Biblical Studies Apocalyptic Literature
Greg Carey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0005


“Apocalyptic literature” refers to the ancient Jewish and Christian documents that share common concerns, themes, and literary devices with the books of Daniel and Revelation and other literary apocalypses. In addition to Daniel and Revelation, prominent literary apocalypses include 1 Enoch, 2 and 3 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter. Collaborative research and multiauthor anthologies have contributed greatly to the study of apocalyptic literature. For multiauthor works, this entry generally refers to the entire book, citing especially important essays where appropriate. Some treatments approach apocalyptic literature in terms of the classical literary apocalypses, but the phenomenon of apocalyptic literature extends well beyond those boundaries. This entry does not emphasize discrete apocalyptic texts; instead, it addresses the major questions that have occupied scholars: the historical origins, social settings, development, and interpretation of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. During the 1970s and 1980s, consensus emerged regarding two issues. First, a common generic definition regards a literary apocalypse as a narrative account of a revelatory experience involving a visionary and an otherworldly interpreter. Second, whereas “apocalyptic” once functioned as a noun that encompassed all things apocalyptic, interpreters gravitated toward more-precise distinctions between literary apocalypses (genre), apocalyptic eschatology (ideas), apocalypticism (movements), and apocalyptic discourse (modes of communication). Nevertheless, defining apocalyptic literature, whether in terms of a literary genre, a communicative function, or a body of literature with common characteristics, remains a crucial problem in scholarship.

General Overviews

Collins 1998a represents the standard introduction to ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature, providing a survey of apocalyptic literature’s historical development and the consensus definition of a literary apocalypse. Nickelsburg 2005 interprets Jewish apocalyptic texts in the context of historical developments. Carey 2005 and Cook 2003 include Christian apocalyptic literature and provide alternative frameworks for interpreting apocalyptic discourse, while VanderKam and Adler 1996 emphasizes Christian apocalyptic literature as an appropriation of Jewish traditions. Collins 1998b, McGinn 2000, and Stein 2000 survey apocalypticism from ancient times to the present, while Himmelfarb 2010 surveys Jewish and Christian apocalypses into the Byzantine era.

  • Carey, Greg. Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2005.

    A textbook-level survey of the most important ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. Defines apocalyptic discourse not as a literary genre but as a flexible set of topics and literary devices. Recommends interpreting apocalyptic texts as creative literary and religious responses designed to influence communal beliefs and behaviors.

  • Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 2d ed. Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998a.

    The standard reference in the field. Begins with a discussion of the origins of Jewish apocalypticism and provides the consensus definition of an apocalypse, then surveys the most influential Jewish apocalyptic texts.

  • Collins, John J., ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 1, The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity. New York: Continuum, 1998b.

    A collection of introductory essays on various subjects related to the roots of ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Christian apocalypticism. Unusual for its breadth. Includes essays on messianism, Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels, and Paul.

  • Cook, Stephen L. The Apocalyptic Literature. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

    A popular introduction to and overview of biblical apocalyptic literature, with a theological and canonical emphasis. Part 1 provides criteria for interpreting apocalyptic literature. Part 2 discusses not only Daniel and Revelation but also apocalyptic dimensions of the Hebrew prophets, the earliest Jesus movement, the Gospels, and Paul.

  • Himmelfarb, Martha. The Apocalypse: A Brief History. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    A historical survey of apocalypses from the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36) into Byzantine apocalypses such as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. Concludes with a survey of modern apocalyptic movements. Himmelfarb emphasizes that apocalypses address a variety of concerns, not simply historical eschatology.

  • McGinn, Bernard, ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 2, Apocalypticism in Western History and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2000.

    Introductory essays on apocalypticism in Western Christianity from the early church until about 1800. Includes essays on medieval Jewish (670–1670) and classical Islamic apocalypticism.

  • Nickelsburg, George W. E. Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.

    A standard introduction to noncanonical Jewish literature prior to the Mishnah, by a leading interpreter of apocalyptic literature. Discusses apocalypses and related texts chronologically, according to the sociohistorical developments that precipitated them, such as the Maccabean Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem.

  • Stein, Stephen L., ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 3, Apocalypticism in the Modern World and the Contemporary Age. New York: Continuum, 2000.

    Multiauthor work includes essays devoted not only to North American Christianity but also to apocalypticism in diverse places, religions, and periods. Includes essays on apocalypticism in North, Central, and South America and western and eastern Europe; in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; and in literature, popular culture, and politics. Though now somewhat dated, a rich beginning point for research into modern apocalypticism.

  • VanderKam, James C., and William Adler, eds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 3/4. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996.

    A multiauthor book assessing aspects of the early Christian appropriation of Jewish apocalyptic traditions. Adler’s introductory essay addresses the functions and authority of Jewish apocalypses in early Christian circles. Notable essays involve the development of Enoch traditions in early Christianity (by VanderKam) and the legacy of Jewish apocalypses among Christians in diverse regions (by David Frankfurter).

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