Apocalypses: Introduction



By the late fourth century BCE, the kingdom of Judah had been conquered by Babylon, Persia, and Greece. The temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylon, had been built again, but was missing many of its relics and treasures. King David’s dynasty had never been restored, lost to obscurity after the mysterious disappearance of his descendant Zerubbabel during the Persian period. Many of the old prophets had foreseen the restoration and unification of Israel and Judah, when the other nations of the world would submit to worship of Yahweh.

The genre we call ‘apocalypse’ emerged in this era, the middle of the Second Temple period. It shows many influences from Akkadian, Babylonian, and Persian traditions, but the most direct literary influences come from a handful of passages now found in the Hebrew Bible, texts which exhibited traits that would eventually take shape as the common tropes of apocalypses.

The purpose of the genre was to reveal mysteries previously hidden to humanity, whether cosmological or eschatological. The latter type of apocalypse was usually concerned with a crisis of the author’s own era, which he believed would lead directly into the ‘end times’.

Time Period

It is fairly easy to pin down the time frame when an eschatological apocalypse was written due to after-the-fact prophecies. We can determine the rough time frame when apocalypses were written based on allusions to historical events, along with their use by other writers.


With only a couple of exceptions, all known apocalypses are pseudonymous. The authors usually wrote as if they were someone from the ancient past, though a few of the later apocalypses used pseudonyms of more recent historical figures. Common examples include Abraham, Baruch, Enoch, James, and Peter.

Angelic Guide

Several eschatological apocalypses communicate their ‘predictions’ through symbols that show us how they understood historical events in spiritual terms. However, this symbolism could be dense enough the author needed to provide an interpretation within his book. He would do this by inserting an angelic character to explain or elaborate on the symbolism.


Other apocalypses are not concerned with mysteries about the future so much as mysteries about the inner workings of the world. This could be natural, like the weather, or supernatural, like the afterlife.

Primordial Events

A recollection of utterly ancient events and people.

Historical Review

The authors sometimes reflect on events of the distant past leading up to the present as part of what prompted them to write their book.

After-the-fact Prophecy

Eschatological apocalypses usually contain ‘predictions’ of events that have already happened, since the author is pretending to be someone from a time before those events should have taken place. By predicting the past with precision, the author is able to build credibility with his reader by the time he arrives at the present crisis. He then attempts to actually predict how the crisis will unfold.


This is the driving force behind the eschatological apocalypses: a crisis involving the disruption, exclusion, or persecution of their community is perceived as a major sign the eschaton is near.

Social Upheaval

Vague examples of social disruptions are mentioned or listed to demonstrate that the world has only worsened in the time leading up to the present crisis.


The timeline of eschatological apocalypses frequently conclude with three major events. One of these is God raising the dead to life.


God intervenes against oppressive nations, and/or judges individuals based on their actions. He or his angels dispense punishments and rewards.

New Creation

God makes a new world corresponding to the elimination of evil and the start of a new age for Israel.


Several apocalypses are made from earlier sources combined together, or have new layers of text added in places. Most of these sources or layers are easy enough to detect, but some are only hypothetical reconstructions.


The apocalypses are often structured into distinct units. These sometimes include recapitulated images or events for further clarification or interpretation.