Reviews of

Apocalypses in Context

In Ancient Near East, Apocalyptic, Daniel Hawkins, Early Judaism, Fortress Press, HB/OT, Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler, Kelly J. Murphy, New Testament, Qumran, review on December 11, 2017 at 11:15 am


2017.12.26 | Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler (ed.) Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents through History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. Hardcover. Pp. ix + 510. ISBN: 9781451496239.

Review by Daniel Hawkins, Trinity Western University.

The scholarly discussion surrounding apocalyptic writings has seen nearly as much variety as the genre of apocalypse itself. Apocalypses in Context, a series of essays edited by Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler, explores not only the question of the genre and definition of the apocalypse, but also traces apocalyptic literature and thought through history into the present to illustrate its prevalence and impact in modern society.

The first section of the volume explores what many scholars familiar with apocalyptic discourse would expect: the Semeia 14 definition, the possible roots of the genre, and an exploration of several ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses. This section provides a nuanced view of apocalyptic thought that reflects the dynamic nature of the genre itself. It builds on the foundation laid by Collins in the Semeia 14 definition and prepares the reader for the exploration of the genre’s transformation throughout the rest of the volume.

In a set of essays, Christopher B. Hays guides the reader through a discussion of Daniel’s apocalyptic features including visions, ex eventu prophecy, and pseudepigraphy. This sets the stage for Hays’ discussion of how apocalypses are best viewed as “a textile woven together out of strands of other texts already in existence–both texts now found in the Hebrew Bible and others from the large ANE world” (35). Consequently, the third chapter discusses these constituent threads and demonstrates that the genre did not emerge in a vacuum, but was heavily informed by its ancient Near East environment. The subsequent chapters of this section continue to interact with what many would deem necessary to an understanding of apocalyptic thought including discussion of early Jewish apocalyptic literature and movements from 1 Enoch to the Qumran community and the texts found there such as The War Scroll (Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, Robert Williamson Jr. and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler). The fifth chapter makes a significant and important addition to the conversation when it considers apocalypticism as “a series of loosely related social movements drawing on a common worldview that they deploy in diverse ways” (88). There was no one “apocalyptic guidebook” or definition that dictated the development of the worldview– it was a servant of those using it. This is something evident in the last few chapters of this section as they discuss the various ways Christian authors embraced and transformed the genre inherited from Judaism (Greg Carey, Joshua W. Jipp, and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler).

The second major section traces the transformation and prevalence of apocalyptic thought beyond the Second Temple context. Here the discussion includes essays on how Christians of Late Antiquity took up the genre while Jewish interest declined under Rabbinic Judaism and following the Bar Kokhba revolt. Karl Shuve highlights how Christian thought became increasingly focused on eschatology, while Shayna Sheinfeld discusses the increased focus on the study of texts and the rise of mysticism following the decline of apocalypticism in Rabbinic Judaism. Following this, the volume includes several chapters on medieval Christian expression of the apocalypse (Travis Ables), the role of apocalyptic thought in Islam (Mohamed Mosaad Abdelaziz Mohamed), and the role of art in expressing apocalyptic thought (Brennan Breed).

A recurring attitude of immanence is seen throughout the essays, from early Christian apocalypses to cultic groups of the 20th century who create their own interpretations of these apocalypses. Apocalyptic thought sees, and even desires, the “end” or a divine intervention in history as coming quickly. This immanence, although seemingly constantly disappointing, is one of the great assets of apocalypticism. For example, Travis Ables explores how the immanent expectation in the period a thousand years after Christ, although disappointed, becomes transformed into a renewed sense of devotion as “people look into the oncoming storm and emerge transformed.” (228) Here Ables taps into a theme espoused throughout the book, namely that apocalyptic thought is enduring because it affects those that interact with it in some way. Mohamed Mosaad Abdelaziz Mohamed continues this sort of discussion in his treatment of the effects of Islamic apocalypticism, as does Brennan Breed in a subsequent essay on the way art has depicted apocalyptic thought and the effects of such depictions.

The final section presents a series of essays exploring apocalyptic thought in contemporary society. While some of the chapters are less bound to the Semeia 14 definition of apocalypse, they provide insight into the impact of the genre in Western Culture. For example, James W. Perkinson explores the concept of apocalypticism with reference to the situation of inner-city Detroit following its bankruptcy in 2013. On the surface, such a comparison only meshes in terms of the popular apocalyptic image of run-down housing in the modern apocalyptic mindset, however, Perkinson delves into comparisons of anti-imperialistic apocalyptic thought and the racial tension of Detroit underscoring how not only the genre of apocalypse is influential and applicable, but also the messages contained therein. In “The Last Metamorphosis of Labor,” Michael J. Thate explores how apocalyptic thought is not distant, but is “more about leveraging the future (or the past) for the purposes of present concerns.” (309) This realization is used to compare how labour anxieties both in the past and the present form an environment, similar to the circumstances surrounding the genesis of early apocalypses, where apocalyptic thought thrives. The other essays in this section explore the impact of apocalyptic thought on Western Culture, from the emergence of cultic doomsday groups based-on dispensationalist theology (Robert von Thaden Jr.) to the popular depictions of an “apocalypse” in film and literature (Matthew S. Rindge). Kelly J.Murphy’s essay closes the book with a consideration of the origins of “zombies” in light of two key motivational tools prevalent in apocalyptic worldviews today: hope and fear.

This book is an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the genre of apocalypse. However, readers could further benefit from also examining works by prominent apocalyptic genre scholars such as John Collins’ The Apocalyptic Imagination. Moreover, the reader could also engage with the primary texts themselves, especially in the first section where such texts form the basis of one’s understanding of an ancient apocalyptic mindset. The reader is only seeing these texts through the lens that the scholar chooses, and a more nuanced, although significantly more labored, view likely would be obtained through such an endeavor. However, the book on its own cannot be faulted as its objective is clearly not to drill down to a tremendous depth, but rather to provide a broad overview with which the reader can understand how apocalyptic thought has itself changed and also shaped history over the last few millennia, an objective it accomplishes remarkably well. Indeed, where many discussions of the apocalypse include only cursory discussion of the ongoing implications of an apocalyptic worldview, Apocalypses in Context admirably opens the reader’s eyes to how integral this worldview has been in shaping not only ancient texts, but also modern culture.

In sum, the essays contained in this volume provide an open door into the realm of the apocalypses and apocalypticism in an understandable and well-choreographed fashion. The apocalyptic worldview is explained both in its origins and in its ever transforming nature as it serves the needs of those employing it.

Daniel Hawkins
Trinity Western University
Daniel.Hawking [at]

  1. […] J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler (ed.) Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents through History (Daniel […]

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