Sunday, December 30, 2007

Jesus and the Eschaton (Part 2.1.: Apocalyptic as Metaphor)

2.1. Apocalyptic as Metaphor
Despite the sensationalistic interpretations offered by Christians throughout the ages,[1] more recent approaches have emphasized the fact that apocalyptic texts often used cosmic language metaphorically to describe events which would take place within this world―not necessarily beyond it.[2] In this view, oracles of judgment using such imagery “were intended to be taken as denoting. . . socio-political events, seen as the climactic moment in Israel’s history.”[3] Here we shall mention a few of the texts often cited as examples.

Isaiah describes the fall of Babylon in association with language of cosmic destruction: the darkening of celestial bodies (Isa 13:10), the trembling of the heavens (Isa 13:13), and the earth being shaken “out of its place” (מִמְּקֹומָ֑הּ; Isa 13:13). Although cosmological language is employed here, it is also clear that Isaiah is clearly linking such language to the destruction of Babylon itself. The localized dimension of the prophecy is clear from the fact that the passage goes on to describe how the city will be uninhabited by humans in the future, becoming a home to wild animals (cf. Isaiah 13:20-22). Isaiah’s prophecy of the judgment of Edom later in the book likewise links it with the destruction of the heavenly bodies: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall…” (Isa 34:4). Like Babylon, it will become unpopulated and serve as the dwelling of desert animals (Isa 34:13).

Other passages could also be mentioned. Ezekiel describes the judgment of Egypt in terms of the darkening of the sun and the stars (Ezek 32:7-8).[4] Joel links the destruction of Jerusalem with such imagery: “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10; cf. 2:2, “a day of darkness and gloom”). Joel later links the same imagery with God’s judgment of the Gentiles (Joel 3:15).

[1] For an overview see the articles in Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
[2] In his work on eschatology, R. H. Charles explains that apocalyptic literature most frequently described events of the past: “The chief part of these events [related in apocalyptic literature] belongs, it is true, to the past; but the apocalyptic writer regarded them not in their secular but in their eternal issues… as it were, arranged under certain categories of time, and as definitely determined from the beginning in the counsels of God and revealed by Him to His servants the prophets.” R. H. Charles, Eschatology: A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life in Israel, in Judaism, and in Christianity (2nd ed.; London: A. & C. Black, 1913; repr., Eugene: Wipft and Stock, 1999), 206; Marius Reiser, Jesus and Judgment: The Eschatological Proclamation in Its Jewish Context (original German 1990; L. M. Maloney, trans.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 238; Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 36: “The Lord is a God of life, and the emphasis was upon life here on earth.”
[3] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1996), 97. Also see the treatment in R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to Himself and His Mission (London: Tyndale, 1971), 227-39. A slightly more nuanced view is G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980). Caird believed that ancient Israelites were accustomed to using end-of-time language to earthly events so that the these later events could be seen either in light of the end of time or as the end of time. He explains how metaphor functions as “transference of a term from one referent with which it naturally belongs to a second referent, in order that the second may be illuminated by comparison with the first or by being ‘seen as’ the first” (66). For a discussion of the problem of the term “metaphor” see, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, (vol. 1 in Christianity in the Making; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 401-403. We will come back to Caird later on, after looking at the critique offered by scholars such as Edward Adams, The Stars Will Fall From Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and its World (London: T & T Clark, 2007).
[4] It is interesting to note that all of the prophecies discussed so far describe God’s judgment of the nations. Indeed, many of the earliest examples of “apocalyptic” language emerge in similar contexts, raising interesting questions about the original nature of apocalyptic literature. See John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 174 n. 3.


JohnO said...

These are all interesting statements, either true or false, though I don't see why any would be false yet. But what are the implications?

Are we working from an assumption that all the writers of apocalyptic literature (Isaiah and Daniel as examples) are reflecting backwards on events that have already occurred? Or are they looking forward to events they believe will occur, using apocalyptic language as metaphor?

Yet again, when Isaiah says that Babylon will never be inhabited, surely he is casting judgment on the nation. But are we saying that is just pure hyperbole, and he doesn't mean exactly what he is saying?

Anonymous said...

I studied the Olivet Discourse quite bit over the last two years, and I like the interpretation that you are giving of the language(though this type of language is found in more places than just there!). This view was pretty solidified for me until I read Keener's commentary on Matthew. I will pull the quote tonight when I get off from work, but I am interested to see how you would deal with his discussion of apocolyptic literature fucntioning "literally" in some cases. He gives examples from some of the 2nd temple literature, but I cannot remember them off the top of my head.
I know Dale Allison is one of the biggest critics of this view point.

In Christ,