Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (2nd ed., 1998)

John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)

Chapter 1, “The Apocalyptic Genre”: Collins begins by setting forth his definition of “apocalyptic”; he adopts the Semeia definition without much revision (unsurprisingly, since he edited Semeia 14), then briefly surveys other scholars’ views on the subject.1 Ne notes that, while apocalyptic has affinities with some Babylonian prophetic material, and it developed after contact with Persian thought, it flourished and became a cohesive genre during the Hellenistic period, after contact with otherworldly journeys and eschatological prophecies in Greek literature. Apocalypses were written by élite scribes, but were meant to be disseminated; many (though not all) were meant to console a group facing a crisis.

Chapter 2, “The Early Enoch Literature”: Collins argues that the Enochic apocalypses mythologize their message, making it applicable outside their own contexts. They also represent “the ideology of a movement” (70), rather than that of an individual. The group behind 1 Enoch identified themselves as “the righteous,” who were struggling against “the wicked.” The movement had its roots in the third century and was fully formed by the Maccabean revolt in the second. The Qumran community was an offshoot of the Enoch group. Collins also notes that Jubilees inherited 1 Enoch and reworked it within the Mosaic tradition—Moses, for example, receives the revelations in Jubilees, not Enoch—portraying history as a series of Jubilees, leading up to the eschatological vindication of the righteous, which it predicts rather than portrays.

Ch. 3, “Daniel”: Collins begins by reminding the reader that the apocalypses in Daniel (chs. 7–12) were written during the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, continuing the traditions of the tales (chs. 1–6). He then discusses the different revelations in Daniel. The four kingdoms (Dan 2) is a Persian image that the author adapted to express his own point that God would set up an eschatological kingdom and rule the whole world. The visions in Daniel 7 adapt the traditions from Daniel 2 and the Canaanite myths of El, Ba’al, and Yamm to the situation under Antiochus IV. Daniel 9 is concerned with offering “an assurance that the predetermined period of Gentile sovereignty is coming to an end” (109). Daniel 10–12 is an apocalyptic review of the history of Hellenistic Palestine up through Antiochus IV, predicting Antiochus’ defeat—though it disparages the Maccabees—and the resurrection of the people who died fighting Antiochus.

Ch. 4, “Related Genres: Oracles and Testaments”: This chapter consists of two parts: oracles and testaments, as the title suggests. In the first part, Collins only treats Sibylline Oracle 3, which was a Jewish compilation of two centuries’ worth of oracles; it went on to “[inaugurate] a tradition of sibylline prophecy in Egyptian Judaism” (126). In the second part, he covers the Testament of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and, briefly, the Psalms of Solomon. The Testament of Moses was composed in two parts; it was first written in the second century BCE, in response to the crisis of Antiochus IV, and it was redacted in the early first century CE. As an apocalypse, it is most closely related to Daniel. It is not certain whether the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were written by Jews or Christians, but they make extensive use of Jewish traditions nonetheless. They are not apocalypses per se, but they do contain eschatological sections; they also expect two messiahs: one kingly and one priestly. The Psalms of Solomon also expect two messiahs.

Ch. 5, “Qumran”: This chapter does not examine texts from Qumran directly; instead, it synthesizes them to give an overview of the apocalyptic strains of the Qumran community’s thought. They believed that nothing happened outside of God’s mandate, that there was a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil in which they were participants, that two messiahs (one priestly and one kingly) would come to restore Israel at the “end of days.” and that the community enjoyed the fellowship of angels on earth.

Ch. 6, “The Similitudes of Enoch”: The Similitudes were composed for a (perhaps persecuted) community that called themselves the “community of the righteous,” to assure them “that their destiny is secure in the hands of ‘that Son of Man’” (191), their heavenly representative, and that God will rescue them from the wicked.

Ch. 7, “After the Fall: 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham”: These apocalypses date after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Fourth Ezra is a cathartic book; the Ezra here is “a reluctant apocalyptist” (211) and questions God’s justice, “bring[ing] to expression the fears and frustrations of a sensitive and perceptive Jew in the wake of the catastrophe of 70 CE” (210). Second Baruch, written between the two Jewish revolts, argues that Jerusalem fell because the Jews did not study the Torah; not surprisingly, the book is linked to the nascent rabbinic Judaism of its day. The Apocalypse of Abraham deals with the origin of evil and the role of God’s people in the world; like 4 Ezra, it does not provide any definite answers to its questions

Ch. 8, “Apocalyptic Literature from the Diaspora in the Roman Period”: This chapter surveys the Sibyllines (except for Sib. Or. 3, which was covered in ch. 4), 2 Enoch, 3 Baruch, and the Testament of Abraham. Sibylline Oracle 5 was composed in Egypt and is anti-Rome. Sibylline Oracles 1–2 and 4 were originally Jewish compositions, possibly from Phrygia; both divide history into 10 periods. 2 Enoch is hortatory literature, but it is also concerned with eschatology; the righteous become angels after death, and the cosmos is sharply divided “between the present world of normal human experience and the ‘other’ transcendent world revealed to Enoch” (247). 3 Baruch was written in Egypt after 70 CE; it describes a realized eschatology with individual judgment. The Testament of Abraham is intended to console people in the face of death.

Ch. 9, “Apocalypticism in Early Christianity”: Jesus’ message was (at least partially) apocalyptic, and the earliest Christians “had an eschatological orientation” (260), though they were not an apocalyptic group. Paul expected an imminent eschaton, because he believed that the Messiah had already come. Revelation is different from other contemporaneous apocalypses in that it takes the form of a circular letter, it is not pseudonymous, and it does not review the history of the world up through the eschaton, but it does employ traditional apocalyptic images, like the Son of Man and Ancient of Days from Daniel 7.

1 The Semeia definition: apocalyptic is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” See John J. Collins, ed., Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (Semeia 14; Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979).


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