The Apocalyptic Literary Genre: Vision and Symbol

13 Violently agitated and trembling, I fell upon my face . . .

17 I looked, and I saw an exalted throne.

18 The appearance of which was like that of frost;
While its circumference resembled the orb of the brilliant sun;
And there was the voice of the cherubim.

19 From underneath this mighty throne rivers of flaming fire issued.

20-21 To look upon it was impossible. One great in glory sat upon it:

22 Whose robe was brighter than the sun, and whiter than snow.

23 No angel was capable of penetrating to view the face of Him, The Glorious and the Effulgent. For a fire was flaming around Him.

24 A fire also of great extent continued to rise up before Him; Not one of those who surrounded Him was capable of approaching Him, I also was so far advanced, I also was so far advanced, with a veil on my face, and trembling. Then the Lord with his own mouth called me, saying, "Approach hither, Enoch, at my holy word."

1 Enoch 15:13-24

The pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch (c. 170-80 BC) perfectly represents that great body of literature called apocalyptic, which flourished from the third century BC to the second century AD. Some other works from this genre and period include such non-canonical texts as 2 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 2 Esdras (4 Ezra), The Rule of War (1QM), The Shepherd of Hermas, The Apocalypse of Peter, as well as the canonical Apocalypse of John (Revelation). In addition, we would include certain prototypical canonical texts such as Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, which all date from the pre-Hellenistic age. It is true that many liberal scholars regard apocalyptic indications in the Hebrew Prophets as later interpolations,1 but in fact, this assertion is nothing more than philosophical naturalism masked by a method and approach rooted in higher (negative) criticism. The presumption of vaticinia ex eventu, for instance, which reflects the antisupernaturalism of David Hume and others, should not be the overriding compass which guides the objective scholar into historiographical pursuit. Nevertheless, it is precisely this presumption that has led to the fragmentaton of the Book of Isaiah and the late-dating of the Book of Daniel as well as sections of Zechariah. Although it would be impossible within the confines of this paper to defend the traditional views of authorship with respect to these prophetic books, I would like to emphasize the accepted opinion that although the apocalyptic literary genre flourished generally from the Hasmonean period to the sub-apostolic era, the rise of this literary corpus was "neither sudden or anomalous,"2 but rather, was firmly rooted in the characteristic style of the Hebrew Prophets. In this paper, then, I would like to discuss some of the features of the apocalyptic literary genre, and I would like to show how the Hebrew Prophets served as the prototypical model for this unique style of writing.

Although there are many features which denote that a particular writing is apocalyptic, including such elements as eschatology, dualism, deliverance of the righteous, punishment of the wicked, angelic mediators, resurrection and the afterlife, and so on, we will limit our discussion to essentially two critical features, namely, visions and symbolism. Along with eschatology and dualism, I would say that these two features are the central components within the apocalyptic literary genre.

First, however, let us discuss the meaning of the word apocalyptic because it is often limited to the confines of eschatology, i.e. "the study of last things." In point of fact, though, the term apocalyptic (apocalypsis) literally means "unveiling," and although it can encompass or imply eschatological matters, it is by no means confined to that definition. Thus, the term apocalyptic is much broader and is denoted by a number of unique features, as we mentioned above. With this said, then, let us examine the ideas of vision and symbol within the corpus of apocalyptic literature.


It is interesting, when examining the text of 1 Enoch 15 at the beginning of this paper, we are immediately reminded of certain visions and theophanies which are recurrent in the Major and Minor Prophets - e.g. Isa 6, Ezek 1-3, Dan 7, Zech 1-6. In the instances of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, for example, we have apocalyptic theophanic visions which are prototypical not only of the Enochian text, but also of the christophany in Rev 1 and of the heavenly throne room vision in Rev 4. Thus, through the Book of Revelation, we can deduce that the visionary feature of apocalyptic literature in the early Church, along with many other features, can be considered a coninuance of the apocalyptic tradition which has its prototypical roots in the Prophets.3

Now before we discuss some of the aspects of apocalyptic theophanic visions, let us first address the contemporary assertion that such visions were the result of ecstatic trance. Again, let me point out that such a hypothesis is borne, not out of historical objectivity, but rather out of the post-Enlightenment paradigm which has granted ascendancy to the schools of anthropology and psychology, although it should be noted that there is great polarity and fragmentaton within these fields with regard to a host of issues. Nevertheless, the anthropological assertion that the ancient prophets of Israel must have paralleled their pagan counterparts, who were ecstatics - e.g. the Dionysian frenzy of Hellenistic priests and oracles, or the "divine" seizures of the Assyro-Babylonians and Canaanites (nabiism) - seems to be a universal anthropo-psychological hypothesis, although such a hypothesis conveniently ignores altogether the idea that the Hebrews regarded such behavior as "madness," or a "state of dementia" (Heb. = tardemah; cf. Isa 29:10),4 and that they attributed this sort of ecstatic mania to "false prophets."5 Finally, let me point out that this type of ecstasy (i.e. the loss of conscious faculties as in divine seizure) was condemned by the rabbinic school (e.g., the talmudic rabbis, Maimonides, and so on), as well as by the early Church Fathers (as in the case of the Montanist heresy).6

Now although we reject the idea of ecstatic frenzy as practiced by numerous pagan cultures, we accept the idea that the Hebrew Prophets experienced something, perhaps a mystical state of conscious rapture or some form of transcendent experience. The primary difference between the experiences of the pagans and the experiences of the prophets is that the former produced nothing more than a "spasmodic," perhaps riddling utterance, whereas the latter produced an utterance which was deeply meaningful, in continuity and agreement with character of YHWH and the holy covenant.

Moving on, now, to some of the features of apocalyptic theophanic visions (e.g. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, 1 Enoch, Revelation), we clearly see a pattern of fear, portrayal, approach, communication, and ultimately special revelation, although the Danielic vision could be more likened to a dream (cf. Dan 7), so there are some variations from this pattern. Nevertheless, in these theophanic visions, we are given the details of a great portrait, but for some reason we can't really grasp the images painted on the canvas of our minds. The portrait, though well-defined by the prophet, seems to evade us in some way - it simply defies the imagination. Yet "the word of YHWH" proceeds forth loud and clear, and in my view, this is the great beauty of the apocalyptic theophanic vision. While the portrayal of the vision inspires the disciplined, sanctified mind to enter into the prophet's mind (to some extent), it is the words and symbols that emanate from the vision which carry the weight of the inspired authorial intent. So, although it is difficult to decipher the meaning of the symbols (especially in a hyper-literal sense), there are certain symbols in the apocalyptic vision which can be hermeneutically determined (to a degree) because of their context and repetition. Thus, let us now turn our attention to this other very important feature of the apocalyptic literary genre, namely symbolism.


Indeed, symbolism plays a critical role in apocayptic writings, and in most cases, the symbols themselves are nothing short of strange and bizarre. For instance, the prophets portray such things to us as The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezek 37), The heavenly Throne-Chariot of God (Ezek 1; Isa 66:15-16), The Four Great Beasts of Daniel (Dan 7), The Four Horsemen of Zechariah and Revlelation (Zech 6; Rev 6), The Beasts from the Sea and Earth (Rev 13), and so on. And the pseudepigraphal writings invoke their own symbols as well - those writings from the Hasmonean period draw on their canonical prototypes in the Prophets, and those writings from the sub-apostolic era draw on the New Testament, some pre-Christian pseudepigraphal literature, and also on the Prophets.

Interestingly, such symbolism is unparalleled in the sacred writings of the world, yet these symbols have captivated the imaginations of millions, primarily because of their eschatological nature. The principal question is, "How are we to interpret these symbols"? And indeed, this is a difficult question to answer. For instance, as we have seen in our day, certain people have appealed to a very rigid interpretation of apocalyptic symbols, superimposing their hermeneutic onto the geo-political stage, their underlying hope (perhaps subconscious) being that they are living in the time of the eschaton. And interestingly, we find such parallels throughout Judeo-Christian history, one example being the pesharim of the Qumran community, where we find certain ancient prophecies superimposed onto the religio-political circumstances of their time.7 At any rate, the contemporary hyper-literal approach has proven irresponsible at best, and to this day, every predictive inference has proved to fail. In all fairness, though, the problem does not lie in the sincerity of the hyper-literalist, but rather, in the misunderstanding between the genre of prophecy with the genre of apocalyptic.

So, the question remains, "How do we differentiate between the genre of prophecy and the genre of apocalyptic," because, on the one hand, the two genres are interrelated, yet on the other, they are to be distinguished from one another? Perhaps two or three examples will suffice in demonstrating the distinction.

First, let's take a look at a prophetic text. In Mic 5:2, for instance, the prophet fortells that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Certainly, we can understand this in a literal sense, even as the chief priests and scribes in Herod the Great's court understood this text (cf. Matt 2:3ff.). In the prophetic text of Micah, there are no features of apocalyptic literature (except perhaps by implication); thus, it is a clear prophecy which can be understood in a very literal sense. Again, in Isa 53:7, the prophet tells us that the Servant (Messiah) will be "oppressed and afflicted," yet He will "open not his mouth" (53:14). Indeed, so precise is this prophecy that those with a naturalistic bent will claim that this incident is not historical, but rather, a fictional superimposition which, along with Aqedah theology (Gen 22) and the Yom Kippur motif, was utilized to construct a Passion Narrative onto the life of Jesus. (In the minds of these critical scholars, Jesus was simply seized when he threatened the Temple establishment and he was immediately crucified (without trial) as an ordinary criminal, his body fed to the carrion in the wilderness).8 Nevertheless, for those who presuppose the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, prophecies are, to a degree, fairly precise.

Yet in apocalyptic literature, the coming of the "Divine Warrior" (YHWH) is set forth in a different light. Whereas precision is characteristic of prophecy, impressionism is characteristic of apocalyptic. Isa 63:1-6 and Isa 66:15-16 are clear regarding the coming vindication of the "Divine Warrior." However, in classic apocalyptic style, the symbolism is such that it is impossible to infer specific details - in fact, to do so would be a hermeneutical error. So, in reading the apocalyptic texts we are certain that the Dies Irae will be realized in the eschaton, but to speculate about how or when it will occur is simply futile, demonstrating an ignorance of the distinction between the genre of prophecy and the genre of apocalyptic.

Nevertheless, within the genre of apocalyptic literature, there are certain symbols which lend to a more precise inference - e.g. the Four Great Beasts of the Sea as foretold by the prophet Daniel. However, there is a difference of opinion among scholars regarding the meaning of the symbols (i.e. the beasts), yet the differences are informed by philosophical biases rather than by pure historical investigation (although a good case can be argued from both sides). Essentially, those scholars who opt for sixth century BC authorship will interpret the successive beasts as representative of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, whereas those scholars who opt for second century BC authorship will interpret the successive beasts as representative of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.9 Thus, for the latter, the Book of Daniel is one of vaticina ex eventu.

Nevertheless, there is agreement (for the most part) among scholars that the Four Great Beasts from the Sea represent suzerain nations which would possess the land of Israel as a province or territory of their vast empires. The symbolism of the beasts, whether lion, bear, leopard, or ten-horned beast, invoke images of aggression, terror, and conquest. And like the Python or Nine-Headed Hydra of Greek mythology, or the Lotan of the Ugaritic texts, the Danielic beasts arise from "the sea" (7:2), which in ancient times was considered the domain of evil. Some scholars, however, would appeal to Rev 17:15 especially to demonstrate that "the sea" is representative of humanity (i.e. "peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues). I point out the differing opinions to indicate that, even with regard to certain symbols which are somewhat self-evident from Scripture, in apocalyptic literature it is sometimes difficult to be dogmatic. Therefore, it is best to imagine the grandeur of the whole symbolic vision, rather than to try and decipher the parts. In the apocalyptic literary genre, it is precisely the entirety and the whole of the symbolic vision that evokes literary power.

In sum, then, both vision and symbol are central to the genre of apocalyptic. Along with the other features of apocalyptic literature, they contribute to a style of writing which does not intend to be understood in terms of wooden literalism; but rather, the author is appealing to the disciplined, or sanctified imagination in order to cause the reader to think, to wonder, to imagine, and to contemplate that which is unfathomable. Perhaps the author is writing of the fall of Babylon (Isa 13:9-10), or the destruction of Jerusalem (Exek 21), or the coming of the Divine Warrior (Zech 14:3-4) -- in any case, the language employed is grandiose, magnific, terrible, awesome, and even frightening. Indeed, it is apocalyptic . . . .


1. Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1977, p. 5, note 21.

2. Hanson, Paul D. The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 7.

3. Cross, Frank Moore. The Ancient Library of Qumran. Minneapolis: Fortress,
1995, p. 145.

4. Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. 2 Vols. New York: HarperCollins,
1962, Vol. 2, p. 118.

5. Ibid., p. 118.

6. Ibid., p. 120-23.

7. Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday,
1993, p. 558.

8. cf. the writings of John Dominic Crossan

9. Russell, D.S. Daniel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981.