Book Review—Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook

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Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook
by Richard A. Taylor
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In recent years, perhaps decades, there has been a burgeoning interest in apocalyptic. Of course, this fascination has played out in different ways for various sectors of society—I’m thinking of end-times-obsessed preachers/authors of more extreme conservative segments of Christianity—as well as in popular literature and cinema. However, perhaps part of what has spurred the interest and proliferation of scholarly attention to “apocalyptic” has been to offer a corrective to the often wrongly appropriated elements of apocalyptic into these various media ventures, eschatological schemes, etc. Even so, it seems as though scholarship’s attention to apocalyptic has been more of a hermeneutical venture than anything. This has been an endeavor not only to discover what exactly constitutes “apocalyptic,” perhaps the most difficult question to answer adequately, but also to better understand how it figures into various portions of Scripture. As such, the market has been flooded with many fine volumes that seek to answer these questions—and more—and Taylor’s contribution to the discussion is certainly worth your investment, provided you’re not already a seasoned expert.

Predictably, Taylor begins his book by asking the question “What is apocalyptic”? Because this volume assumes the reader is perhaps only somewhat familiar with apocalyptic, this chapter is a natural starting point. Once he walks through a brief history of apocalyptic in scholarship, Taylor turns his attention to a discussion of apocalyptic proper (if such can even be said)—first, the problem of definitions, and second, the unique literary features that give apocalyptic its particular flavor (23–40).[1] Taylor states early in this chapter that the focus of the book will be primarily on apocalyptic as it is found in the OT (26), which may disappoint some readers; however, there is sufficient discussion of non-canonical texts that will inform the reader of the relationship between the two.[2] This chapter is a concise and helpful guide through some of the thornier questions swirling about apocalyptic, e.g., separating “apocalyptic” from its cognates—apocalypticism, apocalyptic eschatology, etc. If I had any criticisms of this opening chapter, it would be this minor quibble. The discussion of apocalyptic as situated in communities that were in some sense marginalized is only given a couple of pages. This, I think, is an important element in understanding the genesis of apocalyptic literature and wish there had been a bit more on this element, though this can be a complex issue and I know authors must be judicious in their use of page space when discussing issues in an introductory capacity.

Chapter two focuses on Major Themes in Apocalyptic Literature and this is the heart of the discussion. Again, because Taylor’s focus in on apocalyptic as found in the OT, attention is given primarily to Jewish apocalyptic texts, the first to be discussed being the book of Daniel. The section on Daniel is a bit longer than the other texts treated in this chapter, which doesn’t surprise me since I know that Taylor has long had an interest in the book of Daniel.[3] For Daniel, Taylor looks at specific components—message, purpose, major themes, and structure. Initially, I suspected this section would be focused so much on these individual elements that the actual apocalyptic elements of Daniel would be somewhat sidelined; however, Taylor does tie these elements together to show how apocalyptic is ingrained in Daniel.  The remaining canonical works discussed here receive more attention on specific apocalyptic emphases, e.g., Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse” (Isa 24–27), Ezekiel’s windstorm in 1:4–9 (and other elements), Zechariah’s visions, Joel’s vision of the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32), and Malachi’s divine epiphany in Mal 4:1–3. Again, the discussion of these texts is not to be in any measure exhaustive, but simply to highlight various apocalyptic motifs and/elements present in OT texts. Taylor devotes the next section of this chapter to extrabiblical Jewish apocalyptic texts, e.g., the Book of Enoch (with discussion of its major sections), 2 Enoch, Jubilees, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Apocalypse of Abraham, Testament of Levi, Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and the Testament of Moses. Taylor also brings the Qumran community (Dead Sea Scrolls) into the conversation—to leave them out, of course, would be criminal! For those familiarizing themselves with Jewish apocalyptic, this is an excellent sampling with which to begin. Having introduced these representative texts, the chapter concludes with a helpful discussion of what makes apocalyptic—its literary features. Though these disincentives have come in varying degrees in the previous section, there are here elucidated with more detail and this is a fitting conclusion for this chapter.

Those familiar with this series will know that these volumes are not meant simply to introduce a particular literary corpus, but rather to help its readers know how to better interpret said corpora, and this becomes the focus of the remainder of the book, beginning here at chapter three. Entitled Preparing for Interpretation of Apocalyptic Literature, Taylor guides the reader through what is perhaps the most difficult aspect of encountering apocalyptic—how does one interpret it? Again, not surprisingly, Taylor uses Daniel as his example and provides five areas that will help readers prepare: (1) comprehending figurative language, (2) learning from reception history, (3) evaluating issues of textual transmission, (4) working with the original languages, and (5) benefiting from previous studies (88). Naturally, this section deals with some more technical aspects of interpretation, particularly concerning apocalyptic, but Taylor navigates with aplomb, though it bears repeating that this is introductory in nature and thus should serve only as a springboard into more detailed analyses.[4]

If chapter three addressed the preparatory work of interpretation, chapter four—Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature—puts spade to soil and informs the reader how to go about this task. Tools in hand, Taylor leads the ambitious reader through the rocky and resistant ground that is apocalyptic literature in such a way that they have a handle on how to make their way through these often-bewildering texts and derive a sensible understanding from them. While the foundational material is a critical component of any working thesis/argument, this section begins the real heart of the book. Taylor begins with step one—interpreting grammatically and historically, or what is often referred to as the “grammatical-historical method” of interpreting texts. This means that to best approach any ancient writing is to situate a text within the contexts of its original language and its original historical context, an approach that is well within the mainstream. While I think Taylor’s articulations here are solid and agreeable, I do have pause over one particular point. Using Daniel as his example, he states that the interpreter doesn’t need to be an expert, but needs to have “a working knowledge of the morphology of both Hebrew and Aramaic” (119). I worry that such statements are too generalized and vague and, consequently, may lead some readers to assume that even a basic knowledge of biblical languages is sufficient for competent translation, exegesis, and interpretation. I know Taylor personally and have studied under him and certainly don’t think that he believes this level of knowledge is sufficient, but as stated, I fear it could be interpreted that way by some readers.

The next factor to consider is the matter of genre, where apocalyptic proves to be quite tricky. While Taylor reiterates the various features of apocalyptic, e.g., figurative language, there is less “how-to” as far as interpretive practice and more general caution to be attentive to these matters. Thankfully, the following sections concerning interpretive clues and macrostructure are more helpful and practical. Also of great benefit to less-experienced handlers of apocalyptic are the final two sections of this chapter—respecting the silence of the text and pitfalls of interpretation. On the first point, Taylor rightly admonishes readers to limit their exegesis to what the text affirms—“[w]here the text is silent, we must learn to be silent” (127). On the various pitfalls of interpretation, Taylor also rightly indicates that apocalyptic more than just about any other portion of the OT “presents an opportunity for readers to respond in various ways that are not productive” (127).[5]

Chapter five—Proclaiming Apocalyptic Literature—is geared towards those who will ultimately fashion their exegesis into a sermon and/or bible study lesson. Taylor here provides sounds principles for transition from exegesis to dissemination of the text and its meaning. The last chapter—Sample Texts from Apocalyptic Literature—provides a walkthrough of sorts of two OT passages in which apocalyptic is present: Daniel 8:1–27 and Joel 2:28–32. Taylor chose these passages because they show “two different stages in the use of apocalyptic themes and language in the Old Testament” (153).  Joel, argues Taylor, “is illustrative of a transition from traditional Israelite prophecy to an emerging apocalypticism,” whereas Daniel 8 “is illustrative of a fully developed apocalypticism” (153). Overall, this final chapter provides a helpful rubber-meets-road demonstration of how one should approach apocalyptic literature, at least as it is found in the OT.

The book contains one appendix and I am glad this was included—Antecedents of Apocalyptic Literature. Here Taylor briefly surveys the precursors to apocalyptic in the OT. Just as it is important to know how to approach the apocalypticism in the OT, it is also of great benefit to understand the historical development of apocalyptic in general. The best way to start that endeavor is to study other cultures for whom apocalyptic literature, or at least apocalyptic elements, formed part of their cultural matrix. Taylor touches on Canaanite mythology, Akkadian prophecy, Mesopotamian traditions,[6] Egyptian apocalypticism, Wisdom literature, and temple theology, Hellenistic syncretism, Persian religion (e.g., the dualism of Zoroastrian literature), and prophetic literature more generally.[7]

In sum, I think Taylor has provided a very useful volume, particularly those who are new to apocalyptic. Others who are better versed in apocalyptic will still find some benefit in this work, but substantially less than one would find in more specialized works. While there are some minor shortcomings, Taylor’s work is well written and accessible to students, pastors, teachers, and others who experience the virtually-requisite intimidation resulting in staring down apocalyptic texts in the OT. While I would probably recommend other works that more generally and comprehensively introduce apocalyptic literature,[8] for those hoping to know how to better interpret apocalyptic, especially with the end goal of preaching said texts, this would definitely be a worthwhile recommendation.

[1] I appreciate the analogy of Dorothy’s arrival in Oz from The Wizard of Oz to the experience many readers have when first encountering apocalyptic literature—it’s quite fitting!

[2] For those who are interested in further reading about apocalyptic beyond the confines of the Hebrew Bible, Taylor provides plenty of footnotes and bibliographic entries.

[3] Once in a seminar, he was discussing bibliographies and his on Daniel I want to say surpassed 2,000 entries.

[4] Interestingly, Taylor’s discussion of working with the original languages is actually an annotated bibliography of various tools available to assist in working with languages—it does not discuss linguistics, grammar, etc.—the how of working with/in languages.

[5] These various pitfalls are unnecessary ignorance, misplaced certainty, manipulation of details, and creation of arbitrary timetables.

[6] What exactly constitutes “Mesopotamian traditions” is somewhat vague, so readers will have to consult works in the footnotes to obtain a clearer understanding of what these are.

[7] Here Taylor highlights a facet of apocalyptic that has hitherto fore been neglected—apocalyptic as resistance literature. While brief, I am pleased to see this faced of apocalyptic introduced to the reader.

[8] Cf. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016); Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).

 

On Grief and Eschatology

Concerning Paul’s words in 1 Thess 4:13–18, Linda Bridges says “Paul’s words are intended to create a space for comfort for his grieving friends, not a millennial event chart for eager sky watchers.”1

  1. Linda McKinnish Bridges, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 118.

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Book Review: A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament

Commentary-on-Manuscripts-and-Text-of-the-NT

A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament

by Philip Wesley Comfort

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I’ll readily admit that textual criticism of the NT is an area of study I prefer not to travel (during my comps I dreaded it more than the rest!). I say this not because I think the practice is unimportant, but because I don’t particularly enjoy the actual work itself. I’ll also be the first to champion, however, the importance of textual criticism. After all, before we can interpret the text, we must know what comprises the text, and it is the brave textual critics who saunter down this troublesome path for this most noble cause. So, as with many other disciplines that are entangled in the study of the NT, I appreciate the fruits of others’ laborious efforts to produce works in areas in which I am inadequately skilled to navigate, Comfort’s work here a prime example.

I would think any student of the NT who has progressed beyond an introductory course on matters related to the NT have used with great benefit Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Comfort’s work could possibly be of equal value to those seeking to wrangle and tame the multitude of textual variants that decorate the many manuscripts behind our NT. I do not wish, however, to suggest that Comfort’s work is the same as Metzger’s—not at all—but that Comfort has provided for students and scholars a work that focuses on a smaller segment of the manuscript population, i.e., the papyri, which as Comfort states “are among the most important manuscripts because they get us closer to the autographs” (20).

This volume breaks down into essentially three sections: (1) Introduction to the manuscripts, text, and nomina sacra, (2) an annotated list of all the “most important” manuscripts of the NT, and (3) commentary on the text, which is divided along traditional lines (e.g., Gospels, Acts, Pauline letters, etc.). The first section orients the reader to the various papyrus collections, e.g., Oxyrhynchus, Bodmer, et al, and to the general process of evaluating manuscripts to determine what weight they might lend to particular readings. Comfort thankfully condenses this information into a few pages and devotes the majority of this opening section to the discussion of the nomina sacra (the abbreviation of a divine name or title—hereafter referred to as n. s.) This was one question that leapt out at me upon perusing the front matter—why the discussion of the n. s.? Comfort believes that the ubiquity of the n. s. merits attention and dedicates a significant number of pages discussing its various forms, potential provenances, and ultimately the significance (31–42, 419–43) This discussion is, from what I can recall, largely absent from most intro texts to TC, so Comfort’s inclusion of it in this volume will likely prove helpful for some. Section two, the manuscript list, is also quite helpful for those wishing to get an idea of a particular manuscript’s origin, age, textual affinities, etc. Comfort lists the earliest manuscripts—the papyri—which date to pre-300.

The real meat of this volume, not surprisingly, is section two—the commentary proper. Here Comfort discusses what he thinks is the original wording for particular verses, i.e., those for which there are variants in the papyri. In general, Comfort is fairly conservative in his handling of variants (if the designator “conservative” is even helpful), but does opt for readings occasionally that deviate from the majority. This section (and book) is most useful (obviously) when read in concert with work one may be doing on a particular variant rather than categorizing Comfort’s approach as more or less conservative—I only do so to be loosely descriptive. For some of the more prickly TC problems in the NT, Comfort provides decent discussion, such as the question of the ending of Mark’s Gospel (197–206) and the ending of Romans (312–16). For other issues, such as John’s Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11; pgs. 258–59), the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7–8; pg. 396–97), Eph 1:1 (340), and the number of the beast in Rev 13:18 (410–11) all receive decent discussion. For a volume that seeks to address as many variants as it does, the length of comment for these issues is commendable.

In sum, Comfort has produced an immensely useful and handy guide to aid readers of the NT. While Comfort’s volume certainly will not supplant Metzger’s (not that such is even the aim), but will serve as a welcome companion to a work that is itself perhaps the go-to guide for variant commentary.

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Today’s Reading from the Ancient World

Today’s ancient reading comes from the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of ecstatic prophecies that were common in the ancient world. This particular text comes from the first book and touches on a number of elements found in the Hebrew Bible and the NT. Enjoy!

Beginning from the first generation of articulate men
down to the very last, I will prophesy all in turn,

such tings as were before, as are, and as will come upon

the world through the impiety of men.

5 First God bids me tell truly how the world

came to be. But you, devious mortal, so that you may never neglect my commands,

attentively make known the most high king. It was he who created

the whole world, saying, “let it come to be” and it came to be.

For he established the earth, draping it around with

10 Tartarus, and he himself gave sweet light.

He elevated heaven, and stretched out the gleaming sea,

and he crowned the vault of heaven amply with bright-shining stars

and decorated the earth with plants. He mixed the sea

with rivers, pouring them in, and with the air he mingled fragrances,

15 and dewy clouds. He placed another species,

fish, in the seas, and gave birds to the winds;

to the woods, also, shaggy wild beasts, and creeping

serpents to the earth; and all things which now are seen.

He himself made these things with a word, and all came to be,

20 swiftly and truly. For he is self-begotten

looking down from heaven. Under him the world has been brought to

completion.

Translation is John Collins’ taken from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume One: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 335.

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Ancient Remedies

One of the more enjoyable aspects of researching ancient culture is what you learn that is secondary to the subject on which you’re reading and/writing. I’m finishing up a research paper that led me to Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE. His still-famous Naturalis Historia (Natural History) became a classic work. It is essentially a catalog of the plant and animal kingdoms in Pliny’s culture. But far from merely describing the flora and fauna of his world, Pliny provides countless remedies that are comprised of various animal parts. For your dermatological needs, consider the following remedies:

  • A vulture’s blood, beaten up with cedar resin and root of white chameleon and covered with a cabbage leaf, when applied, is good for the cure of leprosy; the same, too, with the legs of locusts, beaten up with he-goat suet.
  • Pimples are treated with poultry grease, beaten up and kneaded with onions.
  • One very useful substance for the face is honey in which the bees have died; but a sovereign detergent for that part is swans’ grease, which has also the property of effacing wrinkles.
  • Brand-marks are removed by using pigeons’ dung, diluted in vinegar.

For your throat problems, consider these remedies:

  • Affections of the uvula and pains in the fauces are alleviated by using the dung of lambs before they have begun to graze, dried in the shade.
  • The same maladies (uvular maladies) are treated also with ashes of burnt swallows, mixed with honey; a preparation which is equally good for affections of the tonsillary glands.
  • Millepedes, bruised with pigeons’ dung, are taken as a gargle, with raisin wine.

For your shoulder problems, get yourself some ashes of a burnt weasel and mix with wax—it’s a cure for pains in the shoulders.

Want your teens to be nice and smooth beneath the arms? Have them rub their arm pits with ants’ eggs.

And what ancient didn’t have issues with stomach pains! Remedies were plentiful! According to Pliny, one of the very best remedies for affections of the stomach is to use a snail diet. They must first be left to simmer in water for some time, without touching the contents of the shell, after which, without any other addition, they must be grilled upon hot coals, and eaten with wine and garum; the snails of Africa being the best of all for the purpose. But remember, snails will give you bad breath!

If you’re afflicted with having to spit blood, use a vulture’s lungs, burnt upon vine logs, and mixed with half the quantity of pomegranate blossoms, or with the same proportion of quince and lily blossom: the whole being taken morning and evening, in wine, if there is no fever; but where there are symptoms of fever, instead of wine, water is used in which quinces have been boiled.

There’s plenty more, and these I’ve reproduced here are rather mild in comparison to some others he names. Go here to read more.

Ah, the ancients—how entertaining they can be!

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Interesting Similarities

I’m always intrigued when I encounter similarities between the texts of the Bible and other ancient literature. One such example I happened upon while reading about Heracles’ twelve labors. For his eleventh labor (Apollodorus Library 2.5.11), Heracles was commissioned by Eurystheus to bring him the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which were a gift from Gaia to Zeus and Hera at their wedding. These apples were the source of immortality for the gods and, interestingly, were guarded by a dragon, itself the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.

So, a tree of apples (fruit) that gave immortality which was guarded by a serpent–where have I read of such things before? Yes, this is obviously quite different from the Genesis account, but it is quite interesting that these elements–fruit, unnaturally long life, and a serpent–are all together in the same story.

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Classical Literature in the Movies

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an interest in classical literature. Many of the stories I’ve known about for much of my life (Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, et al), but I never really cared about nor appreciated them until more recently. I’m fascinated by the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome and I happen to love epic movies, so I wonder–what are the best ancient stories/classics that have been made into film?

I remember seeing some movies of this sort when I was a kid, but film production has come a long way since then. Surely some of those stories have been made more recently?! I saw that The Odyssey was made back in the 90s, so that might be ok, but who wouldn’t love to see both of Homer’s epics done by Peter Jackson Lord-of-the-Rings style?!? Now that would be, to put it in the well-worn youngster vernacular, epic! (see what I did there?)

Let me know what I’m missing!

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