Shopping Period: Apocalyptic Literature and the Contemporary World

August 30, 2017
Giovanni Bazzana, Professor of New Testament
Giovanni Bazzana, Professor of New Testament / Photo: Justin Knight

This feature is part of an HDS Communications interview series offering students a closer look at selected upcoming courses. Below, we chat with Professor of New Testament Giovanni Bazzana about his fall 2017 class “Apocalyptic Literature from the Second Temple period to Byzantium and Early Islam,” which will introduce students to the crucial role played by apocalyptic literature in shaping religious thoughts and practices.

HDS: How might we define “apocalypticism”?

Giovanni Bazzana: Even though it may seem evident what an “apocalypse” is, scholars have discussed this topic quite a lot. By now, however, all more or less agree on a definition that was proposed almost 40 years ago by John Collins: An “apocalypse” is technically “revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which the revelation is mediated to a human recipient through an otherworldly being disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”

This is a very complicated definition, which will be unpacked throughout the course, and it consciously tries to stay away from the popular understanding of something “apocalyptic” as having to do with some end-of-the-world catastrophe.

However, scholars are also aware of the fact that “apocalyptic” stuff is present also in texts that are not technically included in the above-mentioned definition. So, we can say that the “popular” definition of “apocalyptic” is not entirely wrong after all. In this perspective, “apocalypticism” has been introduced as the category to understand those people (e.g. the earliest Christians or the people of Qumran) who “saw the world” in “apocalyptic” terms.

But, obviously, defining an “apocalyptic worldview” (or apocalypticism) is quite complicated: Has it to do with the imminent intervention of God in earthly affairs? With an end-of-the-world catastrophe? With the revelation of heavenly secrets on the course of history? With some kind of theological-political stance? A large part of the course will deal with this complicated question and the ways in which scholars have tried to answer it.   

HDS: Judging by your syllabus, it seems as if “apocalypticism” was a growing trend throughout the Second Temple period to Byzantium and early Islam. What, if anything, brought about this trend?

GB: There is no doubt that, however one defines it, apocalypticism grew in importance in that span of 1,000 years, and I think that there is more here than the increasing success of a literary trend—even though I believe that people enjoyed reading apocalyptic tales similarly to how we like to watch catastrophic movies or read about zombie apocalypses. Throughout these centuries apocalypticism had a crucial role in shaping the origins and lasting configurations of Christianity, Islam, and—largely by contrast—Judaism as we know them today.

As for the reasons behind this phenomenon, past scholars have answered it by saying that ancient and modern people wrote apocalypses or developed an apocalyptic imagination under the pressure of unfavorable social or political conditions. (For instance, Christians wrote and read a book like “Revelation” as a response to the Roman persecution). But such an explanation is clearly too reductionistic and mechanistic. The same goes for presuming that religion is generated by people’s desire to escape or forget about their concrete social condition.

In recent years it has become evident that apocalyptic imagination offered—and still offers—more than just fantasies of escapism. Apocalypticism is a much more sophisticated tool that helps humans, for instance, to think about alternative temporalities or to reflect about and act when faced with change in their world at all levels—from the cultural to the socio-economic.

HDS: Meditating on the influence of apocalyptic literature “between the third century BCE and the seventh century CE” seems like a lot of literature. What went into your thinking when selecting certain texts over others?

GB: Yes, that is indeed a daunting span of time and one in which people wrote an outstanding mass of books that fall, one way or the other, under the label of “apocalyptic.” I used to teach a similar course at HDS, but it covered only the first half of these 1,000 years, up until the beginnings of Christianity. However, I have realized how that told only a part of the story and how I actually left out the part that has had the most significant influence on the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions as we know them today. 

The arc of the course needs to be extended all the way to the early Byzantine and Islamic periods, because they saw a few developments in apocalyptic traditions that are historically very relevant and whose influence is felt today still.

Obviously, it is quite difficult to decide what texts to read and what to leave out. An easy criterion is to read texts that are very famous and very influential still today, such as “Revelation” and “Daniel,” because they were included in the Jewish and Christian canons. But I have also tried to include samples that can give students a taste of the rich diversity that characterized apocalyptic literature and apocalyptic traditions throughout these centuries, spanning several religious traditions, but also many different models.

HDS: How would this class deepen or complement students’ studies in the Abrahamic traditions?

GB: Understanding apocalyptic traditions and apocalypticism is key in order to have a better grasp of the origins of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. All three of them began or were shaped in a religious and cultural environment dominated by apocalyptic ideas and texts. This is very clear at this point for Jesus and the early Jesus movement, but it is becoming more and more evident for the earliest Islamic movement as well—and the latter is quite a fascinating development from a historical point of view.

I believe that this course is important not only because of its historical dimension, but also because of its potential relevance for today’s world. Several scholars have suggested that an “apocalyptic worldview” is the hegemonic cultural expression of our world. This is probably even more evident in North America today than it is in Europe, and it is really difficult to disagree when one looks at how much popular culture focuses on apocalyptic motifs and themes that are often taken directly from the texts that will be read in this course.

Indeed, they are very much alive and influential; one has only to mention “Revelation” in order to make this point. The hermeneutic issues that interest scholars of apocalyptic literature in antiquity coincidentally persist in contemporary apocalypticism. One can refer to the pervasive violence of the imagination, to the ambiguous understanding of the relationship between divine and political power, or to the ways in which the subject is shaped by an experience of time that is so alien from linear historicity. That is also the main reason why the course culminates with an assignment that explicitly forces students to bring to bear what they have seen in the ancient texts on their world and their experience.

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent