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What Is an Apocalypse?

Biblical scholars generally describe an “apocalypse” as a type of ancient literature in which otherworldly beings reveal knowledge about the supernatural world to humans.

Titian, Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos, ca. 1553, oil on canvas, 237.6 x 263 cm (cropped). Courtesy the National Gallery of Art.

In contemporary popular culture, we often use the term “apocalypse” to describe the end of the world. Yet, our word “apocalypse” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “revelation” or “unveiling” and carries a slightly different nuance. For scholars, “apocalypse” refers to a genre of literature about supernatural revelation within ancient Mediterranean, East African, and West Asian worlds.

What is an “apocalypse”?

No ancient Hebrew word neatly translates as “apocalypse,” and only a limited number of ancient texts, starting in the second century CE, refer to themselves as “apocalypses.” However, in the late 1970s, a working group of scholars identified certain characteristics in some ancient texts that distinguish them from other texts of the time period. This group of scholars identified these texts as apocalypses, which they defined as a literary genre of disclosure. Texts within this literary genre, they argued, contain a “narrative framework”—a story—in which otherworldly beings reveal knowledge about the supernatural world to humans. The revelation found in the written text is therefore both spatial (about an otherworld) and temporal (about eschatological salvation, or what happens to humans in the “end,” broadly defined). While the book of Revelation uses the Greek word apocalypse (Rev 1:1) to describe its contents, as do other later texts, the scholarly phrase “narrative framework” expanded the genre so that it includes parts of various other books such as 1 Enoch, Daniel, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, 2 Enoch, Testament of Levi 2–5, as well as some other Persian, Greek, and Roman literature.

Why would we want to think about apocalypse as a genre?

It is important to note that the authors of these ancient texts did not know or use this scholarly definition of the genre of apocalypse. Trying to make these texts fit into the definition can create problems. After all, even when ancient authors intentionally wrote in a specific genre, they could remember, forget, and change the rules of the genre in ways that change the meaning their audiences drew from it.

When scholars think about apocalypse as a genre, they often focus on things these texts have in common, such as otherworldly beings like angels or tours of heavenly spaces. But focusing on these similarities glosses over the important distinctions in the individual texts. In the case of the genre of apocalypse, scholars often pay more attention to those features found in Daniel or Revelation, the two books in Jewish and Christian bibles that most fit our standard definitions of apocalypses. They highlight the eschatological features of these texts, with the consequence that they sometimes ignore other features that might matter. Rather than focus on eschatology, for instance, we might instead focus on the proliferation of angels and demons in other early Hellenistic texts (ca. 333–67 BCE) or the knowledge-making practices and social power games that shaped the creation and circulation of these texts.

Keeping these cautions in mind, thinking with genre can be a useful tool when it helps us to understand ancient texts differently. Thinking of apocalypse as a genre places an important distance between the literature of the ancient world and that of our contemporary world. Understanding ancient apocalypses also helps us to expand our sense of apocalypse in the present beyond the end of the world by compelling us to ask questions about the ways knowledge and power are disclosed to us in particular texts.

  • Jacqueline Hidalgo is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán (Palgrave 2016) and Latina/o Studies and Biblical Studies in Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation (2020).