Book Review—Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook


Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook
by Richard A. Taylor
Kregel | Amazon | CBD

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).


Today’s Reading from the Ancient World

I’ve been consumed with PhD exams, so I’ve not blogged much at all and thought this would be an easy reentry to the practice.This is just for the sake of reading tidbits of ancient literature, so there will be no commentary of other insights unless I feel it’s something I’d like to note.

So, today’s reading comes from the Mishnah, the Shabbat tractate, 7:2ff (concerning the prohibition of labors on the Sabbath):

A. The generative categories of acts of labor [prohibited on the Sabbath] are forty less one:

B. 1 he who sews, 2 ploughs, 3 reaps, 4 binds sheaves, 5 threshes, 6 winnows, 7 selects [fit from unfit produce or crops, 8 grinds, 9 sifts, 10 kneads, 11 bakes;

C. 12 he who shears wool, 13 washes it, 14 beats it, 15 dyes it;

D. 16 spins, 17 weaves

E. 18 makes two loops, 19 weaves two threads, 20 separate two threads

F. 21 ties, 22 unties

G. 23 sews two stitches, 24 tears in order to sew two stitches;

H. 25 he who traps a deer, 26 slaughters it, 27 flays it, 28 salts it, 29 cures its hide, 30 scrapes it, 31 cuts it up;

I. 32 he who writes two letters, 33 erases two letters in order to write letters;

J. 34 he who builds, 35 tears down;

K. 36  he who puts out a fire, 37 kindles a fire

L. 38 he who hits with a hammer, 39 he who transports an object from one domain to another–

M. lo, these are the forty generative acts of labor less one.

From The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 187–88.