What is apocalypticism ?

The scholarly use and understanding of the word apocalypticism has varied much in the history of research on these topics. The different words associated with apocalypticism each possess their own subtle connotations. The specific term, apocalypticism, and the many forms associated with it are derived from the first Greek word in the book of Revelation, apokalypsis (revelation). The noun apocalypse refers to the revelatory text itself.

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The particular worldview found within an apocalypse and the assumptions that it holds about matters concerning the “end times” is referred to as “apocalyptic eschatology.” The noun apocalypticism refers broadly to the historical and social context of that worldview. When scholars use the word apocalyptic, they typically assume a distinction between the ancient worldview and the body of literature associated with it.


Apocalypticism refers to a worldview that gave rise to a diverse body of literature generally dating from the time of the Babylonian exile down to the Roman persecutions. Characteristic elements of this literature include a revelation of heavenly secrets to a privileged intermediary and the periodization of history. In these texts the eschatological perspective of the text reinforces the expectation that the era of the author will reach its end very soon. This apocalyptic eschatology suggests that the historical setting of these writings is one of crisis and extreme suffering.

Scholars who work in the area of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypticism are aware that Jewish apocalyptic literature survived due to ancient Christian appropriation and interest in it. This is because Jewish apocalypticism and the literature associated with it were generally viewed unfavorably by later forms of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. The lack of a developed Jewish interpretive framework for these texts accounts for part of the scholarly problem in determining the precise origins and influences of this phenomenon. Many historical questions about the social context and the use of these Jewish apocalyptic writings in ancient Jewish communities remain unclear and largely theoretical. What is certain is that Christian communities were responsible for the preservation and transmission of these writings, and they appropriated the worldview and the literary forms of Jewish apocalypticism.

The only example of an apocalypse from the Hebrew Bible is the book of Daniel. Other well-known examples of apocalypses include the writings of Enoch and Jubilees and the traditions associated with them, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, and Apocalypse of Abraham. Some texts from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls present a worldview that is properly described as apocalyptic but do not qualify as examples of the literary genre (e.g., “Instruction on the Two Spirits” from the Community Rule text and the War Scroll).

The last book in the New Testament, known as the Apocalypse of John, is an example of a Christian apocalypse. The canonicity of this book was not accepted at first in the East. The book is a record of the visions of John while he was exiled on the island of Patmos and possesses a prophetic authority among Christian communities throughout history. Highly symbolic language, the presumption of a cataclysmic battle, and the disclosure of heavenly secrets to a privileged intermediary make this text a classic example of the genre. Other examples of Christian apocalypse outside the Bible include the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Paul.

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