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The Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature

Where Did The Idea of the “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” Come From?

  • Watch the trailer for the Left Behind movie.
  • The origins of the pre-tribulation rapture in the dispensationalist system of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. A scholarly form of progressive dispensationalism is best represented at Dallas Theological Seminary.
  • The rapture doctrine is a corollary of the theological distinction between two covenant peoples, Israel and the church, and the belief that the church must be raptured so that all the biblical promises pertaining to Israel can be “literally” fulfilled in an earthly millennial kingdom.
  • Check out Matthew 24:40-41/Luke 17:34-35, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, and Revelation 3:10. Do these verses in context speak about a secret rapture of the church?
  • Is dispensationalism an adequate hermeneutical lens for interpreting ancient apocalyptic literature? What might be the social,  ideological, and theological implications of a dispensationalist worldview?

What is an “apocalypse”?

  • apokalypsis: uncovering, unveiling, revelation
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ [is Jesus doing the revealing or is he the content of the revelation?], which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1).
  • Distinct from Eschatology: from the Greek term eschatos (last, final) and having to do with the end of the present age.
  • “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” – SBL’s ‘Apocalypse Group’ published by J. J. Collins, Semeia 14 (1979), 9.

Apocalyptic Genre Characteristics: the following notes are taken from David E. Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian ApocalypticWord & World 25.3 (2005): 233-245

  • Form: a record of visionary experiences often mediated by a heavenly messenger.
  • Content: visionary tours of the heavens/hell or eschatological prophecies about the end of the age. It is often characterized by cosmic dualism in which the current age is ruled by hostile spiritual forces and, instead of hoping for a resolution through ordinary historical processes, expects a dramatic divine intervention to transform the social order as the only solution to the author’s plight.
  • Function: to encourage a minority group under, or perceived to be under, oppression and to implore the audience to modify their behaviour.
  • Authorship: often ascribed to ancient authorities pseudonymously (Enoch, Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Peter, Paul), with the exception of Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas. This genre seems to have been popular between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Example: The apocalyptic section of Daniel 6-12 seem to be composed around 167-164 BCE, though the visionary is set in the Babylonian and Persian periods. Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (manifest) came to power in 175 BCE and enforced an aggressive program of Hellenization, transforming Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city (“Antiochia”) with a gymnasium. He forbade Jews from practicing their native customs (cf. 2 Maccabees 7) and attempted to profane the temple by offering a pig on the altar, which was prevented by the priest Matthias. Matthias’s sons, led by Judas “Maccabeus” (hammerer), revolted. Daniel 7 envisions four beasts (=Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece), with the last beast having 10 horns (=rulers) and a particularly arrogant horn (=Antiochus IV), and the eschatological vindication of a human-like figure (=the saints of Israel or their angelic representative).

The Book of Revelation

  • “John”, a seer exiled to the island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). There was debate in the early church about whether the author was the apostle John (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.1-7; 7.25.1-16), but the book seems to refer to the twelve apostles as figures of the past (Rev 21:14).
  • There are some parallels with the Gospel of John (“Lamb”, “Word of God”), but the author’s facility in Greek is very different.
  • “Moreover also among us a man named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a revelation made to him that those who have believed on our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that hereafter the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all will likewise take place.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4)„
  • “For that [vision] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3). Other scholars date it earlier to the reign of Nero or propose that there might have been an earlier or later edition of the book.
  • Directed towards seven historic churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2-3)

Guidelines for interpretation:

  • The book had to effectively communicate to its earliest audience or else it would not have been preserved.
  • Apocalyptic texts use coded symbolism to refer to political powers in the author’s time. For instance, the condemnation of “Babylon” in Revelation 17-18 (cf. 1 Peter 5:13) seems to be a cipher for Rome as the city of seven hills (cf. Rev 17:9). The beast with a mortal wound in Revelation 13 may be an allusion to the Nero redivivus myth and the number of 666 may stand for Nerōn Kaisar (cf. Ian Boxall, “Gematria“)

Interpretive schemes:

  • Preterist: most or all of the book’s contents correspond to events that took place in the first century CE.
  • Historicist: Revelation covers events throughout Christian history.
  • Futurist: Revelation foretells a yet future eschatological scenario.
  • Idealist: Revelation symbolically represents the battle of good versus evil in a way that is timelessly true.

Interpretations of the millennium (Revelation 20:1-6):

  • Pre-Millennialism: there will be a future 1000 year rule of Christ on earth before the final judgment. Whether the Church or Israel will be the primary participants in the millennial kingdom is a key difference between historic and dispensationalist views.
  • Post-Millennialism: there will be a future time when Christians will experience unprecedented success in their missionary expansion and Christianization of the world.
  • Amillenialism: the prefix “a” stands for “no” and this views the millennium as symbolic of the entire church age as the devil was already bound and defeated in Christ’s death and resurrection.

„„

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The Petrine Epistles

First Peter

Audience

  • “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1)
  • Is exile a metaphorical depiction of Christians as strangers on earth whose true homeland is in heaven or a literal description of Christians as marginalized and socially displaced persons (cf. John Elliott)?

Author: the Apostle Peter or a later follower writing in his name

  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1)
  • Could a Galilean fisherman attain the literacy skills to write in polished Greek, demonstrate fine rhetorical skills, and extensively engage with the Septuagint? This leads to larger questions about the extent of the Hellenization of Galilee, the literacy rates in the ancient world and first-century Palestine, and the question of whether Acts 4:13 implies that Peter was illiterate or merely an untrained religious layperson.
  • Some scholars appeal to the use of a scribal assistant in composing the letter and 1 Peter 5:12 notes that dia Silouanou… egrapsa (“through Silvanus . . . I wrote”). Yet this may be an idiomatic expression to identify Silvanus as the mail-carrier who delivers the letter (see Ignatius’s Epistles to the Smyrnaeans 12:1, Philadelphians 11:1, Magnesians 15:1, and Romans 10:1).
  • The use of his Greek nickname “Peter” rather than the Aramaic Cephas, along with the lack of personal memories of Jesus or discussion about the debates over Torah-observance (cf. Galatians 2:9-14), is striking.
  • The arguments for a later date count against Petrine authorship. However, this may be mitigated if one does not accept the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around 64 CE as part of Nero’s persecution of Roman Christians as a scapegoat to blame for the fire in Rome (see John 21:18-19; 2 Peter 1:14; 1 Clement 5:4; Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans 4.2-3; Dionysius of Corinth in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.26; Acts of Peter 36-39; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3).

Date: between 60-110 CE based on the decisions on the points below

  • 1 Peter is referenced in 2 Peter 3:1, Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (1:3; 2:1; 8:1), and the lost text of Papias of Hierapolis (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15.2; 3.39.17).
  • The Christ movement has spread throughout Asia Minor (cf. 1 Peter 1:1) and the label “Christian” is applied to the group in distinction from the Jews (4:16; cf. Acts 11:26; 26:28).
  • The coded reference to “Babylon” (=Rome) may presuppose the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Alternatively, “Babylon” may be part of the metaphorical imagery of living in exile.
  • Past commentators correlated the “fiery trial” that the Christians were undergoing with the correspondence between the governor of Bithynia-Pontus Pliny the Younger and the Roman emperor Trajan on how to deal with the Christians. More recently, scholars have pointed out that the persecution in 1 Peter involves local harassment and social ostracism rather than official state suppression.
  • 1 Peter had access to a variety of sources including creeds, sayings of Jesus, extended scriptural exegesis (cf. Isaiah 53), parenetic material (similarities with Paul and James), and possibly some Pauline Epistles (e.g., Romans) (cf. David G. Horrell).

Purpose:

  • To encourage Christians in the midst of persecution and loss of social ties for their abandonment of traditional cultic practices, since they are following Christ’s example of suffering.
  • To reinforce a new collective identity as a “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people” (2:9).
  • To implore Christians to be otherwise law-abiding citizens who honor the emperor and obey household codes.
  • To model a united front against opposition, the epistle itself harmonizes diverse streams of tradition. The Apostle Peter is their symbolic figurehead and two of Paul’s historical co-workers, Silvanus and Mark, are pictured as his assistants.

Second Peter

Audience:

  • Uncertain. This “second letter” seems familiar with 1 Peter, unless this is a reference to an unknown writing in Peter’s name (cf. 2 Pet 3:1), and may imply that the audience is the same as 1 Peter.

Author: Peter or a later follower writing in his name

  • “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). The use of the Semitic “Simeon” is paralleled in Acts 15:14 where it is places on the lips of Jesus’ brother and the Jerusalem leader James.
  • 2 Peter faces the same questions about whether the author’s facility in Greek and rhetorical skill matches the Galilean preacher Cephas. Further, the grandiose “Asiatic” Greek style and the allusions to Old Testament narratives rather than direct citations is quite different from the style of f 1 Peter. The Church Fathers recognized the different style of the two epistles, leading to debates over the apostolic authorship and canonicity of 2 Peter (cf. Ecclesiastical History 3.25.3).
  • 2 Peter 1:12-15 has elements that characterize other fictional “testaments” or farewell speeches including the protagonist’s predictions of his/her death and of what the future holds along with other ethical exhortations to the survivors (cf. Richard Bauckham). For example, check out The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Date: between 64-150 CE based on scholarly decisions on these points.

  • 2 Peter 1:14 presupposes Peter’s death unless it is a prediction of the author. There seems to be a tense shift in which the implied author’s predictions of future false teachers becomes a present reality for the audience.
  • The “fathers” have died (2 Peter 3:4); either the past Christian generation or the patriarchs in Genesis are the referent.
  • 2 Peter 2:1:22 extensively parallels Jude 3-19 in wording and order, though it adds a few examples (Noah, Lot) and drops others (1 Enoch, Assumption of Moses). Although a few scholars have argued that Jude borrowed from 2 Peter or that both writings have a common source, the majority view is that the epistle of Jude has been almost totally incorporated into the later epistle of 2 Peter.
  • 2 Peter 3:1 shows that the letter must date after 1 Peter.
  • Certain doubters criticize the expectation of Christ’s imminent “coming” (3:4) and 2 Peter responds that a thousand years is like a day to the Lord (3:8), so the reader must not give up hope for the second coming even if it seems to have been delayed.
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16 appears to know a collection of Pauline Epistles that are placed on par with other “scriptures.”
  • 2 Peter may have access to Matthew’s Gospel (cf. 2 Peter 1:17-18; 2:20), while the references to the other New Testament Gospels are debatable.
  • Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254 CE) offers the earliest explicit reference to 2 Peter (Homilies on Joshua 7.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.8), but other commentators argue for allusions to 2 Peter in earlier church authorities. The literary relationship of 2 Peter with the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Peter is debated.

Purpose:

  • The text wishes to defend the apostolically “Petrine” witness that Jesus will return against antinomian “scoffers” who deny that Christ will return in the final judgment and allegedly use this as an excuse for immoral living.
  • The text combines Jewish apocalyptic with a Hellenistic ethos from its list of virtues that enable the reader to take on the “divine nature” or immortality (2 Peter 1:3-11) to its possible contacts with Epicurean philosophy (cf. Jerome H. Neyrey).

The First History of the Church (The Acts of the Apostles)

Authorship:

  • A Sequel to Luke’s Gospel:  “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning” (Acts 1:1; see Luke 1:1-4).
  • Scholars debate the genre of Luke-Acts: historiography, biography (of subjects like Jesus, Peter and Paul or the Christian movement as an institution?), epic (e.g. Homer, Virgil), or historical novel?
  • The Traditional Position: the “we” demonstrates that the “beloved physician” Luke was inseparable from Paul as his fellow-labourer (cf. Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:10-11) and present on the occasions recounted in Acts (Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresis 3.14.1)
  • Explanations for the (in)famous “we” (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16):
  1. the author was a firsthand participant in the narrated events
  2. a dramatic narrative device that places the reader into the action (cf. Vernon Robbins, “By Land and By Sea:  the We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages“)
  3. a sign of an earlier source or travel diary (cf. Stanley Porter, The Paul of Acts, chapter 2 The ‘We’ Passages in Acts as a Source regarding Paul)
  4. a pseudonymous fiction (cf. Bart Ehrman, Forgery and Counter-Forgery)

Date

  • Dates range from the early 60s to 130 CE. Most scholars date it between 75-100 CE, though a minority dates it either on the early (cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History) or late end of the spectrum (cf. Richard Pervo, Dating Acts; Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle)
  • Why does Acts end before narrating the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and James?  Was the book written before their deaths or did the author know of their deaths yet was more concerned with how the gospel was proclaimed from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 28)?
  • Why does the book close before narrating the destruction of the temple in 70 CE? Or does Luke 19:43-44 and 21:20-24 exhibit knowledge of the temple’s destruction?
  • Why does Acts never mention that Paul wrote letters?  Was it written before a collection of Pauline Epistles was published or does the book of Acts show other signs of influence from Paul’s letters?
  • Does Acts reflect knowledge of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (ca 93-94 CE)?  Compare Acts 5:36-37 with Ant. 20.97-102, Luke 2:1-3 with War 2.117-18; Ant. 18.1-5, or Acts 12:20-23 with Ant. 19.343-50.
  • Why does Acts portray the church as composed of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, mainly Gentile “God-fearers” who had a prior relationship with the synagogue rather than ex-Pagans?  Or is the author aware that “Christians” (11:26; 26:28) are a distinct group  with a developed leadership structure of “elders” (21:18-25)?

Ideology and Theology

  • Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke) argues that Acts divides history into the epochs of Israel, Jesus, and the church. The fervent expectation for Jesus’ return has settled down so the church can witness the gospel from Jerusalem to all the earth (Acts 1:6-8).
  • The church is governed by Twelve Apostles (see the replacement of Judas with Matthias to restore the number “twelve” in Acts 1:15-26). Paul is generally excluded from the title “apostle” (exception: Acts 14:4)
  • The church is united, glossing over occasional cracks that appear beneath the surface such as the division between the Hebrews and Hellenists (Acts 6:1-15), the debate at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; cf. 21:17-25), and the separation of Paul and Barnabas (15:36-41)
  • Acts emphasizes the continuity of the church with the scriptural heritage of Israel. Before Acts 7, the Jerusalem Church wins over thousands of their Jewish compatriots and the Apostles exhibit their Jewish piety. Paul’s primarily missionary field is in the synagogue among Jews and Gentile God-fearers (compare the account of Paul’s target audience in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9 with 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).  However, Acts hints that a majority of Jews increasingly rejected the Christian movement (Acts 13:46-47; 18:6; 28:25-28), though it concludes on an open-ended note (Acts 28:3o-31).

A Specific Case Study

  • Check out the official Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15:1-22
  • What sort of social issues might arise with Jews and non-Jews were trying to worship or sharing a meal together?
  • What was the heart of the debate in Acts 15? Is this the same conference as presented in Galatians 2:1-14 or does the passage in Galatians better parallel the earlier meeting in Acts 11:28-30?
  • Why are four rules issued regarding food offered to idols, sexual immorality, meat from strangled animals, and blood? How does it compare to the laws about foreigners in Leviticus 17-18?
  • Would Paul have agreed with the Apostolic Decree as presented in Acts 15 (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13)?

Biblioblog Carnival for April 2016

The latest biblioblog carnival (I am not sure what Roman numeral we are up to now) has been published at Jeff Carter’s blog. Jim West also has an SBL-themed carnival, despite the fact that the annual conference in San Antonio is still over 6 months away.