery, God’s wisdom is made known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). Numerous other Pauline passages could be discussed such as the mystery of godliness in 1 Tim. 3:16 or the textual variant at the end of Romans (16:25–27) that speaks about the hidden mystery that is now revealed. Those passages mentioned here, however, are sufficient to show that we find apocalyptic revelation of wisdom and cosmology within the Pauline writings just as we do in Jewish apocalypses.
Jesus and the Gospels
As in Paul, Jewish apocalyptic tradition is recognizable in the Gospels. The angelic annunciations to Mary and Joseph in Luke 1 and Matthew 1, respectively, indicate a revealed cosmology as well as the communication of previously unknown information to human beings by heavenly beings. The angelic announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds is very much within this tradition of apocalyptic revelation (Luke 2:8–15). The revelation to Simeon about “the Lord’s Christ” is also suggestive of Jewish apocalyptic tradition (Luke 2:26). Simeon says, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared before all people, a light for the revelation (apokalupsin) of the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:30–32). It has been revealed to Simeon that Jesus himself is a light of revelation.
Jesus’s own teaching may be seen as revelation, especially in the parables. In Mark 4, when Jesus’s disciples ask him about parables, he tells them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside all things will be in parables…” (Mark 4:10–11). The parables contain a mystery that requires revelation. On another occasion Jesus tells his disciples, “Nothing has been covered [kekalummenon] which will not be revealed [apokaluphthēsetai] and hidden which will not be made known” (Matt. 10:26//Luke 12:2). In Matt. 11:25–27 (par. Luke 10:21–22), Jesus speaks to the Father and thanks him for hiding information from the wise and revealing (apekalupsas) it to children. He continues and says that the Son is able to reveal (apokalupsai) hidden knowledge to whomever he chooses. These instances indicate that Jesus can reveal heavenly mysteries and that even some of his teaching, including the kingdom of God, is a mystery that requires revelation.
The events of Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:9–11) with the descent of the dove and the voice from heaven reflect a revelatory cosmology. In a similar way, the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, along with the appearance of Moses and Elijah and again the voice from heaven, are recognizably apocalyptic within the context of Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
I would also argue that the Gospel of John has an apocalyptic framework, namely that is has the form of a Jewish apocalypse. Jesus descends from heaven, discloses heavenly things, reveals the Father and makes him known to human beings, and then returns to heaven. Even the imagery of the Fourth Gospel, while not full of commonly understood “apocalyptic” imagery (i.e., a judgment scene), makes use of images that are at home in the context of Jewish apocalyptic tradition: the opening of heaven (John 1:51), the Son of Man taking part in judgment (5:27; 9:39), and the wicked and the righteous being raised in a resurrection (5:28–29), to name three apocalyptic themes in the Fourth Gospel. Many more examples of Jewish apocalyptic tradition in the New Testament could be given, such as in Acts, Hebrews, James, the book of Revelation, and others; however, these examples from Paul and the Gospels demonstrate that the New Testament documents reveal wisdom and cosmology.
Jewish apocalyptic tradition centers on the revelation of heavenly mysteries, mysteries that are known by God and have often been hidden by God for ages. These heavenly things are revealed through otherworldly beings to humans. This revelation of heavenly mysteries is the essence of Jewish apocalypses, and the New Testament documents have been shaped by this concept of apocalyptic revelation. Revelatory thought shapes the presentation of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the mystery of the gospel, and Paul’s own life and calling. To describe the New Testament as “apocalyptic” merely with regard to its eschatology fails to do justice to the revelatory nature of Jewish apocalypses, and more significantly, it neglects the full extent of the New Testament’s and early Christianity’s debt to Jewish apocalyptic tradition.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 5.
 Christopher Rowland and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament, CRINT 12 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2009); Michael E. Stone, “Apocalyptic Literature,” in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus, ed. Michael E. Stone, CRINT 2 (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1984), 383–441.
 See the essays in Benjamin Reynolds and Loren Stuckenbruck, eds., The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).
 Leslie A. Baynes, “Jesus the Revealer and the Revealed,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 15–30.