Zechariah’s Apocalypse

Zechariah’s Apocalypse September 18, 2015

I have posted a few times on the Old Testament Book of Zechariah, and especially its final chapters, which are known as Second or Deutero-Zechariah. The text is a huge influence on the gospels, and arguably on Jesus’s own circle. But Zechariah as a whole also stands in a very unusual and significant relationship to other Biblical books, and to the context in which they were written. It is almost a gateway between the Hebrew Bible and the very different world of Second Temple Judaism.

The first part of Zechariah was almost certainly written around 520 BC. Scholars differ widely on the date they give to the “Deutero” portion, but a majority would put it in the later Persian period, with a minority case for the Hellenistic years. At a broad stretch, that would range anywhere from c.450 through 200 BC, with some possible spillover at the edges. My own preference is for the third century, likely at the latter end of that period.

Deutero-Zechariah appears to draw heavily on contemporary conflicts in the Jewish world, presumably involving the Temple, the high priesthood, and contemporary kings. It is a tribute to just how little we know about the mainstream politics of that era that we still can make no serious attempt at pinning it down to any particular century, never mind a given year. But wherever it stands in that long period, it occupies a distinctive position as one of our very few strictly contemporary sources from that era.

Zechariah occupies a highly significant role in the evolution of prophecy. In Jewish tradition, the book is usually listed among the very last of the prophets, a tradition that notionally died in the mid-fifth century BC. Since the nineteenth century, though, scholars have traced the continuing development of prophecy after that period, with a strong suggestion that the phenomenon evolves into what we call apocalyptic. Deutero-Zechariah fits strikingly into that evolution, definitely looking forwards to later apocalyptic. So well does it fit into that later mold that we should perhaps date the text toward to the end of the time range of possible writing, rather than the beginning. The text is sometimes characterized as proto-apocalyptic. (John J. Collins challenges that, seeing it as messianic and eschatological, bt not apocalyptic. As we have seen, the distinctions between the various categories sometimes become quite difficult to perceive too exactly).

Several characteristics mark Zechariah as a whole from the other prophets, and clearly as a later contributor to that tradition. For one thing, even the author of “First Zechariah” – the first eight chapters – is conscious of living at the end of a tradition, and three times refers to the era of the “former prophets.”

I have listed at length the features that separate classic prophecy from apocalyptic, while also noting that the distinctions are far from absolute. (Lester Grabbe indeed calls apocalyptic merely “a form or sub-genre of prophecy”). In prophecy, notably, an individual speaks words delivered to him by God, while the apocalyptic seer reveals truths received from an angel or other spiritual being. Prophecy is claimed directly by an individual, while apocalyptic is attributed to some other person, usually a luminary from the past.

That idea of the angelic intermediary applies even to First Zechariah, which alternates between crediting the revelations to “the Word of the Lord” directly, in the old style, and stressing the role of an angel who declares “Thus says the Lord.” Zechariah’s dialogues with the Interpreting Angel sound very much like those in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Moreover, as Shaye Cohen notes, “Some of the symbolic visions seen by Zechariah were fantastic and unreal, like those of the later apocalypses (for example, Zech. 6).” Oddly, it is in the later Deutero-Zechariah that the angel disappears, and we seem to hear the direct “Thus says.”

If First Zechariah is so clearly at the end of classical prophecy, then so, obviously, is Second, in which the (presumably) coded references to current events are so dense and cryptic that they still evade penetration. We think of a later and more explicitly apocalyptic work like the Book of Daniel.

Meanwhile, the “Deutero” portion is pseudonymous in the sense that it is attached to the work of the prophet Zechariah himself, who might have lived anywhere from one to three centuries before the time of the actual author.

In so many ways, Zechariah prefigures other, better-known apocalypses, including John’s Revelation itself. I will discuss these parallels in my next post. I will also have more to say about Zechariah’s angels.


Works used include Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); S. L. Cook, Prophecy and Apocalypticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); E. J. C. Tigchelaar, Prophets of Old and the Day of the End (Oudtestamentische Studien, 35; Leiden: Brill, 1996); and John J. Collins, “The Eschatology of Zechariah,” in Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak, eds., Knowing the End from the Beginning (London: T & T Clark International, 2003). Also Bill T. Arnold, “Old Testament Eschatology and the Rise of Apocalypticism,” in Jerry L. Walls, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Browse Our Archives