Early Christianity, Revelation, and the Gospels

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CHRISTIAN WEBMASTER NETWORK

The Book of Daniel

The book of Daniel is the only full-fledged apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament. It contains a series of visions (Dan 7–12) that may have been recorded at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the years 167–164 BC. In Daniel 7, Daniel sees four great beasts coming up out of the sea. These are explained to be the four kingdoms to which the Jews had been subjected, but the book draws its symbols from ancient myths and suggests the beasts are embodiments of primeval chaos. Daniel then sees the Most High depicted as an ancient figure seated on an amazing throne and surrounded by thousands of holy ones or angels. He presides over a judgment, and the fourth kingdom (representing the Greeks or perhaps Rome) is condemned to burn in the fire. Then the kingdom is given to one like a son of man who comes on the clouds—an identification used elsewhere in the OT for Yahweh (e.g., Isa 19:1).

The symbolism and function of Daniel’s visions become more specific in Daniel 10–12. The angel Gabriel appears to Daniel, telling him that he is engaged in a struggle in heaven against the “princes” of Persia and Greece, and that there is no one to help him but “Michael, your prince” (Dan 10:21). He proceeds to tell Daniel what is written in the book of truth—the whole course of history in the Hellenistic period (ca. 330–168 BC) through the persecution of the Jews by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria. (The book was likely completed before the death of Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BC.)

The revelation of Daniel concludes by looking beyond history to the resurrection of the dead. Some will rise to eternal life, some to shame and contempt. The “wise” who died for their faith in the time of persecution will shine like the brightness of the heavens, or the firmament; they will become companions to the stars or the host of heaven (Dan 12:1–4). This is a clear reference to resurrection in the Hebrew Bible. In Israelite religion up to this point, salvation primarily meant living long in the promised land and seeing one’s children’s children. After the time of Daniel’s writing—at least in the apocalyptic tradition—salvation meant to live forever with the angels in heaven. Belief in resurrection was especially powerful in times of persecution when people were being killed for keeping their faith.

 

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Other Jewish Apocalyptic Literature

Some of Daniel’s imagery parallels ancient Near Eastern mythology (beasts rising from the sea, the figure riding on the clouds, etc.) and some parallels earlier passages in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the later prophetic passages. A good example is Isaiah 24–27, which says that God will punish Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and will slay the dragon that is in the sea (Isa 27:1). There is no particular story in the Old Testament about Leviathan or the dragon—they are only mentioned in passing or as a general force against Yahweh’s work—but they are featured in Canaanite myths from the second millennium BC.

In addition to Daniel, the cluster of extra-biblical writings known collectively as 1 Enoch also illustrates individual judgment and afterlife. In Genesis, Enoch is among the seventh generation after Adam, before the flood. He was said to walk with God, and Genesis 5:24 says God “took” Enoch, likely meaning that Enoch ascended to heaven while still alive. He was, then, uniquely placed to reveal the mysteries of heaven. Dated from the second century BC, the collective writings known as 1 Enoch describe both the mysteries of the universe and the whole course of history, from creation to the final judgment.

Jewish apocalyptic writings can be divided broadly into two types: first, historical apocalypses, typified by Daniel, which are concerned with the course of history and its final resolution. Then there are otherworldly journeys, mainly heavenly ascents, in which the visionary passes through the heavens and sees the abodes of the dead. The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36) is a prime example of this type of apocalypse.

Another cluster of apocalypses (e.g., the extra-biblical books 2 Esdras and 2 Baruch) appeared in the period immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. In these revelations, consolation comes from the hope that Rome will eventually be overthrown, Jerusalem restored, and the righteous freed to enjoy eternal life in heaven. Most of these apocalypses were not preserved in the Jewish tradition, but they survived in Greek, Latin, Syriac, or Ethiopic translations. Many more Jewish apocalypses likely existed that were not translated and did not survive. Fragments of the books of Enoch in Aramaic were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as were fragments of several other apocalyptic writings that were previously unknown. Moreover, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that apocalyptic ideas—such as the expectation of a war between the good and evil—were widespread even if they were not expressed in writings formally recognized as apocalypses.

 

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Early Christianity, Revelation, and the Gospels

To a great degree, these apocalyptic writings provide context for the writings and beliefs of early Christianity. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for instance, was crucial for the development of Christianity. Yet, as Paul makes clear, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either” (1 Cor 15:13). The belief that Jesus was resurrected builds on the apocalyptic view of the end of history. Christ was the firstfruit of the resurrection, the beginning of the general resurrection. Paul expected that when Christ returned, those who were left alive would be caught up to meet Him in the air (1 Thess 4:17).

By far the most elaborate apocalyptic writing in the NT is the book of Revelation, which includes a series of revelations received by John of Patmos. Some of the imagery derives from Daniel. John sees a beast rising from the sea (Rev 13:1) and another from the earth. For John, the beasts represent the Roman Empire, which is also symbolized by the great prostitute of Babylon, riding on a beast, in Revelation 17. In Revelation 19, however, Christ appears from heaven, riding a white horse and wielding a sword from his mouth (Rev 19:11–15). Satan is imprisoned for 1,000 years (Rev 20:2), and the righteous dead are raised to reign on earth for the same period (Rev 20:4–5). At the end of this period, Satan is released temporarily (Rev 20:7)—before his end in the lake of fire (Rev 20:10)—and all the dead are raised for judgment (Rev 20:12). Death and Hades, the underworld, are thrown into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14), and a new heaven and a new earth appear (Rev 21:1).

The Gospels suggest that Jesus, like John, was thoroughly apocalyptic. Mark 13 is often called “the little apocalypse.” There, Jesus predicts great upheavals at the end of the age, after which the Son of Man will appear on the clouds. In addition to its appearance in Daniel 7, the motif of the Son of Man sitting on the throne of glory also appears in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71), a Jewish apocalypse from the first half of the first century AD. In apocalyptic language, Matthew 16 describes a judgment scene in which Jesus, as the Son of Man, comes again in the glory of God the Father with His angels and offers mercy to those who chose to follow Him (Mt 16:24–28).

JOHN J. COLLINS

Further Reading

Daniel, Book of LBD

Revelation, Book of LBD

Enoch, First Book of LBD

Enoch, Second Book of LBD

How to Study the Bible

Biblical Theology

Collins, J. J. (2012, 2016). Apocalyptic Literature. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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