Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testamentby Greg Carey
Length: Approximately 5 hours. To read (152 pages)
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It turns out that God wasn’t as silent as the term ‘400 years of silence’ suggests. Rising from Jewish apocalyptic literature, key mainstay ideas such as Messiah, resurrection, and final judgment thoroughly flavor the entire New Testament. This book traces the rise and influence of apocalyptic literature in the New Testament.
Who should read this?
Those wanting a greater understanding of apocalyptic literature, its influence on the New Testament, our interpretation of it, and how we ought to respond to it.
We tend to think that Messiah is all over the pages of Jewish Scripture. But He isn’t. Well, Messiah is there, but the idea of Messiah wasn’t a fully formed idea until after the last of the Biblical prophets had their say. When we read the New Testament, Messiah seems to be an integral part of the understanding of 1st century Jews and Christians, so how did the idea of Messiah coalesce from a collection of prophecies scattered throughout the Old Testament? If Old Testament Jews didn’t conceive of the concept of Messiah, how come New Testament Jews did?
These questions are answered when one studies apocalyptic literature between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. It was during that time period when the Jewish ideas of Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and final judgment took form and came to the fore of Jewish thought. Along with these ideas, more codified understandings of Satan and demons developed and were added to the Jewish theological underpinnings.
Understanding that these ideas about Messiah, resurrection, and judgment came primarily from apocalyptic literature helps us see just how influential Jewish apocalyptic literature was on Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, and the early church.
In Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament, Mr. Carey takes us on a brief but broad tour of Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic literature, teaching about its purpose, use, and how it commonly is interpreted. After this enlightening introduction, we are led to explore apocalyptic themes and discourse in Paul’s writings, the Gospels, some extra-Biblical sources, and finally, the New Testament’s single apocalypse – Revelation.
By the time the reader arrives at Revelation, he or she realizes that the New Testament writers were steeped in the apocalyptic tradition and that it flavored all their writing. “Apocalyptic concepts, assumptions, and literary devices occur all over the New Testament, and they function in remarkably flexible ways” (p. 141).
Mr. Carey helpfully concludes with four takeaways from his book:
- We should note the “ubiquity of apocalyptic discourse in early Christianity.”
- We should understand the varied sources of apocalyptic literature: starting with Jewish prophets, through intertestamental apocalyptic literature, New Testament writers, as well as non-canonical books.
- We should discern the “rhetorical flexibility of apocalyptic literature.”
- We should see the “link between apocalyptic literature and politics.”
In the end, Mr. Carey links apocalyptic literature and action. “Apocalyptic literature articulates the connection between our overarching values and our daily behavior” (p. 151). A lofty claim indeed, but one that demands we learn more about apocalyptic literature and its impact not only on the New Testament, but on our lives.
Apocalyptic literature always seems shrouded in mystery. This mystery is not helped by the myriad interpretations of Daniel and Revelation and the all-too-often-complex timelines that are created to explain how many days from such and such this or that will happen to that country when this other country attacks them. Oh, and the US attacks on Syria were prophesied in Revelation! For many people, Revelation has become the Christian version of Nostradamus.
I remember reading a book on apocalyptic literature and Revelation a couple of years ago and having my eyes opened to the stunning realization that perhaps Revelation was written to people in the 1st century AD. Like every single other book in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean there aren’t prophecies of future events, but Revelation, like the other books of the Bible, was written at a certain time for certain reasons and to a certain audience.
So reading books about apocalyptic literature is akin to peeling back the mysterious shroud and seeing what is behind, but, like Dorothy, revealing the truth behind the curtain can leave one feeling disappointed – maybe the revelation isn’t as grand as the intrigue. Still, reading a book like this feels a bit like the discovery of secret knowledge.
In the final analysis of Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament, there is much to love and little to loathe. Here’s my breakdown:
- Mr. Carey’s simple explanations help a reader breeze through somewhat confusing concepts. In a short amount of space you will get a good handle on the key ideas to better understand the genre of apocalyptic literature. The reader always has a clear idea of where Mr. Carey is taking you, and this helps the reader grasp the content and implications more easily.
- There is coherence in his arguments and flow in his writing. Again, this makes the book easy to follow and a joy to read.
- All sections have clear introductions and conclusions which add to the high level of readability contained in this book. A reader knows exactly what to expect from each section and after reading a chapter you get a succinct recap handily summarizing the main points of the chapter.
- Mr. Carey does an excellent job of supporting his arguments with examples both from the Bible and from extra-Biblical texts. Though I wouldn’t typically endorse using non-Biblical texts, for this type of book that explores the influence of Jewish literature from the 3rd-1st centuries BC it is essential. Mr. Carey makes plenty of citations and backs up his claims well.
- This book helps the reader better understand the background and context of key New Testament ideas of Messiah, resurrection, and final judgment.
- And finally, this book bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments. Between Malachi and Matthew, a lot happened in Jewish history and philosophy. Understanding at least a part of what happened during the intertestamental period goes to great lengths to help readers better understand Jesus, the early church, the writings of Paul, and the book of Revelation. This book opens eyes as to how influential apocalyptic literature was in 1st century Judaism and Christianity.
There is really only one negative about this book, but it’s a big one. It’s the reason I dropped a star from this otherwise excellent book. I’m not sure of the exact term to use, but Mr. Carey is a liberal Bible scholar. Perhaps minimalist would be a better term? I’ve separated my complaints into three categories:
- There is a chipping away at Biblical authority. Earlier I said that it is essential to use non-Biblical texts in this book, but when those books are held up as equal in value as Biblical texts, there is an erosion of the view that the Bible is authoritative. This view especially came forward when Mr. Carey put the Gospel of Thomas on equal footing as the Gospel of John.
- Along similar lines, there is an undermining of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration. There are several times when Mr. Carey uses phrases that effectively mean or connote “if the Bible is accurate or true.” Saying that is a huge breach of trust to those of us who hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
- These first two views of Scripture combine in an oft-held liberal/minimalist view that Paul only wrote half the letters he purportedly wrote. To further compound the problem for this particular book: if you view extra-Biblical texts as on par with Biblical texts, and if you doubt the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, what does it matter if Paul actually wrote a letter or not? If you don’t view Biblical texts as any greater than extra-Biblical texts, authorship shouldn’t matter, and if it doesn’t matter then don’t spend time defending your view that Paul didn’t write half the letters he claimed to write.
To summarize these cons: Mr. Carey doesn’t seem to have much faith in God’s Word being truth; he has hope but he doesn’t have faith.
These cons are serious enough that some people will dismiss this book out of hand. I only removed one star from my rating for Mr. Carey’s view of Scripture because I felt it rather easy to look past. Mr. Carey’s view of Scripture doesn’t get in the way of the core ideas of the book, and if a reader goes in fully aware of the eroded view of the importance of Scripture, one easily can read, enjoy, and learn much from the book.
Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament is a very well written book. Highly engaging and informative, I learned much and came away glad to have read it. I would encourage you to read it too! Yes, I have some stiff criticisms, but I found they didn’t get in the way of the key messages of the book. I hope other readers also will be able to overlook them as this is an otherwise excellent book. The reader will come away with not only a greater understanding of apocalyptic literature but also a greater appreciation for how much apocalyptic literature influenced the New Testament.