In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with professor Martha Himmelfarb about what the Bible means when it talks about the apocalypse as they explore the following questions:
- What does apocalyptic mean?
- Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?
- What is meant by the “end of the world”?
- Do we need to understand apocalypse to understand Jesus?
- Where is apocalyptic literature found in the Bible?
- What’s the difference between prophesy and apocalyptic literature?
- Why did apocalyptic literature start becoming popular?
- Are there other apocalyptic books that didn’t make it into the biblical canon?
- What is the Book of the Watchers?
- What are some key features of apocalyptic literature?
- Where does apocalyptic thought show up throughout the New Testament?
- Is the afterlife a part of apocalyptic thinking?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Martha Himmelfarb you can share.
- “One could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the Christian narrative. It’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. That’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense.” — Martha Himmelfarb
- “Conflicts between nations on earth is understood as the earthly counterpart of conflict that’s taking place in the heavens, and each nation has its prince, its angelic embodiment.” — Martha Himmelfarb
- “All these angels are a way of saying, you know, the divine world is very accessible. There are a lot of angels around and you can have contact with them.” — Martha Himmelfarb
- “Those glimpses of the other world must be very inspiring, you know, to have some sense, even a glimpse of what that heavenly reality looks like. I think that must be very appealing.” — Martha Himmelfarb
- “What do apocalypses add? I think probably they add some kind of confidence that the end is near or even if it isn’t near, that it’s certainly coming. God has promised the end is going to come, and it’s going to be an end that will be good for us. It will be bad for our persecutors, bad for the, you know, the evil empires out there and good for us.” — Martha Himmelfarb
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: A Commentary on Jeremiah
- Website: Martha Himmelfarb
- Book: The Apocalypse: A Brief History
- Course: Everyday Life in Ancient Israel
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today, we’re going to ask the question what does the Bible mean by the apocalypse? And we’re talking with Martha Himmelfarb, professor of religion at Princeton University for over 40 years, she knows her stuff.
Pete: Yeah, and her area of study is Judaism, starting from the Second Temple Period to up to Islam and you know, Jared, we keep coming back to this Second Temple Period business, and we might sound like a broken record, but frankly, I don’t really care. Do you, Jared? I think it’s a good record to break –
Pete: Because, you know, we could do an entire, like, we could do Second Temple Judaism for Normal People. This is what we could do. This whole thing –
Pete: Because it’s such an important period of time. And again, if you want the details, you can go back to the Paula Fredriksen episode where we talk a little bit more in the intro about what this period of time is, but basically it’s a time of the Second Temple Period, which is, that’s it. What else do you have to know?
Jared: It’s appropriately named, I mean.
Pete: 516 BCE to about 70 CE. That’s roughly, you know, a 600-year period almost, where the Second Temple was standing, and a lot of stuff happened in Judaism that really directly affected Christianity. So, it’s like a non-negotiable area of study if you want to understand Jesus and Paul and the rest of, just the early Christian movement.
Jared: Well, and to that point, if you really want to understand what the Bible means by the apocalypse, you have to understand Second Temple Judaism as well.
Pete: Right. Because it wasn’t invented in the book of Revelation. It’s actually already in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament or the First Testament, but in this world of Second Temple Judaism, it became more of the thing, let’s say, and there might be some reasons for that, believe it or not. So, yeah, that’s a big thing, and you know, she also mentions a term that I think has come up in other podcasts, Jared, but Hellenism, which is the influence of Greek culture on Judaism, which was a really, really big deal. Especially like, beginning in the 3rd century BCE and very much in the 2nd century and it caused a lot of tensions which led to something called the Maccabean revolt, and she mentions this as well. There is a period of time in the early 2nd century where the Greek ruler at the time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, really, really wanted to make Judaism very Greek looking, and with the support of some Jews, oddly enough. Like, all Jews weren’t against this. Things like, you know, what you eat and worshipping in the temple a certain way, and you know, he sacrificed a pig to Zeus in the temple, which is like five layers of like desecrating the temple. But the Maccabees and the family called the Maccabees led by, you know, father and some sons after him, they fought for independence, and that’s where the holiday of Hannukah comes. So, but I know that Martha, she mentions the Maccabees somewhat in passing, but it’s like, one of these core moments and core periods in the development of Judaism that had a real direct impact on the New Testament. So, it’s just good stuff to keep remembering all these sort of terms and some of these dates are actually pretty important, I think.
Jared: All right.
Pete: All right, folks. Let’s listen to this episode with Martha Himmelfarb!
Martha: One could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the Christian narrative. It’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. That’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense. The book of Revelation looks, from a literary point of view, very different from the Gospels, but the content of the Gospels certainly could be described as apocalyptic.
Pete: So yeah, why don’t we start right there Martha. Why don’t you define for us this word that, like, we use a lot but that word apocalyptic, which, may not mean… it’s a word that might not mean what people think it means.
Martha: Right, well it probably does mean what they think it means, but it means other things as well. It’s, so, the Greek word, the Greek root apocalypto means to uncover something. So, it really means a revelation and I think that the book of Revelation in the New Testament is the first work to label itself, apokalypsis, a revelation, and that probably, you know, is very important for how the word has been received.
And when most people think about apocalypse or apocalyptic, they think about the end of the world, but in fact, most of the, well, most of my own work has been devoted to apocalypses that aren’t so interested in the end of the world, they’re more interested in other kinds of revelation about the secrets of the heavens, the secrets of the cosmos, God’s throne, the fate of souls after death. So, all these things –
Pete: Well, Martha, back up. What do you mean, like end of the world? That, when I think of that, I think when a lot of people think of that they just mean, like, the explosion of the planet earth and disintegrating into nothing. Is that what you mean by end of the world? Like, its physical destruction?
Martha: So, I think, you know, I’m trying to represent what, you know, ancient Jews and Christians think, and they certainly don’t think the world is going to end in that sense. They think history as we know it is going to come to an end because God is going to bring it to an end and, you know, they have different thoughts about how exactly that will come about, but they do imagine an era beginning that is, you know, totally different from the world that we’re living in now.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: So, I’m just trying to wrap my mind around the differences between those two things. I think because of my tradition, those would have been conflated. I’m having a hard time pulling apart the end of the world from the destruction of the world and even some of the language you used, I kind of automatically just, I think put a bunch of baggage into that. So, when the ancients were talking about the end of the world, could you maybe just flesh out a little more of what that might’ve looked like for them?
Martha: I mean, I think, if you think of Daniel, so, you know, there were two apocalypses that made it into the Christian cannon, only one that made it into the Jewish cannon; Daniel in the Jewish cannon, and Daniel and Revelation in the Christian cannon. Daniel, you know, has that picture of the four empires that will succeed each other ruling the world, and at the very end there will be, you know, the kingdom of the holy ones of the most high. So, there will be a new world empire that will be God’s empire. So, I don’t think any kind of, you know, there are a lot of war had to take place, and presumably it brought some destruction with it, but the world didn’t have to be destroyed and recreated there. So, if you follow the book of Daniel, you imagine major political changes, but you don’t imagine that, you know, the world needs to be physically annihilated.
Pete: So, it’s like the end of the world as we know it, so to speak, the way it functions, the way it operates?
Martha: Yes, I guess you could say that, and you know, it’s not always entirely clear whether it’s simply a matter of who the ruling powers will be or whether nature will somehow be transformed. I mean, that seems to be, you know, going back as far as Isaiah, that seems to be an idea about what will happen in the last days, but many of the apocalypses aren’t really explicit about that. But, you know, I think you can imagine a somewhat more, less catastrophic apocalypse than maybe the popular view.
Jared: So, how does that function together? Because again, this is going to be an episode where I bring probably a lot of my baggage from my childhood in, but I, because one of the things that I think was pretty prominent was all of these apocalyptic pieces fit together to make one giant end times story, right? So, you have these pieces of Isaiah and we gotta put that together with these pieces of Daniel, and if you can kind of crack the code, so to speak, you can put together this mosaic of what the end times will look like and then we can sort of backfill and kind of figure it out from there so we can all see the signs of the end times and you know, Revelation is obviously a big part of, it’s a bigger puzzle piece. And, how would these have fit together in, like, you know, when the author or compiler of Revelation is putting this together, how would it have fit with Isaiah and Daniel and yeah, just curious how that would’ve happened.
Martha: That’s a really good, that’s a great way of sort of thinking about it. And I mean, I actually think Revelation is, you know, tremendously influential because it becomes part of the cannon, but it’s also quite distinctive and in some ways, really unusual. Apocalypses typically do draw on earlier traditions, but Revelation, I think, you know, just that the way it makes use of prophetic, the language of prophets of Ezekiel and Isaiah and its use of Daniel, I mean, I think they’re really more almost than any other apocalypse I can think of, the language is just so profoundly indebted to earlier prophets.
And I think actually, I mean, my own view is that John is, we think that when he calls his book Apokalypsis, you know, Revelation, he’s entering it in this new genre, but I think he really wants to represent himself as a prophet. You know, he sees himself standing in the same tradition as Isaiah and Ezekiel, and I think for him, Daniel was also a prophet.
Martha: So, I think he’s creating his picture of the end of days drawing on what, yes, what for him are authoritative works. And then, of course, as Revelation becomes an authoritative work, you’re right, it becomes yet another element of this schema that Christians particularly will draw.
Pete: Yeah, and you mention Isaiah a couple of times, and in the context of an apocalyptic, right? So, here you have a biblical prophet that’s a complex book, you know, it’s stages and over centuries, you know, was expanded upon and such and such. But we think of Isaiah as basically a prophet, but there are you know, there seem to be apocalyptic elements in the book of Isaiah. So, can you expand a little bit on like, what’s the difference between prophecy and apocalyptic, and why would you have two things like that in the same book and, you know?
Martha: Yeah. I think it’s a really, that’s a wonderful question and it’s a very complicated question, so I hope, you know, I’ll probably forget where I’m going, so just pull me back.
Martha: So, I mean, one way of thinking about it is, you know, prophets have views of how the world is going to end; prophesy sort of, at least, the prophets who make it into the Hebrew Bible sort of peter out sometime, you know, not so long after the rebuilding of the Second Temple. It doesn’t mean there weren’t people running around giving prophesy, but then this other form of revelation seems to emerge sometime in the later part of the Second Temple Period. One difference, I think, you know, that people rightly point to when it comes to thinking about this, you know, this coming end of the world as we know it, is in general, I mean, Isaiah here again is a little bit of an exception, but if you look at Amos, go back to the very beginnings of prophesy, Amos tells you you really shouldn’t be hoping for the day of the Lord. It’s darkness and not light, bad things are going to happen, it’s going to be disastrous. And really, the message is repent and that won’t happen. Apocalyptic literature seems to look forward to the coming of the end, and you should repent, because that will mean you’re one of the righteous and you’ll get to enjoy the new world that’s going to emerge, but it’s not, it’s not telling you to repent so that the end will be close by.
Pete: Can I just interrupt just to have clarity, for I think, timelines here. You mentioned Amos, the beginning of prophesy. So, Amos is like 8th century?
Martha: That’s right.
Pete: Right? And the day of the Lord is not something you want to, like, just don’t go there. But then you mention the Second Temple Period, and you may have said the late Second Temple Period for, and not to put words in your mouth, the emergence of apocalyptic, a different way of thinking? Or…
Martha: Well, yeah… I mean, the question of when apocalyptic literature emerges is one question and the question of when an apocalyptic way of thinking emerges is a different question. Probably those, you know, the idea that history is all determined and that there’s going to be some kind of major break that we can’t do anything about, I think that probably emerges probably in the later part, yaybe in the Hellenistic period. You know, we have it in Daniel, so that puts us in the middle of the 2nd century BCE when exactly, you know, those ideas emerge, I think it’s hard to say.
Pete: But, can you take a stab at why they emerge?
Martha: So, I think one possibility is that the political circumstances are sufficiently different. That idea that, you know, repentant things will get better, which is meaningful in a period when the people of Israel enjoyed sovereignty and lived in their own land. Now, when they’ve been living under foreign imperial rule for a long time, that, you know, it seems as if history is heading in a particular direction and it’s not a good direction and all that can change things is for God to intervene in some way. They don’t have a king anymore, they don’t have an army, so they need God to, you know, bring history to an end. I think that’s probably a part of it.
Some recent scholarship has argued that it’s, that an important component of this is the Seleucid’s have a new way of thinking about time. That the Seleucid’s, the, so the Hellenistic dynasty that came to rule Palestine from the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, that this dynasty, Seleucus was one of Alexander’s generals, and when Alexander died, his empire got divided up among his generals. Seleucus, the dynasty Seleucus founded at the beginning of the 3rd century, at the end of the 4th, beginning of the 3rd century BCE, had a particular attitude toward time. It became counting time from Seleucus’ ascendency, and it just kept counting. It didn’t go rain by rain by rain. So, it represented itself as something new and that maybe apocalyptic literature is a kind of response to that. You know, you have your time, well, we have a different kind of time. I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that, but it’s what I think is useful about that is it reminds us, you know, that these ideas emerge both in the context of ancient Judaism and later ancient Christianity, but that there’s a larger world out there as well, which has an impact on it. Precisely what the impact is, I wish I could tell you.
Jared: Well, one thing I think that’s important is in that, you know, one implication of that is we’ve talked about Isaiah and Daniel and almost like, these proto-apocalyptic, they’re not fully developed in that way. And then we have Revelation, which seems to be very sophisticated, and then there’s this whole time period in between, the Second Temple Period, where there are books that didn’t make it into our cannon that look very similar to some of these other books. There were other apocalypses that were being written during this time. Would that be fair to say? What are some of those that maybe we wouldn’t have heard of?
Martha: Okay. Well, let me, I would want to make one adjustment to what you said. That is, critical scholars would tell you that Daniel was as composed, Daniel has probably earlier material in it, but that it takes a form in which we have it now probably right during the Maccabean revolt. So, that’s actually, we can date it, you know, if you’re skeptical about its ability to prophesy, if you think that it gets historical events right up to a certain point and then it doesn’t seem to get them right, you can date it pretty precisely to the middle of the Maccabean revolt. So, that would put it in the 160’s BCE.
Jared: So, it’s more squarely into that Second Temple Period, it just is one that got in the cannon.
Martha: That’s right. And it’s a very interesting question why it got in the cannon when it now, it looks like it may be the earliest work we would identify as an apocalypse that’s primarily concerned with the end of history, but it’s not the earliest work that people have, you know, usually talked about as an apocalypse. Let me talk about, you know, a great favorite of mine, which is not maybe not the earliest apocalypse, but it’s certainly the, it has some claim to be called that and extremely influential text, and that’s the Book of the Watchers. It survives, or it’s passed down as part of the Ethiopic book of 1 Enoch, but it’s also preserved, you know, quite fragmentary form in Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but those Aramaic fragments allow us to be pretty confident that it’s a little bit earlier than Daniel, and we’ve got some Greek for it also. So, we’re not just dependent on a significantly later translation. And what’s really interesting to me about it is, you know, there’s some interesting points of contact with Daniel. You know, the famous throne vision in Daniel 7 where Daniel sees the Ancient of Days seated on his fiery throne. There’s a description of Enoch ascends to heaven and he sees God in the throne, the great glory he calls God, enthroned, and the description is very close. And I don’t think that Daniel was using the Book of the Watchers, but they appear to have a source in common there, a poetic source probably. But this is a book that involves in part, a retelling or a set of traditions about those sons of God who marry daughters of men and all sorts of bad things happen. In Genesis 6, and Genesis 6 just sort of gestures as them, but the Book of the Watchers tells their story in much more detail, and then it has Enoch ascend to heaven where he sees God enthroned and he gets to talk to God, pretty much face to face, and then he takes a tour of the cosmos and a tour of the world, of the earth really. He sees cosmological phenomena, but he’s on the earth. He goes to parts of the earth no human being has ever seen in the company of angels.
So, he’s obviously got some kind of angelic status, which, you know, might remind you of Isaiah back in Isaiah 6 when Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple and God needs a messenger and Isaiah volunteers, you know, all those angels around him, but Isaiah gets to take the message.
Pete: So, there’s like an otherworldly dimension to apocalyptic too. You know, it’s the end of the, you know, it’s the end of the system of the age so to speak, and there’s a glimpse into a different kind of reality?
Martha: Yes, and the Book of the Watchers, I think, is much less concerned with the end of the age than it is with that different reality. I mean, one of the things that really, I find so fascinating about the book of Revelation is that for all, I mean, people tend to be focused on its interest in the end, but its full of that kind of other reality. I mean, John is watching what’s going on in the heavenly temple. He’s watching the liturgy of the heavenly temple, and even those events on earth are, have, you know, an impact on the heavenly temple. I mean, I think it’s, you know, there really are some very, it’s not a work that’s concerned only, I mean, for all its interest in the end, that’s not all its concerned with.
Jared: Well, I think that’s really important, and maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I also think of, I remember reading Bruggemann’s commentary on Jeremiah, and that really stood out that, you know, within prophesy we often think of that as telling a future kind of time distant reality, but often it’s a, in their mind, kind of a spatial, spatially distant reality. It’s what’s happening right now, but it’s happening in the heavenly realm and is that kind of, one thing that ties prophesy and apocalyptic together is they’re both trying to wrestle with the spiritual reality of what’s happening physically right now.
Martha: Yes, I think that’s right, and I think you might say that, you know, apocalyptic literature kind of makes that more kind of material –
Martha: You think of Daniel 10 when Gabriel appears to Daniel and tells him, well, I was busy trying to fight off the Prince of Persia, the Prince of Greece, and, but I had to come talk to you, so I sent Michael to, Michael agreed to take over for me so I could come and talk to you. So, clearly, conflicts between nations on earth is understood as the earthly counterpart of conflict that’s taking place in the heavens, and each nation has its prince, its angelic embodiment –
Martha: Representative, that’s right. So, I think the, you know, the difference between the way modern people look at the world and the way the apocalypses look at the world is the apocalypses think the really important action is taking place in heaven. You know, the armies on earth are only going to be as successful as the angels slugging it out in heaven, whereas, to go back to prophesy, I don’t think most prophets would put it in quite such concrete terms.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Martha: There’s, rightly said, there’s a kind of a spiritual reality and a physical reality on earth in some of the apocalypses, that spiritual reality has become very concrete.
Jared: Which is maybe something you would expect kind of at the end of the age, where these worlds begin to meld?
Martha: Yes, maybe. You know, I mean, I think, you know, this maybe raises the question of the role of angels. You know, angels certainly are present in the Hebrew Bible, and they do, I was talking a moment ago about the passage in Isaiah, they certainly play a role in prophesy, but I think they play even larger role in apocalyptic literature and you know, I mean, the old thing to say was, you know, the 19th, early 20th century thing was to say it’s because, you know, for ancient Jews, God had come to seem so distant and there was a sort of covert, not so covert view that, and that’s why we needed Christianity to fix this problem.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Martha: I, you know, I actually think you could argue the other way about all these angels. All these angels are a way of saying, you know, the divine world is very accessible. There are a lot of angels around and you can have contact with them, and in fact, the boundary is not for ordinary people so much, but for great figures, you know, heroes like Daniel and Enoch, they get to have conversations with angels. Enoch gets to go through the heavenly temple and stand before God where even the angels are scared to go. So, there’s something also very uplifting for human beings to feel that they’re able to have these, you know, these conversations with angels that the angel tells John in chapter 19, don’t call me Lord, I am your fellow servant. You know, so, human beings really can achieve the same, you know, status as angels.
So, I think you could actually flip it and say, you know, the multiplication of angels should be read as a kind of a sign of the nearness of the divine.
[Producer’s group endorsement]
Pete: So, okay, so we have in the New Testament, we have an apocalyptic book, so called, the book of Revelation, which is apocalyptic. But I guess what’s striking me is there are apocalyptic elements, maybe, not to overstate, maybe throughout the New Testament and maybe can we talk about that a little bit? Because there are things that might be, might make more sense to readers of the New Testament if they’re aware of the apocalyptic background to some of these things. So, do you, I mean, do you have anything that you want to comment on, anything come to mind immediately about that?
Martha: Well, I mean, I think the whole, you know, the whole, from, what one could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the whole, you know, scenario of the Christian narrative, that is, you know, that’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. I mean, that’s, that’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense. And, you know, this just goes to the different, you know, the scholarly interest in defining the genre of apocalyptic, you know, the book of Revelation looks from a literary point of view, very different from the Gospels, but the content of the Gospels certainly could be described as apocalyptic from, you know, from many points of view.
Pete: Yeah, and that’s a different model, I think, for people who are reading the New Testament, for many people, to think about how pervasive this idea of apocalyptic is. I mean, isn’t one of the ways of describing Jesus was to call him an apocalyptic prophet or something, an apocalyptic preacher? Or, that seems to be sort of central to what he was all about. Not, I guess, again, I don’t want to drive too sharp a wedge that’s not necessary between apocalyptic and prophesy, but if Jesus was sort of a prophet, he’s an apocalyptic kind of prophet.
Martha: Yes, absolutely. You think of John the Baptist, I mean, that’s, you know, certainly that kind of preaching, that repent because the kingdom of God is coming really soon, and you’re repenting not to make it not come and to have God change his mind, you’re repenting so that when he comes, you will be, you know, judged as one of the righteous.
Martha: Yes, I think –
Pete: And not to state the obvious, but let’s do it anyway. This is a really good, maybe, example for why understanding Jesus in the New Testament is more than just sort of poking our noses in portions of the Hebrew Bible. There’s also this development of the idea of an apocalypse, or apocalyptic genre that seems to be so foundational to a story that, you know, people read in church on every Sunday, and we just sort of read these words, but when you look at them historically there’s a background to some of this stuff that Jesus says, and I guess Paul too. I mean, where do you see an apocalyptic element in Paul or is that just all over the place too? Like in the Gospels.
Martha: Yeah, no, I think it’s all over the place.
Martha: I mean, I’m always, I mean, it seems to me, you know, my reading of Paul, you know, it seems to me that he’s really expecting the world to end any day now, very, very soon. He also, I mean, I think, you know, one of the things that I think is interesting and maybe this is more surprising to people coming at this material from the direction of ancient Judaism than for people raised in the Christian tradition, but, you know, I think there’s sometimes a feeling that, you know, the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, the more human Jesus is more in keeping with Jewish expectations, but I actually think that’s not true at all. If you look at Daniel, is there a Messiah in Daniel? Not so clear that there’s a human Messiah. I mean, there’s, you know, Michael seems to be some kind of, that son of man figure, whoever that is.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Martha: So, I, you know, I think that’s, you know, Paul’s, if you can use this, Paul and his very high Christology and his view of a really exalted Christ, and Revelation as well. I mean, I, you know, it’s become, if I can, I don’t know if this is of interest to you, but you know, it was very popular when I was in graduate school to talk about Paul as, you know, one of the most important writers we have from Jewish writers of the 1st century. You know, how many Jewish writers that we know by name do we have from the 1st century? Very few, and Paul is one of them. I think that’s absolutely right, and Paul should inform what we think about 1st century Judaism, but I think that’s even more true of the book of Revelation. I mean, as I read the book of Revelation, John is someone who parts company with Paul. He thinks purity laws actually are important. I mean, I take it to be, you know, not just coming out of Jewish tradition, but to be, you know, not to be convinced that you should really get rid of all that stuff the way Paul seems to be. So, I think Revelation is very important for, to flip your question, I mean, yes, obviously to understand earliest Christianity, you need to understand ancient Jewish apocalyptic expectations. But I would flip it and say that, you know, early Christianity gives us some very good evidence for what ancient Jews thought.
Pete: Yeah, and I guess, that’s a really interesting observation about the difference between the book of Revelation and Paul and the question of purity and I’m sure other things as well, as a reminder that there are different kinds of Judaism in the 1st century that are shaping themselves around this Jesus person, this leader, their Messiah, but they still, they’re still picking up maybe on different strands of Jewish traditions which was diverse, and I guess, so, it shouldn’t surprise readers of the New Testament to see that kind of theological diversity embedded into the pages because they were not always looking at things the same way.
Martha: No, that seems exactly right, and of course, there are all kinds of other, you know, factors, influences, cultural, culture that has an impact on the New Testament, but I think that’s exactly right that even the Jewish materials are very varied.
Pete: Yeah. Can we, another thought is coming to my mind here, and that is the, I guess the role of the afterlife in all of this? Is it, first of all, is it accurate to say that a part of apocalyptic thinking involves afterlife thinking as well?
Martha: That’s a really, that’s a great question. On the book, I mean, if you try to ask the question where does a belief in reward and punishment after death emerge in ancient Judaism, you know, if you read, it seems to me if you read most of pre-Second Temple Hebrew Bible with an open mind, you know, it’s certainly not that they think people cease to exist at death, but it doesn’t sound like there’s reward and punishment. There’s Sheol, and it doesn’t sound like it’s a great place to be, and I guess if you’re lucky you get gathered to your ancestors and then maybe that’s a more pleasant form of Sheol. So, when does that idea emerge and I think it’s, you know, hard to say exactly when, but in the Book of the Watchers, so probably at the end of the 3rd, beginning of the 2nd century when Enoch is taking his tour to the ends of the earth, one of the things he sees are some hollows in which souls are stored waiting for the last judgment. So, there’s the souls are kind of on hold until the last judgment. But there’s one hollow has a fountain and light, and that’s presumably for the good souls.
Martha: So, that’s kind of a way of integrating these things. This is certainly something that later Jewish tradition struggles with, how to relate the world to come as they call it, life after death, to the days of the Messiah. So, the Book of the Watchers has a kind of solution. Daniel, a little later, has a very kind of limited sense of resurrection there. I mean, many of those who sleep in the dust will awake. Some to everlasting life and some to eternal reproach. So, some of, some people are going to get resurrected and some of those, and you might think only good people would, but it sounds like some good people will and some bad people will.
Pete: Uh huh.
Martha: And that’s really curious, and I guess one way of making sense of it is to say that, you know, the Maccabean revolt means martyrdom, it means people dying precisely for their loyalty to the Torah. So, that creates a situation in which you need to imagine that there’s some kind of reward for them. It’s not, I’m sure it was obvious to people from earliest days that, you know, bad things happen to good people and good people doesn’t always have good lives, but, you know, the experience of the Maccabean persecution made that particularly evident. So, it may be that the idea is if you’re a good person and you live to a ripe old age and have a good life, you don’t need to get resurrected and if you’re a bad person and you came to a bad end you don’t need to get resurrected, but the people who didn’t get their just desserts, I’m really not sure what to make of that and it’s kind of surprising to me that it’s not more developed there. But, you know, within the next century or so, the idea really takes off and you can certainly see that in the New Testament where I think, you know, I mean, it’s an idea that ancient Jews, I think, probably contributed to ancient Christians and shared with them.
Pete: So, again, I’m trying not to oversimplify, but what I’m hearing you say is that this whole idea of reward and punishment in the afterlife, it’s hard to pin like, a particular cause that might develop that, but persecution seems to be, you’re saying it seems to have a role in that. God has to have something better than this.
Martha: Yes. That may be.
Martha: Another thing people have played with is, you know, when the Jews met the Greeks and at least some strands of Greek tradition, the platonic tradition and other strands think that the soul is immortal, that maybe that gave some kind of impetus. I mean, I don’t think it’s a borrowed idea, but there might be things that encourage the growth of the idea. And again, it’s not that I think that the earliest literature thinks that, you know, has a kind of naturalistic, you know, death is the end view, but I don’t think it’s, you know, it’s not reward and punishment. That is a later development and it may have to do with persecution, but I’m, it’s not, it’s, you know, you would like Daniel to be much more explicit about that if we’re going to that route.
Jared: So, I want to maybe go back a little bit big picture and can you say again, maybe more about the function of apocalyptic? So, I would assume as a piece of literature, something that’s being passed around and read and passed down, there’s some value here to a community that’s beyond the imagery and, you know, painting a historical picture of the end of the world or end of the age. So, what’s the real function for why this would’ve flourished at this particular time?
Martha: Yeah, well, I think it continues to flourish. So, you know, I, I mean, I’ve done a lot of work on a Jewish, I don’t want to call it an apocalypse because I don’t think it knows there is such a thing as apocalypse, but an apocalyptic text written in Hebrew in the early 7th century of this era, that’s all excited because the Persians have reconquered Jerusalem and it’s no longer in Christian hands, and they think that means, you know, the Messiah is coming or the two Messiahs are coming any day now and they prophesy all this in, you know, in the 620’s and they have no idea that, you know, pretty soon Jerusalem isn’t going to be in Persian or Christian hands, but in Muslim hands. So, it’s an ongoing thing is I think true among Christians as well that this literature doesn’t go away. So, I think, I mean, which all the more says it fills some kind of need.
Martha: And I think the need, look, the predicative part, if you’re a good enough interpreter you can make anything work, you know, in an ongoing way. I mean, the predictions, the times can all have passed, you know, there’s a great apocalypse called 4 Ezra from shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, and he has a vision of the four beasts from the sea that picks up on Daniel’s vision, but the last beast is an eagle. And God says to Ezra, you know, I didn’t tell your brother Daniel about this, but the fourth beast is this eagle is actually the Romans.
So, I mean, it’s not quite, I didn’t quite give him the full story. So, you can do that, you know, indefinitely. So, I think it does fill some other kind of need as well and I, you know, I don’t think there are any communities that read only apocalypses, they read other things too. What do apocalypses add? I think probably they add some kind of confidence that the end is near or even if it isn’t near, that it’s certainly coming. God has promised the end is going to come, and it’s going to be an end that will be good for us. It will be bad for our persecutors, bad for the, you know, the evil empires out there and good for us, and I think also, those glimpses of, you know, the other world must be, you know, very inspiring, you know, to have some sense, you know, even a glimpse of what that heavenly reality looks like. I think that must be very appealing.
Pete: And, you know, not to get political, and I do mean that, but we can understand maybe the appeal of apocalyptic genre throughout history, really, for political situations. Maybe in part because of the context of political realities of the ancient world that might’ve given rise to it in the first place. But, the us versus them, the powers of light versus the powers of darkness kind of thing which, you know, is in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. That’s language that, that’s around today in America, that hasn’t gone any place and it’s easy to sort of, people forget the Beatitudes really quickly, but we latch onto this either/or black and white dualistic thinking which seems to be, again, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be part of the property, almost, of apocalyptic thinking. There are, there’s a divide here. Which side are you going to be on?
Martha: Yes, I think that’s right. I think some of this literature and, you know, again, this is, you know, this is interesting kind of tension between, you know, the way Judaism develops and late Christianity develops, some of this literature at least, doesn’t really give up on the people of Israel.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Martha: So, and, you know, in one way, so that’s particularist, and I think in the modern world we like universalism better than particularism, but it’s also kind of collective and it’s much less, you know, light and dark. So, and you can also, you can decide who the people of Israel are. For early Christians, it was obvious that they were the people of Israel. So, I think you’re right, that in the Dead Sea Scrolls at least, the most sectarian texts, they hold onto that language of Israel because that’s their ancestral language. But it really isn’t so meaningful to them anymore, for them, the meaningful distinction is between the righteous who constitute you know, .001 of the world –
Martha: And everybody else, which means all Gentiles and the 99 point whatever of Jews. So, that’s a really kind of radical dualism. I think that language, you know, the more kind of communal language, I mean, I find it more congenial because I think, you know, it allows for, you don’t have to, it doesn’t imagine as radical a difference between in and out.
Jared: Well, and maybe a more charitable, I don’t, you can correct me here because I’m going to maybe go off on something, but a more charitable reading might actually interpret that as hope, you know, in some ways, it’s the us versus them, but in other ways it’s a hope that God will overcome or intervene on our behalf.
Martha: Yes, it’s certainly that. I mean, I think in the Dead Sea Scrolls, you know, at least some of it is a kind of predestinarian view of the world that God has given everybody his place. You know, you were either born to light or born to darkness. So, in a way, you know, sort of you can relax and just go down the road, but of course, I mean I’m sure this is true in the Christian tradition as well, despite committing to a predestinarian view, these theologies always insist that you have to work very hard to make it clear that you actually belong to the children of light and not the children of darkness –
Jared: Uh huh.
Martha: And they struggle with people who look like they were children of light and then they fall away and people who didn’t start out there and want to join. So, it’s always, the reality is always more complicated than that, but I think probably, you know, for me, maybe, that’s the part that I personally find the most troubling theologically.
I don’t usually worry about the theology, the personal implications of the theology of texts that I study. That’s generally not my interest in them, but I do find that troubling. That doesn’t, it all seems very unfair to me that you could be predestined to something and then blamed for it.
Good point. Well, Martha, listen. I think we’ve done the impossible here today. We have exhausted this topic of apocalyptic. There’s nothing else to say.
Pete: Wouldn’t you agree? We’ve actually hit absolutely, no of course, I’m kidding. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but I think to do this fully this might end up being a ten-hour podcast.
Pete: Some of our listeners are gonna say please give us a ten-hour podcast on apocalyptic, but –
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: But I think we’ll have to do that another time. But are there, for our listeners, are there any like, projects you’re working on at the moment or if they want to, if they want to find out more about you, is there maybe a website at Princeton or someplace where they can find out more about you?
Martha: You can find me on the religion department website at Princeton. I have very little web presence I must confess, for better or for worse. I like to think of it as being a countercultural act on my part, but –
Pete: Now we’re gonna create a Facebook page for you and people are gonna be putting all sorts of stuff there.
Pete: No, we wouldn’t do that to you, that’s cruel. Anyway.
Martha: But I’ve half written a book called The Apocalypse: A Brief History, and it was published by Wiley and I must say, I think it was published in 2009, it’s intended for a general audience. I no longer agree with everything I said there, but I mostly agree with it and if someone were looking for something to read, probably that’s, that would be a –
Pete: A good place to start.
Pete: Okay, all right. Well listen, Martha, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. We had a great time and it’s just such an important topic, and thanks for helping to clarify that for us.
Martha: Well, thank you. It was really fun.
Jared: Thanks so much, see ya.
Jared: Thanks for being with us, everyone, for another episode of the podcast.
Pete: And yeah, if you have a change to check out Martha’s book, The Apocalypse: A Brief History, it’s meant to be an introduction to normal people. So, that may be a great place to start to wrap our heads around this really, really important topic.
Jared: All right, see ya next time.
Pete: See ya.
Jared: Hey everyone, just a few things that you may not know about The Bible for Normal People.
One, did you know we have a YouTube channel where we post regular videos, sometimes we answer questions, sometimes we ask questions, sometimes we just look pretty in front of the camera. But we have videos up on all things Bible-y, scholarship-y, so check it out. You can go to https://www.youtube.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.
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Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
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