Who were the apocalypses written for?

At Jesus Creed, Drew J. Strait provides an overview of a new(ish) study from Anathea Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism.

This seems like a pretty dense book, aimed at a scholarly reader rather than the general public. But the subject matter relates to something we discuss quite a bit here, at least on Fridays — exploring what apocalyptic literature meant for the people who originally wrote and read it.

What can we say about other Jewish apocalypses that preceded the composition of John’s Apocalypse? Was Jewish apocalyptic a genre of politically charged resistance literature from its inception? What is the relationship between apocalypse and empire? Young sets out to answer these questions by evaluating three early Jewish apocalypses, all written, according to Portier-Young’s assessment, under the terror and domination of the Seleucid Empire (200-130s BCE). Contrary to the popular notion that apocalyptic represents a flight away from reality and suffering, Portier-Young argues that apocalyptic visionaries urged public confrontation of their persecutors through a message of faithfulness and hope.

One of those early Jewish apocalypses she discusses is the book of Daniel. Readers of this blog are likely familiar with how “Bible prophecy” enthusiasts like Tim LaHaye regard Daniel — which is second only to John’s Apocalypse in importance to their End Times predictions.

But if LaHaye’s is the wrong way to read Daniel, what’s the right way? Or, at least, what’s a better way?

Portier-Young provides a helpful framework for reading this book, as Strait writes:

Chapter 7 argues that the Book of Daniel resists the Edict of Antiochus through an alternative vision of reality where Yhwh is King and Antiochus is not. Portier-Young argues that Daniel is written by a group of wise teachers who are calling the Judeans to a life of prayer, fasting, penitence, teaching and preaching, and covenant faithfulness even in the face of death. These embodied disciplines are exemplified by Daniel, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego who serve as a paragon of faithful resistance. Even in the face of death, they “defy the king’s edict, refuse to worship any God but Yhwh, proclaim their faith out loud and in public, and surrender their bodies to death, not to apostasy” (261). … Daniel’s alternative vision of faithful witness is rooted in the prophetic story of Israel. By evoking echoes and reinterpretations of Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy and the suffering servant poem of Isaiah, the wise teachers create an eschatological timetable for the end of Antiochus’s empire and a model for faithful witness.

For LaHaye and for many conservative evangelicals, everything about that paragraph would be perceived as a threat to their literalistic, “inerrantist” reading of the Bible. The book of Daniel, they say, must have been written by Daniel during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. You know, just like The Once And Future King was clearly written by Arthur during his reign in Camelot. Duh.

It might not seem like a directly related subject, but let me wrap this up by pointing to vorjack’s discussion today of the folk song “Stagger Lee” (or “Stackolee” or “Stackerlee”) and of the 1895 incident that inspired it.

The conclusion of that discussion contains some wisdom for those studying the book of Daniel:

Whether or not Lee Shelton was such a man is questionable, but Stagger Lee was a bad, bad man.

  • Magic_Cracker

    The Apocalypses were written for LaHaye. To make money. Because God is good.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Also, a better way? Definitely not with LaHaye’s hop-skip-annna-JUMP method of selectively quoting Bible texts to prove his Rapturized version of the Apocalypse.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    What is the relationship between apocalypse and empire? Young sets out
    to answer these questions by evaluating three early Jewish apocalypses,
    all written, according to Portier-Young’s assessment, under the terror
    and domination of the Seleucid Empire (200-130s BCE). Contrary to the
    popular notion that apocalyptic represents a flight away from reality
    and suffering, Portier-Young argues that apocalyptic visionaries urged
    public confrontation of their persecutors through a message of
    faithfulness and hope.

    This whole thought is actually quite interesting.  I remember realizing at some point that Revelation was basically ancient Roman sci-fi.  It wasn’t that monsters from the sea and giant wasps were science fiction, but in the classic sense, where an author would say, “I want to write about this, but I have to make it an allegory.”  So you end up with, say, an episode of Star Trek where the green people and the blue people are killing each other on Planet Omega 47 but it’s pretty obviously about different groups of humans warring with each other for anyone who wants to admit that’s the point.

    I found out later that at least the second half of Daniel was written during the Seleucid period.  I actually did my final history research project on the Maccabean Revolt.  But Either I learned about the Daniel thing too late or it wasn’t cogent to the paper I was writing, so I never quite made that connection.

    Of course, the thesis of my research paper was that the Maccabean Revolt was basically a peasant uprising cooked up in response to Seleucid overrreach and that interested religious parties used it to their own ends, including offering religious justification to a wholly secular enterprise in order to drive the outcome in their preferred direction.  So an idea of Daniel as a book about, for all intents and purposes, non-violent protest would not have been particularly cogent.

    That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, of course, nor would I argue that it is.  It’s part of a spectrum of beliefs and applications thereof.  Today, for instance, we have people who say that Jesus wants us to love everyone and people who say that Jesus wants us to kill all non-Christians.  A thousand years from now a historian might be able to look back and say that one side or the other had more influence, but that wouldn’t mean that only one side actually existed.

    That’s the joy of history.

  • histrogeek

    “The book of Daniel, they say, must have been written by Daniel during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. You know, just like The Once And Future King was clearly written by Arthur during his reign in Camelot. Duh.”
    I do like that. Aside from being esoteric as all get out, Daniel is one of the few books of the canonical Bible that actually fudges when it takes place. Jonah’s the only other one I can think of. The others are written as either history (folk, court, or otherwise) or in a clear time and place (give or take a few decades in some cases).  This makes Daniel particularly problematic for anyone thinking they can get a “clear, inerrant” reading. Unlike the other prophets or epistles, Daniel was always a metaphor so “clear” meaning is always a non-starter (even assuming the wild flights of imagination/vision can be interpreted as Joseph translated pharaoh’s dream with pure symbol replacement).

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    In addition to the history of apocalyptic literature amoung the Jews, it might also be worth nothing that around the time of John writers in the wider Roman Empire were making use of figured speech which is, basically, what we’re talking about when we say L&J are reading Revelation wrong.  It wasn’t always safe to say, “The emperor is an asshole who is ruining everything,” so instead of saying that they’d write something that appeared to say something else* on the surface and then, on delving deeper, had its true meaning revealed.

    Saying that Revelation should not be read litterally, and saying that it should be read as a commentary on the then present day, doesn’t just have a foundation in the cultural history of Judaism, it also is in line with the way things were done throughout the broader Roman world at that point in time.

    -

    * Sometimes something that appeared to be direct praise.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    The book of Daniel, they say, must have been written by Daniel during
    the time of Nebuchadnezzar. You know, just like The Once And Future King
    was clearly written by Arthur during his reign in Camelot. Duh.

    Oh, and, duh.  This is one of my favorite points to push really hard against the Biblical inerrantist crowd.  Because if Daniel actually had lived through all the stuff that was claimed, he certainly would not have written the book as he did.

    There are five kings mentioned in Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius the Mede, called the “son of Ahasuerus,” and Cyrus.  Those are the order in which the kings appear.

    After the famous handwriting on the wall story it’s said that Belshazzar was “slain that night” and the kingdom was “given over to Darius the Mede” and that he was 62.  Later on Darius is referred to as the son of Ahasuerus.  The problem with that is that Darius I was 28 when he became king over Bablyon.  He also became king over Babylon when he overthrew a pretender to the Persian throne named Bardiya.  Bardiya was either the younger brother of Cyrus the Great’s eldest son and heir, Cambyses II or an imposter.

    Darius wasn’t actually related in any way, shape, or form.  His father was Hystaspes, a powerful noble and satrap.  Darius ascended the throne, possibly by by subterfuge, with the deaths of Cambyses II and Bardiya.

    Either way, at the point Darius ascended the throne, the old Babylonian Empire had been under the control of the Persians for 37 years, since Cyrus the Great had conquered it in 539, then had time to do other things, turn the throne over to his son, and die.  But according to the book of Daniel, Cyrus came sometime after Darius, who was the one who just kind of took control of Babylon after succeeding his father, Ahasuerus, who has the notable achievement of being mentioned in two different books of the Bible (the other one was Esther) and not mentioned anywhere else at all that I have ever seen.

    Daniel also neglects to mention Nabonidus, who ruled for about twenty years following Nebuchadnezzar before making his son, Belshazzar, his regent and wandering off into the desert for a while.  He then returned to try to fight off the Persians, but mostly succeeded in running away and leaving Babylon open to attack.

    So that’s four historical kings mentioned by Daniel, one ahistorical king, and one historical king who doesn’t get any airtime at all.  Of the four historical kings, Daniel also got two of them completely wrong.

    Also, the first Nebuchadnezzar dream story is said to happen in the second year of his reign, which would have been 604 or 603 BCE, although Neb didn’t take Jerusalem until 597.  The first year of Darius’ real reign was 522 BCE, which meant that, assuming Daniel was 18 in, say, 595, then he lived to be at least 91 years old while writing everything that happened down.  And being completely wrong about a whole bunch of things that are pretty hard to screw up, as it would be like claiming that JFK was elected President before FDR.

  • Joshua


    Ahasuerus, who has the notable achievement of being mentioned in two different books of the Bible (the other one was Esther) and not mentioned anywhere else at all that I have ever seen. 

    I always figured Ahasuerus as being a Hebrew version of the name of a real king, not mentioned elsewhere because Hebrew was not used elsewhere. Wikipedia seems fairly confident that it’s (an anglicisation of) the hebraic version of the Old Persian name hellenised (and then anglicised) as Xerxes, which just goes to show that linguistics is a fun game. The Old Persian name is apparently Xšayārša.

    The Greek version of Esther, IIRC, identifies him with Artaxerxes. Or at least, the Greek version has Artaxerxes where the Hebrew has Ahasuerus.

    Anyway, since those two books don’t have much to say about him that I’d regard as being historical, maybe it’s a case of “you say tomato, I say tomayto.”

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira


    You know, just like The Once And Future King was clearly written by Arthur during his reign in Camelot. Duh.

    And how the King James Bible was written by King James. I used to think that when I was a little kid. 

  • Tricksterson

    Jof is also kind of fudgy iisn’t it?  In fact IIRC Job, at least in some interpretations isn’t of the Chosen People.

  • Tricksterson

    I thought that all the way into my college years.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     I always figured Ahasuerus as being a Hebrew version of the name of a
    real king, not mentioned elsewhere because Hebrew was not used
    elsewhere. Wikipedia seems fairly confident that it’s (an anglicisation
    of) the hebraic version of the Old Persian name hellenised (and then
    anglicised) as Xerxes, which just goes to show that linguistics is a fun
    game. The Old Persian name is apparently Xšayārša.

    The Greek version of Esther, IIRC, identifies him with Artaxerxes. Or
    at least, the Greek version has Artaxerxes where the Hebrew
    has Ahasuerus.

    I’ve seen the Xerxes/Artaxerxes explanation a time or two.  The interesting one is that the context in which Esther put him actually means that the king who makes the most sense would have been Cambyses II.  The location of the capitol and the size of the empire fit.  At least, I seem to recall looking it up and thinking that Cambyses II was the most sensible alternative and unable to figure out why everyone kept pushing Artaxerxes, since he didn’t really fit at all aside from a somewhat phonetic similarity in English pronunciation.

    And, really, the Cambyses II/Ahaseurus connection would make sense for the immediate predecessor to Darius in a sort of off-hand way.  But that would require any sort of real Daniel to not actually know nearly as much as the supposed third-most-powerful person in Babylon who also hung out in the court would know.  Y’know, if he’d even gotten the really basic and obvious questions of dynastic succession down.

    That’s the thing that really gets me.  Also, if you try to harmonize Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, it’s simply impossible.  Esther can be explained away, but Ezra and Nehemiah have two timelines that kinda-sorta converge but don’t actually work if you try to add the numbers up and the real killer is that neither one mentions Daniel at all.

    I should probably stop being a history pedant right…now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

     At least you knew that the King James Bible was a book, and not an ancient monarch whose name was James Bible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

     Dude. Write a book.

  • ohiolibrarian

     Geds, That’s just you being all logical and stuff …

  • Tonio

    Frustrating that Bibles don’t have that background explained in an introduction or concordance.

  • Tricksterson

    I was lucky enough in that regard because being Catholic  (sort of, my religious upbringing was seriously complicated, especially for the time (60s/70s)) we used the Douay Bible nd the religious faction of my family considered the KJ heretical verging on Satanic like all things Protestant (including my mother even though she was only nominally religious).

  • Joshua

    I’ve seen the Xerxes/Artaxerxes explanation a time or two.  The interesting one is that the context in which Esther put him actually means that the king who makes the most sense would have been Cambyses II.

    The books of Esther and Daniel were both written well after the empire concerned had gone the way of the dodo (ha! or what would one day be the way of the dodo). Esther and Daniel themselves were basically fictional characters written by people for whom Babylon and Persia were ancient history. Unlike us, they didn’t have archaeology or anything like primary sources.

    So, it should be no surprise that the descriptions would contain anachronisms. Matching Ahasuerus up to a real monarch based on our knowledge of real monarchs is the wrong approach.

    My assertion is merely (i) that the name Ahasuesus is cognate to Xerxes, and that both denote the same historical person, not that the character in either book has anything much to do with that historical person. And (ii) that the author/translator of the Greek version of Esther felt that Ahasuesus was the same guy as Artaxerxes, although Wikipedia at least disagrees.

    that would require any sort of real Daniel to not actually know nearly as much

    A real sort of Daniel is mentioned almost by name in, I think, Nehemiah or somewhere, but that’s about as much historicity as I think the book of Daniel has. That he (the character in the book) would not know the actual list of Medo-Perisan kings would not surprise me.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Our father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Frustrating that Bibles don’t have that background explained in an introduction or concordance.

    Actually, some do. One of mine has a few pages at the beginning of each book explaining who we think wrote it, when, and what was going on at the time. But that’s a Catholic bible, not a bible for Bible Believing Christians.

  • reynard61

    “So you end up with, say, an episode of Star Trek where the green people and the blue people are killing each other on Planet Omega 47 but it’s pretty obviously about different groups of humans warring with each other for anyone who wants to admit that’s the point.”

    Or you end up with half-black and half-white people killing each other on the planet Cheron and a lot of scenery with Frank Gorshin’s teeth-marks all over it…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_That_Be_Your_Last_Battlefield

  • Münchner Kindl

    I think this might fit here because of the general acopalyse theme:


    One of the strangest legacies of America’s founding is our national obsession with the apocalypse. There’s a new JJ Abrams show coming this fall called The Revolution about a post-apocalyptic America, and of course The Hunger Games. We go to a gift shop in Arizona and see dug-up Indian arrowheads, and never think “this is the same thing as the stuff laying around in Terminator or The Road or that part in The Road Warrior where the feral kid finds a music box and doesn’t know what it is.”We love the apocalypse as long as nobody acknowledges the truth: It’s not a mythical event. We live on top of one.Read more: 6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America | Cracked.com http://www.cracked.com/article_19864_6-ridiculous-lies-you-believe-about-founding-america_p2.html#ixzz1wztNMFsQ

  • sketchesbyboze

    “The book of Daniel, they say, must have been written by Daniel during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. You know, just like The Once And Future King was clearly written by Arthur during his reign in Camelot. Duh.”

    Amazing. Sounds like Fred has been reading my novel-writing notebook!

    Last week I thought it would be fun to imagine the kinds of situations that would be likely to arise in a world where Magic is treated like Religion, and possesses Religion’s internal dynamics. Here were a few of the ideas I came up with:

    -        
    A
    magical “apostolic movement” where magicians are taking over significant
    portions of the country by claiming to be magical apostles

    -        
    A
    rift between traditionalists on one hand who want to honor the established
    traditions of Magic, and innovators on the other (like the Brethren of the Free
    Spirit) who think “Magic is a thing of the heart” and doesn’t need the
    mediation of a human institution . . . 
    -                  A furious quarrel between traditional practitioners and modern scholars, whose investigations into the history of Magic have raised the possibility that Merlin and Arthur never existed.

    -        
    A
    sort of “Pelagius vs. Augustine” dispute between those who believe human effort
    is the key ingredient in successful magic, and those who maintain that a “spirit
    of Magic” is at work flowing through and within the believing magician

    -        
    An
    increasing number of people who simply don’t believe in Magic—regardless of
    whether or not they’ve ever seen it practiced. Maybe they think of it as just a
    poetic analogy for the human capacity for self-transformation. Maybe they’ve
    been wounded by vagabonds and hucksters.

    -        
    Lonely,
    impoverished housewives who are expecting a magical savior to solve all their
    problems…

    -        
    Peddlers
    of elaborate conspiracies and their wild-eyed followers… people like me who are
    just aching for some sort of transcendent experience… who are willingly pulled
    into all the deepest and most terrible forms of Magic…

    -        
    A
    guy likes a girl and wants to go out with her. She tries to talk him out of it
    because she has a terrible secret. Turns out, she’s a Chalcedonian magician; she secretly studies and practices
    Chalcedonian (as opposed to Celtic) magic on the side. He wants to know why she’s never told anyone
    else. He encourages her to be more open about it. Finally she “comes out.” She
    tells everyone. People feel hurt and betrayed. They feel she’s been lying to
    them for years. A feeling of resentment lingers. In the end, he stands up for
    her and demands that everyone accept her for who she is. Some do, some don’t.
    She continues to feel really hurt, but she deeply appreciates the way he
    defended her, even though she never tells him.

     

  • Tonio

    Growing up, we had an RSV in the house whose introduction was limited to explaining the translation itself, which was based on ancient documents that weren’t available in King James’ time.

  • christopher_young

     Oh go on, be pedantic. Also, Belshazzar was never king of Babylon, nor was he the son of Nebuchadnezzar. He was acting as regent for his father, the king Nabunaid (Nabonidus in anglicised Greek). If Daniel had been a courtier in Babylon at the time, he might have had a clue about that stuff.

  • histrogeek

     Job is so vague about its time frame that it can’t be accused of misleading the reader about the time frame (as Jonah and Daniel do). I’ve read a fascinating rabbinic discussion about when Job took place. They pretty much concluded that it took place sometime between the expulsion from Eden and the end of the Book of Esther. So there’s a bit of ambiguity there.

  • histrogeek

     At least some scholars have suggested that the author of Daniel may have conflated Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar. It would be a decent propaganda trick, associating the conqueror of Jerusalem with the nutjob king who spend half his reign in the middle of nowhere. For that matter they probably were somewhat fused in the Jewish popular culture, like Lenin and Stalin or the various figures of the French Revolution to entirely too many Americans.
    Basically Daniel cannot be seen in the same light as the other prophets, and in the Tanakh organization it isn’t. It’s part of the poetry and stories section, the “Kethuvim” the Writings along with the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Esther, etc.


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