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date: 10 December 2019

(p. ix) Preface

(p. ix) Preface

apocalyptic literature takes its name from the book of Revelation in the New Testament. “Apocalypse” means “revelation,” but the name is reserved for revelations that deal either with eschatology (the end of history and the fate of the dead) or the heavenly and infernal regions, or both.

This kind of literature first appears in Judaism at the end of the Old Testament period, in the book of Daniel. The main corpus of Jewish apocalypses (books of Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, etc.) was not included in the Hebrew Bible and was mainly preserved by Christians in translation in various languages (Latin, Syriac, Old Church Slavonic, Ethiopic). The view of the world that is characteristic of apocalypses, however, was also found more broadly in other genres. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example are to a great degree informed by an apocalyptic worldview. This worldview is characterized by eschatological expectation and by the prominence of supernatural agents. It is also often characterized by dualism and determinism, and by the use of mythological symbolism. The genre died out in Judaism after the failure of the Jewish revolts in the late first and early second centuries BCE, but it was revived to some degree in the Middle Ages.

The New Testament is also informed by an apocalyptic worldview, although Revelation is the only New Testament book in the form of an apocalypse. It has even been claimed that “apocalyptic is the mother of Christian theology.” Again, the main body of Christian apocalypses is found outside the canon, in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature of the early centuries of the common era. The genre continued to flourish in Christianity down through the Middle Ages. The apocalyptic worldview, however, has been adapted and adopted by conservative Christians in the modern world, especially in North America.

Apocalyptic literature has been studied extensively. There was a spate of conferences around the turn of the millennium, which produced volumes of essays on the topic. Most of these volumes, however, were not systematic treatments of the topic, but somewhat random collections of essays. The exception was the Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, in three volumes, edited by John J. Collins, Bernard McGinn, and Stephen Stein (Continuum, 1998), which described the entire history of apocalyptic thought in the Western world, from ancient Iran to modern fundamentalism, with some attention also to the Islamic tradition.

The present proposal differs from the encyclopedia in two ways. First, in scope, the handbook will be restricted to ancient Judaism and Christianity, down to approximately 500 CE, and will attend to other traditions (Near Eastern, Hellenistic, Iranian) (p. x) only insofar as they impinge on Judaism and Christianity. Second, whereas the approach of the encyclopedia was historical and descriptive, with articles on particular corpora of literature, the approach in this volume will be thematic and analytical, with articles on various aspects of apocalyptic literature, and different ways in which it can be construed. These include the following:

The literary and phenomenological context: Apocalyptic literature in relation to other categories, such as prophecy and wisdom, to which it is related, or with which it overlaps.

Social function, and questions raised by postcolonialism.

Literary aspects of this literature, especially apocalyptic rhetoric.

The theology or thought world of apocalyptic literature: The role of dualism and determinism, but also the place of apocalyptic thought in relation to the dominant theological traditions in both Judaism and Christianity.

Finally, the modern legacy of apocalypticism, and how the phenomenon of apocalypticism has been transformed in its latter-day adaptations.

This kind of thematic and analytical study is intended to complement the historical overview that is already available in the Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism.

I am grateful to Elisabeth Nelson, who initiated the project, Theo Calderara, who saw it through to publication, and Cathleen Chopra-McGowan, who helped with the editing.

John J. Collins