Second Temple Judaism was a many-splendoured thing. That is, it included many different elements—so many elements in fact that some people talk not just of Judaism, but Judaisms (in the plural). While the use of the plural might be a bit of a stretch, there is no denying that Second Temple Judaism was more diverse than the Rabbinic Judaism you now find down the street at the local synagogue. It included what Josephus in the second century called three “sects of philosophy” (in his Antiquities, 18.1). These were: that of the Pharisees (who were a kind of “last man standing” after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and whose movement morphed into Rabbinic Judaism), that of the Sadducees (who hitched their wagon to the star of the Temple and so went down with it), and the sect of the Essenes (usually now identified with the Qumran community and its Dead Sea scrolls).
There were of course other groups as well, like those which produced such pseudepigrapha as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, those producing Jewish Gnostic works, and those producing apocalypses like 4 Ezra and the material now grouped together as the Book of Enoch. What the average Jew, part of the ‘am ha-eretz, the people of the land, thought about all this is impossible to tell. One imagines that most people admired those who kept the Law more strictly than they did, found excitement from the apocalyptic material (perhaps in the same way that some modern Christians find excitement from reading the Left Behind series), and tried to get on with their lives as simply and piously as they could.
Most of this written material was written by groups who were, if not exactly on the fringes, then at least different enough that they had a cause to promote—which of course is why they were writing in the first place. How successful was their promotion is of course impossible to tell. The average Jew who went weekly to synagogue to hear the Torah, who tithed on his crops, sacrificed in the Temple, said his daily prayers all while trying to raise a family in difficult times was perhaps less impacted than the promoters might have wished. We will never really know. What we can know is that the Church was never really “into” the apocalyptic as heavily as were its promoters.
By “apocalyptic” I mean a studied focus on the future violent eruption and breaking in of the age to come in such a way that it tends to empty the present age of significance. The End is At Hand, so why worry too much about the government? Don’t sweat the small stuff, and if The End is really At Hand, pretty much everything is small stuff. An apocalyptic view of life tends towards fatalism.
The old distinction between the prophetic and the apocalyptic has been a bit overdrawn sometimes, but the basic difference still holds.
The prophetic focuses upon the issues and challenges of this age, looking for salvation here and now. The prophet may announce doom, but not unconditionally. The prophet is not so much a predictor of the predetermined future, as he is an announcer of the will of God so that people may repent. The conditional nature of prophecy is presupposed: when Jonah announced that Nineveh was doomed and would be soon overthrown, the people of Nineveh repented and God changed His mind and did not send them the threatened doom. That was why Jonah’s gave his prophetic word and how all prophecy worked.
The apocalyptic, on the other hand, focuses upon the age to come. The doom it announces is unconditional, and it aims not at getting bad people to repent but at comforting despairing people who are afraid that things will never get any better. Prophecy appeals to the heart and will; apocalyptic appeals to the imagination.
That is why apocalyptic literature is thrilling and full of violent imagery. It leaves many details vague and compensates for this by a wealth of symbolism. It fills its stories with thunder and lightning and warfare and lots and lots of angels. It comforts its readers by pulling back the veil over the future so that the reader can find comfort denied to others by knowing what is going to happen. He knows—or thinks he knows—stuff other people don’t, and this provides comfort when one is feeling helpless before the forces of government, fate, or other disasters. That is why apocalypticism flourishes during times of crisis—such as during the time of the Second Temple when Rome seemed to its enemies both terrible and invincible.
Despite the consistent emphasis in the New Testament on the Second Coming, the Church has never committed itself to apocalypticism and cannot be defined as apocalyptic in the same way as can the Qumran community (with its book the War of the Sons of the Light and the Sons of Darkness) or the authors of the very odd Book of Enoch. That is because the centrality of the Incarnation and the Church’s mandate to preach the Gospel thoroughly grounds the Church in this age.
We see this grounding reflected in the Scriptures of the Church. Its Old Testament Scriptures are rooted in this world. Its patriarchal histories focus upon the doings of men in this age, its Law tells Israel how to act in this age, the works of the prophets call Israel back to faithfully serving Yahweh in this age, as does its wisdom literature. That the Song of Solomon is rooted in this age is too obvious to need much emphasizing. The apocalyptic bits (such as the four visions in the Book of Daniel and a chapter or so in Zechariah) form a distinct minority.
The New Testament as well focuses relentlessly upon this age and the salvation lived here, and there is a healthy dose of what has been called “realized eschatology” in its theology. That is, the Kingdom of God is not only coming in the future; in some measure it is here already in our midst. The Kingdom is among us as the presence of the future. Because of this element of realized eschatology, an apocalypticism of the kind that the Qumran community specialized in could never really take root in the Church. They looked for a Kingdom that was entirely in the future. In Christ we experience that Kingdom even now in this age.
Thus Our Lord, though promising eternal glory and threatening eternal punishment, entirely focuses upon how we are to behave and decide in this age, as does St. Paul in his epistles. The fact that a verse in 2 Peter alludes to a story in the Assumption of Moses and the Epistle of Jude quotes a single verse in the Book of Enoch only serves to underscore how little apocalypticism had left its mark on the Church, since those two citations were (with one significant exception) the New Testament’s only use of the apocalyptic. Two citations are not very many; there are as many citations from pagan literature as well (Acts 17:28 citing Epimenides, and 1 Corinthians 15:33 citing Menander).
It is perhaps also significant that 2 Peter and Jude were among the last books to be accepted into the NT canon. We note too that the Epistle of Jude’s citation of a verse from Enoch was considered problematic in the fourth and fifth centuries.
But then what about the Book of Revelation—i.e. “The Apocalypse”? It is, I suggest, the exception that proves the rule. And even so, this exception was late being accepted into the NT canon—so late, in fact, that it finds no place in the Byzantine lectionary.
The Book of Revelation, though containing the usual apocalyptic staples such as lots of angels, multi-headed beasts, bowls of outpoured wrath, and symbolic numbers, is still primarily about Jesus Christ. Its first chapter, after an opening introduction, features a vision of Christ glorified and standing amidst seven churches on earth. The next two chapters consist of messages to those seven earthly churches, rebuking them for shortcomings and offering praise for faithfulness. Only in chapter four do visions of the future begin. We note too that the purpose of the visions was to promote constancy on earth on the part of churches under persecution so that they might persevere: “Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10).
In fact, the Book of Revelation is not so much an expression of the Church’s nature and central concerns as it is ecclesiastical “push back” in the face of persecution. The Roman world, heretofore the Church’s helper, had suddenly become the Church’s main enemy. Caesar was demanding now not just respect, but worship. What should the Church do? The Apocalypse provides the answer: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).
The Apocalypse was therefore an occasional epistle, drawing its significance from its context of persecution (which sadly, regularly seems to come around). But what if the Roman eagle grew a second head, and Rome became Byzantium? The significance and urgency of the Book of Revelation waxes and wanes with the times. At all times we need to know that Christ will come again, and that God’s ultimate triumph is assured. But the fires in which the Book of Revelation were forged went rather cold after Constantine. The Book of Revelation therefore reminds us of truths we need to know when the fire of persecution heats up.
Apocalyptic tales—whether of the Book of Enoch, or the Late Great Planet Earth, or the Left Behind series—are always exciting. But they can also be distracting, and sometimes harmful if they distract us enough from present duties in this age. We should so live a life of faithfulness that future apocalyptic events have little relevance for us. Martin Luther was reputed to have said that if he knew Christ were coming tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. And another very different man, St. Charles Borromeo, said pretty much the same thing. According to the story he was playing a game of billiards when he was asked what he would do if it were revealed to him that his life’s end would come in fifteen minutes. He replied, “I would finish my game.” God will do what seems good to Him and bring The End when and how He will. Until He does, our task is to live faithfully in this age and attend to the duties He has given us.
Apocalypses are exciting, and they sell books. But the Church has never given its heart to such things or to the literature promoting it. When the apostles were tempted in that direction and asked the Lord, “Is it at this time that You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”, they were gently rebuked and brought back on track: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority, but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be My witnesses” (Acts 1:7-8). We can leave The Late, Great Planet Earth and its whacky successors on the shelf for others to read. We have work to do.